Conversation with Robert Prater (but with Rich, really): Clarifying My Position on CENI, from the Comments

dialogueI shouldn’t be surprised that there’s a huge communications gap between me, as a progressive, and many conservatives. This is often the nature of spiritual disagreements. Therefore, I’m very grateful for the internet and blogging software because it allows for back and forth communication. I mean, the hardest part of these conservative/progressive conversations is in being understood.

And my favorite conservative readers are those who take the time and trouble to ask for clarification — by saying what they heard me say and giving me the opportunity to clarify my writings. Rich is therefore one of my favorite conservative readers.

Some of these exchanges are important enough that I really should have responded in a post, rather than a comment, because many readers don’t follow the comments.

A while back Rich wrote,

Jay,

I have no intentions of misrepresenting you.

I was referring to the non-binding aspect that seems to permeate throughout the posts.

Let me summarize my understanding of your recent posts:

In matters affecting decisions on the manner and methods of worship, they must:

1. Be edifying
2. Not violate other direct commands in the Bible
3. Not be binding on anyone else. (this includes any instructions Paul gave the Corinthian church).

Is this closer?

Rich.

I replied,

RIch,

Closer, but not yet there. Let me take these in reverse order.

3. Have I said that Paul’s instructions aren’t binding on us? I think not. Rather, I’ve said we’ve deeply misunderstood them. He tells us to love each other intensely. And that’s binding. He tells us to honor the gospel. And that’s binding. He tells us to edify, encourage, strengthen, and comfort each other in the assembly. That’s binding. He says to discern the body when taking the communion, don’t have sex with prostitutes, don’t get drunk, care for the poor, take turns, don’t interrupt — all binding.

However, he says nothing about how often or how to give to the church’s general fund. Nothing binding because nothing said. He says nothing about church organization in 1 Corinthians. He says nothing about a cappella singing vs. instrumental.

On the other hand, he says women must wear a head covering in worship — not binding, but not because of some new, progressive theology. Most conservatives reach the same conclusion. It’s because the rules that are for all time are about permanent things. Hence, the underlying principle — which is for all time — is that wives are to be suitable complements for their husbands. In some cultures, this requires a veil.

I’m actually quite big on the authority of the scriptures and the power of God, through his Spirit and apostles, to issue binding instructions. I just refuse to read into those instructions either the Patristics or 19th Century church practices. You see, I think it’s very wrong to treat the Bible as insufficient and in need for human supplementation. If the scriptures don’t answer the question, then we’re asking the wrong question.

2. I agree that we shouldn’t violate God’s commands. Of course. (I don’t know the difference between a direct command and a command. Is there such a thing as an indirect command?)

The point isn’t merely to avoid violating commands. The point is to honor the gospel and love for God and our neighbors — but not out of adherence to a command. You see, true love acts out of love and not fear of disobedience. We behave in loving ways because God has, by his Spirit, transformed our hearts so that we find joy in a love that acts and worships, a love that is salt and light. Hence, the point isn’t really to avoid violating commands. Rather, we are to be Christ-like, that is, like Jesus. Jesus obeyed, but not out of fear of hell. Jesus obeyed because his heart was so in sync with the heart of God that he wanted what God wanted. We should be the same.

Hence, the notion that the scriptures’ silence allows us to do anything at all is quite false, but so is the notion that silence is a prohibition. Our worship, our organization, our marriages, our families, our lives are all done to the glory of God — which places severe constraints on what we can do — but constraints that we are happy with because we don’t want to do anything else.

1. Yes, we should be edifying, but “edifying” — building up one another — is simply one means of loving as God loves, that is, sacrificially and completely. We edify because we want what’s best for the other person. And because we know it’s hard to walk with Jesus and easy to get lazy or yield to temptation, we encourage one another to love and good works. Yes, it’s a command. Even a direct command, I suppose. But we do it because we love our brothers and understand the challenges before us.

You see, one of my several complaints about CENI is its tendency to reduce Christianity to a rulebook. Even if you get the rules right (and we don’t, but if we did), reducing Christianity to rules omits the vast majority of what it’s all about. Indeed, a rule-oriented attitude tends to destroy Christianity. Let’s just take worship as an example.

If I worship because I’ve been commanded to, then I’ve not really worshipped. I’ve just done certain acts. If I worship because my heart leaps at the thought of God’s special presence in the church and at being with beloved brothers and sisters, then my worship is worship indeed.

When I was very young (preschool age), my grandmother insisted that I kiss her when I visited her, and I refused, largely because she insisted on it. I was that kind of kid. And so she bribed me (candy corn). And so I kissed her. Until I found where she hid the candy. Then I stopped. Then my mother threatened me with bodily injury. And so I begrudgingly did it. And I made every effort to never visit her if I could help it.

She wanted affection, but you can’t get real affection with bribes and threats. You can change behavior that way, but not hearts. And God wants a changed heart. Undue focusing on commands and minimizing the Spirit and heart of Christianity is very unhealthy for the church — and its members.

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4 Responses

  1. As well Jay for me. I went and visited the home church I grew up in and I don’t mind talking with those folks at all because I know their heart and they when we talk about theology they really think for themselves, as does Rich and many other traditional readers here.

  2. Thanks, Jay.

    I had a conversation just this week over our preoccupation with rules; verses where our hearts are. I appreciate the encouagement.

  3. Great post!! 🙂

  4. when was ceni first developed and ordained to be the official standard of intrepretation?
    i like gordon fee’s book, “How to Read the Bible for All its Worth”. It is good . His thoughts on historical precedent are very helpful.
    i appreciate your thoughts, too.
    rd

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