First, I apologize to my faithful readers who have no background in understanding the controversies that have taken place in Churches of Christ over years. I can well understand your confusion. That is not to say you can’t learn from what I will be writing about for the next few days. It is never a waste of time to learn how the Bible teaches or about the authority of God and how he exercises that authority through the scriptures. The basic principles I will be discussing are generally applicable, so I ask you to carefully read what I am about to say in the next few articles. If you have a problem with understanding what I am getting at please feel free to contact me and I will try my best to explain what I mean. I promise that when I deal with what I feel I have to deal with I will be back to other things.
In my recent articles on division, animosity and authority, I realize I could have done a better job of explaining how I believe we should approach the Bible to determine God’s will for us today. I still stand behind my affirmations that the presently accepted (Command, Example, Necessary Inference) approach used by brethren in Churches of Christ is inadequate and flawed. I will get to a presentation of what I consider to be a better way to understand God’s will for both ourselves individually and for the church but first I must make some preliminary observations before I get to that.
All we have to do is look at the evidence all around us in the devastation of division with its attendant animosity to see that what is supposed to be the best way to understand the Bible just isn’t working – at all. We NEVER see people who are divided come together on the basis of the usual approach to applying Bible principles to the problem. Rather than finding the peace and unity we professedly all want, the landscape is littered with the ruins and devastation of incessant battles and rings with the continual sniping of partisans rather than genuine love accompanied with the peace that naturally flows from hearts that are ruled by love.
It will not suffice to answer that the blame for the continuing controversy lies exclusively at the feet of those who misuse or abuse the accepted method. The almost universal tendency is that we accuse those who differ with us of being dishonest, incapable, sloppy students of the Bible because if they were as good and honest and diligent studying the Bible and applying all the rules correctly as we do they would most certainly have come to the same conclusions as we. We go back over the same ground, using the same method and wind up only confirming our own ignorance. We never consider the possibility that there could be anything wrong with our conclusions because there is something wrong with the method we have employed in reaching those conclusions.
Granted the possibility (notice I said “possibility”) that CENI could be a legitimate tool in understanding communication, this does not necessarily imply that all biblical interpretation must be framed by this method. In fact, I do not believe that everything can be piled under that or any other single hermeneutical umbrella. There is a lot more to faith and a lot more to understanding and a lot more to authority than can possibly be discovered by this method.
Use of the CENI approach requires numerous assumptions in order to reach what I believe are predetermined (therefore prejudiced) conclusions. Foremost are the assumptions we make about God and how he manifests his authority in his rule over creation in general and over the church in particular. There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that God is sovereign over the whole of his creation. I have no doubt that any disrespect for his authority is sin and unless repented of will damn one’s soul. The issue is not whether one believes in divine authority or not. It is not whether one believes in one particular method of interpretation or not. The question that must be answered before we can even approach the matter of what is authorized is “How does God exercise his authority through the Bible?”
There is agreement among all I know – even those who question the validity of the CENI approach – that Bible is authoritative. The assumption made by those who rely on CENI approach is that this is the correct and ONLY way that his authority can be determined. If this be so it would mean that everyone must subscribe to the same approach. For anyone to question that approach then would mean that he or she has a loose attitude toward the scriptures, does not believe in Bible authority, is determined to undermine God’s authority, destroy the church and is therefore damned to eternal perdition. Such are all assumptions made without warrant. Those assumptions are prejudiced because people don’t make the same assumptions that those who make the charges make must therefore be wrong.
Another assumption made is about the church. The assumption is that the church in the 21st century must look exactly like the church in the 1st century. God didn’t tell us that. That is an assumption based on our heritage from the Restoration Movement. Some have objected that they don’t believe in restoration and are not part of any movement. Yet we can’t help be affected by the thinking of those in our past who have had great influence on the thinking of our group as a whole. Ideas come down to us and we never consider where they came from. We don’t think we accept them because they have always been taught, but ideas, like viruses, have a way of insinuating themselves into our minds without our being conscious of where they came from or how they will affect us. We accept them on the basis of our cultural norms. By “cultural” I mean our church culture. If we understand how culture works, we understand that in many more ways than we may be consciously aware, we are affected by the culture of which we are a part even though there are differences between ourselves and our wider culture. We are a part of culture because we live in a particular time and place and without conscious thought we absorb the thinking and values of our culture. This is true also of our “church culture.” It takes an exceptional person, a thinking person, to buck the trend of accepted thought and raise any serious question as regards the validity of the presumptions and conclusions of his culture.
At the beginning of the 19th century the division of denominationalism began to be challenged. When the Campbells and others came on the scene, there were already numerous people who were already calling the assumptions and dogmas of that system in question. The way these good people saw to end the divisions of that day was to call people back to the Bible. There certainly is nothing wrong with that. No one can ever be united unless there is a common ground of understanding and a respect for a commonly accepted authority and the Bible is the only possible common ground.
Somewhere along the way it came to be thought that that necessitated the restoration of the church to the exact form of the church in the first century. If we could only get people into the “true church” then all division would end. That was an assumption that has since guided the people who are the spiritual descendants of those of the early pioneers of the Restoration.
Because we assume we have perfectly restored the New Testament church, we turn that assumption against those who do not see what we claim for ourselves, we judge them as unworthy of our fellowship. It matters how small the deviation from the “truth” as we perceive it, those who do so are consigned to a devil’s hell.
It is also assumed that there has to be a definite pattern for the church in order to be assured that people get into the right church. Most of the divisions that have come in the restoration have resulted from the perception of those who believed they had discovered that pattern seeing the teaching and practice of those who do not accept their interpretation of the pattern as forsaking the “pattern,” the Bible and the one true New Testament church. Yet there is no agreement among people who believe this as to what that pattern is.
I, myself, believe very strongly that there is a pattern for the church – but it is not what most people believe it to be. Yes, there is a definite form the church will take if we follow the biblical pattern, but that form definitely is not what we have decided it should be. Yes, if we follow the pattern set forth in the Bible, there will be profound changes take place in the church – changes that will result in something quite different from what we now see – and that scares some people to death! But if we are true to God’s word instead of our traditional methods and supposedly necessary conclusions, then there is nothing else for us to do than to allow ourselves to be changed by God. We will not be changing in rebellion against God, but will be allowing him through his word to change us more and more into what he really wants us to be.
There is nothing wrong with change when that change is necessary to be what God really wants us to be. Change is an essential part of growth. You can’t define growth without incorporating the basic idea of change. Spiritual growth that takes place as we come to a better understanding of his will for us is inevitably change. Just because change in the church would result from a change in our understanding of how God exercises his authority through the Bible does not make change evil in itself. It is an unwarranted assumption that God does not permit change. There is nothing wrong with change that comes through a better understanding of what God really wants of us as his people. In fact, such change would be corrective rather than rebellious. To not change when we find out we are wrong would be rebellious.
No, I am not advocating change for the sake of change. That would be setting ourselves up as the authority, the arbiters of what pleases God, dismissing any thought of the necessity of considering his thoughts and his will in the matter. That is the antithesis of faithfulness to God.
So, what would I propose as an alternative to the CENI approach to understanding what God really wants of us? It really isn’t hard to understand. But with that understanding, there will of necessity come changes. Understanding of this approach demands a fundamental change in our understanding of how God exercises his authority in his rule over his people. It demands a change in our understanding of what we are supposed to look for in the information he has given us. It means that we must change our understanding of what God really wants from us as his people.
Understanding the fundamental outline of what I believe to be a better approach is easy. It is the change that it demands that is hard. Change is perhaps the hardest thing that we as human beings can called upon to do. We become comfortable with the familiar and with that comfort we become complacent. Change is perceived as bad, partly because it makes us uncomfortable, not because it would be necessarily wrong to change. It is hard because we have become comfortable in our long established, habitual thinking and practice.
Change is hard because it demands that we think, another thing we find to be extremely difficult. It is much easier to take the word of someone else or stay in our comfortable cocoons than to do the down and dirty work of serious thinking. If someone challenges our prejudices it is easier to destroy him with ad hominem arguments than to examine our own presumptions and conclusions. (Ad hominem from the Latin, “to the man,” meaning that rather than showing the arguments of another to be invalid, one attacks the man in a calculated move to destroy his credibility). This amounts to intellectual dishonesty.
More tomorrow …