Obedience: Without Being Told

Clean up your room If I had a nickel for every time this Berenstain Bears scene played out in our home growing up (only my brother didn’t usually wear pink…). “Clean your room” were probably three of the most common words from our mother’s mouth. Though, a close second would be the three words she often shouted as she held a raised wooden spoon in her right hand: “Move your hands!”

In any case, we eventually learned that if we obeyed the first three words we could avoid the second three. Not that we always did, but at least we learned cause and effect.

Also, we eventually learned that what Mom really preferred was for us to clean our room without being told. Not that we always did that, either. In fact, that was a hard lesson to learn because she told us to clean our room so often that we could have sworn she liked saying those words. But, she said she didn’t, and she said she didn’t want to have to tell us.

That makes me think a lot about God and our obedience. We seem to have this impression of God that He likes telling us what to do. We have theologies and hermeneutics built on that basic impression. Take these words from Thomas Campbell, for example:

What Campbell is suggesting is that we cannot be obedient without a law to be obedient to, and that that law is found in the New Testament. I disagree with this on several levels, but the most important is his limited concept of obedience.

Are not law and obedience, testimony and faith, relative terms, so that neither of the latter can exist without the former? that is, where there is no law, there can be no obedience; where there is no testimony, there can be no faith. (Prospectus of a Religious Reformation)

Now, let me say that I have tons of respect for Thomas Campbell, and Alexander Campbell, and Barton W. Stone. They had some incredible, much needed ideas about going back to the Bible alone as our guide for life and worship. However, I think Thomas Campbell got it wrong here.

What Campbell is suggesting is that we cannot be obedient without a law to be obedient to, and that that law is found in the New Testament. I disagree with this on several levels, but the most important is his limited concept of obedience.

I would agree that there are laws in the New Testament, and that God wants us to obey them. But, what I have a problem with is the concept that obedience requires laws. I would be more content with saying that obedience requires principles. Let me explain what I mean.

What my mother really wanted–and what every parent wants–is for her children to learn to do what is right without being told. So, she made a “law” that we had to clean our room, but what she really wanted was for us to learn the general principle of cleanliness. There was no way she could make laws to cover every aspect of that principle, especially as we got older and moved out. She did not give me a list of laws telling me to keep my dorm room clean, or my pick-up, or my office. But, by applying what she taught me about cleaning my room to those other environments, I was still obedient.

In other words, we hope that our kids will do the right thing without being told. And, I believe our Heavenly Father has the same hope–and the same goal.

That is what every parent hopes will happen: that their children will learn to do the right thing no matter what the scenario or environment. We hope our kids will learn to be obedient without needing any laws. In other words, we hope that our kids will do the right thing without being told.

And, I believe our Heavenly Father has the same hope–and the same goal. The laws that He gives us are not meant as an exhaustive list, or even and end in themselves. Obedience is not adherence to those laws, but learning to do the right thing whether there is a law or not. God wants us to grow from the immaturity of needing laws to the maturity of living by principles. He wants us to become better people, not better interpreters and keepers of laws.

That sounds more like true obedience to me. But, that kind of maturing will require us to learn some of the key lessons that we often overlook in the Bible:
1) that God’s laws, however strict and comprehensive they may seem, do not account for every situation, nor are they meant to (Matthew 12:1-8);
2) that looking for principles rather than laws is a better way to study the Bible (Matthew 23:23);
3) that the ultimate determining factor concerning what is “lawful” or “unlawful” is not the silence of the scriptures, or whether or not we can find a “Thus saith the Lord,” but, rather, love (Matthew 22:34-40; 1Corinthians 10:23-24; 14:26);
4) that law kills, but faith and the Spirit bring life (Romans 7:6; 2Corinthians 3:6; and the book of Galatians);
5) that even if we kept all of the laws, we would still be lost without the grace of God and the blood of Jesus.

We have to mature into people who do what is right without being told. Then we’ll make our parents happy, and we’ll make God happy.


7 thoughts on “Obedience: Without Being Told

  1. Clint, Good post. I’ll speak specifically to Campbell’s assertion that we must have a law to follow in order to obey (I too appreciate much of what Campbell said and accomplished). I think the root of his problem is the way he read (his hermeneutic) and influenced us as his descendants to read scripture.

    I think our ‘CEI’/silence of scripture hermeneutic has led us in the wrong direction here. Why did we think this was some ‘God ordained’ way to read the Bible? For the most part, it pays no attention to literary genre, context (literary or historical), and assumes that the Bible is primarily a book of truths or an ‘answer book’ or a book that shows us correct worship practices (it hardly does this at all).

    If instead, if the Bible is the story of the mission of God to redeem what he created, then it should be read much differently. I would argue that although there are many genres in the text, the overarching structure is narrative. What does ‘authority’ look in the context a narrative? Authority is easy to recognize with a list of rules or a constitution, what what about a story? In what way can a story be authoritative.

    I feel silly referencing N.T. Wright yet again, I know I do that a lot, but here goes. . .


    We must creatively live out the missing part of the story. There’s no one right way to do it (there are of course lots of wrong ways that are not compatible with the rest of the story). We can read about what’s already happened and about glimpses of what the end should look like, but its our job to fill in the missing parts. I think that is the hermeneutic that should replace CEI for us.

    • Hey Mark,

      I both agree and disagree with what you have said here in your comment. First, I agree that an emphasis on CENI (Command, Example, Necessary Inference for those who may not be familiar with this abbreviation) and the silence of scriptures being prohibitive have led to some nasty problems in the Church (especially the silence business, which is not at all what Campbell intended when he encouraged us to “be silent where the Bible is silent”). But, I disagree about dismissing it entirely. I think it has some merit. I think it is commonly misapplied, misused, or even neglected, but still has merit.

      Second, I agree that much of the Bible is narrative. But, I disagree with an over-generalization of that concept since some of it is instruction and legislation. The Sermon on the Mount is not narrative, but instruction (is it legislation/law? That’s an interesting question for another time, I suppose).

      What I would say is that the New Testament does in fact offer us some laws: “Thou shalt not kill,” for example, seems to be offered as a law that remains in effect. However, the point of my post is that any laws that are found there are not meant to be exhaustive, or the limits of obedience. We don’t look for laws to know what to obey, we look for them to learn principles we can apply in other, varied situations. That, of course, is where the meta-narrative fits in. We ask, “How can I apply these principles in a way that is consistent with God’s eternal plan and purpose.”

      So, let’s keep CENI (and keep, to a degree, but re-think silence of the scriptures), but use it to find principles rather than laws. Jesus Commanded us to love one another, gave us plenty of Examples in His own life of love’s importance, and how to carry it out, and even offered some Necessary Inferences that come from the principle of love, like loving our enemies. But, we are left to seek out how to apply the principle of love in our own specific communities.

      And, more importantly, let’s affirm the basic Gospel message: that Christ cleanses us from our failures in law-keeping and principle-applying.

  2. Clint – Good post. What you are describing is the process of maturation. The “laws” are necessary for the immature; the mature person has learned the necessary principles and how, as you say, to apply them beyond the few speciific areas to which the regulations themselves speak. Perhaps that is something of what the Hebrews author speaks about in 5:11ff – it was time for them move beyond the basics (laws) to the issues of maturity (principles).
    As to CENI, our fellowship would not be where we are without that hermeneutic approach. That is a sword that cuts both ways. It has taught me to take scripture at face value and regard it as the absolute authority. It has also boxed us in, perhaps (as suggested by Mark’s comment) forcing us to ignore the fact that it cannot help us deal properly with every type of material presented in scripture.
    Good dialogue…

    • I like what you said about CENI being a sword that cuts both ways in our fellowship. It has helped and hindered.

      As I think about and study CENI more (and the ways we try to apply it), I find that the principles themselves are not necessarily always the problem….but our inconsistent application of them. For instance, the example we have from scripture for the location of church assemblies is either homes or, perhaps, the temple courtyard. But, we don’t think twice about building and using church buildings. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but that we have apparently decided that CENI doesn’t apply to that issue, without much, if any, thought as to why.

      I am also concerned about broadly stating that examples can be bound on Christians. Just because first century Christians did things a certain way doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to do it that way….at least that’s what we say about the holy kiss, for example.

      And, I am concerned about the concept of necessary inference because it turns out to be quite subjective. What seems necessary to you may not seem so to me. And besides that, no matter how necessary, I am concerned about binding inferences, the logical conclusions of men, on others. Here is where I believe T. Campbell was absolutely right (Proposition 6 in Declaration and Address): “That although inferences and deductions from scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word: yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of christians farther than they perceive the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men; but in the power and veracity of God.”

      I have fewer problems with the command aspect of CENI, though certainly the Pharisees are a good example of taking such a hermeneutic too far. They were good at finding and binding commands, but not so good at understanding the larger principles behind them.

  3. Certainly the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus is speaking it to those listening is not narrative but it sits in the context of Matthew’s narrative and must be read as such (I think so anyway). Other parts, the legislative (Leviticus, for example) all must fall under the umbrella of the larger meta-narrative (the story of the people of God and his mission, etc). We can’t just lift them out of their narrative’s context and say, ‘I have a command to do x’. That’s what CEI does in my opinion. Even the letters are written to people in a specific time and place and give us more pieces/insight into the story of God’s mission. They are not documents designed to have nuggets of truth lifted from them so that we can know how to do worship right or so that we can add to our list of principles. They are part of the story of God’s/the Spirit’s interaction with his people. I think we’ve got to immerse ourselves so fully in that story that we become proficient in imagining what comes next. We don’t ‘pattern ourselves’ and repeat what happened in the first century, we creatively live into the future looking forward to the new heavens and new earth that God will make.

    I think part of me wants to say that we are to gain principles rather than rules from the text. Principles are definitely better than rules, but I don’t think that’s the primary point either. I think sometimes rather than applying principles to individual situations, we should be asking questions like ‘does this particular decision or the overall structure make sense with the story thus far and is it consistent with God’s eschatological aim’? Maybe that’s a principle, I don’t know.

    I don’t plan on keeping CEI to any meaningful degree in my own study. I’ve read the text that way for a long time and in my mind, it doesn’t work. . .just not a helpful lens to read though. There’s no way in my mind to have any level of consistency. I’m still working through what this different hermeneutic means, implications, etc and thinking/writing/talking through it. I hope you don’t mind my doing so here. I enjoyed your post and it brought these thoughts up in my mind again. Like many of us, I’ve got many more questions than answers.

    Let me know what you think of that article.

    Grace and Peace,

    • Mark,

      You said: “we should be asking questions like ‘does this particular decision or the overall structure make sense with the story thus far and is it consistent with God’s eschatological aim’? Maybe that’s a principle, I don’t know.”

      I say: that is what I am leaning toward, as well, but that’s also what I mean by principles. What does God intend for Creation and humanity–and, more specifically, what part does God want me, personally, to play in His scheme?

      If we answered those questions in terms of laws we would say things like, God does not want me to lie, kill, commit adultery, and He does want me to give a reasonable portion (10%?) of my money, go to church every Sunday, and take the Lord’s Supper regularly. And those statements are all true, but a little naive and narrow. They don’t answer questions like, what if I am sick on Sunday? What if I work on Sunday? What if my family is attacked by an intruder? What if I can barely afford to feed my family, let alone to give away 10% of my income?

      That’s where principles are much more helpful. Justice, mercy, love, devotion, fellowship, and sacrifice may be broader terms than tithing, attendance, and weekly Lord’s Supper, but they are also much more useful in the varied experiences of human life in a fallen world. Instead of looking for a specific law about how to handle a situation, we look for principles to judge the proper course. That takes wisdom, patience, and discernment, but it is better. I think that’s what you mean by “filling in the blanks.”

      I also agree that we can’t lift laws or principles out of their contexts. Matthew put the Sermon on the Mount where he did in his story for a reason……but Matthew also indicates that this was not the only time Jesus taught those concepts. And, comparing Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, we know it wasn’t the only time. What I am saying is that some instruction, such as the Sermon on the Mount, supersedes context. Those principles are always applicable. How they are applied may vary a little, but they are always applicable.

      One good example of this is the mistake often made following communion on a Sunday morning when the guy who is to pray for the contribution will say, “We are commanded to lay-by-in-store on the first day of the week,” when no such “command” exists. The Corinthian church was told to “lay-by-in-store” every Sunday, but for a specific need of the Christians in Jerusalem. The principle of providing for our Christian family is still applicable, however, despite the context. And taking up a contribution every Sunday may be “authorized,” and perhaps even the wise thing to do….but it is by no means commanded or required. I would even argue that it is Paul’s last-resort method to get a generally un-giving congregation to give like they should. They shouldn’t need a weekly collection…they should just give out of the overflow of their hearts. But, that’s a discussion for another time, I suppose.

  4. I guess the biggest problem I have with CENI is not that there are no commands, list of rules, examples, or things we have to infer from scripture. All of those exist. My problem is using that as a framework for interpreting scripture. There are no bare commands that don’t require an understanding of context or that don’t need to be interpreted. We are always interpreting, all the time whether we like it or not. There’s no way around it. Even the 10 commandments have to have to be understood in their covenental context and also must be interpreted. ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’ Should we tell the truth to the Gestapo? What about a surprise birthday party? Examples could multiply, but these are all interpretive moves we must make.

    To me, CENI is of no help when we’re trying to decipher how Paul’s commands to Corinth regarding issue x apply to us. I think Paul is making decision with a missional basis. What decision will advance the kingdom of God. This is the same type of thing we need to do in our contexts. We can’t just copy his decision even if he is making a ‘command’. If you want to call that principle based decision making, I’ve got no problem with that.

    Certainly I agree with you that the grace of God covers our incomplete understanding and faulty logic. I believe that truth is not something that we possess and distribute to the masses, but something we continually seek together and always have in an incomplete measure. Thanks for providing a venue for a good discussion.

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