The search for the ancient order
One of the first, serious, multi-volume tomes I read on the subject of church history wass called, “The Search for the Ancient Order”. It focused on the Restoration movement, which is not to be confused with the Reformation movement. The two should never be confused. Reformation was about reforming the existing church infrastructure to bring it more in line with what it was intended to be. It suggests that the true church just got a little off track and only needed a bit of a course correction. Restoration was about reconstructing the original church from scratch. The existing church structure was so flawed as to no longer be a part of the original, if it ever was. The ancient order no longer existed, and had to be meticulously reconstructed from what original DNA we could find.
This book, however, was ultimately unhelpful as it just ended up promoting the Church of Christ as the ultimate end of the quest. But that could not be the ultimate end for me as I had already discovered that the churches of Christ were fundamentally flawed. To discover the true trail of the ancient order, I would have to expand my search to include other traditions.
Some other doctrine
Paul made it clear to the Galatians that they were to accept no other doctrine than that which they had received from him. The churches of Christ were very clear that the only doctrine was their doctrine, which was Paul’s doctrine. Anyone teaching any other doctrine was to be considered accursed. Just so it was perfectly clear, even if an angel from heaven taught this other doctrine, it was to be ignored. Unfortunately, careful research into the matter left Church of Christ doctrine weighed, and found wanting. For truth, I would have to seek out some other doctrine.
That meant visiting other denominations, which in general, was frowned upon. But once I acknowledged to myself that the Church of Christ was nothing more than a denomination of human origin, flawed just like everyone else, then there was no reason for me not to visit other churches to see what truth they might have to offer. Though I recognized this intellectually, it was still difficult to accept emotionally. Be that as it may, I started branching out, but not by much.
My first explorations were of liberal churches of Christ. You have to understand that conservative churches of Christ viewed most liberal churches of Christ the same as all other denominations. Once I started visiting them, I soon understood why that was. These churches did not hold as many things sacred. They acknowledged the fact that there were Christians in other denominations. Many of them had no ethical problem with using instruments in the worship assembly, though few actually did.
I tried several of these churches and liked them a lot. Unfortunately they were still churches of Christ. Seldom did they expand their fellowship beyond the traditional churches of Christ. If I wanted to truly explore what religion had to offer I would have to go beyond the Church of Christ. That is precisely what I did. I got a job as the choir director at a United Methodist church. There, I helped revive the choral tradition they once had. I planned the worship assembly. I taught sight reading. I helped plan special events. I did all the things that could never be done in the mainline churches of Christ. Beyond that, I had great conversations with the pastor. You see, I was just an employee, not a member. I never became a member.
When I applied for the job, I made it clear that while I was no longer in agreement with Church of Christ doctrine, I would never become a member of the United Methodist church, or any other denomination for that matter. I let them know that their beliefs were foreign to mine, but that I would give them a heck of a music program. Amazingly, they were cool with that. Tangentially, It was a white church where I was the only black attendee.
There were so many reasons for them not to hire me. The fact that they did changed my life forever. I never imagined that something called church, wrapped in religion, could be so different from what I grew up with. I was amazed at how little friction there was between me and the clergy. I was as much an outsider as you could get. I could write a lengthy post about the experience. Suffice it to say, it was a pivotal moment in my religious development.
I will mention one detail about my time there. It was something that led to my undoing as their music director. It wasn’t long after the choir really started rocking that they wanted to get the old robes out of mothballs. Sound good, look good. I balked at the idea of choir robes. My conservatism reared its ugly head. I felt like robes suggested a form of differentiation between members that was unseemly. My objection was amplified when I saw the robe they insisted I wear. It was Pope-like in its ostentation. To wear it implied that you were not only somebody, but somebody whose ring should be kissed. I was definitely not that person, nor did I want to be. That priestly robe showed me the limits of my ego. I believed in egalitarianism among brothers and sisters in Christ. That Robe represented a pedestal on which I did not wish to stand. I wasn’t even a member. I disagreed with many of their core beliefs. I felt like such a fraud.
I wore the robe anyway for a few weeks. There were people who helped me dress with the appropriate ornamentation. It was everything I feared it to be. When I was a younger, rising star in the churches of Christ, that robe represented everything I hoped to achieve. Once it was thrust upon me, I had changed so much, I couldn’t bear it. I stopped wearing the robe. Religion with a high-church gloss was never going to be a good fit for me.
For a few years, I wondered in the desert of churchlessness. Becoming a foster parent changed all that. I thought raising a child necessitated some time of community grounding. At the time, I still thought that religion offered the best take on morality. So my wife and I decided to start attending a neighborhood church in walking distance of where we lived. It was a Covenant church. I attended for several years before moving on.
Again, I never became a member of that church. But functionally, that only meant that I could not vote in meetings. It didn’t mean that I couldn’t teach, or be on committees. So I taught classes and was on a few committees that also had a profound impact on the rest of my life. I will refrain from writing a volume on that time in my life. The debates and discussions were priceless. I was able to help shape and participate in programs that were meaningful, and resonate to this day. For me, it was the first time that religion was less about doctrine, and more about social consequences. What I believed was less important than what I did. There, I had a chance to join action with faith.
After that, I started a podcast called, Church Visitor, or something like that. Each week, I would visit a different church of a different denomination. I would record the entire service and interviews with members and someone from the leadership. I posted snippets of all that to my website. I wanted to experience all of religion. I took in as much as I could consume. I experienced everything from high-church Catholicism, to low-church slaying in the spirit. Tongues, wild dancing, an hour of silence: I tasted it all. I know religion at its most dignified and undignified. I’ve know the most conservative to the most liberal. I’ve even done Friends and Unitarians. I know religion better than the vast majority of seminary graduates. I have weighed it all, and found it all wanting.
After reading this, you might think my search for the ancient order a miserable failure. In fact, it was a profound success. Like most quests, I ended up in a place I never imagined at the beginning. My great discovery was that there was no ancient order. There never was a first-century church writ large in bold letters. There was never a blueprint for what a proper church should be. There was no apostolic creed. There was no codified set of beliefs that all of the apostles taught to all new converts. There was no leadership structure replicated in all the churches.
What one can find in the Christian scriptures are people who were making it up as they went, and doing the best they could to live out their understanding of what it was to be a follower of Jesus. There were only a handful of people in the world still alive who had ever met Jesus. Consider this: Paul never met Jesus before the crucifixion, and Paul is the one most instrumental in defining modern religion. If not for Paul, the religion of the original apostles would have died out as just another failed Jewish sect. That said, not one of the churches Paul established survived either.
Christianity is a malleable organism that can reshape and reinvent itself for maximum survivability from one generation to the next. There is no ancient order, and never will be. Today’s religion is just as valid as what the Corinthians practiced in the days of Paul. Religious people are doing the best they can to live out what it means to be a follower of Jesus despite the fact that there is no one alive today who has ever met him. Today’s religious complex is a remarkable social achievement. It is also a useless pursuit. It is ultimately the wrong search. It asks the wrong questions. For me, the quest did not end; it changed. I no longer had any interest in finding the ancient order. I cared only about finding God.