Broken Bones and Broken Spirits

From the prominent perspective of middle age, I can see so much of the life I have lived with clarity, perhaps even greater clarity now than when I lived it in the first place.  I often think about those formative years of college, when my sense of self and my sense of curiosity and my sense of reason all seemed to converge to crystallize the person that I am today.  Certain events play over and over like they were yesterday.  The good times with good friends, falling in love, falling out of love, loneliness and camaraderie.  All of these things remain crisp even after 30-odd years (and there have indeed been some odd years).  There are experiences that I recall where I left my mark on my social and academic environments, and experiences that I was left marked, even scarred, perhaps figuratively, and definitely physically.

In the fall of 1981 at Western Kentucky University, I was eager to get started with life and a career, although I had no idea as to what career I would eventually settle on.  I was interested in science, so that first semester, I overloaded on science: biology and chemistry, in particular, along with animal science, English, probably history or another of the humanities, and maybe even plant science—I can’t recall much beyond the biology and chemistry.

I knew chemistry was going to be a challenge from the first day, when I was not on the lab professor’s preliminary roll.  A last minute schedule change had the unfortunate side effect of me not appearing on that unofficial yet apparently most binding of documents.  I sensed he took an instant dislike to me, the freshman with the audacity to upset his perfect lab routine.  I was not overly impressed with the professor, either, as I found his flat top haircut, striped shirt with plaid shorts, dark socks and dress shoes to be rather laughable.  His black plastic framed glasses and the stump of a cigar clenched tightly in his teeth made for a somewhat less than excellent first impression.  In short, the dislike was mutual. 

But that was only the first of many experiences that made me look forward to chemistry classes and labs like one might look forward to a stomach virus, a toothache, or a really bad paper cut.  No one gave me any good advice on how to plan a schedule, so I loaded up classes to the point that I was in class or lab from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every Monday with the exception of about a 30 minute lunch break.  One Monday afternoon, I was making my way up the famous Hill, for which the Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers are named to attend that wonderful chemistry lab.  I was crossing the street in front of the old Thompson Complex Central Wing, which housed chemistry, math and physics.  I stepped into the street and made my way about halfway across, when a lady driving an enormous silver car—one of those legendary land yachts of the 1970’s—decided to go on ahead and proceed through the light, as it changed while I was still crossing.  I began to back off, and she clipped my left foot with her left-front tire.  I was flipped to the ground, her car then resting squarely on the sole of my left foot.  She got out and asked, “Are you alright?” To which I repled, “Could you put it in reverse?”  I got up and limped to lab, knowing that I must never miss.

A couple of days later, my foot was hurting, it was swollen so that I couldn’t even tie my sneaker, and I decided I really needed to see a doctor.  At Student Health (a laughable title, as it is at many other schools as well), the rent-a-doc told me to limp a while, I had probably torn some ligaments, and I would be fine.  No x-ray, no real exam, just deal with it.  Foolish freshman that I was, I did just that.

Twenty-five years later, or so, I was having a great deal of pain in that foot, and the very capable podiatrist that I consulted x-rayed it, and found that it had indeed been broken—in two places.  He said that he was amazed it had healed as well as it had.  A course of extremely strong anti-inflammatory drugs later and I was back to as normal as I could ever expect to be.

As I was thinking about this the other evening, it occurred to me that this sort of thing happens to us all of the time. Something happens and we feel a bit of hurt for a while, but then we get up, we limp on, and it is not until sometime later that we discover—or more likely it is pointed out to us— that we are broken.  Very often this has to do with some kind of relationship.  Children who are neglected or mistreated by parents or by peers may limp along for a while, but then later, they find out they are broken when they can’t experience a normal sort of relationship.  Children who are expected to do more or be more than they can realistically achieve often wind up broken.  Women who are in abusive relationships hide their pain well for a time, then find that they are so very alone with no one to talk to, no one to trust, and no one to love.  They were hurting quietly, but didn’t know earlier that they were broken.

Sometimes, the hurt is helped by external self-treatments: drugs, alcohol, sex addiction, maybe even humor.  But this only dulls the hurt.  The shattered life is still there, only masked by something artificial that can’t last.  And so we need more of whatever it is that takes the hurt away to take the hurt away again, and maybe for longer.  But each time, the effects are less.  And each time, the hurt comes back stronger, and we need more of the treatment to make the hurt go away.  And then the self-loathing sets in because we have reached a point where we are no longer in control. 

Sometimes, the hurt is so bad that the only possible solution seems to be the absolute end: death.  Some people choose suicide.  In most circles, suicide is only spoken of in hushed tones.  Many if not most churches have taught that suicide is an unforgiveable sin, that it is the ultimate act of murder.  They fail to see that the person who commits suicide is usually clinically depressed, which is an organic illness involving brain chemistry.  They pray for the cancer patients who need God’s care, even though they may have brought that disease on themselves with risky behaviors like smoking.  But they condemn the one who attempts suicide, whose life is at risk for something they may have no control over, because of a disease every bit as natural, as biological as cancer.

I detest hypocrisy in any of its self-righteous forms.  And so does God.  Only he has the authority to judge these broken people.  I can’t and I won’t because I am not wise enough to know another’s heart.  I am not as just, compassionate and loving as he even though I want to be.

The second king of Israel, and probably its greatest was the shepherd/singer/warrior, David.  He let power and lust overtake him, and he sinned against God, against Bathsheba and her husband Uriah.  When the prophet, Nathan, confronted him, he composed one of the most sincere laments, a plea for forgiveness that we recognize as Psalm 51.  In verses 1 through 5, David confesses his sin in a heart-felt admission of guilt, a realization that what he has done makes him repulsive to God.  In verses 6 through 12, he prays for forgiveness, noting in verses 13 through 15 that if forgiven, he would do what he could to bring others back to God. 

The culmination of David’s confession and pledge is seen in verses 16 and 17:

16  For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.

17  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.  

God is not looking for lots of external shows of penance.  David said he would have sacrificed whatever was necessary to demonstrate his contrition.  But that was too easy. In a way, burnt offerings were only destructive, requiring that a life be taken with no promise of complete restoration, only that a penalty was exacted for an act of wrong-doing.  The sacrifice God is looking for is the broken spirit, the broken and contrite heart.  And somewhere, sometime, for whatever reason, we all fit that description.  These are things he can heal and promises to heal.  The sacrifice of the broken spirit is constructive, restoring life, restoring spirit, restoring lost hope and happiness. 

Our brokenness may not be because of something wrong that we have done; it may be because of something that has been done to us.  God will take that broken spirit and make it whole, even better than before, because he can and because he is love.  No self-medication we may try can do that. 

To be, as David asked, restored to the joy of God’s salvation may not only apply to the life of the soul, but to life as we know it here and now.  Getting rid of harmful, encumbering baggage will only make life better.  But doing that takes the realization that we are broken, and the willingness to sacrifice that broken spirit to God.  He offers joy and peace in exchange for pain and brokenness.  When you think of it like that, there is nothing to lose but hurt and suffering.  And there is every good thing to gain.     

     

               

   

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Credo Redux

I have been thinking a lot about creeds lately.  Creed derives from the Latin, credo, meaning “I believe.”  Thus, a creed is a statement of faith in something.  From the point of view of one in the Stone-Campbell heritage, we claim to have no creed but Christ.  Others claim we have no creed but the Bible.  And still others may even say we have no creed but Christ and his word (the New Testament).  All of these are noble comments reflecting the aspirations of the early Restoration Movement.  However, sometimes it is necessary to subject the faith to a reality check.  If we are not careful, there is a creeping tendency to accept “things” as being articles and tests of faith that amount to creeds, or to their logical descendants, “confessions of faith.”

Belief is essential to the practice of religion.  If the exercise of religion has no real object, it becomes pointless, and of little more than technical value.  So from a biblical perspective, what sorts of things must be believed?  What may we consider to be the “creed” of the Bible?  We know that Jesus expected his followers to believe in God the Father and to believe in him as the Son of God (John 8.24, 9.35; 14.1; Acts 8.37); that Jesus did the works of the Father (John 10.37-38); that those who live and believe in Jesus will never die (John 11.26-27); believe Jesus was in the Father, and the Father in him (John 14.11); that he is the Christ, the anointed one, the promised Messiah who would bring life (John 20.31); that Jesus died and rose again (I Thess 4.14); that God exists and rewards seekers (Hebrews 11:6); that God is one (James 2.19); and that we have come to believe the love God has for us (I John 4.16).  From this brief survey of “believe” statements, it will be easy to see that the early creeds were very closely aligned with scripture.

In the late 19th century, Philip Schaff composed a lengthy work detailing The Creeds of Christendom.  In it, he discusses not only the content, but the origins and development of creeds within the burgeoning plurality of denominations that arose mostly as a result of the Reformation.  The earliest creeds probably arose as a result of the development of some perceived error or heresy.  Schaff says,” The first object of creeds was to distinguish the Church from the world, from Jews and heathen, afterwards orthodoxy from heresy, and finally denomination from denomination.”  Schaff further points out, “They [creeds] never precede faith, but presuppose it. They emanate from the inner life of the Church, independently of external occasion. There would have been creeds even if there had been no doctrinal controversies.”

The two earliest written creeds were probably the Apostles’ Creed, and the Nicene Creed.  The exact origin of the Nicene Creed is placed with the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea convened in 325 A.D., shortly after the ascension of Constantine to power in 312 A.D.  The Apostles’ Creed may have its origin as early as the late 1st or 2nd century A.D., but the earliest mention in history is from around 390 A.D.  There is obvious similarity in the form and content of the two texts, suggesting that whichever was first was the obvious foundation for the second.

These early creeds essentially affirm biblical truths, and even those who adhere to no creeds would find little with which to argue.

The Apostles’ Creed

 “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”

 The Nicene Creed

 “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

 Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

 And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

 And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

 As denominations evolved, their creeds evolved with them into broader documents, confessions of faith, which not only include core truths, but also specific points of doctrine (catechisms) to be held by that group.  Melanchthon’s Augsburg Confession and Apology, Luther’s Articles of Smalkald and Catechism, The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechism are all examples of the expansion of fundamental statements of faith to follow specific denominational flavors.  Presbyterianism’s Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) includes 33 chapters that include specific attention to Calvin’s core doctrines.  The Savoy Declaration of 1658 revised the Westminster Confession to suit the structural and doctrinal views of the Congregationalists.  The Baptist Confession of 1689 appears rooted in the Westminster Confession, but with details oriented to the views and opinions of Calvinistic Baptists.

And therein lies the problem.  From the Bible, distinct statements of faith were developed in order to oppose error.  But as differences in opinion increased, these differences became codified, essentially building walls between those who would profess a Christian faith.  There was not one church any longer, but many—ex uno, plures.

Enter Thomas and Alexander Campbell, who, along with others like Barton Stone, appealed for the abolition of those walls that divided Christians.  Propositions 1 through 3 of Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address, delivered in 1809, specifically address the harmful nature of religious division, and the need to eliminate any article of faith of strictly human origin imposed on and dividing believers.  It is ironic in a way that Campbell’s appeal for unity and the denunciation of creeds seemed to dance dangerously close to becoming something of a creed or confession of faith, itself.

 PROP. 1. That the Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and of none else; as none else can be truly and properly called Christians.

 2. That although the Church of Christ upon earth must necessarily exist in particular and distinct societies, locally separate one from another, yet there ought to be no schisms, no uncharitable divisions among them. They ought to receive each other as Christ Jesus hath also received them, to the glory of God. And for this purpose they ought all to walk by the same rule, to mind and speak the same thing; and to be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment.

 3. That in order to do this, nothing ought to be inculcated upon Christians as articles of faith; nor required of them as terms of communion, but what is expressly taught and enjoined upon them in the word of God. Nor ought anything to be admitted, as of Divine obligation, in their Church constitution and managements, but what is expressly enjoined by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles upon the New Testament Church; either in express terms or by approved precedent.

 Proposition 10 describes the effects of such division as “antichristian,”“antiscriptural,” and “antinatural.”

 10. That division among the Christians is a horrid evil, fraught with many evils. It is antichristian, as it destroys the visible unity of the body of Christ; as if he were divided against himself, excluding and excommunicating a part of himself. It is antiscriptural, as being strictly prohibited by his sovereign authority; a direct violation of his express command. It is antinatural, as it excites Christians to contemn, to hate, and oppose one another, who are bound by the highest and most endearing obligations to love each other as brethren, even as Christ has loved them. In a word, it is productive of confusion and of every evil work.

 In 1804, The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery was witnessed by Barton W. Stone, and read, in part,

 Imprimis. We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; forthere is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.

 Item. We will that our name of distinction, with its Reverend title, be forgotten, that there be but one Lord over God’s heritage, and his name one….

 Item. We will, that the people henceforth take the Bible as the only sure guide to heaven; and as many as are offended with other books, which stand in competition with it, may cast them into the fire if they choose; for it is better to enter into life having one book, than having many to be cast into hell.

 Item. We will, that preachers and people cultivate a spirit of mutual forbearance; pray more and dispute less; and while they behold the signs of the times, look up, and confidently expect that redemption draweth nigh.

 These two documents provided a foundation for the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, the first and probably the broadest indigenous religious movement in the Americas.  Of the six signatories to The Last Will and Testament, two soon repented and returned to the Presbyterian fold, two became Shakers, leaving Stone and David Purviance as supporters of that root of the movement.  I particularly appreciate the short but sweet admonition to “pray more and dispute less.”  There is a deep wisdom in that, if not a dark humor.

So, to borrow a bit of phrasing, in the beginning, was the Word, which was then clarified and defended by creeds that affirmed universal truths, but were later replaced or amended to include the doctrinally complex and balkanizing articles of communion for distinct bodies, based on extra-scriptural interpretations and thought.

A review of several church of Christ websites reveals an interesting development.  Although we may not claim to have any specific, universal creed, creeds are there in abundance.  The churches of Christ have claimed that we have no creed but the Bible, but if that were indeed true, then we would not see articles like one titled, “Fundamentals of the Faith,” which is organized suspiciously like a confession of faith, with headings like, “The Inspiration of the Bible,” “The Unity of the Bible,” “The completeness of the Bible,” “The Infallibility of the Bible,” “The Indestructibility of the Bible,” “The All-Sufficiency of the Bible,” “The Church of Christ,” and “The Plan of Salvation.”  It is interesting to note that Each of these heading’s in this article has a roughly corresponding chapter or sub-chapter in the Westminster Confession.  The University church of Christ in Abilene has published “What We Believe” on their website, which reads as follows:

“We believe in the only true and living God, creator of everything. We believe God revealed himself in the history of Israel and the person of his Son, Jesus of Nazareth. We believe Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross, but through his resurrection the Father confirmed him to be the true Messiah (Christ) of prophecy. He is now exalted at the right hand of God.

In unity with Christians across space and time, we believe and proclaim this biblical story as good news or “gospel.” We believe that Scripture is trustworthy and inspired by God to tell us what we need to know.

Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, God is putting all of his broken creation back together. In the gift of his Son and his indwelling Holy Spirit – given to believers by grace through faith in baptism (water immersion) – God created a new community, the church, the body of Christ.

As members of God’s kingdom, we are called into his great mission to set right everything that is so wrong. We confess we are part of the problem, sinners living in total need of God’s forgiveness. But we believe God’s Spirit is changing us daily into the image of Christ. So we strive to walk by faith, to serve others, to love God and glorify him in worship.

As for the future, Jesus is Lord, so we do not fear death. We believe Christ will return one day to bring God’s final justice to all things. We live in hope for his new creation where we will be raised up with new bodies to know God fully, face to face, as it was meant to be.”

This is for all intents and purposes a modern rendering of an ancient document like the Nicene Creed.

Lest the non-institutional group feel left out, the Franklin Church of Christ in Franklin, TN has a page on their website titled, “What We Teach,” that details the sovereignty of God, the plan of salvation, the organization of the church, and its work.  Someone may say that this is not a creed, only a summary of the core beliefs of the group.  But wait, isn’t that a creed?  If they don’t believe it, why do they teach it?  The implication here is that the congregation adheres to these principles, and if you are at variance with them, you would be more comfortable worshipping elsewhere.

I do not fault any congregation for having such a document.  I suspect it would be rare for there to be a group without some type of statement along these lines.  Without some sort of guidance, there may arise countless conflicts.  Which is precisely why creeds and confessions came into existence.

However, we should revisit our vehement denunciation of something that we tacitly if not openly practice.

The more insidious side of church of Christ creeds involves the silent or unspoken or unwritten rules and regulations.  Any member of the churches of Christ knows exactly what I am talking about.  While we may  denounce specific practices in various groups, we have not yet formalized the prohibitions into a concrete written code.  The non-institutional churches strongly oppose congregational cooperation, suggesting that it violates example and principle of church autonomy.  That view is not often in writing in a formal statement of beliefs.  At least not yet, or it may not be widespread.  Non-institutional churches shun any sort of legislative bodies, but we know that there have been numerous meetings of preachers amounting to little more than thinly veiled ecclesiastical councils, from which “open letters” have emerged to counter specific “heresies” opposed by the group.  We have no conferences or conventions, yet every February, the faithful converge on Temple Terrace for a week of lectures at Florida College.  It would be naïve to think that official doctrines are neither discussed nor ratified by activists in attendance.  The same could be said for the lectures at Lipscomb, Freed-Hardeman, Harding, Abilene Christian, or Pepperdine, running the spectrum of church of Christ positions.

If we indeed have no creed but Christ, then let us embrace that.  If there are written or unwritten rules and practices that divide us beyond what is required of any Christian to believe and to do, let us lay them aside.  As no two leaves or no two snowflakes are identical, it is likely that no two churches, or perhaps not even two Christians are identical in their beliefs and practices.  What unifies us is our faith in Christ and obedience to him, not inferred rules and laws.  (Isn’t it interesting that although we deny any extra-scriptural authority, we actually have a “Law of Silence” or a “Law of Exclusion”?  Neither term appears anywhere in scripture.)  Alexander Campbell once said, “It is the image of Christ the Christian looks for and loves; and this does not consist in being exact in a few items, but in general devotion to the whole truth as far as known.”  The need to legislate the finest detail of life, thought or worship carries the distinct tang of pharisaism.  Jesus offered relief from that kind of burden, calling his disciples to a life of love and service.  It’s hard to find fault in others with our heads bowed in prayer, our eyes lifted to heaven in praise, or our arms full in service to others.  Like the framers of The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery advised, we should “pray more and dispute less.”  To which I would offer a hearty, “Amen.”

What Gospel Did Jesus Preach? Reflections on the Kingdom and the Church

I just ran across a challenging question:  “What is the gospel that Jesus preached?”  I immediately thought of Paul’s gospel, of “Christ and him crucified.”  I thought of the “amended” gospel that we hear so often today involving every inferred rule and stipulation that must be met judiciously if we are to have any hope of salvation.  But really, what was the gospel that Jesus preached?   

Of course, mention of Jesus preaching a gospel usually has attached to it the idea of the “kingdom of heaven” or “Kingdom of God” being “at hand.”  And our traditional view has been that the Kingdom of heaven equals the church.  I saw an article just yesterday that made that bold, unequivocal proclamation.  But is that truly an indisputable fact? 

So, I started thinking about that more.  I began with the beginning.  At least of the New Testament.  Matthew is the only writer of a synoptic gospel that uses the term “kingdom of heaven,” and he uses it liberally—over 30 times.  This is a very Jewish sort of phrase, and Matthew’s history was written expressly for the Jewish audience.  The writing is well-nuanced with Jewish details like a detailed listing of Jesus’s earthly ancestry.  As such, it is quite enlightening to people who are not of Jewish origin, but it would also be very significant to Jews.

For ages, I have heard that “the kingdom is the church.”  Full stop.  End of transmission.  In fact, on many occasions I recall being told that we must not pray the so-called “Lord’s Prayer” or model prayer, because we can’t authentically pray for God’s kingdom to come since it’s already here.  This doctrine has been preached with such authority that I worried that reciting this prayer would be a damnable offense.  I’ve wondered about that many times.  How can a prayer condemn you? 

Perhaps the most often appealed to passage in the New Testament that relates kingdom with church is in Matthew 16.19 : “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  In verse 18, Jesus had made his pronouncement of the intent to establish his “church”, ekklesia, or perhaps better understood as a “community of followers or believers.”  Verse 18 is the first appearance of the word “church” in the New Testament.

While I am not a great linguistic scholar, I can read and I can determine what makes sense.  And while I am not a great fan of overly intense word study—you know the kind where the message gets lost in the grammar—it is sometimes quite important to dig deeper to understand the sense in the original written language.  (I say written because Jesus, as a son of the dusty hills, plains and shores of Judaea, spoke the language of his people, which at that point in time was Aramaic).  Why should we do this?  Because translation was done by committees of men, who were influenced by tradition.  If we accept the translation without question, we may be missing the true sense of the idea being communicated. 

The Greek words translated by the English phrase, “kingdom of heaven” are “basileia ton ouranos.”   Basileia, is translated as “kingdom”, which according to Strong’s Dictionary is “properly royalty, that is, (abstractly) rule, or (concretely) a realm (literally or figuratively): – kingdom, + reign.”  Reign may imply a “royal authority,” as well as “dominion.”   

Of ouranos, Strong says, “Perhaps from the same as [oros, a hill or mountain] (through the idea of elevation); the sky; by extension heaven (as the abode of God); by implication happiness, power, eternity; specifically the Gospel (Christianity): – air, heaven ([-ly]), sky.” 

So, here are some possible senses of the phrase, “kingdom of heaven”.  First, if basileia is taken as Strong calls “properly,”, i.e. as “royalty,” the sense becomes:   “kingship of heaven”;  “kingship of air”; “kingship of sky”; “kingship of happiness”;  kingship of power”; “kingship of eternity”.  From this, the sense is strained, and it appears that the most direct meaning is not quite the intent. 

Next, with “kingdom” as “realm” in the sense of “a place under rule”, we would see: “realm of heaven”;  “realm of air”; “realm of sky”; “realm of happiness”;  “realm of power”; “realm of eternity”.  It seems that the geographic sense may be better, but it does not quite work, because the “realm of heaven” had been long-established, and Jesus was looking into the future in Matthew 16.19.  Certainly, this could also be taken as the “dominion over” the geographic space, in which case, the sense actually becomes more like the following cases.

Now, let’s see what happens when we use the idea of a “rule” or a “reign.”  If “kingdom/basileia” is taken to mean “reign,” the sense becomes:   “reign of heaven”;  “reign of air”; “reign of sky”; “reign of happiness”;  “reign of power”; “reign of eternity”.  Now, the idea begins to make more sense: whereas humanity had been floundering without accepting or recognizing a proper authority, Jesus would give the apostles the authority (keys) to lead people into the “reign of heaven”; the community of called out believers (the church) would be under a benevolent “reign of power”, and that will be a “reign of eternity.”  The rudderless drifting in the unhappy realm of the world without God would be alleviated under such a “reign of happiness.” 

But, let’s take this a couple of steps farther back.  Basileia probably has its roots in basileus, which connotes a “foundation of power.”  Strong points out that either abstractly, relatively or figuratively, this refers to a “sovereign” or “king.”  Basileus probably arises from the root word, “basis,” from the Greek, “baino”, “to walk, and thereby implies “the foot.”  So, this appears to further support the concept of “kingdom” as a “foundation” or “basis” of or for a “rule” or “reign.”   

In the broader scope, the Jews were waiting for a Messiah who would rise up and throw off the shackles of Roman tyranny.  They had been a people in captivity.  They were now an occupied nation.  They were looking for a charismatic figure to vindicate their nationalism.  They longed for the freedom of self-determination.  A Messiah who would rally the people to freedom would obviously result in the restoration of a country with firm and defended geo-political borders.  Jesus didn’t offer that.  Instead, his liberty was that of the soul.  If people submit to his rule, reign, or authority, they would have freedom that transcends the physical.  With the advent of Christianity, the emphasis became less on physical geography and politics and more on the institutional concept of an organized body with definite form and function.  The view that the “kingdom” is the “church” is very strongly entrenched in the collective Christian psyche.  It is what we have been taught from the early days of the church, and indeed, it would make sense as the leadership of the church became more and more centralized.  In a very real sense, it carries over the idea that the Jews of Jesus’s day held.  

But still, we wrestle with our preachers and teachers embracing and pushing the idea that the “kingdom” as mentioned in Matthew is manifested solely in the organized structure of the institution we call the “church.”  If this is true, then it should be able to stand up to some rather simple analytical scrutiny: If the “kingdom of heaven” is the same thing as the “church,” wouldn’t substituting “church” in each instance retain the same sense?  Let’s find out.  I’ve put “church” in brackets “[ ]” every place that “kingdom of heaven” appears in the verses in Matthew.  Is the sense the same?

Mat 3.2  “Repent, for the [church] is at hand.”

Mat 4.17  From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the [church] is at hand.”

Mat 5.3  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the [church].

Mat 5.10  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the [church].

Mat 5.19  Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the [church], but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the [church].

Mat 5.20  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the [church].

Mat 7.21  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the [church], but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

Mat 8.11  I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the [church],

Mat 10.7  And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The [church] is at hand.’

Mat 18.3  and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the [church].

Mat 18.4  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the [church].

Mat 11.11  Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the [church] is greater than he.

Mat 11.12  From the days of John the Baptist until now the [church]  has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.

Mat 13.11  And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the [church], but to them it has not been given.

Mat 13.33  He told them another parable. “The [church] is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

Mat 13.44  “The [church] is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Mat 13.52  And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the [church]  is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Mat 16.19  I will give you the keys of the [church], and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Mat 18.1  At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the [church]?”

Mat 18.3  and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the [church].

Mat 18.4  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the [church].

Mat 18.23  “Therefore the [church] may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.

Mat 19.12  For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the [church]. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

Mat 19.14  but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the [church].”

Mat 20.1  “For the [church] is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.

Mat 22.2  “The [church] may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son,

Mat 23.13  “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the [church] in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.

Mat 25.1  “Then the [church] will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.

 

So again, is the sense the same?  Turns out, it isn’t.  In some places, it doesn’t even come close.

But what happens if we replace “kingdom of heaven” with “rule/reign/authority/dominion of heaven/power/eternity”?

 

Mat 3.2  “Repent, for the [dominion of heaven] is at hand.”

Mat 4.17  From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the [dominion of heaven] is at hand.”

Mat 5.3  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 5.10  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 5.19  Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the [dominion of heaven], but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 5.20  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 7.21  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the [reign of heaven], but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

Mat 8.11  I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the [reign of heaven],

Mat 10.7  And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The [dominion of heaven] is at hand.’

Mat 18.3  and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 18.4  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 11.11  Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the [reign of heaven] is greater than he.

Mat 11.12  From the days of John the Baptist until now the [authority of heaven]  has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.

Mat 13.11  And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the [dominion of eternity], but to them it has not been given.

Mat 13.33  He told them another parable. “The [dominion of heaven] is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

Mat 13.44  “The [dominion of heaven] is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Mat 13.52  And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the [authority of heaven]  is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Mat 16.19  I will give you the keys of the [authority of power], and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Mat 18.1  At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the [dominion of heaven]?”

Mat 18.3  and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 18.4  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 18.23  “Therefore the [rule of power] may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.

Mat 19.12  For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the [reign of heaven]. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

Mat 19.14  but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the [dominion of heaven].”

Mat 20.1  “For the [reign of heaven] is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.

Mat 22.2  “The [authority of heaven] may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son,

Mat 23.13  “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the [dominion of heaven] in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.

Mat 25.1  “Then the [reign of heaven] will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.

Granted, the sense is strained in a couple of places, but I have tried to be consistent and objective in the presentation.  Some instances would need a change of preposition, for example.   But in many places, the idea of “rule,” “reign,” or “dominion” makes far more sense.  For example, Matthew 11.12 says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”  If the “kingdom” is the “church,” when was the church established?  According to standard church doctrine, that happened on Pentecost.  Either Jesus didn’t know what he was talking about or the kingdom is not the church in this instance.  Similarly, Jesus is speaking in the present tense in Matthew 23.13: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”  Again, if the “kingdom” is the “church,” when was the church established?  How could the Pharisees that Jesus addressed have been at that time preventing others from entering the “church” when it was not yet in existence? 

If we take “kingdom” to mean “rule,” the sense is far more understandable.  So where Matthew 11.12 says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the [reign/rule/authority of heaven] has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”  This connotes the idea of usurpation of power.  The violent have tried to subvert the reign of heaven by violent force.  In Matthew 7.21, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”  Just because you say the words does not mean you truly submit to heaven’s authority.  In Matthew 8.11, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven….”  Here, those who submit to heaven’s rule are in good company, that of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, three of the great heroes of faith, who in their time and in their way submitted to heaven’s authority.  They could not be made to enter the “church” as we have institutionalized it.  But they could be seen as part of the “universal community of believers.”

That idea, that the church is composed of people, is a point that many preachers in the churches of Christ are swift to make.  But in the same breath practically, they fully embrace and teach the institutional concept of the church by continuing to insist that the “kingdom” is the “church.”  If “church” refers to the organizational entity that is comprised of believers, then perhaps the sense holds in some cases.  However, by insisting that the “church” is people, or the collective of believers, the institutional view of “church” as organization makes less sense.    

So, how can we bring these ideas together?  Well, we can think of the “church” as one manifestation or perhaps more aptly, a consequence of the “reign of heaven.”  Those who submit to that reign will be gathered into the church.  I believe that is what is meant in Acts 2.47, where “…the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”  Those who submitted to the authority of heaven were added to the community of believers, which are the “called-out people”, ekklesia, or as we know it, the church.

I realize this has been a lengthy and somewhat repetitious sort of rambling mental exercise.  (If you have made it this far with me, congratulations.)  This whole project began with the question, “What gospel did Jesus preach?”  The most succinct answer is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4.17)  This calls people to change their lives and repent of the obvious sins that they overtly, covertly, or habitually committed.  But Jesus was calling them to much more.  He was calling them to repentance for the shambles they had made of religion.  The Law of Moses was detailed enough, that keeping it well would take concentration and attention to detail.  The rabbis had added multiplied scores of their own laws on top of the Mosaic code.  Jesus wanted them to get back to basics.  Learn and practice the two greatest commandments, to free themselves of the burden they could never bear.

But the reason Jesus gave for that repentance was because “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Now, that could mean a temporal proximity, to be sure, in the sense of “soon.”  On the other hand, as he was— or rather his disciples were— already baptizing disciples, how much more “at hand” could the kingdom be?  It was already there and waiting for willing followers if they did what he asked.  If they would submit to the “reign of heaven,” they would be under a new world order.  But if “kingdom” equals “church,” then why did Jesus tell the scribe in Mark 12.34, “You are not far from the kingdom of God”?  Was he just teasing him?  “Wait a few weeks or months or years and the “church” will be opened up for you.”  No, the new economy of the “reign of heaven” had begun.  It was available for the penitent believer.

And it is available now.  When we willingly submit to the authority of God, we will do what is asked of us—that’s what submission is.  We will be under that authority as a citizen of the kingdom.  We will then be welcomed into the church, the community of believers, the followers of the Way.  We will function as a family, the adopted sons and daughters of one Father.  We will help each other and make the world better, doing what we can to mitigate the effects of sin in the world, especially for those in the family of God, but for any and all in need.  In showing that love for neighbors, we channel the love God has for his creation.  There is no down-side to defecting to this “kingdom of heaven.” 

As the father of two children, I am frustrated and even angry when those two resolutely disobey me, or when they refuse to try to accomplish something and just give up and quit.  But I am so proud when they do their best, no matter what that best may be.  And with God as our Father, who is so much greater in his capacity for patience, and for love and understanding than I can ever imagine achieving, we can rest easy, knowing that when we have done our best, we will have made him proud.  That’s a reign of happy, loving power.  That’s the good news that my Brother, my Teacher, my Lord and my Friend, Jesus brought to this world.  And it is a far, far better place for it.

Now available from Amazon

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Don’t miss Max Ray’s book, A Better Way, now available in trade paperback and for Amazon Kindle.  A Better Way proposes that we rethink how we view the Bible and how we understand God’s will for us.  For years, we have relied on a reductionist view of scripture.  This is demonstrated in our commonly accepted method of interpretation and establishing authority involving Command, Example, and Inference.  But what if we are missing something?  What if the forest is far bigger and more instructive than the few trees we choose to see?  By looking at the whole Bible from creation to new creation, we can see a call to something greater in scope, yet simpler in execution than the laws we have cobbled together from dissecting scriptures and reassembling them in ways they may never have been meant to be read.  A Better Way makes no claim to be the final answer.  But it is a call to action for us to set aside the chains of tradition and seek the true path that leads to real freedom–freedom to think, freedom to worship, freedom to live as God intended without fear and with the fullest expression of the greatest of human qualities that truly reflect the image of God.

There may be lots of discussion on this book.  The series of essays that was collected into this volume generated many exchanges on social networking sites.  In fact there were people who openly admitted they had not read the works they were criticizing.  But before anyone discredits the work or casts aspersions, we would be well advised to hear the words of the wise man, in Proverbs 18:13, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”  So set aside the prejudice of tradition and be ready to explore the Bible in ways you may never have before.  It’s worth the experience.

Logic and the Turtle on the Fence Post

Insight and understanding are interesting things.  If you’re like me, you can muddle along for ages not quite getting something, and then, in a flash of inspiration, everything makes sense.  Sometimes, what we may think of as understanding is not.  And sometimes, it is.

I remember one instance many years ago when I was a college student at Western Kentucky University.  It was evening, and I was walking down The Hill toward my dorm.  I had just passed the graduate college building attached to the main library, I was walking toward East Hall, just walking and thinking about the nature of God.  What if God is just an energy field, a cosmic force like in the movies?  What if we just tap into it, and become part of it?  You know, the silly musings of a silly college kid.

It would be easy to grab that concept and run with it, and use it as a dodge for dealing with all questions of religion: if God is energy, there must not really be good and evil, only positive and negative energies that must be balanced in some way.  It could lead to all manner of wild imaginings.  And then it happened:  I was struck with a violent fit of shaking, like I was suddenly the coldest I had ever been and was shivering not with small muscular contractions, but every long muscle was violently shortening for maximum effect.  I got it.  I got the message.  That was not the right strategy.  Whether it was merely my own subconscious reaction to a thought that I subliminally considered to be foreign and ultimately repulsive, or I was having some sense shaken into me by the very object of my musings, I will leave that to the reader to conclude.  I have my suspicions.  And I am thankful for that.

I am a middle child, the son of a preacher for the Non-Institutional Churches of Christ.  Like so many children of preachers (or elders or deacons for that matter), we are under extreme scrutiny and much is expected of us.  I know I must have been a significant disappointment for my parents, who probably expected me to dutifully submit to the gospel when I hit that magical age of 12, which is just about the right age for the non-scriptural “Age of Accountability” to kick in.  (I suppose it is a melding of James 4.17 with the story of Jesus in the Temple, in Luke 2.)  I found myself not quite able to do that, because so much just didn’t make sense to me.  I saw hypocrisy and church power plays and I couldn’t make Christianity fit with the actions of many of the Christians that I observed.  I saw the stark dichotomy of Heaven and Hell, and I was duly scared of Hell.  But I knew if I just obeyed out of fear of Hell, it could never be right.  I questioned a God who would consign anyone to Hell for not understanding.  I kept thinking, searching, wondering, trying to make some sense of it all, all through high school.  And college. And graduate school.  But God never gave up on me.  In fact, I think I was encouraged in many ways to really wrestle with faith in order to understand it.  On many occasions, I felt that God was watching over me.  Things happened, doors opened, opportunities and jobs fell into place to keep me moving ahead.

In graduate school, I spent a lot of hours in the basement Divinity library at Vanderbilt, looking for loopholes and faults with the whole scheme of religion.  The Bible must be terribly flawed, and I looked for evidence to support that.  But I tried to keep an open mind.  I read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and the shell began to crack.  Here was reason, not superstition.  Here was logic and insight into the nature of the human condition.  I kept looking, listening, searching.  And then, I heard it.  And then the message made sense.  But it wasn’t just the message of fire insurance against Hell.  It was the message of real, genuine love, as delivered by John in his gospel and in his letters.  Perhaps one of the most influential passages to me then, and still is to me now, is found in I John 4.16-19:

“16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.  17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.  18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.  19 We love because he first loved us.”

The fog had lifted.  I got it.  I acted.  I have never looked back.

Since that time, I have been on a continuing journey not to find God, but to understand his mind and will.  For years, I kept pace with the Non-Institutional teachings.  I accepted the traditional means of determining authority: command, example, and necessary inference (CENI).  I taught it in classes and I preached it from the pulpit, but every time I did, something just didn’t feel right in the pit of my gut.  I had uttered the prescribed incantation as I was supposed to, but usually with a catch in my throat because part of me just didn’t buy it.  Commands are easy enough to grasp, and it’s usually easy enough to distinguish which commands are universal and which were meant for specific groups under specific circumstances (weekly collections notwithstanding).  Examples get harder to assess, and inferences made from examples and gleaned from dissected and reassembled texts are often so subjective that the old saying is quite true: put 10 Church of Christ preachers in a room and ask them to interpret a passage of scripture and you’ll get 20 different answers.

This particular means of interpreting scripture has been studied, analyzed, and found infallible by many thinkers on one hand, but flawed beyond practical usability by many others.  I’m somewhere closer to the beyond practical usability end.  I have read the arguments.  And I have seen people’s reputations attacked, characters assassinated, and then practically crucified because they would dare to question this highly revered but human invention that has become equal to scripture.

The arguments for the use of CENI usually revolve around the idea that these are the only three methods of communication and that each method provides equally true and valid conclusions.  However, an analysis that affirms that these are the only three methods of communication and that this is a self-evident fact provides the foundation for a logical tautology—a proposition that cannot be falsified because it is always true.

After years of wrestling with these questions, I had another of those, “I get it” moments.  Something struck me from out of the blue yesterday as I was typing a message to my father.  While I agree that these are valid means of communication, it is evident that each form of communication is variable and progressive in terms of its potential ambiguity. They are not in any way equal in their reliability.  Direct commands are the least ambiguous of the triad.  Examples obviously show how people did something, and if there is no direct condemnation of that action, the example is likely to be valid and approved.

Inferences are the most problematic of the three modes of communication because these rest on sets of assumptions that may or may not be true.  In logic, this can be easily demonstrated by the use of inferential syllogisms.  If the premises are true, the conclusion is more likely to be true, but not necessarily.  A classic example of a syllogism can be seen in the following: “All men are mortal. (true)  Socrates is a man. (true)  Therefore, Socrates is mortal.  (true)”  Here, the premises are each independently true, and the conclusion is also true.  The syllogism is valid because the conclusion is appropriately drawn from the premises.

Can a syllogism be based on true premises but lead to a false conclusion?  Obviously it can:  “All bats are mammals.  (true)  Cats are mammals.  (true)  Therefore, cats are bats. (false).”  The reasoning is invalid, here, and the conclusion is in error because it fails to recognize the correctly nested hierarchy of classifications.  Similarly, a conclusion drawn from false premises may be valid, but ultimately false.  Consider, “All Southerners are racist bigots.  (false)  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Southerner.  (true)  Therefore, Dr. Martin Luther King,, Jr. was a racist bigot. (false)”  In this case, the reasoning is valid, because the conclusion is logical given the premises.  However, the premise that all Southerners are racist bigots is obviously false, because many Southerners, both black and white fought the prevailing attitudes of racial inequality during the Civil Rights Movement and won great victories over institutionalized racism.  Therefore, the conclusion, while the product of a valid argument, is false because of its erroneous premise.

So, can we absolutely trust all inferences in religion as true because they may be based on valid arguments?  No, not if the premises are flawed or the conclusions do not necessarily follow from the premises.  Consider, the case in Acts 20, dealing with the timing of the Lord’s Supper observance.  “Christians are commanded to “break bread” as part of the Lord’s Supper memorial. (true)  Some Christians in Troas met on the First Day of the Week to “break bread.”  (true)  Therefore, we may observe the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week. (true)”  However, by placing an “only” in front of “observe,” we commit a logical fallacy of “affirming the consequent”—we limit the observance to one day when there are six others in a week, and we know from Acts 2 that Christians in Jerusalem met daily to attend the Temple together and “broke bread” “from house to house.”  Are we wrong to partake of the Lord’s Supper on the First Day of the Week?  No.  Can we condemn those who partake with greater frequency?  Not if we respect ALL scripture and allow one apostolically approved example to be the equal of—but not superseded by— another.

Another problematic point deals with the imposed silence of women.  In I Corinthians 14, Paul’s discussion of orderly worship deals with the practice and display of miraculous spiritual gifts.  At the conclusion of the discussion, where he has already said that a tongue-speaker without an interpreter must be silent, and a person who prophesies must be silent if another prophet receives a revelation, he turns his attention to the silence of women.  A similar situation is considered in I Timothy 2.  In each case, the focus appears to be on disruptive wives who do not show proper respect and submission to their husbands who may be teaching or prophesying.  The syllogism for the conventional understanding of this situation may look something like this: “All wives must be in subjection to their husbands (who are men). (true)  All wives are women. (true)  Therefore all women must be in subjection to any man. (false)”  Nowhere in scripture does it say that any woman must be in subjection to any or all men merely on the basis of gender.  Nowhere.  But wives are instructed to be subject to their husbands, to respect them and honor them.  The Greek words for “woman” or “women” in these passages are the same Greek words translated elsewhere as “wife” or “wives.”  By placing an appropriate translation into the passages, the sense is far less restrictive on unmarried women and widows.  Logically, how could a widow or an unmarried woman ask her husband at home about some question that arose in an assembly?  By making them ask some other woman’s husband, violence is done to the scripture by forcing an addition of a command directed to that specific class of people.

So, now that we can see how relatively simple logic may be applied to understanding even difficult situations, how can we improve our interpretation?  As we observed previously, command involves direct communication and should be the least ambiguous.  As a teacher, if I tell my students to work a problem set and turn in their work on a specific day, there is little room for misunderstanding.  However, the use of example becomes more ambiguous.  If I assign a problem and only show an equation with a solution, it may tell very little about how to actually solve the equation.  When an example is given, instruction usually accompanies it.  In my classes, when I introduce a new formula, I walk my students through a calculation so that they can see how each variable is used, and what effect each variable has on an outcome.  I give an example and explain the situation.  In the Bible, Jesus both instructed and exemplified what he wanted in terms of the observance of his memorial.  Jesus commanded baptism (command), and he also submitted to John’s baptism of repentance (example), even though he had nothing to repent of.  The whole genre of parables was to provide every day examples that could be applied to spiritual matters.  In many cases, Jesus told the parable/story and then made an application, providing both an example plus instruction.

But what about inference?  When we communicate, we do make inferences.  To paraphrase the famous author, Alex Hailey, when you see a turtle sitting on a fence post, you must infer that he had some help getting there.  Inference fills in the gap.  However, in order to ensure that our inferences are unambiguous and accurate when we communicate, we must ask the communicator to clarify his or her intent, and verify that our inferences are actually correct.  In fact, I had this very thing happen only today:  My wife had earlier asked me to make sure that I checked out how to do a particular set of exercises to help our son with his vision development program.  However, I thought she later told me pick up our daughter later, after she had picked up our son so that she could get him through his exercises.  I inferred that she wanted a quiet house to get the work done.  So, I went and ran some errands instead of coming home to observe the therapy techniques.  My inference was incorrect, because her intent was for me to be present for the exercises today.  It could have been corrected had I but asked for clarification.  Sometimes, we refer to this as “getting our wires crossed.”

Considering the logical syllogisms that we explored above, it is obvious that we can arrive at erroneous conclusions even given good premises.  With that in mind, how does this work for using inference as a means of determining scriptural authority?  Obviously, there are problems.  How can we ask for clarification?  How can we ask for verification of the validity of our interpretations?  We wind up having to rely on our own judgments, which may or may not be aligned with the intent of the communicator.  This is how two men of equal intelligence, character, and moral fiber can look at the same set of scriptures and arrive at different conclusions.  Neither will deny a command.  They may be in substantial agreement on examples.  But they may vary widely on matters of inference (kitchens, cooperation among congregations, one cup, Bible classes, head covering for women, located preachers, juice vs. wine in communion, etc.).

One of the consequences of inference is that it leads to extensions referred to as “expedients” to help us achieve some required goal or command.  The concept of the expedient has flourished despite the fact that the Regulative Principle (or “Law of Silence”) is invoked to prevent “additions.”  For example, Christians must assemble to worship.  Therefore, they must have a place to assemble.  In the early days, they met in houses, but where did they go when the congregations grew too large to meet in a private house?  We infer that they must have secured a larger meeting place, rather than divide into smaller groups to continue meeting in houses.  So, we infer that church buildings and the amenities associated with the comfort of the congregation are permissible, even though nothing is specifically authorized.  In fact, I recently read about one view of I Corinthians 11 where Paul’s condemning the church’s abuse of the love feast/Lord’s Supper is used to infer that the congregation was meeting in some place besides a home: “Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?”  While some may see this as perfectly logical, others may view this as quite a stretch.  If we need a place to assemble, some may think that we may need ways to get people there, and therefore a van or bus becomes an expedient.  Others consider this to be beyond authority, even though the same sort of reasoning was used to arrive at the conclusion.  Whose inference represents the limit of authority?  That limit now becomes a matter of opinion.

In virtually every instance of division among the churches of Christ, an inference has been at the root.  If inference is indeed a plausible means of establishing authority, then why has there been such division?  To place the blame for the error completely on the other guy is to proclaim our own infallibility.

Proponents of inference feel justified in its use, because this is so scientifically objective, so perfectly Baconian.  However, real scientific inference requires a dedication to real objectivity.  Conclusions should only be drawn if hypotheses are supported by experiments that use many subjects (the principle of replication) and experiments that may be repeated with similar results each time.  If I draw a conclusion using a single observation from an experiment, I would be a scientific fool.    And yet, we do that very thing with scripture, sometimes taking a single verse out of its historical and cultural context and inferring a principle, law or command that is seen as binding on all Christians for all time.  Similarly, I would be a fool to draw a conclusion from results that do not in any way correspond to the findings of other competent researchers who have repeated the experiment and achieved different results.  Again, we do the same thing on any number of issues that have split and divided us.

We are all products of our experience, and as such, we are affected by what we have heard, what we have seen and what we have learned.  In reality, very few people approach scriptures completely independently and completely without some form of bias.  Knowing this should make us consciously and conscientiously seek to set aside those prejudices.  The next time a preacher or teacher says, “There are three ways to establish authority: command, example, and inference,” or “tell, show, and imply,” ask a simple question: why?  Why would an all-knowing God who spared no expense in detailing the fine art of law-keeping to the Jews from the time of Moses until Christ hide the elements of the New Testament “pattern” like so many images in a hidden picture puzzle?  Why would he force us to rely on our own subjective inferences when it would lead not to the unity for which Jesus prayed, but a splintered, shattered, disarray of feuding factions?  Why would he purposely obscure his will for us?  So only a few would find it?

If the CENI method is truly from God, it should always lead to the same results.  Outside of direct commands, the interpretation of examples and the inferences interpolated from rationalizations to fit a pre-established bias almost always lead to a multiplicity of conclusions.  Are we as wise as God to accurately judge the hearts, minds, and motives of anyone who opposes our position?  We should understand that on any controversy, the church that is to the ideological right of where we find ourselves is condemning us for what we have concluded to be right and true.

Ultimately, grace is the only thing on which we can rely. Paul says in Ephesians 2.8-9, “8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9  not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” What if we make the right inferences and we get everything just right.  Paul says it’s only grace that saves us, through our willing, active faith.  And what if we make the wrong inferences, as carefully as we may have reached them…it’s still only grace that can make us whole.  That is not an inference, but a direct statement by an apostle.  In the end, inference as a method of establishing authority is the weakest of the traditional triad.  And that’s the only inference I’m truly comfortable in making.