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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.