CENI: Binding Examples

church_split1As we considered in the earlier posts in this series, the “E” in CENI stands for “examples,” generally spoken of as approved examples or binding examples.

Now, originally, the idea was a simple one: any approved example certainly shows that God approves the exemplified practice. When we read of churches sending out missionaries, we can be confident that God approves that activity. When we read that a church gathered to “break bread” on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7-8), surely God approves that. And I have no quarrel with that argument at all — except to note that even such an obvious principle remains incomplete.

I mean, we also have approved examples of speaking in tongues in the assembly (1 Cor 14), drinking wine at a wedding (John 2), going on missionary journeys with no money (Luke 10) — and yet we don’t consider these “approved” as applied to modern church practice. How did we make that determination? Where in CENI are we told how to distinguish an approved First Century example that’s approved for us today from an approved First Century example that isn’t approved for today? You see, we pick and choose based on something quite apart from CENI.

Now, over the years, “approved example” became “binding example.” Thus, not only are we permitted to meet to break bread on Sundays, we are now required to do so. That is, of course, a dramatic change — and a change that allows many to declare as apostate those who take communion on Saturday night rather than Sunday morning or night.

Once again, the Regulative Principle comes into play here, declaring all silences prohibitions. Because the scriptures speak of a Sunday communion, that is approved, and all other options are banned by God’s silence on Saturday communions. An example thus becomes binding.

But, as is true of commands, we see that many approved examples don’t rise to this level. And many examples have become the subject of division and anathematizing. For example, some congregations in the Churches of Christ have noted that there are examples of congregations being taught all at once, but no examples of congregations breaking up into age group classes. Thus, they conclude, we are banned from dividing into classes for Bible study. (There are churches of this persuasion in the next county.)

It’s been noted by the “mainstream” Churches that in the First Century missionaries were ordained by a congregation and supported by churches — all without the benefit of a missionary society. The example is held to be binding, and all other options are not only sin, but damn.

On the other hand, we have examples of churches meeting in the temple courts, synagogues, and homes, but no example of a church buying a building in which to meet. And this is held to be a matter of expedience — left to human judgment — as God has given no instructions as to where churches should meet. Why is one a binding example and the other a mere expedience?

And we have examples of the church gathering for periodic love feasts (Jude 12), but this practice is generally ignored. When was the last time you heard of a Church of Christ assembling for a love feast?

I have on my bookshelf Thomas B. Warren’s 169-page book When Is an “Example” Binding? (self-published 1975). I bought it years ago in hopes that the scholars of the Churches of Christ would have an answer to that obvious question. He concludes with the helpful guidance —

It must be re-emphasized that if an action actually is an “example” then it is binding (either obligatory in a positive way or prohibitory in a negative way). But accounts of action may or may not be “examples.” That must be determined according to the detail set out in the basic thesis of this book (correct logic must be used in connection with the total context of a specific account of action). (p 165).

Clear? Maybe an example would help. Beginning on page 139, Warren addresses Acts 20:7-8 —

(Acts 20:7-8)  On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. 8 There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting.

Warren explains, “There is nothing in the account  of the specific action itself to indicate that eating in the upper room was necessary.” He then analyzes the immediate, remote, and total context, finding no evidence that the upper room is important. But he ignores the obvious argument: that Jesus instituted the Supper in an “upper room.” (Mark 14:15).There are interesting parallels between these upper room stories, both culminating in a resurrection. But Warren ignores the arguments of those he disagrees with.

I mention this argument because there are those who actually insist on taking communion in an upper room, which sounds silly until you realize that there are in fact two examples of communion being taken in an upper room and none of communion being taken on the ground floor. Yes, it’s silly, but you can’t escape the silliness by ignoring inconvenient examples. Rather, we have to come up with a better, more complete, more honest hermeneutic than CENI.

Later, beginning at page 148, Warren argues that Acts 20:7 makes taking communion on a Sunday mandatory, because that’s the only day on which we have a record of communion being taken after the resurrection. He dismisses the fact that Jesus instituted communion on a Thursday because that fact contradicts Acts 20:7 and the Lord’s Supper commemorates the resurrection (but didn’t Paul say in 1 Cor 11:26 that we’re remembering Jesus death — which was on a Friday?). He concludes,

Not only are the members of every church (congregation) to meet together every Lord’s day in order to eat the Lord’s supper, ths is the only day on which the supper is to be eaten. There is no authority in all of the Bible for the Lord’s Supper to be eaten on any day other than the Lord’s day (first day of the week). And, whatever is done without Biblical authority is sinful (cf.: 2 John 9-11; 1 Cor. 4:6 Lev. 10:1-2; 1 Chron. 15:1-15).

You see, the example of Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper on Thursday constitutes “no authority” at all. And Warren ignores Acts 2:46, which tells us that the disciples met daily to “break bread” — the very same expression as in Acts 20:7.

The point isn’t that Warren is a sloppy scholar. It’s that CENI isn’t the real rationale. Rather, scholars such as Warren begin with the conclusion they want and then “prove” that conclusion using CENI — ignoring and dismissing evidence as need be, presuming that they know the right answers before they even begin. And CENI offers so little real guidance that a clever writer can prove very nearly anything that suits his purposes. Indeed, he can even fool himself. You see, I don’t think that Warren is consciously dishonest. I just think he is so sure of the answers that he doesn’t feel the need to truly deal with the text and the logic.

I’ve now heard from two independent sources how the Churches of Christ came to be divided over the “Herald of Truth” radio (and, later, TV) program in the 1950s. Some visionary leaders decided to syndicate a radio show to teach the gospel. The leaders divided over who would become the voice of the Churches of Christ on a nationally syndicated program. Well, one supporter of the effort was seriously disappointed that his man didn’t get the position. Soon thereafter, his publication announced that the “Herald of Truth” was an unauthorized institution, just as sinful and damning as a missionary society. And soon churches began to split, as some wanted to support this effort at evangelism while others feared for their souls if they did.

It wasn’t hard to put together a credible CENI argument damning over the “Herald of Truth,” and even though the publisher’s motives were despicable, his readers found his arguments persuasive because they actually make sense under CENI — as much sense as many other things we’ve bought in to. You see, there is no evidence in the New Testament of churches cooperating in this manner to do evangelism. There are plenty of examples of other means being used, and thus the means as to which the Bible is silent are banned. Simple, really. (Roy Cogdill and Guy N. Woods famously debated the issue in 1961 and the recording may be listened to on the internet. There are those who still care deeply about this issue.)

The nature of CENI is that it divides churches, because the “logic” of the house of cards is ad hoc, changing from issue to issue, example to example. It’s hardly surprising that churches continue to divide and damn over this hermeneutic, because no one really knows how to apply it — because CENI is silent as to the principles that really matter: when is a command or an example binding? Who knows?

Worse yet, the truly defective scholarship is the “logic” that makes any disagreement over the application of CENI damnable, as I hope to demonstrate in future posts.

You see, CENI is not really a hermeneutic because the rules we’re applying aren’t found in CENI. Rather, the rules are buried in the minds of our editors and preachers, unspoken and thus unexamined.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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16 Responses to CENI: Binding Examples

  1. I appreciate you thoughtful post on this topic, because I find CENI so repulsive as to make it difficult to talk about it unemotionally.

  2. Bob says:


    Great. There are many examples we ignore. Where can a woman pray and prophesie with her head covered?

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Interesting that opinions differ on whether God requires a woman to cover her head in worship and yet we've never made it a salvation issue, even though it's a worship doctrine. Even more interesting that we interpreted "covered" as "tiny little hat from the store" when the likely interpretation is a veil or a (I can't remember the Latin) cloth worn over the head entirely covering the hair, rather like a shawl. Neither would be much in fashion and neither is practiced in the Churches of Christ.

  4. Gary Cummings says:

    CENI is very subjective, one group sees one example as binding and another may see something else is binding. An example is foot washing: I think it is a great memorial practice and there are several references to it in the NT. I have gone to Mennonite Churches where this is practiced and it is a very moving experience. The Churches of Christ (for some strange reason) do not regard this as a binding example. Now the Churches of Christ see weekly communion as binding and the Mennonites don't. Personally, I do not see either practice as binding, though I like both of them. I prefer weekly communion and foot-washing I really find moving and Biblical.

  5. Gary Cummings says:

    There is a very explicit teaching about woman's head covering in the NT. My wife and I go to churches where some of the women wear head-coverings and some do not. Paul is very clear about this, and why the COC does not recognize this is a mystery to me. Bruce wrote a very good article about this. You can find it on his website at ovu.edu

    This is where our humanity and subjective nature come into play. Some folks read the NT and see certain things as CENI binding, while another group may miss those things and see other things as CENI binding. Acutally, I do not think that CENI is a legitimate way of Biblical hermeneutics.

  6. Alan says:

    In Acts 2:46 we have an approved example that the church met together every day in the temple courts. There's no controversy about the facts, yet we don't even attempt to bind the example… despite the fact that Hebrews 3:13 commands us to encourage one another daily. This Acts 2 example is far more specific than the Acts 20:7 example about Sunday communion. In the former, we are told where and how often. In the latter, we are just told one point in time when they did it. But we generalize the latter, and ignore the former.

    I think the real reason we take communiion every Sunday is because of what Justin Martyr wrote, not what is recorded in scripture. We come to the scriptures already convinced that they took communion every Sunday, and we conveniently find one instance where they did so. That seems to be all the justification we require in order to write off multitudes of believers.

  7. Gary Cummings says:

    The truth is whatever the COC does is found to be Biblical by them. Whatever they have not historically practiced is seen to be "denominational". I hope that is not too cynical, but I see this as a true statement.

  8. Royce says:

    There is a technical term that describes CENI well. It is "Hog wash".


  9. There is so much to consider, there are so many examples. My mind cannot think about all of them and draw conclusions. Therefore, I tend to pick something this year and something else next year, so maybe in my lifetime if I am diligent I can consider 40 or 50 examples and try to apply them in my life.

    And then there are all those other people at the congregation who simply won’t do what I tell them to.

    Sigh and grin.

  10. Gary Cummings says:

    Tom Olbricht wrote an important book about the history of interpretation in the COC. He concluded that the COC gets its hermeneutic directly from Zwingli. Zwingli was good about binding the silence of Scripture, as well as drowning Anabaptists!

  11. Weldon says:

    I find it silly that we (coc) maintain that a Christian can not take the Lord's Supper on any other day than Sunday. Carries just as much weight as the idea that having the Lord's Supper in an upper room is silly.

  12. Jay, I can't believe you said what you did about love feasts. Of course we have them!

    We just call 'em "pot lucks."

    (I think the binding example for having them is John 6:26. I could be wrong.)

  13. Rich says:

    It's kind of ironic. While some among us want to eliminate seeking examples from scripture our denominational friends are migrating to them:

    “Whether directly or indirectly, Paul appointed “elders” (plural) in every church (e.g., Acts 14:23; 20:17; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5). Many local churches in our day are repenting of an unbiblical one man ministry and returning to the healthy New Testament pattern of a plural pastoral oversight.”
    – John Stott
    Rector Emeritus, All Souls Church, London, England
    from "Issues Facing Christians Today" by John Stott

  14. Pingback: Hermeneutics: Email about Noninstitutionalism « One In Jesus.info

  15. "If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed."

  16. Stephen Youngblood says:

    While there is truth to the improper use of C.E.N.I. you cannot discredit a hermeneutic based on misuse by individuals. We can see the use of C.E.N.I. by many biblical figures to include Jesus. God gave us all brains to reason, and there are some areas that are subjective, but proper hermeneutics and common sense can remove a lot of the subjectivity. In your example of the upper room: The first thing that was neglected is a proper word study of the word upper room. The word used here kataluma is speaking of a guest chamber, which culturally was a place where people had gatherings, it is also used to denote a dining room, but not a second floor upper room, which is the word used in Acts 1:13, and this word is huperoon. Luke using different Greek words for upper room identifies a difference in the two. If one associates the wrong understanding of the upper room, common sense can identify the rational of the example. A second floor upper room would make it so hundreds of thousands of Christians would not be able to take part of the Lord’s Supper, because there are no upper rooms. Go into Africa, particularly the rural villages in Kenya and the shanty’s they live in with dirt floors that structurally cannot have second floor. So for an example to be literally followed it has to be able to be followed, hence the common sense part. The problem with many claiming to use CENI, they don’t use it as a tool in the entire hermeneutic process, they use it as “their” hermeneutic process. They don’t parlay the contextual and word studies necessary to even know to whom the example they were giving was to, and what dispensation it was, and what the purpose of the situation was. While I agree with some of the premises, and that it is misused, but in that same manner you misused hermeneutics within your examples to try to disprove. There has to be balance as a part of the complete hermeneutic process, not a “proof text” process.

  17. Dwight Haas says:

    Not too many people have issues with the C part of CENI. It is rather the E to a lesser extent and the NI to a greater extent.
    Commands are pretty straightforward, unless the command is I cor.11:1-16, which then for some reason is not “applicable” to us today, even though I Cor.11:17-33 is wholly applicable, which is strange if you claim to “follow all of the scriptures”.
    Many demand that women do not speak in assembly, but for some reason don’t demand that they don’t wear braids or gold, which is in the same chapter and is a command.
    We pick and choose what we perceive to be relevant to us, even in the coC.

    Then we get to Examples and then we end up pressing some “examples” that were written for a certain thing to a certain people at a certain time like “collecting of funds” on Sunday. There is no command for this and Paul was going to collect it, so the church didn’t do it, no example.
    We know by scripture that they partook of the Lord’s Supper in the evening in their homes, when Jesus instituted it, but we do it in the morning.
    For some reason the collecting of funds, that goes into a church doffer and pays for the building, which has no example, goes against clear examples that the money went to the needy saints only.
    Some examples get adopted and become commands and other don’t depending upon who adopts them and why, by personal judgment and tradition.

    Then there is NI or Necessary Inference, which is more about judgment than anything.
    There is no command or example about the saints using the money collected to pay for a building and yet NI comes to the rescue, because Heb.10:25 infers it.
    And yet it is strange that the early saints were able to do without a “church building” and meet Heb.10:25 and that all of the money went to the needy people, no savings or building fund. I know of a congregation that met in a school, meeting the command of Heb.10:25, and yet they sought to build a building anyway.
    But then again Heb.10:25 isn’t about “the assembly” but rather assembling. Saints can do this command at home in a Bible study or while having a potluck, as long at they encourage one another.

    The point is that we who follow CENI are really, really bad at it in application.
    What we don’t find in the OT are the people using as law examples or NI, but rather commands.

    You are correct in your assessment of the “upper room” as a guest chamber or gathering place or dining room. Which brings about a problem in the coC in the condemnation of others based on CENI.
    1. As you noted the “upper room” was a place for gathering or a guest room…we could call this a place to fellowship, fellowship room. This place was in a house in which they gathered or assembled as Christians.
    2. This aforementioned house also had a kitchen with which to prepare food, even the food for the Passover and the Lord’s Supper.
    3. The women would have naturally served this food to others who met or assembled in the house.
    but following CENI as many do conclusions are drawn that:
    1. You can’t have “fellowship halls” or places to fellowship in the church building where people assemble.
    2. You cannot have kitchens in the church building where the saints assembled.
    3. The women cannot serve the Lord’s Supper in the church building in assembly.
    So what happens is you justify a “church building” which there is no example of or command, but is an un-needed “inference” and then what ever goes on in it that would have existed in a house is no longer correct by our reasoning. What hasn’t changed is what is going on, but rather out perception of what should be going on and this skews CENI…by our justification and reasoning.
    What the ENI of CENI does is make us Pharisees, who sought not what was commanded, but read in between the lines and saw inferences and past examples as law.
    CENI actually subverts “speak where the Bible speaks”, because now we are speaking where we think the Bible should be speaking and making it into Laws.

  18. Dwight says:

    The main problem I see with CENI is that it is a man-made system, after all Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” And while Paul did tell the people to follow his examples as he followed Jesus examples, we must realize that Paul presumably did many things that we have no account of and the things we do read of were specific to those people at that time, such as the collection for the saints from those in Corinth and Galatia.
    It is interesting that Paul didn’t make examples equal with commands in his arguments.
    Otherwise since Jesus went around preaching and teaching and not getting paid and Paul did this, then all saints would be required to do this, especially preachers.
    I think Jay said it best when he said, “You see, we pick and choose based on something quite apart from CENI.” and “You see, CENI is not really a hermeneutic because the rules we’re applying aren’t found in CENI. Rather, the rules are buried in the minds of our editors and preachers, unspoken and thus unexamined.”

  19. Larry Cheek says:

    I would like to add my two cents, to the tune of what we had grown up with in organized assemblies. I firmly believe that I would never come to grips with the volume of unlikeness of the present (church, churches) compared to the early church, had the church not been so horrified by my contesting some of the commands that they had authorized by the use of CENI, that they implemented a disposal of my soul. I stated it in this fashion because the Biblical instructions were aimed towards a repentance of a sinful action, but not one of the members or leaders sought any kind of restoration of me or my family. It was just like a amputation. It appears to me that anytime the present church wanted to verify its actions, it simply stated that everything is being done as it was in the first century. To the tune of leading us to believe that if one of the early Christians (maybe even Paul) was to be restored to life he would fully understand how we had reproduced in entirety the views and operations of the same church that he was involved in of the first century.
    I do believe that there may be some resemblance to the Third Century after the church was accepted as one of the many religions of the Roman Government. The church even evolved to be superior to the government. After loosing that status why would we not expect it to rebuild that same power over its members?
    Before the Third Century, I believe that the world did not see a body which looked like what we call the church, the only connection they had was seeing Christians who acted like Jesus. Who taught Jesus and his lifestyle. Yes, they would have been informed that a Christian was promised eternal life, but how long after the beginning of the kingdom would you believe that early Christians had any concept of the messages revealed in Revelation? It was very obvious that John had no knowledge of these things prior to the visions, possibly greater than a half decade from the beginning.
    If we actually did reproduce the early church could you find it or could you see it? Did Saul see it or did go after Followers of Christ?

  20. Dwight Haas says:

    Larry, This was like 200 cents and all good and correct.
    I firmly believe that the church wasn’t in the community, but was of the community, meaning they didn’t have a name on a building that represented Christ, they had only themselves.
    I believe our church building is an attempt to replicate the Temple, which filters down to why the Lord’s Supper looks less like a supper/meal and more like a sacrifice/ceremony.

    Our preacher recently said that the Early post-apostle Church of the Early Church Fathers wasn’t the real church, even though it is recorded in history as such and that the real church existed on the outskirts of society, which was true of course. The recorded “church” wasn’t the real church and was apostate in many ways as were the Early Church Fathers, who we don’t follow.

    Now having said this within the same lesson, the same preacher also said, that the Early Church (recorded) didn’t use instrumental music, so as to say the church didn’t use instrumental music.
    This is of course is a major contradiction.
    They cannot BE “the church” and NOT BE “the church” at the same time.
    If the Early post-apostle Church wasn’t “the church”, then we cannot use them as an example of those who didn’t use instruments.
    And we don’t know what those saints who were not recorded did, as they were not recorded.
    If the ECF/post apostle recorded church was “the church”, then we need to use them for other information as gospel, which we don’t do.
    I have yet to confront our preacher with this glaring contradiction.

  21. Larry Cheek says:

    I believe that I can predict the outcome if you do chose to confront the preacher with your conclusions. Even if you have the message recorded you will become front and center stage of a threat to his position and the congregation will not be in your corner. We read the story about Apollos and believe it should bring the same results today, but I have not found that to be true.

  22. Dwight Haas says:

    Larry, I believe you are right. The problem of using the ECF to condemn instrumental music has always bothered me since we don’t use them for anything else and they don’t appeal to scripture to do it. But it is amazing that we can have a blatant contradiction within ten minutes of two statements in a room of people, many much smarter than me and they cannot see the contradiction due to wanting to bash instrumental music. This shows desperation and bias.

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