The Fork in the Road: On Building Fences (with an extra random thought or two)

I stumbled across a very intriguing website — the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ site.

Now, I’m sure I’m not the first to made this association, but we have to get this out of the way before we can go any further (and this has nothing to do with the post — at all).

I apologize for the interruption. I mean no disrespect.

So anyway, as I was saying, this is a very cool site for entirely unrelated (and entirely relevant) reasons.

I just love that: self-deprecating humor on the very first page of the site! This is a different kind of Church of Christ.

And there’s this great article about building fences around the law.

In order to protect the Torah (the Law of Moses) from violation, the rabbis erected a “fence” of additional regulations around it. In theory, these additional regulations would prevent people from even getting
close to violating the Law. Over time, of course, this “fence” became indistinguishable from the Law itself.

By the time of Jesus, the rabbis considered a violation of these regulations more serious than a violation of the Torah itself. After all, intepreting the Torah could be difficult even for experts in the Law. But the regulations were designed to be easily understood, they said. But the volume of the regulations would make Congress blush.

Even by itself, the Law of Moses was a complex collection of civil and religious rules that was a challenge to any man (the apostle Peter called it “a yoke which neither we nor our fathers were able to bear,” Ac. 15:10). But this fence erected by the rabbis was infinitely more complex, and hopelessly unobservable. The list of Sabbath regulations alone is a bewildering jungle of legalistic trivia that made the day of rest anything but.

What did Jesus think of these regulations?

He insisted that commentaries on divine law by pious men (“traditions”) do not constitute God’s law for everyone else. It’s that distinction that got Him in trouble with the Jewish leaders.

Jesus said,

(Mark 7:7)  “They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.”

Now, this passage is routinely cited by those who insist on certain rules for worship — such as requiring that singing be a cappella — and used to condemn instrumental worship. It’s a very standard argument.

But Jesus’ complaint with the Pharisees is that they added commands in order to be safe.

(Mark 7:1-4)  The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and 2 saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were” unclean,” that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

The Pharisees weren’t being liberal. They were being cautious. They insisted that people wash their hands before they eat! But this wasn’t for health reasons; it was to avoid any chance that you might accidentally eat something that’s unclean. Palestine can be a very dusty place, and who knows where that dirt’s been! (See R. V. G. Tasker, Tyndale commentary on Matthew regarding 15:1 ff.)

The Pharisees, who were very devout, bound rules to be safe. You never know: that dirt may have touched a corpse or menstruating woman! The safe thing is to wash. And then they took the extra step of condemning Jesus for not joining them in their cautious approach to interpreting the scriptures. And Jesus declared their washing to be worshiping in vain (which also tells you how broadly Jesus defines “worship”).

Similarly, consider —

(Col 2:22-23)  These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

We considered this passage just a few days ago. “Self-imposed worship” in 2:23 is “will worship” in the KJV. And this is another text routinely cited to condemn instrumental worship. But we again see that “worship” is used much more broadly than the assembly —

(Col 2:21)  “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”?

Paul is speaking of “commands” to refrain from eating or touching things, not in the assembly, but in obedience to God anywhere. This is about asceticism, not the assembly.

And Paul is speaking of adding commands — imposing rules that God does not impose.

Therefore, we have this huge irony. The very verses on which hangs a cappella theology actually oppose adding commands, not ignoring commands. Of course, ignoring commands is also a sin — but there is no command to only sing a cappella. None. The argument is that doing anything without authority damns, and yet the very scriptures on which the arguments hang declare that it’s sin to add commands without authority — a very different thing indeed.

Now, does that mean that the anti-instrument argument is therefore wrong? No. It is wrong, but for other reasons. What it means is that we cannot argue against instrumental music to be safe. That’s an impermissible argument, because it risks imposing a tradition as a command.

(Mark 7:8) “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”

There are many arguments permitted us. But building a fence around God’s laws to be safe is not.

One last point. There is no sin at all in choosing to sing a cappella to be safe. It misunderstands grace, I believe, but it’s not sin. And there are plenty of other reasons a church might legitimately choose to be a cappella. My congregation is a cappella — and I’m an elder there.

But when we impose our “just to be safe” rules on others, then we’ve sinned.

Now, to be clear, arguing a position is not imposing a position. However, when a “just to be safe” practice leads to condemning or breaking fellowship with others, then we’ve chosen to step into the shoes of the Pharisees whom Jesus condemned. We don’t want to go there.


19 Responses

  1. Jay,
    Regarding being safe – Haven’t most of us (at least us older ones) been taught that we should not drink a glass of wine? After all, if you bought a bottle of wine at the grocery store and someone saw you they could “logically” conclude that you thought it was okay to drink. And based on that they might become an alcoholic and it would be at least partly your fault. Besides it is not necessary to drink wine to enjoy life … nor to eat fast food and ice cream which, by the same logic, could lead someone to gluttony.

    I have copied an excerpt from John Mark Hicks’ (JMH) series on Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics II – Campbell’s Reformed Hermeneutic. You will notice that Zwingli did not allow singing in the assembly at all b/c there is no express precedent for singing in the Sunday assembly – and I have had friends from Scotland where they sing only the psalms and you will note in the excerpt below that even having musical notes goes beyond what is specifically authorized in the NT.
    Zwingli practiced this hermeneutic even to the point of excluding all music (instrumental and vocal) from the public worship of the church because he could find no warrant for it in the practice of the church. Some of the early Anabaptists, influenced by Zwingli, continued this practice. One good example of this is found in Conrad Grebel’s letter to Thomas Muntzer (1524): “Whatever we are not taught in definite statements and examples, we are to consider forbidden, as if it were written, ‘Do not do this, do not chant.‘”
    Of course, the notion that this is a “safe” practice is controversial at best as it appears to be adding to the scripture, it is not necessary, and it is presumptuous to make it binding. JMH emphasizes that while Campbell did infer (necessary inference) he did not think inferences should ever be made tests of fellowship. This may simply be words tossed into the wind as I find few today that are influenced by what Campbell believed should or should not be a test of fellowship.

  2. Jay

    You probably receive many email calling you everything from a heretic to a child of Satan. This post is the essence of what some would like all churches to be, rule mongers.

    I wonder why some don’t have religious policemen or enforcers of the law and tradition, much like the Islamic radicals, who beat women with radio antennaes , for improper dress.

    One law was a lady could not look in a mirror on the sabbath for fear she might see a grey hair and pull it out . God forbid,twenty years ago that a lady would wear slacks to church.

    I hope we will grow out of these silly rules and try to find ways to improve our relationship with the Holy Spirit.

    Keep it up. You have courage.


  3. Jay,

    It should be mentioned that “building fences” is a good thing — if I am building them for myself. For example, if I struggle with an addiction to gambling, I may say that it would be wrong for me to go to Las Vegas for vacation and stay in a casino hotel. That’s my fence. It prevents me from treading in an area where I have a weakness.

    However, it becomes wrong when I seek to impose my fence on you. If I tell you that it’s a sin for you to go to Las Vegas and stay in a casino hotel, I have set guidelines that God never set. There is a big difference between building fences for oneself (which is good) and building fences for others (which is wrong).

  4. Randall

    I told a group of old loyal COCer’s the same thing you did about singing. THEY DID NOT BELIEVE ME!!!!!.

    People will believe what they wan’t to believe.

    God will save us in spite of our hang ups.


  5. Just a quick note of differentiation. This is not the Web site of the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ in Little Rock, AR which I maintain. Thank you. We now return to regularly-broadcast bloggery.

  6. Hi Jay – just messing with you (we need to do lunch again) – Is the opposite of being safe, seeing how close we can get without stepping over the line?

    I couldn’t resist – I know those horns can be broken.

    However, I firmly believe that we must be as careful as we can to obey God’s commands. I know we may define God’s commands a little differently. I feel safe being safe. And, I feel that God’s commands inform me as to the proper way to love Him. That is how I understand the commands, not as a human merit thing, but as how to love God as He wants to be loved. Frankly, I do not understand why people try to “equate” human obedience with human merit.



  7. Randall,

    I agree with Campbell that making inferences tests of fellowship makes salvation more a question of hermeneutics than faith in Jesus. I think faith in the Jesus is the real test.

  8. Bob,

    Actually, I get very little criticism except what you see in the comments. I’m not sure why.

  9. Alan,

    I entirely agree. Fences may well be an excellent personal discipline. But we can’t impose them on others.

  10. John,

    Sadly, Archibald’s has been closed, so the other great Northport BBQ restaurant is no longer available.

    Certainly we are to obey. I just think we shouldn’t treat someone as damned over every disagreement over how to obey.

  11. And again I don’t believe there is any question at all as to obedience to God’s commands. The discussion here is what constitutes those commands: “Thou shalts” or inferences. “Thou shalts” are commands for all. Inferences, if they create commands at all, do so only for me, to help improve my relationship with God. They are not for me to bind on you. No “Thou shalt” = no command. No command = no sin involved in disagreeing with me.

  12. Jay,

    i know this is wacky–but follow me for a second. Suppose someone had a heretical view regarding something that we would consider essential. But they decided to try out of “just being safe” to adopt the orthodox view. Have they gained by adopting the essential? Or have they lost by adopting the safety strategy?


  13. Guy,

    God doesn’t reward hypocrisy. If someone were to reject Jesus as Messiah (an essential of faith) but adopt “Jesus is the Messiah” as a creedal position to be safe, they’d be right, but for the wrong reason. They wouldn’t really believe it. And that’s an essential of faith, too.

  14. Jay,

    Beliefs certainly introduce the hypocrisy issue. But the man to whom Jesus told the Good Samaritan story–he believed “neighbor” in “love your neighbor” was restrictive in scope. True he had poor motives. But perhaps someone could come by that conclusion honestly (surely not every single Pharisee was utterly insincere). Someone could then believe that command is restrictve, but decide to treat it as unrestrictive in scope to be on the safe side.

    In such a case? Has their “safety” helped or hurt them?


  15. Guy,

    Being safe cuts two ways. You see, I know people who, to be safe, interpret “love your neighbor” to refer solely to our brothers in Christ — and certainly there are plenty of passages that emphasize love for one another.

    Therefore, they refuse to allow the church to provide benevolence to those outside the church — even when it brings embarrassment to the church.

    Of course, when it comes to “love your neighbor,” it’s hard to define “neighbor” too broadly.

    The fact is, though, that any teaching can be misinterpreted and most can be either too narrow or too broad. Therefore, safety is not a helpful hermeneutic. The solution is to interpret Christologically — that is, through the character and cross of Jesus.

  16. Jay,

    If i interpret Christologically, then i better start building some fences, shouldn’t i? After all, Christ says that in order to obey “thou shalt not murder,” i better not even be angry, and to obey “thou shalt not commit adultery,” i better not even lust. How is this different from fence building? Either Christ added fences, or else He’s explaining that the commands already had fences built in. How is what He did utterly different from fence building?


  17. Guy,

    No, quite the opposite. “Fences” refers to rules men make just to be safe. Jesus didn’t make fences — and often condemned those who did.

    Jesus did issue a number of commands — and we should certainly obey them. But to build fences is, in fact, to disobey Jesus.

    As I said in the posts, the very verses often used to defend fence building are the ones that actually condemn imposing rules that God doesn’t impose.

    It’s just as wrong to add laws as to subtract them.

  18. Jay,

    (1) i understand that Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount was giving the correct exegesis of the Law of Moses contra the Pharisees’ interpretation. i believe i’ve read you say close to the same. If that view is correct, then Jesus is not contradicting or countermanding any of the Law of Moses itself, but only a false interpretation of it. If that’s true, then not lusting is somehow built in to “thou shalt not commit adultery.” The only difference i can see between that and how you’ve defined “fence building” is that (a) Jesus wasn’t a mere man and (b) Jesus wasn’t adding, but was explaining or inferring or some move like that. Even though Jesus wasn’t a mere man, his instructions nevertheless establish a boundary the condemnatory power of which *surpasses* that marked by the mere words of the command. Is it not the case, then, that in the end Jesus’ teaching amounts to the same conclusion as the fence-building method would when applied to the same command?

    (2) And also, who among mainstream conservatives that hold IM to be a salvation issue genuinely believe that their arguments against IM constitute “fence building”? The rabbis you mention deliberately erected a fence. Are there conservative-CoCers saying “i know it’s not there but i’m adding it to be safe”? It seems like you’re hinting at an analogy throughout this post, but i don’t see how it lines up the way you need it to. The rabbis didn’t think they were caching out what was already there; they thought they were making genuine additions for safety reasons. But typical Anti-IMers believe they really are caching out what’s already there. So unless some Anti-IMers specifically say they’re opposing IM merely “to be safe,” how could they’re position constitute fence building in the way that the first century Jews’ positions did? (Furthermore, what would Anti-IM keep us “safe” from? Not lusting keeps us safe from violating the adultery command. What does Anti-IM keep us “safe” from violating?)

    (3) i know you’ve got salvation-issue strategies in mind here. But i still don’t see what’s wrong with the “safety” strategy in terms like: i want to imitate the first century church to be safe from missing out on some blessing they received from their particular practices that perhaps God intended me to have or at least has made available to me. (i don’t mean to muddy where i’m coming from–my personal belief is that our Sunday mornings look virtually nothing like the assemblies of the first century church in many respects.) i’m not making any content-specific argument here. But someone could fill in some case that went: “There may be some special benefit to acapella singing that’s not obvious to me in my time and place, but i want to imitate that first century practice in order that if there is some such benefit, i at least stand a better chance of getting by imitating than by not imitating.” That’s certainly not the first thing i’d be inclined to say about why i choose acapella singing, but i don’t see what’s necessarily wrong with that kind of a “safety strategy.”


  19. Guy,

    1. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus wasn’t telling us to avoid lust “just to be safe.” He was telling married men that the command not to commit adultery includes the command not to commit adultery in the heart. If the lust itself is a sin, commanding us not to lust is not to build a fence around a command.

    2. Those who argue against instrumental music use multiple arguments. Some are fence building and some are not. If you argue that instrumental music is sinful because the Bible in fact prohibits it, I think you’re mistaken, but you’re not fence building. Inferential truths are truths nonetheless. But if you complete your argument by saying “and so the safe thing is to avoid the instrument,” then you are building a fence. You are saying it’s safer to add a command that may not be there than to subtract a command that may be there. And that is simply not a biblical argument.

    3. I have no problem with saying we want to imitate a given First Century practice because there’s wisdom in it — so long as we don’t let our traditions become law. We just can’t demand that the church down the road make the same decisions.

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