Where is all this leading? Some have expressed concerns that what I have been writing in this series has crossed over the line and that I am way out in left field. I may be a complete fool, but I believe what I have set forth in these articles is a better alternative to what we have now in the way of looking at the Bible and the church. I have not written this to stir up trouble. I have not written it to create a following for myself nor for self-affirmation. I have written it for your consideration. If you cannot accept it I will think no less of you. If what I have written is wrong, show me where. I would consider you a friend if you would do that.
I have been a long time coming to the point where I am now – about 25 years, in fact. I know what I have said is controversial because it is not a parroting of the party line. But that doesn’t bother me. I came to a reconciliation in my own mind a long time ago that I must be true to my own understanding of God’s word and not be afraid of the consequences. I intend that this be the last article in this series. If what I have written is not plain enough, I don’t know how to make it any plainer so this will be the last I write on this.
Some are afraid that what I have said will lead people away from obedience to the commands of our Lord. I don’t believe that at all. In fact, I believe that if we put our emphasis on an understanding of Christ that will result in a deeper, more complete obedience to whatever he commands. The difference lies in understanding the purpose behind the commands and not just the commands themselves.
Take the example of the Jewish nation in the day of Isaiah. In Isaiah 1 God compared them to Sodom and Gomorrah, the wicked cities destroyed in the days of Abraham. What was the basis of his charge against them? The thing he begins with was their sacrifices – he says that he was tired of them. They were assiduous about offering them, so what was the problem? They might have argued that they were obeying God. Hadn’t he commanded sacrifices? The problem was that they had not offered them with the right motivation. Their sacrifices had not brought them any closer to God. They did not understand him and so their lives were not being changed. In Isaiah 1:16-17 he says to them …
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.”
Why should they do these things? For one thing, he does command that his people seek justice and correct oppression, but beyond that, these things should be done because this is what God does …
Deuteronomy 10:18 “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.”
Deuteronomy 32:4 “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.”
Psalm 68:5 “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.”
God was wanting the people to be like him. He wanted them to partake of his character. He wanted them to do these things because of a godly compassion for the needs of others. Their sacrifices made him tired because they were not learning anything about him by just doing sacrifices.
On the other hand, look at David …
“So David reigned over all Israel. And David administered justice and equity to all his people.” 2 Samuel 8:15
What was the difference between David and the people of Isaiah’s day? Remember that it was said of David that he was a man after God’s own heart? (1 Sam. 13:14). It was, no doubt, this quality about David that made the difference between him and the superficial sacrificers.
Surely David knew the commandment of God regarding justice, etc. But the people of Isaiah’s day should have known it also. God at least held them responsible for not obeying it. In David’s case, God got an obedient heart whereas in the people of Judah he got an external “obedience.” In David he got a man of Godlike character, in the Jews he got a superficial conformity to law.
Our perception of God makes all the difference in how we respond to him. Again, referring to the Jews of Isaiah’s day, they had had a long and stormy relationship with God because of their infatuation with idols. They had gone that route because they hadn’t made a clear distinction between their God and the idols. With idols, if one wanted favor – good crops, big families, victory in war – you appeased the idols. That meant sacrifices along with the pleasant, self-centered, sensual pursuits that constituted idol worship. The idea of considering the needs of others did not play into the idolaters concept of God. They had became like their gods. Israel had transferred many of those same concepts to God and their worship showed it. God became to them not much more than another idol. Theirs was an “I have obeyed you, now what do I get out of it” attitude.
We must understand that if we desire to be different from the Jews of Isaiah’s day that our obedience must be different from theirs, more than theirs, deeper than theirs. God is not just looking for obedience from us, but obedience from the heart. We must understand that our obedience must be for God’s purpose for us.
The Jews in the first century were not all that much different from those of Isaiah’s day. They had gotten weaned away from idolatry but they hadn’t learned what obedience was for. Obedience was to them an end within itself. This was, I believe, what Jesus was talking about in the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5:20 …
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
In the remainder of that chapter Jesus described the “righteousness” of the scribes and Pharisees. His quotations given at the beginning of each section refer to the interpretation of the command under consideration whereas his “but I say to you” gives the real, divinely intended meaning. They got the point of “obedience,” he got to the purpose or the reason behind the command. Their concept was conformity to law, his was transformation into his own likeness. The difference was knowing and understanding God. They looked at the command as something to be done; God looked at it as what he wanted to do to and for them through their obedience.
The result was that they did what they perceived the command to require, which from their point of view was a minimum. When Christ’s followers exceed the righteousness of the Jews, they obey with a view to what God really wants for them in their obedience.
What does he want from us? What ought all our obedience be leading to? Is it not that we be transformed into the image of his Son? Jesus was the perfect image of the Father.
“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8:29).
“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18; see also 2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 3:10).
This brings us back to the very beginning, back to man’s creation. God made man in his own image (Genesis 1:26-27). Sin defiled that image. The salvation he provides us in Christ is not just for the purpose that we have our sins forgiven, but that we be restored to that original intent for which we were created. When we become a Christian we begin that process of restoration to the image of God and then continue through the rest of our lives to perfect it to more and more closely conform to that image. We achieve this, not just by obedience, but by an obedient life lived out in a conscious connection with Jesus Christ who “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature,” (Hebrews 1:3).
The same would be true for the church. In Ephesians 2:14-16 Paul writes …
“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
The church is “one new man,” having been reconciled to God through the cross. The hostility (animosity?) between Jews and Gentiles has been done away with. They are a new humanity, created to be conformed to the image of the Son. They are reconciled in one body. They are “one body” manifesting the likeness and glory of God. This is why Christ must be central to everything about life and about the church. To the extent our focus is on anything else we are not manifesting the image of the Son.
What about the “pattern” of the New Testament churches? Shouldn’t we imitate them? I believe their example is valid as we see them following Christ. Follow them in the same way Paul encouraged people to follow him. “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Above all, Paul’s interest was that Christ should be glorified – whether by life or by death. (Philippians 1:20-21).
Did anyone ever search through the life of Paul to find every detail of his life and try to imitate him in that way? Of course not. The way we imitate him is through understanding how he imitated Christ in what he became because of his understanding of and gratitude for what Christ had done for him. Did the Lord command him to do things? Of course he did! Did Paul obey him? Of course he did! But there was in every act of obedience upon his part that understanding of Christ’s love and sacrifice for him.
What makes us think that we must search through the record of what New Testament churches did and do exactly what they did in order to be the New Testament church? What knowledge we are given of the first century churches is a record of how they were or were not faithful in imitating Christ. That record, I believe, was not intended to be a source of law, binding us to exactly replicating what they did. Can we follow it? Of course we can. Must we follow exactly every detail of the record of those churches? We had better hope not! Why? Because there are things in that record we have either misunderstood, overlooked or dismissed as unnecessary.
This is, as I see it, the huge flaw in the CENI (Command, Example, Necessary Inference) approach to Bible interpretation. We start out with a preconceived agenda – restoration – which we take to mean that we must reproduce the “pattern” of the church in the first century. We apply the lens of CENI to the task and come up with a list of items which we interpret as “laws,” which if we do not abide by them we are “unfaithful” to the Lord. The problem with this approach is that at least the latter two of the three (E, NI) are applied almost without exception, selectively and subjectively. We have to have “laws” by which to interpret these “laws.” I do not believe the Lord requires us to have laws to interpret laws by which we determine law!
And none of it keeps even honest, well intentioned people from subjectively applying CENI. Where do all the different interpretations of what the New Testament church was come from? Why do people who take the same facts, apply the same rules come to radically different applications? THERE HAS TO BE SOMETHING WRONG! I do not believe we can lay it at the feet of all those who differ with “us” – whoever “us” is. I believe the tool we are using should never have been used for Biblical interpretation. It may be suited for lawyers in the courtroom, but the Lord never intended his followers to be lawyers! Remember, it was the “lawyers” and Pharisees, who were diligent in their following of the law, who crucified Jesus! Would CENI have appealed to them? Probably!
What did the first century church have to appeal to? Do you think they used some sort of CENI method of Biblical interpretation? I know they had the apostles, but why didn’t the apostles reveal some sort of method for people after the apostolic age?
I think I know why people cling to this method of interpretation. Fear. Fear that people will “run amok” if there is not some kind of restraining law. Fear that we may become what some refer to as “change agents” intent on taking the church into denominationalism. Fear that we will only have some kind of vague, nebulous outline to go by. Fear to go against conventional wisdom.
But what I am contending for is a return to what the first century Christians had – Christ and him crucified. Yes, by all means take into full consideration what is taught in the epistles, but be careful to notice how everything taught and commanded there is rooted in this most fundamental of all truths. Out of that flows every obligation, every command, every observance – the very life of both individuals and the church. It really is more substantial than we think. It is so substantial that Jesus built his church on it!