Readers here and in other forums where this series has been discussed have asked how I could be so Post-modern as to reject the notion of obeying commands … which means I’ve not adequately explained my thinking.
First point: I’m not a Post-modern thinker. If you ever understand anything I’ve written as questioning the possibility of objective truth or submission to authority, you’ve misunderstood. It may be entirely my fault, but my view of truth is not remotely Post-modern.
I’ve noticed lately that’s it’s become quite fashionable among my conservative brothers to lob in an accusation of Post-modernism nearly from the get-go. The assumption seems to be: you disagree with me; therefore, you must doubt the existence of any sort of objective truth.
No, I was a math major. I’m a lawyer. Both disciplines are pretty big on objective truth. I’m no Post-modern thinker. I just happen to disagree.
Second point: Christians are supposed to obey God’s commands. Obviously. But this is a series about hermeneutics. And hermeneutics is about how to understand what God has inspired — NOT whether to obey what he has commanded. It’s just that you can’t obey — not really — until you’ve truly understood what God has said.
I think a large segment of the Churches of Christ has misunderstood God’s commands — badly. They have obedient hearts, but they have misunderstood what they are to obey because of a seriously flawed, man-made hermeneutic.
Notwithstanding my disagreement with CENI, I certainly believe that the commands and examples found in scripture matter and instruct us — and that real truth can be validly inferred from the scriptures. That’s not the problem.
The first problem with CENI is that the real rules are unstated. You see, we all agree that we should obey real commands and properly inferred obligations. We agree that examples are there for our instruction.
But CENI doesn’t tell us how to decide which commands remain binding today — other than a pro forma mention of “context” and such. On what basis do we decide which commands remain binding today?
On what basis do we decide that an example is binding? How do we decide whether an inference is necessary?
You see, I know of no one who questions the importance of commands, examples, and inferences. But saying that is about as helpful as saying “We must interpret the words.” Of course! But how?
CENI, as practiced, has the practical effect of concealing how the real hermeneutics are being done. We announce “binding example” when in fact we are finding the “binding” in Ignatius and Justin Martyr, not Jesus and Paul.
Thus, my foremost plea is put your cards on the table. Give the real reasons for your conclusions. And stop binding the Patristics on your brothers.
I’ve got no great problem with those who want to worship as Justin Martyr did. It may be the very best way to worship in your community. But don’t dare criticize others for not following his instructions.
Beginning with false assumptions
Another problem is that we in the Churches of Christ have begun our study of the scriptures by presuming that what we should be looking for are commands, binding examples, and necessary inferences about how to worship, organize, and name our churches.
We’ve started with the assumption that the Bible is all about the rules. Hence, when I took “Apostolic Church” under Batsell Barrett Baxter at Lipscomb, the course was all about the rules (I say this despite my great admiration and affection for the man). The course didn’t touch on the work of the Spirit, on the importance of caring for the needy and hurting in the world, or on forming a community of believers living as aliens in this society.
In fact, at Lipscomb I had one Bible teacher who correctly interpreted a verse as saying Christians should live radically different lives from the world around us. We asked him how we would live that way.
The only example he could offer (and I do not exaggerate in the least) was that when he bought something at a store, he didn’t look to see if he’d received correct change.
You see, in the early 1970s, Christianity was (a) obey the rules and (b) be nice. Our notion of being radically different from the world was to be radically different from “the denominations,” by insisting on believer’s baptism, weekly communion, and a cappella singing. Our prayer for unity was that everyone would come to agree with our positions on those issues.
This kind of thinking goes back to Thomas Campbell, who wrote in the “Declaration and Address,”
the New Testament is as perfect a constitution for the worship, discipline and government of the New Testament church, and as perfect a rule for the particular duties of its members; as the Old Testament was for the worship discipline and government of the Old Testament church, and the particular duties of its members.
Alexander Campbell wrote to similar effect —
The true Christian church, or house of God, is composed of all those in every place that do … associate under the constitution which he himself has granted and authorized in the New Testament, and are walking in his ordinances and commandments–and of none else.
The Christian System, p. 76. Now, these men quite plainly saw the New Testament as a body of law, much as the Law of Moses is a body of law.
In other words, when we open our New Testaments, we start with the assumption — before we read a word — that we are about to read a work of statutory law: a constitution, filled with rules, government, ordinances, and commandments. And therefore we start scanning the pages of the Gospels and epistles looking for commands. And when we don’t find the “worship discipline” and “government” we expect, we go looking for examples. And when we don’t find enough examples, we get busy inferring.
But the New Testament nowhere claims to be a constitution of any sort. Nor does it claim to be composed of statutes. Therefore, we’ve violated one of the most fundamental principles of hermeneutics on which both sides — in theory — agree: read literature taking into account the kind of literature it is. Narratives are to be read as narratives, letters as letters, and apocalyptic literature as apocalyptic literature.
Therefore, you don’t read these documents as though they are legislation. Rather, you read them for what they are — as they present themselves — and let the scriptures themselves guide our interpretation.
I was raised in the Church. Third generation, actually. And all my life I’ve been taught to read verses in context — immediate context and the larger context. And I was taught correctly.
When I urge us to read the Bible as narrative and to fit each passage, each book, and each testament into the larger Story of God’s redemptive work among humanity, I’m merely arguing for context. And the Churches of Christ have routinely failed to do this — especially when proper contextualization contradicts our impulse to find laws.
Of course, there are laws — just not nearly as many as we pretend.
Thus, when we study the role of women in context — in light of the flow of history as directed by the Creator of all — everything changes. No longer may we argue that women are subordinate to men because God gave husbands rule over their wives in Genesis 3:16. Rather, by virtue of being serious about context, we see that the Curse of Genesis 3 stands opposed to God and his kingdom.
Just so, as we study God’s purposes as revealed in the history of his dealings with his people, we see the critical importance of unity — not just as a response to a command, but as one of the very purposes for which we’ve been redeemed.
And we see compassion for the poor as more than obedience or conforming to a pattern. It’s conforming to the nature of God himself. Serving the poor, the fatherless, and the widow are the very essence of righteousness.
Yet we are so obsessed with finding rules that don’t even exist that we argue about whether the church — God’s kingdom, the body of Christ on earth — can support orphans. We’ve seriously missed the point.