The “Pattern Controversy”

Brethren who treat the Bible as but a book of principles to follow, but argue vehemently that God did not give us patterns to follow, have become more embolden in their newly found “truth.” Men such as Max Lucado, Rubel Shelly, Al Maxey, Cecil Hook (deceased) and others have been quite vocal. Lucado said “The Bible is a love letter as opposed to a blueprint . . . for me, for years, Christianity was a moral code. It is now become a love affair. For years there were rules and regulations, now it’s a relationship” (Tulsa World, March 12, 1989) (December, 1996 radio program over KJAR, Lubbock, TX). Shelly said, “I reject pattern theology . . . I am not looking for a pattern, I am looking for a person” (Missouri St. Church of Christ, West Memphis AR, April 20-21, 1990). Cecil Hook regarded God’s commands as “divine directives” and that we are to follow the principles, not the specifics. Al Maxey says he doesn’t deny “the presence of a biblical ‘pattern’ (if one feels compelled to employ such a term)” but he believes it is “limited” to patterning ourselves after Jesus. Otherwise, he is not reluctant to label brethren who believe God has given us patterns that identify the New Testament church in its work, worship, etc. He has manufactured every derogatory phrase imaginable to describe these brethren as having a “legalistic and patternistic mindset,” “factionalists,” “Calcified Callous Recalcitrants,” as practicing “Copy Cat Christianity,” etc. Although these brethren previously believed instrumental music in worship was unauthorized, they now believe it is permissible and will argue for the right to use it and that the Lord’s Supper is not limited to the first day of the week.

Is God A Pattern-Giving God?

In building the tabernacle God told Moses to “make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mount” (Exod. 25:40; Heb. 8:5). Beyond a shadow of a doubt, there is absolutely no reason to misunderstand that God gave Moses a pattern and He intended for him to follow it in all things. Now, imagine Moses arguing, “Wait Lord. I’m trying to follow a person, not a pattern!” When Moses followed the pattern, he was following the person! That would have fallen just as flat with God as it does for those who so argue today. For God’s giving such a pattern and Moses’ following it, did it mean they both had a “legalistic and patternistic mindset?” Rejecting the pattern is to reject the God who gave it.

God gave a pattern for Noah to build the ark. Suppose Noah had said, “God, I just want to follow the principle, not the plan.” Not only did God give a pattern for the tabernacle, He also gave one to Moses for making the ark of the covenant, including how it was to be moved. Imagine Moses saying, “Lord, if you keep giving me patterns, you are going to turn me into a ‘Calcified Callous Recalcitrant’!”

David said, “O, how love I Thy law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psa. 119:97). Was David being legalistic? No, the reason he loved the law was because he loved the Lawgiver! Why can brethren not understand that there are conservative brethren today who love God’s laws and His patterns because they love the One who gave them? Love for God is what motivates me to endeavor to follow those patterns and to teach others to do so.

You will notice that God’s telling Moses to “make all things according to the pattern” is repeated in the New Testament (Heb.8:5). Was that just intended to take up space or is there a lesson that we are supposed to learn? What lesson would it be other than that we also are to follow the patterns God has given us? Paul said, “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we thought the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Rom.15:4). What is it that we are supposed to learn from Moses making all things according to the pattern? Let these brethren tell us. And notice also that these things written before give us comfort and hope? How so, if there is no pattern to follow?

Concerning the disobedience of Israel and the punishment and consequences that came upon them, Paul said, “now all these things happened to them as examples...” (1 Cor. 10:11). Examples to whom? “…And they were written for our admonition upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” That’s us! Notice, in both of these passages God saw fit that these things were written (and likewise preserved) for us. If they are not significant to our obedience then they are just wasted space. But consider also that they are “for our admonition (warning).” What warning are we to receive about their disobedience? That it will be recompensed and that God will only tolerate it for so long.

When the pattern for transporting the ark of the covenant was not followed, at least 50,071 people died, including Uzzah. If such things were written for our learning and admonition, what are we to learn and what is the warning for those of us for whom this was written? What is the application? How could anyone miss it?

Two Separate Issues

Denying that God gave us patterns is a distinct issue from seeking to ascertain what is included or not included in those patterns. When brethren take the position that “patternism” is foolishness, then we are in a different ball park than we are with brethren who believe God has given us patterns but they may disagree on whether some things are incidental or required. If a brother who does believe God has given us patterns should be found to be inconsistent in his application that does not mitigate in the least against the fact that God has given us patterns to follow. Man’s inconsistency proves nothing about how God has instructed us. It only serves as a smokescreen.

Did God Give A Pattern in Marriage?

Sometimes the truth can be better seen by looking at the consequences of not following the patterns God gave. God gave a pattern in marriage. When Jesus was questioned about marriage, he went back to the original pattern (Matt. 19:4; Gen. 1:27; 2:21-24). That pattern included one man and one woman. It did not include any other combination or alternatives. Advocates of the “new morality” and “situation ethics” don’t believe we have a definite pattern to follow. Some religious folks have even tried to justify sodomite marriages and polygamy from the Scriptures.

If there is no pattern in marriage, then anything goes–and eventually everything will. It is not merely freedom that some are after, it is a “free-for-all.” If there is no pattern, who can condemn sodomy, polygamy, polyandry, pedophilia, fornication, adultery, bestiality, etc.?

Did God Give A Pattern to the Plan of Salvation?

When one takes what the New Testament says concerning the response God wants from man in order for him to enter into Christ and be saved from his sins, he will find that God has a pattern that is the same for all who can read with understanding. If man is to have faith, he must first hear the gospel (Rom.10:17). This means to hear with understanding, for tiny babies can hear it audibly without understanding. If he is to have saving faith (from the heart, Rom. 10:10) he must repent of his sins (Acts 17:30; 2:38). He must be willing to confess his faith (Rom. 10:10). And he must be willing to be baptized into Christ for the remission of his sins (Rom. 6:3-5; Acts 2:38; 22:16). This baptism is a burial and this obedience must come from the heart (Rom.6:17).

If there is no pattern, then there may be as many ways to be saved as there are people. Some brethren who deny God has given us patterns have followed this to its logical conclusion and have decided to fellowship those who had water sprinkled on them as infants. Cecil Hook didn’t believe we should be dogmatic over whether baptism is sprinkling, pouring, or dipping the head. Such compromising of the truth is not what it means to be “free in Christ.” It means a “free-for-all” in which anything goes. Thus, Max Lucado can instruct listeners on the radio to pray the sinner’s prayer to be saved instead of telling them what Peter said (Acts 2:38).

Is There A Pattern for the Organization of the Church?

Christ is the head of the universal church (Col.1:18). The universal church has no other organizational structure. While they were alive, the apostles had authority given to them by Jesus and they were guided by the Holy Spirit to preach and reveal truth.

In the local church, God’s pattern included that elders (overseers of the flock) be appointed and that men be appointed as deacons as special servants along with all the saints (Phil. 1:1). He even gave a pattern for their qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Tit. 1:5-9). God made no provision for apostolic succession after their work was completed.

If there is no pattern for the organization of his people then anybody can be appointed to oversee the congregation. Tell the Disciples of Christ that “there is no pattern” and they will say, “Great! We can have a Missionary Society and we can appoint a President over us!” Tell the Methodists “there is no pattern” and they will respond, “Great! We can have The Methodist Conference and regional bishops.” The Baptists can have their Southern Baptist Convention. The Catholics will respond, “Great! We can have a universal bishop (pope), along with the college of cardinals. archbishops, dioceses, and we can have a headquarters in Rome.” And our brethren can have their “Sponsoring Church” arrangement. Or, has God, by general authority, authorized all of these?

The very moment you object to any of these, you have said there is a pattern that has been violated and you need to show us what it is.

Does The New Testament Reveal A Pattern for Our Collective Worship?

Jesus said worship must be in spirit and truth (John 4:24). This worship included singing and making melody in the heart (1 Cor. 14:15;Eph. 5:19). Prayer and preaching were also included (1 Cor. 14; Acts 20:7). Paul gave instruction on partaking of the Lord’s Supper in the assembly (1 Cor. 11:20-34). Inspiration tells us that “the disciples came together on the first day of the week to break bread” (Acts 20:7). Churches were also ordered to take their collections on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:1, 2). Of course, all worship and service must be from the heart and out of a love for God (1 John 5:3).

My wife and I studied with a couple who were of the “Pentecostal holiness” persuasion and had grown up in a church that handles snakes in their collective worship. The man told us of his mother playing the piano while a big rattlesnake lay on top of the piano at eye level while she was playing. I have never questioned the sincerity of those people.

Suppose a group of new converts were to start attending where Al Maxey preaches whose background was in a snake-handling church. They sincerely feel that handling serpents in the worship tests and strengthens their faith and makes them feel closer to God. What would he do? Would his only objection be that “it’s dangerous”? Or would he object that snake handling was never included in the worship of the New Testament church and that it violates the pattern of what is included? If he did that would it make him a dreaded “legalistic patternist”? What if they charged him with that? How could he deny it? The same could be said if other converts wanted to bring in religious dancing, incense, lighting of candles, the rosary, etc.? For the sake of unity, brother Maxey is willing to accept instrumental music. Would he accept these other things for the same reason?

The point is, when you say there is no pattern you have opened a door that will become exceedingly difficult to close, if not impossible. It then becomes a free-for-all in the assemblies and one can often see the results of that in some of the contemporary electronic churches.

In the debate on instrumental music between Alan Highers and Given O. Blakely (1987), Blakely (from the Christian Church) contended that “worship is a right thing to do and there is no wrong way to do it.” He was saying “there is no pattern.” If that be the case, then anything goes.

Is There A Pattern for the Work of the Church?

The local church has a mission to evangelize (1 Thess.1:7, 8). Paul said the church at Thessalonica had become an example to all that believe. The church is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). The churches in Antioch and Philippi were also such examples (Acts 14:26; Phil. 4:15, 16).

The local church is to edify its members (1 Cor. 14:26; Eph.4:12, 16).

Further, the local church has certain saints whose benevolent needs were to be met (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Cor. 16:1, 2; etc.). These are the things God included in the work of local churches.

But “the people sat down to eat and drink (in the ‘fellowship hall’) and they rose up to play (in the gymnasium)” and a whole new area of recreation and entertainment became the work of many congregations, consisting of Super Bowl Parties, birthday parties, wedding and baby showers, anniversary celebrations, ping pong and pool tables, video games, TV lounges, etc. It has not yet reached an end. If brethren continue to follow the denominations they will also have bowling alleys, swimming pools, McDonald’s, SubWay, Starbucks, etc. The only scripture given is that “it keeps the young people off the street.” In many cases, the place where church members play is larger than the place in which they worship. Other “social gospel” projects include screenings for various physical maladies, polling places for voters in the elections, etc.

If “there is no pattern,” then anything goes and there is no wrong way to do it. This doctrine takes authority away from God and gives more to man. No wonder the doctrine is so attractive! No wonder some advocate mixing the Lord’s Supper with a common meal as brother Maxey, John Mark Hicks (formerly with Harding Graduate School), F. LaGard Smith, (Pepperdine University), J. Stephen Sandifer (lecturer at Abilene Christian University), and others. No wonder many no longer object (and actually defend) instrumental music in worship.

A Case in Point: The “Disciples of Christ”

The seed began with the introduction of the “missionary society” in 1849. There was no pattern that would forbid it. The same was true for instrumental music in 1859. These brethren eventually became known as the “Christian Church.” Today, the “Disciples” now have a president and a convention. They have joined the COCU (“Churches of Christ Uniting,” an ecumenical group of eight denominations, some of which practice infant membership through sprinkling). In their 1987 convention in Louisville, Kentucky (Indianapolis Star), they refused to pass a resolution calling homosexuality a sin because medical science has not yet determined what causes it and they refused to pass a resolution saying Jesus is the only Savior. In their ecumenical mindset they were too concerned about what other world religions would think. Let’s see, no pattern in the work of the church, no pattern in the worship of the church, no pattern in the organization of the church, no pattern in the plan of salvation, no pattern in morality and no pattern as to who is the Savior! But the truly shocking thing is that just a little over 150 years ago these would have been our brethren! Can our “no pattern” brethren today not see that they are headed down the same path as they attempt to throw off this “heavy burdensome yoke” of having to follow God’s patterns?


Our brethren who want radical changes in the church need to answer some fair questions. (1) Is anything really true concerning the church, its terms of admission, its worship, its organization, and its work? (2) If so, how does one discover these truths? (3) When he puts together what God has said on any of these subjects, has he not discovered God’s patterns? (4) If nothing is really true regarding the terms of admission, worship, work, and organization of the church, then will you not agree that “anything goes”? (5) Will you not agree that the “Disciples of Christ” are right in not being dogmatic on anything?


Jesus told the apostles to teach those whom they had baptized “to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). Paul said, “The things which ye both learned and received and heard and saw in me, these things do: and the God of peace shall be with you.” Were they teaching “Copy-Cat Christianity”?

Many of those who want to change the church to their own liking are now contending that there are Christians in all denominations. If that is so, then they got there in one of two ways. Either they: (1) heard a denominational preacher preach the truth on the plan of salvation and obeyed it, which is highly unlikely since the overwhelming majority don’t teach the truth on this subject; or (2) they listened to the preaching of men like Cecil Hook, Max Lucado, Rubel Shelly, Al Maxey and others and they saw no significant reason not to merge and meld in with them.

As many brethren are attempting to destroy the distinctive identifying characteristics of the New Testament church and are now fellowshipping the denominations, we need men who will stand up and not preach a squishy gospel or give an “uncertain sound” (1 Cor. 14:8) that results in many leaving the church for the denominations.

By Dick Blackford

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