Monday, May 25, 2009

How Do We Establish Authority? A New Look at Old Questions (Part 2)

This past week I found one of my oldest childhood friends on Facebook. I grew up in a great neighborhood, and his family was one of the main reasons why. One of the ladies in the neighborhood, Mrs. Cawood, had a huge back yard which we used for kickball, dodgeball, and all kinds of games. We spent many summer evenings playing in her backyard. And fortunately we all got along well.

And a main reason we got a long so well is because we all agreed on the rules we used. You had to decide how many foul balls were allowed before you were out, or how many outs there would be per inning. And the worst thing that could have happened is for there to have been that one kid who just had to change the rules all the time to suit them – or they would just take their ball and go home!

Last week I started a discussion with you about the authority of Scripture, in part because of a certain cynicism I think exists among Christians my age and younger about the ways this topic is addressed. And I think one reason for this cynicism has to do with the sense that we in the “church of Christ” just made up rules of Bible authority to suit us. When I was younger I often heard preachers say things like, “There are three ways to establish biblical authority – direct statements or commands, approved examples, and necessary inferences.” Well, says who? Who came up with that formula for authority?

And, though it was drilled into me that we must have authority for everything that we do, I could see lots of things we did that were not spelled out in Scripture: we had a building, we bought space in the newspaper for articles, we had organized Bible classes. But that was explained to me on the basis of generic authority – that since the Bible says we are to assemble, but gives no other specific directive, we could use a building; and since the Bible say we are to teach the Scriptures, using a newspaper column or organized classes are authorized under the general heading of teaching. Some things God has specified (singing as opposed to singing plus instruments; the elements of the Lord’s supper), but other things God has spoken generically about and we have freedom to choose how to carry out His general commands.

Well again, that sounds great, but who made these rules up about generic and specific authority? Or are those just clever ways to justify doing what we want to do while getting around what we don’t like?

I think these are good questions, and I hope to offer some good answers to them. By the very nature of this subject, today’s sermon will require very intense concentration, so I would ask that you shut out any distractions that might make it hard to think critically and carefully as we work through these issues.

Command, Example, Inference

I’d like to ask you to turn with me to Acts 15, to a critical debate that took place in Jerusalem over the issue of Gentiles and circumcision. In the previous two chapters, Paul and Barnabas engaged in the first extensive preaching effort made in predominantly Gentile territory. This upset some of the Jewish Christians back in Jerusalem, because Paul and Barnabas did not require the Gentiles they taught to be circumcised. You can understand why this would have been a concern. All of the first Christians were Jews, which meant that they were all circumcised. It is easy to see how some Jewish Christians, particularly those from a Pharisaic background, could have concluded that all Christians must be Jews first – must be circumcised first.

Acts 15:1 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. 3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. 5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, "It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses."

To deal with this issue, Peter and James joined Paul and Barnabas in contending against those insistent upon circumcision. What I want you to see is how they reasoned in this debate.

The first speaker was Peter, which makes sense since he was the first apostle to preach to Gentiles, to the house of Cornelius in Acts 10.

15:6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, "Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will."

So here is Peter’s argument:
-I went to preach to the Gentiles (uncircumcised). That’s verse 7.
-God gave the Holy Spirit to them, to these uncircumcised Gentiles, just like He did to us (meaning either the Jews in general or the apostles in particular, who of course were Jewish). That’s verses 8-9.
-What was his point in bringing this up? Isn’t Peter point that if God gave the gift of the Holy Spirit to Cornelius and his house without their being circumcised that no Gentile has to be circumcised to respond to the gospel?

Well, obviously! Peter’s argument here consists of drawing a necessary inference from the example of what happened at Cornelius’s house.

The second speakers were Paul and Barnabas, whose comments consisted of a review of the work they did on their first journey.

15:12 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.

Once again you have an appeal made to example. God clearly approved of their ministry because the Lord enabled them to do signs and wonders among them. And since they did not insist on circumcision for these converts, and since God clearly approved of what Paul and Barnabas were doing, bearing witness in the signs and wonders, there is clear divine approval through the example of Paul and Barnabas not to circumcise Gentiles.

Paul and Barnabas, just like Peter, were deducing conclusions based on the implications of the approved example of the first missionary journey.

The final speaker was James, and his speech consisted of an appeal to a direct statement of Scripture.

15:13 After they finished speaking, James replied, "Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
16 "'After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.'

The specific text James uses is Amos 9, which pictured the house of David as a fallen tent, and the restoration of the Davidic dynasty as the rebuilding of that tent. And according to Amos, when the Davidic kingdom was renewed it would be open to “the remnant of mankind.” In other words, what Simeon (Peter’s Hebrew name) experienced that day at the villa of Cornelius was nothing less than the fulfillment of a direct promise of the Old Testament, the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Messiah’s kingdom.

Here in Acts 15 in the context of a debate about the meaning of Scripture, the apostles employed arguments drawing logical inferences based on direct statements from Scripture and divinely approved examples.

Now think with me about what we can learn from Acts 15, in light of some of the common questions and criticisms of “command, example, and inference” today.

First of all, preachers in the “church of Christ” did not make up “command, example, and inference” as a means of establishing authority. No one did! "Command, example and inference" are descriptions of how all communication occurs.

Let me illustrate it like this. We all believe in the "law of gravity." Sir Isaac Newton did not wander into a clearing one day and find a stone tablet that said "what goes up must come down." The law of gravity is not a prescriptive law; no one prescribed it for us like the Ten Commandments. Rather, the law of gravity is a description of what he observed about how things work. What goes up must come down. It is a "law" in the sense that it is a helpful and accurate description of the nature of objects in motion. The fact that the law of gravity is descriptive rather than prescriptive makes it no less valid. What goes up will come down regardless of whether anyone ever used the phrase "law of gravity," because it is simply how things work.

The same is true with command, example and inference. These three methods are descriptions of how we get information, IN ANY CONTEXT. If no one ever used the terms "command, example, and necessary inference" it would not change the reality that we all reason in these ways.

As a matter of fact, I have never heard anyone take issue with “command, example, inference” without appealing to either a direct statement or command, or an example, or by drawing inferences.

For instance, a friend of mine who would be in the camp of those who dismiss the concept of “command, example and inference” wrote this on one of my blogs some time ago:

“Yes we need God's authority. But command, ex, necessary inference wouldn't hold up in a court of law. It is flawed and inconsistent in its application. I don't read my Bible with that filter. The argument for authority isn't laughable, the hermeneutic is, and yes it should be thrown out…I think that we are to be Christ followers. That being said, if Jesus did it or talked about it, then we can do it… So my means of establishing authority is simple. If the principle is found in Scripture, we have freedom to apply that principle.”

So “command, example and inference” are flawed? And yet the very first thing my friend did in this post is draw an inference- he INFERS that since we are to follow Jesus, what Jesus did or talked about we can do. THAT IS AN INFERENCE. And what Jesus did is – His EXAMPLE - or what He talked about – HIS DIRECT STATEMENTS OR COMMANDS - we can do!

In trying to repudiate “command, example and inference” my friend employed them! He wouldn’t call what he did by those terms – but it is what he did, because those concepts simply describe the way any of us think and communicate.

And as such it is not “church of Christ” dogma. Almost four hundred years ago some of the Protestant Reformers encapsulated their view of authority in very similar language:

“The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”
-Westminster Confession of Faith 1646

More recently, a Southern Baptist writer named Mark Dever wrote:

“Everything we do in a corporate worship gathering must be clearly warranted by Scripture. Clear warrant can either take the form of an explicit biblical command, or a good and necessary implication of a text.” -Mark Dever, The Deliberate Church

People who are trying to take the Bible seriously as their guide to faith and practice will reason in these ways because that is how we are wired.

Nor is this way of thinking limited to the realm of religion. My friend said “command, example, inference” wouldn’t hold up in a court of law. What in the world does he think goes on in a trial? When the Supreme Court hears a case the lawyers argue on the basis of what is directly stated in the Constitution, or what precedents have been established by prior Courts, or by what the Constitution necessarily implies.

So I want to be clear in saying that not only are “command, example, inference” a valid way to think– there is no other valid way to think. Anyone who reads the Bible to learn what it means to be a Christian and what a local church is supposed to be will get information the same way Peter, Paul and Barnabas, and James made their case in Acts 15.

Having said that, I think that a lot of times we have made a mistake by declaring, “There are three ways to establish authority,” as if these three terms are the missing 11th, 12th and 13th commandments. Remember, they are descriptive, not prescriptive. Further, there is actually a lot of overlap between the three. Peter referred to an approved example and drew an inference. Paul and Barnabas cited an approved example and drew an inference. James quoted a Scripture, applied it to Peter’s example and then drew an inference.

When Are Examples Binding?

Since this is so clear, why do so many people object to what is frankly obvious? I think the reason is because, as my friend said, “It is flawed and inconsistent in its application.” It is the issue of consistency that is troubling.

So for instance, I believe that we are to follow the example Jesus set with the apostles and observe a memorial of His death with unleavened bread and the fruit of the vine. But according to John 13, at the same time He instituted the Lord’s Supper Jesus also washed the disciples feet, and even said:

13:14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.

So why do I think we should take the Lord’s Supper, but not wash feet? And some people who take biblical authority very seriously think you should, and that I am wrong for not practicing it.

So, how do we decide which examples to follow and which ones not to follow? When are they binding? This is a crucial issue when you read Acts, which contains all kinds of examples of the actions of the early Christians. How do we know when what they did is what we are supposed to do?

When I was in grad school I had a seminar on the Book of Acts, in which each of us would write two papers and then defend them in class. The professor of the class wanted to have some fun, so he created awards, like “Best Defense,” “Best Question,” and “Golden Axe Award.” That was the award for the question that demolished someone’s paper.

Well, there was this guy in class who loved to bully other people and try to get the Golden Axe award. So I decided when his turn came to defend his paper I was going to exact some revenge for those he abused. It so happened he wrote a paper in which his basic thesis was that no examples in the NT are binding on us today. Since some examples were not binding, none were. So when his day came, I asked him this question-I got the idea for this questions from someone else by the way– if your point is that since some examples are not binding then none are binding; since some commands of Scripture are not binding on us, does the same logic mean that no commands are? His answer was “homina homina homina” and the victims in class rejoiced!

Not all commands are binding. After all, the commands we read in those letters were made to other people. All we really have are the examples of what the apostles commanded others. I don’t same this to be dismissive of the letters - the apostles were self-consciously setting a pattern for churches to follow. When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians he was dealing with specific questions and problems at Corinth. And yet he says:

1 Cor. 4:16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 17 That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.

So when we read 1 Corinthians, we are reading an example of what Paul instructed Corinth. So how do we apply those commands? In fact, how do we apply any of the commands of the Bible? I think that the same principles we use to apply the commands contained in Scripture will guide how we apply the examples (since what we are reading is really the record of what the apostles commanded others).

Well of course we would begin with the basic principles of good Bible study. We would want to know what the text says (observation), to understand what the text meant to its original readers (interpretation), and to understand what the text means to us (application).

Some of the key questions we would ask as we decided how commands apply to us are:
1) Does the context limit who the command was made to? Was it a command only to Israel? To the apostles?
2) Is the command is a reflection of specific social setting? Romans 16:16 contains a command to greet one another with a holy kiss. How do I decide how that command is applied? Wouldn’t I ask, what did that mean to them? And deciding that the issue is not the kiss, but the greeting in holiness, and then apply that to the way we greet each other?
3) Is the command was qualified by other information in the text? In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul says it is better not to marry. Is that a universal command? I think the context limits that command to a specific situation, the “present distress,” and that qualification means the command is not for all people of all time.

So, when I read about what the early Christians did, wouldn’t I use these same principles to decide when their actions were normative and binding pattern?
1) Is the example specific to a particular person? In Acts, who gives people the ability to do signs and wonders? Only the apostles. Suggests that example is limited to the apostolic period.
2) Is the example a reflection of a specific social setting? The washing of feet was a cultural practice of hospitality, requiring true spirit of servanthood and humility. It had practical component in the days of dirt roads and sandals. The feet would get dirty – John 13:9 Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" 10 Jesus said to him, "The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. We live in a different social setting in which we have other ways of practicing the eternal spiritual truths of humility and servanthood.
3) Is the example qualified by other information in the text? Jesus ate the supper with the disciples in the upper room. Does that mean we have to? Well, other information in the biblical text indicates that Christians met in a variety of places.

So this means that we have to do some digging and thinking and challenging. But if we believe God’s word is important we have no choice but to give it careful attention.

Maybe one of the underlying concerns that some of my friends have is that this kind of agonizing over the text is just part of the baggage of being “church of Christ.” If that is the case, I can tell you as someone who spends a lot of time reading what people from other backgrounds have to say about the Bible that that is completely false.

One of my favorite authors is a Methodist scholar named Ben Witherington. A couple of years ago he wrote an excellent book that deals with a lot of the same issues I am in this current series. And one of those topics is how do we know when the narrative sections of the Bible, the examples of the early Christians, how do we know when that becomes a pattern we are to follow? When is it the norm? And his answer is the same as mine: “My suggestion would be that one looks for positive repeated patterns in the text.”

This issue – and that answer – are common to Bible students from a wide variety of backgrounds.

Specific and General

So far I have made the case that command, example and inference are descriptions of the way anyone would learn anything from the Bible, and that we have to use the same basic principles to decide when examples are binding for us as we do to decide when commands are binding on us.

But look around you today. You can see lots of things that are not found in Scripture – songbooks, powerpoint projector, a building. There is no command in the Bible to use a songbook or projector or building – no record of these things in the life of the early church in Acts. So on what basis can we say we try to follow the Bible and yet use these things?

What I was taught as a youngster was that there is something called specific authority and generic authority. When God specifies something, that excludes all other options. He told Noah to build an ark – that excluded building a temple. But on the other hand, God did not specifically say what tools to use. Since God did not specify what tools to use, the authority to use hammers, saws, chisels was included in the general command to build. Specific authority is exclusive; generic authority is inclusive.

Here again I think we sometimes are victims of our own terminology. We intuitively understand that all statements have specific and generic features, and when we talk with each other we make decisions about what is specified and what is not. Friday night a few of us went out to eat then over to the Shearer’s to play cards, and Max sent Andrew and the boys to get something sweet for us to snack on. “Go get us something for dessert.” That sentence is both specific and general isn’t it? It is specific with regard to what to get – “something for dessert” – as opposed to a side dish like spinach or lima beans. Anything but dessert stuff was excluded. On the other hand, there were generalities in saying, “Go get us something for dessert.” Cookies? Brownies? Candy? All kinds of dessert were included in the general statement to grab some dessert.

So when we read the Bible, we have to make decisions about how specific God is versus how general He is, and act accordingly.

In the NT we read that the early Christians assembled regularly, and specifically on the first day of the week to remember Jesus’ death. But we also see that they met in a variety of locations: the temple, homes, a school, a riverbank. From that data I draw the conclusion that God is concerned about when we meet - the first day of the week, but not concerned about where we meet.

And we have to use discernment to make these judgments as we seek to honor God and edify each other.

These are not strange, exotic principles only used by those connected with the church of Christ. It is a part of the wrestling with the text of the Bible everyone does who thinks it is important to follow the Bible carefully. Nor are these sophisticated principles of hermeneutics. It is the way anyone communicates and understands anything.

I do not mean to imply that everything in the Bible is as straightforward as “go build an ark.” We of course must be humble and careful as we try to apply what the Bible says, acknowledging our own ignorance and imperfections. But the fact that some questions are more difficult than others to unravel does not invalidate the principles of interpretation used to deal with the tough questions.


  1. Thanks for this article. I am new to the churches of Christ and at times I feel this non-instrumental thing is hard to defend. But, defend it I will. Your article, though brief, is helpful in reminding me of the most
    succint point: "When God specifies something, that excludes all other options."

    I attended worship services at two evangelical churches recently (I was out of town investigating some ministry opportunities) and while I admit that I like instrumental accompaniment in songs I listen to privately, I find it both distracting and intrusive in corporate worship. I really like some of the better contemporary Christian artists out there, but my experience in instrumental worship is that it detracts from natural vocalisation. I felt I was competing with the guitars and drums and amplified voices just to hear my own voice. In fact, I almost became hoarse the last time. I did not enjoy it like I hoped, although the music made it easier to follow along with songs I was not familiar with.

    In the end, it was a relief to get back to my home church and hear and sing acappella again!

  2. Ooops! Wrong article! Sorry Shane!

  3. Shane,

    I am thankful that the truths you teach stand the test of time. I find it encouraging to note in Acts 15 how a major dispute was settled without the benefit of a miracle or other means of direct revelation. It is encouraging that we today can take the same methods and find unity in seeking answers together using the logic God gave us. I am frankly worried at times that many in the church do not understand these principles of authority. We need to diligently teach them to the next generation. Thanks again for your article.