When Patternism Subverts Grace

If the life and ministry of Jesus is our pattern, then we all fall woefully short.

Consequently, whether it is conforming our character to the image of Jesus or embodying the ministry of Jesus through the church, we all–individuals and congregations–need divine mercy since we all fall woefully short of the image of God in Jesus.

While I am a patternist, I am not a perfectionist in either ethics or ecclesiology. Not all patternists are perfectionists (or legalists). Patternism per se neither entails legalism nor perfectionism. If it does, then everyone who believes that we are called to conform to the image (pattern) of Jesus is either a legalist or a perfectionist or both.

Legalism arises when the quantity, level and progress of sanctifiction is made a condition of communion with God.  Libertinism (or antinomianism) appears when sanctification is so disconnected from faith (seeking and trusting God) that whether we seek sanctification or not is inconsequential.

Ecclesiological perfectionism is when the understanding and practice of a set of ecclesiological patterns are made conditions of communion with God such that without perfect or precise compliance to those patterns (however they are defined) there is no hope or promise of salvation. 

In contrast I would suggest that perfect or precise compliance to ecclesiological patternism–like ethical conformation to the pattern of the life of Jesus–is not a condition of communion. Rather it is a matter of sanctification as we are conformed more closely to the image of Christ, both corporately and individually. To more closely conform to an ecclesiological pattern (however that is concieved or defined) is a matter of communal sanctification. It is a process, not an event. As a process, sanctification will never be perfect or 100%.

At the same time such conformation is something that faith seeks because we want to be like Jesus. When we refuse to conform to what we know that is rebellion. Insubmissive (rebellious) faith is not faith since faith involves trusting in Jesus and submissively pursuing God’s will in our life however imperfectly we may do that.

Ecclesiological patternism subverts grace when perfect obedience to a set of patterns for the church becomes a test of fellowship or a condition of communion with God. Ecclesiological patternism then becomes ecclesiological perfectionism. I define “perfect obedience” as precisely meeting a set of criteria for ecclesiological practice which distinguish between the “faithful” and the “unfaithful” (thus “apostate” which amounts to a “different religion” [see Jay Guin’s assessment of Greg Tidwell’s use of this language]).  In this context our faithfulness, rather than the faithfulness of Jesus, counts as our righteousness and salvation; it demands perfect obedience in order to measure up to the standard–we keep the pattern or there is no hope! This kind of ecclesiological patternism stresses that if we are guilty in one point, we are guilty of the whole. If a congregation is missing one mark of a true church, then it is a false church. This is ecclesiological perfectionism.

So, for example, if the ecclesiological criteria include observing the Lord’s Supper every Sunday and only on Sunday, then “perfect obedience” would mean that only those who eat every Sunday and only on Sunday are faithful and everyone else is unfaithful (apostate).

Or, for example, if the ecclesiological criteria include singing a cappella, then “perfect obedience” would mean that only those who sang a cappella are faithful and everyone else is unfaithful (apostate).

Or, for example, if the ecclesiological criteria included the absence of the female voice except in singing, then “perfect obedience” would mean only those assemblies where women were silent are faithful and everyone else is unfaithful (apostate).

I would suggest–without debating the merits of the examples above as parts of a biblical pattern–that ecclesiological patternism belongs in the category of communal sanctification. It is a process of growth, maturation and progressive conformation to the image of God in Christ.  Consequently, it is not so much about who is faithful and unfaithful (that is, who complied with the precise conditions of the pattern and who did not) but about orientation, direction and the submissive nature of their faith and heart. Faithfulness and unfaithfulness is more about faith itself than the accumulaton of specific acts of obedience or failure.

Moreover, I would suggest that there are more important questions in ecclesiological patternism than the frequency of the Lord’s Supper or the nature of music in the public assembly.  If ecclesiological patternism means engaging a process of conformation to the image of Christ, then here are few more important dimensions of the “pattern” than frequency and music style. Such as:

  • relationship with the poor (the pursuit of mercy)
  • the communal use of funds for ministry
  • advocacy for the oppressed, marginalized and excluded (the pursuit of justice)
  • leadership models within the community of faith
  • relationship with enemies
  • opposition to suffocating traditionalism that hinders the kingdom of God
  • outreach to the sheep without a shepherd or the lost

What I know is that I fall woefully short of these Christological patterns in my own life and in my community. I cannot soothe my imperfections by noting how well or precisely I comply with other dimensions of the pattern (e.g., Lord’s Supper and singing). However, by grace through faith, God is working with and in me to transform me into Christ’s image.  I am in process and I am not perfect.  I am neither perfectly obedient nor do I obey perfectly.  On the contrary, I submit my will to the process of God’s sanctifying work through faith and God redeems me by his grace through faith.

Patternism subverts the grace of God when it makes conformation to the pattern (however defined) as a condition of communion rather than as the fruit of God’s sanctifying work among his people through faith. Grace through faith is the means by which we commune with God and our conformation to the pattern of God in Jesus through the power of God’s Spirit is the means by which we become more and more like him. We are saved by grace through faith and works (sanctification) is the fruit of that communion with God.

I do not offer this post as definitive or indubitable.  Rather, it is only my thinking at this moment. It is part of my own sanctification as I reflect on the situation of fellowship within Churches of Christ.  I have hopes that the “Grace Conversation” website may yet be productive of mutual understanding. My next post will include a few historical reflections of where we are now as opposed to where we were 100 years ago in relation to ecclesiological perfectionism.

[I first offered some of this kind of soteriological reflection in my 1992 “Grace, Works and Assurance: A Theological Framework.]

15 Responses to “When Patternism Subverts Grace”

  1.   Todd Deaver Says:

    Thanks for these excellent observations, John Mark. Your writings have helped me immensely in my own journey out of legalism. I appreciate you, brother.

  2.   randall Says:

    I would like to echo Todd Deaver’s comment above. Amen and thanks John Mark.

  3.   Keith Brenton Says:

    My current belief is that we should not settle for a less-than-perfect pattern – the perfect pattern, of course, would be Jesus. The church is not intrinsically perfect; she is made perfect by Jesus. If her youth or one city where she lived or a best guess at her habits in all the plces she resided is intended to be a pattern to be followed precisely, then she is surely to be imitated only to the same degree as Paul (“as I imitate Christ”).

    I think we put the trailer ahead of the pickup when we think we will become more like Christ by picking one particular example of church or Osterizing an amalgam of several and imitating what we think they did on Sunday mornings – especially since Jesus is a 24/7 messiah … and example.

  4.   Royce Says:

    Either Jesus Himself is our righteousness or we have none, in regard to our justification (one part of salvation). Sinners are never accepted and approved by God based on anything they do but rather upon the basis of what Christ has done.

    Until we in the churches of Christ get the doctrine of justifcation right little else will be right. Only when we put our whole trust in Jesus and daily surrender to His will above all else are we truely disciples.

    Thanks for the great post.

    Royce Ogle

  5.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I certainly believe Jesus is the pattern for the church. Hence forth, the church should look, smell, feel, act, etc… just like Jesus did in his life.

    Unfortunately, as hard as I try to be just like Jesus, as long as there is someone like me in the church then the church will fall short of embodying the life of Jesus Christ.

    God have mercy upon us!

    Grace and peace,


  6.   rich Says:

    john mark
    i have been reading your paper on grace and assurance.
    so far 2.5 pages…
    to me, today anyway, rom 3 speaks of god’s faithfulness to his word of promised blessings,(grace by any other name) the gospel of his Christ, the bringing forth of the mystery that had been hid from the creatures of creation, so that by the scriptures we might have hope…a.d.scriptures and old law fullfiled by his son.the bring forth of a new covenent.
    the interaction between god and his creation’s “SIN” needed to be delt with in such a way as to not compramise in any way the fathers or the sons intristic righteousness…
    in rom 3.20-31 i find that we talk, and most, base the rightiousness being spoken of as an effect of what god accomplished in our lord if we but believe…

    this is true

    although i do not think that is exactly right, what the word is speaking of in that place…
    i believe, romans 3.
    speaks of an accomplishment by god, proving him to be intrinsically faithfully rightious in dealing with sin (3.4)and death because of sin. another word for one of his charactoristics expressed in dut.34…? (lord spoke the meaning of his name to moses).
    and the mode for this expression was his son who being part of the god head is also intrinsically faithfully righteous…
    at this point I would ask how does god die…
    answer by takeing advantage of a law that was weak,and not made for a righteous man ( Rom 8.3-4) also made to be sin wlile doing a righteous act for his father to conferm him as being intrinsically faithfully righteous.
    rom 4-11 explains the ripple effect of this chapter…

    needlelss to say i have a problem with imputed righteousness.
    we are called to believe in the god of the old cov.
    when the gospel is preached.
    god did it.
    he is faithful.
    if i believe the god of the father’s then i come to his christ who exibited redemptive righteous faith in his father for the creature’good, god’s intent, life through righteous faith his son’s righteous death an act of love…rom5.18
    on judgement read rom 9.30-33 on righteous faith rom.10

    so there ya go john mark blessings my brother

  7.   rich Says:

    above mistake b.c. scriptures opps

  8.   rich Says:

    so….john mark
    speaking to your post…
    who is capeable of judging the thoughts and intent of the hart of another…
    our corperate position i would think is to bring to light the ideal aim of the body of the lord,in bringing many sons to glory….
    through eph 4.8-15

  9.   preacherman Says:

    AMEN! 🙂
    Great post brother!

  10.   Dell Kimberly Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on this and other matters. I appreciate all you stand for. May God continue to use you in his kingdom.

  11.   K. Rex Butts Says:


    I just wanted to leave a word of encouragement to you. I know some take your books and name and tout them in a way that would suggest you are an apostate. But those of us who have had the priviledge of being taught by you know the truth, know your deep love for God, and your desire to be a faithful witness for Jesus. We appreciate all you have done in the past and all you continue to do for God and his people.

    Grace and peace,


  12.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I do appreciate all the kind words. Pray that we may all maintain a gracious spirit as we seek God and dialogue with others. Thanks!

  13.   Terrell Lee Says:

    Well said!

  14.   Kenneth Sublett Says:

    In making sermons and songs to replace those directly commanded by Jesus Christ, it is apparent that the modern church is neither ekklesia or synagogue. That makes it easy for the ANTI-patternist patternists to wax hostile against the patternists. The CORE of the bad apple is of course the use of instruments.

    No one understanding ekklesia or synagogue could even hallucinate (while in musical ecstasy) singing, clapping and playing instruments. Yet, John Mark would call it patternism when he would treat as scum anyone who tried it when he is delivering HIS message. For those who missed Old Testament, Christ ordained the Qahal, synagogue or church in the wilderness AFTER the fall from grace because of musical idolatry at Mount Sinai.

    That never changed as the spiritual people enjoyed a blessed patternism defined as the Holy Convocation and missed by everyone apparently when Jesus included and excluded the CENI in the Great Commission. Both the Jews and Gentiles were well prepared because the synagogue was popular for those who refused to go to the always musical “new style worship.”

    Acts 15:21 For Moses of old time hath in every city
    …..them that PREACH him,
    …..being READ in the synagogues every sabbath day.

    The synagogue which quarantined the GODLY people from the cursed tribe of Levi turned over to worship the starry host was.
    Inclusive of REST, Reading and Rehearsing the Word: that which a DISCIPLE does in A School of The Bible
    Exclusive of vocal or instrumental rejoicing. There had to be a rule to prevent some simple soul from singing and clapping in Bible class.

    From Genesis to Revelation you will never find God’s spiritual people “singing with instrumental accompaniment” as a worship service.
    You will never find instruments used in the Bible which does not mark those “rising up to play” in Amos and Isaiah.
    You will find no church father who did not know that there was no rationale for instruments BECAUSE they understood the meaning of ekklesia or synagogue which never had a praise service. They fully understood what Satan and modern medical science knows: that music appeals ONLY to the flesh and the Laded Burden and The SELF-pleasure used by Paul points specificially to all of the performances of rhetoric, singing, playing or drama. These are all definitions of a HYPOCRITE: so says Christ in Ezekiel 33.

    The Book of Enoch story is repeated in at least three dozen versions including the church fathers. A few say that the musical idolatry at Mount Sinai is where God PUT A MARK ON IT. When they PROFANED the Sabbath the word translates “to play the flute, steal people’s inheritance, pollute or prostitute.” It is also used of “Lucifer being cast as profane out of heaven.

  15.   reyjacobs Says:

    From what I’ve heard, I would say that Pattern theology comes from Hebrews 8-9 where Moses is shown a “pattern” in the mount for the building of the tabernacle (8:5) and the “divine service” (9:1). The saying in Hebrews 9:1 “Then verily the first covenant had ASLO ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary” is misinterpreted as if it meant they had it as we also have it rather than they had it in addition to what all else they had. And then it is ASSUMED that we have a “pattern” just as Moses did. But Moses’ “pattern” results in and is contained in long detailed chapters describing exactly how to build the tabernacle and perform the worship in it. Our “pattern” is ferreted out of disjointed passages that aren’t even talking about worship and is glued together ad hoc.


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