Command, Example and Necessary Inference

Hard line churches of Christ have long distinguished themselves from other Christian groups by their practice of acappella singing (no instruments of music) and the Lord’s Supper (communion, eucharist) every Sunday. Hard line Churches of Christ have also split over how to collect money and spend it. If you asked a preacher in the hard line Churches of Christ why these practices are important, he would reply that they only practice what the Bible teaches.

Hard line Churches of Christ have emphasized the hermeneutical principles of Command, Example and Necessary Inference. In general, all Christian groups practice these principles, but in specific, only a few small sects practice these principles the way the Churches of Christ understand them, these principles having descended from strict Presbyterian and Zwinglian principles.

The churches of Christ generally make a big deal out of the Silence of the Scriptures, meaning that in the absence of a command, example or inference, there is no authority to create a ritual or worship in a manner that has not been authorized by God. Scary stories are recounted: how Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron, and the nephews of Moses, serving during one of the first times in the tabernacle, brought unauthorized fire to worship God with, and were struck dead (Lev 10). Therefore we need to be careful that every act of worship in the church be authorized, lest we incur God’s wrath.

The parallel to the Nadab and Abihu story (2000 B.C.), is the story of Ananias and Sapphira (shortly after the death and resurrection of Christ, at the start of the church) who saw how much honor people were receiving who contributed to the poor Christians in Jerusalem, and pretended to give a greater amount than they actually gave, and were struck dead (Acts 5). Commentators are adamant that this is a parallel to the deaths of Nadab and Abihu at the start of tabernacle worship. But notice the difference: Nadab and Abihu were struck dead for not following a specific command of God for a literal ritual of worship. Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for an act of the heart–lying to the Holy Spirit, the apostle Peter said.

And that is where the Churches of Christ went astray. They are quite sure that God is still looking for specifically proscribed rituals of worship (as in the tabernacle worship), and have relegated the acts of the heart to the back pew. So each of the five acts of worship in the Churches of Christ (Singing, Praying, Preaching, Giving, the Lord’s Supper) has been carefully worked out so it is not “strange fire.” Except that there are no lists of rules in the writings of the apostles. And what few commands there are were written to individual congregations in the first few years after Christ’s resurrection. It has to be inferred that these commands are for us and for all time.

Some in the Churches of Christ are upset that there is not a clearer guide as to how to run church worship services on Sunday mornings. Others in the Churches of Christ are glad that is unclear, because then they can show off their hermeneutical expertise in ferreting out the commands behind the stories in the book of Acts: since the Christians at Troas met on the first day of the week to say goodbye to Paul and his entourage, and “broke bread”, then that must mean that we have to take communion every first day of the week (Acts 20). Never mind that they met in an upper room (irrelevant), and that Paul preached until midnight (irrelevant) and that he performed a miracle (irrelevant). The only piece of the puzzle that is an inferred command is the first day of the week breaking of bread. And how often does the first day of the week occur? Every week! Can we take the Lord’s Supper on other days of the week? No! Why not? We have no example; the silence of the scriptures prohibits any other practice.

There is a fascinating story about how the two and a half tribes of the nation of Israel that were settled on the eastern side of the Jordan River built a stone altar, a replica of the altar in front of the official tabernacle of worship (Joshua 22). The tribes on the western side of the Jordan River gathered as an army to attack the eastern tribes because they had built a replacement altar, unauthorized by God. The eastern tribes said, no, they were commemorating the fact that they were united with the tribes on the other side of the Jordan by building an identical altar. This calmed the western tribes down. A commemoration of unity was fine, a substitute was not. Which is a hermeneutical problem for the Churches of Christ. The eastern tribes still had no authority or command from God to allow them to build that altar. Yet the western tribes were fine with it as long as it was not a substitute.

If we were to take that principle: we can make up rituals in worship to God, as long as they are not substitutes for what God has asked for, then we would have a totally different hermeneutic, one that would look very similar to the varied landscape of Christian expressions we see today.

Jesus was angry at the Pharisees because they paid a tenth of even their garden herbs to God, “straining out a gnat” out of their tea, Jesus described them, but they “swallowed a camel” when it came to actually loving God and loving their neighbors (Matt 23). And that will always be the result when we take our eyes off the focal point of what Jesus and the apostles taught, and substitute it for a list of rules we have ferreted out of the stories in the early church.

One of the great substitutes the hard line Churches of Christ have made is to say that the center of the gospel are the rules for Sunday morning church.


About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
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7 Responses to Command, Example and Necessary Inference

  1. Phil says:

    The main objective of the coC is that of “what to do,” instead of “who to become.” Very seldom do they address the inner being of the seeker. If I’m wrong please correct me.

  2. Bill D says:

    I have been a member of the church of Christ for 40 years and I have never heard that idea taught nor seen it modeled. The “main objective” of the churches I have attended has been to become Christ like, Christ centered and to seek the lost and point them to God.

    • Mark says:

      I went to a cofC for 30+ years and never heard any preacher talk about being Christ-like. Tragically, Jesus was rarely mentioned.

      • Dennis Young says:

        I stumbled onto your blog putting down the Churches of Christ. This note is in response to your article on “Command, Example, & Necessary Inference”. I think each person who wants to discover their creator will search “hit & miss” until he/she finds a consensus of information that seems to fit. My personal experience was to find the truth about God and not to find a group that fit my idea of God. I spent several years with the Baptists, about one year with the Christian Science Church, and smaller amounts of time with the Jewish Synagogue, Mormons, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Seventh Day Adventists. This took place when I was finishing High School and into my College years. Each of these groups claimed that they were “correct” in their worship of the same God from the Bible. I became so discouraged that I gave up. It was not until about 10 years later when a neighbor woman studied the Bible with my wife that I sarcastically tried to prove her wrong about the Bible. The lady was very nice and said that she could not answer all my questions and so I agreed to study with a more knowledgeable member. What was refreshing is that the person I studied with would not give his opinion, he would just quote a Bible verse and let me decide what it meant. If he thought I came to a wrong conclusion, he would just quote another verse in opposition to my conclusion which exposed my wrongful analysis. He would then have me read Bible verses that harmonized the two seeming contradictory verses. This was a wonder revelation to me. I was learning “Command, Example, & Necessary Inference” without the topic being discussed. Hermeneutics is a natural, logical progression of understanding and can be applied to non-biblical doctrines as well. An example is the US Court system except that the “Commands” can be changed by Congress.
        One of things you do not mention is that “denominations” have written doctrines that they adhere to. When a denomination uses an “authority” outside of the Bible that can be shown to be against or does not harmonize with the scripture, I personally cannot agree with that denomination. I do not mean to say that I hate the people I have studied with. I mean to say that I disagree with their “doctrine”. The Apostle Paul did this in Act 17. I have studied with denominations enough that a member will defend their doctrine even when I can show them that it is against the Bible’s teaching. I almost always begin a study with someone from a denomination by saying: “If you can show me that my understanding of the Bible is wrong or incorrect, then I will be willing to change or adapt to your understanding”. This is because my intent is not to “defend”, but to get to the truth.

  3. dws1982 says:

    I’m not disagreeing with you, but you might want to be more careful in your references. It was Troas in Acts 20, not Ephesus in Acts 19.

  4. Al Doyle says:

    I was saddened to enter “command, example, necessary inference” (a much older hermeneutical principle than you record — but I won’t argue your ideas in your blog) only to find the first your website first. if you must leave us, then move on…

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