Do Expedients Help?

March 1, 2006

In the previous article I suggested that the combination of CENI and the principle of Silence of the Scriptures leads to almost inevitable divisions in the church, at least as these principles are traditionally understood and practiced in the churches of Christ. Any practice perceived in scripture as a command, an example, or as a necessary inference is treated as a mandate to be obeyed in the church today. And any practice on which the scriptures are silent is understood to be prohibited. Under that hermeneutic, without perfect agreement on the practices we see in scripture, we will inevitably differ in our practices, and will ultimately consider one another to be defying the commands of God. Restoration movement history has demonstrated this dilemma repeatedly over the past 200 years.

There is one principle that, on the surface, might seem to provide a way out of this difficulty: the principle of expedients. Thomas Campbell introduced this concept in his thirteenth proposition. There he said:

Lastly. That if any circumstantials indispensably necessary to the observance of divine ordinances be not found upon the page of express revelation, such, and such only, as are absolutely necessary for this purpose, should be adopted, under the title of human expedients, without any pretence to a more sacred origin–so that any subsequent alteration or difference in the observance of these things might produce no contention nor division in the church.

Campbell’s reluctance to concede this is evident in the qualifying phrases he uses: “indispensably necessary”, “such and only such”, “without any pretence to a more sacred origin”… He clearly sees these expedients as being a possible source of division and so attempts to minimize their impact from the beginning.

An example of an expedient that is universally accepted would be the time of day of a worship service. We have examples and inferences that the early church worshipped on the first day of the week. But the time of day for that worship is not specified. Yet, some time must be chosen. So it is implied that an expedient time may be chosen.

Another example that is often presented is the command to go and make disciples. We are told to go. We aren’t told to ride a camel, or to take a boat, or to walk. The choice of transportation is an expedient.

In the above examples, it is inescapable that some choice must be made. That is consistent with the scope of expedients that Thomas Campbell allowed in the thirteenth proposition (“indispensably necessary”). However, even the more conservative churches of Christ have not limited themselves to this narrow definition of expedients. For example, by far, most own church buildings. It is not disputed that there is no CENI support for owning a church building. Unlike the first two examples, there are alternatives (eg. meet in private homes or in some public facility). Yet they accept ownership of a building as an expedient. So it is conceded by even the conservatives that an expedient need not be essential to be allowable.

Another example of a less-than-essential expedient is song books. There is no CENI support for them, and worship could certainly be conducted without them. Yet they are generally considered acceptable even by the most conservative of churches of Christ, as an expediency.

In later years the concept of expedients was developed further. In order to be allowed, an expedient had to pass four tests. First, it had to be “lawful” (1 Cor 10:23). Second, it had to edify (1 Cor 10:23 again). Third, it had to support some practice that is taught (CENI) in scripture (from Campbell, “indispensably necessary to the observance of divine ordinances”). In other words, the expedient had to be derived from some CENI-supported practice. Fourth, it must not cause someone to stumble (1 Cor 10:32).

During the late 1800’s, the debates over instrumental music and missionary societies revolved around expediency. For conservatives, the silence of the scriptures trumped expediency on these two issues. They were deemed not “lawful” because there is no CENI for instruments in worship under the new covenant, nor for nonchurch organizations overseeing cooperative efforts of churches. The scriptures are silent on these topics, and that silence was deemed to prohibit.

To me this brings to light a contradiction. If one proposed expedient can be ruled not lawful because of silence of the scriptures (eg. musical instruments), why not every expedient (eg. owning a building)? There has been an apparent arbitrariness in deciding which expedients are allowable and which are prohibited by silence.

Adding expedients to the discussion just rephrases the same arguments. The same difficulties exist with or without expedients. CENI + silence + expedients = divisions + more divisions. The root of the problem IMO is in what we bind on others. It is one thing to bind CENI and the silence of the scriptures on yourself. It is quite another to bind them on others who haven’t reached the same depth of biblical understanding (Thomas Campbell’s sixth proposition).

Click for the complete series on Restoration Hermeneutics


  1. Alan:You’ve been prolific, I haven’t been able to keep up!You’re writing an excellent series here. My not fully developed thought on this subject is that if we do away with the “law of silence” and continue to use Command, Example, and Inference that we will be alright. I think that part of the hermenutic is quite useful, and quite intuitive anyway… while the old adadge that someone stuck on a desert island with no concept of the church would come to the same conclusion that we have if given just a bible isn’t totally true, they would still come away with the impression that Commands and Examples are something to be followed. They may or may not come away with all the inferences that we have, but I think it is fair to say that they would come away with some of them. Normal human reasoning would lead them there. That, of course, is not to say than they would stop there, though.-Clarke

  2. Hey Clarke,I agree that the “law of silence” is a big part of the problem. It seems we’ve used it as a hammer to smash selected practices we don’t like. I think there is an element of truth in the law of silence, but it must be combined with common sense (which means we should be reluctant to bind our conclusions from it). To a significant extent I feel the same about binding of examples and inferences. Our understanding and judgment are imperfect. So we need to show a little more humility!Alan

  3. Alan,I’m really enjoying this series, as well as the one on Campbell’s 13 propositions. I feel that I’m learning the history that brought me here that I never knew.It seems that these ‘expedients’ are simply a band aid on a bad hermenutic, or at least a badly implemented one. As you sais in the last post, if the system puts us in a position where unity, that the Bible places such a high priority on, is impossible, than there’s a fundamental flaw in the system. Tweaking it with ‘expedients’ isn’t getting to the root of the issue.Of course, I’m jsut learning this stuff so I may be completly in left field. 🙂

  4. You ask some great questions. While we probably agree a whole lot more than we disagree, I just wanted to say that if I disagree in any way, I do so honestly and with love, and certainly not looking at at your blog as an evil dragon to slay. 🙂 As long as the CENI and Silence principles are foundational in the COC groups (yes, I am a member of the COC,) I doubt we will ever see any tangible results in our efforts for unity.Unfortunately both principles are easily manipulated to suit a persons personal preferences, and often become wedges that divide, rather than unite, God’s children.Those fully promoting these principles often completely disagree among themselves about the results. How can we reach out to others we consider in need of unity when we fail to be united ourselves?

  5. Hey Larry,Maybe tangible progress toward unity is not beyond reach. I think many people are seeing the problems with the strictest CENI + silence approach to the scriptures. I’m sure some folks won’t ever soften their stance. But in general I think the winds are changing.Alan

  6. Interesting article. Have you read the book “We Be Brethren” by J.D. Thomas? In this book, he tries to distinguish the difference between aids and additions. He argues that if an expedient changes the nature of the command (instrumental music changes the action of singing alone) it is an addition. However, if an expedient only facilitates the command without altering it (buildings merely facilitate gathering together) then it is an aid. What do you think?

  7. Hi Anonymous,I haven’t read that book. My though is that changing the “nature of the command” is a pretty subjective rule. Different people would apply the rule differently. For example, I would apply it differently with regard to instrumental music. If the church is singing with piano accompaniment, does that really change the nature of the singing? Each individual simply sings with his voice, making melody in his heart, etc. The nature of that singing is independent of what some other person is doing (or not doing) at the piano. I would be obedient to all the biblical instructions about singing, whether or not some other individual is playing an instrument at the same time.Also, I don’t know how that rule would be established from scripture. But as I said I have not read the book.

  8. […] John 17: 21a May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You. (HCSB) « Do Expedients Help? Wade Hodges series » Doctrines of CENI March 6, 2006 For the past several […]

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