The New Testament provides the pattern for each of us as Christians, and that pattern is Jesus Christ himself (Matt. 16:24; Phil. 2:5; 1 Pet. 2:21). When God’s people follow Jesus, they also become a pattern for each other (1 Cor. 4:16; Phil. 3:17; Heb. 13:7). Healthy teaching that is consistent with trusting and loving Jesus can also be called a pattern, and it is worthy to be followed (2 Tim. 1:13).
The patternism that I am calling a plague is something very different from all that. It is at the same time a doctrine, a way of reading the Bible, and an approach to “doing church.” And, although it is somewhat an oddity on the Christian landscape, it has been important to the thinking within the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement from its movement’s beginnings in the early 19th century.
The Churches of Christ flowed from the merger of two 19th-century, back-to-the-Bible movements, led by three former Presbyterian preachers. The smaller movement resulted from the work of Barton W. Stone, who had been a participant in the famous Cane Ridge Revival as part of the Second Great Awakening. Stone called for internal restoration of the spirit of primitive Christianity, revival of a heart-religion by the power and intervention of the Holy Spirit.
The larger movement was initiated by the father-son pair, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, who had immigrated to America from Ireland and Scotland. The Campbell’s called for the restoration of “primitive Christianity,” which they defined primarily in terms of external details of the institutional church.
Just as God provided Moses with an exact pattern for building the Tabernacle, the Campbell’s believed that he also provided an exact pattern for his people to follow while restoring the apostolic church of the first century. Does not the book of Hebrews say: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown to you on the mountain” (Heb. 8:5)? If people would only use their common sense, they could quickly discover that divine pattern and get on with the task of restoring God’s church.
Looking back, we can now see a number of flaws in the Campbell’s’ proposal. Yes, God gave Moses many exact details for building the Tabernacle and its furnishings (Exodus 25-40), just as he did concerning the priests and the sacrifices (Leviticus). However, if we read the New Testament from cover to cover, we will not find a book that even slightly resembles the books of Exodus or Leviticus.
Indeed, when the writer of Hebrews refers to the “pattern” that God gave to Moses, he is making a contrast with the Christian order. He is not suggesting that Christians also have such a pattern for the church (Heb. 8:1-6). Nor does the author of Hebrews suppose that Christians will ever build or reconstruct God’s spiritual house. They should not even try to do that, for the “true tabernacle” is built by God and not by man (Heb. 8:2).
If that were not problem enough for pattern-seekers, matters get even worse. For some reason not yet fully clear, whenever people set out to restore the visible or external marks of the New Testament church, two things usually happen: they finally disagree on which details revealed in the New Testament are supposed to be restored, and the “marks” they finally endorse fit the picture they already portray or were inclined to portray to begin with. In the case of the Campbell’s and their followers, the “common sense” in which they had placed so much confidence, proved to be far less “common” than previously anticipated.
The CENI-S jigsaw puzzle
Pattern-seekers are very serious about serving God, which causes them to be both creative and persistent. Surely a pattern is in there somewhere, they reason, even if it is not immediately obvious. Perhaps it is fragmentary, or under the surface. With that, they begin to scour the New Testament Scriptures for scattered bits and pieces of any pattern that might be discovered. They gather a verse here and a phrase there. Occasionally, they pick up an entire paragraph.
Eventually they assemble the pieces like some giant jigsaw puzzle, to create their divine blueprint for the New Testament church. But for what did they look in their search? How did they recognize a pattern puzzle piece when they saw it?
Pattern puzzle pieces come in three shapes, according to Church of Christ pattern-seekers. Each piece bears the form either of an express command (“C”), an approved example (“E”), or a necessary inference (“NI”). According to the pattern-seekers, every detail of church structure, worship, leadership, and ministry must be “authorized” by one of those puzzle pieces, or else it is unlawful. By their reckoning, silence does not mean consent. It means absolute prohibition (“S”). We will refer to this doctrinal system as “CENI-S,” an abbreviation for “command, example, necessary inference” and “silence.”
I am not suggesting that we can ignore or disobey any commands, instructions, or guidelines that God has given for us to follow, and expect God to be pleased. We would also be foolish to read some word of approval or commendation by God in Scripture for someone’s action or forbearance to act, and then ignore that entirely without even considering whether we ought to imitate that example. It is admirable to want to please God. I would not knowingly criticize anyone for trying very hard to do that.
Patternism was unworkable from the beginning
However well-intentioned they might be, pattern-seekers create something that God does not require and that the Bible never even suggests. It is no wonder that patternism has been a horrible disaster. From the very beginning, the CENI-S approach was hopelessly ambiguous, completely unworkable, and incapable of consistent application.
For example, most patternists dismiss as irrelevant some commands that are inconvenient (such as feet-washing). They set aside other commands that clearly were shaped by a culture different from our own (such as a holy kiss or a woman’s veil). The patternists make into permanent, universal law some commands that God gave for limited application (such as Paul’s Gentile collection for poor Judeans).
On the other hand, patternists declare some historical events, however incidental, to be binding as “approved examples” (such as Paul’s weekend bread-breaking at Troas). But they dismiss as unimportant other events recorded in the same biblical context (such as eating in an upper room).
One person concludes that a particular inference is “necessary,” while someone else considers it entirely unnecessary. Sometimes people base conclusions on inductive arguments, then give those conclusions the authority properly assigned only to deductive reasoning. Because the whole approach has been fabricated by uninspired men, its survival requires constant persuasion (at best) or political pressure (at worst).
Restorationism eclipses unity
For Thomas and Alexander Campbell, pattern theology was only a means to an end. It was a tool for restoring the primitive church. The restoration of the primitive church was a means of uniting believers in all denominations. When believers united, the world would convert to Christ. The world’s conversion would trigger the beginning of the Millennium, which would climax 1,000 years later with the return of Jesus Christ (the Campbells were post-millennialists).
But the Campbell’s’ dream was not to be. Historical events, particularly the American Civil War, proved to be more than their utopian theory could endure. Without the Campbell’s’ series of cause-and-effect connections, the goal of restoring the primitive church gradually pushed aside the goal of Christian unity, and restorationism emerged as the reason for Churches of Christ to exist. In the process, pattern theology (“CENI-S”) increasingly became sectarian and legalistic, both in tone and in form.
Patternism prevailed as the primary mindset for most Churches of Christ until about the mid-20th century. In its wake were at least six (some say as many as 15-20) sub-groups or mini-Church of Christ “brotherhoods,” each usually recognizing only its own members as fellow-Christians, or certainly as the only “faithful” ones.
By the end of the 1950’s, most of the larger, white, urban, American Churches of Christ were well into the process of abandoning pattern theology. Among mainstream Churches of Christ today, patternism is found mostly in congregations that are either smaller, African-American, rural, or the products of church-plantings outside the USA.
My friend Dr. Edwin Harrell, a professional sociologist and church historian, and a positive influence within the patternistic “non-institutional” Churches of Christ, explains these demographics by saying that the poor and humble in this world are often closer to the heart of God. That is true of the humble as opposed to the haughty, but there is no reason to assume that all those who honestly seek to learn and to do what God wants finally become either patternistic or “non-institutional.” Nor are the “non-institutional” or patternistic folks among Churches of Christ necessarily economically-challenged from a demographic point of view.
Patternism the key to “non-institutionalism”
The most diligent advocates of patternism today are likely the sub-group of Churches of Christ who refer to themselves as “non-institutional.” By using this term they register their objection to congregations “as such” doing any good work through some “institution” other than the local church. However, the rationale offered in support of this conclusion depends entirely on their peculiar and thoroughly-institutionalized view of the church.
In the patternist view, the rules regarding “church action” and “individual action” are quite different. Many activities and good works that are not “authorized” for the local church “as such” are nevertheless permitted to individual Christians. However, anyone who makes a thorough study of the New Testament texts containing the word ekklesia will find in every case that the ekklesia is people, never an institution. This fact alone destroys the patternistic premise on which non-institutionalism ultimately rests.
One man and two books
From the close of World War II until the mid-1950’s, the differences became increasingly apparent between Churches of Christ that still held to patternism and those that did not. Power-brokers and would-be chiefs on both sides exploited the situation for personal advantage. By the middle of the 20th century, debates and special presentations on the subject had become commonplace.
One such milestone event was the debate between Guy N. Woods and Roy E. Cogdill conducted November 18-23, 1958 in Birmingham, Alabama. Although a ninth-grader at the time, I was a serious Bible student, and I attended some if not all of those proceedings and took copious notes. I remember writing the comment to myself that if salvation depended upon understanding what these two men were saying, no one but lawyers had a chance of getting into heaven. As it happened, both Woods and Cogdill were licensed attorneys, although neither man practiced law at that time.
Roy E. Cogdill was then owner and publisher of The Gospel Guardian magazine, the principal mouthpiece for readers of the non-institutional persuasion. He was already a legend larger-than-life among committed party-liners and sycophants, as seen in the following excerpt from a report of the debate written by one of Cogdill’s trusted lieutenants and published on page one of Cogdill’s own paper.
Nature was lavish in bestowing her endowments on Roy E. Cogdill. He is imposing in appearance standing six feet in height, weighing some 200 pounds, possessing a well-knit frame accentuated by a leonine head, and having handsome facial features dominated by a pair of rather deep-set, piercing eyes that project his power and personality to an audience with irresistible magnetism. He has a clear, resonant voice of unlimited volume that immediately attracts and holds his auditors. His enunciation is superb, and from boyhood, he has been famous for the marvelous choice of words with which he expresses with clarity and forces, his ideas. In pulpit presence, oratory, and personality, few men, certainly not Brother Woods, are his peers. (James W. Adams, “Cogdill-Woods Debate,” The Gospel Guardian, 9:36 [Jan. 16, 1958], page 1, online at http://www.wordsfitlyspoken.org/gospel_guardian/v9/v9n36p1,13b.htm)
Because of their influence in non-institutional circles, I must say a word about Cogdill’s two books titled Walking by Faith and The New Testament Church. These titles are innocent enough, but they are sadly misleading.
The book titled Walking by Faith is practically a “Bible” for the most dedicated non-institutional patternists—a defense of the CENI-S system of religion, a manual explaining how patternism is supposed to work. However, instead of teaching readers how to walk by faith, this book actually teaches its readers to walk by logic.
Cogdill’s second major book is called The New Testament Church, but that name also is misleading. What the book really promotes and produces is a church as imagined through the grid, screen and filter of patternism. Both books mislead their readers and fail to give what their titles promise. Both books turn the readers’ attention away from Christ to a human system of logic. And in some perverse way, the doctrine of patternism, particularly when championed by men of fleshly moods and methods, seems to inspire a zealotry that itself is capable of doing much damage.
To be sure, there have been (and still are) many good men and women who believed in patternism but who served Christ humbly and loved their fellow man. But there also have been (and still are) others, patternistic zealots, who like Saul of Tarsus before he met Jesus Christ, traveled far and wide to enforce their teaching, and to punish and make examples of any who dared to resist their non-biblical system of interpretation.
Patternism itself has been wrong from the beginning. It is foreign to the Bible, a distraction from the gospel, and a constant competitor with Jesus as the object of attention. By the mercy of God, the light of God’s grace is growing brighter and brighter in the hearts of men and women. As it does so, the shadow of patternism is passing into oblivion where it always belonged.