When is a Command a Command?

February 22, 2006

I want to continue the project of collecting an Inventory of Doctrines of churches of Christ for the CENI study. Please post on that article if you want to submit a doctrine or practice for our discussion.

Meanwhile I want to post a few more thoughts regarding Command, Example, and Necessary Inference. I’ll post one article on each of the three principles of that hermeneutic, beginning now with Command.

When is a command a command?

Not every statement in the grammatical form of a command (imperative mood) is intended as a mandate. Let’s look at a few examples.

In Acts 2:38, the verbs “repent” and “be baptized” are both in the imperative mood in the Greek. Peter was answering the question, “what shall we do?” The result that the audience desperately wanted was forgiveness. Peter instructed them how to receive it. The tone seems to be instruction to a willing learner. Still, it is obvious from the text that repentance and baptism were necessary in order to receive the promised forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit. So I think that qualifies as a mandate. And the context makes it clear that the mandate applies to all whom the Lord would call, for all time.

In Phil 4:4, both occurrences of the verb “rejoice” are in the imperative mood. However the context hardly supports the notion that Paul was laying down a legal requirement, as though failure to obey would be apostasy. This seems more like an invitation to rejoice, or permission to rejoice. Perhaps it could be called an enthusiastic recommendation, or advice. It does not seem reasonable to me to take this as a mandate. Are a few moments of failure to rejoice a sin?

In Eph 5:19, the verbs in the Greek are all participles (“speaking” “singing” “making melody”). This passage seems to be painting a picture of how we should interact with one another, expressing our faith in the fellowship. It is not a law or a set of laws, but a description of what is good. It is not a list of things to do but a description of a way to be. The passage is not a mandate grammatically (ie not imperative mood), nor in meaning.

Sometimes a command is implied. Consider Gal 5:19-23. Here Paul lists the works of the flesh, and the fruits of the spirit. The two halves of this instruction are subtly different. The passage has no grammatical command, and yet there is a clearly implied message: “Do not do the things in the first list, and encourage the fruits in the second.” Note that according to the text, practicing any of the works in the first list would disqualify one from inheriting the Kingdom of God. There is an implied mandate to exclude all those works from our lives. However, notice that he doesn’t say you must demonstrate all the fruits of the spirit in order to be acceptable to God. Instead he says “Against such things there is no law.” They are produced by the Spirit, and are permissible. So in the second half he is giving wisdom, rather than a mandate. Again he is describing a way to be, rather than listing things to do.

Some commands in scripture were limited in scope to the specific people being addressed. For example, Jesus told the eleven (Luke 24:49) to wait in Jerusalem until they received power from on high. Common sense tells us that command does not apply to every believer.

How do we discern the intent behind the multitude of similar statements in scripture? I believe it is the work of a lifetime, to study, to meditate, and to gain understanding by degrees. We are not intended to apply a logical algorithm to the text to derive laws to be obeyed. We are not expected to arrive at complete understanding in this life. Understanding the scripture is a lifetime journey, not a destination.

Yet there are some clear commands in scripture, which should not take a lifetime to grasp. Examining our core doctrines and hermeneutics might help us determine where we have understood those commands, and where we have misconstrued the passage. Perhaps that effort can help us take down some walls and promote unity in the Lord’s church.

Click for the complete series on Restoration Hermeneutics


  1. […] of the ScripturesCommand, Example, and Necessary InferenceWhen is a Command a Command?Binding ExamplesNecessary Inference The Big Squeeze: Silence and CENIDo Expedients […]

  2. […] for every practice of the church. From CENI, that authorization can be in the form of a direct command, an example approved by the apostles, or a necessary inference. Remember that the principle of […]

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