Patterns, Legalism and Grace: J. D. Thomas

 Patternism and a healthy theology of grace are not mutually exclusive. 

previous post noted that Alexander Campbell did not make his particular understanding of the apostolic pattern a test of fellowship. The “ancient order” was not a soteriological category for him. Rather, it was a  matter of communal sanctification, a matter of growth, development and maturation. Consequently, he regarded other communities of faith than his own Christian.  What would “all that we have written on the unity of Christians on apostolic grounds” mean, he asked, “had we taught that all Christians in the world were already united in our own community?” (Millennial Harbinger 1837).

In this post I turn my attention to J. D. Thomas (1910-2004), Professor of Bible at Abilene Christian University for thirty-three years. He is the author of probably the most significant hermeneutical manual for Churches of Christ–We Be Brethren (1958).  It assumes (practically everyone assumed it in the 1950s), explains and applies the command, example, and inference (CEI) hermeneutic in some detail. The issue the illicited the book was the raging controversy surrounding institutionalism.

Between 1950-1970 about 10% of Churches of Christ banded together as non-institutional congregations. The issues are both broad and narrow. Broadly, these congregations rejected the cultural assimiliation of Churches of Christ, as they saw it, into the mainstream of American denominationalism. Narrowly, they opposed the use of church funds (collected in the church treasury for kingdom work) to support human institutions (incoporated entitites like schools, children’s homes, mission boards [e.g., sponsoring congregations], or any parachurch organization). To these churches the support of such human institutions to do the work of the church is analogous to the support of missionary societies to do the work of the church.

Churches of Christ were generally agreed upon an apostolic pattern in the 1940s:  five acts of worship (a capella singing, praying, teaching, Lord’s supper, and giving), congregational polity with a plurality of elders and deacons, silence of women in the assembly except for singing, etc. This was supported by the standard hermeneutic: command, example and inference (CEI). But the institutional controversy raised specific questions about how to use church funds and how to apply the received hermeneutic.

Thomas defends patternism, explains the hermeneutic and applies it to institutional issues. Roy E. Cogdill (1907-1985), one of the premier defenders of noninstitutionalism in the 1950s-1960s, reviewed Thomas’ book in 1959. That review, a series of articles, is available here. For Thomas, the NT contains a pattern–“a teaching that is binding or required of Christians today” and the “pattern principle” is “what bound the New Testament characters binds us, and what did not bind them does not bind us.”  And this pattern is “established by command, necessary inference, and example” (p. 254).

Thomas provided guidelines for how to apply the hermeneutic. His book has a glossary to define terms such as “generic authority,” “incomplete command,” “hypothesis of uniformity,” “hypothesis of universal application,” “excluded specific,” “overlapping classification,”  and “expedient.”  Sounds fairly technical, huh? Well, that is the point–Thomas took the standard CEI hermeneutic and gave it a “scientific” formulation in hopes of adjudicating the dispute between institutionalists and noninstitutionalists. My question has become–is reading the Bible for discipleship really that difficult?  See my series on “It Ain’t That Complicated.”

At the same time, Thomas is very concerned that the debate between institutionalists and noninstitutionalists reflects–on both sides–a deficient theology of grace. “Our real problem, and the place where we have become ‘bogged down’,” Thomas writes, “is in our tendencies to Legalism” (p. 119).  And “we should admit that we have all had Legalistic tendencies throughout the whole Brotherhood in tim past” (p. 116).  Hear his plea (239, 241):

The man who has not yet realized what it means that the Christian religion is a non-Legalistic, grace-faith system has not yet been able to be thrilled by its true meaning and beauty…When we truly realize the relatinship of faith and owrks in the Christian system–that we work because of our faith and to complete it, and not because of our relation to the Saviour, we find motivation for working even ‘beyond our power,’ yet with the greatest happiness and joy as children of the Most High God!…Matters such as ‘Love the Lord with all your heart,’ and ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ and ‘Christ liveth in me,’ cannot be reduced to little precise legal obligations.  Too many of us have thought of Christianity in too small terms and we have therefore failed to see its majesty and immensity and transcendent grandeur…All of us who have been in the church very long have been guilty of some Legalistic inclinations….none of us are ‘without sin.’ We have all no doubt argued strongly for points that we actually were not able to clearly prove to others. Perhaps there has been a degree of selfishness in the most of us, in being critical of the views of others without the ability to show clearly whereiin we were right. Tolerance, humility and a greater love for the Lord and for each other are in order if we want to solve our problems (and if we want to be saved). We must appreciate the fact that WE do BE BRETHERN, and that the tie that binds us in Christian unity is more important than our opinions.

 J. D. Thomas once told me that he was significantly influenced by the teaching and writing of K. C. Moser and that Moser’s understanding of grace was exactly the same as R. C. Bell, another of Thomas’ heroes in the faith and a primary representative of the Tennessee Tradition.  In fact,  Thomas once recalled that both R. C. Bell and G. C. Brewer were among the few who had a “good comprehension of grace” in mid-20th century Churches of Christ (Firm Foundation, “Law and Grace (2) 100 [23 August 1983] 579). And, I have argued, that it was partly the teaching of R. C. Bell and J. D. Thomas at Abilene Christian University that paved the way for a shift in the Texas Tradition toward a Tennessee (e.g., G. C. Brewer, K. C. Moser, James A. Harding) understanding of grace (see Thomas, The Biblical Doctrine of Grace). This shift, along with the popularity of Moser’s writings, led to “The Man or The Plan” controversy in the early 1960s. [As an aside, Harding College had actually kept this grace tradition alive through the teaching of J. N. Armstrong, Andy Ritchie, F. W. Mattox, and ultimately Jimmy Allen; and Harding College Press actually printed some of Moser’s writings in the 1950s.]

My point is that though J. D. Thomas was a good patternist–a defender of patternism and CEI as a sound hermeneutic–he nevertheless preached a healthy theology of grace. The two are not mutually exclusive.

The question to pursue, however, is when does patternism subvert the gospel of grace in such a way that it actually becomes a legalism.  That question belongs to a future post.

13 Responses to “Patterns, Legalism and Grace: J. D. Thomas”

  1.   rich Says:



    blessings all

  2.   Joe Baggett Says:

    You asked a good question. When does patternism subvert the Gospel? Well one must answer first what it the Gospel? To many the Gospel has been a method for doing church. The format for assemblies was just as important as Christ dying on the cross. Also we spent exorbitant amounts of time establishing and enforcing these patterns. Sometimes I think we have come to worship the Bible instead of the God who is trying to reveal himself through it. I will say this now so that it is clear; the emerging generations both in outside of traditional organized religion reject empty religious dogma in all forms. The intention to “stick to the Bible is good” but the idea, that we have most of it figured out is repulsive to them. For people in the generation of JD Thomas “patterns” were required for everything for truth to exist not just in religion but in broader secular society. During this era most scientific circles thought they had it figured out as well. Let’s look at the “patterns” established by CENI because most of them are very inconsistent. If the patterns can not be tied back to the work on the cross then they subvert the Gospel, especially when we enforce them just as we would a religious law. Here is my test. Jesus suffered and died on the cross so that …..and fill in the blank. Let’s give it a try. Jesus suffered and died on the cross so that women would never speak but only sing in an assembly? Nope can’t make the connection. Jesus suffered and die died on the cross so that no one would ever play an instrument in an assembly? Nope can’t make the connection. Jesus suffered and die died on the cross so that we would overcome sin and become like the nature of God. Yep I make the connection. You see any pattern must tie back to the cross and what God is like in his nature because that is where all other truth comes from. I am sorry but CENI is one of the worst and most inconsistent methods for approaching scripture though it was well intentioned to “just stick to the Bible”. The idea that large expensive church buildings (which there is no CENI to support, in fact the strong example is to meet in homes, or in free public places but we ignored this because it did not fit in to the religious landscape of 1800-1950) are authorized but instruments are not is ludicrous. CENI and related approaches to scriptures are so engrained in peoples head they don’t even know they doing it. People are unwillingly to use another more consistent hermeneutic if it authorizes something previously outlawed by another hermeneutic. This is not a search of the truth but the emotional security of being right! The worst thing from that it taught people there was only one way to look at the Bible in order to have truth. Someone had to be absolutely right and the other completely wrong for truth to exist.

  3.   Terrell Lee Says:

    Patternism goes awry when we elevate it to the point that it becomes critical to our hermeneutic for interpreting all texts, sort of like students who become “chiasmus crazy” and keep looking for a chiasmus until they “find” it and then insist that the text must be interpreted based on their new “discovery.” The assumption seems to be that there has to be a chiasmus somewhere if we just look hard enough.

    For example, consider what evolved in the “traditional” interpretation of 2 Jn. 9 and the “doctrine of Christ.” The “doctrine of Christ” proponents seem to be somewhat “pattern passionate,” and once the pattern is “discovered” one is not allowed to veer to the left or right without facing severe judgment. The assumption seems to be that if we look hard enough we’ll find a non-negotiable pattern.

    Thanks John Mark. Your blogs are always helpful. Remember years ago when several of us sat for an hour or two at a time and “instantly messaged” one another, perhaps the precurser to blogging? This is so much sweeter.

  4.   Johnny Melton Says:

    CENI as an hermeneutical system was not developed by proponents of the Stone-Campbell Movement. It is at least as old as the Westminster Confession of Faith drawn up in 1646 (and those divines would claim that it is rooted in Apostolic practice). CENI was a means of evaluating practices that either had been adopted within Catholicism or Anglianism or could potentially be adopted. As such, it is not altogether unuseful. The rub comes when it is applied without theological reflection. One aspect of theological reflection has to be “what relationship does any particular act or teaching have with the cross,” but there are other considerations that might be addressed as well. Another issue relates to the identification of those things that are matters of indifference (the “adiaphora”). Most fighting and splitting has been over adiaphora–it was the case at Corinth and at Rome, and it remains the case today. No other hermeneutical system, to my knowledge, resolves all of the problems that confront us. That is why a healthy dose of epistemological modesty, on the one hand, and a thorough commitment to the gospel of grace and mercy on the other, are essential elements of any quest for Christian unity.

  5.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Perhaps another question could simply be when and in what ways do we subvert the gospel of grace (period). Patternism could be one way, though, as you have shown, it does not automatically subvert grace. However, I do not need to be a patternist to subvert grace. It seems that whenever we place the burden and confidence of our salvation upon ourselves, we subvert the gospel of grace.

    Grace and peace,


  6.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Rex, I think that point is on target. There are many ways to subvert grace. I want to ask in coming post exactly how patternism can do that at times since I am focused on patternism as a topic. But there are many other ways to subvert grace, including assuming a license to sin as per Gal. 5.

  7.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Joe, I do appreciate your concerns about patternism. I see the dangers, and I, too, want christological and theological grounding for patterns. I have previously argued for such and will again in this series…when I get there. 🙂

  8.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Johnny and Terrell, my good friends, I appreciate your points. They are good reminders from a couple of “old” IM buddies. 🙂

  9.   K. Rex Butts Says:


    You mean grace is not freedom to live however we want? 🙂


  10.   Royce Says:

    Patternism or any other “‘ism” subverts the gospel and its claims when people make those things essential for salvation or to keep it.

    The new covenant, signed in the blood of Jesus, is eternal and He is the strength of it. Though he may try, Satan and all his imps can’t thwart God’s plan of redemption.

    Paul’s harsh language to the folks in Galations who were trying to make circumcision a test of devotion to Christ leads me to think anyone who adds to the gospel is likely guilty of the same sin.


  11.   rich Says:

    john mark
    what did paul tell timothy, concerning the charactor that manifests through the conduct of of the one envolved in the gospel, the power of god through christ”s faithfullness.

    1 tim 1:5….

    and when we are as humbled as paul must have been on the road.and overcome by the mercy of god through his son for him. just maybe when we deeply understand the extreem of the act of the cross the righteous act of redempshion…
    just maybe someday some how when i get upset i will be able to say i got angry and did not sin…

    not alot of time now

    peace love and joy from a clean con. and abounding love to everyone….

    a personal imparative to help with the indicative of the ethic of love expressed in the assembly.


  12.   rich Says:


    i think that is the pattern that would be a GOD GIVEN GOOD.



  13.   John King Says:

    John Mark,

    I too must concur that blogging/commenting is better than the old IM chat room meeting we had years ago! I was telling my son-in-law about those “old days” earlier this week.

    Thank you for stirring our thinking.

    John King

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