Determining Authority – Biblically!

By Allen S. Dvorak

I have been receiving issues of the Examiner (edited by Charles Holt) since the beginning of its publication. I have tried to read the articles contained within that periodical with an unprejudiced mind, but I must confess that I have been largely disappointed in what I have read. I have come to accept the fact that I disagree with a great many people on many topics, but an article appeared in the November (1986) issue of the Examiner (Vol. 1, No. 6) with which I must strenuously disagree. It is my intent to review some statements contained in that article.

The article, written by brother Terry Gardner, is entitled “1000 Lawyers or 1000 Bibles?” and deals with the subject of determining religious authority. Before reviewing any specific statements made in the article, perhaps you, the reader, will graciously allow me to make some preliminary observations.


I have learned through experience that it is wise to avoid generalizations, particularly with respect to people. Just as soon as I might make some sweeping statement indicting all the members of a particular class of people of some error, up pops some individual belonging to that people who does not fit the generalization I have made. That’s the problem with generalizations. They rarely fit all the people to whom they are applied.

Brother Gardner introduces his thoughts by referring to the lawyers of Jesus’ day, men who were adept at getting around the purpose of the law and consumed with ritual and detail. Immediately he proclaims, “Our modern lawyers are preachers. They are experts in ‘New Testament law.’ They seek to remove principle from God’s word and replace it with ritual.” I will freely admit that there are probably some preachers who fit brother Gardner’s description, but to lump all preachers together and assign to them the character which brother Gardner does is a little preposterous. I see no statement in his entire article indicating that some preachers may not be “seeking to remove principle from God’s word and replace it with ritual.” Are there no preachers in the world who are interested in simply telling others what “thus saith the Lord”? It has been my experience that when someone starts crying about “everybody is. . .,” he generally has in mind some specific person, but is unwilling to name that particular person and So he swipes at a whole class of individuals. The “shotgun approach” rarely hits only the intended target. Brethren, let us be cautious of the way that we think of one another.

Count Me Out

Brother Gardner repeatedly uses such expressions as “Our modern lawyers,” “Our system,” etc. Who does he mean when he writes “our”? From the content of the article it is clear that he does not approve of the practice of these men he describes as “lawyer-preachers.” I am not sure why he owns this “faulty” system of interpretation that he is criticizing, but if there are men out there who are “seeking to remove principle from God’s word,” I would just as soon not be grouped with them. This seems to be another case of a bad generalization, i.e., members of the church of Christ all use this system devised by these lawyer-preachers and thus it is “our” system. Is this what brother Gardner means to say? What a terrible misrepresentation of countless Christians who seek to study their Bibles apart from any “lawyer-preacher system of interpretation”! I want to go on record as opposing any man-made system of determining authority, “church of Christ” or otherwise! It is my opinion that brother Gardner would concur with that attitude. The question to be answered is, “Does the church of Christ have its own man-made system of determining biblical authority?” (I use the phrase “church of Christ” in an institutional sense which seems to be the way brother Gardner views “us.”)

A Modern System?

The “system” of determining biblical authority which brother Gardner opposes as being of human origin says that we must have a direct command, approved example, or necessary inference to authorize our practices. I confess, and I do so without shame, that I use and teach “that system.” Brother Gardner’s conclusion is that such a system has no biblical support and is the product of the wisdom of “lawyer-preachers.” I am convinced that the “system” is considerably older than brother Gardner realizes. In fact, it is my contention that these three methods do have “God’s stamp of approval”!

In his article, brother Gardner makes the statement “Perhaps there is an approved example where the earl; disciples came to a vexing problem and applied the three ways ‘method’? No.” Contrary to brother Gardner’s assertion, such a thing did happen and an account of the occasion is recorded in Acts 15. The “vexing problem” was the matter of circumcision and this question (15:2) was discussed by the early disciples in Jerusalem. The need for such a discussion arose because some men had come from Jerusalem to Antioch teaching that Gentiles had to be circumcised (in essence, observe the whole law of Moses) to be saved.

Notice the process of determining God’s will on the question. Peter addresses the others present and notes that God chose him to preach to the Gentiles (cf. Acts 10), also pointing out that God removed any I distinction between Jew and Gentile. He contends that God revealed that Jew and Gentile were to be saved in like fashion. May I ask how Peter knew that? Brother Gardner writes, “There is no “example of any man of God (in the Old or New Testament) ever reasoning by ‘necessary inference.’ Can you see God destroying Nadab and Abihu because they were not able by logical deduction to necessarily infer the proper fire to offer Jehovah?” When Peter arrived at the house of Cornelius, he said, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28). How did God show Peter that? What Peter actually saw was a vision in which the cleanness of animals was the point of argument. Could it be that Peter inferred from the vision he had seen that he was not to call any man unclean? Although God did not say that the vision of the sheet was meant to teach him about the clean condition of Gentiles, Peter understood that men were the issue and not animals. And furthermore, Peter also inferred that Gentiles, being “clean,” should be taught the gospel. Did Peter correctly understand what God was implying by the vision of the sheet? The falling of the Holy Spirit upon Cornelius and his household clearly indicates God’s approval of the preaching to the Gentiles. It seems that brother Gardner overlooked Peter’s necessary inferences.

Following Peter’s comments as recorded in Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas declare how they had worked miracles among the Gentiles. What does that have to do with the question of circumcision? It is recorded by Luke in Acts 13 that Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel to the Gentiles at Antioch of Pisidia. They did not require their Gentile listeners to be circumcised either before or after their conversion and yet, as the two preachers testify in Jerusalem, God demonstrated His approval of their message through the miracles which He enabled them to do among the Gentiles. These two men cite apostolic example which was approved by God through miraculous power as being authoritative in answering this question of circumcision. It appears that the apostle Paul was making use of this “system” which brother Gardner claims is actually the invention of modern lawyer-preachers.

The third party to address the disciples in Jerusalem was James. James cites the words of the prophet Amos as he predicted, through the Spirit, the inclusion of the Gentiles in the kingdom (Amos 9:11-12). His appeal is to the direct statement of the Scriptures to authorize preaching to the Gentiles (uncircumcised) as acceptable subjects for salvation.

Brother Gardner asks, “Do you ever see the three ways taught as a system of ‘Biblical Authority’?” Unless I misunderstand the question, I would have to say that Acts 15 answers the question in the affirmative. The “system” used by the disciples upon this occasion consisted of necessary inference (Peter), approved apostolic example (Paul and Barnabas), and direct statement or precept (James). No disciple of Jesus should apologize for suggesting that he/she seeks authorization for his/her practices through the means of these three “methods.” Such a commitment is, in truth, not bowing down to any man’s system of interpretation, but rather following the direction of the Word of God.

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 3, pp. 67-68
February 5, 1987