More on Pragmatics and the NCFIC

As most people know, I have used pragmatics to deal with the Family Integrated Churches for a long time. Imparticular, I have been using speech acts to show that the patterns and principles approach to application of scripture is totally insufficient to deal with the application of scripture. The field of pragmatics is a problem for their hermeneutics, because it is so focused on what is said that the pragmatic level is completely ignored.

Yesterday, as I was poking around on the NCFIC website, and I found an article by Voddie Baucham which, again, illustrates more problems with pragmatics in the hermeneutics of the NCFIC. However, this time, it is a misunderstanding of conversational implicature. Now, we have dealt with conversational implicature in the past, dealing with Roman Catholic misuses of Matthew 1:25. As I have said before, conversational implicature goes back to Paul Grice, and the notion that individuals cooperate with one another, and assume certain things when they communicate. Hence, you have what has come to be known as the “cooperative principle” and its several sub-principles. I wrote about this in an earlier post:

Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged[1].

Grice then lists four maxims which help us accomplish this:

1. Quality-Make sure that your contribution is something you believe to be true, and not something you believe is false or which you are unsure of.

2. Quantity-Make sure you are as informative as is required, and not more informative than is required.

3. Relation-Make sure your contribution is relevant.

4. Manner-Be clear by avoiding ambiguity, prolixity, and disorder[2].

In Neo-Gricean theories, some of these principles were collapsed into one. For example, in Horn’s version, all of these maxims are divided into Quantity [Q] and relation [R] maxims, while in Levinson’s Neo-Gricean theory, they were divided into Quantity [Q], Informativeness [I], and Manner [M].

These principles help us to avoid a major problem in language. Consider the following example given by Huang[3]:

John has had nine girlfriends.
a. John has had at least nine girlfriends.
b. John has had exactly nine girlfriends.

The sentence “John has had nine girlfriends” is subject to the interpretation found in both a and b. We could treat this sentence as semantically ambiguous, but the problem is that such an interpretation runs the risk of falling prey to Occam’s razor[4]. The difficulty also is that there are other words that are likewise subject to this kind of interpretation such as “all” or “some.” If someone says, “Some of the candy in the bag is purple,” in terms of strict semantics, this does not rule out the possibility that *all* the candy in the bag is purple. If all the candy in the bag is purple, then some of the candy in the bag is purple. This is a major problem since, as Huang suggests, it would turn a dictionary into an exercise in proliferation[5]. The same analysis can be give to our text:

Joseph kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a son.
a. Joseph kept her a virgin at least until she gave birth to a son.
b. Joseph kept her a virgin only until she gave birth to a son.

Huang, in discussing this problem, suggests that this problem can be solved by a division of labor between semantics and pragmatics. He suggests that, semantically, we can assign the meaning “at least” while getting to “only” or “exactly” through the use of pragmatics, and, imparticular, conversational implicature[6]. The reason has to do with Grice’s Quantity maxim, namely, that a speaker must not be more informative than is required. Thus, one can say that, both in the case of the number 9, and the word “until,” the reason the speaker doesn’t say “exactly nine” or “only until” is that, to do so, would be superfluous. We assume that speakers mean “only” or “exactly” precisely because we assume that they are giving us sufficient information. The same thing goes for the word “some.” If someone says, “Some of the candy in the bag is purple,” we assume that they are giving us sufficient information, and we likewise conclude that only some and not all the candy in the bag is purple.

I had this experience at work recently. A customer and I were looking to see if a particular camera came with a SD card, and we found the word “contents” and then a list [camera, charger, instruction manual, etc.] but we did not find “SD card” on the list. Hence, she went over, and started looking at the SD cards. Why? Because she assumed that the list contained *only* the things written under the “contents.” She assumed this based upon the fact that the person who wrote the list was being sufficient in his communication. []

Because we assume that speakers are following Grice’s principle of Quantity, we don’t have to sit there and say “But it doesn’t say *only* some of the candy in the bag is purple!” or “It doesn’t say *only* nine girlfriends. We assume that, in each case, the speaker is giving us sufficient information, and thus, by Q-implicature, we assume that John has had *only* nine girlfriends, and that *only* some of the candy in the bag is purple. In fact, as Stephen Levinson notes that “in many cases the [quantity] implicatures can be glossed by adding only to the propositional content of a sentence1.”

This is important, because, not only do we use this kind of implicature all of the time, it also helps us more economically deal with human language rather than throwing it into proliferation. However, again, when we deal with men like Voddie Baucham, there is a tendency to make a one to one correspondence between words and meaning, and a one to one correspondence between language and reality, both of which the field of pragmatics has shown. If there is no meaning beyond what is said in the above cases, as Huang noted, we are in serious danger of making language an exercise in proliferation. Yet, in this article by Voddie Baucham, we see that very thing. Baucham says that he is addressing the Nehemiah’s Nursery Argument. He presents it as follows:

In an effort to address this issue, some pastors have employed what I like to call the “Nehemiah’s Nursery” argument. These men feel the need to justify their use of separate spaces for children by appealing to Nehemiah 8 as “biblical” support for their practice. Unfortunately, this passage does not settle the issue. In fact, the passage in question, the broader Old Testament context, and several New Testament examples all serve as evidence against reading the concept of separating children in a nursery during worship into the words of Nehemiah.

The Passage in Question

The first problem with the “Nehemiah’s Nursery” argument is the fact that the passage in question does not suggest that children are to be segregated into nurseries during corporate worship.

“And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.” (Nehemiah 8:1-4, ESV)

A careful examination of what Nehemiah said, and what he did not say will make it clear that it is a stretch to argue for the modern practice of segregating children from corporate worship from this text.

Baucham’s response to this argument is very telling:

The first problem with the Nehemiah’s Nursery argument is the fact that it goes beyond Nehemiah’s words. Nehemiah is emphasizing who came to the assembly. He is not making a statement about who didn’t come. The text reads, “So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard.” Is the phrase, “and all who could understand…” meant to exclude some? Or is Nehemiah merely emphasizing the fact that everyone came? He does not say, “only those who could understand.” He says all (läOk◊w). Every major English translation renders läOk◊w as all in verse two. The Nehemiah’s Nursery argument would be much stronger if Nehemiah had written, _JKAa (only) instead of läOk◊w (all).

Of course, as we have already seen, this is a major problem in pragmatics. Must Nehemiah write down the word “only” every time he means it? As we have already seen, this would turn language into an exercise in proliferation. Also, if Nehemiah means only to say that “everyone came” by the phrase “and all who could understand,” the the statement is unnecessarily prolix. Why include the notion that they could understand if it doesn’t add anything to the meaning? This whole paragraph turns language in to a superfluous exercise in proliferation. For example:

Exodus 25:14 “You shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, to carry the ark with them.

Where does the text say that the ark was *only* to be carried by these poles? And yet, most people recognize the violation of this commandment by the Israelites in 2 Samuel 6 which lead to the death of Uzzah.

Numbers 1:50 “But you shall appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings and over all that belongs to it. They shall carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall take care of it; they shall also camp around the tabernacle.

Where does the text say that Moses should appoint the Levites *alone* over the tabernacle of the testimony?

Numbers 3:12 “Now, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the sons of Israel instead of every firstborn, the first issue of the womb among the sons of Israel. So the Levites shall be Mine.

Again, where does it say anything about the Levites *alone* being taken?

Joshua 6:17 “The city shall be under the ban, it and all that is in it belongs to the LORD; only Rahab the harlot and all who are with her in the house shall live, because she hid the messengers whom we sent.

Where does it say that all that is in the city belongs *only* to the Lord?

I could keep going, but you get my point. To demand that *any* author in *any* language write “only” whenever he is giving sufficient information would turn language into an exercise in proliferation. Also, in some of these instances, men were *killed* for not recognizing the conversational implicatures in these verses! It is simply a horrible argument to suggest that “it would make the argument stronger” if “alone” were here. Yet, Voddie writes:

What Nehemiah said is important. However, what he did not say in this passage may be even more important. Nehemiah informs the reader as to who came to the assembly, but he does not say who, if anyone, was absent. That must be implied from the text. Therefore, making pronouncements about who is not welcome in corporate worship based on this passage is a tricky proposition. To do so is essentially to make an argument from silence.

No, if you that people are intending to be sufficient with the information they are giving, then it is not an argument from silence. As I showed above, to not follow the Gricean maxim of quantity utterly destroys any ability to make sense of the Hebrew Bible, and I would argue that it is impossible to make sense of any human language. When Voddie follows a recipe for making cookies, does he look at the ingredients in the recipe, and say “Well, it doesn’t say *only* these ingredients, so I am going to add some beef to the cookies.” Of course not. He uses *only* what the recipe requires, even though it doesn’t say “only.”

Nehemiah Did Not Say “Children”

Nehemiah could have been referring to children, but not necessarily so. It is true that Nehemiah could have been referring to the absence of children in the assembly. However, it is not necessary to read the text this way. There is no precedent in the Old or New Testament for children being excluded from the general assembly of God’s people. In fact, quite the opposite is true. There are numerous instances where men, women and children are present in public assemblies and worship (see: Deut. 31:12-13; Ezra 10:1; Matt. 18:1-5; 19:13-15; Eph. 6:1-4; Col. 3:20).

Of course, I don’t think we are talking about the general assembly here. I think we are talking about the retraining of the people in the law of God after they had abandoned it during the exile. The “teaching” element of the context of this passage should determine how we read it. This passage would then refer to discipleship, which would be heavily relevant to the NCFIC.

I don’t think using this passage in the context of a nursery is helpful. Voddie puts this argument into its weakest form, and then tries to say “well, what about those who are mentally incapacitated.” If we reformulated the argument, not to nurseries specifically, but to discipleship in general, then the argument would have much more bite. It would show that there could be a separation between those who are capable of understanding and those who are not in Nehemiah’s day.

The rest of Voddie’s post is, again, totally missing the significance of the list of children in passages like Deuteronomy 31. The reason children were there is because this was the seven yearly official reading of the covenant obligations, and the children are part of the covenant. In Ezra 10, there is public morning for the sin of God’s covenant people, and since children were part of the covenant people, and hence, when the covenant people mourned, so would the children. Again, nothing in the text is intending to give any kind of directive as to how the assembly of God’s people must be handled. I deal with all of these things and the other texts Voddie brings up in this article, where I show that, carefully considered against the context in which these texts are found, the intent of the text is *not* to provide a directive for how discipleship must be done. However, again, one has to look beyond simply what is said to what the text is intending. That is why I will continue to criticize the NCFIC’s lack of attention to pragmatics. Suffice it to say that the text of scripture does not provide us with any directive on whether discipleship should be age specific or age integrated. That whole issue was simply not a concern of the writers of scripture.

Finally, the only way that this text would “stretch credulity” is if one assumes that the pragmatic level of language does not exist, and one misuses other texts of scripture to try to make the Bible command something it just simply does not by again ignoring the pragmatic level of language. Why the NCFIC is so intent upon completely ignoring an entire field dealing with linguistic meaning, I don’t know. Throwing out the Gricean maxims of communication, in my mind, stretches credulity, because doing so turns language into an exercise in proliferation. It also really stretches credulity when you go to other passages dealing with things obligatory to all in the covenant, and apply them to all instances of discipleship. However, what is more disturbing about this post is that there really is a sense in which Voddie demands a one to one relationship between what is said and meaning with this post. Voddie says that this is “what Nehemiah did not say.” What is said is only one element of linguistic meaning. It is intimately related to the pragmatic level, but you simply can’t chop that level of meaning off, and expect to still accurately handle what the text says.

1Levinson, Stephen C. Pragmatics; Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. Cambridge University Press. 1983 pgs. 106-107; brackets mine.


4 Responses to “More on Pragmatics and the NCFIC”

  1. Shawn Mathis Says:

    “If someone says, “Some of the candy in the bag is purple,” in terms of strict semantics, this does not rule out the possibility that *all* the candy in the bag is purple. If all the candy in the bag is purple, then some of the candy in the bag is purple.”

    Good one. Reminds me of my college class in logic. There, however, ‘some’ meant anything less than ‘all’ (for the square of opposition). In ‘normal’ everyday language, ‘some’ usually means anything less than ‘most’ and ‘most’ is less than ‘all’.

    Also, these men are driven by an idea and thus modify their otherwise normal language skills to perpetuate that idea. Case in point: where does it say in Romans “faith alone”? It does not. But as Luther pointed out to his Roman Catholic detractors, the meaning is there even if the word is not. I think these men would agree.

  2. Shawn Mathis Says:

    Adam: It seems to me Mr. Baucham and Mr. Brown need to compare notes first before writing about Nehemiah. Mr. Brown wrote this:

    “For these reasons, Nehemiah 8:3 cannot be used as a proof text for age segregation as it is practiced today…Rather this passage is an example of a generally age-integrated gathering with the only possible segregation being one of comprehension, not of age.” (p.201, A Weed in the Church)

  3. Shawn Mathis Says:

    Wow. I just read the entire article by Mr. Baucham (Nehemiah’s Nursery). I will just make observations about things that jumped out at me.

    First, he skewers himself with the same weapon he used against others:

    “As stated earlier, even if Nehemiah had expressly forbidden children from participating in the general assembly, there would still need to be more than that in order to suggest a normative principle. Narrative is not normative…”

    Yet he argues by the *narratives of various texts* that children were present in various assemblies in both Testaments and so should be part of today’s assemblies. He moves from narrative to normative.

    Furthermore, he asks a question he cannot answer for his own position: “Where is the didactic teaching that promotes the segregation of children? It is simply not there.”

    In my extensive research (essays, speeches, movie and book), I have yet to find a didactic passage that requires the integration of children in various Christian assemblies (remember, the NCFIC is arguing for integration in all gathers as a rule, not just public worship).

    But there is more to be gleaned from this article. Mr. Baucham points out that the Jews had “segregated sections of the assemblies.” If he did more spade work in the history of Jewish worship, he would know that *during the time of Christ* families were physically segregated in temple worship. And the same was true for Synagogue worship. But this runs counter to an NCFIC narrative that consistently misunderstands the facts of history.

    Lastly, it is quite fascinating to see how easily Mr. Baucham throws out the its-only-the-OT-after-all argument, “the New Testament church no longer employs exclusionary Old Testament patterns in worship. Therefore, even if Nehemiah was making a reference to the absence of children, that in itself would not be sufficient grounds to argue for the systematic exclusion of children from the gathering of the New Testament church.”

    It seems the same could be said for the regulation of families (contra Patriarchy movement) or discipleship or teaching (contra NCFIC). To whit: “Therefore, even if Nehemiah (or Moses, etc.) was making a reference to the *inclusion* of children, that in itself would not be sufficient ground to argue for the systematic *inclusion* of children in the gathering of the New Testament church.”

    The above argument is the *exact same* as Mr. Baucham, except that the subject has been changed. When one’s argument can be used this way, it surely highlights the weakness of the argument or the intractable bias of the author.

    The zeal of these men to strengthen families is commendable. The dangers of youth-oriented, niche market approaches in churches is real. But age-segregation is not the fundamental problem for the youth–or a secondary problem. The problem is too little Gospel in too many churches.

  4. otrmin Says:


    The contradictions you point out in the normal way these folks argue is interesting. It is so tough to throw out linguistic pragmatics. Still, I do think the way Baucham has treated this text is consistent with trying to get away from pragmatics as much as possible. It is a sad sight to see. Anyway, I guess I can keep pointing it out, and hopefully, people who are struggling with this issue may end up doing a search, and find one of our blogs, and hear both sides.

    God Bless,

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