What’s really going on? Why do our leaders feel so comfortable — so insistent — that their interpretations are right, when it’s obvious that the scriptural support for many of their positions is very, very thin?
Well, it all goes back to a conversation I had with a friend back when I was in law school — over 30 years ago. We both had a fascination with Church of Christ doctrine and CENI. We were trying to figure out the rule — the real rule — that tells us which commands, examples, and inferences are truly binding. We passed theory after theory back and forth, and none fit the conclusions that the Churches had drawn.
Finally, I said, “What about this? A command, example, or inference is binding today if (a) the practice is mentioned in the Bible (not necessarily as binding) and (b) it’s shown by the Patristics (uninspired writings of early Christians) to have been the practice of the early church.” We kicked it around, and of all the theories we’d tried, this one fit Church of Christ doctrine the best.
And then my friend — who had an annoying habit of asking these kinds of questions — asked, “Is this in any sense biblical?” He caught me short. I mean, I’d always been the defender of Church of Christ orthodoxy among my friends. Many wanted to criticize our way of looking at things, but I was quite the traditionalist. I’d just graduated from Lipscomb, where I’d studied “Apostolic Church” under Batsell Barrett Baxter and debate logic under Marlin Connelly. I had almost refused to attend my current church because it had a cross — an icon! — above the baptistry. I was still quite the Pharisee.
But I was also well schooled in the Restoration Plea (well, I thought so at the time). And I knew that we were supposed to be silent where the Bible is silent. And I’d attended plenty of classes on the sins of the denominations, where we’d damned entire denominations for building doctrines — such as infant baptism — on the Patristics. And we were particularly stout in our condemnation of the Catholics and Orthodox for daring to claim that the Patristics had actual authority to proclaim apostolic traditions not found in the scriptures.
And this was shortly after many Churches of Christ split over Pentecostalism, and preachers were loudly proclaiming that there is no revelation from God other than that found in the scriptures themselves. Period.
And so, I answered my friend’s question as honestly as I knew how: “No, it’s not remotely biblical.”
He said, “That’s right. If it’s not in the Bible itself, we can’t bind it. It might be a good practice, but if we trust God, we trust his word, and if we trust his word, then we consider is sufficient. If the Bible only mentions it incidentally, then it can’t be binding.”
Again, I was taken aback. His logic seemed irrefutable, and yet I thought surely our teachings could be defended from some source other than the Patristics. But I was wrong. And so, slowly, reluctantly, I concluded that we are only pretending to be teaching based on CENI, when we are in fact basing our teaching on uninspired writings — and hypocritically so, because we quickly damn others when we catch them doing the same thing.
It’s easy enough to see from our history how we came to think this way.
To show that we should take the Lord’s Supper weekly, Alexander Campbell argued,
A cloud of witnesses to the plainness and evidence of the New Testament on the subject of the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, might be adduced. But this we think unnecessary; and as we would avoid prolixity and tediousness, we shall only add a few extracts from the third volume of the Christian Baptist, 2d edt. p. 254, in proof of the assertion–all antiquity is on the side of the disciples meeting every first day to break the loaf.—
[“]All antiquity concurs in evincing that, for the three first centuries, all the churches broke bread once a week. Pliny, in his Epistles, Book x. Justin Martyr, in his Second Apology for the Christians, and Tertullian, De Ora. page 135, testify that it was the universal practice in all the weekly assemblies of the brethren, after they had prayed and sung praises–‘Then bread and wine being brought to the chief brother, he taketh it and offereth praise and thanksgiving to the Father, in the name of the Son and Holy Spirit. After prayer and thanksgiving, the whole assembly saith, Amen! When thanksgiving is ended by the chief guide, and the consent of the whole people, the deacons (as we call them) give to every one present part of the bread and wine, over which thanks are given.’
“The weekly communion was prepared in the Greek church till the seventh century; and, by one of their canons, ‘such as neglected three weeks together, were excommunicated.’
The Christian System (2d edition 1832), pp. 337-338 (emphasis in the original).
When Campbell described the weekly contribution, he clinched his argument, again, from the Patristics —
I shall close these remarks with an extract from one of the best fragments of antiquity yet extant, which was first published when Christians were under the persecutions of Pagan Rome It is from an apology of one of the first bishops, which being addressed to a Roman emperor, shows the order of the Christian church before it was greatly corrupted. It is equally interesting as respects the weekly breaking of bread and the weekly contribution. Justin Martyr’s Second Apology, page 96–“On Sunday all Christians in the city or country meet together, because this is the day of our Lord’s resurrection, and then we read the writings of the prophets and apostles. This being done, the president makes an oration to the assembly, to exhort them to imitate, and do the things they heard. Then we all join in prayer, and after that we celebrate the Supper. Then they that are able and willing give what they think fit; and what is thus collected is laid up in the hands of the president, who distributes it to orphans and widows, and other Christians as their wants require.”
The Christian Baptist, No. 6 (January 2, 1826), p 209.
Campbell made it clear that he didn’t consider the pattern of worship that he taught a salvation issue, as noted recently by John Mark Hicks.
The interesting question, however, is whether [Campbell] thought the “order” he discerned within the New Testament was a test of fellowship among believers. Did he believe that conformity to this order was necessary to salvation? Was it his intent to identify the marks of the church that defined the true church so that every other body of believers who did not conform to those marks was apostate and thus outside the fellowship of God?
This was implicitly raised in the Christian Baptist by one of Campbell’s critics. Spencer Clack, the editor of the Baptist Recorder, wondered whether Campbell’s “ancient order” functioned similarly to the written creeds to which Campbell mightily objected (CB 5 [6 August 1827] 359-360). Campbell’s response is illuminating. He maintained that his “ancient order” was no creed precisely because he had “never made them, hinted that they should be, or used them as a test of christian character or terms of christian communion” (CB 5 [3 September 1827] 369-370,
If we take the attitude of Campbell — that we’ll learn what we can from the Patristics and allow them to illuminate the scriptures — as wise counsel but not as establishing the boundaries of the Kingdom, well and good. But many in today’s Churches of Christ build “necessary inferences” and “binding examples” out of uninspired sources and bind them as the very words of God.
You see, shortly after Campbell’s death, the instrumental music controversy began to come to a head, and the writers quickly reached into the Patristics to “prove” the sinfulness of the instrument. And now over 100 years later, most authors clinch their a cappella arguments based on the Patristics — but now they so incorporate the uninspired Patristics into scripture that they feel comfortable damning over the issue.
In A Plea to Reconsider, p. 77, Dave Miller damns the Richland Hills congregation for having an instrumental service, based on this evidence —
James McKinnon conducted a sweeping analysis of the religious writings of the early centuries of Christianity in his Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia University and concluded that instruments were not used in the early church, but were a late innovation (1965). Recognized as a scholar in early church history and the patristic writers with a specialty in Gregory of Nyssa, Everett Ferguson contends that “[t]he testimony of early church history is clear and strong that early Christians employed vocal music but did not employ instrumental music in their assemblies” (1987, p. 79, emp. added). After a thorough review of the early Christian literature (i.e., the first three centuries after the close of the first), including the usage of psallo and psalmos in early church literature, Ferguson’s conclusion is forceful and definitive:
The case is now complete; the witnesses have been called and questioned. Their testimony is unmistakable: early Christians sang unaccompanied by instrumental music in their assemblies…. The evidence of church history confirms the reading of the New Testament that is found among the noninstrumental churches of Christ. The historical argument is quite strong against early Christian use of instrumental music in church (1987, pp. 97-98, emp. added).
(emphasis added). Implicit in the argument is the insufficiency of God’s word. Why do we need more witnesses than God? Why do we need to add post-New Testament history to the word of God? The historical argument is a fascinating study, but it’s not an argument about the Bible. Indeed, if we want to continue with Ferguson’s courtroom metaphor, the evidence is inadmissible. Indeed, Miller argues the case against himself —
But being “silent where the Bible is silent” does not mean doing whatever the Bible is silent on; it means to refrain from acting in areas where the Bible is silent—where God is silent, we must remain silent.
(p. 27). We agree on the highlighted statement. We have no business making laws from sources other than the scriptures — much less dividing over such “evidence.”
Here’s what happened. Alexander Campbell wrote a series of essays regarding the “Ancient Order” establishing an early version of our order of worship and form of church government. This became standard lesson material in the Restoration Movement preaching schools. Campbell did not mean for his teachings to define the boundaries of the church, and so he had no problem using Patristic evidence to establish the practices he found proper. Besides, there wasn’t that much controversy among his churches over the day on which to assemble, whether to contribute to support the church, or whether to sing at church. The instrumental music question didn’t come up until decades later.
But while Campbell was a genius and among the best educated men of his generation, he was a man of the early 19th Century, and so he only thought in terms of those church practices that were common in his experience. Therefore, he gave little thought to the Love Feast, even though we know the early church practiced it from Jude 12 and 1 Corinthians 11, and we know from 1 Corinthians 11 that the Lord’s Supper was combined with a meal — which is hardly surprising given that the Lord’s Supper was instituted as part of a Passover meal.
Neither does he address the fact that the Jerusalem church met daily — because he knows from the Patristics the Gentile churches met only weekly. And he doesn’t concern himself with the Holy Kiss because it wasn’t the American frontier practice, and there was no controversy over it.
And so he doesn’t really build his case for the 5 acts of worship from the Patristics — which evidence the continued practice of the Holy Kiss and Love Feast. Nor does he truly build his case on scripture — which says much more about the Love Feast and Holy Kiss than about weekly contributions or weekly Lord Supper celebrations or even weekly preaching. Rather, he takes what was already customary and orthodox in the early 19th Century, and he reforms the practices by making communion weekly and eliminating the mourner’s bench.
In short, we have inherited a “pattern of worship” built on 19th Century American frontier practice, “restored” to Biblical practice by reference to Second Century and later writings. Where a practice wasn’t common on the frontier, it was ignored. We practice the Patristics as seen through 19th Century frontier glasses.
If we seriously wanted to replicate First Century worship based on the Patristics, we’d —
* Meet in houses (many scriptures, confirmed by archaeologists)
* Meet on Sundays once for worship in the morning before dawn (see Pliny the Younger)
* Celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a separate assembly as part of a common meal called the Love Feast (Jude 12; 1 Cor 11; Pliny the Younger; Didache; Ignatius; many others)
* Greet one another with a Holy Kiss (many scriptures; Tertullian)
And, I should add, each of these practices is far better evidenced in the scriptures than much of what we persist in dividing over.
Many of our editors and other thought leaders feel assured that, in affirming this tradition, they are right because they know the Patristics confirm that early worship included a cappella singing, Sunday assemblies, instruction from the scriptures, prayer, communion, and a contribution. And so they figure that God surely meant for us to find this specific order of worship in the scriptures, even though it’s not really there.
The man behind the curtain is tradition, largely the order of worship as it had evolved in the early 19th Century, reformed only slightly by reference to the Patristics.
So here’s the real rule: A command, example, or inference is binding today if (a) the practice is mentioned in the Bible (not necessarily as binding); (b) it’s shown by the Patristics (uninspired writings of early Christians) to have been the practice of the early church; and (c) it was practiced by churches in the 19th Century American frontier (although perhaps imperfectly).
And so how do we respond? Do we revise our “5 acts of worship” by adding the Holy Kiss and a Love Feast, creating 7 acts of worship? Do we try to emulate the Jerusalem style of worship, meeting daily and having all things in common? The Corinthian approach, with prophecy and tongues? Or do we take a step back and take a different approach altogether?