CENI: Binding Examples

church_split1As we considered in the earlier posts in this series, the “E” in CENI stands for “examples,” generally spoken of as approved examples or binding examples.

Now, originally, the idea was a simple one: any approved example certainly shows that God approves the exemplified practice. When we read of churches sending out missionaries, we can be confident that God approves that activity. When we read that a church gathered to “break bread” on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7-8), surely God approves that. And I have no quarrel with that argument at all — except to note that even such an obvious principle remains incomplete.

I mean, we also have approved examples of speaking in tongues in the assembly (1 Cor 14), drinking wine at a wedding (John 2), going on missionary journeys with no money (Luke 10) — and yet we don’t consider these “approved” as applied to modern church practice. How did we make that determination? Where in CENI are we told how to distinguish an approved First Century example that’s approved for us today from an approved First Century example that isn’t approved for today? You see, we pick and choose based on something quite apart from CENI.

Now, over the years, “approved example” became “binding example.” Thus, not only are we permitted to meet to break bread on Sundays, we are now required to do so. That is, of course, a dramatic change — and a change that allows many to declare as apostate those who take communion on Saturday night rather than Sunday morning or night.

Once again, the Regulative Principle comes into play here, declaring all silences prohibitions. Because the scriptures speak of a Sunday communion, that is approved, and all other options are banned by God’s silence on Saturday communions. An example thus becomes binding.

But, as is true of commands, we see that many approved examples don’t rise to this level. And many examples have become the subject of division and anathematizing. For example, some congregations in the Churches of Christ have noted that there are examples of congregations being taught all at once, but no examples of congregations breaking up into age group classes. Thus, they conclude, we are banned from dividing into classes for Bible study. (There are churches of this persuasion in the next county.)

It’s been noted by the “mainstream” Churches that in the First Century missionaries were ordained by a congregation and supported by churches — all without the benefit of a missionary society. The example is held to be binding, and all other options are not only sin, but damn.

On the other hand, we have examples of churches meeting in the temple courts, synagogues, and homes, but no example of a church buying a building in which to meet. And this is held to be a matter of expedience — left to human judgment — as God has given no instructions as to where churches should meet. Why is one a binding example and the other a mere expedience?

And we have examples of the church gathering for periodic love feasts (Jude 12), but this practice is generally ignored. When was the last time you heard of a Church of Christ assembling for a love feast?

I have on my bookshelf Thomas B. Warren’s 169-page book When Is an “Example” Binding? (self-published 1975). I bought it years ago in hopes that the scholars of the Churches of Christ would have an answer to that obvious question. He concludes with the helpful guidance —

It must be re-emphasized that if an action actually is an “example” then it is binding (either obligatory in a positive way or prohibitory in a negative way). But accounts of action may or may not be “examples.” That must be determined according to the detail set out in the basic thesis of this book (correct logic must be used in connection with the total context of a specific account of action). (p 165).

Clear? Maybe an example would help. Beginning on page 139, Warren addresses Acts 20:7-8 —

(Acts 20:7-8)  On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. 8 There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting.

Warren explains, “There is nothing in the account  of the specific action itself to indicate that eating in the upper room was necessary.” He then analyzes the immediate, remote, and total context, finding no evidence that the upper room is important. But he ignores the obvious argument: that Jesus instituted the Supper in an “upper room.” (Mark 14:15).There are interesting parallels between these upper room stories, both culminating in a resurrection. But Warren ignores the arguments of those he disagrees with.

I mention this argument because there are those who actually insist on taking communion in an upper room, which sounds silly until you realize that there are in fact two examples of communion being taken in an upper room and none of communion being taken on the ground floor. Yes, it’s silly, but you can’t escape the silliness by ignoring inconvenient examples. Rather, we have to come up with a better, more complete, more honest hermeneutic than CENI.

Later, beginning at page 148, Warren argues that Acts 20:7 makes taking communion on a Sunday mandatory, because that’s the only day on which we have a record of communion being taken after the resurrection. He dismisses the fact that Jesus instituted communion on a Thursday because that fact contradicts Acts 20:7 and the Lord’s Supper commemorates the resurrection (but didn’t Paul say in 1 Cor 11:26 that we’re remembering Jesus death — which was on a Friday?). He concludes,

Not only are the members of every church (congregation) to meet together every Lord’s day in order to eat the Lord’s supper, ths is the only day on which the supper is to be eaten. There is no authority in all of the Bible for the Lord’s Supper to be eaten on any day other than the Lord’s day (first day of the week). And, whatever is done without Biblical authority is sinful (cf.: 2 John 9-11; 1 Cor. 4:6 Lev. 10:1-2; 1 Chron. 15:1-15).

You see, the example of Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper on Thursday constitutes “no authority” at all. And Warren ignores Acts 2:46, which tells us that the disciples met daily to “break bread” — the very same expression as in Acts 20:7.

The point isn’t that Warren is a sloppy scholar. It’s that CENI isn’t the real rationale. Rather, scholars such as Warren begin with the conclusion they want and then “prove” that conclusion using CENI — ignoring and dismissing evidence as need be, presuming that they know the right answers before they even begin. And CENI offers so little real guidance that a clever writer can prove very nearly anything that suits his purposes. Indeed, he can even fool himself. You see, I don’t think that Warren is consciously dishonest. I just think he is so sure of the answers that he doesn’t feel the need to truly deal with the text and the logic.

I’ve now heard from two independent sources how the Churches of Christ came to be divided over the “Herald of Truth” radio (and, later, TV) program in the 1950s. Some visionary leaders decided to syndicate a radio show to teach the gospel. The leaders divided over who would become the voice of the Churches of Christ on a nationally syndicated program. Well, one supporter of the effort was seriously disappointed that his man didn’t get the position. Soon thereafter, his publication announced that the “Herald of Truth” was an unauthorized institution, just as sinful and damning as a missionary society. And soon churches began to split, as some wanted to support this effort at evangelism while others feared for their souls if they did.

It wasn’t hard to put together a credible CENI argument damning over the “Herald of Truth,” and even though the publisher’s motives were despicable, his readers found his arguments persuasive because they actually make sense under CENI — as much sense as many other things we’ve bought in to. You see, there is no evidence in the New Testament of churches cooperating in this manner to do evangelism. There are plenty of examples of other means being used, and thus the means as to which the Bible is silent are banned. Simple, really. (Roy Cogdill and Guy N. Woods famously debated the issue in 1961 and the recording may be listened to on the internet. There are those who still care deeply about this issue.)

The nature of CENI is that it divides churches, because the “logic” of the house of cards is ad hoc, changing from issue to issue, example to example. It’s hardly surprising that churches continue to divide and damn over this hermeneutic, because no one really knows how to apply it — because CENI is silent as to the principles that really matter: when is a command or an example binding? Who knows?

Worse yet, the truly defective scholarship is the “logic” that makes any disagreement over the application of CENI damnable, as I hope to demonstrate in future posts.

You see, CENI is not really a hermeneutic because the rules we’re applying aren’t found in CENI. Rather, the rules are buried in the minds of our editors and preachers, unspoken and thus unexamined.


16 Responses

  1. I appreciate you thoughtful post on this topic, because I find CENI so repulsive as to make it difficult to talk about it unemotionally.

  2. Jay

    Great. There are many examples we ignore. Where can a woman pray and prophesie with her head covered?

  3. Interesting that opinions differ on whether God requires a woman to cover her head in worship and yet we’ve never made it a salvation issue, even though it’s a worship doctrine. Even more interesting that we interpreted “covered” as “tiny little hat from the store” when the likely interpretation is a veil or a (I can’t remember the Latin) cloth worn over the head entirely covering the hair, rather like a shawl. Neither would be much in fashion and neither is practiced in the Churches of Christ.

  4. CENI is very subjective, one group sees one example as binding and another may see something else is binding. An example is foot washing: I think it is a great memorial practice and there are several references to it in the NT. I have gone to Mennonite Churches where this is practiced and it is a very moving experience. The Churches of Christ (for some strange reason) do not regard this as a binding example. Now the Churches of Christ see weekly communion as binding and the Mennonites don’t. Personally, I do not see either practice as binding, though I like both of them. I prefer weekly communion and foot-washing I really find moving and Biblical.

  5. Jay,
    There is a very explicit teaching about woman’s head covering in the NT. My wife and I go to churches where some of the women wear head-coverings and some do not. Paul is very clear about this, and why the COC does not recognize this is a mystery to me. Bruce wrote a very good article about this. You can find it on his website at ovu.edu

    This is where our humanity and subjective nature come into play. Some folks read the NT and see certain things as CENI binding, while another group may miss those things and see other things as CENI binding. Acutally, I do not think that CENI is a legitimate way of Biblical hermeneutics.

  6. In Acts 2:46 we have an approved example that the church met together every day in the temple courts. There’s no controversy about the facts, yet we don’t even attempt to bind the example… despite the fact that Hebrews 3:13 commands us to encourage one another daily. This Acts 2 example is far more specific than the Acts 20:7 example about Sunday communion. In the former, we are told where and how often. In the latter, we are just told one point in time when they did it. But we generalize the latter, and ignore the former.

    I think the real reason we take communiion every Sunday is because of what Justin Martyr wrote, not what is recorded in scripture. We come to the scriptures already convinced that they took communion every Sunday, and we conveniently find one instance where they did so. That seems to be all the justification we require in order to write off multitudes of believers.

  7. Precisely …

  8. The truth is whatever the COC does is found to be Biblical by them. Whatever they have not historically practiced is seen to be “denominational”. I hope that is not too cynical, but I see this as a true statement.

  9. There is so much to consider, there are so many examples. My mind cannot think about all of them and draw conclusions. Therefore, I tend to pick something this year and something else next year, so maybe in my lifetime if I am diligent I can consider 40 or 50 examples and try to apply them in my life.

    And then there are all those other people at the congregation who simply won’t do what I tell them to.

    Sigh and grin.

  10. There is a technical term that describes CENI well. It is “Hog wash”.


  11. Tom Olbricht wrote an important book about the history of interpretation in the COC. He concluded that the COC gets its hermeneutic directly from Zwingli. Zwingli was good about binding the silence of Scripture, as well as drowning Anabaptists!

  12. I find it silly that we (coc) maintain that a Christian can not take the Lord’s Supper on any other day than Sunday. Carries just as much weight as the idea that having the Lord’s Supper in an upper room is silly.

  13. Jay, I can’t believe you said what you did about love feasts. Of course we have them!

    We just call ’em “pot lucks.”

    (I think the binding example for having them is John 6:26. I could be wrong.)

  14. It’s kind of ironic. While some among us want to eliminate seeking examples from scripture our denominational friends are migrating to them:

    “Whether directly or indirectly, Paul appointed “elders” (plural) in every church (e.g., Acts 14:23; 20:17; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5). Many local churches in our day are repenting of an unbiblical one man ministry and returning to the healthy New Testament pattern of a plural pastoral oversight.”
    – John Stott
    Rector Emeritus, All Souls Church, London, England
    from “Issues Facing Christians Today” by John Stott

  15. […] get to the point, I recently read your article “CENI: Binding Examples” and would like to know what you believe to be the principles of hermeneutics if CENI is […]

  16. “If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed.”

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