Marriage Is Hard, and So is Life!

Back when I was 19 years old and on the verge of getting married, I was convinced that so long as my future wife and I continued to love and serve the Lord with all of our hearts, our marriage would succeed.

On one hand, it really is that simple. A husband and wife who grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord, and who remain 100% committed to His will and His glory, should grow deeper in love over the years, and will hopefully never have to sign divorce papers or deal with child support or alimony or any such thing. After all, God is love, and His plan is best, and so two people who grow in the love of God will learn how to love each other more deeply. And if God’s plan is marriage for life (Matthew 19:6), and a husband and wife are committed to that plan, divorce should never be on the table.

Right? Right!

Kind of.

You see, on one hand, it really should be that simple. But on the other hand, it really isn’t that simple at all.

A husband and wife can absolutely love the Lord, and still find themselves in a marriage that is in shambles. Two people can get married and have every intention of following God’s plan for marriage, but despite all of their best intentions, fail miserably. A husband can do the best he can, and yet his wife may still feel unloved or neglected. A wife can strive every day to be the best wife she knows to be, and yet still her husband may feel unwanted or disrespected.

We are never great at anything from the word “go.” No one steps up to the plate and knocks the first pitch out of the park. No one steps onto a basketball court and is automatically a great shooter. No child starts kindergarten with the full capacity to learn and process complex mathematical formulas. Proficiency only comes with time and work and…are you ready for it…?

Failure.

A man and woman can get married and have the best intentions in the world, and do the very best that they know to do…and still fail miserably because they are ignorant. After all, there is a difference between good intentions and good habits; between the desire to love someone and the ability to really love someone. Inevitably, we all fail over and over again, and are humbled by our failures until most of us eventually realize that we don’t know what we’re doing.

Haha. (You either have to laugh or cry here.)

Those of you who are married probably know exactly what I’m talking about, especially those of you who have been married for a few years, or even decades.

As important as it is for two people to love the Lord and be committed to His glory and His plan, the harsh reality is that there are a lot of people like this who end up divorced…and who never saw it coming. Someone cheated. Circumstances changed. Depression robbed one (or both) of the energy and strength to try, to hope, to work. Life happened – kids and work and bills and activities – and the two slowly but surely drifted apart until they became strangers, and felt alone, and unloved, and neglected, and the pain became too much to bear. These are only a few of the scenarios that have unfolded in countless thousands of Christian marriages over the millennia.

Maybe this is you.

You see, marriage really isn’t simple because people aren’t simple. We’re complicated creatures with unique personalities, shaped by our childhoods, with our own weaknesses and strengths, and all battling sin, and guilt, and shame, and weakness. I know that all too often, I have felt like Paul in Romans 7 – wanting to do what is right, but falling prey to sin; wanting to be a good husband, wanting to handle this disagreement with grace and wisdom so that my wife feels loved and heard…and yet digging myself into a deeper hole. We’ve all been there. We can have the best intentions in the world, and a common faith in Christ, and still, because of our humanity, fall flat on our faces in despair, feeling hopeless.

Even though I always tried to be a good husband, and thought I was doing a pretty good job, I realize now how horribly I failed on so many fronts. As much as I felt that I loved my wife over the years, I realize now that my love for her was immature and undeveloped. I often think to myself, “If only I could start all over knowing what I know now.” Have you ever had that thought?

This is how life goes.

When we’re young, everything can seem so simple to us because we haven’t lived long enough to have the experiences and the failures that inevitably humble us. It’s easy to be self-confident when you haven’t failed yet, just like it’s easy to think you are a mathematical genius when all you’ve had to do is basic addition.

This is true for marriage, but it is true for every other aspect of life, including our faith and beliefs. It’s easy to think we know it all when we haven’t been challenged. It’s easy to think that something is simple when we haven’t come face to face with it ourselves.

“Hey alcoholic, why don’t you just stop drinking?”

“Hey druggie, why don’t you just lay off the meth?”

“Hey homeless person, why don’t you just get a job?”

“Hey doubting Christian, why don’t you just have more faith?”

“Hey husband and wife on the brink of divorce, why don’t you just love each other and stay married?”

While I don’t want to over-complicate these issues (including marriage) or give the impression that we ought to accept bad decisions or sin, I also think that there is equal danger in over-simplifying these issues. Because what ends up happening is that people are even less prepared for what’s coming in life than they already are. They enter into marriage, or religion, or whatever it may be – with the misguided assumption that so long as they do x, y, and z, everything will work out.

Not necessarily.

What are the takeaways here?

Be humble. Don’t take anything for granted. Confess your ignorance. Spend less time judging others and more time helping them. Seek help and guidance early and often. Don’t be the Pharisee in Luke 18, but be the Tax Collector – beat your breast and confess that you are a sinner in need of constant mercy; and not just privately in your bedroom, but publicly, and with your family. Let them see your humble repentance and complete dependence on God.

My stomach may not be as flat as it used to be. I may have a receding hair line. I may have a few gray hairs in my beard. I may not be able to dunk a basketball anymore. But I’m perfectly okay with being a little older and wiser, and I’m especially okay with the growing sense of ignorance…because the more I realize I don’t know, and the quicker I am to confess this, the deeper my faith becomes, and the faster I run to Christ for help. I’ll take this humble faith that has grown from failures and shame over the ability to dunk a basketball any day.

Although I would like to be able to dunk again.

Mormonism & Questioning

In the fall of 2015, we moved to the small, rural town of Blackfoot in southeast Idaho. When the average person thinks of Idaho, they think potatoes. That’s not a bad connection to make considering a lot of potatoes are grown in this area. I pass by potato factories every day on my way to work, and there’s even a pretty impressive potato museum in Blackfoot. Yes, you read that right. A potato museum.

But honestly, what stands out to me more about southeast Idaho is not the potato fields or the potato factories, or the potato museum. It’s the Mormon Church’s influence.

Of course, I knew about Mormonism long before I moved to Idaho. As a full-time preacher for 13 years, I studied Mormonism off and on – its history, its doctrines, its culture. There were a few occasions over the years that I studied with Mormon missionaries.

But when we moved to Idaho, we moved to the heart of the “Mormon Empire”. At least, that’s how it feels. Practically speaking, it feels like every local person I meet is either a Mormon or ex-Mormon.

Most of the Mormons I know are great people and don’t look or act all that differently on the outside, but without a doubt, they have a lot of really strange beliefs relative to mainstream Christianity. They believe in a plurality of gods. They believe that God, or “Heavenly Father,” was once a man like us, and that we can attain godhead and rule over our own planets one day. They wear “holy underwear” and go to temples where they perform rituals that appear odd and even cultish to the rest of the world. They perform baptisms for the dead. They have really strange beliefs about the history of the Americas. And whereas most Christians see the Bible as the only inspired record, Mormons believe in latter-day revelations such as the Book of Mormon, and ongoing revelation.

I’ve often wondered how the Mormons around me can possibly believe what they claim to believe. How can they believe that the Bible supports their religion? How can they believe that the Book of Mormon is an inspired “latter-day revelation” when all of the evidence we have says the exact opposite? Don’t they ever stop and say to themselves, “This can’t be right!”?

To outsiders, the Mormon religion is VERY strange. But the fact is, for Mormons – especially those raised in it – it’s not strange or illogical. It’s their reality, their truth, their world. They go to Mormon Churches every Sunday where they read out of the Bible and the Book of Mormon. They have Mormon family and friends that agree with them and pat them on the back and give them validation that it’s true. They pray and feel that God validates their religion. And, of course, they feel incredible pressure to hold fast to Mormon tradition.

Here’s another question I’ve pondered:

Would the Mormons here in Idaho be Mormons if they had been born and raised anywhere else but here?

Maybe. But probably not. However, a lot of these people were raised in this area, or were raised in a Mormon household, or did marry a Mormon, or have been in the Mormon world for years, even decades. So, again, as strange as it all might be to us, it isn’t strange to them.

Now here’s what I’m getting at…

It’s so easy for ANY ONE OF US to believe what we believe simply because of our upbringing, our culture, and/or our circumstances. The chances are probably greater that a person raised in the northeast will be Catholic rather than Baptist. A person born in the deep south is probably more likely to be Baptist than Catholic. The majority of religious Americans would identify as “Christian,” but in the Middle East, Islam is the prevailing religion. And then, of course, there are all of the people who are raised in non-religious homes who see most religious people as backwards – who see belief in God as no more reasonable than belief in the tooth fairy or Santa Claus.

I may look at the Mormons here in Idaho and constantly wonder how in the world they can sincerely believe what they claim to believe, but there are people who might wonder the same thing about me and my Christian faith.

What may seem completely normal and logical and defensible to me may be weird and creepy to someone else!

Experiencing the Mormon culture really changed my perspective for the better. It forced me to take a harder look at my own beliefs and the reasoning behind my beliefs. I came to realize more and more that I cannot believe blindly in anything – no matter how much pressure there is on me to keep believing it. If I was calling on the Mormons and others to question their own beliefs despite how normal and real those beliefs were to them, it would be hypocritical of me not to hold myself to the same standard!

I’m not suggesting that a belief is wrong because it’s weird or right because it’s logical. My point simply is that our feelings, experiences, and traditions do NOT define truth. We must all find the strength, courage, and self-discipline to step away from all the pressures and presuppositions that have shaped us to objectively and honestly examine whatever it is that we believe. And not just once, but over and over again throughout our lives.

To my Mormon friends, I didn’t write any of this to pick on you. The lesson here is twofold, and it’s for all of us…

  1. If you’re going to be critical of the beliefs of others, make sure that you’re holding your own beliefs to the same level of scrutiny. Don’t expect others to question their own beliefs and buck family or cultural tradition if you’re not willing to do the same.
  2. Seek out an objective basis for your faith. Why do you believe what you do? What are the reasons? Are those reasons subjective or objective? Don’t assume that because your faith is convenient or popular or expected that it is automatically right.

Through this process, I have been incredibly humbled, and I only feel more and more indebted to the incredible grace of God. When I get to heaven, it won’t be because of my intellect or because I had it all figured out; it’ll be only by the grace of God. Faith is a journey, not a destination, and the older I get, the more I realize how arrogant I was for years and years.

Did Paul Mix Opinion and Inspiration?

What student of the Bible isn’t familiar with the following words from 2 Timothy 3:16-17?

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

The term scripture refers to the written word and Paul makes the point that all of the scriptures are inspired, or breathed out, by God. Of course, there can be no doubt that Paul is speaking in part of the Old Testament scriptures, for in verse 15, he makes the point that Timothy had been raised up with the “holy scriptures.” His mother was a Jew (Acts 16:1) who had converted to Christianity and she had taught young Timothy the stories of the Old Testament. These scriptures were inspired by God. But Paul doesn’t just say that the Old Testament is inspired by God; he says that “all sciripture” is inspired. This would include the New Testament scriptures which were still in the process of being recorded.

It is right and proper to identify what we have in the New Testament as inspired scripture, for Paul and the other apostles indicate that they wrote by inspiration.

“…how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ),  which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 3:3-5).

In other words, the writers of the New Testament differ in no way from the writers of the Old Testament in that they wrote by inspiration the word and will of God. We cannot say that Moses and David and Solomon wrote by inspiration, but Paul merely wrote personal letters to local churches of the first century with partial inspiration. This is why we cannot limit 2 Timothy 3:16-17 to the Old Testament scriptures. Again, ALL scripture, including the New Testament, is breathed out by God and is able to perfectly equip us to be exactly who God wants us to be.

With that in mind, notice what is written in 2 Peter 1:20-21:

“…knowing this first, that no prophecy of scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”

Yes, Peter is speaking primarily of the Old Testament prophets, but this passage gives us some insight into the process of inspiration. The point is, those who are inspired do not receive an inspired concept from God that they then interpret and record in their own words. Truly inspired individuals record exactly what has been revealed to them. This strengthens the point made in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, that all the scriptures are inspired, or breathed out, by God. It’s not verbally inspired and then fallibly interpreted and recorded. The scriptures themselves—the written word—are perfectly inspired.

Having said that, there are certain passages penned by Paul the apostle that might be confusing. These passages seem to indicate that Paul did sometimes insert his own opinions in the midst of the inspired record. Here are four such verses, all of which are from 1st and 2nd Corinthians.

Here are a few examples…

“Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourelves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But I say this as a concession, not a commandment. For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that…Now to the unmarried I command, yet not I but the Lord: a wife is not to depart from her husband” (1 Cor. 7:5-7, 10).

“Now concerning virgins: I have no commandment from the Lord; yet I give judgment as one whom the Lord in His mercy has made trustworthy” (1 Cor. 7:25).

All four of these verses (and there may be a few others) seem to indicate that Paul would occasionally have a lapse in inspiration. Sure, most of what he wrote was inspired, but some of what he wrote was merely his opinion. It is easy to see how some sincere Bible students reach these conclusions, but these conclusions are wrong nonetheless.

First of all, it is important for all of us to admit that we cannot fully comprehend the inspiration process that took place during Bible times. Obviously, the apostle Paul’s writings are very personal; he uses the word “I” a lot and refers to specific individuals and experiences. Luke’s style of writing is different from Paul’s. John’s gospel has a slightly different theme than Matthew’s, and Mark was obviously more abbreviated in his approach. In the Old Testament book of Psalms, David recorded his emotions and thoughts while in the midst of grief and persecution. The book of Isaiah reads differently than Ezekiel and Daniel.

It is clear to me at least that God didn’t ignore these men’s backgrounds, personalities or writing styles. I do not believe that these 40+ men wrote the scriptures while in some hypnotic trance; it’s evident that they were coherant when they applied quill to parchment. Did God tell them exactly what to write? Was God simply guiding their thoughts providentially or miraculously so that they penned His will with precision? Were they in a trance? I don’t know how that worked. Neither do you. Again, what we do know is that they wrote the will of God by inspiration, and that it wasn’t by private interpretation, but with exactness.

So David’s psalms, as emotional and private as they may seem, were written by the direction of the Holy Spirit. Daniel recorded his frustrations and difficulties, not with personal bias, but by divine inspiration. And Paul, whose letters read like private letters to close companions and struggling churches, wrote what was revealed to him by Christ through the Holy Spirit. How? In what way? I don’t know. But it’s the truth. I am reminded of the words of Paul in Romans 11:33…

“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!”

These things must be accepted before we can truly understand the four verses cited above. In other words, while some comments may seem private or personal, that doesn’t mean that Paul was writing apart from the inspiration of God. God used Paul’s personality, his experiences, and his circumstances rather than ignoring them.

Secondly, there is a difference between command and principle (or advice), and I think that religious people understand this point. In 1 Corinthians 7, for example, Paul commands us, saying that we are not permitted to divorce our spouse (7:10). But then he advises married couples not to abstain from sexual intercourse except in specific situations where there is a greater spiritual need (vs. 5). This is sound advice, for when married couples are not sexually-active, or when one spouse refuses sex to the other, it can lead to temptation. Must we assume that the principle of verses 5-6 is uninspired while the command of verse 10 is inspired. No! Both are inspired. Again, God’s word is filled not only with specific commands but with general principles for better living. If God, through Paul, wanted to offer a suggestion or advice, that was/is His prerogative…obviously.

The same is true in 1 Corinthians 7:25 and Paul’s comment about virgins. God wasn’t commanding, nor is He commanding virgins to remain unmarried. However, due to the “present distress” (vs. 26), it was wise for young, unmarried women to remain in that state. There was no commandment from the Lord, but there was advise from the Lord, confirmed by Paul and recorded in scripture.

As we study the scriptures, let us do so with the understanding that these words are inspired. What is recorded in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is there only because God wanted it to be there. We cannot question the Psalms simply because David penned his emotions, or the writings of Paul simply because his letters seem personal.

Even if there are a few places in the Bible where God permitted the inspired writers to diverge from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to make a personal comment or to offer some sound advice, these few instances would be the exceptions to the rule, and not the rule. And if Paul was permitted to record a personal judgment, it was under the oversight of the Holy Spirit. I do not believe this to be the case, but this would be the furthest that anyone could reasonably go.

Mormonism, Jesus, and the Priesthood

According to the book of Hebrews, Jesus is our High Priest.

“Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.” (Hebrews 4:14)

In the Old Testament, when Israel was God’s chosen nation, the high priest was basically the God-ordained head of the Jewish religious system. While there is a lot that could be said about the role of the high priest, the only point I want to make right now is that only Levites could serve as priests and high priests under the Law of Moses. In other words, if you weren’t a member of the Jewish tribe of Levi, you could not legally be a priest. Even if you were a Levite, you couldn’t specifically qualify as a high priest unless you were of the Levitical order of Aaron (the brother of Moses). This is seen throughout the Old Testament.

How does this jive with the fact that Jesus is our High Priest today?

We’re told throughout the book of Hebrews that Jesus is our High Priest, but the fact is, He isn’t a Levite, and He isn’t a descendant of Aaron. So how can He possibly serve as our High Priest if He doesn’t meet the qualifications? This is exactly the question that the author of Hebrews addresses in Hebrews 7, starting in verse 11:

“Therefore, if perfection were through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need was there that another priest should rise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be called according to the order of Aaron? 12 For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law. 13 For He of whom these things are spoken belongs to another tribe, from which no man has officiated at the altar. 14 For it is evident that our Lord arose from Judah, of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood. 15 And it is yet far more evident if, in the likeness of Melchizedek, there arises another priest 16 who has come, not according to the law of a fleshly commandment, but according to the power of an endless life. 17 For He testifies: “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” (Hebrews 7:11-17)

In other words, as a construct, the Levitical Priesthood was imperfect, and because it was imperfect, there was “need” that “another priest should rise” (vs. 11). Jesus is the new High Priest, and as the Hebrews author goes on to say, He “arose from Judah, of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood” (vs. 14). Under the Law of Moses, Jesus could not legally serve as High Priest because He is from the tribe of Judah, not the tribe of Levi. Rather than being appointed a priest according to the order of Levi and Aaron, Jesus was appointed a High Priest “according to the order of Melchizedek.” (vs. 11, 15, 17).

Again, how could this happen? The answer is in verse 12 – “For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change in the law.” Because Jesus could not serve as High Priest under the Law of Moses – which authorized ONLY the Levitical system – the law had to be changed. The old law had to be removed and replaced with a new law that authorized and allowed Jesus to serve as High Priest “according to the order of Melchizedek.”

It is necessarily implied here that the Levitical priesthood and Aaronic high priesthood no longer exist. Why? Because these priesthoods found their authority under the old law…which Jesus nailed to the cross and replaced with a new law. In other words, these priesthoods do not and cannot coexist. The Levitical priesthood cannot exist alongside the Melchizedek priesthood that Christ alone possesses.

Now, here’s what I’ve been building up to…

The Mormon Church today contends that the Levitical, Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods all coexist today and can be held by faithful Mormons.

The Levitical and Aaronic priesthoods CANNOT exist today for reasons that I have already explained in this article. To argue that they do exist not only contradicts clear Scripture, but is an affront to the High Priesthood of Christ. When Mormons claim that the Levitical priesthood still exists, they are promoting a law – the Law of Moses – that does not allow Jesus Himself to serve as High Priest.

While this is another article in and of itself, it is worth noting that the Scriptures only authorize Jesus to serve as HIGH PRIEST according to the order of Melchizedek. The Melchizedek priesthood is not universally available to all believers, or even to believers deemed qualified. No. According to the New Testament, ALL believers serve as priests in that all believers can offer up spiritual sacrifices to God through Christ (1 Peter 2:5-9). All of us are priests, and Jesus alone is High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

This is important.

Mormons want to claim that they have restored true Christianity. They want to argue that their Book of Mormon is just a “latter day” testament – “another” testament of Jesus Christ. But this is just one example of many where their religion flat out contradicts the Christianity seen in the New Testament.

My Thoughts on CENI

Most evangelical Christians agree that the Bible is the inspired word of God. And most seem to agree that the Bible is the standard for determining Christian belief and practice. However, when we take a look at the beliefs and practices of Christians across the denominational and theological spectrum today, it’s clear that there are a lot of differences because there are a lot of different interpretations of the biblical texts, and different methods of interpretation employed.

It has been my experience that the average Christian doesn’t think much about the differences that exist between churches, or why those differences exist. They pursue fellowship across denominational lines. Instead of dividing over their differences, they seek simple unity in Jesus.

But then there are Christians who pay a lot of attention to the differences that exist. They notice them. They study them. And in some cases, they take definitive positions, not only regarding what is right, but WHO is right (in the sight of God).

For about 12 years, as a preacher for the Church of Christ, I was in this latter category. I believed and preached that if we want to have a confident expectation of heaven, we need to believe correctly, worship correctly, and join a church that does at least most things correctly. I spent a fair amount of time railing against common denominational “errors” and explaining why WE were right and the majority of other churches were wrong.

I was harsh and critical because I believe I had to be to please God. And I believed this is what God expected of me because I held to a very strict interpretive framework (hermeneutic) that is common in a lot of Churches of Christ.

The Church of Christ makes a strong appeal to an interpretive framework known commonly as “CENI” (Command, Examples, Necessary Inference). This is what I’d like to discuss in this article.

CENI is predicated on the belief that we must seek biblical authority (generic or specific) for everything we do. The famous saying repeated by many in the Church of Christ is, “Let us speak where the Bible speaks and remain silent where it is silent.” Verses such as Colossians 3:17 and 1 Peter 4:11 are cited to defend this approach. Examples from the Old Testament (e.g. the story of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10-1-2) are used to illustrate the consequences of acting outside of the expressed will (law) of God. For over a decade, I used these verses and examples to impress upon people that when we go beyond or fall short of God’s law in any way, we are guilty of sin (1 John 3:4). And the wages of sin is death and separation from God (Romans 6:23).

CENI compels us to pick through the Scriptures with a fine-toothed comb, searching out every command, every approved example, and every necessary inference. We are encouraged to ask how each text might apply to us, and how each text might govern our lives and corporate worship today.

Inspecting the Scriptures so closely with an intent to find personal application is a wonderful thing. I agree with the psalmist that the Word of God should light our path. But often, CENI advocates go too far when they turn their conclusions (no matter how subjective they might be) into commandments that must be followed for fellowship and even eternal life

To illustrate how CENI is used to draw such fatal conclusions, consider this example…

In Acts 20:6-7, we see Paul assembling with the church in Troas on Sunday to “break bread.” The Church of Christ today takes this example (which is predicated on the command to observe the Lord’s Supper), and draws the “necessary” inference that the Lord’s Supper must be observed every Sunday. After all, there is a first day in every week, right? And didn’t the Jews observe every Sabbath? The conclusion is thus drawn that to observe the Lord’s Supper only once a month or once a quarter is contrary to the Scriptural pattern and therefore sinful. Based on one inference from one example in Acts, the Church of Christ, by and large, condemns the vast majority of modern Christendom.

Here’s are a few more…

  • Because instrumental music is never specifically mentioned or authorized in the New Testament (according to traditional Church of Christ thinking), the Church of Christ believes that we must abstain from instruments and engage in congregational singing only.
  • Because the first century churches sent financial aid directly to those in need, it is sinful for churches to send money to human institutions like orphanages, colleges and missionary societies to do good work.
  • Because Paul referred to the “churches of Christ” in Romans 16:16, and because names like “Church of God” have been hijacked by modern charismatics, churches today wishing to follow the New Testament pattern should be known as “Churches of Christ.” Other names are seen as unscriptural, or at least strongly discouraged.

Those in Churches of Christ pour through the New Testament, examining everything from the narrative of Acts to the personal greetings extended to the churches in places like Romans 16, to nail down every command, every example, and every inference, to determine what is authorized and what isn’t. And then they use these conclusions to condemn the beliefs and practices of modern churches…and often each other as well.

As I mentioned earlier, CENI does have some upsides. But CENI is a flawed hermeneutic that is ripe for abuse (because it is flawed), and it is most certainly NOT the only way for religious people to approach biblical authority.

I’d like to focus for just a moment on each component of CENI and expose the flaws of the hermeneutic. Let’s start with commands.

Commands

I believe that we can have the most confidence in the clear commands of Scripture. When God specifically says that this is something we must do, or something we must not do, and especially when consequences of disobedience are listed, we can rest assured that God means business.

In Matthew 6:14-15, Jesus tells us that we must forgive those who have wronged us. Then He clarifies that if we do not forgive those who have wronged us, God won’t forgive us. This is a clear command that is further buoyed by listed consequences.

In Galatians 5:19-21, Paul lists the works of the flesh and says that “those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Now, folks may sometimes wrangle over what is actually being condemned here (i.e. what constitutes drunkenness, etc.), but the fact remains that there is little room for Christians to dismiss such a dire warning.

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point. When we’re specifically told what to do or not to do, and especially when consequences (or rewards) are listed, we can rest assured that God’s authority is on display and that we are being called to submit to His will.

And listen, this should be obvious because we are told time and time again to obey God’s commandments.

“Make disciples of all the nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” (Matt. 28:19-20)

“If you love Me, keep My commandments.” (John 14:15)

“The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in Him.” (1 John 2:4)

Having said that, one thing we have to keep in mind about commands is context. Of course, this is always the case. Context is key. Context, context, context.

I think all Christians understand that just because God commanded Noah to build an ark, we are not all required to build an ark. That command was given to Noah a very long time ago for a specific reason.

Even in the New Testament, we find commands that were for specific people or circumstances and therefore do not apply directly to us. Maybe they no longer apply because the circumstances were very unique then. Or maybe certain commands were limited to a certain culture.

In Romans 16:16, Paul said to the brethren in Rome, “Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.” We often hang on to that last part, and take great pride in the fact that we identify ourselves just as the first century churches identified themselves – as churches of Christ. But what about the bit about greeting one another with a holy kiss? Most freely admit that Paul was not commanding all Christians for all times to literally greet one another with a kiss. This was a cultural practice of the first century that may still go on in certain cultures around the world, but most certainly not in America. While we don’t require obedience to this “command,” we do focus on the principle of the statement – that we need to remain holy and pure in our dealings with one another.

Now, here’s where this gets a bit tricky. If the command to greet one another with a holy kiss does not have to be strictly obeyed today because of culture, can we take the same approach to other commands that we think might have cultural limitations? This is where disagreements often arise. What about the head covering of 1 Corinthians 11? What about the limitations placed upon women in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35? What about the concept of elders governing the church (a system which some believe was based on a first century Jewish model)? What about fasting?

In the past, I really struggled with this question. Whenever someone asked me if we should wash each other’s feet or greet one another with a holy kiss, I struggled to give them an answer without feeling that I was somehow compromising my unmitigated devotion to the authority of Scripture.

When I argued that foot washing was more or less a custom of first century culture (even though Jesus commanded His apostles to wash each other’s feet), a few questions logically arose, either within my own mind, or within the minds of those with whom I was studying.

First, on what basis could I dismiss the specific command to wash feet as merely a cultural practice? I mean, in John 13, Jesus never said, “Hey guys, this whole foot washing thing is only going to be important for a while. Once the culture changes, only the principle behind foot washing will matter.” If the practice of foot washing is never identified in the New Testament as a cultural practice, are we not being presumptuous when we dismiss it as such? The same is true for the other things I mentioned above.

The second question is this: if we presume (perhaps on good grounds; perhaps not) that certain commands no longer apply for cultural reasons, shouldn’t we take great care not only in how we approach scriptural commands, but in how we manage our differences with others? The Church of Christ might tout its scriptural name while calling out the Baptist Church for its unscriptural name, and yet there are Baptist Churches who have foot washing services. The Church of Christ might criticize evangelical churches for their basketball gyms and kitchens, but many of these same churches anoint the sick (James 5:14) and raise holy hands in praise of God (1 Tim. 2:8).

I’m not suggesting that we can dismiss God’s commandments simply because some commands have cultural limitations. Personally, I think we have to take them on a case by case basis. My only point is that the second we acknowledge that certain commands (like the holy kiss) no longer apply because of cultural limitations, we open the door for this same logic to be applied to other commands – and this is where disagreements often arise. This is a reality that we must humbly confess. And I’ll tell you this: when we tell people that we must obey all the commands of God, but then we explain away the holy kiss, foot washing, and other commands, we do sometimes appear hypocritical. So yes, we need to obey God’s commands, but we need to also acknowledge the concept of culture.

But it’s not just cultural context that we have to consider; it’s the textual context (say that 5 times fast). We bind a weekly collection based on Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 even though Paul states in verses 2-3 that this was a specific collection for a specific need. Those in conservative Churches of Christ condemn the practice of church sponsored meals because of 1 Corinthians 11:22, 34, even though, in context, Paul was condemning, not fellowship meals, but the perversion of the Lord’s Supper. We use verses like Ephesians 5:19 to mandate non-instrumental music in worship (because only singing is specifically mentioned) even though Paul’s point had nothing to do with what kind of music is or isn’t authorized.

It’s absolutely true that we must obey God’s commandments to be His faithful servants. And it’s absolutely true that if we love Jesus, we’ll keep His commandments, but it’s not a simple, straightforward process. There is a lot of study and discernment that has to go into it, which means that we need to be extremely patient with one another when disagreements arise. Remember, “mercy triumphs over judgment.”

Examples

Do examples from the Bible have authoritative value? I think that while they can have authoritative value, it’s more accurate to say that they have instructive value. What is the difference? The difference is this: the examples of Scripture are there for a reason and there is something for us to learn from every example – from both the Old and New Testaments. But I don’t believe that the examples of Scripture inherently establish patterns of acceptable and unacceptable behavior for all Christians for all times. In this sense, they are not necessarily authoritative even though they are instructive.

Think about it. In 1 Corinthians 10:11, we’re told that we ought to learn from the bad examples of Old Testament Israel. And in James 5:10, we’re told that the prophets of old serve as an example of “suffering affliction, and of patience.” Jesus, according to Peter, left us an example of how to endure suffering (1 Pet. 2:21). Jude 7 says that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are “set forth as an example” of what happens when we openly rebel against God. Timothy was to set a good example for the brethren in Ephesus (1 Tim. 4:12), and Paul told the church in Philippi to follow his example and “walk according to the pattern” of his steps (Phil. 3:17).

In each of the above verses, it’s clear that the examples of the Bible have instructive value. We ought to read them carefully to determine who God is, how He deals with us, and what it looks like to be godly or ungodly. But where is the verse that tells us to treat all scriptural examples as a kind of pattern for religious practice? The closest is Philippians 3:17, but in that context, Paul is talking about heavenly hope, not what rites the church may or may not engage in in worship. Again, the issue is not whether or not these examples have value, but whether or not we must treat examples as a pattern for church doctrine and practice.

I’d like to use Jesus’ own treatment of Old Testament examples to illustrate the point. Obviously, Jesus cited a number of Old Testament examples and stories to make very important points in His teaching. He cited the example of David and the showbread from 1 Samuel 21 to make a point about mercy. He cited the original institution of marriage from Genesis 3 to address a 1st century question about divorce. He referenced the stories of Jonah and Noah and many others. That Jesus viewed the Old Testament examples as instructive is clear.

But did Jesus view examples the way so many in the Church of Christ today view examples? Did He analyze each of them to determine a pattern of acceptable and unacceptable religious service? Did He look at the example of David dancing with all of his might before the Lord in 2 Samuel 6 and conclude that we must dance in worship? After all, it’s clearly an “approved” example of an act of worship. Or did He challenge the religious leaders of his day to a contest on Mount Carmel on the basis that Elijah did it in 1 Kings 18?

I could go on and on listing positive Old Testament examples like these that the Jews of Jesus’ day did not view as patterns to be imitated. In many cases, these stories merely record what God’s saints did in particular circumstances and had nothing directly to say about what was acceptable or not.

Does the example in Acts 20:6-7 of the church in Troas breaking bread on Sunday indeed teach us that we must observe the Lord’s Supper every Sunday? Was that the intent of the text? Did the inspired physician Luke intend for Christians in the 21st century to view that as a pattern for the frequency of the Lord’s Supper? I don’t believe so.

There’s also the issue of subjectivity. The Church of Christ is quick to demand obedience to the example set forth in a text like Acts 20:6-7, and to view as unfaithful any Christian who fails to observe the Lord’s Supper every week. But what about the example of the early Christians in Jerusalem selling all of their possessions to help out their brethren? “Oh, but those were unique circumstances?” many will argue. Okay, I get that…but could there not have been unique circumstances in Acts 20:6-7? What about all the examples of churches meeting in homes? What about the example of foot washing in John 13 that Jesus plainly told the apostles to imitate? Need I go on?

Examples are instructive on many levels, but they are not patterns of acceptable and unacceptable behavior for all Christians for all times. My point here is that we often understand this…until it comes to our pet examples.

Necessary Inferences

My only concern with Necessary Inference is that I think brethren often use the word “necessary” too liberally.

Back when I was a strong advocate for CENI, I ardently defended the validity of Necessary Inference and clearly distinguished between inferences and Necessary Inferences. In other words, I argued that we can only bind those conclusions that are necessary, or obvious, not those conclusions that are unnecessary or weighed down by opinion or presumption. As hard as I tried to only bind those inferences that are necessary, I now realize that I still often went way too far.

Take, for example, the account of the breaking of bread in Acts 20:6-7. Paul came together with the brethren in Troas on Sunday to “break bread.” Then he preached to them until midnight. I once argued – and most in the Church of Christ still do – that we can necessarily infer that the breaking of bread here is the Lord’s Supper because (1) they waited all week to come together, and (2) it was done in a spiritual context that included preaching. I also argued that because there is a first day of every week, and because the Jews observed every Sabbath, not just one Sabbath a month, it’s a necessary inference that we must observe the Lord’s Supper every first day of the week.

But are these conclusions really necessary? To put it another way, are these conclusions inescapable? I want you to really, honestly think about this. All we have is an example of brethren coming together on Sunday to break bread, and from that we draw the conclusion that the Lord’s Supper must be observed every Sunday or we’re not obeying the Scriptural pattern. How is that a necessary inference? And how can we feel comfortable judging other churches as unfaithful and sinning because they do not reach this same conclusion?

Again, I think that we all have to draw conclusions from the biblical text; we all have to read in between the lines a little and use our God-given common sense. We just have to make sure that we’re not turning our opinions, traditions or presumptions into Necessary Inferences that we then bind on the rest of Christianity.

If Not CENI, Then…What?

We see the following scenario play out in politics all the time: one party wants to pass new legislation on something like health care, but the other party passionately opposes the legislation and complains that it’ll ruin the country. Then, inevitably, the question is posed by the initiating party, “If you don’t like what we’ve put forth, what is your alternative?” In other words, if you’re going to complain about something, make sure that you have a new idea, or an alternative. Otherwise, you’re just complaining, and no progress is made.

I’ve explained in this chapter why I disagree with CENI as it is traditionally taught in Churches of Christ. I’ve pointed out that there are many complicated layers to the issue of Divine Commands. Regarding the Examples of Scripture, I’ve explained that while examples can be instructive, they are not always authoritative. Yes, Jesus and the apostles teach us that there are powerful lessons to be gleaned from the Examples of the Bible, but they never took the position that we must view all of these Examples as patterns that teach us how we must act in every circumstance.

There is a lot of truth in CENI, at least in theory. But by no means is it a perfect interpretative framework for understanding what God authorizes.

Going back to the previous illustration, the question then becomes: if CENI doesn’t work, what does? How are we to interpret the Bible, if not by this traditional method? By what means may we determine what is right and what is wrong?

Let me just say that this could be a book in and of itself. There is no way that I can adequately answer that question here and now. What I can do is share with you a few of my thoughts. Then, I’ll include an article I wrote on this subject for your consideration. Perhaps you can take this little bit of information and flesh it out in your own life, and in your own studies.

Consider these concepts…

Concept #1: The Law of Moses was structured as a rigid and complicated code of regulations. It was so stringent that Peter called it an unbearable yoke in Acts 15. Paul described the feeling of utter hopelessness that swept over those who tried to keep it perfectly (Rom. 7:14-21). Christians are no longer under such a system. The New Testament is not structured this way. Paul says that we have been set free from this yoke of bondage (Galatians 5:1). My point is NOT that we do not have law today, but that we cannot and must not treat the New Testament like a Christian Torah. If we do, we risk falling into the same despair and hopelessness that Jesus came to deliver us from.

Concept #2: As I explained earlier, Jesus emphasized the spirit of the law over the letter of the law throughout His ministry. While the Pharisees and Jewish leaders were busy squabbling over their interpretations of the letter of the law, Jesus was focused on the big picture; He was pointing them to the heart of God’s word, to the point that He hangs all the law and the prophets on the commands to love God and love our neighbors (Matt. 22:37-38). When reading through the epistles of the New Testament, we need to focus on the bigger picture of what God wants us to see rather than get bogged down by useless arguments. For example, in the early chapters of Acts, is God trying to convey to us how the church may and may not collect money, or who the church may and may not help? Or is He showing us a powerful example of what happens when people are transformed by the gospel? Let’s not miss the forest for the trees.

Concept #3: I think that if we’re going to truly speak where the Bible speaks and remain silent where it is silent, we need to avoid tying things to eternal salvation that the Bible does not. There are plenty of verses where God does tie certain behaviors and practices to salvation, where He does clearly say that we must do certain things or not do certain things to have eternal life. An example of this is Matthew 6:14-15. Or check out Galatians 5:19-21. Or the entire book of 1 John – where John emphasizes obedience, love, faith, and the proper understanding of Christ. If the Bible says that we cannot please God without faith (Heb. 11:6), or that adulterers will not inherit the kingdom of God, or that those who profess Christ but continue living in sin are not really saved…then we are safe in drawing those lines in the sand. Of course, judgment still belongs to God, and thankfully, He is a merciful Judge, but I do think that we have to take these kinds of texts very, very seriously. However, don’t condemn others based on mere inferences from select examples of the Bible. Don’t string together a handful of verses from different books and then use your clever conclusion to condemn huge swathes of Christendom. Leave as much judgment to God as possible, and only draw lines where God clearly draws lines in His word.

Concept #4: Do not forget the principle of “unity in diversity” that I have emphasized in other articles. Don’t forget Romans 14. Don’t forget that the first century churches had major problems, and yet were still God’s churches. Don’t forget that the apostles called these messed up people “saints,” and sought fellowship with them while they helped them draw closer to the truth. Don’t forget that we are each obligated to work out our OWN salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). As you study and try to determine what is right and wrong, be humble and patient with those around you who have reached different conclusions, or who are at different places in their spiritual journey.

Closing Thoughts

CENI is often defended as a common-sense hermeneutic that is exhibited in everyday communication. We communicate by telling others what we want them to do (Commands), showing them what we want them to do (Examples), and implying what we want them to do (Necessary Inference).

This sounds reasonable and convincing…until you really think about it.

First of all, communication isn’t always about instructing (giving commands) or even authority. Sometimes, we communicate to inform, encourage, and especially to build relationships. If we interpret God’s word to us – i.e. His communication – only as instructing and ordering, then we are taking a very one-dimensional approach to communication that will hinder our walk with God.

Secondly, while I often communicate my expectations to others by showing them what I want them to do, not every example is meant to be followed. The fact that I may wash the dishes a certain way doesn’t mean necessarily that my kids must wash dishes that way “or else.” My kids don’t have to wake up at 5:00 every morning just because I do. An example is to be followed when we are told to follow it.

While telling, showing, and implying are all valid means of communication, and while CENI has some wisdom in it, it is my firm belief that we do ourselves and the kingdom a disservice when we take such a narrow, unnatural approach to God’s magnificent word.

Think Outside the Box

For years, I have told people that I’m introverted, that I struggle with vulnerability and emotional connection. I’ve been rather open about my doubts and my depression. And while every bit of this is true, I wonder sometimes if I’ve done more harm than good by broadcasting these “facts” about myself.

My goal all along has been honesty. Especially when I was working as a full-time preacher, I wanted people to understand that I’m a real person with real struggles. As someone who struggles with vulnerability, I was trying to be vulnerable. In the pulpit. In articles and blogs. In daily discourse. As a result, people who know me know that I’m introverted and sometimes emotionally constipated. They know that I’ve battled depression off and on over the years. They know that I’ve had a few crises of faith that have nearly crippled me. And there’s comfort in knowing that people know who I am. I don’t have to pretend, and that’s freeing.

But…

Again, I sometimes wonder if I’ve done more harm than good because I think what has sometimes happened is that people have put me in a box. They’ve attached a label to me and made certain assumptions based on that label that are not necessarily true. Instead of getting to know me better (because of my honesty and vulnerability), they have contented themselves with these labels and stopped short of really getting to know the total me.

And I think we all do this with each other in a variety of ways. What do I mean?

When I tell someone that I’m introverted, they may assume that I don’t like people, or that I don’t like going to parties or events where there are a lot of people. They may assume I’m some socially-awkward hermit that would really prefer to stay home. They hear “introverted” and think “homebody” and “loner.” While there are times when I would prefer to be alone, and while large crowds can overwhelm and drain me, I do not want to avoid people all the time. The fact is, I love people and crave friendship and family as much as the next person. I need social connections and can absolutely enjoy events and gatherings such as church, potlucks, parties, etc.

When I tell someone that I struggle with emotional connection, they may assume that I don’t have feelings or empathy or passion. But let me tell you something, I feel deeply and am probably more emotional than a lot of people you know. I’m not good at saying goodbye to people I care about because I lose it almost every single time. I was watching a TV show last night and teared up half a dozen times. I may not express my feelings to others with passion, and I may not always be convincing when I say “I love you” or “You’re important to me,” but that doesn’t mean I’m not sincere.

And yes, I’ve battled depression and doubt from time to time, but I can assure you I’m a mostly positive person with deep faith in God and Christ. I’m not wishy-washy. I’m not wearing a fake smile to hide a world of hurt and emotional trauma. Maybe sometimes. But usually, I’m a joyful, faith-full person.

I think we’re all guilty of this. I know I am. We hear something about someone and proceed to box them in.

“So and so’s a Democrat, so they must hate guns and babies and America.”

“So and so’s a Republican, so they must hate gay people and poor people.”

“So and so goes to a different church than I do or believes differently than I do, so they must have zero respect for the Bible.”

We pigeon-hole people with mental issues, faith issues, moral issues, drug issues, alcohol issues, and tattoos. We put people in boxes like this all the time and make all kinds of unfair assumptions. Why? Because we want things to be black and white. We want things to make sense.

I’m gonna let you in on a little secret…

Things are rarely so black and white.

Each one of us is unimaginably unique. You can take twenty introverted people, and no two of them will be exactly the same. Some will have higher tolerances. They will all have different triggers. There will be a wide range to their introvertedness. This is just one example.

I have to admit that it’s frustrating when someone assumes that I don’t have feelings just because I struggle with emotional connection, or that I don’t like people or want friends just because I tend to be more introverted. I don’t like it when people can’t see past a label, as legit as that label might be, because there is so much more depth to me than that.

Aren’t you the same? Don’t you want people to take the time to get to know you?

It’s amazing that God knows who I am (better than I know myself), and still loves me deeply. So much so that He sent Jesus to die for me…so that He can spend eternity with me. Me! Wow. I’m worth loving because God made me and loves me. And so are you. And if God can know all of our dirty secrets and hidden struggles and still want a relationship with us, then I think we, as His children, should have the same mindset with each other.

I’ve not always understood this. In fact, I’ve been extremely guilty of boxing people in, making assumptions, and stopping short of really getting to know people. I’m trying to be different. I think it’s a worthwhile journey for all of us.

Is Scientific Consensus Trustworthy?

Here’s the question that I’d like to address here:

From a purely scientific perspective, can we all implicitly trust the consensus of modern scientists that the earth is old and that we are here because of evolution?

I would say that even without the Bible, it is still reasonable to have doubts about the current consensus of scientists regarding the origins and age of the universe. And I have two reasons that I hope you will consider with me…

  1. There are a number of well-documented examples throughout history of widely-embraced scientific “facts” that turned out to be completely wrong. For example, in ancient Greece, it was believed that the liver, not the heart, pumped the blood in your body, and that your organs consumed your blood as fuel. This was finally disproven in 1628 by William Harvey. Another example: Until the late 19th century, doctors didn’t wash their hands before surgery and blamed the subsequent diseases, not on germs, but on “bad air” and the “four humors.” You might also research spontaneous generation, phlogiston, alchemy and blood-letting. And there are so many other examples. My point is that there is a difference between consensus and fact, and sometimes, it is hard to tell the difference (because of limited knowledge and presuppositions). Darwinian evolution may be the consensus view of scientists today, but that doesn’t mean it’s a fact. And even though we know a lot more than folks did a few hundred years ago, don’t think we know it all. In fact, I would suggest to you that we have barely scratched the surface of scientific truth.
  2. Even among evolutionists, there isn’t consensus regarding what exactly has happened and how it has happened. For example, not all evolutionists explain the origin of the universe by the Big Bang theory. Others ascribe to the “Steady State Theory.” There are different views regarding the means by which dinosaurs “went extinct.” Some say it was a meteor, others, a volcanic eruption, and so on. And if you think there is consensus regarding human evolution, you are mistaken! There is constant debate regarding the identity of so-called “primitive man.” In fact, if you’ve been following the news lately, there is growing skepticism that Neanderthal was an intermediate link between man and our so-called “ape-like ancestor.” And so within the scientific community, there are countless disagreements and debates raging over even the most basic tenets of origins and evolution. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.

So let’s set the Bible aside for just a moment and honestly examine science. Are we really being unreasonable and ignorant when we have doubts about billions of years and Darwinian evolution? And if we have such doubts, are we suddenly a threat to the progress of science? Men such as Galileo and Louis Pasteur (who challenged the consensus and turned out to be right) are proof-positive that we can still love science while rejecting a particular scientific claim.

Having said this, I want to make it very clear that science is wonderful and that there are a lot of great scientists out there. And even though Darwinian evolution and billions of years are the consensus views of modern scientists, not all scientists agree; there are many, many scientists who are also young earth creationists, and others who objectively question the status-quo. My objection in this article is not against science or scientists per se, but to the notion that all scientific claims have to be regarded as inerrant fact to the neglect or injury of the Scriptures.

In closing, while scientific claims are ever changing, and while man will always be limited in what he can know about the universe (on his own), we find consistent, unchanging, infallible truth in the inspired Scriptures…which have been authored by the Creator of us all, the sovereign originator of science itself (2 Timothy 3:16-17). I will put my trust in the incorruptible word of God which lives and abides forever (1 Peter 1:22-25) rather than the claims of fallible men, especially when it comes down to choosing one over the other.