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” – 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, Pentecostals, Churches of Christ, Plymouth Brethren and others.
The restorationist impulse leads different churches in different directions, but all usually fail to restore the New Testament church because they focus on outer, visible symbols.
Most pride themselves on having found and achieved one or two elements of “New Testament Christianity,” while ignoring their own accommodations to contemporary American culture.
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.
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 a 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. Here are seven considerations:
1. How much the church reflects the culture around it.
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?”
2. The extent to which 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.
3. Doctrinally sound preaching and teaching that appeals to the heart and the head.
By “the heart” I don’t mean emotions per se, but the core of personality, the seat of personal values, decisions and behaviors. And by “appeal” I mean challenge and comfort.
Sermons and lessons that constantly and consistently appeal only to the mind are missing the mark of Christian authenticity even though the intellect must not be ignored or demeaned.
4. True community manifested by sharing lives and property.
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.
5. Passionate commitment to Christ, the gospel and the church.
Cool, calm, distancing worship, outreach, fellowship and involvement (or lack of it) signal lack of authenticity.
Many American churches are simply Sunday morning gatherings of individuals who do not want to be bothered with total commitment or involvement.
“Passion” does not have to mean emotion, although I doubt whether passion can be present where there is never any emotional display.
6. Unity in spirit and in truth as opposed to nonspiritual 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, political ideology or cultural identity.
I 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 attendees loved one another, how the preaching and worship glorified Jesus Christ and both challenged and comforted, and how they “felt something different” the moment they walked into the church’s worship space.
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.
7. Clear evidence that God is present, changing lives for the better in super-normal ways.
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 a congregation who was well known as having racist feelings. 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.”
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.”