Restorationism, Sectarianism, and Cynicism
by Shane Scott
In his ancient epic about Odysseus, the poet Homer wrote of a dangerous strait between Sicily and the Italian mainland. The narrow passage was notoriously hazardous because of the presence of two perilous obstacles – Scylla and Charybdis. On one side of the strait was Scylla, a jutting rock formation, portrayed as a six-headed monster. On the other side was Charybdis, a swirling whirlpool of water gulped down by a giant sea beast. Because of the limited room to maneuver while passing through the strait, sailors who tried to avoid the one hazard inevitably fell victim to the other.
This story, almost three thousand years old, may be the origin of the expression, “between a rock and a hard place.” It also illustrates the danger that over-correction creates.
Just as veering too sharply from Scylla was certain to send a ship plunging into the abyss of Charybdis, lurching from one extreme to another is a sure course for disaster as well.
In this article I want to talk about a noble objective, and then two dangerous extremes that threaten anyone attempting to reach that objective. The goal I have in mind is restoration, and the twin hazards I have in mind are sectarianism and cynicism. Since none of these terms is explicitly found in Scripture, I will try to carefully explain what I mean by each of them.
By restoration, I mean that all Christians should constantly evaluate their beliefs and practices to see if they reflect the original apostolic teaching. Restoration is a good term to summarize this objective, because it assumes that we are always in need of restoring, and it assumes that there is some standard by which to gauge whether we are restored.
So that’s what I mean by restoration. This definition, and this objective, are hardly unique to me. One of the best articulations of restorationism I have ever read is in the preface to a book called The King Jesus Gospel:
“Part of the genius of genuine Christianity is that each generation has to think it through afresh. Precisely because (so Christians believe) God wants every single Christian to grow up in understanding as well as trust, the Christian faith has never been something that one generation can sort out in such a way as to leave their successors with no work to do.” (N.T. Wright)
Every generation must look to the apostolic teaching and “think it through afresh.” One passage that illustrates this responsibility to restore apostolic doctrine is 1 John 2:21-24. After warning about false teachers who deny the apostolic message about Jesus, John writes:
I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth. Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life.
The apostle calls his readers to remember what they “heard from the beginning.” That is the standard. And so long as their faith is consistent with that original message, then it will be reestablished (restored) in their lives even though many years, or even decades, had passed since the apostles first preached to them.
This is not an easy goal to achieve, though. At least not for me. Like the travelers in Homer’s poem, I have found myself in danger of running into serious obstacles to restoration.
On one side of the strait there is sectarianism. By sectarianism, I mean the attitude that says, “We have it all figured out.” And since “we have it all figured out,” there is no work of restoration to do – the journey is over. There are two problems with this mindset, though.
First, who is the “we” that has it figured out? A cadre of preachers? A council of theologians? A collection of churches listed in a catalogue? Whoever the “we” is, it will be an arbitrarily identified segment of people. And once a specific constituency of people becomes the arbiters of truth, there is sectarianism. This is exemplified by the Jewish leaders, who incredulously asked the officers of the temple regarding Jesus, “Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him?” (John 7:48). They had it all figured out.
The other problem represented by the “we have it all figured out” mentality is the “it” that is figured out. Just what is it that has been perfectly discerned? Unless someone is willing to claim infallible insight into the meaning of every verse in the Bible, what a person really means when he says, “We have it all figured out” is actually, “I have figured out all the things in the Bible that I have determined are really important.” The Pharisees had tithing all figured out – as long as it only applied to mint, dill, and cumin (Matthew 23:23).
Sectarianism aborts the journey of restoration by imposing synthetic standards of human authority and tradition on the word of God. And the solution is to carefully distinguish God’s truth – absolute, unerring, and unchanging – from my understanding of the truth, which is sometimes mistaken and always subject to evaluation and correction (Matthew 15:1-9). What I have always believed or practiced may not be right, but God is always right, and I should submit myself to Him.
But sectarianism is not the only peril that faces a restorationist, and the frantic course correction to avoid sectarianism often leads to the chasm of cynicism.
By cynicism, I mean the suspicion that all of this talk about restoration is just mindless “Church of Christ” traditionalism, and anything that smacks of this – buzz words like “apostolic authority,” “command-example-implication,” “patternism” – is just sectarianism by another name.
This cynical spirit may grow out of frustration with the truly sectarian spirit that some professed Christians possess. And it easy for “restoration” to become a cover for simple posturing, for sloganeering about “speaking where the Bible speaks” to take the place of actually digging into the word. Even worse, some professed restorationists have had horribly unrestored, un-Christlike attitudes. And I can speak with some authority about these failures because I have been guilty of all of them!
But none of these issues is justification for cynicism. Paul faced bitter sectarians who preached some truthful things but did so with horrible attitudes (Phil. 1:15-18). That didn’t invalidate all that they taught, though. Paul could separate the truth (“Christ is proclaimed”) from the failures of those professing this truth. While the Pharisees were wrong to neglect justice, mercy, and faithfulness, they weren’t wrong to tithe the mint, dill, and cumin. “These you ought to have done without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23).
At its worst, cynicism becomes another form of sectarianism, branding all of those who don’t share the same frustrations or arrive at the same solutions as “sectarians.” And in the urge to avoid all things traditional, a new tradition is formed – being anti-traditional. The sectarian reads the Bible with lenses looking to justify “the way we’ve always taught it,” and the cynic reads the Bible with lenses looking to vilify “the way we’ve always taught it.” But neither the sectarian nor the cynic reads the Bible with respect for the way God actually gave it, written in a specific historical context that should be understood before ever trying to apply the Bible. And by never asking, “What did the text mean to its original readers?” the sectarian and the cynic are free to read the Bible in the purely reactionary way essential to each mindset.
To avoid the Scylla of sectarianism and the Charybdis of cynicism, all of God’s people need to be good students of all the Bible to apply to all of life. Only in this way can we reach the destination toward which restoration moves us – the “stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).