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.

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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.

Spiritual Lessons From Nuclear Physics

Last summer, I enrolled in a course that offered an overview of nuclear physics. Not only was I fascinated by what I learned, my faith in God was strengthened. Consider a few of the spiritual lessons I learned from studying nuclear physics.

Everything in the universe is made of the same stuff.

On the atomic level, there are protons, neutrons and electrons. These are basically just tiny particles that have different atomic weights and electrical charges, and it’s the different combinations of these particles that make up the elements of the Periodic Table.

For example, hydrogen consists of 1 proton and 1 electron. Carbon consists of 6 protons, 6 neutrons and 6 electrons. Gold has 79 protons, 118 neutrons and 79 electrons. The only thing that separates the element Gold from Mercury is one proton! Add two more protons to Mercury and you get Lead. Incredible, right?

So the combination of atomic particles make up the elements, and the combination of elements make up molecular compounds. We all know that H20 is water – 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom. Carbon Dioxide is CO2, which is a combination of 1 Carbon atom and 2 Oxygen atoms. Salt is Sodium Chloride, or NaCl.

Even our DNA can be broken down into protons, neutrons and electrons. DNA is made up of nucleotides, and each nucleotide is made up of a phosphate group, sugar group and nitrogen base. Each of these can be broken down into elements such as Oxygen, Phosphorus, Nitrogen, and many others, and again, each of these atoms can be further broken down into various unique combinations of protons, neutrons and electrons.

So everything from water to the sun, from table salt to human DNA, is made up of the same physical stuff – tiny molecules with different atomic weights and electrical charges – matter and energy. The only thing that separates us from dirt or even air is a greater complexity of atomic combinations.

God – the Master Artist!

Let’s compare nuclear physics and art for a moment…

A painter like Van Gogh uses three primary colors – red, blue and yellow – to make all the colors on his pallet. Green is a combination of blue and yellow. Orange is a combination of red and yellow. And so on. Then, using these three simple colors, he paints a vibrant masterpiece that inspires millions.

Is it remotely possible that the three primary colors could naturally mix on their own to form a masterpiece such as Van Gogh’s Starry Night? Of course not.

In the realm of nuclear physics, how did we get from three atomic particles – protons, neutrons and electrons – to the vast complexity that characterizes the universe today? To be more specific, how could Nitrogen, Oxygen, Phosphorus and other atoms combine to form the Genetic Language that is written on our DNA – which makes us human? Can a language develop on its own in the natural world?

The answer is simple. Just as it takes a skilled artist to mix the primary colors and make a beautiful painting, it takes some independent, higher intelligence to mix the protons, neutrons and electrons to form a universe that is infinitely more complex than a simple painting.

God is the master artist! The Bible says that the heavens are God’s handiwork (Psalm 19:1) and that we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139). Genesis 1 tells us that God built the universe and wrote the genetic script for all living things!

 Humans are Different.

Even though everything in the universe can be broken down into protons, neutrons and electrons – physical stuff, in other words – the Scriptures teach us that God added something else to the assembly instructions for mankind.

Genesis 1:26-27 says that God made man in His image, and has given us dominion over the earth. What this means is that even though we are made of dust like everything else in the universe, we have been infused with something divine. In one way, we are unlike everything else and like God.

John 4:24 says that God is a spirit. He is not physical, but spiritual. His existence transcends the physical world of protons, neutrons and electrons. According to Scripture, we share in this essence. We, too, have an eternal spirit – a part of us that will transcend our physical existence. Ecclesiastes 3:11 affirms that God has placed eternity in our hearts. Man’s spiritual nature is seen throughout Scripture, and this is something that we understand and accept.

Why is it that we are so different? Why is it that we seek a greater purpose? Why is it that we concern ourselves with the “afterlife?” Why is it that we ponder philosophy and beauty, and seek to understand the workings of the universe? Because that is how God made us, and us alone.

The more that I study nuclear physics and science in general, the more I resist the argument that we (humans) are nothing more than “stardust.” Yes, it’s true that everything in the universe is physical and can be broken down very specifically into the same physical building blocks…but there is something intuitively different about humanity. We are not just protons, neutrons and electrons.

A parting thought…

Any deep study of science reveals the unquestionable fact that the world we live in – on both a micro and macro level – is incredibly complex and ordered. The math always works out. Even though many see science as a threat to religious faith, I see it as evidence of religious faith. This could not all have happened by chance. There is a spiritual reality that transcends the physical world, and our nature – our capacity for love – is proof of that.

Studying nuclear physics is like studying the primary colors and the vibrant combinations of colors on the pallet. Trying to understand how those colors are organized on a canvas to make a beautiful painting…well, that leads us to God – the master artist and Great Physicist.

Have We Tuned God Out?

We come to the right conclusion, based on 1 Corinthians 13, that miraculous gifts no longer exist, but we then make the broad statement that miracles don’t happen today. There is a difference between miraculous gifts (performed by men) and miracles (performed by God). The cessation of the former does not demand the cessation of the latter.

We go to great lengths to prove that the Holy Spirit does not literally indwell believers today. We argue that the Word indwells us, Christ indwells us, God indwells us…and because none of these indwellings are literal, the indwelling of the Spirit must not be literal. We draw the conclusion that the Spirit dwells in us representatively through the Word…so that as we study, the Spirit’s influence over us increases. Whether the Spirit literally indwells us our not, the Scriptures are abundantly clear to any honest observer that believers have a very real and very intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit. And yet we detach ourselves from Him.

We argue based on Galatians 1:6-8 and Jude 3 that God’s revelation to mankind was completed in the first century. God no longer reveals law to us. We then draw the conclusion that because God doesn’t speak law to us anymore, He must no longer speak to us at all anymore. How is this even remotely a necessary correlation? And yet so many brethren mock and condemn those who believe that God has spoken to them. If someone believes that God has spoken to them in some way, and it does not represent law or a contradiction of what has already been revealed, why would we tell them that they are lying or self-deceived?

We make the case that Christians are instructed (by both command and example) to pray to God the Father through Jesus Christ. He is our Intercessor and Mediator, after all. While it is true, I believe, that we direct our requests and petitions to the Father, there is no logical reason to conclude that such a pattern forbids all communication with the Son or even the Spirit. “Talking to” Jesus and petitioning the Father are two totally different things, just as petitioning a Judge and talking to one’s lawyer or friend are not mutually exclusive.

In all of this, many believers water-down the believer’s relationship with God. We argue that God no longer performs miracles in the world, that the Spirit is no longer directly active in our lives, that God cannot speak in any way to His people (other than through the Word given 2,000 years ago), and that we cannot utter a word to Jesus, only through Him. While we may acknowledge the potential of a deeper relationship with the Father (through obedience), we have, in essence, relegated Jesus and the Spirit to the annals of history. Even though we may acknowledge the Father to a greater degree, we still limit His power and influence.

It’s no wonder that so many Christians struggle to experience intimacy with God.

And I honestly wonder how we can even develop intimacy with God if we have pushed away the Spirit and the Son. After all, God is three, but one. The unity of the Godhead cannot be broken. How can we have the Father if we have pushed away the Son and Spirit?

I resolve to begin talking to Jesus. I resolve to invite the Spirit into my life. I resolve to be open to the voice and leading of God. And I have repented of pushing God away. It’s not that I expect, necessarily, to hear God’s voice audibly, or to witness a grand miracle before the day is out, but I absolutely do not want to be guilty of limiting God. I want the fullness of the power and strength promised in the holy Scriptures, whatever that may be.

Imitating [Divided] 1st Century Christianity

In most ‘churches of Christ’ (Romans 16:16), there is a common appeal to first century Christianity. We can often be heard contrasting the myriads of ‘Christian’ denominations that exist today with the one church that existed in the days of the apostles (Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:5). We condemn all of the modern divisions that plague Christianity as antithetical to our Lord’s will (John 17:20-21) and insist that unity can be achieved by a common allegiance, not to human doctrines and manmade churches, but the Word of God (1 Corinthians 4:6-7, et al).

This is an appeal that we ought to make! And these are all valid points that far too many religious people today have failed to grasp.

But I wonder sometimes if we who stand on this soapbox even understand the nature of New Testament Christianity – and what the New Testament says to us and shows to us about Christian unity.

It’s true that Jesus desires the unity and fellowship of His people. While on earth, He prayed that His disciples remain unified (John 17:20-21). The apostle Paul once wrote, “Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and let there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). The theme of unity is interlaced throughout the New Testament. There is hardly a book that does not in some way promote Christian unity – unity in spirit as well as in doctrine and practice. Those of us in ‘churches of Christ’ are right in stressing the importance of such unity.

But we often ignore the overwhelmingly obvious fact that even the first century churches struggled with division constantly!

The Corinthian church was plagued with every kind of division imaginable. Sects had formed within the church (1 Cor. 1:11-13). There was an ungodly tolerance of immorality (1 Cor. 5). They were suing each other (1 Cor. 6:1-8). They weren’t united in their observance of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23-34). The assembly, regrettably, wasn’t a time of encouragement and worship, but rather a time for gloating and selfish ambition (1 Cor. 14).

This was a church where the members didn’t get along and the assemblies were an embarrassment to the name of Christ…and yet Paul still thanked God for them (1 Cor. 1:4), considered them sanctified (1 Cor. 1:2), and continued to work and worship with them.

Paul didn’t condone their divisiveness or their immaturity, but neither did He alienate them or refuse to associate with them. He didn’t react by saying, “I just can’t be encouraged by a church that has so many problems…and so I’m going to go where I can be encouraged.” He didn’t make it about him. Instead, he recognized that this was the Lord’s leaving-arrivingchurch in Corinth and was willing to do whatever it took to help them.

Now, there were other churches that did bring Paul much greater joy. For example, he had a great relationship with the brethren in Philippi (Phil. 4:15-19). Likewise, there are churches today that are strong just as there are churches, like the Corinthian church, that have plenty of issues. You might walk out of some church assemblies feeling like you’re on cloud nine, but then walk out of other church assemblies feeling empty or cheated…maybe even upset.

And while it’s true that churches ought to promote unity (Phil. 4:2-3), be sources of joy and comfort to us (2 Cor. 2:3), and conduct assemblies and studies that encourage us in our walk with Christ (Heb. 10:24-25)…

…we must also understand that churches are filled with flawed people…people with a very broad spectrum of personalities and problems.

And therefore, we must cherish the unity we have when we have it, and soak up all of the encouragement that we receive from our brethren and from our assemblies, but we must also accept the reality of the battle we’re all fighting and resolve to stand with our fellow soldiers of Christ through thick and thin, remembering that Satan is our “adversary” (1 Peter 5:8), not we ourselves.

That’s what real unity looks like! It’s not this idealized scene of Christians holding hands and singing Kumbaya…while also remaining in perfect unity on every doctrine and principle of Scripture. Real unity is the shared willingness to stand together and remain committed to each other through every trial, every disagreement, every personality clash as we seek greater unity. And even when divisions occur and brethren have to part ways for the sake of the work (Acts 15:36-40), such chasms need to be quickly and eagerly bridged (Col. 4:10).

On a more practical level, when your church is stained by scandal or infighting or controversy, don’t react by saying, “This isn’t what we find in the New Testament.” No, it’s exactly what we find in the New Testament. You may be discouraged and even reach a point where “going to church” is no longer enjoyable. But do you remember what Paul wrote? “Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8).

And what did John say about it? “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11). Our brethren are sometimes not worth loving, and we may want to give up on them. But we weren’t worth loving and God should have given up on us…yet God did love us and did not give up on us. And this is the kind of unrelenting love we’re told to imitate within the church. Let that sink in.

We need to remain committed to our brethren – fellow sons and daughters of God with whom we hope to one day spend eternity in His house – because they are our brethren, not because they are perfect. Like with any family, we need to work through our problems and continue to love each other…because that’s what families do. It’s sometimes ugly. And maddening. And disheartening. But the bond we share is worth fighting for! And the joy we bring each other at the end of the day – because of that bond – is sweeter still than any temporary pain or discomfort we sometimes inflict on each other.

And as we fight these battles together in the trenches of this spiritual war, and as we sometimes even fall prey to friendly fire, we learn more and more the true meaning of love and sacrifice. This is New Testament Christianity; this is true Christian unity – not the Kumbaya nonsense.

Sometimes, discipline has to occur within the family (1 Cor. 5). Sometimes, we have to publicly denounce error that is being touted by fellow saints (Acts 15:1-2). Things can get ugly. But our goal, through it all, is to work through these problems together (1 Cor. 5 –> 2 Cor. 2; Acts 15:1-2 –> the rest of the chapter) and emerge from the trenches more unified, still walking hand in hand. When that doesn’t happen and brethren leave the faith, those who remain must press on!

Yes, we ought to imitate the first century churches, but in doing so, we’re necessarily imitating [divided] first century churches. The hope today, just as it was two thousand years ago, is that we will remain unified through it all so that, in the end, we can bring glory to our God.

“I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me.” (John 17:20-21)

A Balanced Approach to Liberty

Jesus, our King, has given us a law to govern our lives. We find that law in the New Testament. From Matthew to Revelation, we find laws and principles that govern the activity of the church (e.g. 1 Tim. 3:15) and even our personal behavior and conduct (e.g. Gal. 5:19-26). When we violate this law, whether it’s by committing fornication, getting drunk or disregarding God’s plan for the organization of the church, we are guilty of sin (1 John 3:4).

As Christians, if our desire is to submit to Christ, then we must “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). And what is the standard by which we determine whether something is “good” or not? We’re told that the Scriptures are what “[equip] us for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

But, not every aspect of our lives is specifically governed by Christ’s law.

Sure, there are principles that ought to guide our decisions in these areas (and all areas, for that matter), but because there are no explicit rules, these decisions must be relegated to personal judgment.

Because these are matters of personal judgment where there is no predetermined right or wrong – what Paul calls “doubtful matters” (Rom. 14:1) – we’re to refrain from judging and condemning those with whom we disagree, allowing them to make their own choices for their own reasons. It’sromans 14 like Paul says in Philippians 2:12 – we each have to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling.”

In matters of revealed law, we need to hold each other accountable to God’s law, recognizing that sin threatens our fellowship with God. But in these matters of liberty, or personal judgment, we cannot take the same approach. We can advise and counsel, but at the end of the day, we cannot pass judgment (Jas. 4:11-12). To pass such judgment is a direct affront to Christ, and I’m afraid that there are many Christians out there who will have to answer to God for their Pharisaical approach in many of these areas.

Having said that…

The fact that we have liberty in Christ doesn’t mean that we are free to do whatever we want. The fact that I “have the right” to do something doesn’t mean I should, or that others don’t have the right to disagree or share their counsel with me.

Consider with me a few principles that ought to govern our understanding of the liberty we have in Christ:

  • The fact that something isn’t inherently sinful doesn’t make it right, or wise. This is the entire point of Proverbs. Paul echoes this thought in Ephesians 5:15-16 when he writes, “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” Now, there are going to be things that some people view as wise and others view as unwise. This is where we have to be patient with each other.
  • In both Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, we learn that we should be willing to sacrifice our liberties in cases where we have weaker brethren whose faith will be destroyed by our example. It’s important to recognize that Paul isn’t talking about brethren who are offended by your actions, or who disagree. He’s specifically telling us to forgo our liberties if exercising those liberties will cause a weaker Christian to stumble and fall.
  • In Galatians 5:1, Paul tells us to, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free.” But then he says in verse 13, “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Many Christians abuse their liberty. They use liberty as an excuse to be worldly, and to satisfy their fleshly desires. This is wrong! We cannot forget that while we are free in many respects to make our own choices, that we are still “slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18). In everything that we do, we must seek to make sure that Christ is honored.

The fact that we have personal liberty in Christ is a blessing (Gal. 5:1). In Romans 14, it’s interesting to note that the stronger, more matureChristians were the ones who had a greater understanding of liberty and felt free to exercise many of those liberties. And it’s clear that we must allow for diversity in these areas, and leave ultimate judgment to God.

But, I hope I have shown that liberty is not a license to just do whatever we want, without any concern for the consequences. We have an obligation to walk in wisdom, to be considerate of our brethren, of our influence in the world, and of the reputation of Christ.

Because even though something might not be inherently sinful, we are guilty of sin when we willfully cause weaker brethren to stumble (1 Cor. 8:12), and also, a carnal mind is “enmity against God” (Rom. 8:6-7).  So the consequences of our decisions as well as the attitude motivating our decisions can make something absolutely wrong that is not inherently wrong. We must, therefore, handle our liberties with extreme care and caution.

 

I’d like to close this article by sharing two guiding principles that, if followed, will resolve most of these disagreements and help us tremendously in our walk with Christ:

  1. Each of us must “test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). This should be a mantra for each of us as we seek to serve and honor Christ.
  2. In terms of how we deal with disagreements in these matters: “But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall stand before the judgment seat of Christ…Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way” (Romans 14:10, 13). Advise and counsel, study and pray…yes, yes, yes! But at the end of the day, leave judgment to God, and seek peace with your brethren.

So often, there is a one-sided approach to liberty. I’ve tried, in this article, to share a more balanced approach.

I hope it helps.