Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics IV — Regulative Principle and Churches of Christ

My first two posts in this series focused on the Baconian and Reformed character of Alexander Campbell’s hermeneutic. My last post described how Churches of Christ have utilized the Baconian method. In this post I describe how Churches of Christ have embraced the Reformed regulative principle and applied it with a Reformed understanding of command, example and inference (CEI).

The Regulative Principle in the 19th Century

Alexander Campbell assumed a form of the regulative principle when he wrote his “A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things” in the 1825-1829 Christian Baptist. He argued his case for the “ancient order” through command, example and inference based upon an inductive-deductive (Baconian) reading of the New Testament. But he did not intend the “ancient order” as a test of fellowship or a term of communion. Rather, he described the “ancient order” to persuade others to return to the teachings of Scripture alone for the unity of the church and the happiness of Christians. He refused to use inferences as lines of sands.

By the mid-1860s, as troubles arose concerning instrumental music and the missionary society among other things (including fund raising by means other than free will offerings on Sunday), the need to specify the exact nature of the (Reformed) hermeneutic became an intramural necessity.

Since the 16th century there had been at least two versions of the Reformed regulative principle and this is evident in contemporary discussions among conservative Presbyterians. For example, one can read the discussion between two eminent seminary professors who are both committed to the Westminster Confession of Faith–John Frame and Daryl Hart–to see their differences regarding the regulative principle. One version may be termed “general, broad or principled” and the other “specific or strict.” The former was championed by Calvin and the latter had its beginnings with Zwingli though it did not fully blossom until the seventeenth century when Puritanism emerged as a distinct English Reformation movement. The former locates the regulative authority in principles rather than the specifics of Scripture with a broader sense of expediency, but the stricter version locates the regulative principle in the explicit or necessarily implied specifics of the text. Both, however, believe that worship is limited by what Scripture teaches—whether in principle or specifically. The debate between the two versions continues in contemporary conservative Presbyterianism.

This difference emerged in the Stone-Campbell Movement on the questions of instrumental music (which also divided Presbyterians) and missionary societies. I will focus on instrumental music–not because it was the issue but because it illustrates the regulative principle so nicely. Remember, however, that the regulative principle is not the only reason some worship a cappella.  The Eastern Orthodox community has always worshipped without instrumental accompaniment and that tradition certainly has no love for a Reformed sola Scriptura regulative principle!

It is in the context of rising questions about instrumental music that Moses Lard penned a significant article entitled “Instrumental Music and Dancing” (Lard’s Quarterly 1 [March 1864], 330-336). He clearly articulates not only the regulative principle but also a Reformed method of seeking authorization from the text (emphasis mine).

We have solemnly covenanted that whatever cannot be clearly shown to have the sanction of this standard shall be held as not doctrine, and shall not be practiced. We say shown to have the sanction; for it is not enough to warrant a practice that this standard does not sanction it….To warrant the holding of a doctrine or practice it must be shown that it has the affirmative or positive sanction of this standard, and not merely that it is not condemned by it. Either it must be actually asserted or necessarily implied or it must be positively backed by some divinely approved precedent, otherwise it is not even an item in Christianity, and is therefore, when it is attempted to be made a part of it, criminal and wrong.

In effect, the Stone-Campbell Movement will not practice or teach anything that is not explicitly taught, positively approved by example, or necessarily implied. This involves a commitment to the prohibitive silence of Scripture since anything that does not find “positive sanction” is excluded from faith and practice. This became the mantra of Churches of Christ throughout the 20th century. Lard’s article is not the first articulation of this vision but it is one of the first rigorous applications of the hermeneutic in terms of identity and fellowship. (Tolbert Fanning of Nashville may have been the first, but that is another story for another day.) Lard had earlier laid out this premise in his programmatic essay “The Reformation for Which We are Pleading–What Is It?” (Lard’s Quarterly 1 [September 1863] 5-22; emphasis mine).

…the reformation demanded must take its rise in the expressed will of Christ. This will is now the supreme law of both doctrine and practice; and all reformations have reference to one or the other, or both, of these. Hence in this will must the present reformation have its rise. It must accept this as its supreme regulating principle….the reformation consists in an effort to induce all the truly pious in Christ to become perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment, by accepting as doctrine, precisely and only what is either actually asserted or necessarily implied in the Bible; to speak the same things by speaking what the Bible speaks, and to speak them in the language of the Bible; and to practice the same things by doing simply the will of Christ.”

The above statement arises out of the worldview of Reformed theology and the Westminster Confession of Faith. The language is not the language of Scripture itself (which is ironic given the insistence to call Bible things by Bible names)–where does the Bible speak of “supreme regulating principle” or lay down the rule that “only what is either actually asserted or necessarily implied” is authoritative–but it is actually the language of the Reformed tradition. It is fundamentally legal language. And it became “our” language.

The Lard’s Quarterly (1863-1868), the The Apostolic Times (1869-1885) and the American Christian Review under Benjamin Franklin (editor from 1858-1878 ) led the fight against instrumental music and developed the arguments–which were essentially the arguments Reformed theologians used–that would shape Churches of Christ for the next 100 years.

J. W. McGarvey (1829-1911) was a key player in the early and ongoing discussions. His emphasis on the “silence of Scriptures” was critical to defending the ground against instrumental music (“Instrumental Music,” Millennial Harbinger 36 [1865], 88-89):

Is not the silence of the Scriptures the limit which God himself has assigned to the expression of his will?….There are other things which cannot be shown to be right, except by an expression of the will of God. To this class belong all acts of worship, and all religious ordinances. No man can know that prayer, or singing, or immersion, or the Lord’s Supper, or preaching, is acceptable to God, were it not for precepts and examples in the word of God. Where, therefore, anything belonging to this class of subjects, is introduced by men, the silence of the Scriptures in reference to it, is a sufficient ground for its condemnation.

McGarvey’s characterization of Scripture as the “limit” of God’s authorization is common Reformed terminology. Though in this piece McGarvey only mentions “precepts and examples,” in a subsequent article he embraces heaven’s “loudest call…for warfare, stern, relentless, merciless, extermination, against everything not expressly or by necessary implication authorized in the New Testament” (“Bro. Hayden on Expediency and Progress,” Millennial Harbinger 39 [1868], 219).

James A. Harding (1848-1922), who lived within a hundred miles of the offices of the three periodicals mentioned above and read them faithfully as well as the Gospel Advocate (begun again in 1866), reminded his readers in The Way(“Laying on of Hands–The Grounds for Unity,” 3.26 [September 26, 1901], 203) that “I have been taught all my life that the Scriptures teach ‘by precept, by approved apostolic example and by necessary inference,’ and it is certain that this is correct….I am sure it is safe to do as they did; I am not certain it is safe to do any other way.” As the example of Harding illustrates (and notice he puts the formula in quotation marks as if it were a common one), the command, example, and inference (CEI) hermeneutic was already deeply ingrained by the beginning of the 20th century among leaders of Churches of Christ.

By the way, Harding was extremely disappointed that McGarvey was not as consistent with the regulative principle as he thought he should be. McGarvey, along with the other editors of the Apostolic Times, was one of the few who accepted the expediency of the missionary society because it was concerned with method but also regarded the organ as a violation of the regulative principle because it was an innovation in the public worship of the church. Harding was quite vocal in his opposition to McGarvey even at the time of his death (see “J. W. McGarvey and a Very Dark Spot“).

Controversies Related to the Regulative Principle

1. The first controversy was the opposition to the strict construction of the principle. Essentially, the Stone-Campbell Movement divided over the regulative principle in the late 19th century in the same way that the conservative Presbyterians divided in the same century. Neither rejected the idea that ecclesial faith and practice should be regulated by Scripture, but where they disagreed is how Scripture regulates.  The “progressives” used the principles of Scripture to regulate their practice while the “conservatives” followed the specifics of the Scripture as their regulatory authority. This difference regarding the regulative principle goes back to Geneva (Calvin) vs. Zurich (Zwingli). (See the resources at the end of the post to follow this debate in contemporary conservative Presbyterianism.) The Christian Standardtook the progressive (broader) view which emphasized principles and expediency while the Gospel Advocate took the conservative (stricter) view which emphasized specified authority and prohibitive silence. The former saw instrumental music as an expediency (in both the Stone-Campbell and Presbyterian traditions) and the latter saw instrumental music as an apostate innovation that corrupted the worship of God (in both the Stone-Campbell and Presbyterian traditions).

2. The second controversy (really a series of controversies) concerned the application of the regulative principle within Churches of Christ. Many debates have raged within Churches of Christ about the application of this principle by CEI. They range from how many cups to use in the Lord’s Supper to rhythmic handclapping in the worship assembly. The most significant, in terms of sheer numbers, has been the institutional controversy (approximately 10% of the congregations formed the noninstitutional wing of Churches of Christ). The specific hermeneutical question may be focused in this way: may churches use the money they have collected as part of the assembly of the saints as an act of worship for the support of human institutions (e.g., colleges, children’s homes, etc.)? I am not interested in discussing the issues related to this controversy because it is not just about hermeneutics. It is also about institutional power and denominational machinery, about separation from the institutional powers of culture. But I raise it because it was in the midst of discussing this question that several of the most thorough discussions of CEI occurred.

On the side of those who would answer “yes” to the above question (the institutionalists) is J. D. Thomas with is landmark book We Be Brethren (1958). On the other side is Roy Cogdill with his significant brief but important Walking by Faith (Lufkin, TX: Gospel Guardian, 1957). The two men discussed the hermeneutic, along with many others, in 1968 at Arlington, Texas as both sides sought mutual understanding and potential agreement (cf. Cecil Willis, ed., The Arlington Meeting (Marion, IN: Cogdill Foundation Publications, 1976). I will concentrate on Thomas since he has been the most influential hermeneut among institutional Churches of Christ.

Thomas’ formulation of the regulative principle as a hermeneutic is basically this: whenever a command is specified, it includes everything that is generic to that command (unless specifically excluded elsewhere) and excludes everything that is coordinate (belonging to the same generic) with that specific (unless specifically included elsewhere). The regulative principle includes what is authorized (by command, example and inference) and excludes what is unauthorized (that is, the silence of Scripture). It is not simply that the authorization excludes what contradicts it, but that it excludes everything that is not logically or generically included within that authorization. The definitions of generic, specific, coordinate (for example, are instrumental and vocal music really coordinates? is handclapping a coordinate of playing the instrument?), etc. are rather complicated. The room for disagreement on these points is illustrated by the institutional controversy itself and myriad of divisions within Churches of Christ.

Authorization includes examples and inferences as well as commands. On this there has been no controversy among Churches of Christ in the previous decades, according to Thomas (We Be Brethren, 6):

In the past we have all agreed that the Bible teaches us authoritatively, and outlines actions REQUIRED of us by: (1) direct command, (2) necessary inference, and (3) by approved apostolic examples. These basic methods have in general been accepted by all of us since the beginning of the Restoration period of church history. There has previously been no serious need to challenge any one of them.

But how do examples and inferences obtain authority status? Examples and inferences are themselves implicit commands which give them legal authority. “Stated simply,” Thomas writes in Harmonizing Hermeneutics (49), “if the early Christians understood that they were required to do something, their example indicates that we have to do it.”  Examples are binding when it is clear that there is a command that drives the example; they are only binding if the actors in the biblical story believed it was binding upon them. “In other words,” Thomas assures us, “no example is binding upon Christians today unless it was binding upon the exemplary New Testament characters involved in it” (We Be Brethren, 53). Furthermore, this connection must be “clear, conclusive and without question” in order for it to be binding (We Be Brethren, 70). 

But how will we know they were binding upon the New Testament exemplars? “Binding examples,” he writes, “have a clearly implied and understood command lying behind them, and thus they have the same authority as the command that is implied.” When we understand that point, then, “in effect, they are commands” (51). In other words, before an example can be understood as binding, we must infer that there is a command lying behind the example. Examples are binding, then, based on an inference! Examples are reduced to inferences and then exalted to commands!

Alan Highers makes this clear at the Arlington Meeting in 1968.  He said (Arlington Meeting, 99):

How do we determine when an example is merely permissive and when it is exclusive? I believe the principle set out by brother Thomas last night is true, that when there is an exclusive example, when there is a binding example, there is some indication of that by background information that suggests, perhaps by a necessary inference that we draw, that there is a command involved…[quoting James Cope] ‘We also learn Christ’s will by reading or hearing read certain accounts of local church activity in connection with some commands of Christ, and, from this, draw certain necessary conclusions that other commands, not specifically mentioned, necessarily were given by Christ.’

He says we may draw the necessary inference from certain surrounding things that there commands given by the Lord, even though those commands are not specifically mentioned.

I surmise that the controversies surrounding the regulative principle and the application of CEI forced us to think more carefully about examples. It was no longer sufficient to say something like “we will do what the New Testament church did” because we recognize that we don’t do everything like the New Testament church did (foot washing, holy kisses, head-coverings, eating the Supper in an upper room, eating the Supper at night, etc.) and we do something the New Testament church did not do (hymnbooks, kitchens in our buildings, etc.). Campbell recognized this and attempted to deal with it (see his exchange with the German Baptist in his “Restoration of the Ancient Order” series).  But the controversies became minute, precise and burdensome. We needed to have some way of distinguishing binding and non-binding examples. Consequently, we spawned a whole series of articles and books about the topic–for example, Thomas B. Warren, When is an “Example” Binding? (Jonesboro, AK: National Christian Press, 1975) and Roy Deaver, Ascertaining Biblical Authority (Pensacola: Firm Foundation Publishing House, 1987) among many.

Thomas’ book is one of the classics. And his answer was that an example is binding when there is an implied command. A binding example is actually an inference!

Further, when push-came-to-shove Thomas ultimately depended on “common sense.” For example, recognizing that “not every commandis binding upon us today,” the distinction between what is local/temporary and what is universal/permanent is “obvious” because we discern that “by common sense” (We Be Brethren, 58). Moreover, the way we distinguish between essential elements from incidentals in the text (e.g., eating the Supper in an upper room at night which are the only examples we have in the New Testament) is by “common sense” (We Be Brethren, 43). Thomas is not unique in this but he is a clear example. Indeed, “common sense” has perhaps saved us from our own hermeneutic, but the appeal to “common sense” is about as subjective a criterion as one can implement. Whose common sense? Which common sense?

It is no wonder that with such principles–implied commands bind examples and “common sense” adjudicating between incidentals and essentials as well as permanent and temporary–Churches of Christ ended up in a hermeneutical nightmare of their own creation. It is little wonder they ended up divided and fussing with each other over the smallest details, especially when the Baconian method and the regulative principle placed a high premium on “precise order” and exact compliance with the pattern. We all wanted to get it “right” because our fellowship and salvation depended upon it. We had turned the Baconian method into a means of determining who’s in and who’s out, who’s faithful and who is not–which is not how either Campbell or Lamar envisioned the method.

3. The third controversy questioned the regulative principle itself or at least the use of examples and inferences in discerning biblical authorization. The 1970s saw some dramatic shifts. Reuel Lemmons, the editor of the Firm  Foundation, took the position in 1974-1975 that no examples were binding and that no inference could be a test of fellowship (see his “Examples and Inferences Again,” Firm Foundation92 [1975] 114). Lemmons was influenced by Milo Hadwin’s The Role of New Testament Examples as Related to Biblical Authority (Austin, TX: Firm Foundation Publishing Co, 1974). Earlier discussions, of course, took place in the 1960s through the Restoration Quarterly and Mission, but Lemmon’s change of views was empowering for many young ministers.

This laid the groundwork for the discussion of the so-called “new hermeneutic” in the 1980s and 1990s. Fundamentally, the “new hermeneutic” was a rejection of both CEI and the regulative principle as articulated by Churches of Christ in the 20th century. Those who objected to the “new hermeneutic” complained that no alternative had been offered in the place of the old. This divide still remains and is perhaps at the root of much agitation in the body of Christ. 

Many have rejected the “old hermeneutic” (Baconian-Reformed CEI), but the question remains as to what would (or did) replace it.  That is a discussion for another series…which I will begin when I conclude this one.


Olbricht, Thomas H. “Hermeneutics in the Churches of Christ.” Restoration Quarterly 37.1 (1995), 1-24.

Woodrow, Woody. “The Silence of Scripture and the Restoration Movement.” Restoration Quarterly 28.1 (1985/86): 27-39

Wolfgang, Stephen, “Speech Delivered at the Nashville Meeting: History and Background of the Institutional Controversy,” Truth Magazine 33 (1989)–four articles available online.

Reformed Regulative Principle:  The broader view is defended by John Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth: A Refreshing Study of the Principles and Practice of Biblical Worship(Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1996); Ralph J. Gore, Covenantal Worship: Reconsidering the Puritan Regulative Principle (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2002) and Timothy J. Keller, “Reformed Worship in the Global City,” Worship By the Book, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002) 193-249. The stricter view is defended by David Lachmannand Frank J. Smith, eds., Worship in the Presence of God(Greenville, SC: Greenville Seminary Press, 1992); Derek W. H. Thomas, “The Regulative Principle: Responding to Recent Criticism,” in Give Praise to God: A Vission for Reforming Worship, ed. Philip Graham Ryken, Derek W. H. Thomas and J. Ligon Ducan III (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 2003), 74-93; and D. G. Hart, “It May Be Refreshing,” Calvin Theological Journal (32 (1997), 407-23.

7 Responses to “Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics IV — Regulative Principle and Churches of Christ”

  1.   Richard constant Says:

    So that’s what’s been going on for the last 20 or 30 years.
    wow John Mark I just found out I was in the 10% group. Thanks!.
    No wonder I couldn’t get along with myself.

    I’ll explain why he said that

    I went to a little family Church in Huntington Beach California wasn’t so much that it was a family Church is just a lot of my family went to the church and relatives.
    We did not have elders, we have business meetings.
    Mind you this is around 1967 I was young and idealistic , and I was drunk off to Sunday school even when my mom went back to Oklahoma, and I was in kindergarten or something.
    When I went to church is where God was in all of that good stuff like that there.

    Then I went to a business meeting.
    And I saw all of my relatives and all of my friends fathers that I respected, get into a heated discussion over the use of church funds what a priority was what should be left in what shouldn’t.

    Seriously it tore me up, honestly I wound up in tears. I could not believe what I was seeing, it went against everything that I perceived from one you have been taught since before I can remember in Sunday school.
    Just a major dichotomy that I could not shake.

    Oh well that’s just a thought about how doing the right thing can turn love upside down.
    and the church got too big Commandments old boy hotdog that predicates everything that Christ said
    loved God.
    And love your neighbor as yourself
    Oh I know I’ve got a lot of personal problems but I don’t think that that’s the implied intent.

    Blessings I am truly going night night

  2.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    The priority of love is underscored in the two greatest commandments. Everything must be subordinated to those, even the rules that we invent without our own induction-deduction.

  3.   Gardner Says:

    The amount of research you have done is staggering.

    As you can imagine, I often find myself saying “but what about this…or that?” as I read. However, I also see that you are bending over backwards to be fair and I appreciate that so much. For example, thanks for pointing out that opposition to institutionalism not only involved disputes about how to apply the “regulative principle” but also concerns about “institutional power and denominational machinery, about separation from the institutional powers of culture.” So many have characterized the controversy as simply being about whether a church was authorized to send $25 to an orphan home. That may have seemed to be the primary focus of many like Roy Cogdill and Yater Tant in 1950’s and with a few exceptions, of those who spoke at the Arlington meeting. However, an increasing number of “noninstitutional” disciples has been focusing on sectarian concepts about the church (“the Church of Christ has three million members”), denominational machinery and the lack of emphasis on God’s grace as greater indicators of a loss of focus on Christ.

    I still can’t help but think that the lack of emphasis on love, humility, grace and the person of Christ is the real bogeyman in many of the horror stories of the “Stone-Campbell movement” rather than the efforts to seek Biblical precedents for congregational activities. If the former had been present when trying to sort out the latter, it seems that much bitterness could have been avoided. Perhaps what is needed is more “common sense” interpretation of texts like 1 Corinthians 13; Romans 14, Ephesians 4, etc. Will continue to read and try to understand.

  4.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Thanks, Gardner, for your response. I appreciate your interaction.

    I, too, am one who seeks to stress a response to institutional power with the emphases of the ministry of Jesus (as you might recognize in Kingdom Come. We might agree with the goal but seek it with different methods.

    I have no objection to seeking biblical precedents for congregational activities as long as our search is consistent with the nature of the biblical literature–a method consistent with the nature of Scripture itself. And, I would add, recognizes that “biblical precedents” are not necessarily normative themselves but simply precedents. The problem, however–as you point out, is not simply the method itself but the lack of prioritizing those values that are at the heart of God’s own life (love, grace, etc.).

    Thanks for reading, and it is only natural that you would have some “buts” in my description just as I would have in reading your analysis. But the “buts” should not–and trust they do not–hinder our fellowship in the peace and love of Jesus Christ, my brother.

  5.   rich Says:

    thanks again for your words,
    john mark dicited to read anew
    i’ll get it little by little…


  6.   darrylrlewis Says:

    I appreciate your questioning “common sense.” That has always been a problem for me. I have been accused of not having much of it. But so much in the Bible does not make common sense to me! I remember attending one of those seminars on “the new hermeneutic” back in the 80s or 90s. One speaker concluded by saying, “The Holy Spirit is the new hermeneutic.” The other speaker (who said you had to be raised in a barn to get the common sense to interpret the Bible) replied, “You can’t trust the Holy Spirit!” I shuddered.

  7.   Jhun Ma Says:

    This is a kind of walk through gallery of Coc’s Hermeneutical Journey…

    It’s a great background reading for your book Searching for the Pattern…

    Thanks again !

    God bless !


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