Can “Authentic Christianity” Be Found Today?
Like many Christians I grew up in a church that was committed to restoring the “New Testament church”—as it was in the first century. This impulse is called “restorationism.” (I only capitalize that term when referring to a particular tradition known to scholars as “Restorationism” whose main contemporary offshoots are the Churches of Christ, Independent Christian Churches, and the Disciples of Christ. Except, of course, when the term is first in a sentence.) Restorationism is the belief that the church’s main task in every age is to restore the New Testament church and emulate it as much as possible in a contemporary culture.
Many Christian traditions are restorationist in this sense: Anabaptists and Baptists (“baptists”), Pentecostals, Churches of Christ, Plymouth Brethren, et al. They all believe they have achieved it to some degree; some believe they have achieved it perfectly. They disagree among themselves about what must be done to recreate the New Testament church, which they all equate with corporate “authentic Christianity.” Baptists tend to focus on congregational autonomy, separation of church and state, and believer baptism by immersion. Pentecostals focus on the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit including speaking in tongues and healing. Churches of Christ focus on no instrumental music.
The restorationist impulse leads different churches in different directions. For the most part, though, it seems to me even restorationist churches usually fail to restore the New Testament church because they focus on outer, visible symbols. Most restorationist churches I know about (and I have made studying them an avocation for many years) pride themselves on having found and achieved one or two elements of “New Testament Christianity” while ignoring their own accommodations to contemporary American culture. (And I suspect the same accommodation to culture problem can be found in restorationist churches everywhere.)
I doubt that it is necessary or possible to emulate everything about the New Testament church. We are all partly products of our contemporary cultures—even groups that claim to be untainted by their dominant culture. Many of them have developed their own separate culture that has little to do with the New Testament church.
For many years I have sought for authentic Christianity in a corporate expression. I don’t think that can be identified by having church buildings or not having church buildings, speaking in tongues or not speaking in tongues, modes of baptism (although I don’t think all are equally correct), church polity, having musical instruments or not. These are all outward symbols that often deceive people into thinking their church has achieved true, authentic Christianity (which for restorationists means New Testament Christianity).
What am I seeking in corporate, relatively organized Christianity that would signal to me its authenticity?
When I read the New Testament I get several impressions about what the apostles thought authentic Christianity looks and feels like in its corporate expression.
The very first thing I look at is how much the church reflects the culture around it. I don’t mean in its facilities; I mean in its ethos. In America that means: To what extent does the church reflect consumerism, materialism, competition to “get ahead” of others, “success in life” as defining status, tolerance and self-esteem as goals, and “American exceptionalism?”
Closely related to the “first thing” is a second negative mark: to what extent the church values being “respectable” over being authentically Christian. For example, some churches emphasize “quality” in worship more than congregational participation. To me that is a mark against its authenticity.
True community manifested by sharing lives and property is another mark of corporate Christian authenticity. By “sharing property” I don’t mean communalism or collectivism but the practice of taking care of each other, hospitality, holding loosely to “personal property” so as to meet the genuine needs of others in the church.
Passionate commitment to Christ, the gospel, and the church is something else I look for in an authentic corporate expression of Christianity. Cool, calm, distancing worship, outreach, fellowship and involvement (or lack of it) signal unauthenticity. As I read the New Testament the people of God were totally committed to the cause of Christ and the gospel—to the point of death if necessary. Many American churches are simply Sunday morning gatherings of individuals who do not want to be bothered with total commitment or involvement. The church is to many of us only a club or support group, not the true Body of Christ in which we are all connected to him and each other. “Passion” does not have to mean emotion although I seriously doubt whether passion can be present where there is never any emotional display.
Another mark of authenticity in Christian corporate existence is unity in Spirit and in truth as opposed to non-spiritual similarity. The New Testament church struggled with diversity but the apostles promoted the ideal of unity around correct belief and spiritual experience—not around loyalty to a celebrity preacher or political ideology or cultural identity.
I was fortunate enough to have belonged to a church for a few years that manifested a true, authentic New Testament Christian ethos. Visitors often commented on how the members and attenders loved one another and on how the preaching and worship glorified Jesus Christ and both challenged and comforted. For a few years numerous visitors commented that they “felt something different” the moment they walked into the church’s worship space. The simple explanation for that is that the people were gathered to worship in expectation that God would be busy among them. They talked with each other about what God was doing in their lives and among them.
And that brings me to my final mark of authentic Christian corporate existence: Clear evidence that God is there busy changing lives for the better in super-normal ways. When I read the New Testament I see that primitive, original Christianity was not about helping people turn over new leaves or become nicer people. It was about people being radically changed in their dispositions. All things were becoming new—in concrete, visible, noticeable ways. I remember one man in that congregation who was well known as having racist feelings. He was not a “white supremacist” but clearly looked down on people of other races including especially African-Americans. People prayed for him. One evening, during a time of corporate prayer, as he lifted his arms in supplication to God to fill him, he experienced a total change of disposition. From that moment on he loved people of color and demonstrated that in genuine behaviors. Everyone in the church noticed it. But they were not particularly surprised because “that’s what God does.”