Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible, is a beacon of hope for many within the Churches of Christ.
A book by John Mark Hicks, a highly respected professor of theology at Lipscomb University, it should be read by anyone with an interest in the future of the Churches of Christ.
It is an autobiographical tale of a man’s desire to learn the will of God and to follow it.
That man discovers that the restrictive method of interpreting the Bible promoted by his conservative denomination yields results inconsistent with the love of God. Through study, prayer, and hard work, he finds an alternative consistent with God’s love, the ministry of Jesus, and scripture, and, it turns out, with the restrictive method promoted by his denomination.
Desiring to know and follow God’s will is a common literary theme, of course. And the autobiographical journey of altering one’s method of Biblical interpretation does not, in the abstract, seem like it would make for a particularly interesting book.
What makes this book particularly interesting, noteworthy, and worth reading is the identity of the author, his wide-ranging influence, and the resulting possibility and hope that the book will be a catalyst for change and resurgence within the Churches of Christ.
And he takes what could be a dry topic and turns it into an engaging and accessible tale and description that I did not want to end. I suppose it has not ended. The real question is where does it go from here?
More on Why I Think This Book Matters
I am a member of a Churches of Christ congregation. We appear to be the fastest-shrinking evangelical denomination, shrinking over the past 20 years in times and places that other evangelical denominations stayed steady and even grew.
Our pace of decline appears to have picked up over the past few years. In the most recent 3-year time-frame in which data was available, the number of Church Christ adherents decreased approximately 5% — a huge decrease — that is over 2000 people departing and over 9 congregations dissolving each and every month, on average. That is like the decline of a number of the mainline churches that many of our members criticize.
There are questions about lack of spiritual growth and decline, too.
Our interpretation of the Bible — or at least our tradition of actions and inaction based on our interpretation of the Bible — may be to blame, in part.
The Churches of Christ are known as extremists in restricting women and girls in participation in our worship services. In the vast majority of our congregations, females are completely prohibited from speaking and leading in any way during the worship service and from teaching boys over the age of about 10 in Sunday School. Young girls are generally prohibited from praying out loud in front of young boys in Sunday School.
My estimate is only around 4% of U.S. Christianity practices such complete prohibition of women and girls from such activity. Some other denominations prohibit women from the office of senior pastor or priest, but they typically do not prohibit them from leading singing in the worship service, for example, as do the Churches of Christ.
The Churches of Christ also has a reputation for believing its members are the only ones going to heaven and for implying or saying so — this is fueled and reflected by many of its members referring to the Churches of Christ as such things as “the Lord’s church,” “not a denomination,” and the “only church found in the Bible.” Such an outlook results in some members telling other Christians they are going to hell because they attend the Baptist church or any other church or implying or telling them they are not “true” Christians. (Despite this reputation, not all Churches of Christ believe these things, of course.)
Few in Christianity interpret the Bible this way.
It goes on….
All of this also often gives rise to a fear-based outlook and a forgetting of grace, mercy, and justice.
In my opinion, given our rate of decline, the denomination is likely headed towards a tipping point in the next 20 years. The clock is ticking.
Despite that, very little beyond the same re-trenching, engaging in the kind of behavior that turns people (especially those under 40) away seems to be happening on a broader scale—blaming culture for our woes, fear-mongering, dire warnings about “progressive Christianity,” mislabeling others, warnings against social justice such that people are concerned about wanting to do good deeds, not studying the issues due to fear that people will leave a congregation if change is even considered, insisting on the old ways, using fear or letting fear rule, general denial, constant bickering over who is “sound,” emphasis on unity of those already in the church, and lots of talk about that we should talk about the issues at some point in the future but go slow.
Many of the views of the Churches of Christ that seem extreme or distant from God’s grace are based on a restrictive method of interpreting the Bible that yielded practices that have been passed on from generation to generation.
Searching for the Pattern
That brings us to Searching for the Pattern.
Could the Churches of Christ realizing that it may have engaged in practices based on reading the Bible in a way inconsistent with the love of God and the ministry of Jesus turn the Churches of Christ around?
Could it make a meaningful difference in the spiritual life of its people?
Appreciation and Sadness
Dr. Hicks has taught for 38 years in schools associated with the Churches of Christ and is well known to many of its preachers and members.
Throughout his book, Dr. Hicks consistently expresses an appreciation for people within the Churches of Christ and their desire to obey God.
He describes growing up in the Churches of Christ and how the question of determining what God desires turned into the question of determining what God authorizes in the Bible, which turned into the question of determining what God authorizes in Acts and the Epistles, which turned into the question of determining what God authorizes there through identifying commandments, approved (binding) examples, and necessary inferences. And anything else was not authorized. This is the traditional method of Biblical interpretation associated with the Churches of Christ, what Dr. Hicks refers to as a “blueprint hermeneutic,” one I sometimes hear referred to as “CENI.”
Church of Christ members’ desire to obey God results in sadness, too, for Dr. Hicks, as such a blueprint methodology results in significant complexity, disagreement, and inconsistencies with what he knows about God. Indeed, he describes splits in the denomination and loss of friendships resulting from disagreements over the blueprint hermeneutics’ application.
One of the issues that brought the problems with the blueprint hermeneutic into focus for Dr. Hicks is that some within the Churches of Christ insisted that God commands in scripture that money collected by a church must be used to support only Christians (not non-Christians). A large segment of the denomination split over this issue.
For Dr. Hicks, “the conclusion that the church may only help Christians did not sit well with my gut. I recognized we cannot depend on our guts; ….” He explains, “When others concluded the church should only share with saints [(Christians)], my theological gut said this is not who God is, and it was not what Jesus practiced.” Using the traditional method of interpretation resulted in “a conclusion which was fundamentally at odds with my own sense of God’s identity, contrary to the most basic beliefs I had as a Christian.”
This, of course, is where fundamentalists sharpen their knives. “Gut”? “Feelings”? That is “progressive Christianity” talk, they might say. The Bible tells us the heart is deceitful and citing your feelings is a sure sign you are hawking progressive Christianity. Follow the word of God and not what your culture-influenced feelings tell you about the matter!
For Dr. Hicks, though, the gut feeling was that this was not who God is and not what Jesus practiced. The gut feeling itself was based in scripture. And, for Dr. Hicks, a restudying of God’s scheme of redemption was revealing.
Noticing a Different Pattern– A Theological Hermeneutic, Christ-Centered
Dr. Hicks believes the Apostle Paul did not do as CENI does—Paul did not appeal to a prescribed pattern of church practice in advising his fellow Christians about God’s will. Instead, Paul appeals to the pattern of God’s activity—the redemptive plan and story of God”—“which finds is fullness in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus the Messiah.”
So, for Dr. Hicks, whereas in CENI, we might read solely to find the commands, examples, and inferences to determine God’s will, in the “theological hermeneutic” suggested by the Apostle Paul’s approach, we should read the Bible and study the redemptive history of God revealed in it to determine “the heart, nature, and work of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit” – to solve the “mystery of Christ” and determine the gospel—and it is that determination that supplies the “rules” for how the church and people are to live faithfully and to follow God’s will.
The inputs, if you will, in determining the “mystery of Christ” employed by the Apostle Paul identified by Dr. Hicks are (1) creation (God’s grace in creation and as creator), (2) community (God’s intent and gifts for Israel and fulfilled in the church), (3) Christ, and (4) new creation (the world imagined by God, God’s goal, as discussed, for example, in 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21-22), ordered chronologically here in the story of God told in the Bible.
The ministry of Jesus weighs on all factors. Dr. Hicks seems to recognize that the community input is the one a Restoration Movement church might overemphasize and cautions somewhat. Both Israel and the church were created as the image of God but both—including every church of the New Testament—were flawed, explains Dr. Hicks, urging us to see that neither Israel nor the church are the pattern for God’s image, but Jesus is the pattern.
Dr. Hicks does not dispense with identifying commands, examples, and necessary inferences when engaging in interpretation using his proposed methodology, but puts them in a different place than the CENI methodology, which extracts them to form independent rules. For Dr. Hicks, they are used as a means to understand how God reveals himself and if we consider in seeking the mystery of Christ in the story (the theological hermeneutic) rather than seeking a blueprint, then we are more likely to see the heart of God that is revealed in what we read. He proposes a way to employ the identification of commands, examples, and necessary inferences that is consistent with the ministry of Jesus and with the manner in which Jesus and Paul used scripture as part of the theological hermeneutic.
A New Approach, But What to Do With It
Dr. Hicks recommends we let go of a desire for perfection in our practices (and implicitly, its associated fear) and instead seek out the virtues found in the story of God in Christ, “to love God and neighbor, to prioritize the weightier matters of the law, and to seek justice, mercy, and humility in our walk with God.” He views perfectionistic patternism as emphasizing sacrifice and ritual rather than mercy and sees Jesus as having chastised the Pharisees for having done so.
For Dr. Hicks, there is a pattern to seek and apply. That pattern is Jesus. It is not a static pattern. It does not look the same in every time, setting, and culture.
Examples and Going Forward
The book closes with four case studies—frequency of the Lord’s Supper, the duty to assemble, racial segregation, and baptism—the latter three of which are discussed in an appendix. It also includes a guide through the theological-hermeneutic process, with questions for guiding the process and two examples (women dressing modestly and a wealthy congregation sharing with a poor congregation), and a practice guide for theological hermeneutics, with questions to ask when reading Bible stories, in appendices.
Highly Recommend You Read and Study Searching for the Pattern
I found Searching for the Pattern to be readable, insightful, and enjoyable. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the future of the Churches of Christ.
It generally moves along well. Dr. Hicks’ use of his own, personal story and that of our denomination, including its splits, to bring to life the real-world impact that the relatively dry subject of the book—hermeneutics—has on thousands, indeed millions, of lives is well-executed.
In my discussions with people in the Churches of Christ, I have found that the concept of CENI has become distant. People do not have a solid understanding of its general algorithm and parameters. Dr. Hicks supplies an easily understandable outline for those trying to understand it.
Dr. Hicks’ re-direction of our interpretative effort towards a Jesus-based lens is a welcome effort. His explanation of his methodology is lucid and well reasoned. The examples and explanations offered are highly scriptural.
Most welcome is his reminder that Jesus and Paul considered scripture and did not use the CENI methodology. Dr. Hicks attempts to align his proposed methodology with the methodology employed by them and this is a reassuring and thought-provoking effort.
Dr. Hicks’ care and respect for people within the denomination comes through throughout his book.
Several concerns arose as I read the book and remained with me at the end. It is unclear whether the approach proposed by Dr. Hicks applies only to church practice (Lord’s supper, instrumental music during corporate worship, and the like) or to interpreting the Bible generally. I believe he proposes it to apply generally, but at times the discussion focuses so heavily on church practice that it seems to limit application to determining church practice (as opposed to individual practice).
I did not detect that Dr. Hicks clearly addresses the main touted advantage of “blueprint hermeneutic” approaches: removing “personal interpretation” dangers. It seems Dr. Hicks proposals leaves this risk. I did not see that this risk is thoroughly worked through in this book, even though it will be a primary objection of proponents of CENI.
I wondered where “bear one another’s burdens” lies in all of this: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)
I also found myself wondering if there are other scholars over the centuries that have proposed similar hermeneutics similar to the theological hermeneutic proposed by Dr. Hicks. What objections did they face? How did they fare?
My main wish for the book was that it addressed head-on some of the more difficult issues of today: the silencing of women in the assembly, female elders, same-sex marriage, transgender persons, …. I know I expected too much. It is an introductory book, after all.
I suppose if Dr. Hicks gave the wrong answer on some of those questions, he might have lost his audience. Our denomination tends to stop listening to (and many times, fire, mark, shun, and dis-fellowship) people who give the wrong answers on certain questions, though, questions associated with those difficult issues of today I just mentioned among them. Maybe Searching for the Pattern will help solve that problem.
My Hope: Need Motivation, Too
I am hopeful that Dr. Hicks’ book and the theological hermeneutic he proposes will make a real difference. Given his stature, there is a reasonably good possibility.
I think the adage “You cannot reason someone out of something he or she was not reasoned into” is largely true, though.
The vast majority of Church of Christ members and Church of Christ preachers and Church of Christ elders were never reasoned into a hermeneutic. The hermeneutic they use today was presented as the way to interpret the Bible. They were not reasoned into it. There was no other way presented.
Real change will require an accessible, well-reasoned theological hermeneutic and a meaningful, real-world motivation for re-considering a particular scripture, practice, issue, or hermeneutic and for change.
Conclusion: Read and Study It
If you have any interest in the future of the Churches of Christ, you should read and study Searching for the Pattern. Not only will it help you see from where we have come in our collective Biblical-interpretive journey, it will help you join the conversation in a meaningful way with others within the Churches of Christ about interpreting the Bible and our collective future.
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Sources and Notes
I’ll add a critique: The guides seem to be written at too high a level. That is, they were not written at a Sunday School teacher level. We need material useful for the Sunday School teacher, the lay leader, the elder.
The picture is one of my copy of John Mark Hicks, Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible (2019).
On the Churches of Christ shrinking, see Steve Gardner, “The Code Blue Church of Christ: 2018 Report Shows Accelerated Membership Decline,” AuthenticTheology.com (November 14, 2018).
The “reason out of” quote may be from Jonathan Swift: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/07/10/reason-out/
Cites to Searching for the Pattern from review
“turned into” and “authorized”: See, e.g., pages 32-39
refers to as a “blueprint”: See, e.g., pages 47, 83
“the conclusion that the church may only help Christians did not sit well with my gut. I recognized we cannot depend on our guts; …. When others concluded the church should only share with saints [(Christians)], my theological gut said this is not who God is, and it was not what Jesus practiced.”: pages 88-89
“a conclusion which was fundamentally at odds with my own sense of God’s identity, contrary to the most basic beliefs I had as a Christian.”: page 89
gut feeling itself was based in scripture; redemption was revealing: pages 89-90
Paul: See, e.g., pages 96-100
“which finds is fullness in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus the Messiah”: page 101
“theological hermeneutic”: See, e.g., page 100-103 introduction; page 112
“the heart, nature, and work of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit,” redemptive history, and “mystery of Christ”: pages 112-113
determine the gospel and “rules”: See, e.g., pages 114-120
The inputs: See, e.g., page 127-131
The ministry of Jesus: See, e.g., pages 133-136
Both Israel and the church were created as the image of God but both—including every church of the New Testament—were flawed, explains Dr. Hicks, urging us to see that neither Israel nor the church are the pattern for God’s image, but Jesus is the pattern: see, e.g., page 135
does not dispense with identifying commands, examples, and necessary inferences when engaging in interpretation using his proposed methodology, but puts them in a different place than the CENI methodology: see, e.g., pages 142-147
Jesus reading scripture: pages 177-180
let go of a desire for perfection in our practices (and implicitly, its associated fear) and instead seek out the virtues found in the story of God in Christ, “to love God and neighbor, to prioritize the weightier matters of the law, and to seek justice, mercy, and humility in our walk with God.”: pages 178-179
Jesus pattern does not look the same in every time, setting, and culture: see, e.g., pages 181-182
Update: (9/28 added (Despite this reputation, not all Churches of Christ believe these things, of course.) and adjusted around it.)