How we read the Bible in churches of Christ with John Mark Hicks

How should we read and understand the Bible? Wes McAdams interviews John Mark Hicks about different ways churches of Christ have interpreted the Bible, either using a “blueprint” approach focused on patterns for the church or a more theological approach centered on God’s story and identity.

They discuss key biblical concepts like reading whole books for context rather than proof-texting, seeing Scripture as intended to form Christlike character more than provide ecclesiological details, and grounding unity in the core gospel story. Concepts of a “blueprint hermeneutic” versus a “theological hermeneutic” are explained as ways churches have viewed biblical authority. McAdams and Hicks also touch on church history, the risks and benefits of both hermeneutical approaches, and the importance of Christ-centered unity.

John Mark Hicks has taught full-time in higher education among Churches of Christ since 1982 and recently retired from his position as Professor of Theology at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. He has taught in 40 states and 22 countries around the world. He has authored, co-authored, edited, or contributed to 47 books as well as contributing to both academic and popular journals. His experience gives a helpful perspective on both the historical and hermeneutical questions addressed in this episode.


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Transcript (Credit: Beth Tabor)

WES: Welcome to the Radically Christian Bible Study Podcast. I’m your host, Wes McAdams. Here we have one goal: Learn to love like Jesus. Today we’re going to be talking about churches of Christ, the history of churches of Christ and the future of churches of Christ, particularly how we read the Bible, how we read and understand and apply scripture to our lives, to the way that we do church, to the way that we try to love like Jesus. 

Our guest today is John Mark Hicks, who has taught full‑time in higher education among churches of Christ since 1982 and recently retired from his position as professor of theology at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. He’s taught in 40 states and 22 countries around the world. He has authored, co‑authored, edited, or contributed to 47 books, as well as contributing to both academic and popular journals. He is married to Jennifer and shares five living children and six grandchildren with her. I know that you’re going to appreciate the things that John Mark Hicks has to share with us and his perspective on how we read scripture and maybe how we can read scripture better. 

I want to begin today by reading Philippians 2:1‑8, because I think this captures how we ought to read scripture. Paul says, “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” 

Like this passage, I hope that this entire conversation will help all of us learn to love like Jesus. John Mark Hicks, welcome to the podcast, Brother.

JOHN MARK: Wow, it’s great to be here. Glad to have this opportunity. Thank you.

WES: Well, I sure appreciate it. I appreciate the work that you do, and I appreciate you making time for this conversation. I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. I suspect that most of the audience of this podcast is probably associated with churches of Christ, or has been associated with churches of Christ at one point, or at least familiar with churches of Christ, but that may not be the case for a lot of people. But you have a unique understanding of our history within churches of Christ, so for those who may or may not be aware of the history of churches of Christ, what are we? Where did we come from? What is the Restoration Movement that we’re a part of? I would love a short history lesson for both those inside and outside of our fellowship.

JOHN MARK: Well, in general terms, we come out of the Great Awakening period of the 1810s, 1820s, 1830s, and our particular interest, in terms of origination, was ‑‑ we were ‑‑ our leaders at that moment were put up ‑‑ put off, I should say, by the divisions among Christians, and so they were interested in both uniting Christians and purifying Christianity. So both of those things were going on, and the way in which they thought that would be best done would be to restore the ancient order of the New Testament, to restore the church, you might say, to bring it back to its pure status, and then that point was to try to unite Christians. That was the goal, to unite Christians through restoring the ancient order for the sake of evangelizing the world. Those three things are part of the matrix: unity, restoration of the ancient order, and evangelism, or mission, revival. 

And so that group originated in the 1810s, 1820s, led by Barton W. Stone, Alexander and Thomas Campbell. They united ‑‑ those two groups united in 1832, and we became kind of one movement at that point, a movement that then divided in different ways over the next century, but the emphasis of churches of Christ, in particular, was, most of all, on the restoration aspect. We didn’t neglect the other two. We were still concerned about unity. We were still concerned about evangelism and mission, but restoration became kind of the major motif, the concern for the purity of the church, the concern for following the Bible and doing what the Bible says and being the church of the New Testament. And so that history, which emerges particularly as churches of Christ in the 1880s, 1890s, and into the 20th century, is what most people would know when they saw a sign on the side of a building, “churches of Christ” or “church of Christ.” 

It would be that group, the conservative group, the group that wanted to conserve in the sense of preserving the ancient order of the New Testament and to continue to practice that in a faithful way. Still concerned about unity, still concerned about evangelism, but that’s what you’re going to find in most churches of Christ when you walk through their door. You’re going to find them wanting to be the church of the New Testament and to be called Christians and not by any other name, not known by any other denomination, but to just be Christians, and that’s kind of the simple version of our origin.

WES: Yeah. It’s interesting to me how seldom people ‑‑ or at least, in my experience, when I was growing up, especially ‑‑ always within churches of Christ, but sometimes there was maybe a denial that those were our roots. You know, It was almost like we wanted to assume we just kind of sprang from nothing and that there was no history, or even just an ignorance of ‑‑ a lack of knowledge of that history, where we came from.

I still remember the first time I read Thomas Campbell’s 13 propositions ‑‑ Declaration and Address, I think, is what that was a part of. But those 13 propositions, to this day, I mean, they resonate with me, I mean, deeply, primarily because, as you pointed out, his desire for unity, to say, hey, listen, these other things may or may not be wrong, but regardless of whether they’re right or wrong, we want to find the commonality. We want to find the very explicit things in scripture and unite around those things. And if you have other opinions, that’s fine; you can keep having those other opinions, but we’re not going to bring that into the fellowship of, or the communion of, the saints so that it doesn’t divide us. And I thought, wow, if we could really get back to and tap into that ‑‑ because even though that was our origin, to your point, we’ve sort of emphasized parts of that movement or that mentality, that vision, over other aspects of it.

JOHN MARK: Yes, and it’s a difficult balance. It’s not very simple to balance those things, and we do have a tendency, as human beings, to emphasize one over the other, or, in particular situations, to emphasize one over the other. But I think that original goal that was a part of the Declaration and Address in 1809, those 13 propositions ‑‑ I resonate with those still, as well. I might nuance them differently here or there, but, in general, yes, I want to be a follower of Jesus. And Jesus is the one who is the center of scripture, and I want to follow Jesus and I want to unite with all followers of Jesus, and I want to be a person who makes disciples of those who are not followers of Jesus. Those emphases are still good and still important for any community of believers.

WES: Yeah, amen. You wrote a book, and this is maybe the first time that you and I really interacted, was right after you wrote your book Searching for the Pattern, and I even wrote an endorsement of that book. I would love for us to talk a little bit about just the ideas in that book. You talk about a blueprint hermeneutic versus a theological hermeneutic, and really highlight how, within churches of Christ, that blueprint hermeneutic has really been the way that we have read scripture. So kind of walk us through what is that and what have been the results of that hermeneutic within churches of Christ.

JOHN MARK: Wow, we don’t have enough time for all that, but we’ll give it a try. I think it goes to your point about knowing history, knowing our origins. Just like with any family, it’s important to know your family of origin because that shapes you. It raises particular questions for you. It forms you in certain ways that you’re not even aware. Well, when we go back to the origins of the restoration, what we see is a practice or a particular way of reading the Bible that we did not originate. It was a way of reading the Bible that came from the reformed tradition, or from Calvin and Zwingli, and even the Anabaptist movement, and it’s a tradition that says when we read the Bible, we search for the marks of the church. We search for the blueprint that will tell us what makes a true church and what makes a false church, and that that true church/false church is found in a blueprint that is embedded in the document itself. It’s not there explicitly. I mean, we don’t have a list of five acts of worship or even a list of five steps of salvation, but we believe because this is the word of God, and the word of God is to regulate us. It’s called the regulative principle. It goes back to the 16th century reformation. 

So Scripture regulates us, and it regulates us in a specific way so that we search the Bible to find the specificity, the specifics, the particular acts that form the blueprint, so it’s not there in Scripture but we believe it’s embedded in Scripture. And so Campbell, for example, in talking about restoring the church, used the phrase “restoring the ancient order,” and the ancient order is in the New Testament; it’s just not in the New Testament in one place. It’s scattered throughout the New Testament, so you have to search the whole New Testament and decide what belongs to the ancient order and what doesn’t. Is it required or is it not? Is it expedient? So we have to make all these decisions about what the order means, what it contains. 

And so, when we’re searching for a pattern like that, and the pattern is not explicit on ‑‑ you know, listed in the text as a pattern, we have to construct the pattern. We construct the blueprint out of the text as we try to make sense of what was that ancient order, and, therefore, how do we become the true church or how do we become an authentic church that is faithful to the order described in the New Testament? And so the blueprint approach is to read the Bible, discern the elements that are required, then construct a pattern or construct a blueprint that we might then reproduce in order to be the New Testament Church. 

I hope that’s a fair representation of it. That’s what I grew up believing. It’s what I grew up teaching. It’s been a part of our heritage in churches of Christ for over a hundred years, and some particular methods of doing that, like command, example, inference ‑‑ necessary inference, which goes back to at least the 1860s and the ’70s to be stated in exactly that form.

WES: Yeah. Well, and I think what’s so interesting. As you pointed out, there’s so many assumptions that are involved in that ‑‑ sort of that way of reading scripture, and, first of all, is that we’re assuming that that’s the intention of the biblical authors. We’re assuming that that’s what they were trying to do, that’s what Luke was intending to do when he wrote the book of Acts; he was intending to describe the perfect, ideal church and that this is how everyone needs to do church from now on. I think it also assumes that the primary purpose of the New Testament is to teach us how to do church, and by that, we mean what to do in the Sunday assembly, what the governance of the local congregation should be, and there’s very little application of that way of thinking to the rest of life. The other days ‑‑ six days of the week, there’s very little application of that.

For instance, we don’t assume that there must be a command, example, and necessary inference on whether or not we should watch television or whether or not we should drive a car or whether or not we should ‑‑ we don’t assume that there’s a pattern, to that extent, for how we do everyday life. We assume that the primary purpose of the New Testament is to teach us what to do on Sundays and how to govern the church, and, really, that’s a pretty big leap, and I would ‑‑ now, looking back at it, I would question, is that really the intention of the biblical authors, is to primarily focus on what we do? Now, that’s not to say that what we do on Sunday or the governance of the church isn’t important or that we shouldn’t draw those conclusions from Scripture, but we are making some really big assumptions. And I think that bigger assumption, that God sort of has this code ‑‑ you used the word “embedded” in the text, that it isn’t on the surface, it isn’t explicit, that you’re just supposed to put together the code, you’re supposed to put together these puzzle pieces and figure out for yourself what that means and assuming that we’re all going to come to the same conclusions about that.

JOHN MARK: Yeah. And some people actually use the analogy of a puzzle, putting a puzzle together to construct a blueprint. Or some use the analogy of constructing a building, that we take the rocks and the concrete from the data from the New Testament and we build this building, and then we reproduce that building in order to be the New Testament church. 

Interesting enough, Alexander Campbell talked about the restoration of the ancient order, and he wanted to do that because he thought that would facilitate unity. It would facilitate a way of everybody coming together on common ground as we all recognize this ancient order that we’ve discovered in the Bible. But Campbell did not think that was a test of fellowship; he thought it was just a means to unity. He didn’t regard it as a definition of the true church versus the false church because there were larger questions that we held in common: following Jesus, affirming the atonement of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, God is the creator of the world, the Holy Spirit is the gift of God to lead the church. All that was held in common among different believers and different denominations, but Campbell was disturbed by the denominational disunity, and he wanted to bring unity by articulating, you know, a restoration of the ancient order. 

And as you said, the ancient order gets then narrowed down to a kind of ecclesiology, more specifically, the practice of ecclesiology, or, more specifically, the assembly, depending on how big or wide your blueprint pattern is. But, yeah, then it kind of leaves us ‑‑ was that really what Luke was doing when he wrote Acts? Is that the thing that he was most interested in, is leaving some breadcrumbs that we can construct a pattern? Or was he articulating the pattern by the way the church lived out its life, by what it preached about Jesus, by how it reached out to Gentiles and Samaritans, that it was more missional in character than it was, “Well, let me tell you how to do church on Sunday morning”? I mean, that’s not exactly a major theme in Luke/Acts, particularly.

WES: Yeah. So you suggest, in the book, an alternative way to read scripture, an alternative lens, a hermeneutic by which we can understand what is it that God wants for us, what is it that God is communicating to us through scripture. So describe this alternative hermeneutic that you propose and what that might do for us to read scripture better.

JOHN MARK: Yeah.  When you’re searching for a pattern ‑‑ I think we ought to search for a pattern. The question is, what sort of pattern does Scripture give us?  How is it that Scripture offers a pattern? What is the explicit pattern Scripture offers us? It isn’t a list of five things to do on Sunday. It’s rather the explicit pattern of what God is doing in Christ by the power of the Spirit. Is the pattern a written blueprint that we discover from the text, or is the pattern the unfolding of the work of God and the identity of God and the activity of God in the story of Scripture? So it’s more of a ‑‑ you could contrast it as kind of a narrative approach over against the kind of blueprint approach, or a theological approach in the sense that the pattern that we’re looking for is the pattern of God’s own identity, the pattern of Christ’s own activity, the pattern of the Spirit’s own gifting and working in the church, and that’s what we want to conform to. That’s the obedience we want to render. We want to become like God. We want to be like Jesus. We want to be empowered by the Spirit and bear the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. 

And so a theological hermeneutic is going to pay attention to ‑‑ when you’re reading a text, you want to know, well, who is God in this text? What’s the identity of God? What’s God doing? How is God trying to form us? What is God wanting to make us into? What are we supposed to become because of what God is doing in this text? And I think that both refocusing our sense of obedience in line with a pattern of God’s activity is more in line with what scripture actually does than it is, okay, go read this text and discern what’s in it that is essential and what is expedient, and what is binding and what’s not binding, and what are the necessary inferences from this text in order that we might construct a blueprint that is not actually explicitly there. 

But the pattern of God’s work is explicitly there, and that’s what we see Paul doing. For example ‑‑ let me give me you an example of this. It’s in the book, but just in case your listeners are not interested in reading, that’s fine. You know, 1 Corinthians 16:1‑2, some read that as this is a command for all churches everywhere to have a communal collection of money for the treasury, and if you don’t have that on Sunday morning, you’re not a true church. I mean, that’s how I grew up. That’s what I actually taught at times. And so you read 1 Corinthians 16:1‑2 as this blueprint. This is the blueprint for what it means to give on Sunday. You’ve probably heard said ‑‑ I’ve said ‑‑ “God commanded us to give every first day of the week.” Well, I don’t think that’s what that text is about, but that’s the way a blueprint search might take it, draw from that blueprint pattern, but I don’t think Paul intends it that way. It’s more of an arrangement for the collection of funds on his third missionary journey. It’s not about a church treasury. It’s not about even necessarily a Sunday morning assembly, though it could be ‑‑ not necessarily, though. 

Instead, when Paul wants to encourage a church to be generous and to share in this collection that he’s taking up on the third missionary journey, he uses theological arguments. He says we want to be like Israel in the wilderness where God said take the manna, but no one needs too much and no one needs too little. We want to be like the blessed person in Psalm 112 who scatters their gifts to the poor. We want to be a community of grace, that God has graced us so we’re going to grace others with our monetary resources so that they may grace God, give thanks to God. And, more importantly than everything, this is going to be a test of “Do you really believe this story?” Do you believe this story? Do you believe this reality that God, that Christ, though he was rich, became poor so that we who are poor might become rich? Do you believe that? If you believe that, and grace is the dynamic operating in your heart, you don’t need a rule. What you need is that theology to form your heart in such a way that you become a generous person because God has already been generous to you. 

It’s sort of like a blueprint approach tends to ‑‑ doesn’t have to, but tends to go to rulemaking, and there’s nothing wrong with rules. Rules are good things. I’m not against rules. But Paul doesn’t address this generosity question with rules. He doesn’t say, “I told you every first day of the week.” Over, settled. He says, “I’m not going to command you, but I want to test the integrity of your heart. Do you really believe this?” You know, if God gave me a rule that said, “Don’t spend more than 30% on your housing,” I could follow that. I could check that off. “Give 20% to the poor.” I can check that off. Give me a rule; I can check it off. But when Paul says, “I want to test the integrity of your heart,” whew. That means I’ve got to wrestle. I’ve got to wrestle with how I spend my money. I’ve got to wrestle with whether I share my money and how much I share my money. It’s not just some kind of simple equation that I just figure out in my head. It’s rather wrestling with the heart, how generous of a person am I going to be? How can I be more generous? How can I be more like God? How can I be more like Christ? How can I be more like a community where somebody doesn’t have too much and no one has too little? 

That’s the struggle of faith and that’s the maturing of faith. Keeping rules keeps us superficial. It keeps us at a level of, oh, yeah, I did that; oh, yeah, I did that. Doesn’t have to stay there, of course. I know a lot of people who live by rules but have deep faith. But I think what Paul is pushing us to is to say, “Do you know who you are? Do you know who God is? Do you know what God has done for you? Now become that. Become that,” and that takes a lot of wrestling, struggle, growth, maturity. 

And that’s kind of the difference, in some ways, between the blueprint and the theological hermeneutic. 

Now, I would want to say this, also, Wes, that those two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  

WES: That’s right.

JOHN MARK: Not necessarily. Now, the blueprint can get us off mark and it can create patterns where there are none, and that would be a problem. And the theological dimension ‑‑ I think, in our history, we’ve had that theological dimension working in the background, sometimes in the foreground. I can think of James A. Harding, for example, in his series on giving or his series on the Holy Spirit, where he’s doing this kind of theological thing. He’s not calling it that. But we do it in our songs. “Tell Me the Story of Jesus,” that’s a theological hermeneutic. Tell me the story of Jesus because I want to be like him. “Oh, To Be Like Thee,” right? Or “One Day” ‑‑ you know, the song “One Day,” that’s telling the story. 

We’ve done that in a lot of different ways, but we have tended, at least as I see it in my own history ‑‑ in my own personal story, we tended to focus on the pattern or the blueprint that we created out of the text and set it up there as the prime ‑‑ I don’t know if I want to say the primary thing, but it is a major thing, or at least it was the major guideline for the difference between a true church and a false church, or to put it in the “Why am I a member of the Church of Christ,” right? That list is primary in that question, and that’s unfortunate, but I do think that our history has held both of them, so the theological hermeneutic is really not a new hermeneutic. It’s really a re‑emphasis on an older hermeneutic that we can find some unity in, we can find some shared common convictions in that theological story, the story we sing about when we worship. That’s the story we sing about. At other times, we’re fighting about different things. We’re fighting about all those blueprint issues when, in fact, we sing those songs together, we are enjoying the community and the commonality of a shared faith that’s based on a theological hermeneutic. Does that make any sense?

WES: Yeah. Yeah, I think that makes perfect sense, and I wish sometimes we would live out the theology that we sing sometimes. And I’ve often wondered, if I preached the same things that we just sang ‑‑ would we believe it when somebody preached it as much as we acted like we believed it when we sang it? 

But, you know, something that, over the years, has become one of my soap boxes is reading whole books of the Bible, especially the New Testament, in one sitting rather than just sort of piecemeal grabbing verses and taking them out of context. We’ve paid a lot of lip service over the years ‑‑ again, at least, in my experience, we’ve paid a lot of lip service to context, but, typically, what we mean is the verse before it and the verse after it, or if we disagree with somebody else’s interpretation, we say, well, they took it out of context. But we very seldom just sat down and read from the beginning of the letter to the end of the letter. And I’ve done this with various congregations over the years where I’ve just stood up and read Philippians to them, and, every time, I have had people come up to me and say, “I have heard some of those verses my whole life, but I never heard them like that before,” and I think what they mean is they did not ‑‑ they weren’t following ‑‑ and, of course, it’s impossible to follow the author’s train of thought unless you read it that way, unless you read it from the beginning to the end.

And so it isn’t necessarily that what people are drawing out of an isolated verse means the opposite. It isn’t that it means the opposite of what they think it means. I think that it’s that the emphasis is just different because they don’t know the author’s emphasis. They don’t know what point was he trying to make. When the Hebrew writer says, in chapter 10 and verse 25, that we shouldn’t forsake the assembling together of ourselves, what argument is he making? What is he imploring people to do? And so often, if we would read whole books, I think, exactly what you’ve pointed out, we would come to the conclusion ‑‑ the conclusion we would come to is that the authors are almost unanimously trying to get us to live out what Jesus has done in the incarnation and crucifixion, what he has done in coming to

serve rather than to be served and to give his life for the sake of others. 

That’s what Philippians 2 ‑‑ so many of ‑‑ not only these passages that we all know, but we don’t realize that even some of those verses that we’ve used as sort of a club over the years or as ammunition against other people to say, “You’re not doing it right,” that the context is “Be like Jesus, love like Jesus, self‑sacrifice like Jesus.” This is what it looks like to be a disciple of his. This is what God’s people are supposed to be doing, is living out that grace and mercy and love the way Jesus did in becoming human and dying for your sake and, to your point, even as far as giving. 

And we ‑‑ again, it’s not that it’s wrong or bad for us to take up a collection on the first day of the week. That’s good. It’s apparently what Christians have done for a very long time. But what’s at the heart of that? And we end up ‑‑ I’m afraid, sometimes in our application of this blueprint hermeneutic, we end up violating some of the explicit commands that the author is making. Paul’s whole point was, “I don’t want you to give out of compulsion. I want you to give cheerfully. I don’t want to twist your arm.” But we take these same passages and take them out of context and use them to compel people to give, to twist their arm. It’s like that’s exactly what Paul was trying not to do. He was trying to change their character by pointing them to the cross. And so, I’m afraid sometimes, in our effort to restore the ancient order, in our effort to follow that blueprint, we’re actually missing the forest for the trees. We’re actually missing the cross because we’re focused on getting all the rules right.

JOHN MARK: Oh, you said a lot there, and wonderful. I would amen what you said. I particularly like the idea of reading whole books at a time as a way of getting us out of a blueprint mentality, because the blueprint mentality searches for proof texts. Pick up a piece of data over here, a piece of data over here, and in some ways you can do that if you pay attention to context, but what reading a whole book at a time does is ‑‑ it forces you to say, what is this author doing? What is the argument of the text? What is the flow of the text? What is the theology of this author, and what is he trying to form this community into and form them to become? And we pay attention to that instead of reading that text, trying to find the nugget that fits into the pattern or out of which we can then construct the pattern, so it takes us away from proof texting and moves us more into a kind of ‑‑ well, I think a narrative hermeneutic or a hermeneutic that recognizes the whole and follows the path of the argument.  

As you said, we can take the blueprint ‑‑ and I agree with you that there’s nothing wrong ‑‑ in fact, I think it’s a good practice to have a communal act of giving. I think that’s a spiritual discipline that forms us communally. I’m all for it. I’m not against it. I just don’t think it’s a blueprint requirement. What it is is an expediency that arises out of the way we value generosity as we respond ‑‑ even as we respond to the Lord’s Supper, as we respond to the gift of God in Christ.  We respond with a gift of our own, and we say “Thank you, God” by sharing out of our resources. So there’s nothing wrong with it, but, unfortunately, when we made it a part of a blueprint and made it a part of what it means to be a true church, and if you don’t do it, you’re a false church ‑‑ if you give digitally on Monday instead of giving on Sunday ‑‑ I mean, people are feeling guilty about giving on Monday. I don’t know if you’ve experienced that, but they feel guilty about giving on Monday because they’re supposed to give on Sunday, and that’s the rule. Well, it’s not the rule. Giving on Monday is an expression of the heart of God, and we ought to value that. 

I do like the idea of communal giving, though, because I think it is a statement that we are a community, we are a people who believe in generosity, and we are willing to do that in a public way, and so I don’t want to see that go away at all. But we need to root it in the right thing, not in the blueprint, but root it in the act of God in Christ, who became poor for our sake so that we might become rich.

WES: Amen. I’m sure that there is someone listening right now that is saying, okay, I like the sound of what you’re saying. That sounds good. It sounds biblical. It sounds reasonable. It sounds theological, but I’m afraid this might remove all the guardrails. I think you even mentioned that idea of regulation. And I had never grown up hearing about the regulative principle until I realized, oh, wait, the reformers, as you said, were doing some of the same things that we were doing and saying, okay, well, if it doesn’t give us permission to do these things, then we don’t do anything that we don’t have permission to do. And so I think a lot of people’s comfort with the blueprint hermeneutic revolves around this fear that if we take away this way of reading scripture, then it will lead to sort of lawlessness and everybody just kind of does whatever they want to because it’s really ‑‑ and I would agree that sometimes I hear people making a theological argument or a narrative argument that is like, ah, I don’t know that that’s really within the bounds of where we ought to be going. It seems maybe easier to justify doing whatever it is that we want to do and say, well, this really, you know, is framed by, or justified by, or we have the authority to do this because of who God is. 

And so how does a theological hermeneutic limit us and put the boundaries where there should be some boundaries so that we aren’t doing what is right in our own eyes?  

JOHN MARK: I agree with you. We need boundaries, and there are boundaries, so we don’t want to do what is right in our own eyes. That would be the time of the judges, right?  That would not be a good thing, if you look at what happened during the time of the judges. So I appreciate the concern because I think it’s a legitimate question. It’s a legitimate concern because I do want to affirm boundaries. 

Now, on the one hand, sometimes we do that in a blueprint way, as well. We read some text in order to confirm our blueprint, in order to ‑‑ we take a text out of its context, like the argument against instruments out of Amos, you know, to make it sound like our blueprint rather than what it is in its context. So it can be done with a blueprint, as well, especially in the process of proof texting, taking a text out of its context. But there is a real danger on the theological side, too, because we might emphasize things in the narrative that we want to emphasize and forget other things that are in the narrative, right? We’re not taking full account of the narrative. 

But let me be more precise. One of the boundaries, I would say, is anything that subverts the gospel. If it subverts the gospel, it’s wrong. Now, you have to back up and say, well, what is the gospel? Well, take, for example, 1 Corinthians 11. In 1 Corinthians 11, they were eating the Lord’s Supper in a way ‑‑ in a form that divided the body rather than uniting it, divided along socioeconomic lines, free and slave lines. So when we see that, we say, well, that is a wrong way to do the Lord’s Supper. Now, why would I say it’s the wrong way? Well, because the way it is done subverts the whole point of the gospel to reconcile people and for them to eat at the same table, to have one bread and one cup in that sense of unity, and so anything that divides the table is going to be a subversion. It divides the table because it subverts the gospel because the gospel wants us to be united, so that would be one sort of thing.

I would want to say let’s read the scripture, understand what the theology of God at work in the world and the identity of God and what the gospel is, and what the gospel’s purpose is and how it unites us and how it reconciles us. Anything that runs contrary to that, anything that subverts that is out of bounds, so I think there are boundaries that we operate in.

There’s boundaries about the gospel in terms of the one who was rich became poor. There’s an incarnation; God became flesh. That’s a boundary. If you don’t affirm that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, you’re not among us. You’re not in the community. So there are some things that are part of the story, part of the narrative work of God that affirm who God is. I’m not going to say God’s an adulterer. I’m not going to say God’s a liar because that’s about the identity of God. 

So it’s those sorts of things that have to be boundaries, and the problem, it seems to me, is we have some fear ‑‑ and I understand this fear because I’ve processed this fear myself when I started thinking about these sorts of things. “Oh, no, am I going to end up defending instrumental music? Am I going to end up doing this or that?” And so, out of fear ‑‑ I had to pursue that fear, I had to work through that fear, but I understand how fear can be a negative emotion that says, “I don’t want to consider that because I already believe this. Since I already believe X, and I know X is true because of the blueprint model, if I can’t defend X with theological hermeneutic, then theological hermeneutic can’t be the right one because I already know this one’s right. I already know the X is right.” And I think that’s the major rub with a lot of people, and I knew that in myself, as I processed this, that I could feel that tension in myself, because I love my heritage. I love my people. I love the people of churches of Christ. I grew up among them. I have served them, I’ve worshiped with them all my life, and I will continue to do so, and I don’t want to deconstruct churches of Christ.

What I want to do is help churches of Christ and others to think more within the story and to think about the identity of God, and sometimes that will critique some of the conclusions that we have from the blueprint, and we’ve always already been critiquing conclusions from the blueprint. Just think about how many differences of opinion we have about the blueprint, right? I mean, what do we do with the treasury? Can we have parachurch organizations? Can we have Sunday schools? Can we have more than one cup? Can we have Bible classes? So we’ve already had a whole series of divisions and disagreements about the blueprint, so it shouldn’t surprise us that we’re going to have some when we start thinking about a theological hermeneutic, as well. 

At the same time, that blueprint, because it is so geared toward finding the right blueprint and finding the exact order so that we know we’re right and we know we are the true church ‑‑ because it has that kind of agenda, it seems to me it can be disruptive and it can create divisions where we really should not have any divisions.

WES: Yeah. One of the divisions that came to my mind while you were talking ‑‑ and I appreciate so much you saying that anything that subverts the gospel is wrong. It reminded me of what Paul is discussing in Galatians and what happened at the church at Antioch, and that is that Peter came up and eventually ended up withdrawing from his Gentile brothers and sisters. And it reminds me of the fact that churches of Christ are predominantly in the south, and during the ’50s and ’60s they were growing like crazy, more and more congregations popping up and following this blueprint model, but so many were segregated by ethnicity and race and were following the culture and following the Jim Crow laws on segregation. And it just reminds me that ‑‑ again, missing the forest for the trees, they were adamant about this particular blueprint and this particular way of doing church, but yet were subverting the gospel, were actually doing things that Paul explicitly addressed over and over and over again about not segregating based on ethnicity, not putting up a wall in between people; in fact, tearing down the walls that existed in his culture. 

And then here we were patting ourselves on the back for being the true New Testament church, meanwhile building walls of segregation and maintaining walls of segregation and violating the actual boundaries that existed. We’re worried about, well, those people are violating the boundaries of scripture. It’s like, no, whether that’s true or not, your segregation policies are violating the explicit boundaries of scripture and you are subverting the gospel. To go back to 1 Corinthians 11, if you are taking communion in a way that causes division, then it’s not even ‑‑ Paul says it’s not even the Lord’s Supper that you’re eating. 

And so I can’t help but think back to our history within churches of Christ, when we were creating division because we thought that we had found this code, this blueprint in the scriptures, and we were actually violating the things that were right there on the explicit level of Scripture telling us not to do, and we’re going right over those guardrails and just totally forsaking what Scripture was telling us to do.

JOHN MARK: Yeah, I appreciate that point. And you go back to Galatians, I mean, Paul says it’s about the truth of the gospel, right? That was what was at issue with Peter, the truth of the gospel. And so I appreciate you bringing up race. I think, clearly, we’re a flawed people when it came to that, and that’s why I have an appendix on race in the book itself to illustrate how a theological hermeneutic can address that question. 

We’re all flawed. You know, we’re a flawed church. We’re flawed people in flawed churches. And while we may, on the one hand, say, hey, I got this blueprint item that we’re right on and the Baptists are wrong, or whatever, right? That doesn’t mean we’re perfect, and it doesn’t mean, necessarily, we’re the true church, either, because if we’re flawed in ways that subvert the gospel, it doesn’t matter if you got it right on the blueprint or not. If you’re subverting the gospel, that becomes the main question.

WES: That’s right, yeah. And there are so many ‑‑ the more I’ve learned to read scripture this way, the more I’ve realized that there are explicit guardrails. There are explicit things that say these are the limiting things. I think we have to pay closer attention to what we might call the virtue and vice lists that Paul gives us so often in the epistles. They tell us exactly what is out of bounds, and so much ‑‑ yes, I agree there are right ways and probably wrong ways to, quote‑unquote, “do church,” but so much of it is about character, that if we think that we have restored New Testament Christianity and yet we’re greedy or we’re covetous or we’re idolaters, these are the things that are violating the clear boundaries of scripture. We kind of go looking for the secret guardrails, the implicit guardrails, when the explicit guardrails are right there staring us in the face, and so often we ignore those things and say, “Well, everybody’s greedy or everybody’s this, but yet we’re the true church because we do X, Y, and Z.” And it’s like, okay, maybe X, Y, and Z is right and you need to keep doing that, but let’s pay very close attention to these very explicit guardrails and limitations on what is Christian behavior and what is not.

JOHN MARK: Exactly. I think that’s so right. It’s finding the center of our faith in who God is and what God has done and the pattern that we find in the life of Jesus, in the person of Jesus, who is the image of God, and we are called to conform to that image. That is the generating trajectory of all of Scripture, is to become the image of God and to live out our lives as embodied imagers of God, which includes ethics. It includes rituals, too. It includes practices, practices like ‑‑ Israel had practices. Jesus had practices. Jesus went to church every Sunday. Okay, not every Sunday. He went to synagogue every Sabbath, right? So when I have students ask me, “Why do you go to church every Sunday,” you know, they don’t ‑‑ you know, it’s not the thing for them. I say, “Well, Jesus did. Are you a disciple of Jesus? If you’re a disciple of Jesus, you’re going to gather with the community on a regular basis.” If you’re a disciple of Jesus, you’re going to be baptized. You’re going to follow Jesus into the water. If you’re a disciple of Jesus, you’re going to go to the tables of the marginalized and the poor, and you’re also going to go to the tables of the Pharisees because you want to live out the embodied life of God in the presence of all people in order to draw all people to God. 

And so, finding the pattern, not in stringing together some proof texts, but finding the pattern in the trajectory and flow of the activity of God and Jesus by the Spirit ‑‑ that, to me, is what theological interpretation is about.

WES: Yeah, absolutely. And I so appreciate that emphasis of the formative nature of the rituals, the formative nature of the assembly. I mean, that’s why, personally, I love the idea of participatory worship over what, I think, the modern idea of more performance‑driven worship, because I think that the participatory worship ‑‑ I love the fact that we sing acapella because it’s not about a performance. It’s about us coming together, mutually edifying one another through these praises so that, through this act, this weekly discipline of gathering together and singing together, it is formative so that, over time, we are looking and loving more and more like Jesus. 

And so that’s why I think that a lot of the things that we do that are deeply rooted in Scripture, they’re practices that have been going on for 2,000 years, we need to keep doing those things, not because we’re checking things off of a list, but because they are effective at forming us into the people of God, sometimes whether we know it or not, and just participating in these things is deeply formative. 

John Mark, I know we’re running out of time and we definitely don’t have time to say, “How do we solve all of the divisions within churches of Christ?” But let me just ask this. We don’t all agree. I used to believe that if we just all read the Bible, and we all read it wanting to do the will of God, we’d all come out with the same conclusions, but, obviously, that’s not the case. And you and I probably ‑‑ we could make a list of things we don’t both agree on, but we have unity. So how do we have a fellowship of people who sometimes deeply disagree on how we do things or deeply disagree on what passages mean, but still continue to maintain the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace? What does that look like? What advice would you have for us?

JOHN MARK: I suppose I would like to say that, at the bottom, at the primary level here, is that story of God that we confess, that God created the world and that God chose Israel and that God became human, and God, on the cross, died for us and was raised and ascended and poured out the Spirit upon us to form us into his own image, to form us into the sort of people who would be missional and bear light in the darkness and be the salt of the earth, that the story of the gospel ‑‑ and here I want to use “gospel” not as a synonym for the New Testament, but “gospel” as that story that the New Testament bears witness to, that is, the story of God and Christ by the Spirit ‑‑ that’s our unity. That’s where we find commonality. That’s what we confess. We both confess Jesus as Lord. We both confess that God created the world. We both confess that Jesus was raised from the dead. We both confess that God became human, and we both confess that the goal of God is to form us into the image of God and that we are to become like God in generosity and kindness, and in righteousness and justice, as well.  That’s our common ground. 

Think about what we sing about, to come back to where we started in some way. We sing a story, and that’s what unites us. We can have disagreements about what does that particular text mean, and how does the church do that, and what does that look like when the church does that. We could have disagreements about that. But I tell you what, we could probably sing, “Tell Me the Old, Old Story” together and share that in common. That may be too broad for some people. It may be too wide for some people, but I think, as we read the Bible as you suggested, you know, one book at a time, what’s going to arise out of that is not, okay, here are the three things that make a true church and distinguish us from the Baptists. What’s going to arise out of that is a sense of the story of Jesus, sent by God, who poured out the Holy Spirit upon us. That’s what’s going to emerge, and this is the kind of community we are supposed to become, and that’s where we can find unity.  It’s a kind of Christological unity rather than an ecclesiological unity. 

Now, don’t hear me wrong on that one. I’m not saying church versus Christ. I do not believe that at all. What I mean by ecclesiological is the debate about the blueprint and the kind of ecclesiological perfectionism that has burdened many of us. “We got to get this right. We got to get this perfect so that we make sure we go to heaven.” That kind of perfectionism subverts the gospel itself because it says, “I gotta get all this right or God won’t save me.” Well, then, if you got it right, God doesn’t need to save you, right? I mean, we are all flawed, our blueprints are flawed, our righteousness is flawed, and what unites us and what saves us is the gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s kind of where I would want to find the unity.

WES: Yeah, amen. I can’t think of a better place to end than that. I think that’s exactly what our focus has to be in our personal walk with him, is his grace and his mercy and his sacrifice, but that’s what ‑‑ that’s what unifies us in Christ. 

So, John Mark Hicks, thank you so much for your work. Thank you so much for this conversation, Brother. I can’t tell you how rich this has been. Thank you.

JOHN MARK: Well, thank you, Wes. I appreciate your work, and I appreciate the way you model civil discussions and healthy discussions, so thank you for that. I appreciate what you’re doing, as well.

WES: Likewise. Thanks, Brother.

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