Christian primtivism is the logical idea that the church Jesus founded was the church He wanted. It’s connected to the idea of restorationism, that teaches that we should restore Church to its original form when it starts to behave weird and contradict Scripture. As you’ve probably noticed I’m a passionate restorationist, and while I love and cooperate with people from the historical churches I think that their tendency to contradict the Biblical Church is quite harming. A couple of days ago a friend sent me an article on Catholic Answers called The Problems with Primitivism by Dwight Longenecker, which says that we should really not try to model church as Jesus and the apostles modeled it. Allow me to disagree. I will quote each of Longenecker’s arguments and turn them on their heads:
1 Cultural Relevance
First, 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 16th-century Europe and the New World were influenced by the utopianism, the rise of the nation state, and revolutionary spirit of their 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.
Well, I know of no restorationist movement that claims that we need to speak Arameic and live in the Roman Empire to be the original church. All churches adapt the Gospel to their culture and historical context – including the Catholic Church. It’s hard to argue though that since we need to adapt to our culture we need to believe in purgatory and seven sacraments.
2 Information about the Early Church
Second, 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, reproducing what he has been told early Christianity was like.
It’s true that some restorationists are lazy, not double-checking their doctrines and practices by Scripture, but the same thing can definitely be said about Catholics. For example, they believe that there are seven sacraments – neither more nor less – an idea that originated with Peter Lombard in the 12th century! All restorationist movements at least try to break unbiblical traditions and restore biblical Christianity, Catholicism however is not even trying.
3 Early Church Structure
This assumption leads to the third problem: The restorationists are usually totally ignorant of what the early Church was really like. They assume that it 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.
The majority of patristic scholars agree that the early church was indeed congregational, there was one bishop per church and they overtook the ecclesial leadership from the apostles – the primacy of the patriarchial cities (including Rome) came later. The early church did meet in people’s homes – there are no evidences of church buildings until the late third century (even the earliest church archeologically discovered was technically a house church). Longenecker says that since the apostles visited the temple and synagogues house churches are insufficient but hey – they didn’t own those places but used them to evangelise! Furthermore, words like sacraments and liturgy didn’t even exist, the early church was more free and flexible when it came to worship since no central rite tradition existed, and communion was a real meal around a real table where rich and poor shared their goods and were having a good time.
4 Bible Views on Modern Phenomena
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 restorationist churches have a radio station? Can they have high-tech worship? Can they have a Web site? What about moral issues? Can a primitivist Christian 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?
Wow. Longenecker argues as if when Catholics decides how to react to modern phenomena they don’t care a bit about what the Bible says, they just listen to what the pope says. Of course they don’t. We all go back to the Scriptures and pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance. And then we find that having a website doesn’t really contradict Scripture while harming people through environmental destruction does. However, we don’t create dogma out of it, we don’t say that all churches need to have a website. Likewise, we don’t say that pastors/priests need to be celibates.
5 Restorationist Contradictions
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?
Catholics have a tendency to think that leadership equals teaching, and argue as if every Protestant ecclesial body have their own interpretation of Scripture. Of course, this is not the case. There are almost 300 million Pentecostals around the world, that share almost exactly the same restorationist theology, even though they are organized in a multitude of different church bodies. Furthermore, according to Longenecker’s reasoning, if one fails to have exactly the same theology as the saints in first century Palestine, one must abandon the Biblical values and doctrines one has found and convert to the Catholic church which is very open with that they believe in stuff that no one in the biblical church believed in.
These are the five problems with restorationism Longenecker identifies, and here comes his five arguments against its basic assumption, Christian primitivism:
6 Provisional Institutions
The first foundational problem of Christian primitivism is the denial of the necessity for the visible church. One of the foundational assumptions of primitivism is that all church institutions are provisional. They are necessary evils. They are manmade institutions. As such, they are to be distrusted and they are disposable. Built into this assumption is the bias that the Catholic Church cannot possibly be right. Therefore the Catholic Church is simply another denomination like every other, and if it seems corrupt or apostate, it should be scrapped to start again.
The church is definitely not a man-made institution but a Jesus-made, but since its beginnings it has had problems with heresies and errors. To guard against this, the early church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teachings (Acts 2:42). When the church leaves these teachings, they start to get heretical. Now, Longenecker starts to argue that the Catholic church is right not because of what it teaches but because it is the Catholic church. He mocks restorationists for having a “bias that the Catholic Church cannot possibly be right”, while he thinks that the Catholic Church cannot possibly be wrong!
The second problem is the naive belief that the Church should be immaculate. In other words, it is possible that the Church be sinless. Rightly shocked by the corruption of members of the established Church, primitivists wish to return to a purer and more basic church. This is unrealistic. What they fail to see is that there is no such thing as the perfect church. They overlook the fact that among the apostles themselves was a traitor who betrayed the Lord, cowards, sinners, and weaklings, and that the Lord prophesied and allowed that the wheat and the tares would grow together.
This is an extremely rare view, and I’m curious about what restorationists he really talks about. I agree that we are both sinners and saints. Embarassingly though, Longenecker argues in the very next paragraph that Catholic church is sinless when it comes to its teachings!
The third foundational problem of Christian primitivism is that while the primitivist wants an immaculate church, he does not believe in an infallible church. Along with denying a visible church, Primitivists also deny an infallible church. Because the Catholic Church has (in their view) departed from the truth, it cannot be infallible. But this assumption is leaky, because the primitivist’s whole enterprise is an attempt to recover a church that was pristine and pure and (by inference) infallible. Either there was an ancient infallible church, in which case it has never failed because it cannot fail, or there was never an ancient infallible church, in which case, why bother to attempt a recovery of it?
See, firstly he says that restorationists are “naive” in believing that the church should be sinless, which isn’t accurate since most of us don’t believe that way, then he claims that the Catholic church is infallible! Again, independently what it teaches, the Catholic church is right because she is the Catholic church. This is extremely close to circular reasoning, and Longenecker’s only lifeline is his claim that restorationists believe that the early church was infallible and so the church should have continued to be so when it started to introduce prayers to saints and the doctrine of immaculate conception, right? Well, problem is that we don’t believe that the church is infallible simply because the Bible never says it – God is infallible, but His people are not sinless. Longenecker himself just argued that we are sinners one second ago!
9 Church Allegiance
The fourth foundational problem is connected with the third. Primitivism is based on the assumption that the Catholic Church is not infallible, and that there is no such thing as an infallible church, but the primitivist would have us believe that his “restored” church is infallible. It is true that he does not state this belief openly, yet he heartily believes so, for he has given his total allegiance to this church. But if his restored church is infallible, why does it clash with all the other restored churches, and why did God allow six or 10 or 19 centuries to pass before establishing it? If, on the other hand, this restored church is not infallible, why should I (or anyone else for that matter) be expected to owe allegiance to it?
Again, Longenecker mocks restorationists for not believing that the church can be sinless when it comes to doctrine. Well, we pledge alligeance to Jesus, who indeed is sinless and infallible, and together we try to discover His will and calling through reading the apostles’ wisdom and seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance. There has been restorationist movements across all of church history, and even though they haven’t all been identical they have had a common goal to resurrect the original church. And the Catholic church has definitely not been identical either during all these years – again, the idea of seven sacraments came in the 12th century.
10 The Value of the Original
The fifth underlying problem of primitivism is the most blatant of all. Assuming that the primitive church is the Church of the first century (which assumes that there is a cutoff point when the Church ceases to be primitive—and who decides that?) how can anyone really know what the first-century Church was like? We have archeological evidence. We have scriptural evidence. We have documentary evidence, but all we can do is the delicate and tentative work of the historian. We cannot really get back into the skin of first-century Christians in the Roman Empire. We can’t really understand the culture, the assumptions, and the worldview of former Jewish and Gentile Christians in the Roman Empire. Even if we could come up with an accurate checklist of all the attributes of the primitive Church, who would decide which of the attributes we wanted to recreate and which ones we would omit? Shall we have house churches or mega-churches? Shall we exclude women from ordination, but allow them not to cover their heads in church? Shall we have simple Bible preaching, but not speaking in tongues and miraculous handkerchiefs? Shall we have sacraments but not slaves; Bible studies, but not bishops?
Linked with this problem is the biggest elephant in the room: Why it should necessarily be a good thing to recreate the primitive church at all? We live in the 21st century, not the first. Any attempt at recovery can never be anything more than an artificial reproduction—with the same relationship to primitive Christianity as my grandmother’s dining room table has to the furniture of Versailles or Cinderella’s castle at Disneyland has to Windsor Castle.
So… ignore the Bible folks and believe in purgatory! Again, we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit as well, nobody denies that. This is the very reason Catholics value their tradition, they believe it is led by the Spirit. The problem is that the Catholic church has included a lot of doctrines and practices that contradict Scripture – things like the crusades, state churches and the inquisition for example. You can’t claim that your church is infallible after that. When arguing against that we should seek to live like the biblical church, Longenecker is openly admitting that the Catholic church isn’t biblical – in spite of his earlier claim that it’s liturgical, sacramental etc. Catholics claim to follow Jesus, and I believe most do, but they do it horribly when they simply ignore what He and His apostles did and taught, claiming that it wouldn’t be a good thing to recreate their church at all. This is heresy people, Christian primitivism is the way to go.