How it Happened: Some Historical Perspective (Mar-Jun 2010)

By Matt Dabbs

by Edward Fudge
March – June, 2010

PatternismAll Christians agree that Jesus is our pattern, and that healthy teaching consistent with trusting and loving him provides a secondary pattern for living as well (2 Tim. 1:13). No right-thinking believer can possibly quarrel with that. This issue of New Wineskins concerns something far different. It is about an oddity and aberration that has marked the Churches of Christ from their beginning in the 19th century. That peculiarity is at once a doctrine, a way of reading the Bible and an approach to “doing church.” We can call it patternism. Today, most mainstream Churches of Christ have left this peculiarity behind, at least as a matter of emphasis. Those who have done so often describe the transition in terms of the Israelites being delivered from Egyptian slavery.

Background

The Churches of Christ flowed from the merger of two 19th-century, back-to-the-Bible movements, led by three former Presbyterian preachers. The smaller movement resulted from the work of Barton W. Stone, who had been a participant in the famous Cane Ridge Revival. The larger movement was initiated by the father-son pair, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, who had emigrated from Ireland and Scotland to America. The Campbells called for the restoration of “primitive Christianity,” which they defined primarily in terms of external details of the institutional church.

Just as God provided Moses an exact pattern for building the Tabernacle, said the Campbells, so he had provided an exact pattern for his people to follow when restoring the apostolic church of the first century. And if people of good will would only use their common sense, the Campbells believed (following the steps of the English philosopher John Locke), they would soon discover that divine pattern and agree on its details.

But there was a flaw in the Campbells’ proposal. It is true that God gave Moses voluminous and exact details for the Tabernacle and its furnishings (Exodus 25-40), and also such details concerning the priests and sacrifices (Leviticus). But if we read the New Testament from cover to cover, we will not find a book that even slightly resembles Exodus or Leviticus. Indeed, when the writer of Hebrews refers to the “pattern” that God gave to Moses, he is making a contrast with the Christian order. He is not suggesting that Christians also have such a pattern for the church (Heb. 8:1-6). Nor does the biblical writer suppose that Christians will ever build or reconstruct God’s spiritual house. They cannot do that, even if they wish, for the “true tabernacle” is built by God and not by man (Heb. 8:2).

The ‘CENI-S’ jigsaw puzzle

The New Testament Scriptures contain numerous guiding principles for Christian believers, both individually and together in community. However, it does not contain detailed instructions for the church, of the sort that God gave to Moses for building the Tabernacle. But pattern-seekers are very serious about serving God, which causes them to be both creative and persistent. “Surely a pattern is in there somewhere,” they reasoned, “even if it is not immediately obvious. Perhaps it is fragmentary and under the surface.”

And with that, they began to scour the New Testament Scriptures for scattered bits and pieces of any pattern that might be hidden there. They gathered a verse here and a phrase there. Occasionally, they picked up an entire paragraph. Then, when they believed they had found all the parts, they carefully assembled the pieces – like some giant jigsaw puzzle – to create their divine blueprint for the New Testament church. But for what did they look in their search? How did they recognize a pattern puzzle piece when they saw it?

Pattern puzzle pieces come in three shapes, according to Church of Christ pattern-seekers. Each piece bears the form either of an express command (“C”), an approved example (“E”), or a necessary inference (“NI”). But the picture on the completed puzzle is surrounded on four sides with a very thick border. According to the pattern-seekers, this means that every detail of church structure, worship, leadership, and ministry must be “authorized” by one of those puzzle pieces, or else it is unlawful. By their reckoning, silence does not mean consent. It means absolute prohibition (“S”). We will refer to this doctrinal system as “CENI-S,” an abbreviation for “command, example, necessary inference” and “silence.”

At this point, it is important for us to point out a crucial distinction. It is always a good thing (and there is never any harm) for anyone to ask sincerely, “What has God commanded?” or “For what has God commended others before us?” Nor is it bad to use our brains in seeking God’s will. But there is very great harm indeed in creating a human system of doctrine, and binding it on others as a test of Christian fellowship or as a condition of salvation. That is what I mean by “patternism.” That is what turns something inherently healthy into something that is foul and diseased. That is the “plague” that gives this brief article its name.

A necessary plan that never worked

We had as well face it straight on. The pattern-seekers, well-intentioned as they were, created something that the New Testament does not require, suggest or even envision. It is no wonder that their scheme of commands, examples and necessary inferences, and the underlying assumption that everything not “authorized” was automatically forbidden, has been a horrible disaster. From the very beginning, the “CENI-S” approach was hopelessly ambiguous, completely unworkable, and incapable of consistent application.

For example, most patternists dismissed as irrelevant some commands that were inconvenient (such as feet-washing) or shaped by culture (such as a holy kiss or a woman’s veil). They made other commands, which were originally intended for limited application (such as Paul’s Gentile collection for poor Judeans), into permanent, universal law. They declared some historical events, however incidental, to be binding as “approved examples” (such as Paul’s weekend bread-breaking at Troas). But they dismissed as unimportant other events recorded in the same biblical context (such as eating in an upper room).

Inferences which one person viewed as “necessary” were considered entirely unnecessary by others. Conclusions based on inductive reasoning were assigned a level of certainty that is logically possible only through deductive argument. Other conclusions, properly based on deductive reasoning, were nevertheless flawed because their premises included human assumptions instead of biblical propositions. The whole approach had been fabricated by uninspired men, and it had no moral power. Its survival required constant persuasion (at best) or political pressure (at worst).

About 35 years ago, I attended a lunch meeting of preachers who considered compliance with their pattern a necessity for faithfulness to God. As they were about to go their separate ways, a wise senior member warned the others, “If all the preachers and elders in our brotherhood suddenly died today, I am afraid there would be no faithful churches left within one generation.” To which I responded, after the meeting to the person who said it, “That is because your whole system originates with men. If it were from God, it would not have to be constantly propped up to survive.”

Restorationism eclipses unity

For Thomas and Alexander Campbell, pattern theology was primarily a way to restore the primitive church. The restoration of the primitive church was a means of uniting believers in all denominations. When believers united, the world would convert to Christ. The world’s conversion would trigger the beginning of the Millennium, which would climax 1,000 years later with the return of Jesus Christ (the Campbells were post-millennialists). But the Campbells’ dream was not to be. Historical events, particularly the American Civil War, proved to be more than their utopian theory could endure.

Without the Campbells’ series of cause-and-effect connections, the goal of restoring the primitive church gradually pushed aside the goal of Christian unity, and restorationism emerged as the reason for Churches of Christ to exist. In the process, pattern theology (“CENI-S”) became increasingly sectarian and legalistic, both in tone and in form. The problem was not a bad attitude or a defective application of principles. The problem was the two-part assumption that God had placed in the New Testament Scriptures a detailed and mandatory pattern for the true church, and that the “CENI-S” principles provided the key that was necessary for its discovery.

Patternism prevailed as the primary mindset for most Churches of Christ until about the mid-20th century. In its wake were at least six (some say as many as 20-25) sub-groups or mini-Church of Christ “brotherhoods,” each usually recognizing only its own members as fellow-Christians, or certainly as the only “faithful” ones. Most of the “regular members” (“clergy” and “laity” were not in their vocabulary) were decent, loving people. Most of their preachers were bivocational, sacrificial and devout. Yet, for members and preachers alike, “evangelism” often meant telling Christians in other denominations about “the New Testament church” (or “true church”), and “conversion” occurred when someone left another denomination and joined a Church of Christ.

By the end of the 1950’s, most larger, white, urban, American Churches of Christ were well into the process of abandoning pattern theology, in favor of a less institutionalized, more Christ-centered, and more personal understanding of their faith. Patternism continued in many congregations that were either smaller, African-American, rural, or the products of church-plantings outside the USA, all of which tended to be dependent, traditionally-inclined and susceptible to authoritarian influences from outside. But an era was about to pass, and things would never be the same again.

A very helpful book

As measured by the patternism that traditionally characterized Churches of Christ before the 1950’s, the mainstream was on the wrong side of almost every disputed issue. The truth is that patternism’s logic did not really allow the whole parade of “innovations” – Sunday Schools, multiple communion cups, “located preachers,” fellowship halls, church kitchens, or support of benevolent or evangelistic institutions from the church treasury. Of course, if consistently applied, patternism also would have excluded church buildings, traditional “worship services,” permanent church treasuries, and patternistic preachers.

But patternism itself had been wrong from the beginning. It was foreign to the Bible, a distraction from the gospel, and a constant competitor with Jesus for top billing in sermons and debates. Among mainstream Churches of Christ with Sunday morning attendance of 200+ persons, congregations strongly advocating the “CENI-S” principles today likely represent a very small minority. The most diligent continuing proponents of this system of interpretation are a sub-group of churches who identify themselves as “non-institutional” – ironically, as it happens, since the only rationale justifying their existence as a separate brotherhood requires a thoroughly institutionalized view of the church and everything pertaining to it.

I close by mentioning a very helpful new book, titled A Call to Unity: A Critical Review of Patternism and the Command-Example-Inference-Silence Hermeneutic, by Barry L. Perryman (Lander, Wyo.: IRM Press, soft cover, 83 pages, 2009). An associate professor of biotechnology at the University of Nevada-Reno, Dr. Perryman inspects the “CENI-S” hermeneutic from beginning to end in light of the Scriptures. It will come as a surprise to some to learn that Jesus himself rejected the first-century version of patternism’s principles, or that patternism can become what Paul called “another gospel.” For more information about Call to Unity, contact the author directly at [bperryman1296@charter.net].

For a scholarly philosophical critique of Alexander Campbell’s hermeneutic and its impact on the Restoration Movement, see six-part series by John Mark Hicks at http://johnmarkhicks.wordpress.com/2008/05/28/stone-campbell-hermeneutics-i-campbells-scholarly-baconianism/

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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