Every ‘new’ movement that is born in Christendom’s proponents will claim their movement to be a return to something much earlier or even ancient. Even with the modern church growth movement of the 80s and 90s we found the leaders using Acts 2 as their reference point. They would speak of the importance of numbers, and site the speed of growth, and the 3000 conversions on Pentecost as their justification. I don’t begrudge them for doing this. In some emergent circles we find ‘ancient’ practices taking center stage, everything from candles to chants are becoming common place in these ‘cutting edge’ churches. What I find interesting is that everyone wants to go backward, but everyone differs in which ideal point in history they are trying to go back to. In more fundamental rural settings we find people wanting to go back simply to the 1950s. In the popular reformed movements of the ‘New Calvinism’ we find people wanting to go back to the 1500s. In the aforementioned growth movement, people want to go back to the church in Acts when it grew most quickly. The next movement to rise up as the growth movement waned was the ‘discipleship’ movement which sought to go back to Christ and His original 12. Even the reformation itself sought to go back from the innovations of Rome to the inspired writings of Paul. Every movement has backward pressure, but the ideal time to go back to varies.
What is the idealized past that the backward movements should seek to get at? Let’s just look at a few of them, and see if we cannot find their short comings.
The 1950s – This is more common than you would think in slowly declining mainline congregations with conservative membership, especially those in more country environments. The memories of full churches that older members from yesteryear have will always sit in their mind as the moments when things were good. People didn’t shop on Sunday, nobody talked about being gay, and everyone went to church. The thought is that we need to get back to that. The problem with this mindset is simply that the ideal past was not nearly as ‘ideal’ as anyone wanted to believe it was. Better than today? Likely. However calling it a noble goal to aspire to is a bit of a mistake to say the least. If anything the 50s mindset was the product of 1800s and even early 1900s revivalism. Long on pragmatism, short on sound theology. Big on Law and right living, with very little conception of the Gospel itself.
1700s – 1950s Revivalism – I fell into this category for a long time. You know you are in this crew if you listen to a bunch of Leonard Ravenhill and Paris Reidhead sermons. This movement is big on altar calls, all night prayer meetings, door to door evangelism, and street preaching. Now I am not one to call any of these things inherently wrong or wicked (far from it), but again it is long on methods and tactics for getting people saved, but short on theology. Christ becomes a mere means of salvation and nothing more. The revivalism mindset really looks all the way back to the first great awakening in America and romanticizes it and idealizes it. We find Whitefield, Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and even later Spurgeon as the heavy hitters here. The thought is that if we can just get back to the class meetings of Wesley, the preaching of Spurgeon, and the mind of Edwards we will have arrived again at biblical Christianity. I can see the allure of this, these men were giants and what they presented is certainly superior to the vapid preaching and sentimentalism that characterized the 50s on into the present day. Nonetheless it was a Christianity that fit neatly into the American and British ideas of conquest and manifest destiny and was shy of any true conception of the kingdom of God.
Reformation – Right now there is a lot of interest in the Reformation. Luther and Calvin are again en vogue, and many people desire to get back to those days. These people will look to the reformation as the time of great uncovering of previous scriptural truths which Rome had lost in the 1500 years prior. Emphasis is placed on things like catechesis and the reformed confessions of the faith. Those who have idealized this time in history place a large emphasis on learning, on recovering the doctrines of grace, and on knowing what you believe and why you believe it. The group which idealizes the reformation needs to be divided a bit between those who idealize the beginning of the reformation versus those who idealize the reformation after it got rolling. Those of the earlier mindset are drawn to Luther, and still appreciate the images, a priestly clergy, stained glass, real presence, baptismal regeneration etc… those of the later reformation mindset have more of a preference for the big minds and minimalistic attitudes of the puritans and the almighty Calvin. If I am to be honest I must say that I fit pretty neatly into the early, or Lutheran reformation mindset.
Rome – For the sake of giving this a timeline, I’ll put Rome before the Reformation though it exists still today. Many people want to go back to Rome. There is the sense of apostolic succession, the sheer age of the roman church, the idea that it has been the one true church from the beginning, and so on. There are many reasons, and not all of them are bad, to desire to return to Rome. Of course those who oppose Rome (I fall into this category) will simply state that the Reformation, Revivalism, or whatever their ideal is, represents an ‘earlier’ form of Christianity which Rome had perverted.
The Acts Church – Much ado is made about the Church in acts in many of our circles. The growth movement looks to acts as the model for explosive church growth. Others look to acts as the example of the proper functioning of church governance (though really it is hard to make a clear case of polity from acts). Monastics will look at Acts to promote living with all things in common, a Christian communism as it were. Still others will point to the Acts church to lay forth healing ministries or the insinuation that the church must return to miracle workings and signs and wonders. Oddly enough Acts alone without the accompanying epistles or Gospels can give you license to do just about anything and call it biblical.
Discipleship – I put this before Acts, and this idealized time in history was that of when the disciples walked with Jesus himself. The idea here is that we need to create leaders like Jesus living in small community, pouring themselves into their disciples for 3 years or more before the kingdom will organically grow out of this small community. In this mindset it was the time of Christ itself that the church needs to move back to. This ideal is tantalizing to many, and the missional movement seems to claim this time frame as their idealized moment of history. Of course there are problems with this as well. First simply being that it wasn’t the way things happened in Acts. In Acts growth was fast, and true conversion happened without drawn out discipleship. The other glaring problem is that this time frame was pre-Pentecost. In other words the Spirit of God had not been poured out upon the church. After Pentecost you don’t really see a whole lot (if any) of this model taking place. The biggest problem is that none of the leaders (no matter how hard they try) are Jesus. If someone is building a movement based on developing people who lead like Jesus they have immediately doomed themselves to failure, because NOBODY, leads like Jesus.
So what is the idealized point in history to which Christianity should move back to? Progressives like McClaren would tell us that scripture actually sets a trajectory forward and we should only look back in order to see the trajectory and not look back for a point to return to. I appreciate the consistency of that approach, but it misses badly and leaves the life death and resurrection as mere points upon this trajectory not the point upon which all history swirls.
Some would say this is all nonsense, we just need to return to the bible. Yeah, I guess I agree, but everyone from the Methodist to the 1611 KJV-only independent and separate Baptist, to the Church of Christ restoration movements believes that yet it look completely different in each of their contexts. Who’s right?
I don’t have the answer. Maybe there isn’t an ‘idealized’ past that exists. Or maybe the one true idealized past that we should all be pushing for is Eden itself. I’d be interested in hearing other thoughts on this.