“Commands” is the “C” in CENI, and it would seem to be the easiest to apply. Obviously enough, if God commands it, we good Christians should obey it. How complicated could that be? Pretty complicated indeed, as it turns out.
Let’s take a few examples.
(Rom 16:16) Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings.
(1 Cor 16:20) All the brothers here send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss.
(2 Cor 13:12) Greet one another with a holy kiss.
(1 Th 5:26) Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.
(1 Pet 5:14) Greet one another with a kiss of love. Peace to all of you who are in Christ.
Five commands saying the same thing, from two different authors, written plainly enough for a child to understand, and we don’t do it. Why not?
What’s really going on here? Hundreds of Church of Christ websites have Rom 16:16 pasted on their front page, quite unaware of the irony of such a prominent display of a command that we ignore, contrary to our stated hermeneutic!
Ken Thomas argues,
So then, what is the status of the “holy kiss” today? I have heard preachers equate it to our modern day handshake, but I am not fully convinced that firm sincere gripping of the hands carries the same warmth or affection as implied here. For an individual to take it on himself/herself to practice the “holy kiss” in a literal way would be so strange and shocking as to cause a real commotion today. There are times that hugs are accepted – when old friends are reunited, or at a funeral or marriage. But what about at other times? Can we increase our warmth of expression in the church? Could we begin by using kind words of appreciation and love toward one another? This would surely be a start toward showing the love of Christians. “Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another,” Romans 12:10. “Let brotherly love continue.” Hebrews 13:10.
In other words, Thomas interprets “kiss” as “warmth of expression,” but feels no need to justify rewriting God’s direct command.
Similarly, most Churches of Christ routinely violate,
(1 Tim 2:8-10) I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. 9 I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
Some of my church’s more conservative members have complained when members raise hands toward heaven during worship. They say it’s “Pentecostal” and therefore wrong. And, in fact, lifting hands is unusual among the Churches of Christ, despite the plainest of commands.
And, I’m sorry, it’s routine for our wives and daughters to braid their hair and to wear gold, pearls, and expensive clothes. It is. Despite a direct command.
Obviously, there’s another hermeneutic going on here — an unexpressed one. We actually mean something like “We obey direct commands, except those that reflect a culture that’s different from modern America and don’t reflect an eternal principle.” Right? We figure, as Ken Thomas does, that Americans don’t kiss — unlike Middle Eastern and Southern Europeans and, evidently, First Century citizens of the Roman Empire. But we don’t actually explain our hermeneutic. We just leap to the “obvious” conclusion.
Burton Coffman says in his commentary on 1 Corinthians,
Yet it must be allowed that the apostolic order of such a thing was related to the customs of the times and should not be construed as binding in times and cultures as diverse from theirs as ours.
Wise words. But how did he reach that conclusion? How do we conclude that a cappella singing (an inference from silence) is until Jesus returns, but the Holy Kiss is only for certain times and cultures? CENI has no answer.
And that’s the problem. By claiming that we reach our conclusions solely from CENI and not giving serious thought to how to distinguish a local, temporary practice from a permanent practice, we leave ourselves at the mercy of modern fashion, American culture, and whatever a strong personality in the pulpit or editorial board insists on pushing. And we are defenseless against the arguments.
When I was in high school, women couldn’t wear pants because,
(Deu 22:5) A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the LORD your God detests anyone who does this.
Now, it’s quite common for women to wear pants. What changed? The Bible? Our hermeneutic? Or America’s culture? And without a well-articulated principle for knowing what applies forever and what doesn’t, well, there’s just no way to prove anyone wrong (or right). The loudest voice wins. (And why did we insist on this part of the Law of Moses, while simultaneously arguing that Old Testament commands to worship with instruments were nailed to the cross? How do we so blithely insist on having it both ways?)
You see, by saying CENI answers these questions, we can claim to have a solid theology, built for the ages. It’s just that when we study our own history, we learn that the Ancient Order of which we are so proud changes every generation. CENI has actually led to constantly shifting interpretations, with each generation claiming to have at last found eternal truth — which, of course, the true remnant has been teaching since AD 33. 🙄
I think it’s helpful to think of CENI as being in three layers —
* The stated rationale: it’s either a command, example, or necessary inference (It’s a command: Moses said women shouldn’t dress like men.)
* The hidden actual reason, which may well be unconscious (Women’s roles in society are changing in ways that make me uncomfortable, and their clothes symbolize their moving into male roles. And they look prettier in dresses.)
* The reason that requires damning over this particular issue. (If we don’t make it a damning issue, the women will prevail on their husbands and get to wear pants. The next thing you know, they’ll be preaching!)
When the reasoning is actually laid out plainly, it’s easy to test it against scripture. But if the reasoning is hidden (Moses said it!), then many get fooled into thinking the command is binding. It is, after all, quite plainly a command. And that gives great power to our editors and preachers to impose their will — often very poorly thought out.
That’s not to say that their intent is to deceive. In most cases, I think our editors and preachers have managed to fool themselves, because they’ve been trained in a skill set that makes that very easy to do.
Thus, the first step toward a cure is to insist that the two hidden steps be explained. Why this command when we don’t honor all commands? Why damn over this error when we don’t damn over all errors?
Obviously, there are some commands for which there are plenty of good, scriptural answers both to insist on the command and to consider it an apostasy issue (well, not that many). But most “commands” will withstand such a test.