It is important to keep the concept of restoration in perspective. We should acknowledge that the restoration of a pattern is not the essence of the Gospel. To believe in pattern theology does not mean we must believe that Jesus died so that we could have elders and deacons. Church organization is not redemptive because salvation comes through the cross, but it is God’s will for the church to be organized and to disregard his will is sin. With human frailty being what it is, we must all stand before God on the Day of Judgment with the hope and expectation of grace: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Thankfully, God has not ask us to sit in judgment on the eternal destiny of any one’s soul. We should all have within our hearts the same desire that God has for the souls of humankind: “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). We should have the same desire for souls that Paul had for his fellow Jews: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1). However, we should also recognize, as Paul did, that God is the ultimate judge and not everyone will be saved: “For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” (vs. 2-3).
There are times when God seems tolerant of the mistakes and sins of those who are his children, but at other times there is no tolerance for error. Perhaps God sees what is in the heart and makes allowances on that basis in certain situations. I know that if I expect God to forgive me of the practical and theological mistakes I have made, then I should pray that he will forgive others as well. But all of this does not relieve us from the obligation to preach the whole counsel of God and to search diligently for the truth on every matter. To arrogantly disregard the instructions of God, as Nadab and Abihu apparently did, will bring severe consequences and it is the obligation of every Christian to speak forthrightly on every point of Scripture.
There is an arrogance that is associated with religious pluralism that belittles the seriousness of God’s instructions. It is important that we follow the pattern of church organization in the New Testament because it demonstrates our commitment to the way of God. On the other hand, it is unlikely that we will follow God’s will perfectly. It is likely that we will make both practical and theological mistakes and we will have to look to the grace of God for forgiveness. But this is not the same as arrogantly refusing to acknowledge the importance of God’s commands by disregarding them. For example, Nadab and Abihu should have known better than to act so presumptuously. The implication is that religious leaders in Israel were to be judged by a strict standard. Another example would be the men from the city of Beth Shemesh who died for not treating the Ark of the Covenant reverently: “But God struck down some of the men of Beth Shemesh, putting seventy of them to death because they had looked into the ark of the LORD” (1 Samuel 6:19).
The severity of the punishment indicates the enormity of the sin and the peril of privilege shows that judgment must begin at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). Jesus indicates that those who know more will be judged more severely: “But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48). James indicates that those who teach in the church will be judged strictly: “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).
Following the incident with Nadab and Abihu, God warned Aaron and the priests, “You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the LORD has given them through Moses” (Leviticus 10:10-11). In verse 16, we are told that Moses checked to see if the priests had completed the sacrifices mentioned in the previous chapter. The final act in some sacrifices was the eating of the edible portions by the priests. Instead of eating the offering, Aaron’s remaining two sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, had burned all of the sacrifice. Moses pointed out to them, “you should have eaten the goat in the sanctuary area, as I commanded” (v. 18). Moses was angry with Aaron and his two remaining sons because they had not followed God’s instructions exactly (v. 16). Aaron replied to Moses, “Today they sacrificed their sin offering and their burnt offering before the LORD, but such things as this have happened to me. Would the LORD have been pleased if I had eaten the sin offering today?” From Aaron’s answer, it is not possible to know exactly why he failed to follow the instructions. Aaron may have been afraid to eat of his portion of the sacrifice because of the deaths of his two sons. He could also have been unable to eat because he was mourning for the loss of his sons. We are not given a complete explanation, but the point is that God made a difference in the way the two cases were judged. The response to the failure of Aaron and his two surviving sons was much different from the one earlier in the chapter. Moses seemed satisfied with Aaron’s explanation (v. 20) and God did not send fire from heaven to destroy the two remaining sons of Aaron. This indicates that God is often gracious to those who make mistakes in their attempts to serve him—even in regard to worship! This should indicate to us that God considers each case individually and that attitude and intent play a role in what is overlooked and what is not.
Jesus reserves his harshest criticism for the Pharisees, the very people to whom he was closest in doctrine. The implication is that the Pharisees should have known better and so were held to a stricter judgment. Also, note the difference in judgment between the sins of David and the sins of Saul. David’s sins seem greater but the judgment of God was harsher on Saul. Why is this the case? Perhaps it is because God includes other factors into the equation when he judges people. Perhaps it was because “David was conscience-stricken” (1 Samuel 24:5) and Saul was not. Paul said, “What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Romans 9:14-16).
The lesson for us is that we worship and serve a gracious God who will not always condemn us when we have some failing in our practice or theology. God will consider the circumstances of our lives and the attitudes of our hearts. We also should be very cautious as we make judgments about the lives and conduct of others. The bottom line is that we simply do not know exactly what will be the extent of God’s grace on the great Day of Judgment. My purpose in this book is to focus on the teaching of Scripture regarding the organization of the church. If, on the Day of Judgment, God indicates that it does not really matter how the church is organized, then I will still be pleased because I was diligent in following the model I was given. To follow the organizational pattern of the New Testament church is to demonstrate one’s sincerity and commitment to “do everything the LORD has said” (Exodus 19:8).
The principle of obedience is set forth clearly in Scripture. The concepts of restoration, pattern, and the law of silence were not invented by men in the last few hundred years. These concepts are not only biblical, but they were also recognized as important principles by many in the first few centuries following the apostolic church. The point is not that they were utilized perfectly or even recognized universally, but that these concepts are not as new as some would have us believe.
Earlier, we noted that the law of silence was discussed by Tertullian around 200. Around 175, Hegesippus recognized the apostolic purity of the ideal New Testament church. In his history of the church, Eusebius has preserved for us some fragments of Hegesippus’ writings. Eusebius indicates Hegesippus believed the church remained “a pure and uncorrupted virgin” as long as the apostolic generation was alive. “But when the sacred band of the Apostles and the generation of those to whom it had been vouchsafed to hear with their own ears the divine wisdom had reached the several ends of their lives, then the federation of godless error took its beginning through the deceit of false teachers” (Ecclesiastical History, 3.32.7-8). Neither Eusebius nor Hegesippus, however, recognized the development of the monarchial bishop as a departure from apostolic teaching. The mindset of writers like Eusebius is to view only the changes from the present condition of the church to be departures from apostolic Christianity.
Eusebius, and perhaps Hegesippus, seem to deny that any change in church organization had taken place. But as we have seen in the New Testament and other historical sources, there is ample evidence that there was a change from a plurality of elders to the monarchial bishop form of organization. The fact that there is a difference in the practice between the first century and later centuries should increase our confidence in the canon of the New Testament and even the reliability of such documents as 1 Clement. These documents exist today in spite of the differences they show with the practices of later centuries. Once documents were accepted and distributed it would have been difficult to reject them. Even as early as the middle of the second century, it would have been difficult to alter or neglect documents that already had a near universal existence and acceptance at that time. Perhaps this is conclusive evidence that the New Testament books must have been in existence at a very early date. A document written in the early second century that opposed changes that became universal soon after would have had more difficulty surviving. There is no question that the writings of Hegesippus and perhaps other unknown first and second century writers would provide us with valuable insights into the historical and theological condition of the church during the late first and early second centuries. For a list of the lost books of early Christian literature, see Edgar J. Goodspeed, A History of Early Christian Literature (Revised and enlarged by Robert M. Grant), pp. 196f. Of course, these are just the books mentioned by other writers. There is no reason not to believe there is an abundance of other documents that we do not have as well. However, the collection of ancient writings that we do have provides us with ample evidence for the practice of Christians today.
J B Myers