The Despised CENI

by Dale Smelser

There is a concept being promoted that God’s will is transmitted by commands only, and thus relative to the Lord’s Supper it is neither confined to, or necessarily observed on, the first day of the week.

Before getting to the kernel of controversy, I recalled all this on Sunday morning as I did something I do with a thrill every Lord’s Day morning. Before leaving home I thanked God for the wonderful blessing of that day, in that I would be sharing the eating of the Lord’s Supper in memory of my Savior with all my brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, all of us joining our loving gratitude on that same consecrated day. Then that morning in our assembly we sang, “And thus that dark betrayal night, with the last advent we unite, by one bright chain of loving rite, until he come.” That chain of loving rite being the perpetual eating of the Lord’s Supper, its regularity each Lord’s Day adds another link connecting its establishment to the present, until Christ returns. And it occurred to me that if the theorists rejecting scriptural examples as instructive are correct, my prayer was in error and the Lord intended no such chain to exist consistently and immutably; that the Lord’s Supper is to be eaten only as varying people with varying prejudices and inclinations capriciously bestir themselves to generate the process. If that is the scriptural approach and thus what we should conclude, so be it, but it surely appears out of harmony with the regularity God of old attached to ordained “memorials.”

Examples Instruct

I do believe in the validity of instruction by precedent. Another time will suffice for more thorough discussion of what qualifies as an instructive precedent. But the Lord did instruct, commanded, that we learn and act by example or apostolic ways (John 13:15; I Corinthians 4:16-17; Philippians 4:9). I know that advocates of the “command only” persuasion interpret the latter passages to refer only to emulating Paul’s personal qualities, but they do this without a shred of proof, only that it fits their narrative. They are quick to condemn an opposing view with what they themselves assume is assumption, then major in assumption. As for the former example of Jesus in John, when Jesus said, “I have given you an example,” and commanded them to follow it, I can hear them in shrill chorus saying that to use that text to prove instruction by example, would make feet washing a congregational activity. The problem of such is that it wasn’t a congregational activity there, nor came to be. But if the point of the text is that foot washing is specifically what Jesus taught them, then they had better start employing it. But actions which are already a general practice of a culture, cannot be bound as a distinctive identifying characteristic of disciples or churches of Christ. An already common activity is hardly a revelation. On the other hand, instead of their squabbling about who would be first in the kingdom, as the apostles were on that occasion (Luke 22:24), Jesus by washing their feet teaches us mutual subjection and service not only in the common practice of washing feet, but in the totality of our relationships. And he said he taught this by his example.

A Contrived Hermeneutic Rule?

Next, to argue that we learn and act only by and upon commands, is just to be bereft of understanding the intellectual history of man, and God’s dealing with man. Leaning by precedent or example and by inferring, was not a new system devised by “Restorationists” for scriptural interpretation. It is how man has always thought at his sharpest and most productive and less superstitious times. Francis Bacon in the 1500's analyzed this and put it into words. Bacon pored over Aristotelian methods and argued for empirical inductive reasoning and conclusions we now call the scientific method. In matters of law he thus argued that stated laws led inevitably to unwritten laws, inferred from those stated. This resulted in relevant precedents, by applying exclusionary principles and logic for instance. In other words, to impose exclusive necessity from an example where there were exceptions, would be invalid. Sound familiar? While a precedent authorizes, we determine that no one type of meeting place for churches can be bound in that there is no exclusive precedent. But if we are to be submissive to an authority (Colossians 3:17), we must have either a directive, an inference from a directive, or an acceptable precedent relative to the directive. Incidental examples of unregulated life, what Jesus referred to as “loosed” (Matthew 16:19), cannot be imposed. But clearly, as Bacon laid out in his observations, and as mankind has dealt with authority, unwritten laws could be determined from the effects of the application of written law. What a mental straight jacket we would be in, and what limited conclusions we would be limited to in matters of authority, if this were not a valid way of thinking.

Authority in Exemplified Patterns

We use this with reference to the Constitution of the United States. There are statements there. It is just a few pages long. From those statements inferences are drawn. Precedents based on the requirements and inferences therefrom occur, and are determinative. Unfortunately, political concerns allow inconsistent precedents to occur through time. But as Christians, all our precedents are sealed up in the word of God and its genius. Instead of giving us volumes of commandments, thou shalt, and thou shalt not, God not only commands and states, but then shows us in the lives and service of real people, in the actions of real churches, what he approves, and provides us a pattern of service. And that is implied in the words, “Hold the pattern of sound words” (II Timothy 1:13), which modern theorists would limit to commands. Again, as they unjustifiably and without proof limit instructive examples to personality traits, now they unjustifiably limit “sound words” to commands. That is not a very productive system of thought. Would not living by “sound words” include “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” and learning how that whole instructs us? And if “sound words” applies to everything that proceeds from the mouth of God, then there, not just in commands, is where the pattern of our service is found (II Timothy 1:13). It is exceedingly presumptuous in the light of that to limit the way God reveals essential knowledge to us by confining that only to decreed ordinances.

The strange thing is that advocates of the “command only” theory do not limit their service to things commanded, but justify a potpourri of innovations in serving God. Their theory not only has to do with eliminating things not overtly stated as a command, but tolerating additions. Those of that genre who purport to believe in the necessity of authority as stated of old (Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32), inconsistently do not limit their service only to things commanded. To justify that they cite the synagogue as license for such. Where was that commanded? Incidentally, in such contention they are arguing from inference, a principle which they otherwise scorn. But, if carrying the ark by cart was a violation, what is the synagogue? Where is that commanded? That is precisely the point. There was no command specifically authorizing the synagogue. But knowing that the Law was to be taught, and that God did not specify or exemplify one exclusive way (bind) of doing that, they were free (loosed) to choose a way for instruction to be given. Joshua could read the law to people assembled between Mts. Gerazim and Ebal, and when Ezra assembled the people before the water gate (ah, no single place can be bound for such reading and instruction, as there is no exclusive example), the Levites read the law and gave the sense (ah, cannot bind who does the reading as it was Joshua in another case). Thus they had a precedent to assemble for the reading and study of the law, but no designated arrangement. The result was the synagogue, where they could do what God had bound, in a way permitted (loosed) by his not binding the method, utilizing the earlier examples of teaching the Law.

Such is necessary or Jesus sinned participating in the synagogues in Nazareth and Capernaum. For God had said, “You shall not add to the word I command you, neither shall you diminish from it” (Deuteronomy 4:2), and, “What thing soever I command you, that shall you observe to do; you shall not add thereto, nor diminish from it” (Deuteronomy 12:32). So, though the synagogue was not specified in any command, it had to be within the scope of commanded authority, or else it was an addition to God’s order. Inevitably, inferentially, God’s orders must be established by some additional way than overt directive. His commands and requirements must be arrived at in some additional way.

“New” Hermeneutic Limits Understanding

You know, it helps us to know what is behind the thinking we are dealing with. In the opening words of The God Who is There, Francis Schaeffer says, “The present chasm between the generations has been brought about almost entirely by a change in the concept of truth,” and a bit later, “So this change in the concept of the way we come to knowledge is the most crucial problem ... facing Christianity today.” Western culture no longer looks at obtaining knowledge, or even knowledge itself, in the same way as Aristotle or Francis Bacon, or I might add, the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ. Christ taught by example and implication. Later I will cite a few passages where Jesus imparted truth by implication from which inferences were to be drawn.

Reducing the guidance of God to commands is a minimalist view of truth that reflects modern thinking. The existential religious modernist told us we all have a quality of God within us that can be resourced to discern truth by looking within our selves and our own experiences. This led to varying “truths” regarding faith and conduct. This initiated Post Modernist thinking which logically concluded that if that was the case, there really was no such thing as truth at all. So came the deconstruction of past structures of thought and behavior, reducing and minimizing religious and moral necessities to little or nothing. Thus this new great intellectuality pompously rejecting the simplistic outdated formula and structure of “ceni”, is just a symptom of the thinking of this age, perhaps not identical to it, but definitely reflecting its tendency in its reductive minimalist concept of truth, justifying varied religious expression.


As for the ecumenism allowed by the “new hermeneutic:” That is not the first goal of our faith. Ecumenism has to do with horizontal relationships which should derive from our vertical relationship with God. Too often, it just seeks the humanistic goal of compatibility with man at the sacrifice of relation to God. Jesus did make it possible for all men to be reconciled unto God in one body, but the implications of what that is, and who compose it, are quite different from modern liberal presuppositions which minimize those requirements. History illustrates that. I don’t particularly like the expression “restoration,” as it implies something ceased that had to be restored. I believe God has had his people down through all the ages in his indestructible kingdom. But if I may use the term accommodatively, the Restorationists thought they saw a way to bring about the unity of all “Christendom.” That was their goal. They would surrender all unscriptural religious traditions and requirements in which they saw themselves enmeshed, abolishing all man made creeds. They would do away with all unscriptural organization and hierarchy, loyalty to which divided people, reducing what God wanted reduced. By doing that, all could unite simply upon that which all agreed was valid, the scriptures. What an ecumenical movement! It succeeded wonderfully for many, but finally just divided consequent disciples even more from those who would not surrender their traditions. They did not fail. Their plea was valid. But just as in Jesus’ day, not everyone wanted that.

If we want to work on an ecumenism God accepts we had better keep the same approach. We must not minimize revelation for the spiritual camaraderie of others. We must not dumb down God’s order. Let us glorify God and share him with all, all, who devote themselves to the same. Let us bind as far as God binds, and where he stops in a realm of activity, understand that everything else not inherently wrong, is loosed, and may be done, our choices thus authorized. But, in that I must have authority for all I do (Colossians 3:17), I must determine what the Lord has bound. And the authority of Christ in binding is expressed in declarative statements, implications, and examples that are instructive of what he ordered, not those reflecting already general behavior, but in their distinctiveness reflect revelation and authorized precedent. That is not an artificial theology. That is an application of how man adheres to any authority; and in the case of faith, how to follow the “pattern of sound words.” Keeping the traditions first spoken then written (II Thessalonians 2:15), after disciples had been practicing them for a generation, God gave us in words a pattern of their service. And noting examples certainly comes under the purview of “traditions,” things handed down. It would be a misapplication of that word to limit it to commands.


Passages where Jesus taught by implication: Matthew 19:17; 22:45; 22:32; 21:31-32; etc.

And James quoting Amos implied the existence of the restored house of David, that is, his rule, thus his throne: Acts 15:13-19. And the following text implied otheraction regarding Gentiles.