Is Patternism Scriptural?

There’s a school of thought which holds that the church today should conform to the pattern of the New Testament church of century one – exactly, precisely, explicitly, with no variations and no questions asked. If the church of century one did it, we must do it. If the church of century one did not do it, we must not do it.

It sounds simple. It sounds scriptural.

But is it?

I’m not a fan of nitpicking phrases or counting words, but I gotta tell you that I only count a little over a dozen times in the Bible that a word translated “pattern” is used. Most of those uses are with reference to the temple, its fixtures, or other edifices. (Exodus 25:9, 40; Numbers 8:4; Joshua 22:8; 2 Kings 16:10; 1 Chronicles 28:11-19; Ezekiel 43:10; Hebrews 8:5 and 9:24.)

The only two times it is used in reference to doctrine are 1 Timothy 1:16:

Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.

and Titus 2:7-8:

In all things shewing thyself a pattern of good works: in doctrine shewing uncorruptness, gravity, sincerity, Sound speech, that cannot be condemned; that he that is of the contrary part may be ashamed, having no evil thing to say of you.

The latter appears only by virtue of the King James Version, which is usually the favored version of those who hold for the patternism school of thought; other translations render the word differently (“example”). And the sense of its use in Titus is Paul encouraging the young minister to teach sound doctrine (v. 1) and be an example of it – a pattern – to others (the verses quoted).

Similarly, in 1 Timothy, Paul opens this epistle with thanksgiving that through Paul Christ has shown His patience, by sparing him and making him an example of exorbitant grace.

In neither instance is the word used to endorse churches imitating other churches of the day. In fact, a word translated “imitate” is used sparingly in scripture. In the New Testament, Paul will ask others to imitate him, but only insofar as he imitates Christ – or to be imitators of God Himself. And even though Corinth is commended for its generosity, the commendation is seen in the second letter to Corinth – not to other churches, to shame or encourage them to imitate it.

Nowhere in scripture is any church, group of churches or the universal church of Christ held up as a pattern to be imitated. Nowhere in scripture is doctrine elevated as something to be used as the goal for building churches from, as one would build a temple from the instructions God gave to Moses.

Instead, Jesus is the pattern implicit in the teachings of the writers in the New Testament. Ultimately, no one and nothing less than His perfection will do as our pattern.

Can we, as individuals, achieve perfection by our fastidious observation of doctrine?

Oh, come on. Ridiculous question on its face, isn’t it?

Then how could anyone hope to build a perfect church by the same method?

And are any of the churches in the New Testament perfect examples of what a church should and must be?

A quick perusal of the epistles to churches and regions – including the seven in the book of Revelation – would have to yield the answer, “no.”

So, if you’re instructed by someone to “Behold the Pattern!”, ask them pointedly where they get that. Ask them to point out to you where in scripture churches are instructed to use other churches as patterns. Ask them to cite book, chapter and verse for a command, an example or a necessary inference that doctrine is to be used to build and perfect churches.

Then show that person verse after verse about the commands Christ gave; the example Christ was; and the necessary inference that we are to be like Him in this world if we would be wondrously like Him in the next.

The Restoration Movement should never be focused on making the church of century one the pattern for the church of century nineteen or twenty or twenty-one. It should be focused on Christ, and restoring the relationship of souls to God through Him by letting Him perfect them – and their churches – through His blood.

That’s scriptural.

You can prove it.

8 thoughts on “Is Patternism Scriptural?

  1. Then again, you’re making your point of if patternism is Scriptural by utilizing a pattern of searching the Scripture as a compiled text (a text the early church and all the Patriarchs didn’t initially have) to make it… ironic, eh?

  2. “Patternism is nothing more than legalism under a different name. It is the ‘other gospel’ warned of in the Galatian letter. It places our salvation as dependent upon our being shrewd lawyers and clever detectives, picking and choosing from the faint scriptural clues, with the blanks filled in with our own logic. We must fulfill this law to precision or face the fires of hell. This takes the focus off of Christ, His Grace, and our personal relationship with Him” (Daniel E. Shumaker, The Examiner, vol. 8, no. 2, March, 1993).

  3. Recently I heard the question asked, “If modeling ourselves after Christ is not enough for us. . .” Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. ” are some that I aspire to. The church in Corinth even without all its failings and only seeing all the glory given it by the Spirit is not a model to me, but a sister in Christ. I want to model myself after my Creator, not after my sister.

  4. As usual, you are DEAD on!! I think the irony is that the first century churches were trying to model Christ…..He WAS their “pattern”! So, why would we try to do anything less than that? I want to look like, act like, think like, love like, pray like, evangelize like, forgive like, give like, and accept like Jesus did…….not like they did. I agree with Shannon about the way some use the word “pattern”… some it’s legalism pure and simple. In my opinion, this whole “pattern” concept was the fruit of a flawed theology and misson that teaches we are called to “RESTORE the New Testament church”. Hmmm…..I haven’t found that taught anywhere in Scripture. I understand the motive behind it, and I don’t think the initial motive was a misguided one. But, THAT became the focus and the goal instead of the Gospel, and it’s been a trainwreck ever since. That’s just my opinion. Thanks for the link on my blog to the New-Wineskins article about “unity”. That is an AWESOME article. You might consider linking it on your blog.

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