Problem with Primitivism – 3


While Luther and Calvin initially wished to reform the established church, the more extreme Protestants were radical in their restorationist zeal. The Hussites and the Anabaptists were the most radical, and it is the radical restorationism of the Anabaptists which comes down to us today as the grand-daddy of all the subsequent restorationist movements.

The Anabaptist line continues through the Quakers, Shakers and other sects to the Landmarkists, who claim a line of succession for Baptists right back to John the Baptist. The Calvinist and Wesleyan ‘Great Awakening’ in the eighteenth century was radically restorationist, followed by the similarly restorationist ‘Second Great Awakening’ in the United States, but by now the restorationists were not only reacting against the Catholic Church, but against all the other historic Protestant denominations.

Through the nineteenth century in America wave after wave of Restorationist churches sprang up. The Christadelphians, Christian Conventions,  Seventh Day Adventists, Latter Day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. At the same time a strong restorationist movement (the Cambellites) fostered independent groups like the Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ and the Christian Church.

The tradition continues today with each new wave of Protestantism reacting not only against Catholicism and liberal Protestantism, but also against the previous generation of restorationists. In the 1960s my family attended an independent fundamental Bible Church. Then in the 70s the charismatics, with their house churches and local communities picked up the restorationist baton. The eighties saw the growth of charismatic mega churches like John Wimber’s Vineyard and now a whole range of local community churches fly the restorationist flag. For all their rejection of tradition, it seems the restorationists follow their own well established traditions.


Restoration or Reproduction?

My grandmother had a ‘French Provincial’ dining room suite. Her white and gold ornate table and chairs had nothing to do with Louis XIV however. They were a twentieth century furniture designer’s take off. Similarly, Restorationist churches are the product of the imagination of ‘church designers’ who produce an imitation product. They are attracted to an idea, draw some inspiration and come up with their own reproduction.

There are ten problems with Primitivism and Restorationism. Five have to do with Restorationism itself, and five go to the roots of the Primitivist instinct. When the problems are outlined we can understand why Restorationist movements are inherently unstable and why the deeper Primitivist instinct is ultimately unsatisfactory.

Firstly, each restorationist movement, although it seeks to return to the ancient church of the apostolic age, is actually produced as a reaction to the circumstances of its own age and culture. For example, the peasant movement of the Bogomils came out of a church weighed down with corruption and aristocratic influence.  The radical reformers in sixteenth century Europe and the New World were influenced by the utopianism, the rise of the nation state, and revolutionary spirit of their age. Similarly, the American restorationist movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was determined more by the independent, anti-establishment mentality of the American frontier than by any real reference to the church of the apostolic age. Restorationists believe they are restoring something ancient. In fact all they do is create an expression of Christianity which is a reaction against the circumstances and assumptions of the age in which they live.

Secondly, while Restorationist movements are reactions to the particular age in which they live, they are also conditioned by the long history of Restorationist movements. For hundreds of years Protestants have perpetuated a particular vision of the early church. Each new Restorationist movement borrows those ideas, never questioning whether the tradition they are inheriting is actually true to the reality of the early church or not. Therefore, the Restorationist doesn’t so much restore primitive Christianity; he simply replicates are earlier Restorationist model, re-producing what he has been told early Christianity was like.

This assumption leads to the third problem: The Restorationists are usually totally ignorant of what the early Church was really like. They assume is that the early church was congregational, not hierarchical. They assume it was non liturgical and non sacramental. They assume it was Bible based. They assume there was no clergy and that the congregation met in people’s homes. They don’t have any evidence for these assumptions, and all of these assumptions are simply not true, or if they were true in some isolated places they are not the whole truth. (see my article in This Rock )

The reason the Primitivists are ignorant of what the primitive Church was really like is because they are largely unaware of the writings of the Early Church fathers. Most if them do not know that we have documents telling us just what the early Christians believed, how they worshipped, how the Church was structured.

This ignorance is not only the lack of education, it is also the result of the Protestant dogma of sola Scriptura. The Christian primitivist believes that his hymn-singing, Bible studying little home church is what is found in the Bible, but even that is unsupportable. While we do find examples of house churches in the New Testament (Rom.16:5; I Cor.16:19; Col.4:15) we also find the apostles meeting for worship regularly in the Temple, (Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:42) and St Paul always went to worship first in the synagogue when he went to a new city in his missionary travels. (Acts 14:1; 17:2)

The fourth obvious problem with Restorationist movements, is that they are blind to their own cultural and historical contradictions. On the one hand, they wish to go back to the basics, but on the other hand, they wish to be ‘relevant’ to the modern age. How can they be both? Can a restorationist church have a radio station? Can they have high tech worship? Can they have a website? What about moral issues? Can a primitivist congregation speak about in vitro fertilization, climate change, artificial contraception, globalization and a whole range of other contemporary issues? If so, where does he find the information and authority to do so?

The fifth problem with the Restorationist movements is that they contradict one another.  If each group was simply returning to a beautiful, basic Bible religion, wouldn’t they all agree? Instead the different Restorationist movements all disagree with the other Restorationist churches, and to make matters worse, the Restorationist movements are notoriously fissiparous. If they were returning to a simple, clear and unadulterated gospel message and church structure why have they split and splintered into tens of thousands of separate ecclesial groups? [Read More]