Problems with "Patternism"
There are some who profess to be believers who take issue with brethren who say everything we do, as the Lord’s people and the Lord’s church [collectively], must have the pre-existing authority of Jesus Christ. [That is, the authority for anything we believe, do, or teach must be found within the New Testament, and cannot be a matter of acting, and then hoping He will approve it at some point later, or giving false hope to others by telling them God “really doesn’t care” what we do or how it is done.] The beginning of this belief starts with the words of the apostle Paul to the brethren of Colossæ, when he wrote, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:17). Without getting into a lengthy discussion about what that means, suffice it to say that this means whatever we do must be done with His authority. We may properly deduce from Paul’s Divinely-inspired words that we are transgressing God’s will if we fail to do that.
But some apparently think the brethren who hold firmly to this requirement are asking too much, and “binding it on others as a test of Christian fellowship or as a condition of salvation,” and will derisively label such a belief as “patternism,” and then arrogantly declare, “That is what turns something inherently healthy into something that is foul and diseased. That is the ‘plague’ that gives this little [article] series its name.” [Ed Fudge, “The Plague of Patternism.” ]
For this article, let us address some of the false claims and errors of those who deny there is a “pattern” that must be followed in the New Testament in order to know without a doubt we are doing what our Lord demands of us.
Not Found in the New Testament? Fudge claims, “The pattern-seekers, well-intentioned as they were, created something that the New Testament does not require, suggest or even envision.” Fudge specifically names and derides the method of determining authority by these “pattern-seekers” by command, example, and necessary inference, and the prohibitive silence of the Scriptures. [Something Fudge will repeatedly label and condemn as “the ‘CENI-S’ approach.”] On that, Fudge is plainly wrong.
In Acts 15, a dispute arose among faithful brethren as to the practice of circumcision for Christians but, specifically, the Gentile Christians. Some had come from Judea to Antioch and were telling the Gentile brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). The apostle Paul, unsurprisingly, opposed this teaching (Acts 15:2), so it was determined that “Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.” To them, it was not “majoring in minors” and it was not some “peculiarity” that was insignificant.
When they arrived in Jerusalem and met with the apostles and elders there, Peter began by reminding all who were there that, at some point in the past, God had sent him to the Gentiles that they should “hear the word of the gospel and believe” (Acts 15:7), and added an important fact, that God “made no distinction between us and them” (Acts 15:8, 9). Let us note for now that Peter used a command and an example to make the point of what/who was approved by God.
Then Paul and Barnabas gave their story, “how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:12). James then spoke up and noted Peter’s work with the Gentiles, and how it was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Acts 15:13-17), and it was decided, based on the evidence, that they should not bind circumcision on the Gentiles because God had already approved them by the fact of Him sending the gospel to them and by giving them the Holy Spirit. Let us note well here that this conclusion is what is commonly called necessary inference.
So, Fudge is absolutely wrong when he declares this method of determining whether something is authorized and approved by God to be wrong and “binding where God did not bind,” for the apostles in the first century used such a method. I would argue that this is plain old common sense! Apparently Fudge and others disagree, or they lack basic common sense. I will let you make the judgment on that. But let us consider a simple example.
If I sent my son to the store with a $20 bill and told him to buy me a loaf of bread, would I be wrong to chastise him for disobeying me if he came back with a loaf of bread and a half-gallon of Blue Bell Pistachio Almond ice cream? Would he be correct in replying, “But you didn’t say not to”? Was that half-gallon of ice cream something I approved when I sent him to the store? Yes, or No? While Fudge can’t seem to see this, my 12-year-old son can even see it as plain as day, and I would guess you can understand the logic there, too.
A Gaping Hole. Fudge and others condemn and reject the practice of even trying to determine what God has authorized, and specifically condemns and rejects the very methods used by the apostles in the first century. But what does Fudge or others offer in its place? Surely, there is a way to know what is acceptable to God, right? What do they offer in its place?
No, nothing is offered, for even Fudge would have to admit that any other means of establishing authority would be merely one’s own personal preference, and it would certainly not be found within Scripture. All Fudge can say is that many churches abandoned what he calls “pattern theology,” and moved to what he then calls a “less institutionalized and more personal understanding of their faith.” Interesting. Does he mean each disciple can determine for himself or herself what God accepts? If Fudge is so sure the above-mentioned method is not found within Scripture [which actually is found in Scripture, as previously noted], thus making it un-Scriptural and [I presume he means] not approved by God, then where is this alternate method of learning what God approves found within Scripture?
The reality is, those who reject the method for determining what God approves and what God condemns — the very method used by the apostles in the first century —offer no other means because, as they will eventually reveal, they don’t believe we have to have Bible authority for anything we believe, teach, and practice. Oh, they may deny that, but their arguments will reveal such to be the case. With no restrictions, then, anything is acceptable!
Behind all this sophistry [and sometimes at the forefront of their efforts] is a false plea for “unity.” I say “false” because it is not unity at all, but the old “Let’s just agree to disagree” method of denominationalism and ecumenism where serious differences and even contradictory beliefs about what the Scriptures teach are pushed aside so some can pretend like they have achieved “unity.” But, friends and brethren, what kind of unity? Being united in error is nothing to boast about!
As for me, I find it just sad that some who have rejected God’s revealed and approved methods of learning what is pleasing to Him think they must also then ridicule the very idea, and then offer nothing to guide us that we may learn and follow the very things that are pleasing to God. Call me a “patternist” if it makes you feel better, but I’m standing with God. — Steven Harper