Reflective or Regulative (Sept-Dec 2010)

By Matt Dabbs

By Al Maxey

In a speech delivered on April 18, 1864 in the city of Baltimore, President Abraham Lincoln observed, “The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act. Plainly, the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of liberty.” As clearly shown by the illustration, one’s interpretation of events and words can differ greatly from that of another, and the basis of that fundamental difference often lies not so much in the subject of one’s focus, but rather in the background and interpretive methodology each brings to that endeavor. The wolf, based on his experience as a wolf, has a rather clear concept in his own mind of the meaning of personal liberty. So does the sheep. So does the shepherd. It is fallacious to ascribe “falsity” to one, as opposed to the others, simply because of differing perspectives. Each is true to itself.

The same could be said for differing brethren in Christ as they approach the serious task of seeking to understand the writings of the inspired revelation of God. Their individual backgrounds, as well as their interpretive methodologies, will often play a significant role in their understanding and application of the teachings of the Bible. To suggest, as some have, that, because their interpretations differ, one must be sincere and honest, while the other is not, is unconscionable. If  Romans 14 demonstrates anything, it demonstrates that devoted disciples do at times arrive at completely opposite understandings of the will of God. This chapter also demonstrates that our Father, thanks be to His marvelous grace, judges the nature of our <i>hearts</i> in such matters far more than He does the nature of our hermeneutic.

Nevertheless, one’s hermeneutic is important, as it will form the basis for that disciple’s understanding of God’s Word. An inferior hermeneutic will inevitably lead to an inferior theology. Thus, it behooves us to seek out and utilize the best interpretive process available. Many within the Stone-Campbell Movement, especially those within the more conservative wing of the Churches of Christ, have embraced what has come to be called the CENI hermeneutic (the letters of which simply refer to Command, Example, and Necessary Inference). The principle underlying this approach to understanding Scripture is largely regulative in nature, in that it seeks to perceive and establish laws to be bound upon the people of God as conditions of salvation and terms of fellowship. I do not believe this to be the best methodology available to us.

Indeed, I feel it to be fatally flawed as employed by its proponents, and believe the adherents of this hermeneutic have left the One Body horribly fragmented into countless feuding factions in the wake of their differing deductions and assumptions which they far too frequently feel compelled to bind as universal law. But such is the inevitable outcome of employing the Regulative Principle.

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 known as his Declaration and Address. Notice just a couple of the many propositions contained in this lengthy and historically significant document:

Proposition Five —- “That with respect to the commands and ordinances of our Lord Jesus Christ, where the Scriptures are silent as to the express time or manner of performance, if any such there be, no human authority has power to interfere, in order to supply the supposed deficiency by making laws for the Church; nor can anything more be required of Christians in such cases, but only that they observe these commands and ordinances as will evidently answer the declared and obvious end of their institution. Much less has any human authority power to impose new commands or ordinances upon the Church, which our Lord Jesus Christ has not enjoined. Nothing ought to be received into the faith or worship of the Church, or be made a term of communion among Christians, that is not as old as the New Testament.”

Proposition Six —- “That although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they perceive the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God. Therefore, no such deductions can be made terms of communion, but do properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the Church. Hence, it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the Church’s confession.”

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. Such is the failing of this regulative approach to biblical interpretation and application.

It is rather pointless, and even irresponsible, however, to “curse the darkness” if one is unprepared or unwilling to “light a candle.” In other words, if it is one’s belief that the Regulative Principle, which is the spirit of the CENI hermeneutic, is flawed, then what does one have to offer in its place? If one criticizes a particular hermeneutic, one must be willing to offer a reasonable, rational, responsible alternative. Such an alternative, I believe, could be characterized as the Reflective Principle. Rather than perusing Scripture for laws to regulate every aspect of our lives, we ponder Scripture so as to ascertain those guiding principles for Grace-centered, Jesus-focused, Spirit-filled living.

An Alternative: Reflective, not Regulative

In view of the growing dissatisfaction with CENI, and its Regulative Principle, many concerned brethren have been increasingly reflecting upon what would constitute a better interpretive methodology. My proffered approach is nothing new; it has been around for a good long time, and is used effectively and frequently by others within the universal One Body of Jesus Christ. It can be characterized in the following skeletal sketch: Biblical — Non-Biblical — Anti-Biblical — Beneficial. Let me address each of these aspects of this model and then make an application.

BIBLICAL — It is my conviction that the Bible is a divine revelation of the nature of our Father; an inspired guide as to how to order our lives in accord with His will. Are there commands given by God in this revelation, this divine “storyline set in history” (as Rubel Shelly characterized it), that are to be obeyed by mankind? Absolutely! And willful disobedience can prove very costly. Few disciples, regardless of their hermeneutic, discount God’s clear commands.

But much of the guidance revealed from above through this written revelation speaks more to the hearts and minds of His devoted disciples. Rather than a legalistic “check list,” our God provides guiding principles which may be legitimately applied by reflective disciples in different ways given the circumstances of one’s immediate environment. For example, demonstrating a benevolent spirit might differ dramatically from New York to New Guinea, and yet either expression of benevolence would be acceptable to God. Thus, it is the principle that is clearly seen to be eternal, not the method of application.

The very first matter to be determined in the reflective approach is: Is this matter Biblical? What this simply signifies is — can this matter be found within the pages of the Bible? Does the Lord, at some point within the pages of Scripture, specifically address the issue, question, practice or doctrine? If He does — if the Lord has spoken — then all we need do is heed and obey. Thus, the first step in a responsible hermeneutic is to determine if God has spoken!

NON-BIBLICAL —- Not everything we face as disciples of Christ, however, can be found clearly addressed in the Bible. Indeed, some matters are never mentioned at all. These would fall into the realm of the “NON-Biblical.” This simply means they are not to be found anywhere in the Bible. It does NOT thereby suggest that they are wrong or sinful or “unauthorized” or forever forbidden (the “silence excludes” fallacy). It simply means the Bible is silent about them. This says nothing either for or against them. Such biblical absence neither prescribes nor proscribes the item in question. Thus, one can neither condemn nor condone something simply by virtue of its absence alone.

ANTI-BIBLICAL —- Just because something isn’t mentioned in the pages of the Bible does not necessarily mean it is acceptable to go ahead and do it. Nor> may we forbid it on silence alone. When God’s inspired Word offers no specific statement on a matter, we must then begin seeking further clarification by asking some very pointed questions. This, again, is key to the reflective process. Does this action, attitude, issue or practice violate any known principles or inspired advice given to us in Scripture? Is there anything in God’s Word that would clearly point to the fact that this matter is “Anti-Biblical” in nature or focus? If there is, then it must be rejected as being in opposition to God’s will for our lives.

BENEFICIAL —- There are many things not mentioned in the Bible, however, that are also not opposed to biblical principles and teachings. If the Bible is silent on some matter, and it can’t be clearly shown to be in opposition to guiding biblical principles, does that mean we can then go ahead and do as we please with regard to such? No, not at all. The fact is, sometimes even good things can have a bad effect. Thus, in determining our actions and attitudes reflectively, we must ask yet another question of that which is “Non-Biblical” but not “Anti-Biblical” — would this practice or action be Beneficial to the cause of Christ and the Body of Christ? Will it help or hinder us in the fulfilling of our godly purpose in life? Is it beneficial or detrimental to the growth and edification of the congregation of believers?

The apostle Paul spoke of this very matter in Romans 14 when he urged us to examine (reflect upon) our actions, practices and motives carefully, and not allow a good thing to have a bad result. “Do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil” (vs. 16). Rather, we are to pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of the body of Christ, even if that means backing off of what may, in different circumstances, be good and acceptable (vs. 19-20). Paul demonstrated his use of this Reflective Principle when he wrote the saints in Corinth, “Everything is permissible, but not everything is helpful. Everything is permissible, but not everything builds up” (1 Corinthians 10:23). In a very similar statement (1 Corinthians 6:12), Paul adds that we must be careful lest we allow such matters to become masters over us, rather than being master over them. These matters are in our control, and thus we must exercise good judgment.

Application

Let’s notice a practical application of the Reflective Principle. Is the use of instruments, as either an aid or accompaniment to singing in a worship assembly, a practice approved or disapproved by God under the new covenant in Christ? More simply put: If Bertha tinkles the ivories in a corner of the auditorium on Sunday morning as we sing praises to God, are we all sinning and in danger of eternal damnation? This particular issue has divided brethren for generations, and I blame, in large part, the <i>Regulative</i> Principle for such heart-breaking schism.

Let’s examine the matter reflectively. Is the use of instruments in corporate worship (as an aid or accompaniment to singing praises unto God) a practice that can be said to be “Biblical”? The answer is YES. The practice is clearly found in Scripture. The redeemed of God under the old covenant practiced such for centuries, and with the obvious approval of God. Indeed, God even commanded it (2 Chronicles 29:25 — “the command was from the Lord through His prophets”). The Psalms are filled with examples of such (see Psalms 149 and 150, just to mention a couple).

BUT … has God spoken about the practice, one way or the other, in the New Covenant writings? Has He changed His thinking with regard to what may or may not accompany or aid our singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs? We know He desires for our expression of praise to come from the heart (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16), but that is nothing new. He always has!

Is the matter, therefore, “NON-Biblical” with respect to the writings of the New Testament? Well, not entirely. We know that near the end of the First Century, in the Revelation given to John, mention is made of musical instruments in the courts of heaven (Revelation 5:8). This, of course, is merely a symbol, but it shows that God was using the symbol of a harp to convey the idea of praise unto Him. It seems odd that He would employ the symbol of an instrument of music to denote heavenly praise, if the actual use of such an instrument on earth in praise to Him would cause one to be lost! Didn’t Jesus teach us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10)?

The early disciples also met frequently in the temple courts during the early years, and at times even continued to make vows and offer sacrifices in the temple (and did so without sin). Instruments obviously were used in some of these proceedings. Further, the early disciples sang psalms, some of which actually spoke of instruments used acceptably in praise. Again, wouldn’t it be rather odd for a believer to be able to acceptably sing Psalm 150 in the assembly, but if that believer actually practiced what he sang he would be lost?

No, I don’t think we can really say God is silent on the matter. And yet, on the other hand, He nowhere in the NT writings ever said, “Thou shalt use instruments in the worship assembly” or “Thou shalt NOT use instruments in the worship assembly.” Thus, with regard to specific instruction on the matter, this is indeed a “NON-Biblical” matter. In the NT writings there is NOTHING said specifically one way or the other.

Therefore, we must ask the question: Would such a practice of using instrumental accompaniment be “ANTI-Biblical”? Is there anything about this practice that would constitute sinful rebellion against God and His revealed teaching elsewhere in Scripture? To this I would have to answer NO. I find absolutely no teaching anywhere in the Bible that even hints at divine disapproval of such a practice. There is not one single verse, in either OT or NT writings, that even remotely suggests such a practice is sinful or an abomination to God. Thus, I think one would be very hard-pressed to produce biblical evidence condemning such a practice as sinful in the sight of our heavenly Father.

Would such a practice, however, be “Beneficial” to the body of Christ Jesus? Here we come down to the nitty-gritty of the matter! This is where individual and corporate preferences and perceptions come to bear on the subject. Frankly, there are some individuals and congregations who genuinely believe that since the NT writings don’t specifically say the early disciples used instruments, they are therefore sinful. If that is their conviction, then they should live by it (Romans 14:22-23). “Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). In such a congregation, therefore, it would NOT be “Beneficial” for that group to employ instruments of music in their worship. If someone were to later come into their group and try to introduce such a practice without first persuading the church that the practice is not sinful, that person would NOT be acting in a benevolent, godly manner toward these brethren who honestly held to a differing conviction, and who were merely seeking to worship their God according to their own perception of His will. Such a person would be putting a stumbling block before them — an unloving act.

There are other groups of disciples, however, in other congregations, where just the opposite would be the case. They are edified and built up in their faith by such instrumental accompaniment. They do <i>not</i> regard such to be “unauthorized” or sinful in God’s sight, and indeed are convicted, based upon their own honest study of the Word, that God is glorified by such expressions of heartfelt praise. They too sing praises unto God from the depths of their hearts, as Paul urged, and they are no less accepted and approved by their God in their expressions of worship than are those disciples in the previous group. For someone to condemn or judge them for their differing conviction, or to look down on them or refuse to have fellowship with them or to view them as anything less than beloved brethren in Christ, would be for that person to be in violation of Paul’s teaching in Romans 14.

Those who sing a cappella, as well as those who sing with accompaniment, BOTH sing from the heart to their God. Thus, “who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4). Paul continues, “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this — not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way. I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean” (Romans 14:13-14).

Therefore, guidance for our actions and attitudes, in this matter, comes from our answer to the question: Does this BENEFIT these particular disciples in this particular place at this particular time? If the practice is not “Anti-Biblical,” and if it DOES benefit the brethren, then it should be deemed acceptable. If God is glorified, if brethren are built up, if the cause of Christ is furthered, if the lost are attracted to the light, then the practice should be approved. The mere fact of biblical “silence” on some practice is NOT prohibitive (contrary to the teaching of the Regulative Principle, with its attendant “law of silence”). This latter hermeneutic leads to alienation from one’s brethren; the reflective approach, however, leads to greater acceptance among God’s children … and that constitutes a better way.

CONCLUSION

In all we do, God must be ultimately glorified. In all we do, we must subjugate our own human desires to the greater good of those around us (both saved and lost). In all we do, we must assure that HIS purpose is served by our actions and attitudes, and that we do not knowingly array ourselves against Him or His Word. The Father expects His children to be mature, discerning loving sons and daughters. He does not follow us around with a rule book and a switch! He guides us by His precepts and principles; He does not enslave us to rigid rules and regulations. We are, after all, free in Christ. But with freedom comes responsibility. We are to exercise good judgment. We are to be reflective and discerning. We are to show love and consideration for others.

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.

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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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