by Al Maxey

Issue #261 ------- August 17, 2006
Tradition means giving votes to
the most obscure of all classes: our
ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

The Law of Expediency
A Reflective Examination of
Legalistic Patternism's Loophole

John Dewey (1859-1952), who was a noted educator, psychologist and philosopher, and one of the leading lights of the school of thought known as pragmatism, once astutely observed, "Any theory and set of practices is dogmatic which is not based upon critical examination of its own underlying principles" [Experience and Education]. Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), who was a brilliant British logician, philosopher, and mathematician, best known for his enduring work in mathematical logic and the philosophy of science, offered the following insightful comment, "Nothing is more curious than the self-satisfied dogmatism with which mankind at each period of its history cherishes the delusion of the finality of its existing modes of knowledge" [The Philosophy of John Dewey].

Simply put -- "Don't mess with my sacred cows!" Some people are terrified of change. Any deviation from "the way it has always been" will rock the foundations of their world. As James Arthur Baldwin (1924-1987), one of our nation's greatest African-American authors and a powerful voice for change in the early civil rights movement, correctly observed, "Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety." Eric Hoffer (1902-1983), an American social writer, noted, "It needs inordinate self-confidence to face drastic change without inner trembling" [The Ordeal of Change]. Change removes us from our comfort zones -- or ruts, as the case may be. It propels us into the great unknown, and that is more than some can handle. They prefer the "safety" of the status quo -- THEIR status quo, of course. That is why one will quite often hear those who resist change say they think it is advisable to "play it safe." They will often admit, when cornered, that there may in fact be nothing biblically wrong with the proposed changes, but "why take the risk; let's play it safe; let's just stick to the old paths." Translation: "We don't like it and we'll work against it."

It is an observable, verifiable fact that those most resistant to change are also the very ones most resistant to any challenge of the basis of their resistance. If you want to see a barrage of stones, sticks and dirt tossed at you from the depths of a well-dug rut, just dare to ask someone why they are down there and so opposed to coming out! When one dares to challenge a legalist to simply think ... to provide a reasoned basis for their position (indeed, to even state their position or pattern) ... one will very quickly witness a vicious assault the likes of which will leave most disciples stunned into silence (which is the whole purpose -- to shut you up so they can return to the comfort of their open grave).

One of the reasons that legalistic patternists are so militant against those who dare to challenge them is that they realize (at least, the leaders of these factions do; most of their adherents are just blissfully ignorant, and the leaders are determined to keep them that way) their theology cannot withstand close scrutiny; it will collapse under careful examination. Thus, these leaders will shelter their followers from anyone who would dare to challenge them to think, and will flee from responsible dialogue rather than make a defense "to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you" [1 Pet. 3:15]. For those so determined to follow the exact pattern of Scripture, they display great reluctance to follow the instruction of this passage. As with most of their theology, it is pick and choose.

Which brings us to our subject for this present issue of my weekly Reflections. When the basis of your salvation, and even your fellowship with others, is preciseness of practice with regard to a perceived biblical pattern, then there has to be some provision in place for these legalistic patternists to avoid those aspects of the pattern with which they may not feel comfortable, and to adopt extra-pattern practices when it is convenient for them. Such has always been the plight of those who seek to live by law -- there is a need for loopholes. The Pharisees were experts at binding heavy loads upon others, but finding ways to avoid such burdens themselves. One of the loopholes for the Pharisees of today is known as "The Law of Expediency." We've all heard this phrase countless times, but do we really understand it? Are we even aware of the particulars of it, and how it is employed? Let me assure you, the patternists will squeeze themselves through this loophole at every opportunity, yet they will deny its use to all others outside their narrow party parameters. The exclusivity of expediency is one of the great earmarks of legalistic patternism. If they engage in some practice beyond the specifics of "the pattern" (which varies from faction to faction), then that practice is declared "expedient." However, when anyone else engages in some practice beyond the specifics of "the pattern," then their variance is "unauthorized innovation," at best, or, more likely, just outright "godless apostasy." In light of such blatant inconsistency, it behooves us to examine in greater depth this doctrine of expediency.

What exactly is an "expedient," and is it a biblical concept? According to Webster's New World Dictionary, an "expedient" is anything that is "useful for effecting a desired result." If you desire to bake a cake in the shape of a heart, for example, a heart-shaped cake pan would be a handy device for effecting that desired result. It certainly wouldn't be considered an "essential," as one could carve the design into the cake after it was baked. However, such a cake pan would definitely be a great aid. Thus, it would be an expedient: a beneficial means to an end. But, does the Word of God ever speak of expediencies? The answer, of course, is Yes. The Greek word employed is sumphero, which means "that which is advantageous, profitable, expedient." Notice a few examples:

Many more examples could easily be cited, but we shall let these few suffice to illustrate the point. The New Covenant writings are not unfamiliar with the concept of expediency. It is biblically sound. How men employ an expedient, however, often is not. Therein lies the major problem before us; that, and what various disciples of Christ may perceive to be an "authorized" or valid expedient. "The precise identification of what is, and what is not, 'expedient' remains a point of contention among many Stone-Campbell congregations" [The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 325]. There are some within Churches of Christ who feel expediency is just a manipulative device devised by devious "digressives" to impose their innovations upon the church. Thus, they would throw out the "law of expediency" (although, in point of fact, they themselves employ it frequently when it suits them). For example, Bro. H. Leo Boles, in his infamous speech before a unity meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana on May 3, 1939 [see my review of this in Reflections #247 -- The Boles Manifesto], declared, "The 'doctrine of expediency' or the 'law of expediency' came in with the 'liberty of opinion' in the 'areas of silence.' It is an afterthought." Boles didn't like the freedom contained in such a doctrine, for it clearly opened the door to expediencies other than the ones he approved. Such liberty (at least for others) is anathema to those with a sectarian spirit.

An expedient, however, properly perceived, does allow for a significant degree of freedom among disciples to choose for themselves what they believe to be the most profitable methods and means of effecting the desired result. In the Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement this concept is defined thusly: "Procedures or practices that, while not explicitly enjoined by the biblical text, are nonetheless not explicitly prohibited and thus are considered permissible because they are instrumental (or 'expedient') to the execution of some other clear biblical command" [p. 325]. Well, this clearly allows great liberty, and thus it is understandable why the ultra-conservatives among us cringe at the thought of such freedom in the hands of those they deem "digressive." Bro. James P. Needham, in an article for Watchman Magazine, wrote, "Under the guise of expediency every form of innovation has been promoted, and wholesale apostasies developed, in the work and worship of the church. ... From the camps of the innovators the cry of 'expediency' is heard" [Are Institutional Orphan Homes Expedient? - August, 2001].

A Reflections reader from the beautiful state of Florida recently sent me an email in which he made the following statement, "In studying expediencies I have thought of something that no one has been able to answer thus far -- maybe you can share your thoughts with me on this. Brethren typically justify the use of a church building on the basis of it being an 'expediency.' And yet, according to the 'rules of expediency' (I realize these are man-made rules), an expediency cannot be specified. If it is true, therefore, that an expediency cannot be specified, then how can we specify how an expediency can or cannot be used?" The brother has a point. "A kitchen in a church building is sinful." Really? Church buildings are never even mentioned in the NT Scriptures. So, by what "authority" do you declare a particular room in such a structure "sinful"? "Using shaped notes in a song book is sinful." Really? Where is the passage in the NT that mentions song books? They are an expedient to our singing. May one regulate some aspect of an expedient? If so, by what authority? By what logic?

Alexander Campbell, in his classic work The Christian System, which was published in 1839, devoted the entire 27th chapter to a study of expediency. If you have never read this scholarly examination, I would encourage you to do so. In that chapter he lists twelve items he feels are critical to our proper perception of expediencies, which he characterized as "the circumstantials of the gospel and of the church of Christ." It was his contention that "the people of God are left to their own discretion" when it comes to the use of an expedient. There is no need for complete agreement in the church in this area, for "No class of men -- apostles, teachers, privates -- ever did agree on questions of expediency." He gave an example: "That 'marriage is honorable in all' is clearly taught; but who ever read a verse on the manner in which the most important of all social institutions is to be performed?" Thus, such expedients are left to the best judgment of individual societies. Expedients are not biblically specified, therefore they can never be biblically regulated or placed under the umbrella of direct biblical authority. And since men very rarely agree on matters of personal judgment, such agreement in the area of expediency is therefore not required (with regard to one's salvation or fellowship with the saints). Bro. Isaac Errett, one of the early leaders of the Stone-Campbell Movement, "insisted there could be great variety among the churches over matters of expediency. No such choice should ever be made a test of fellowship or a cause of division" [The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 325].

Unfortunately, we all know that this is not the case. Our various choices regarding what is or is not "expedient" (and we all make them) have become the source of squabbling and schism among spiritual siblings! Why? Because human nature being what it is we each have a tendency to regard our own choices as the most profitable, and thus regard the choices of others as being less so. In time, it moves beyond mere profitability, or lack thereof, to absolute necessity for fellowship and salvation. Agree with ME, or perish! When brethren become this legalistic regarding the employment of mere expedients, the satanic spirit of sectarianism has completely captured and enslaved their hearts and minds, and the destruction of our oneness in the family of God is assured.

The essay concludes, and quite correctly: "Fortunately, many legalists often hesitate to follow consistently the logic of their own position." In other words, their legalism is so harsh and unrealistic that even they can't abide it. Thus, they seek loopholes, just as the Pharisees did. There is no more inconsistent and hypocritical bunch than the legalists. No wonder that Jesus repeatedly characterized them as such! "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites" [Matt. 23:13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29]. "For they say, and do not" (Matt. 23:3, KJV]. The so-called "law of expediency" is the loophole these legalists readily employ. If there is something "not according to the pattern," but which they themselves choose to do, then it is quickly declared to be expedient. The hypocrisy comes in, however, when they refuse to allow others the same freedom to choose. They are allowed to employ expedients; you are not! So, just how does one determine when something is truly expedient? Has the Bible offered us any assistance? Consider the following:

It Must Be Biblically Consistent --- In 1 Cor. 6:12 & 10:23 the apostle Paul declared, "All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient." Clearly, Paul regards expedients as falling under the umbrella of "lawful." In other words, if one chooses an expedient, it must be consistent with known biblical principles and precepts, which would place it under the guiding hand of indirect biblical authority. For example, when I lived in Hawaii, serving as the minister for the Honolulu Church of Christ (from 1992-1998), there were times when it got very, very hot inside our auditorium (believe it or not, we didn't have air-conditioning). We actually had visitors faint in the assembly on a regular basis. I would often come home after a morning worship assembly completely drenched. One could perhaps argue that less clothing would have been expedient. It certainly would have been more comfortable. However, would assembling in "beach wear" have been consistent with known biblical principles and precepts? Probably not. Thus, that which is clearly contrary to and/or inconsistent with the teachings of God's Word should not be selected as an expedient. Few would disagree with this logic.

It Must Be Biblically Unspecified --- When God specifies something in His Word, whether for or against, we are obligated to obey. When God speaks, we listen ... and comply. The Lord Jesus Christ said, "If you love Me, you will keep my commandments" [John 14:15]. This is not optional, for the Lord Jesus has become "to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation" [Heb. 5:9]. Therefore, if something is clearly specified in Scripture, it cannot rightly fall within the realm of "expediency." Notice again the definition of an "expedient," as given in the Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, "Procedures or practices that, while not explicitly enjoined by the biblical text, are nonetheless not explicitly prohibited and thus are considered permissible." In this definition we see both of these present principles regarding an expedient: It must be biblically consistent, and it must be biblically unspecified. Again, few would disagree with this assessment.

It Must Be Edifying --- Paul wrote, "All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient; all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not" [1 Cor. 10:23]. "Let all things be done for edification" [1 Cor. 14:26]. With the freedom of choice comes great responsibility, both to ourselves and to others. My choices must build up the Body of Christ, not contribute to its deconstruction. If I propose some action or practice as an expedient to accomplishing the will of our Father, and this proposed expedient would not be beneficial or profitable to the church, then I had better rethink this expedient. An expedient that does not build up the body is not truly a legitimate expedient ... at least not one God would approve. When we demand something that results in harm to the One Body, then we are not truly behaving responsibly toward the blood-bought church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

It Must Not Cause Stumbling --- One of the overriding principles of the New Covenant is that we must exercise our liberty in a responsible way, with consideration for our brethren who are less settled in their faith. If my choices, even though they may be good and right within themselves, cause a brother or sister to stumble and fall in their walk with Christ, then I have not truly exercised my liberty in a godly and responsible manner. Rom. 14:1 - 15:2 and 1 Cor. 8 stress this principle time and again. "Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God" [1 Cor. 10:32]. This would apply to any area of liberty, including our choice of what may be perceived to be expedient to the accomplishing of God's will.

Here we must insert a note of caution, however, for extremists on both ends of the theological spectrum frequently abuse the above guiding principles with regard to expediency. Some feel that since expedients are by nature unspecified, and thus not subject to direct regulation by God's Word, they are therefore free to employ whatever they like whenever they like. The fallacy of this line of thinking is shown in the guiding principles given above. Freedom is not license ... a fact some seem not to fathom. On the other end of the spectrum are those who feel their preferences with regard to expedients embody the only "authorized" expedients. Thus, something is an expedient if they regard it as such, and only if they regard it as such. All else is innovation and/or apostasy. This too is fallacious. Dr. James Hastings, in his Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, calls this "legislation by the unintelligent" [vol. 1, p. 387]. Not a very subtle characterization, but rather on target nonetheless. Notice some of the more commonly employed expedients, and let's determine if they truly comply with the principles and guidelines enumerated above.

Although some don't like to admit it, expedients are employed by us ALL ... and on a daily basis. The Scriptures speak of expedients, thus the concept is clearly acceptable to our God. Paul, in particular, gives us some rational guidelines for choosing and employing such expedients, and it is wise and in the best interests of all to follow them. However, it must be acknowledged that in both the selection and the application of an expedient there is great liberty allowed. This requires we be far more accepting of and forbearing with one another in these areas of choice. Let us cease demanding uniformity. Let us begin promoting unity instead. Somehow I think such an attitude and course of action would be expedient.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Minister/Author in Tennessee:

Brother Al, Only this morning have I had the time to read your Reflections of August 3rd -- Churches of Christ in Crisis. While you and I disagree on some points, particularly your insistence on casting Churches of Christ as a "faith-heritage" (in other words: a denomination), and we have discussed these differences in various exchanges, I found this particular essay to be exceptionally good. Our differences of perception regarding the Churches of Christ aside, I think you have done a good job of identifying some of our real problems.

From an Elder in Oklahoma:

Al, I really appreciate your writing! As I've said before, I may not always agree with you, but you almost always cause me to think. I believe this lack of thinking by people is one of the greatest problems we all face. Unfortunately, I sometimes find myself in that group also! Thanks again!

From an New Reader in Ukraine:

Bro. Al, We are missionaries in Ukraine and would like to subscribe to your weekly Reflections. Thanks!

From a Reader in Alabama:

Hello, beloved brother! Thank you for the GOOD you do every day! May God grant you the strength to keep doing what you're doing, even in the face of such blatant hatred against you!

From a Reader in Indiana:

You are a damned liar and a coward!

From a Minister in California:

Al, #260 on Judas Iscariot was another gem; thoroughly researched, clearly presented, and articulated with grace. But what really encouraged me about Issue #260 was the grace and gratitude your readers expressed regarding a previous issue: Churches of Christ in Crisis. It is exciting to witness so many who were force-fed legalistic patternism now discovering and flourishing in a whole new world where the soul-liberating love and grace of Jesus holds sway. While some legalistic patternists have barricaded themselves against the grace of Jesus, others haven't. They are open and reachable. Through your Reflections ministry, the Spirit is changing the hearts of many who are now willing to think for themselves. Isn't it amazing what happens in the One Body when we just serve in the special way the Holy Spirit has gifted us, as you are doing?! THANKS for your ministry of teaching and encouragement. May our Lord continue to use you to lead both believers and unbelievers to find new hope in the incredible, compassionate heart of Jesus Christ.

From a Reader in California:

Brother Al, I almost wept tonight reading the letters from your readers. I am so encouraged by the number of people who are sick and tired of all the "selective fellowship" handed out by the leaders of various legalistic Churches of Christ. It's just ignorance of the Bible that causes so many to believe what has been laid at their feet for so long. Those of us with a Church of Christ heritage are NOT the only Christians who will be saved, and if we think like that then it is we who just may not make it. ALL who believe and receive Him will be saved. What part of that is so hard to understand?!

From a New Reader in [Unknown]:

Bro. Al, In the last two or three hours I have read so much material on your web site that I feel I know you! I am happy to see that you are a preacher and also an elder. I have never understood why the preacher could not be an elder. The fact is that you fellows who preach the Word are the ones the flock come to when they have questions, concerns, a death in the family, a child to marry off, or have fallen into sin and need counsel. You are the "point men." I would be very comfortable calling you Pastor, Preacher, Minister, Bishop, Elder, and, by the way, Friend. I applaud your scholarly work and your obvious sincerity. I am a big fan of Edward Fudge, and now you as well. I have yet to meet any person with whom I agree on every point of doctrine and view of Scripture. But you challenge my beliefs, and I love that about your teaching!

From a Reader in West Virginia:

Dear Bro. Maxey, I read every one of your Reflections and find great insight in your writings. This is never more true than in your article Churches of Christ in Crisis. We have noticed a great decrease in attendance here over the last five years, and we are currently trying to identify the problems and develop plans to address them. I have also observed, much as you did in your article, that while numbers have decreased, spirituality has increased.

From a Minister in India:

Dear Brother, A great, insightful lesson again! Yes, we should not sell out the Truth -- our Savior. Thanks a lot for your efforts in bringing out this well-researched article on Judas Iscariot. God bless your Reflections ministry. Also, I am including a list of people for you to add to your mailing list. Thanks!

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Bro. Al, There are two things that "hit home" with me from reading your Judas article: (1) We don't love like Jesus did, but we should. Thinking back to your article on the decline of the church, and the why for it -- it is because we are not practicing the love for others that Jesus has for us (and that He had for Judas). We are selfish. "Do it like I want, or I will get mad at you and withdraw!" Shame on all of us! We are in effect saying, "Surely not I, Lord?" while throwing away the love we should have for the Lord and each other. (2) As you mentioned in your conclusion: don't sell out your Savior. In causing division we are in effect selling out our Savior and not even getting 30 pieces of silver for the job. When we tear the Body of Christ (the church) apart, we are putting Him back on the cross again. Once more: Shame on all of us. Keep on, Al -- what a fine endeavor your whole Reflections ministry is!

From a Reader in Michigan:

Dear Al, That was a very interesting study indeed on Judas. After having pondered the possibilities for a number of years concerning Judas' death, and trying to reconcile the Matthew and Acts accounts, it seems entirely possible to me that when Judas ran off in great distress, over hilly terrain, he could have tripped and fallen off a hill and landed in a tree on his way down. Some branches could have impaled him, and his tunic could have gotten entangled in other branches, and thus he "hanged" there. Later on, those below might walk by and, looking up, see Judas "hanging" in a tree (having fallen headlong into it), disemboweled and dead. No, there is no need for a rope here. So, did Judas commit suicide? I don't think so. I believe he accidentally hanged himself in his distress and haste, although in some measure he got what he deserved, I suppose. Anyway, that's my two cents' worth!

From a Youth Minister in Oklahoma:

Brother Al, I occasionally teach a class about Judas and his betrayal. My entire introduction is a lengthy discourse about all of the things that Judas had seen and experienced while in the presence of Jesus. I never actually mention his name until the end so that the entire discourse sounds to the students as if I'm describing Peter. It really is amazing how much the two of them had in common (as far as experiences, opportunities, etc.), right down to betrayal -- although, Peter actually betrayed him three times. Really, you could say that their major difference was in the way they each handled their personal shortcomings. One could not handle what he had done and hung himself. The other went back to fishing, but was later restored by Jesus Himself, becoming the chief apostle to the Jews. I wonder what great things Judas could have accomplished if he had only allowed himself to be restored by Jesus. Have a wonderful day, Al, and thanks again for your hard work for HIM!

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Dear Bro. Maxey, Thank you for a well-written article on Judas. I have studied Judas for a long time and am convinced he was motivated by impatience. Like all the disciples, he was expecting the luxurious lifestyle of an earthly kingdom. In my view, he was tired of waiting and felt he could serve as the catalyst for the inevitable showdown. I find it very difficult to believe that the 30 pieces of silver were of much importance to him. It was the prize of becoming a rich official (perhaps the treasurer) in an earthly kingdom that was the goal.

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