Friday, January 22, 2010

Determining Church Doctrine

I've grown up in (and am still part of) a culture that insists church doctrine should be derived from the Bible; but not all the Bible, but from the New Testament; but not all the New Testament, but from those parts that "apply to us today".

A core part of the methodology for determining what applies and what doesn't is the use of CENI - Commands, Examples, and Necessary Inference.

However, in recent months I've had cause to revisit these basic principles, and I'm not sure they hold up as a reliable means of determining church doctrine.

The first part of CENI, "Commands", should be the easiest to apply; if God commands it, do it. Yet here are some commands from God that I daresay are not considered binding on Christians today in my church culture.

1 Tim 5:23 - Don't continue drinking only water, but use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.

This command is "tweaked" by explaining that "wine" means "grape juice", and by explaining that the command was specifically for Timothy and not for all Christians. Fair enough, but it's a command in the New Testament that is not considered binding.
1 Tim 2:8 - Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands ....

Of course, if I try lifting my hands in prayer this coming Sunday morning, I would soon find myself in a discussion with the church leaders about my "inappropriate" behavior. So here we have another command which is not considered binding. Interestingly, this is a command that is not only denied as binding, but is actively opposed by many Christians in the name of "expedience". I can't help but recall Jesus' words: "Disregarding the command of God, you keep the tradition of men" (Mark 7:8).
Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14 - Greet one another with a holy kiss (and similar phrases).

Here we have a command that is not given once, but at least five times. And yet, do we bind it? No, we explain it away.
Mark 10:21 - Go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.

This one is explained away as applying only to a specific man in the scriptures, and not to all followers of Jesus. Again, fair enough.
1 Thess 4: 2,11 - [Y]ou know what commands we gave you through the Lord Jesus. ... to seek to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, so that you may walk properly in the presence of outsiders and not be dependent on anyone.

And yet we seldom hear these commands espoused from the pulpit as binding on Christians. In fact, we tend to encourage one another to "make a splash", if not in our personal/business lives, at least in our evangelistic lives. We seldom hear that it's a requirement that Christians work so that we're not dependent on anyone.
1 Cor 14:1,39 - [D]esire spiritual gifts, and above all that you may prophesy. ... [B]e eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in [other] languages.

This is explained away as applying only to the Christians still living in the "age of miracles", and therefore doesn't apply to us today.
1 Cor 14: 26,29 - Whenever you come together ... [t]wo or three prophets should speak, and the others should evaluate.

In context, this command is also dismissed as belonging to the "age of miracles", and thus we dismiss the principle entirely of having two or three speakers, publicly evaluated by all, replacing it with one paid pulpit preacher, whose word is traditionally not publicly evaluated by all.

The point is not that these are commands we are failing to observe; the point is that the idea that the "Commands" part of CENI is a potentially unreliable methodology for determining what Christians should and should not do, allowing lots of room for humans to "pick and choose" the commands we want to keep and explaining away the others. A "principle" that turns out to be so variable is not really a principle, is it?

The second part of CENI, "Examples", is also problematic. The idea is that if we see the New Testament Christians doing something, we should be doing it also. Here are some examples however that we do not consider binding.

Acts 2:44,45; 4:32,34; 2 Cor 8:11-14 - Now all the believers were together and had everything in common. So they sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need. ... [N]o one said that any of his possessions was his own, but instead they held everything in common. ... [T]here was not a needy person among them, because all those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles' feet. This was then distributed to each person as anyone had a need. ... But now finish the task [of sharing] .... It is not that there may be relief for others and hardship for you, but it is a question of equality — at the present time your surplus is [available] for their need, so that their abundance may also become [available] for your need, that there may be equality.

How many of us in the church practice voluntary communism? Hmm-mm??
Acts 21:5 - [A]ll of them, with their wives and children, escorted us out of the city. After kneeling down on the beach to pray....

How many churches kneel as a group to pray?
Luke 22:41 - [Jesus] knelt down, and began to pray....

How many individual Christians kneel to pray?
Mark 6:41 - [L]ooking up to heaven, [Jesus] blessed and broke the loaves.

I suspect that if I looked up to heaven during my prayer the next time I led a prayer in the Lord's Supper, I'd again find myself in a discussion shortly thereafter with the church leaders.
Luke 18:13 - [T]he tax collector, [praying], would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest....

Ah, finally, an example we follow. Sort of - we bow our heads and close our eyes, but we don't strike our chest.
So again, we find that just because we find an example of a practice in the New Testament, that doesn't mean we apply it to ourselves as binding. So the "Examples" part of CENI also fails us when determining what we should or should not do as Christians.

Necessary Inference
The last part of CENI, "Necessary Inference", might be okay, except that we often bind the "inference" part on Christians while neglecting the "necessary" part.

For example, it's an inference that each church had a multiplicity of elders in the first century. We see passages like Acts 20:17 -- "[Paul] sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church" -- and conclude that a church had multiple elders.

It's a valid inference. But it's not a necessary inference. What I mean is that it's not the only inference possible. For example, what if "the church" in Ephesus was not a single congregation, but a half-dozen or so house-churches, each with their own pastor/shepherd/elder? Could the passage in Acts 20 still make sense? Yes, it could. In fact, we see a similar situation in the book of Colossians, wherein Paul writes to the saints there, and mentions the church meeting in Nympha's house.

There's an inference that churches had a multiplicity of elders. But there's also an inference that there may have been multiple churches, each with its own elder. Neither inference is necessary.

So What Then?
So if CENI doesn't work reliably, what then? It seems to me that perhaps Romans 14 addresses this issue:

[D]on't argue about doubtful issues. One person believes [this; another believes that]. ... Therefore, let us no longer criticize one another.... I know and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself. Still, to someone who considers a thing to be unclean, to that one it is unclean. ... Do you have faith? Keep it to yourself before God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.
2 Timothy 2 also addresses the issue:
[Do not] fight about words. ... Be diligent to present yourself approved to God. ... [R]eject foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they breed quarrels.
The question is, "Which arguments are foolish and ignorant, and which are not?"

Whatever the answer to that question is, it's clear that we "must not quarrel" (2 Tim 2:24), and that we should "[a]ccept anyone who is weak in faith" (Rom 14:1), "bear the weaknesses of those without strength" (Rom 15:1), and "be fully convinced in his own mind" (Rom 15:5) about what he believes.

In other words, my church culture has defended a culture for all my life, a way of doing things, a set of doctrines. But it seems more and more to me that we have created laws where God has not, based on our own logic systems, logic systems that are demonstrably fallible. The basics, according to God-As-Man himself is thus:

"This is the most important," Jesus answered:

Listen, Israel! The Lord our God, The Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.

"The second is: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these."

Then the scribe said to Him, "You are right, Teacher! You have correctly said that He is One, and there is no one else except Him. And to love Him with all your heart, with all your understanding, and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, is far more [important] than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices."

When Jesus saw that he answered intelligently, He said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."

So, the legalities of burnt offerings and sacrifices and when the Lord's Supper is taken and how many elders a church has and whether women are silent when they sing in the assembly or not or having a kitchen in the building are far less important than loving God with all your being, and treating your neighbor as yourself.

I'm not saying CENI is useless, or bad; I actually think it's a good general principle for determining what Christians should and should not do. But it's not infallible. So don't treat the results you get from this method as infallible.


Sheri said...

Maybe examples should be seen as something we can choose to do rather than something we must do.

Chyntt said...

This post was cross-posted to Facebook, where Evelyn asks: So how does ["If you love Me, you will keep My commandments"] fit in with "....Love the Lord your God with all your heart..."?

I remember as a kid struggling with this very question: what does it mean to love God? Well, obviously it means to figure out all of God's commands and keep them perfectly, or at least that's what I concluded at the time, in order to justify my beliefs that we must keep His commandments, as taught in places like Jn 14:15 as above.

Since then, I've come to understand a bit better what it means to have a relationship. If you love someone, you'll seek to please them; keeping the commandments of a God whom you love will come naturally. My focus growing up was to keep the laws; now my focus is to love God. I spend less time trying to figure out whether I should wipe the outside of the cup with a clockwise or a counter-clockwise motion, and more time trying to clean my inward thoughts and actions toward my God and my fellow human.

Is it a sin for a woman to pray while not having her head covered? Generations before mine would answer resoundingly "Yes" based on 1 Cor 11. But I believe God is more pleased that the woman is communing with Him than He is with the woman finding and donning a hat or scarf before settling down to commune with Him.

Yet this is a clear command from God. Sure, you can explain it away as culture, but the fact remains, it's a clear command, important enough for Paul to go on for three paragraphs about it.

We pick and choose what commandments we'll obey; we pick and choose what examples we'll follow; we pick and choose what necessary inferences we decide are binding.

What matters is our relationship to our God. Loving someone from the inner-being is the important thing; not getting all the miniscule details right. If the love is there, you'll get better and better over time about getting the details right. But if you put all your energy into the "system" of getting all the details right, your heart is not really in the relationship; it's honoring that person with the lips, while the heart is far from them.