An Email about Authority and Mathematics, Part 2 (CENI explained)


Last week, I posted “An Email about Authority and Mathematics” in response to a question I received re a young brother, a mathematician, with questions re certain traditional Church of Christ teachings.

On Tuesday, my mathematician brother, whom I now know as Minghui, responded in some detail.

I will repost his entire response, with my comments inserted throughout.

I am the young brother. Thank you for your article. The logic is mathematically very clear.


I’m thrilled to have heard from you and appreciate, more than I can express, your response. You see, you engage the arguments I actually make. You’ve obviously taken the time to listen to what I say, you concede the points where you should, and where you don’t concede, you give thoughtful reasons. It’s a sheer delight to correspond with a Christian such as you. Thank you.

And I need to apologize for one thing in advance. There will be occasions when I speak very harshly about CENI and some of the traditional arguments made under CENI. I do not intend to criticize you. Rather, I understand that you are quoting standard Church of Christ teaching and asking for my response.

And there are times when it’s important to point out the severe wrongness of some elements of this teaching. I’ve grown up with it, and I get emails and phone calls constantly from people whose churches and families and lives are being destroyed in the name of CENI.

In application, it’s terribly divisive, and my eyes have been opened to the human toll of the false logic and bad exegesis.

[Minghui’s quotations are my words, taken from my earlier post.]

Just a few comments:

“There is no authority for church buildings to be owned by a church. And yet the rightness of the practice is widely accepted by even the most conservative Churches of Christ.”

There is authority for us to assemble. The exact location is not specified; we have the liberty to decide to assemble at someone’s house, at a church building, at a rented place, etc.

To proceed further, we have to take a moment to more precisely state the traditional Church of Christ authority argument. Here are the key elements:

1. That which is not authorized by CENI is prohibited.

2. CENI includes and only includes commands, examples, and necessary inference. These are the only possible sources of authority.

3. NI, the necessary inference element, is expanded beyond a literal reading of “necessary” to include expedience, on the authority of 1 Cor 6:12 and 1 Cor 10:23.

(1Co 6:12 KJV)  12 All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.

(1Co 10:23 KJV)  23 All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.

(For example, this article.) For example, it is not logically necessary that a church support orphanages for orphanages to be supported. After all, orphanages could be supported by the government, individuals, or large nonprofit endowment funds. But it is expedient for churches to support orphanages, and therefore it is authorized (as the mainstream Churches of Christ argue). Or it’s not expedient because it’s unlawful (as the non-institutional Churches argue). (I heard these arguments repeatedly growing up, because the non-institutional controversy was splitting churches where I grew up in my early years.)

To understand the force of this argument, it’s important to realize how very narrow “necessary inference” strictly read is. Church buildings are not necessary. They are convenient — and some would dispute even that. After all, the Christian church operated without owning a church building until the time of Constantine (Fourth Century). Buildings are not absolutely necessary and therefore are simply not a logical necessity derived from the command to assemble. They are convenient, and hence they are expedients — or else they lack authority under CENI. (More on this later.)

Of course,  the scriptures I quoted above do not say that expedient things are authorized. They actually argue that the Corinthians should not exercise authority when to do so would not be expedient. (They are authorized to eat meat but should not eat meat sacrificed to idols if doing so would lead their brothers to sin against their consciences.) Their true teaching is that expedience (in this case, the practical needs resulting from our love for our brothers) limits authority, not that it expands authority.

But let’s continue with what has been taught.

4. Another way to express expedience is that we are authorized to use aids for otherwise authorized actions. Hence, pitch pipes, PA systems, buildings, pews, etc. are all aids (or expedients) for the assembly and so authorized.

5. Expedience covers a lot of ground that would otherwise lack authority, but it cannot authorize an “addition” — that is, a thing that is of the same kind (sui generis) as what is being aided.

Thus, we may have all sorts of aids for our worship, such as hymn books,  but we may not add instruments, because the Bible considers instrumental music as “worship” and hence something in the same class as those things to be aided — and so it cannot be justified as an aid.

It is, of course, a bit suspect to insist that something must be either “aid” or “addition” and cannot be both. That is not a logically required conclusion. But that’s the teaching.

This body of teaching is an expansion of Zwingli’s and Calvin’s Regulative Principle of Worship. They and their disciples put this doctrine together as a way to eliminate elements of Medieval Catholicism, such as the veneration of Mary, and they carefully limited its application to worship, on the theory that worship is particularly central to our relationship with God.

The Puritans sought to apply these principles very rigorously, but rather than using the Church of Christ aid/addition distinction, they borrowed from Aristotle the distinction between essences and accidents. This has, over the centuries, led to all sorts of hair splitting and division, as you might imagine. (Their history is much like ours, except expressed in Aristotelian terms.)

The point is that it’s not logically required that the line be drawn between “aids” and “additions.” It’s a choice that was made by Church of Christ preachers 100 years ago to argue that instruments are sinful — the theory being driven by the desired result. I mean, where is the aid/addition distinction found in scripture.

In fact, it’s hard to logically argue that any limit on authority should be incorporated into the text from philosophy or debates or sermons. Rather, why not simply say that anything expedient is allowed unless it violates some other principle of scripture? Hence, instruments are okay, unless used in a manner that violates the purposes of the assembly and other Christian principles. (This would be entirely consistent with the logic Paul uses to consider the rightness of certain worship proposals he considers in 1 Cor 14.)

In my view, we simply have no right to create doctrine to achieve our own ends, and the aids/addition dichotomy will not be found either in scripture or logic. Nor should we incorporate Greek philosophy in the scriptures. Rather, God inspired the scriptures, and they are quite sufficient without the addition of Aristotle.

The expedience doctrine came into our doctrine as part of the debates over orphanages back in the 1950s. It was argued that the Bible tells us to teach the gospel to all nations but doesn’t tell us how. Therefore, we can go by plane, steamboat, or car
— as a matter of expedience.

You see, when our disputes moved into areas other than worship, we ignored the Calvinistic limitation of the rule to worship and expanded it to include church organization, the use of the church treasury, and just about anything else that we ever disagreed over.

6. When the Bible actually gives an example of how to do something right, expedience does not justify using other means. For example, we have an example in Acts 2o of communion being taken weekly. We plainly have authority to take communion weekly, and have no authority to take it quarterly — and therefore quarterly communion is wrong.

But what about expedience? What if an eldership concludes that less-frequent communion adds to its solemnity and importance. Tough luck, because the example is a “binding example.” Why binding? Because surely God intended for us to have a rule. I guess.

houseofcardsI have not found a credible effort by any Church of Christ writer to explain when an example is binding. I have a book by Thomas Warren on exactly that topic, and the best I can tell, the rules change with the topic — because it’s hopelessly inconsistent.

But it’s evidently quite clear that Acts 20:6-7 is binding law as to the frequency of communion. Even though it’s an example, not a command.

In other words, long before we get to applying the above rules to the particulars discussed below, it’s well worth noting that these rules comprise a house of cards. They don’t exegete the scriptures well at all, and they are far removed from the necessities of logic. (This will become more evident as we work through the particulars of the examples in your comment.)

The doctrine has the amazing ability to be applied to just about any dispute and to argue that just about anything is unscriptural — while those disagreeing can also find comfort in other parts of the rule.

Thus, the vast majority of 20th Century splits in the Churches of Christ were over whether X is an expedient or violative of a binding example or an aid or an addition. And, of course, we couldn’t agree because no one has ever explained when an example is or isn’t binding — proving that the Regulative Principle has precious little power to explain or to teach and quite a lot of power to divide. And that’s because it’s not from God.

(Mat 7:17-19 ESV)  17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.  18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.  19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

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.
This entry was posted in An Email about Authority and Mathematics, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to An Email about Authority and Mathematics, Part 2 (CENI explained)

  1. I take it that more will follow. Keep up the good work!

  2. David Himes says:

    It’s convenient for me to like this post … but the more fundamental flaw of CENI continues to be that it turns our relationship to God into a set of rules to be followed, and that is contrary to the Text, to Jesus, to grace, to forgiveness, to faith.

  3. Jay – what do you propose in the stead of CENI?

  4. Richard says:

    One group, at least, says that communion is to be taken only once a year and they use Acts 20 as their basic proof text. I believe the argument relates Acts 20 with the Passover time, when Jesus instituted the L.S.

  5. martin says:

    Interesting discussion on the exegetical methodology of the churches of Christ. If I may offer my own, uninformed opinion of this discussion, it would appear that you are having a discussion that has been had untold thousands of times before. As has been mentioned previously, Calvin himself subscribed to the exegetical concept of regulative worship, and debated some of these very points.
    The reason I mention Calvin is because I suspect CENI could be traced directly back to Calvin through Campbell. No, not Alexander but his father, Thomas. As you may recall, Thomas was a Presbyterian minister. If my historical recall is accurate, he was with the Auld Licht, Anti Burger Presbyterian church in Scotland which was strongly regulative, to the point of acapella singing. Not much of a stretch to see how you get to Alexander, CENI, and acapella singing.
    The problem as I see it is that we say we have no creed but the bible, but CENI sure seems like a creed, sort of an unwritten but well understood creed. The previously mentioned Acts 20 passage is a good example. If you didn’t have the CENI oral tradition you would never see that passage as supporting weekly communion.
    Another flaw in the CENI is that it is wholly inadequate to the task. Just for example, let’s take a look at Commands. Which ones are binding? The one about shellfish? No, it’s in the Old Testament. OK, what about the high priest Annas commanding Peter and John to stop preaching? No, that’s not from God. OK, what about Jesus commanding his disciples to not tell anyone that He is the messiah?
    Sorry for my argument reductio ad absurdum, but simply saying that we must follow commands needs some additional interpretation. If I may be so bold as to answer Justin’s question, I would propose this as an exegetical model for the churches of Christ–the point of the passage is the point of the message.

  6. Ray Downen says:

    Martin is thinking well except that he may not be realizing that a command to women is not a command to men and vice versa. A command in the Old Testament is not a command to Christians. A command given to any individual does not necessarily become a command for anyone else. And much in the Way of Jesus doesn’t depend on commands at all. We are not under a law system where things not required are forbidden.

    How important it is that we respect Jesus and HIS authority. We need to obey Jesus and we also need to obey any command given by one of His apostles and intended for His followers. But we are free in Christ and those who love laws are apt to have little love for liberty. The Way is not a legal system! We follow Jesus because of love rather than because we have to do so.

    Those who think of our congregations as being constrained by laws are misunderstanding the gospel and our Savior. God’s people in earlier times had a book of law. It spelled out what was necessary and what was forbidden in considerable detail. We followers of Jesus have no such book of laws. Those who love law and want to make laws for Christians are not doing so to please Jesus.

  7. Jay Guin says:

    Justin asked,

    “Jay – what do you propose in the stead of CENI?”


    You can’t simply toss out CENI and replace it with something better. CENI and its many deficiencies are symptomatic of other, deeper problems. You have to get the heart of what’s wrong with 20th Century Church of Christ theology — not just its flawed hermeneutics — before you can put something better in its place.

    After I finish with my posts to Minghui, I’ll see if I can answer the question simply. In the meantime, you might want to look at the posts listed in the Table of Contents under Hermeneutics. I’ve put together a couple of series, at least, on the topic. While my views have changed — have gotten deeper — I think the posts remain a pretty good introduction to a better way of approaching the scriptures.

  8. Replace CENI? Justin, how about we replace it with John 14:26? I really like this method, and have found it incredibly useful.

  9. Grizz says:


    While all of this playfulness with applied mathematics to determine the bounds of sound logic is diverting, I am left wondering why you do not get a little more direct and use those passages which CENI promoters claim establish their approach as your test samples for proving or disproving their logic or illogic?

    Is that question understandable for you?


  10. Jay Guin says:

    Grizz wrote,

    While all of this playfulness with applied mathematics to determine the bounds of sound logic is diverting, I am left wondering why you do not get a little more direct and use those passages which CENI promoters claim establish their approach as your test samples for proving or disproving their logic or illogic?

    Is that question understandable for you?


    Forgive me if I am mistaken, but isn’t that final question intended to be sarcastic? And what have I done to merit such a comment?

    In response to your first question, I responded as I did because the question was raised by a mathematician new to the faith, and so I figured he’d have more confidence in my logic than my exegesis.

    Besides, I’ve written on the verses alleged to support CENI and RP several times.



    Take a looked at the several linked posts and let know if there’s an important passage I’ve not yet covered.

  11. Jay Guin says:

    So, Justin, I’ve been thinking about your question, and I thought I could remember having taken a stab at it in the past. These are from 4 1/2 years ago.


    I’m still recovering from back surgery and not sure I’m up to posting a new series, but this is not far from my current thinking as to a better hermeneutic. You’ll see that I take my hermeneutics from Jesus and Paul, not John Calvin.

  12. Grizz says:


    you asked if my last question was intended to be sarcastic. No, it was intended as an admission that the question seemed a little convoluted to me when I read it back to myself, but I did not see how to make it better and also did not want to lose the thought.

    As it turned out you worked through and seem to get it – when I was afraid it did not communicate my meaning. I now have some in-depth reading to do to catch up since you reference some posts I may have missed.


  13. Grizz says:


    I have a suspicion that I have probably missed some of your posts, but I have tried to re-read the posts you referred me to and the Blue Parakeet series. Looking through those, I could not find one in which you addressed Hebrews 7:13-14 as it is employed by proponents of CENI to support teaching the Regulative Principle of Silence, nor did I find in my searching one that addresses Leviticus 10:1-2, a passage often used by CENI proponents to support the teaching that anything done in worship is to be done only if and when God has authorized it.

    I have found ways to address both of those passages, but am hopeful that perhaps you could improve on the ways which I have found.

    Thanks, Jay.


Comments are closed.