by Al Maxey

Issue #122 ------- May 1, 2004
How it chanced that a man who reasoned
on his premises so ably, should assume
his premises so foolishly, is one of
the great mysteries of human nature.

Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859)
"Samuel Johnson," The Edinburgh Review, Sept. 1831

The Legalistic Leap of CENI
May Human Deduction = Divine Decree?

For those unfamiliar with the term in the title of this article, CENI merely refers to a specific hermeneutical theory, largely embraced by those who have a tendency toward legalism and patternism, the major tenets of which are: Command, Example, Necessary Inference. The primary problem with this one particular interpretative theory is the inherent tendency toward inconsistency with regard to application, especially with respect to the establishment of religious authority. Few disciples have any real argument with the use of divine commands contained in Scripture to ascertain the will of God. The problem arises with how, and to what extent, one employs biblical examples and human inferences to determine and establish binding decrees applicable to all of mankind throughout the ages. Does such selective, subjective use of examples and the accrued assumptions of fallible men have the right to assume the status of regulatory LAW over the disciples of Christ? And just who gets to determine which examples apply? Who's assumptions and deductions are to be equated with divine decree, and who's are not? And who gets to decide? Each group of patternists and legalists, of course, insist their deductions from Scripture are TRUTH, and that which is inferred by others is FALSEHOOD. It doesn't take a genius to see how such a hermeneutical approach to the establishment of one's Faith leads far more frequently to the establishment of Factions.

To illustrate, let me share with you an email I received the other day from a concerned subscriber to these Reflections. He wrote, "Would the Lord be pleased if we did not actually break the bread which is His body? There are some churches that observe the Breaking of Bread with a pre-packaged little cup of juice and a little wafer on the top. My minister said that all we have to do is eat and drink it, and all is well. I begged to differ with him. Our Lord's body was bruised and broken on that old rugged cross, and it was done for us. But most of all, I know that breaking the bread during the Lord's Supper is commanded by necessary inference, and thus ought to be done. I would like for you to give me your take on this situation."

My first "take" on this question was -- If we are going to bind breaking of the bread, must we not also bind some form of bruising of the bread? After all, did the reader not declare the body of our Lord was "bruised and broken on that old rugged cross"? Must I therefore give the bread a few good whacks before breaking it?! I know, I know, this seems silly (and it is) and borders on sacrilege .... but, just how far do we intend to take such "reasoning" from our reading of Scripture? If you insist upon inferring the necessity of breaking the bread, may I not, with equal justification, infer and thereby insist upon the bruising of this bread? But then, consistency is not one of the strong characteristics of this hermeneutical methodology. Selectivity and subjectivity are, however! It is primarily partisan picking and choosing. Is it any wonder those who embrace this theory are so divided?!

The next hermeneutical step, of course, will involve HOW the bread is to be "broken" ... and then how it is to be distributed "according to the pattern." If you think this is "far-fetched" ... that nobody would be that legalistic ... you might want to check the front of brother Mac Lynn's publication: Churches of Christ in the United States, where a host of factions are listed. There is the group which has inferred that the church must use "one loaf, divided only as the participant takes his/her own portion." There is the opposing faction that has inferred the church must use "one loaf, but the loaf must be broken before distribution." Then there are all the rest of us who are characterized as "cracker pinchers" and "wafer swallowers." And this doesn't even factor in the dozens of feuding factions that have arisen over inferences and assumptions involving number of cups and what constitutes "fruit of the vine." From years of observing my factious family, I fear that many are inferring themselves right into infernal ruin. They are counting seeds and swallowing camels, to paraphrase the Lord Jesus as He evaluated the legalists of His day.

Let's get down to the real issue here. There is nothing wrong with varying traditional perceptions, preferences and practices. "One person considers one day to be above another day. Someone else considers every day to be the same. Each must be fully convinced in his own mind" (Romans 14:5). Did Paul suggest one side must "convert" the other? Is unity and harmony established when one perspective submits to the other? Of course not! We allow our fellow disciples to live by their respective convictions, and we accept one another in spite of those varying convictions. This is Unity in Diversity ... something the patternists fear with every fiber of their being, as it is a biblical principle that forever destroys the tedious tenets of legalism and patternism. The biblical reality is --- differences need not result in division, and indeed they won't, if those who differ possess the spirit of Christ! "Accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God" (Romans 15:7). "Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:5).

Thus, applying this principle, we love, encourage and recognize as our beloved brethren those who may differ with us on how many cups to employ in serving the fruit of the vine, or who differ with us on when, or even whether, to break the bread, and who differ with us as to whether the contents of the cup should be fermented or unfermented, and a thousand and one other matters of personal faith and conviction that may be important to us, but less so to some of our beloved brethren in Christ Jesus. Let each disciple "be fully convinced in his own mind," and let us as differing disciples never form feuding factions over such matters of personal conviction. Accept one another to the glory of God. If I should happen to assemble some Lord's Day with disciples who are convicted that the bread should be broken prior to distribution, I will gladly celebrate the communion with them without a single comment. I would do the same if assembling with those who believe each participant should break the bread before eating. If visiting a congregation where the disciples are convicted that one cup should be used, I will observe that "feast divine" in accord with their conviction without negative comment. No such comment is required, for such differences are not relevant to our spiritual unity. Our unity is in a PERSON, not in a PRACTICE. When we finally come to realize that, we will begin to see the barriers that divide us come down.

The problem with those who embrace the CENI hermeneutic is they too frequently believe that what some mere man assumes or infers is EQUAL to what God Himself has commanded. Assumptions, then, very often become the basis for establishing authority with regard to the practice of the church. It matters not that God never commanded such a practice; it matters not that God never even mentioned such a practice, or spoke either for or against it; if I have assumed or inferred something from my study of the Scripture, then that is now perceived to be universal LAW binding upon all people everywhere, and if any dare to transgress these decrees they will forfeit everlasting life! This approach to the interpretation of Scripture has generated more schism and sectarian squabbling among disciples of Christ than just about anything else Satan has slipped into our midst.

Did you notice the remark by the reader in the above portion of his email to me? Here it is again: "But most of all, I know that breaking the bread during the Lord's Supper is commanded by necessary inference, and thus ought to be done." What one has assumed to be true from his/her study, and what has additionally been assumed to be "necessary," is now a practice that is, by virtue of human assumption, COMMANDED. Thus, this particular practice is NOT optional; rather, it is something that "ought" to be done. Generally, patternists will phrase it even more strongly than this. They will declare such a practice MUST be done according to the parameters established by their own assumptions, and anyone who does NOT do it this particular way cannot be viewed as a brother in Christ. In fact, they are most often regarded as godless apostates who must be shunned by the "faithful" (the "faithful" being those who faithfully abide by the assumptions and deductions of their party patriarchs).

May human deductions ever be elevated to equality with divine decree? I believe the answer to that question is a firm, forceful, unyielding "NO!!!" Far too frequently, however, some are saying "Yes," and the horrendous division in the Body of Christ is the result of that flawed hermeneutical approach to establishing biblical authority and practice. Perhaps some of the greatest, and certainly some of the most godly and biblical, advice ever given comes from the pen of brother Thomas Campbell. Near the end of 1809 a document was distributed which is known as his Declaration and Address. Notice just a couple of the many propositions contained in this lengthy and historically significant document:

Do our human inferences, assumptions and deductions have a place in our study and interpretation of Scripture? Yes, they do. I don't think anyone would deny that. There are many things we assume and infer in our quest to better understand His will for our lives. These personal insights will have great bearing on our own individual convictions, and others may well share those same insights and convictions. Such agreement is indeed comforting to us, and helps to confirm our beliefs and understandings. Where too many have failed, however, is in their further assumption that their assumptions are in some way more insightful than those of their brethren with whom they differ. Their inferences, therefore, become the Standard by which all others are measured with regard to fitness for fellowship. As Campbell clearly noted, that is giving far more authoritative weight to human assumptions and deductions than is warranted.

Yes, we must live by our own convictions (some of which will be influenced by our inferences), but we have no right to compel others to bow to our own insights. Ours are no more infallible than theirs. Thus, let us grant to others the same freedom to grow in understanding and knowledge that we claim for ourselves. We are all flawed, fallible fellow travelers through life; none of us has yet arrived at perfection of perception. Let us, then, be loving and generous with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and let us accept one another, differing convictions and all. In so doing, we further the cause of unity and break down the sectarian barriers that separate us.

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, well said in your article "The Ideal for Marriage." I am dismayed when I pick up the paper and read about demands made by gay rights advocates and watch as the courts seem to legitimize their movement. It is ungodly, and I fear the message that our children are hearing from the world. My wife and I have been married for 31 years and I feel closer to her and more in love with her each day. I hope that is the message my children are receiving. Thank you for your message on God's Ideal.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, God's Ideal for Marriage is an excellent article on the sacredness and sanctity of marriage as our God intended it to be, and your admonishment about being yoked unequally is one that all young people in Christ should hear. I grew up in a home where my mother was a Christian and my father was not, and the result of that circumstance has created much that not only can destroy a marriage, but all the souls involved in the process ... including the children. It is hard for children to grow up to be faithful to the Lord, and to remain faithful, when they receive nothing but mixed messages from their parents: one trying to be faithful, struggling and often losing the fight, and the other one not caring, not understanding at all, and undermining the other's efforts to be a godly example. Thanks for the insightfulness you bring to this issue, brother!

From a Reader in California:

One of your readers from Arkansas wrote, "Bro. Maxey, I was so surprised, and grateful, to get a response from you ... and less than twelve hours after sending you my question! I gave my minister two questions -- and I got a response two weeks later. Your response to my 'false teacher' question was so Scriptural, logical, and easy to comprehend." This reader's situation made me laugh! There are several questions that my husband and I asked over 25 years ago that have not been answered yet! I'll be looking forward to your article focusing on false teachers, especially the "Scriptural Fact versus Sectarian Fallacy" part.

About two years ago, my husband and I visited family in West Virginia. Of course, we attended church with them. It was the same segment of the Church of Christ that we both grew up in. As "luck" would have it, they had a visiting "preacher" from Cincinnati for the weekend. As he delivered his sermon, I began, at each questionable statement he delivered from the pulpit, to see red flags waving. His statements, if carried to fruition, simply would not work in real life as they were inconsistent with Christian (Christ's) ethics. I wrote each statement down on a notepad. After we returned home, my husband contacted him via email to ask about a couple of the items he taught as "truth." We never received an answer from him!

From a Minister in Florida:

I preach at ------ -------- Church of Christ in the Orlando area. We've adopted the phrase "Honest Seeker" to describe ourselves to other believers and the community at large. In my preaching, I frequently refer to what it means to be an "Honest Seeker." Such seekers are:

  1. willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads.
  2. open to the possibility they could be mistaken.
  3. open to the probability that new insights will sometimes alter previously held convictions.
  4. anxious to engage in God-honoring dialogue (i.e., "with gentleness and respect").
There's much more, but you get the point. By reframing the discussion, we are beginning to experience the wonder and excitement that should always accompany Restoration. Please add me to your Reflections mailing list. I'll be praying for your work.

From a Missionary in Brazil:

Dear Al, A brother in Christ forwarded to me a part of your study God's Ideal For Marriage. I would like to see the whole article. Do you have a web site where it is available? Would you also please add my name to your mailing list for Reflections.

From a Reader in Texas:

I just wanted to say that your work on Marriage, Divorce & Remarriage is Spirit-filled and clearly biblical. I have often, as have most, struggled with the seeming illogic of traditional positions. 90% of church goers find these traditional teachings out of touch. Only the extremely legalistic cling to them. At best they are illogical, at worst immoral. Your position is both logical, Scriptural, and moral. Just like Jesus intended them. In truth, most Protestant mistakes on this subject originate from an incorrect Catholic doctrine. It thankfully is fading away. A bigger problem for the churches is the number of people who "live together" and are not married. Perhaps you can address premarital sex next!

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