Misreading the New Testament

There are many Christians among the Churches of Christ who continue to read the New Testament as though it is a law from God.  Perhaps the best example of this reading is found when dealing with the issue of a cappella vs. instrumental worship and passages such as Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, and other passages deemed relevant to the subject.  The argument goes that God’s word instructs to “sing” and that this excludes any mention of instruments.  This argument is accompanied with other ad hoc proof-texts from scripture, both Old and New Testaments, to warn Christians about the dangers of adding to God’s word and offering unauthorized worship to God (e.g., Lev 10:1-2; 1 Cor 4:6).

There are various assumptions at work that lie behind this legal reading of the New Testament.  One of those readings is the binding nature of silence among scripture which I have already written about in a post called The Silence of Scripture or Freedom in Christ?.  But another assumption, perhaps the biggest, is that the New Testament is to be read as though it is a law from God, one that replaces the Torah or Mosaic Law of the Old Testament.  Under such assumption, the New Testament is treated as though it is a constitution or instruction manual for following the assumed (yes, another assumption) one single pattern of Christianity called the New Testament Church.

This legal reading of the New Testament is wrong and it needs to be explained why because in the end it only produces legalism (see the video below).  Think with me for a moment.  The apostle Paul said this to say about the Law in Romans 7:12-13:

So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.  Did that which is good, then, become death to me?  By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

Do you see what Paul is saying about the Law and humanity?  The problem of sin is not and has never been the Law.  Rather the problem with sin is and has always been humanity, you and I.  By the grace of God, that problem is rectified in Christ.  But here is the big question that must be asked which pertains to the issue of reading the New Testament as a new Law: If God’s aim or purpose in the gospel is to keep humanity living under a written law, why would God just not have us following the written Law of the Old Testament since it is already “holy, righteous, and good” law?  A secondary question: Assuming the New Testament is a new written Law, what makes us think we can faithfully keep that Law if we could not faithfully keep the written Law of the Old Testament?

The fact of the matter is that if God’s intention for redeeming humanity in Christ was to bind them to a covenant that requires following any written law, then God already had a perfect—a holy and righteous—Law established for this purpose.  Yet any cursory reading of the New Testament and the apostle Paul’s instruction to Gentile Christians is suffice to show that this was not God’s intent.  This is not to say that there are no commands for Christians to obey or that Christians can live a “lawless” lifestyle.  Loving God and neighbor (cf. Mk 12:29-31) are still the greatest commands that Christians are to obey; living by the Spirit (cf. Gal 6:13ff) is still a non-negotiable practice for all who profess the name of Christ.  But obeying the two great commands and living by the Spirit is one thing, it is quite another matter to turn the New Testament into a legal code that prescribes how every local church must worship, organize itself, and regulate its practice of ministry.

In Christ, we have been set free.  May we use that freedom responsibly and with integrity but may we also enjoy that freedom rather than being shackled by our own misunderstanding of the gospel and New Testament.


I have posted this video before of Rick Atchley, Preaching Minister of The Hills Church of Christ in Fort Worth, TX but I am posting it again because illustrates well the legalism that is produced by reading the New Testament as a law.

25 responses to “Misreading the New Testament

  1. The most interesting thing to me about the passages in Ephesians and Colossians that are our go-tos for a capella hymnody is that if you look at them in context, they aren’t referring to a worship assembly at all.

    • Those passages are not exclusion of the Assembly either as seen by 1 Corinthians 14:15. Both in daily life and the Assembly, when we are together we speak to one another and thank God.

  2. The Christain Tradition has always been a capella; and knowing that saves us from all private interpretation- theirs and yours and all the other 30 thousand schools of private interpretation out there in the every man is his own pope chaos.

  3. The Orthodox Church tradition may have always been a cappella but the wider “Christian” tradition which begins as an extension of Jewish tradition has not. Furthermore, you assume a static form of tradition which is not there. While my knowledge of the Orthodox tradition is minimal, I do know that where it becomes static is actually a progression from where Christian tradition begins.

  4. Until the Great schism both East and West were resolutely a capella. Instruments distract the nous by the senses and are hostile thereby to the depths of prayer that is the deep apophatic Stillness. A capella allows all Christaons of whatever depth to share worship. Instruments have a strong tendency to war against the deep and divinizing prayer that is essential to our salvation. Since you have not found your way into the Stillness you interpret blindly, and are forging another schism within a schism within a schism.
    The Lord love you and have mercy on us.

    • With all due respect, I think it is quite presumptuous of you to know how I interpret. There are a lot of things that both the Eastern and Western traditions were “resolutely” but that in no ways implies that such traditions were meant to become a fixed universal practice. As for creating “schism within a schism within a schism”… Schisms are always a two-way street.

      • Hi Rex,
        I think of the Vincentian canon- that when we disagree as to the interpretation of Scripture we resort to that which was held universally by all. ” men differ in the interpretation of Holy Scripture. The rule, therefore, must be supplemented by an appeal to that sense of Holy Scripture which is supported by universality, antiquity, and consent: by universality, when it is the faith of the whole Church; by antiquity, when it is that which has been held from the earliest times; by consent, when it has been the acknowledged belief of all, or of almost all, whose office and character gave authority to their determinations. This is the famous “Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus,” with which Vincentius’s name is associated..”
        Now, as concerning ‘static’ tradition- to the contrary- the worship of the Church is the breaking in of the Eternal into the Present. Our conversation is in heaven, and we are in reality iconizing and sacramentalizing the worship in heaven- and when one looks into the book of Revelation, there are no instruments of music; there are angels and crowns and altars, and trumpets marking transitions, but no instruments- so the a capella we see in the undivided Church in heaven in the Kingdom to come, and of the first millennium both call us in that direction, as well as the principle of ‘lex orandi lex credendi’. The usage of musical instruments does not help the nous from recovering its lost wandering in the senses, and so it blocks making ‘melody in the heart’ unto the Lord. And I do not think it is presumptuous to think that you do not interpret Scripture in the light of a hesychastic descent of the nous into the heart- if that had been your experience, it would have loomed quite large in your conversation of discipleship, missionizing and so forth. And forgive me, but I am familiar with the assumptions of Protestant/Evangelical/Cambpellite exegesis and hermeneutics to some extent- and they are built on the heresy of a perspicuous Scripture- which is in distinct apposition to one that is Patristic.

    • And remember that instrumental worship in this post is only an illustrative example. The primary issue I am addressing is the way Christians read the New Testament.

  5. What prayer is essential to our salvation?

  6. Those of us who have become more ecumenical and progressive have to confess that we still bring baggage from our past to our Bible reading. As progressive as I have become over the years, being an avid reader of Matthew Fox, teacher of Creation Spirituality, Thomas Merton, especially his later years, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, whenever I come to the “battle-ground passages” that the CoC loves so much, my mind once again hears those old sermons and debates from years gone by.

    For a time I wanted those voices of the past to go away, and I would find myself frustrated because I could not tune them out. But I eventually began to accept them as a challenge. To whatever degree we grow we need a challenge, and those sermons and debates of the past cause me to take long looks at scripture and ask myself, “Do these passages find their meaning in a small , yet warrior-like, legalism, or do they find their fulfillment in presenting Christ in the next person I meet?”

    Peter Gomes spoke of a “living context” in which we should read the Bible. I know that frightens many, even some who have come from legalism to a more ecumenical way of thinking. But that is what happens when one has been buried deep in law since youth; just getting one’s nose out of the grave feels like freedom. And it is, just as long as we keep reaching for breath and life.

  7. Pingback: Friday’s Links To Go | Tim Archer's Kitchen of Half-Baked Thoughts

  8. Here’s what I consider a good example of what you’re talking about Rex, and you make a passing reference to it in the post itself.

    Many of us quote Matthew 22:34-40, regarding the greatest commands of the old covenant. Without diminishing their significance, Jesus was asked a Jewish question and gave an answer based upon the old covenant.

    What does it mean to love God and love your neighbor? And is this passage in Matthew 22, the definitive statement?

    In 1 John 4, the writer clearly makes that case that to love God means to love your brother. And in fact, the measure of your love for God, is how much you love your brother. So, in light of 1 John 4, we show how we love God with our heart, soul and mind, by loving our brother.

    But then, in John 13 and again in John 15, Jesus changes the standard for loving. In Matthew, he quoted Leviticus, saying love your neighbor as yourself. But in John 13 & 15, Jesus says he has a new command, for us to love one another the way he loved us … a much higher standard.

    One cannot look at a single section of the Text and say it gives us a definitive view of what God expects of us … especially, in the minutia.

    How do I love you the way Jesus loves you? I’ll spend the rest of my life figuring out how to do that. The answer is almost never obvious. Because “what you want” is not necessarily what is best for you … which I suspect is what Jesus wants for you.

    With the woman at the well, Jesus, in affect, says, how they worship in Jerusalem (potentially symbolic of all the Jewish traditions about worship) is not relevant, because “true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth.”

    Who can judge the spirit and truth of my worship, except God?

  9. http://avowofconversation.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/words-that-come-from-%e2%80%9can-unexpected-depth%e2%80%9d/ Rex forgive this clumsy, indiscrete, fool but do read this on the silence in the apostolic tradition first commented on by Ignatius of Antioch. The Father Whom the Word reveals is in a Stillness full of Divine presence where we know Him who cannot be known. St John states that fathers in Christ have known the Father, and the knowing is given to those prepared by the Word, who in Himself, seats us at the right Hand of the Father.

  10. This conclusion regarding the meaning of is confirmed when we observe how easily its scope was extended to the rest of the Pentateuch, despite the fact that at least two-thirds of Genesis through Numbers is narrative, that is, the story of the Yahweh’s grace in election, salvation, and providential care for Israel, and His establishment of His covenant first with Abraham and then with the patriarch’s descendants at Sinai. When the psalmist declares that the godly delight in the of Yahweh (Ps. 1:2), surely he did not have only the laws of Sinai in mind, for apart from the surrounding narrative, the laws provide no occasion for joy.

  11. Why legalistically oppose following a law to affirm that you oppose lawlessness? Why not just admit that in loving God and one another includes loving “legalists” and loving God so much that you agree with Christ that we can observe all things that He commanded? After all, who are the best of judges of who the legalists are than the ones making the accusations?

    To answer your second question, we can keep the law of the New Testament because it is written on our hearts and it is embedded in love (Heb. 8). “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.”

    Why oppose the Apostle Paul’s legalism for giving instruction for edification and order in the Assembly to the Christians in Corinth and all Christians for Paul teaches the same thing to every church (1 Cor. 1:2, 4:17, 7:17, 14:34-37, 16:1-3)? Paul gave commands for the Assembly for our own blessing. That is why he instructed by Christ’s Spirit to speak, pray, and sing with understandable words rather than by meaningful sounds of superficial religion (1 Cor. 14:7-19). Oh, how I have received legalism from the Spirit of Christ!

    “But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does. If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” Amen.

    • Scot,

      Not once have I promoted lawlessness or lawless living just as not once I have promoted disregarding or disobeying commands that are given in scripture. I am just opposed to a false reading of scripture that turns what is meant to be a life lived by faith into a life lived by the legalism of rules and regulations based on an unwritten creed extracted by ad hoc proof-texting. Such false reading of scripture has come because the New Testament was flattened out, ignoring the various genres of the twenty-seven writings within the NT canon and ignoring, for the most part, the occasional nature each of those writings. Consequently, this resulted in taking, by way of example, what is at best minor issues in the New Testament (such as singing) and making them into a major issues by which the Churches of Christ have historically used as a measure of another Christian’s/church’s faithfulness to Christ.

      Grace and Peace,


      • How can we disobey commands and live lawlessly if there is no law? If we have been “freed” from law as you say, we can’t sin. “Where there is no law, there is no sin.” What they were freed from was the law of Moses, the law of sin and death, Rom 8:1-2. They then needed to understand that they now live under the “law of Christ” How can we live faithfully if there is nothing to follow? To answer your question above, about why God didn’t continue the law of Moses, was because it was given to Israel only for one thing. It could not save anyone, remove any ones sins (Heb 10:1-4) their sins were moved forward yearly by sacrifices. Only the blood of Jesus Christ could remove sins. Heb 7:22 speaks of a better covenant. What is a covenant? It’s an agreement between two or more parties. In this case between God and man. God promised certain things if, man would comply. The only way to comply is for God to instruct us in what to do. James 1:25 speaks of a perfect law, the law of Christ. Those who refuse to follow Christ’s law are lawless.

  12. Brother,

    I do not find that the Churches of Christ have made an issue of instrumental music, but rather the denominations have brought in the instruments. Otherwise, if there were no musical instruments, the churches’ teaching for making music with meaningful words would not be opposed. Singing is a major subject. We are instructed to sing. We do not measure any one by instrumental music, but it is apparent that congregations of people are led astray by false teachers, who focus on instrumental music to make their divide and legalistically judge the churches of Christ as “legalists”. Many have been deceived to cast aside meaningful singing, worship, and observing the tradition Christ as delivered such as the Lord’s Supper. In so doing, the Word of God that can save their souls is cast aside. Singing reveals a root issue, a heart issue when other believers add and annul the words of spirit and life and when the words of Christ’s Spirit concerning worship are not enough and consider imperfect. From this foundation, many errors come from false teachers.

    It appears that one man’s legalist regulation is another Apostle’s command. I do not see the proof-texting or unwritten creed. I do not care for man’s traditional form of teaching or cookie-cutter sermons, but I do find and testify before God that my brethren read their Bibles for all their beliefs and that no traditional proof-texts stand by tradition in the mainstream churches.

    The New Testament does not appear to be occasional in the sense of being void of what all the churches need to know. Peter told those Christians in Bithynia, Cappadocia, and Pontus that Paul wrote to them, but Paul never addressed a letter to them that is “scripture” (2 Pet. 3:15-16). Yet, these churches did have “the Scriptures” already including those writings of the Apostle Paul and others showing the Scriptures were collected and dispersed in the 1st century under the oversight of Apostles like Peter and John. No early church writer quotes an epistle of Paul that is not within apostolic scripture. With the Christian Scriptures being collected under the Apostles’ oversight in the first century, there is no incomplete form or flattening of the Gospel and Christ’s New Testament. Paul did not forget that he referred to Luke’s Gospel as “scripture” in 1 Timothy 5:18 when spoke of scripture in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Luke noted the written narratives of the eyewitnesses of Christ (1:1-3). John spoke of the Apostles writing in the present tense (1 John 1:-4). Peter spoke of the writings of John, Paul, and his own writing being Spirit-guided scripture (2 Pet. 1:16-21, 3:15-16). See, this is what concerns me. This is the root of many errors.

    “Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you” (1 Tim. 4:15-16).

    • I have no desire to hash this out with you. Your understanding of the history of the Churches of Christ and Restoration Movement as it relates to this issue is incorrect in my view. But perhaps you are right…or perhaps I am right. Either way, it’s not something I believe we must agree upon to be brothers in Christ. So we’ll just disagree at this point and move on.

      Grace and Peace,


  13. Raw raw Protestantism! Great video! It really shows how “Bible only” communities are genetically flawed and can never, never, ever unite people who will always “see” different “things” in the Scriptures. It’s almost as if Jesus built a Church that is the pillar and ground of truth (1 Tim 3:15), and is the conduit of wisdom (Eph 3:10), and that Christians are supposed to mind the teachings of the Church leaders (2 Thes 2:15, 3:6), which of course, mandates successors–the Catholic Church of Christ. And of course, real unity is found not by decoding some “pattern”, but in minding the authority of that Church (John 17:20,21).

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