It is not legalism to seek patterns or to live by patterns.
It is legalism to use those patterns in such a way that they undermine salvation by grace through faith.
That is my summary of what I thought was the sentiment of Cecil May, Jr.’s concluding comments in his February 3, 2009 Freed-Hardeman Lectureship speech (see my previous post).
In this post and in a subsequent one, I will illustrate how this point has functioned in the thinking of two significant leaders in the Stone-Campbell Movement: Alexander Campbell and J. D. Thomas. Both were patternists (to differing degrees), but did not permit their patternism to trump the fundamental truth of the gospel: we are saved by grace through faith and not by works.
In the 1825 Christian Baptist Alexander Campbell inaugurated his famous series “A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things.” He thereby introduced “restoration” as a key term in the self-understanding of the Stone-Campbell Movement. A patternism of some sort inheres in the idea of “restoration” as Campbell used it.
Campbell assumed (1) “there is a divinely authorized order of Christian worship in Christian assemblies” and (2) “the acts of worship on the first day of the week in Christian assemblies is uniformly the same.” The “authorized order” is the “same acts of religious worship” that “are to be performed every first day in every assembly of disciples” (CB 3 [4 July 1825] 164-166). Campbell believed there is a pattern (his favorite word for it, in good Reformed fashion, was “order”). Subsequent essays explained the role of breaking bread (Lord’s Supper), fellowship (contribution), and praise (singing). In addition, the “ancient order” included topics such as congregational polity (bishops, deacons) and discipline.
Campbell’s series intended to identify particulars where the “church of the present day” needed to be brought up to the “standard of the New Testament.” To “restore the ancient order of things” is to “bring the disciples individually and collectively, to walk in the faith, and in the commandments of the Lord and Saviour, as presented in that blessed volume” (CB 3 [7 February 1825] 124-128).
It is clear that the “ancient order” is serious business for Campbell. It is a matter of obedience to the commands of the New Testament. The series was a call to the church of his day to conform to the “order” contained in the New Testament, that is, to conform to the apostolic pattern in the New Testament.
The interesting question, however, is whether he thought the “order” he discerned within the New Testament was a test of fellowship among believers. Did he believe that conformity to this order was necessary to salvation? Was it his intent to identify the marks of the church that defined the true church so that every other body of believers who did not conform to those marks was apostate and thus outside the fellowship of God?
This was implicitly raised in the Christian Baptist by one of Campbell’s critics. Spencer Clack, the editor of the Baptist Recorder, wondered whether Campbell’s “ancient order” functioned similarly to the written creeds to which Campbell mightily objected (CB 5 [6 August 1827] 359-360). Campbell’s response is illuminating. He maintained that his “ancient order” was no creed precisely because he had “never made them, hinted that they should be, or used them as a test of christian character or terms of christian communion” (CB 5 [3 September 1827] 369-370, emphasis mine–and thanks to Bobby Valentine who was the first to call my attention to this statement).
The pattern–the ancient order–was not a test of fellowship. It did not define Christian character. Campbell believed it was biblical and apostolic, but he did not believe obedience to it was a condition of salvation. The pattern was not a soteriological category, but rather an ecclesiological one.
If he did not identify these ecclesiological particulars as tests of fellowship, then what was the purpose of the series? He tells us. He believed that the restoration of the ancient order, though not necessary for fellowship and salvation, was “the perfection, happiness, and glory of the Christian community.” In other words, it was a means toward the unity of all believers. Restoration of the ancient order was not for the purpose determining true vs. apostate churches, but rather to set out a program upon which all believers might unite on the New Testament alone. If everyone would “discard from their faith and their practice every thing that is not found written in the New Testament of the Lord and Saviour, and to believe and practise whatever is there enjoined,” then “every thing is done which ought to be done” (CB 3 [7 March 1825] 133-136). He wanted to “unite all Christians on constitutional grounds” rather than on the basis of human creeds (CB 5 [6 August 1827] 360-61). The “ancient order,” according to Campbell, was the only legitimate (constitutional) and practical means of uniting all Christians, and it enable communities to discard their creeds and stand on the New Testament alone.
Theologically, this essentially means that eccelsiological patterns are matters of sanctification rather than justification (to use the classic terminology of Campbell’s era). The discernment, recognition and implementation of apostolic patterns were matters of growth and maturation. They were not the foundation of the church–who is Jesus, and the confession that he is the Christ, the Son of the Living God–but rather the sanctification of the church in conformity to a constitutional model of reading the New Testament.
Campbell never applied the “ancient order” as either a test of salvation or fellowship. However, he did attempt to persuade others that a return to the “ancient order” was the way to restore unity to a divided Christianity.
Subsequent participants in the “Restoration Movement” turned the “ancient order” into a test of fellowship as the fundamental identity of the New Testament church, the distinguishing mark between the true church and apostate churches. That was never Campbell’s intention and he would have regarded it as a subversion of the gospel itself–substituting the “ancient order” for the confession of Jesus as the Messiah as the true test of faith.