CENI: Antithetical Thinking

church_split1We humans have a natural tendency to overreact to emotionally traumatic events. We tend toward avoidance behaviors, that is, if one dog bites us, we stay 100 feet away from the next dog we see.

And this affects our theology. We like to think that we’re rational, scientific, unbiased, scholarly people — and sometimes we are — but we are also often deeply emotional and influenced far more by our feelings than we wish to admit.

When the Restoration Movement was caught up in disputes over instrumental music and missionary societies after the Civil War, both sides turned to the scriptures to find arguments for their side and against the other. For a time, both sides treated the other as fellow Christians, although in error. But as churches were split and suits filed over the ownership of buildings, many leaders began to press CENI as not only the proper means of finding authority but the way of finding salvation.

Soon many were damning the opposite side over issues only a few years after the same people considered the same issues not to govern salvation. You see, as our emotions rose, we raised the stakes. Making our positions salvation issues was a last, desperate attempt to force agreement. It failed. It always will. It was, you see, avoidance behavior — attempting to make the unpleasantness of the controversy as far removed as possible.

Reading the literature of the period, you won’t find rational, scientific, unbiased, scholarly arguments for why these errors damn. Rather, it was simply assumed that errors damn. Or it was assumed that the other side was acting in willful disregard for God’s will, and thus was surely damned. Good faith could not be credited to the opponent, because the opponent was dividing the church and taking buildings from good, loyal, sound Christians.

Now, it’s important to realize just how deeply this thinking affected us. In the aftermath of the 2006 reunification efforts with the Christian Churches, conservative Church of Christ members wrote articles condemning the instrumental Christian Churches for dividing congregations and stealing buildings — as though we were still fighting with the same people! It was a remarkable demonstration of how these traumatic events have affected our group psychology. But, of course, the people who did this — right or wrong, saved or damned — are long dead. And yet some wish to go on holding the grudge. It’s truly astonishing.

Here’s the point. Doctrine that is forged in the midst of an internal fight is almost always wrong. When we are pulling out our Bibles trying to damn our opponents with some clever argument, well, that’s hardly the mindset that leads to truth. We quite naturally tend to overreact, to push too hard, and to overlook the arguments that go the other way.

Worse yet, when we divide our branch of the Restoration Movement based on our battle-forged arguments, we feel obliged to defend that decision against all dissent. Indeed, I still sometimes see people argue: of course, we’re right about instrumental music! If we weren’t right, we never would have split from the Christian Churches! — as though the decisions made by our great, great grandparents are wise and good beyond all dispute.

We see the marks of this thinking in our doctrine of apostasy. Ask most preachers in the conservative Churches of Christ what doctrines lead to apostasy, and you’ll quickly see a list made up largely of instrumental music, missionary societies, institutionalism (often combined with missionary societies), and false teaching on the present work of the Holy Spirit. These, of course, reflect the best-remembered splits — over instrumental music and missionary societies in 1906, over institutionalism in the 1950s, and over Pentecostalism in the 1970s.

More recently, the role of women has become a genuine issue in the Churches of Christ. Therefore, the issue has been elevated to “salvation issue” status. 100 years ago, David Lipscomb allowed women to teach men in Bible class and many of our leaders spoke in favor of female deacons without being damned. But very few churches actually followed this counsel. Now that churches are beginning to actually do this, the issue raises fear and so becomes a matter of apostasy.

Ask a preachers in the one-cup branch or no-Sunday school branch, and he’ll list those controversies as damning issues. They remember those fights, although many in the “mainstream” churches do not — or more precisely, we in the mainstream no longer fear disagreement over those issues, whereas the conservative churches very much fear “false teaching” over their pet issues. And so whatever issue remains controversial within our branch of the Restoration Movement is declared a salvation issue.

And, of course, each of these issues tends to be argued along the lines of CENI. That is the hermeneutic — so much so that CENI is reshaped and redefined as needed to fit the needs of the controversy.

Unfortunately, for reasons I’ll explain, it’s a severely incomplete hermeneutic, and therefore incapable of bringing agreement. Indeed, while the early years of the Restoration Movement were characterized by dramatic unification of churches across the American frontier, as CENI became the dominant approach to scripture, the Movement fractured over and over — and is finally about to fracture over that very doctrine, as many within the more progressive congregations have rejected CENI (as applied by the conservatives) altogether.

To our conservative brothers, this sounds like utter nonsense, as we quite obviously must respect the scriptures’ commands and examples and properly drawn inferences. But it’s not that simple, as I’ll try to explain as we go forward.

Stick with me. I’m getting there.

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16 Responses

  1. The absolute worst thing about CENI besides all the inconsistencies and so on is this: you can apply it to the “t” but never reveal God’s nature and his character. It is inherently divisive due to the inconsistency. It also relegates much of the NT where commands, examples or inferences such as holy kisses, head coverings and so on to “culture of the day” but then invokes an expediency clause to make other things of our culture such as song books, pitch pipes and church buildings ok. If the scriptures really are all sufficient then why do we have so much of it that was only “culture of day”? Since the OT is not for setting up the “Work, Worship and Organization of the church” CENI doesn’t work so well when reading Psalms or Proverbs or the prophets. I believe that is why so little emphasis was placed on the OT in the traditional church of Christ. Also try reading Revelation using CENI that is about easy as trying to get spilled oil out of water.

  2. “Doctrine that is forged in the midst of an internal fight is almost always wrong.”

    Great quote. I hope I can remember that in the future.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  3. Can someone please tell me where people find the authority (in the Bible) to dis-fellowship someone who attends another congregation, i.e. another fellowship?

    Let’s try this with a mathematical logical type of proof:

    Given: I believe in the autonomy of each congregation
    Given: I place myself under the spiritual leaders of my congregation

    Question: How can spiritual leaders of some other congregation decide my salvation?

    Someone please help me with this….

  4. “Doctrine that is forged in the midst of an internal fight is almost always wrong.”

    Like Tim, I too think that is a great statement. I would also say that this statement is not only true of the CoC and the Restoration Movement but also pretty indicative of the larger Protestant Reformation (including the way the CoC/ResM itself related its fellow Christians in other Protestant churches).

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  5. Good points Jay. Logic and emotions don’t play nicely together. Too often emotions win the battle.

  6. The Law of Silence is OWNED by the Disciples of Christ. No one has to INFER what Paul commanded in Romans 15 as speaking with one MIND and one MOUTH using that which is written: that edifies or educates (the purpose driving synagogue), glorifies or praises God who wrote the songs and sermons, comforts with Scripture and keeps the unity of the Body. No one inferred SINGING as an ACT of worship before the year 373.

    H.Leo Boles wrote in 1939 during a periodic effort to force instruments into happy churches:

    W.R. Walker, in Christian Standard, May 27, 1939, said:

    “There are two areas in our religious living in which the authority of Christ must be recognized. The first embraces all his teaching and that of his inspired followers, the `vocal area’ ; but there is another area, the `area of silence.”‘ He further said:

    “I am persuaded that Christ has authority in the `areas of silence.’
    Christ, by his silence, in every situation concerning which he has left no direct teaching, has bestowed on ME this authority to act for myself.”

    Boles: W.R. Walker calls the opinions of man in the “areas of silence” “the authority of Christ.” This is tantamount to saying that man’s opinions in the “areas of silence” are of equal force with the word of God.

    Silence as right to PRIVATE OPINION is then used to IMPOSE that private opinon on EVERYONE ELSE as the teachings of Christ.

    Silence is used as authority to IMPOSE that which is neither commanded, exampled or inferenced in Scripture. No one uses silence to PRACTICE congregational singing with no effort to IMPOSE it on instrumentalists by “infiltrating and diverting or holding fixed debates.”

    John Locke who is used by the Disciples/Christians as authority for using human reasoning (never said it) as authority. However, Locke and all definitions defines SECTARIANISM or HERESY as “IMPOSING something discording which is NOT REQUIRED or absolutely necessary for carrying out the purpose for the church.”

    The founders of the instrumental sectarians claimed that the ORGAN was NOT an act of worship: if it became an ACT then it would be sinful. The judge at Newbern was not convinced.

    That would not have included self-composed songs (among Presbyterians) or any other kind of instrument which does not AID but DESTROYS the rationa/spiritual ability to comprehend the WORD. DOGMA includes that which is added as an AID while DOCTRINE can be found ONLY on the sacred pages.

    Your beyond the sacred pages always causes sectarianism with those who teach that which has been taught.

    SPEAK one to another in “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” or “that which is written” never uses SILENCE. The word SPEAK is defined as the OPPOSITE of poetry or music. SPEAK is to teach: music is to stroke all of the pleasure centers.

  7. I think, ultimately, CENI can be one of Satan’s most useful tools … because anything you don’t like that isn’t found in scripture is therefore unauthorized and therefore you can and must damn anyone to hell for doing what you don’t like.

    And if there’s something you do like that isn’t found in scripture, you can justify it as expedient through necessary inference and you can (and, of course, must) damn anyone to hell for forbidding what you don’t like.

    All very logically, of course.

    And without any particular regard for the nature of God or His Son required.

  8. We spent 25 years with the non class congregations and some who did not chose to use paid preachers. Most did not condemn those who attended class or located preacher churches or visited. We never saw such strife, infighting, division and hatred until we came to the churches with classes.
    Now, to us, a worship center is where Christians come together regardless of the name on the building.

    I fear many Church of Christ theologians have gone insane with their knowledge. Many of you can quote passages by memory but have very little knowledge of real meaning of the original scriptures meant.

  9. Of course, much doctrine that is accepted by most Christians of all denominations today was forged in the midst of controversy. That’s what the great ecumenical councils were about. It helps us to understand the doctrine if we understand the historical development of the doctrine. It does not mean the doctrine is necessarily wrong. It is how we came to the orthodox doctrine of who Jesus is as well as the doctrine of the trinity.

    I am willing to accept that those doctrines are flawed in that they depend in part on human wisdom, but I do not know a better way to express those beliefs. If you have a better explanation feel free to share it with me/us.

    The one thing we learn from the study of (church) history is that we do not learn from the study of history.

    For what it is worth.
    Randall

  10. Randall,

    I’d concede that the Nicene Creed is solid theology. However the controversy that led to the Creed also led to the elevation of the Creed to the very definition of what saves, leading to the anathematizing of nearly all Asian Christians — perhaps half or more of Christianity at the time. So even when we get the doctrine right, we tend to over-emphasize its importance. We just can’t resist the temptation to damn those who dare disagree with us, and the tougher the fight, the more certain we are of the need to damn the Other. Sadly, fights are toughest when the dispute is over the finest points — and dispute only becomes clear as we sharpen our debating points. And some point, even something as mysterious as the Trinity becomes so crystal clear and obvious that we figure those who disagree surely care nothing about God’s truth.

    The Churches of Christ are heirs to a long history of discord. Thomas Campbell’s vision was simple and brilliant: don’t divide over inferences, even really, really good inferences, such as the Nicene Creed. And it worked while it was being followed.

  11. Jay,
    I have to agree that Thomas Campbell’s vision was simple was simple and brilliant – unite on the clear, important things and continue to study (but don’t divide) over the less important things Few of us realize that he thought of the Westminster Confession of Faith as one of the greatest statements of biblical truth ever penned by man. But it greived him for it to be something that was used to separate one Christian from another.

    It is interesting that he may well have writtten the Declaration and Address as a reaction against the prevailing theology/attitude of his own Presybterian church. Of course, this shows that his teaching (doctrine) of unity was “forged in the midst of an internal fight” as he was in trouble with the Presbyterians for permitting the Lord’s supper to be served to Presbyterians of a slightly different mindset that his own kind of Presbyterianism.

    I guess my point is simply that a lot of doctrine/teaching is forged in the midst of conrtoversy – so much so that it may be the norm. Sometimes the doctrine goes too far and sometimes it is long overdue.

    My second point is that if we understand the historical development of the doctrine we are better able to understand it – both for what may be good about it and for what may be bad about it. But just realiziing that it was a reaction against “something” helps us to see the intent of it better, espcially if we also understand the “something” that it was a reaction against. When those in the CofC come to a better hermeneone utic than CENI I hope they will be aware their “new” may be (in part) a reaction agasinst their “old” one.

    Thanks for taking the time to this series on the CENI hermeneutic. I know many will benefit from it and I pray it is very widely read. If more in the CofC understood our own history and the development of our hermeneutic there might be less discord among us. Perhaps one day we can recover much of the good from the early years of the Stone Campbell movement that has been lost.

    God bless you in your efforts to serve him,
    Randall

  12. Randall,

    Let me suggest this wrinkle. I am a fan of the “Declaration and Address.” And it certainly grew out of a doctrinal dispute — but as a reaction against doctrinal disputes in general.

    Another example would be freedom of religion as found in the US Bill of Rights. Freedom of religion developed in reaction against the religious wars in Europe that followed the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation brought many excellent and needed doctrines, but it also brought persecutions by both the Catholics and the Protestants. France spent 100 years torn up by a series of internal wars as each side attempted to suppress the other, resulting in the purge of the Protestants and the monopoly of the Catholic Church — and ultimately resulting in the atheism of the French Revolution, as Christianity had become so closely tied to the political powers that the people overthrew both the king and the church.

    As these events were unfolding, the English Enlightenment philosophers came up with the idea of separation of church and state and freedom of religion, culminating the First Amendment, which eventually became the pattern for democracies worldwide.

    Just so, Campbell’s “Declaration and Address” resulted from internal fights and anathematizing within the Presbyterian Church — symptomatic of the Protestantism of the day — as an effort to separate fellowship from agreement on points other than the gospel.

    I say all that to suggest that when the fighting gets bad enough, eventually someone stands up and says, “There’s a better way.” Those who are fighting either get their doctrine wrong or else take a correct doctrine and wrongly divide over it. Those who protest the fighting and urge unity based on biblical principles are, of course, quite right to do so — even though their efforts are driven by the fighting. But they are different in kind, as they are reacting against division rather than against a particular point of doctrine.

    And, frankly, I think we see the same thing as modern Christians are saying that they no longer care about denominational distinctives and are more concerned to find a church that teaches that Bible and tries to follow Jesus than the church with the right position on the real presence in the communion or the right number of acts of worship. I think it’s a healthy attitude, because it puts the emphasis in the right place. The test will be whether the churches will take advantage of the Spirit’s leadings and so just teach the Bible and try to follow Jesus rather than trying to preserve a denominational past that is no longer relevant or helpful to the gospel — or getting caught up in stupid speculations and side issues.

    Sorry for being longwinded, but I’m finding your comments thought provoking.

  13. Jay,

    Ray Vander Laan quotes Rabbi Akiba as saying, “In order to build a good roof, you must start with a good foundation,” or something to that effect.

    Your writing here clearly displays your understanding of this principle. Well-done! well-done, indeed!

    in HIS love,
    nick

  14. […] church of Christ for personal reasons, he needs to say that. However, if he left over doctrine, he has a moral responsibility to tell the […]

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