One of the great struggles of bible study is learning to listen to the text without imposing our own ideas upon the Scriptures. The true mark of a wise biblical student is being aware of your own assumptions and when our assumptions are interfering with our biblical exposition. At the risk of painting with too broad a stroke, I have come to believe that our own
unexamined assumptions have caused us to be too exclusive in churches of Christ. I doubt this is a unique to our people but it I believe it is one of our bigger issues. Since leaving full-time ministry for secular construction work, I don’t have the time to peruse our brotherhoods writings as I did in the past. However, I try to read as many facebook posts, bulletin articles, etc
as I can. One thing I notice is how we are prone to taking biblical words and ideas and imposing our own definitions on them before selling them to others as the biblical word of God.
I call this synonymous imposition.
Many of our people interpret the Bible through a series of assumptions. The first is that the Bible is the word of God and I would agree. However, the second step is trying to understand and apply the function of the Bible. Our people, since the time of Alexander Campbell, have assumed that a major Christian purpose is to restore the practices of the first century church. Once that assumption was accepted, it made sense to find a framework to
navigate what to restore and what was subject to flexibility. This whole enterprise is often called hermeneutics, which is a fancy word for interpreting Scripture. The most prevalent hermeneutical method amongst our people has been Command, Examples, and Necessary Inference (CENI). If we can find a command, example, or a reasonable inference from scripture to justify an action, then that is considered authorized by Scripture. My journey has led me to question this method. I can sympathize with commands and examples being guidelines to follow. However, I have long since abandoned inference because it is too subjective, divisive, and exclusive. With that said, I have noticed the tendency to assume that the interpretive method CENI is synonymous or equated with biblical words such as doctrine, biblical, truth, and even word of God.
Permit me to illustrate. Recently, I heard a church of Christ preacher condemn musical instruments in worship as sinful because the “word of God” does not authorize instruments (and therefore their use is sinful). Sometimes I wish those in the audience could call a timeout for discussion. I have a huge problem with the statement that the word of God condemns
musical instruments. If we want the truth and if we want to be biblical, we must admit that the word of God does not condemn the instrument (in fact the word of God could approve the instruments if one believes the psalms are the word of God). The truth is that this preacher used his interpretive method (CENI) to condemn the instrument and he has imposed his own
method onto the scriptures, assuming that the conclusion of his method is the same thing as the word of God. I would disagree for several reasons. First, the method is a human invention designed to aid the interpreter’s assumption that Christians are to restore the first century church’s practices and rituals. Is this really the mission of the church? I’ve always questioned
this assumption considering that most all of the NT literature that we have was written because the early church wasn’t doing things right. Most of Paul’s letters are challenging believers to get back on track so I’m not sure the early church was the utopia that is often assumed or that the
early church was the model to repeat. Second, in reality we cannot restore the early church because of the cultural and time gap. Does God want us to be first century Christians in a twenty-first century world or twenty-first century Christians in a twenty-first century world? Third, CENI is a human created method. The method is a practical solution to the question,
how do we decide what parts of Scripture to restore? In addition to that, Campbell and others expressed concern with binding inferences as a test of fellowship. One of the truly sad realities is how many infer or assume a truth and then bind and draw lines of fellowship not from a specific text or command but from an indirect inference. Think of all the relationship issues that humans have because they make an assumption from an indirect cue. What happens when we make similar assumptions from indirect cues in Scripture? Even more sad, is how some claim their assumptions are the word of God when they are nothing more than the conclusion from a particular method.
Many are simply unaware of this. In fact, it seems most church members have heard such biblical terms like doctrine, Bible, word of God, etc. used over and over and accept imposed definitions as biblical without much inquiry. I can also testify that pointing this out to others in our brotherhood comes at the risk of disagreement, sometimes exclusion, and even
accusations of heresy. I continue to struggle with synonymous imposition. On one hand, I cannot in good conscience hold the position that a human method, with many flaws, is the Bible, doctrine, truth, word of God. On the other hand, I have firsthand experience what happens when you critique synonymous imposition and it can get ugly.
Synonymous imposition can take a negative turn when some of our more aggressive fundamentalist brethren accuse other brethren of being false teachers or heretics. I attended Christ’s Community Church in Franklin, TN recently and I was pleasantly surprised at the biblical teaching in this church. They worship with musical instruments, which sounded like a
live version of K-Love radio station. The Bible class teacher taught a very good and substantive class from the book of Jude. The book of Jude centers around false teachers in the early church. I talked to my wife afterward and asked what she thought of the class. We agreed that a good number of church of Christ class teachers would have read false teachers and defined
false teaching through a doctrinal lens—and that we would have been implicated as accepting false teaching because we attended a church with instruments. However, Jude defines false teachers as those who defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones, indulge in sexual immortality, grumble, etc. In other words, Jude defines false teachers as
people who claim to be God’s people but do not practice godly living (in more of a moral sense). The same goes for others uses of the phrases false teachers and heretics throughout the NT. But for too many of our brethren, not accepting a human interpretive method, like CENI, is synonymous with being a false teacher, heretic, or follower of false doctrine. My experience has been that what most biblical authors meant by false teaching is not what we often preach as false teaching.
It is not uncommon to hear someone use CENI to condemn instrumental music and claim something like this:
“Sanctify them through truth, your word is truth…and your word, the truth,
condemns musical instruments in worship”
Or “contend for the faith that was once delivered…and that faith prohibited instruments of music”
Or “the Bible condemns the instrument”
Or “we must mark those who cause divisions and watch for wolves in sheep’s clothing and false teachers who corrupt the church who accept instrumental music”
Whenever I hear such comments, I cringe because it is not the Bible, Scripture, truth, doctrine, or God’s Word that condemns the instrument…it is human words and methods that Scripture has to be interpreted through that condemns the instrument. There is a giant distinction to be be made between a human method and God’s Word. We cannot impose our methods and definitions upon Scripture and assume what we mean is the same thing Scripture means. We must read Scripture and interpreting as it faithfully as we can and imposing our interpretive framework on Scripture and assuming Scripture then supports it is not faithful, it is misguided attempt to speak for God, and above all, it is not the truth!
There’s an obvious problem with Synonymous Imposition. The goal of biblical reading is exposition from the text not imposing our ideas onto the text. If CENI is not used, what would our Scripture study look like? What would our conclusions be? I even wonder if CENI has become an idol for us? Is our faith defined by our belief and faithfulness that Jesus is king or is
our belief and faithfulness defined by who interprets the Bible the same way as we do (CENI)? CENI is not the word of God, it is not the doctrine of the early church, it is not what Jesus meant when he said the “truth will set you free.”