Patterns and Legalism: Commenting on an FHU Lecture

Cecil May, Jr.–Dean of the V. P. Black College of Biblical Studies at Faulkner University–is a kind, loving Christian gentlemen in the best sense of that term.  He was the first to ever interview me for an academic position just weeks before Sheila died as he was about to become President of Magnolia Bible College.  Later, in 1989, he did hire me as a faculty member at Magnolia.  And, then, he graciously released me from my contract in 1991 as we decided to move to Memphis upon learning of Joshua’s terminal genetic condition.

I have nothing but admiration, gratitude and love in my heart for Cecil May, Jr. And there is absolutely no “but….” I would add to that previous sentence.

I believe he falls in the G. C. Brewer “tradition” or style of thinking and ministry, and I know he would appreciate that categorization as he grew up at the Union Aveune Church of Christ in Memphis, TN. His teaching on grace follows Brewer’s (see my article grace and the Nashville Bible School), his openness to diversity on a range of questions from pragmatic methods to assembly practices (e.g., he doesn’t like singing during the Lord’s Supper but he does not believe it unscriptural) reflects Brewer’s own practical innovations (e.g., introducing multiple cups to the larger brotherhood) and views (e.g., special singing was not prohibited in the assembly in Brewer’s opinion), and his ecclesiological patternism follows Brewer’s own substantively reasoned perspectives (e.g., opposition to instrumental music).

I was reminded of my love for Cecil when he provided a clarification for Todd Deaver regarding Todd’s use of some of his past statements. Todd graciously published it on his website.

I have just listened to his recent lecture at Freed-Hardeman University entitled “Can Patterns Go To Far,” February 3, 2009 at 8:30am. While I would not agree with everything in his lecture (he briefly critiqued Come to the Table while surveying 1 Corinthians 11), I thought he modeled a kind but forthright gentleness in his presentation.  His conclusion was particularly on point and provided a broad common ground for discussion and agreement between (to use the terminology in play at Todd Deaver’s website) progressives and traditionalists.  Below is the last three minutes of his lecture (my own transcription).

To lovingly strive to please God by seeking his pattern in Scripture and to endeavor to live by it is not legalism. Legalism is the notion that we can save ourselves by our own doing either by being correct enough, believing all the right things or being good enough, doing all the right things.

I read something every once in a while that seems to imply that the writer is absolutely certain that he knows everything there is to know and therefore he’s going to be saved because he’s absolutely right about everything. I wish I were that certain about everything I know. I’ve already learned a few things I thought I knew that I realized I was wrong about. And I obviously think that whateverI think I know now is right or I wouldn’t think it anymore.  [Laughter] But I’ve had occasion to learn a few things later and point out somethings that bear on things that I’m not able to be absolutely certain.  Somebody has called me an agnostic over that. I prefer to say that I have a little bit of epistemological humility. Maybe that’s the same thing, but I like the second phrase a little bit better.

And I know that I’m not good enough. You may not know that I’m not good enough, but I know that I’m not good enough to be declared on that basis. We all have sinned. The good news of the gospel is that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scripture. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.  With his stripes we are healed. We are not required to be perfectly right or perfectly righteous. We are required to be faithful.  We are saved by grace through faith.

The existence of divinely authorized patterns does not deny the gospel of grace. None of us is perfect either in our actions or in our standards. None of us, some of us are further along in the maturing process than others. Some of us live more correctly by the patterns than others do. Some have had more opportunities to learn than others.  But we’re not saved because we perfectly follow the patterns of Scripture. We are saved by the sacrifice of Christ through our faith in him.

However, patterns for life and conduct in the assembly and outside of it tell us how our Lord would have us to live. When we recognize, listen to this, and remember this if you don’t remember anything else that I said today, when we recognize that he has saved us by his death, when we believe the Scripture is his own revelation of himself and his will, and when in gratitude we search the Scriptures for his will for us in order to conform to it as we understand it and can, that’s not legalism. That’s faith working through love.  Thank you and God bless you.


“Pattern,” as Cecil pointed out earlier in his lecture, is a slippery word.  I believe in patterns.  I certainly think Christ is our pattern and I believe the gospel regulates both our assemblies and life (see chapter seven in A Gathered People or some of my previous posts on the topic).  The devil is in the details, precise definitions and hermeneutical methods.  

But the larger point, and more important one, is where Cecil ended his lecture.  It is not legalism to seek patterns or to live by patterns. It is legalism to use those patterns in such a way that they undermine salvation by grace through faith.

Thank you, Cecil, for your life, magnamity and gracious spirit. 

May God continue to use you and bless you, my friend.

P.S. The substance of the lecture is also available in a PDF file here.

27 Responses to “Patterns and Legalism: Commenting on an FHU Lecture”

  1.   dannydodd Says:

    Thank you for this post John Mark.

    Brother May has influenced many of us with his legacy of grace.

  2.   Todd Deaver Says:

    I was there for that lecture, and after his conclusion I went away scratching my head and thinking, “That’s what I believe.” I hope to get some further elaboration on those last statements later on.

    Just before that lecture I met bro. May for the first time, and visited with his lovely wife for awhile. I agree with your description of him and hope to get to know him better myself.

    His statement as it stands certainly does provide a basis for common ground and deserves serious consideration by both “progressives” and “traditionalists.”

  3.   dagwudandblondy Says:

    Cecil has influenced me as well. I really appreciate what you’ve written here. I discovered that his lecture was online today and planned on listening tomorrow. Thanks for the preview.

    Dagwud (Richard May)

  4.   lesjr Says:

    Cecil and my father, Les Ferguson, Sr. have been my greatest influences in multiple ways. I have been so richly blessed by my familiy’s life-long association with the May’s…

  5.   Bobby Valentine Says:

    I have always appreciated C Jr. Still do. Thank you for sharing his thoughts. And as one who had a hand in AGP I believe in patterns too … I recently blogged about the “exodus pattern” too.

    Bobby V

  6.   paula Says:

    It is because of good men like Brother May (and others like him) that unity is possible in the brotherhood.

    Thanks for sharing.

  7.   Alan Scott Says:

    John Mark,

    Brother May’s last comments remind me of C.S. Lewis’ observation in Mere Christianity on Pride. May’s humility in his presentation seems reflective of Lewis’ observation, “In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that – and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison – you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.

    “That raises a terrible question. How is it that people who are quite obviously eaten up with Pride can say they believe in God and appear to themselves very religious? I am afraid it means they are worshipping an imaginary God. They theoretically admit themselves to be nothing in the presence of this phantom God, but are really all the time imagining how He approves of them and thinks them far better than ordinary people: that is, they pay a pennyworth of imaginary humility to Him and get out of it a pound’s worth of Pride towards their fellow-men. I suppose it was of those people Christ was thinking when He said that some would preach about Him and cast out devils in His name, only to be told at the end of the world that He had never known them. And any of us may at any moment be in this death-trap. Luckily, we have a test. Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good – above all, that we are better than someone else – I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether….

    If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.”

    Our point of comparison is to God our Father.


  8.   Stan Says:

    I too have been blessed by brother May’s writings, and his balanced and fair views, and his kind spirit.

  9.   nick gill Says:

    I don’t mean to be rude or unkind, but I am very frustrated. I wasn’t there; perhaps the tone of the lecture conveyed more than the words themselves.

    But this sounds like just one more critique of those who are frustrated with patternism — those of us who are tired of being written out of the fait because we disagree with the approved pattern.

    It is not the progressives who are saying that their counterparts have left the faith.

    Many in Br. May’s audience will not have the slightest qualm with taking the step from ‘in gratitude searching the Scriptures’ for a pattern, to condemning and disfellowshipping those who do not find the same pattern.

    I see nothing in this lecture that suggests disapproval of such decisions.

    Is a teacher of Israel to be so highly commended for publicly affirming grace, even when his words will be used to defend the kind of patternism that is killing us?

  10.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Actually, most of the lecture suggested that many have taken patterns too far. He is a fairly moderate voice on patternism.

    The step you envision is not taken in the lecture itself. He wants to head off that step and discourage it though, as you note, many of his audience would not be predisposed to heed that warning.

    I think where the statement is most valuable is in the hermeneutical or epistemological humility. It is the recognition that though we might disagree about patterns and fail to keep patterns, there is grace through faith on the basis of what God has done in Christ.

    At the same time, it seems to me that there is nothing inappropriate about searching for patterns in Scripture as an offering of gratitude for what Christ has done. The problem is in the sort of patterns we create rather than discover in the text. But this is where hermeneutical humility must have its full weight.

    Perhaps we could hear the statement as a subtle backhand to patternists while seemingly rebuking those who think all patternists are legalists. The subtle backhand would be that avowed patternists of the traditional sort should apply that same epistemological humility to themselves.

  11.   Jay Guin Says:

    I was very impressed with an article Br. May had written in the Magnolia Messenger, and so drove to Montgomery several months ago to meet him.

    Suffice to say, the man is indeed a patternist but not a legalist — as he says himself. And the fight for the soul of the Churches of Christ is over legalism, not patternism.

    Therefore, I esteem Br. May very highly indeed. I esteem anyone who teaches, “But we’re not saved because we perfectly follow the patterns of Scripture. We are saved by the sacrifice of Christ through our faith in him.”

    Consider the courage of saying this at FHU, where the Bible department has publicly announced that instrumental music is a salvation issue. And consider the courage of saying this while the chairman of the Faulkner Bible Department.

    May God bless Cecil May Jr and give him many more years in his service.

  12.   nick gill Says:

    But John, they would be more likely to heed that warning if it came ONCE from Br. Cecil May than if it came 1000 times from Br. Nick Gill. He has earned the trust and respect of reasonable believers on both sides of the division.

    Br. May himself said that the most important words he said in this lecture are: “…when we recognize that he has saved us by his death, when we believe the Scripture is his own revelation of himself and his will, and when in gratitude we search the Scriptures for his will for us in order to conform to it as we understand it and can, that’s not legalism. That’s faith working through love.”

    Is anyone going to the FHU lectures who would do anything but heartily AMEN such a statement?

    I want to feel encouraged by this lecture — but I feel like he just gave the ultra-conservatives another quiver in their arrow. “I’m not a legalist! I’m just doing what Cecil May himself described!”

  13.   nick gill Says:

    I kinda walked before crawling there. “Arrow in their quiver” might make more sense.

  14.   Royce Says:

    Bro’ May does sound like a reasonable, gracious man. He is a “patternist” but not a “legalist”. I’ll take him at his word. The problem is when any individual finds the so called “pattern” the usual course is to measure every other brother by that template. I think all of you would agree that “patternists” are very, very rare who are satisfied to not bind others to their discovered pattern. Had you polled those in that listening audience there would have been little agreement on at least some of the details of what the NT pattern is. That fact presents a huge problem.

    He said God doesn’t require us to be right but He does require us to be “faithful”. Again, who can say what “faithful” is? Faithful to the perceived pattern, or to Christ?

    As to my salvation, Christ’s faithfulness is my only plea and ground of faith. What I percieve as faithfulness is far short of God’s righteousness. Many beleve Christ’s sacrifice took care of past sins and that from the water on we stay saved based on our faithfulness. Thank God his grace covers the ignorant.

    Because “faithfulness” cannot be conclusively defined, thousands of coC folks have gone to their graves not sure they were saved. But, because Christ was faithful they were saved anyway.


  15.   Joe Baggett Says:

    Well here is the problem; a pre-supposed idea. The pattern or blue print theology at least for the assembly or “work, worship, and organization” of the church is a pre-supposed idea. Let me suggest a better tool for shaping things; the character of God and his nature. Legalism is making and enforcing religious laws that contradict the character and nature of God. The pattern theology pre-supposes that God has one way for assemblies and the work worship and organization to be conducted. It also presumes that any pattern for doing church found in the scripture must be copied to enth degree to be pleasing for God rather than understanding any underlying principle or function. Then anything in scripture that even slightly resembles (and some taken completely out of context) a place or time or method that assemblies or church work occurred becomes an automatic law and line of fellowship with little further critical study. Secular history such as the memoirs of early church leaders (I.E Poly Carp, Clement, Justin Martyr) when it seems to agree with our conclusions is used to support them, but ignored when it does not. For example we like to use Clement of Alexandria as proof that the early Christians didn’t use instruments then we ignore his use of painting crosses on people’s foreheads and other things we would consider unscriptural. The scariest thing is that many sincere people such as the Pharisees thought they were doing what God wanted them to do by blindly adhering to and enforcing what they saw a s patterns and therefore subsequent religious laws. Do we really think that Jesus came to die so that we could have another set of religious laws where we would be asking whether or not God approves or is pleased with a solo or congregational singing, or Kitchens in the building, or instrumental music or any of the he many issues we continue to argue and divide over? There is a problem with trying to follow a pattern that is based more on presupposition rather than God’s character. I had always heard about how plain the blue print or the pattern was. Well when I was at ACU I decided to conduct a research project where I had 100 unchurched people who had almost no previous exposure to the Bible read it and write down their conclusions. The selection of people was very random and unbiased and very diverse by age, race, education, and socio-economic group. To make a long story short, no one saw the “pattern” or “blue print” for doing church. There are millions of educated people who read the Bible and don’t come up with a pattern theology for doing church. The other part of the study showed that education, background, culture, and race had more to with how people read the Bible than anything else; everyone has blinders and filters through which they read and interpret the Bible. The first part to breaking legalism is accepting this truth. The worst part about legalism as I defined it above it that most legalists are unwillingly to even think or consider there could be other interpretations or insight. This attitude is where a sincere on going search for the truth is over taken by the emotional need to be right on everything. Now the pattern for morality is a different ball of wax but I would suggest that we reexamine it also in the light of God’s nature and character. When we do I think we will realize that some things we thought that were against God’s character or “wrong”; are not and some things we thought were “ok” and not really against God’s character are some of things that his wrath burns against. For those of us who think we may be a legalist I would recommend John Fischer’s book “12 steps for a recovering Pharisee”. Patterns are not legalism as long as we are willing to challenge them with brutal honesty. I would also bring to light that MS and AL are two of the states where the churches of Christ have seen some of the most significant declines according to the latest numbers by 21st century Christian. When we lived there a year ago there were seven churches of Christ that closed down in a fifty mile radius. MBC and FHU have a heavy influence here.
    P.S JMH I loved your book “A Gathered People”.

  16.   Keith Brenton Says:

    I can understand nick’s frustration with patternism – when it’s taken to extremes; when it becomes more important than grace; when patterns are superimposed onto scripture when they are not actually there.

    Ultimately, even following Jesus as a pattern rather than a person leads to difficulties: He’s the Son of God, and we’re not. Patternism simply isn’t a sufficiently comprehensive hermeneutic.

  17.   John Mark Hicks Says:


    You are probably right. And this is, in fact, a good common ground, a starting point for conversation…and especially if the “Amen” would also include the epistemological humility though this is where the problem might really lie.

    One’s legalism will be defined by whether the pattern one perceives will become their faithfulness rather than trusting in the faithfulness of Christ, as Royce pointed out.

    I will be posting a few examples of patternists who are not legalists within the next week. It is not as rare as we might think, and it seems to me that here is where we can ackowledge some shared ground. We are saved by grace and not by perfect compliance with the pattern.

    I would agree with Joe that the character of God–and our conformity to God’s image–is a starting point; and Christ is our pattern in that specific, and his ministry is a pattern for the church. “Pattern” is a slippery, ambiguous word–but it does take on some definitive meaning in particular contexts. And this is, in part, where the discussion must lie in addition to the nature of grace through faith as the root of salvation rather than pattern-keeping.

    Thanks for the dialogue.

  18.   Joe Baggett Says:

    Taking patterns to the extreme? Well what is extreme? The Pharisees had a pattern for how far one could walk from their house on the Sabbath and whether someone could pull their Ox out of the ditch, Jesus told them they were wrong because they contradicted the nature of God. We argue over praise teams, instruments, women, power point and so on none of which have anything to do with the character and nature of God. Look at the definition of legalism is the comment above. A pattern can very easily be legalistic. You know Jesus never chastised the Pharisee’s effort to stick to the Law. The intentional to be “scriptural” is good, but can be very easily mis-guided. When they asked him is it lawful, he didn’t say well you shouldn’t want to try to follow the law. However he did correct their perspective when he asked if they understood that man was not made for the Sabbath and that he was Lord of the Sabbath. We would do ourselves well to listen to these words again. If you notice the additional laws or patterns that the Pharisees had come up with they were heavily shaped by their culture. Many of the patterns or laws we have come up with in the churches of Christ were shaped by our culture of white middle class piety. Whether a pattern is legalistic or not has a lot to do with how someone chooses to enforce a pattern in which they believe. Most of the brotherhood publications still print stories of those who are not following the patterns. If a church steps outside of accepted practice you will hear about it the Magnolia Messenger, the Gospel Advocate, the Firm Foundation, or any of the others but not Wineskins, Grace Centered or the Christian Chronicle. When you start drawing lines of fellowship and building institutions around patterns then they are on the road to becoming legalistic.

  19.   Jim Martin Says:

    John Mark,
    Thanks for posting this portion of Cecil’s message. He is a kind, gracious man who I am indebted to. I have always respected him and appreciated his spirit.

  20.   rich constant Says:

    just getting caught up john mark,

    well my brothers what does peace mean.

    is that something we do? or Expect?

    i learned something to day

    if will but pray…god just might enter in and give a little push…

    you know god is faithful too….

    we do have a mountain to move ya know….

    by the way john mark

    the widows mite was a little to tech.. for me 🙂

    although the concept of trustung in prayer to god is a matter of one’s perception of how real god is and his ability to transcend our perception of reality… 🙂

    so pray in full assurance and he will not give us a stone….

    blessings john mark and all

    supper great exchange….. TO ME.

    rich constant

  21.   Matthew Says:

    I missed the lectures this year, (moved), but I am thankful for the spirit that was delivered in his talk. Thank you for the review and the kind words. There should be more of this.

  22.   J D Says:

    I owe much of my spiritual growth during the important college years to Brother May. He is as he presents himself. Even when disagreeing with others on important theological points, he remembers that they are beloved of God and treats them with respect. He has my total respect.

  23.   Dell Kimberly Says:

    I had Brother May years ago as a teacher at Heritage Christian University, then IBC. He was always kind and considerate of all concerned. I learned many things from him. Perhaps the greatest was his ability to keep from passing judgement on the thoughts and ideas of others, even when those thoughts did not mirror his own.

  24.   Heath Says:

    Anyone who names a ministry after themselves speaks volumes about their pride.

  25.   Randall Says:

    I suppose it could have been called Church of Christ Ministries as it seems to be read mostly by folks with a CofC background and an interest in CofC issues; or perhaps Freed Hardeman Ministries as John Mark is a FHU graduate, but in either case that could be taken as claiming the posts reflect the general thinking of the CofC or FHU – and that might be objected to by some. Perhaps since the posts reflect the thinking of JMH it is appropriately named without being prideful at all. Simply truth in advertising.

  26.   rich constant Says:




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