Pondering Patternism (Mar-Jun 2010)

By Matt Dabbs

by Al Maxey
March – June, 2010

Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), in his work Aphorisms, observed, “The stupidity of a theory has never impeded its influence.” Quite often, the more ridiculous and ludicrous the theory, the more likely it is to spread at almost lightning speed among the gullible. There is an abundance of theological theory floating about within the parameters of Christendom seeking an audience, a following, a champion.

A good many of these speculative tenets are rejected almost immediately; others are toyed with by the unsuspecting; a few are embraced by those too blind to perceive within them the fertile seeds of their very own ultimate enslavement. From the midst of this muddled mass of misguided humanity, a relatively small number will emerge to assume their positions as party leaders over the people and the “keepers of truth” to whom all must bow. In this way the progression from theory to tyrant to tyranny becomes complete.

The loss of Christian liberties

The genuine tragedy in this godless progression away from our Christian liberties is that we could choose to follow a different course. Slavery can be avoided, or eradicated where it has taken root. It simply requires men and women of courage to take a strong stand, speak out against it, and, yes, even be willing to fight and die to overcome it. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), in his famous Letter from Birmingham City Jail, penned this extremely insightful prophetic observation, “We shall have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948), just a couple of years prior to his death, declared, “Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.” Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) declared, “I hate a fellow whom pride, or cowardice, or laziness drives into a corner, and who does nothing when he is there but sit and growl; let him come out as I do, and bark.” In a rather well-known study on the psychological impact of emotional tyranny, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (b. 1941) noted this truth: “It is impossible to remain silent in the face of tyranny without, by this very act of silence, becoming an agent of that tyranny.”

Legalistic patternism has been around for centuries, and it has successfully progressed through the various evolutionary stages of theory, tenet, tyrant and tyranny. Countless precious souls are currently enslaved behind the high, thick walls of a rigid religiosity that is slowly, but ever so surely, sucking the life force from their very souls. Those who keep them shackled to the party patterns and the traditional tenets are very careful to also shield these poor souls from any attempt by those who remain free to reach them with the Truth. They are literally terrified of the message of grace and freedom reaching their people, for they know only too well that it will create a growing hunger, a hunger that they themselves, with their paltry fare of sectarian pablum, cannot even begin to satisfy.

Imitation is sometimes good

The theology of patternism essentially contends that we today must of necessity imitate the specific practices of the first century disciples of Christ in order to enjoy both fellowship and salvation. Yes, there are times when it is the path of wisdom to walk in the steps of those who have successfully led the way. I agree that, with respect to our walk with Christ, imitation is quite often a very vital aspect of our spiritual journey. Indeed, we may even say it is essential.

Paul urged the saints in Philippi, “Join in imitating me, brothers, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us” (Philippians 3:17). To the Corinthians he wrote, “Therefore I urge you, be imitators of me. This is why I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord. He will remind you about my ways in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 4:16-17). “Be imitators of me, as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). The writer of Hebrews gave this wise counsel: “Remember your leaders who have spoken God’s word to you. As you carefully observe the outcome of their lives, imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).

Paul imitated Christ, and we are to imitate him with respect to that same devotion to the Lord. Paul would certainly not have us imitate his faults, but rather his faith (as Hebrews 13:7 clearly specifies). When we consider the outcome of a godly man’s life, there is great wisdom in imitating the faith evidenced by such an individual. This doesn’t mean we take every discernable aspect of that disciple’s daily routine and bind it as law. It simply suggests we walk in faithfulness to Jesus … as these disciples of our Lord did in their lives.

Imitators, not clones

On the other hand, there is a mindset among some that makes salvation dependent on disciples today becoming virtual clones of the first century disciples. Their actions are to be our “pattern,” and we may well forever forfeit both fellowship with the family of God here, and eternal salvation hereafter, if we fail in any respect to reproduce their “pattern” in our own lives (both individually and corporately). Thus, their examples, and any assumptions some today may draw from those examples, become an authoritative standard by which all people the world over must order their attitudes and actions if they desire to be saved. This constitutes a legalistic patternistic theology which I oppose with every fiber of my being.

It would be extremely cruel of our Father to expect us to follow some specific pattern, connecting our very salvation to such an endeavor, and then leave us to assume, infer and deduce what that pattern actually is. And yet this would seemingly appear to be exactly what has happened, IF the peculiar principle of legalistic patternism, as embraced and promoted in various factions of God’s vast spiritual family, is objectively true.

I find it more than a little interesting, however, that I have yet to meet any two patternists who can agree among themselves 100% on exactly what constitutes God’s true pattern. I have also yet to find a single one of these rigid patternists who are willing to give me the definitive, exhaustive list of every particular of this pattern, and I have been asking for it repeatedly for decades. No one will give it to me; not a single person!

Frankly, the reason is obvious – these people can’t even agree among themselves what should be on the list! Nevertheless, they still boldly declare “the pattern” (whatever it is) to be critical to salvation and fellowship! The result of such hermeneutical confusion is exactly what we all see far too frequently today — countless feuding factions and squabbling siblings disgracefully dismembering the universal Body of our Lord Jesus Christ over each party’s perceived particulars of some elusive pattern. When these patternists themselves can’t agree on the particulars and parameters of the pattern, such inconsistency ought to tell us something!

Jesus the personal pattern

I certainly do not deny the presence of a biblical “pattern” (if one feels compelled to employ such a term) provided by the Father for His children. I believe such a “pattern” is far more specific and limited, and certainly the particulars of it are far less nebulous, than anything produced by sectarians and partyists, however. Mankind is not left to assume, deduce or infer the Father’s will or intent, debating the parameters of it endlessly. Rather, God has provided the one true Pattern in the person of His beloved Son Jesus Christ, who is “the exact representation of His nature” and through whom He has “spoken to us in these last days” (Hebrews 1:2-3).

As mentioned earlier, Paul declared he followed Christ Jesus, and urged us to do the same. Patterning ourselves after Paul simply suggests imitating his resolve to pattern himself after Jesus. Patterning ourselves after those who lived spiritually successful lives simply means we exhibit the same faith and faithfulness they did. We don’t try to recreate every detail of their lives in our own; we don’t seek to be clones; rather, we display the same devotion to the Lord they did. In so doing, we achieve the same result.

The purpose of Christians in the 21st century is not to be “copy cats” of every known practice or example of Christians in the 1st century. Such is much too absurd to even seriously suggest. Instead, like the saints of yesteryear, we serve our Savior to the best of our individual abilities and understandings within the social, cultural and historical parameters wherein we each find ourselves placed by our sovereign God.

Divine principles and precepts are eternal, human application is not. Too frequently the legalists have sought to create patterns out of the latter, and the result is the chaos being experienced in the church today.

Sweet are the promises, Kind is the word;
Dearer far than any message man ever heard;
Pure was the mind of Christ, Sinless, I see;
He the great example is, and pattern for me.
Sweet is the tender love Jesus hath shown,
Sweeter far than any love that mortals have known;
Kind to the erring one, Faithful is He;
He the great example is, and pattern for me.

The above beloved hymn, “Where He Leads I’ll Follow,” was written in 1885 by William A. Ogden. These words express quite well the reality of the biblical “example” and “pattern” for men to follow. It is JESUS. Paul saw great value in patterning his life after the Lord’s, and he urged us to do the same. If I will simply give my life to Christ Jesus, striving daily with simple trusting faith to pattern my life after the example of His, even though I will fall short of that goal in my walk, I am assured of salvation. My acceptance by the Lord does not depend on preciseness of reproduction of the “pattern” of first century disciples … it depends upon being IN CHRIST and reflecting His attitude and actions in my own life.

Obey precepts out of love

Has Jesus given me precepts to obey? Yes, He has. Jesus has also made it very clear that where He leads we must follow. This, however, is a natural response on the part of those who love Him. “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15; cf. vs. 21,23). It should also be pointed out that His commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:3), unlike those imposed by the religious elitists and separatists.

The precepts and principles of Christ can be summed up in a single word: LOVE. Love for God and love for one’s fellow man IS the “pattern” … and that “pattern” is embodied in Jesus the Messiah, our eternal example. Jesus told His disciples, after washing their feet, “I have given you an example that you also should do just as I have done for you” (John 13:15). We must come to realize that JESUS is our “great example” … our “pattern” … as the hymn, and Scripture, suggests.

Peter demonstrated his understanding of this principle when he stated that elders are to “be examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). But, examples of what … of whom? He provides the answer in the very next verse when he mentions “the Chief Shepherd” (vs. 4). Elders, then, are to imitate Jesus in their lives, and in so doing they become “living examples” to the flock. Examples of …?! That’s right – JESUS. Just as men saw the Father in the life of the Son, so men ought to see the Son in the lives of His people (and especially in the lives of the spiritual leaders).

Every leader in the church (indeed, every disciple of Christ) should be willing and able to say with the apostle Paul, “Be imitators of me, as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Not necessarily of specific practices and methods (such as foot-washing, which was a cultural expression), but rather of the eternal principles which serve as their foundation.

Clear patterns of behavior

I also freely acknowledge that the Bible lays out a clear “pattern of behavior” for the disciple of Christ. It is contained in specific precepts and principles that portray the nature of our walk in the light. We are to be loving. We are to be benevolent. Kind. Forgiving. Compassionate. Merciful. These, and others which could be listed, constitute a “spirit” we are to possess as His people. But, again, it takes us right back to our great example and pattern: Jesus Christ. When we examine His “pattern of behavior” during His earthly walk, we are then urged to “make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). Why? Because HE is our “pattern.”

There is a vast difference in this type of “patternism” and the patternistic theology, and subsequent inconsistent application, of the legalists. The nature of the difference lies primarily in Scriptural specificity. Those patterns that I willingly embrace are clearly, unequivocally, unambiguously specified by the Lord as applicable to His people; they are not imposed based merely on human assumptions and inferences or party preferences.

Personal deductions should never be elevated to divine decree. It is such imposed patterns as these that we must totally reject as having any authority to govern the family of Christ. Such personal assumptions and inferences may legitimately govern our own individual behavior, but such must never be bound upon others beyond what they themselves are able to perceive or accept as true, as Campbell astutely observed in his masterful Declaration and Address.

Patterns but not patternism

Although I speak out against “legalistic patternism,” one should not thereby assume that I deny legitimate patterns specified within Scripture. I do not. What I deny is the so-called “authority” of human assumptions and inferences, and the elevation and imposition of such upon others as if these deductions were declared, decreed and delivered directly by God Himself to the minds of these religionists. They were not.

The horrendous division that has occurred within the church of our Lord Jesus Christ has come primarily from these countless assumed patterns, about which our God in Scripture specified little or nothing at all, and the effort to bind them as law. When men impose their assumptions upon their brethren, and castigate with harsh pejoratives those brethren who refuse such imposition, these sectarians not only violate the teaching of Scripture, but they foster factions in the One Body. In so doing they prove themselves servants of satanic sectarianism rather than servants of our Savior.

Through the imposition of such “patterns,” a type of “Copy Cat Christianity” has been created. For instance, if someone infers that a first century disciple observed the Lord’s Supper with only one cup, then you and I had better do the same or face the eternal consequence of hell. Legalistic Patternism. If there is no verse in the New Testament writings that says the first century disciples clapped during the singing of a hymn, then God help that poor teenager who dares to violate the “proper procedure” governing praise! Legalistic Patternism. There is no verse in the New Testament documents that specifically states any first century disciple used instrumental accompaniment to his/her singing of praises. Therefore, those who use such today are going straight to hell. Legalistic Patternism.

Separate Sunday School classes for the kiddies? Not if you value your soul. Legalistic Patternism. Eating a meal in the church building? God forbid! Legalistic Patternism. Making an announcement “from the pulpit” before the “closing prayer” that there will be a pizza party for the church at a member’s home (“unauthorized use of the pulpit”)? Have mercy!! Legalistic Patternism. Small group meetings on Sunday nights? Heresy! Legalistic Patternism. Taking money from the church “treasury” to help support an orphan or a widow? Absolute apostasy! Legalistic Patternism.

Return to law neither legitimate nor lawful

Legitimate patterns I support; legalistic patterns I do not. What is the difference between the two? God specified one, mere men assumed the other. I will submit to the former, but I will not yield for even a second to the latter. The message of God’s grace, and our freedom in Christ, demand nothing less from those of us devoted to promoting Truth over tradition.

The type of patternism I oppose is nothing other than a return to law as the basis of fellowship and salvation, and an inferior form of law at that, for it is merely an assumed law. Aside from the inevitable splits, splinters and schisms, with which we have almost become desensitized by their vast number, such return to law (legalistic patternism) has an even more deadly result: it severs its adherents from Christ and causes them to fall from grace (Galatians 5:4).

This is a serious matter. We can afford to remain silent no longer. It is time to speak up and speak out against this threat to Truth, regardless of personal cost. May God continue to use those of us who are free to open the eyes of the oppressed, as well as the eyes of their oppressors, and to bring responsible reform and freedom to a people enslaved far too long to rigid religious regulation.New Wineskins

Al MaxeyAl Maxey is the author of Down But Not Out: A Study of Divorce and Remarriage in Light of God’s Healing Grace. Al also e-mails to a growing list of subscribers the free weekly Reflections series of articles on contemporary topics and issues of faith. You can access the archives at this link or e-mail him to subscribe. He has consented to speak at a number of debates – including one on Patternism – that are catalogued at this link. is currently the pulpit minister as well as an elder at the Cuba Avenue Church of Christ in Alamagordo, New Mexico. You can read more of his work at [http://www.zianet.com/maxey/].

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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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