By Mark Mayberry
Bible authority falls into two categories: general and specific authority. We are very familiar with these concepts, and it is easy to see the difference between the two. For example, one father might send his son to the store, saying, “Go buy some groceries.” This is a general command. If the boy comes home with milk and eggs, apples and oranges, cookies, and coke, he has obeyed his father. All those things come within the scope of his father’s commandment. However, another father might send his son to the store saying, “Go buy some milk and eggs.” This is a specific command. If the boy comes home with milk and eggs, and also coke and cookies, he has not faithfully obeyed his father. In purchasing coke and cookies, he went beyond his father’s command.
Some definitions are here in order: The Random House Dictionary defines the word “general” as “1. of or pertaining to all persons or things belonging to a group or category. . . 3. not limited to one class… 5. not specific or definite… ” It also defines the word “specific” as “1. having a special application, bearing, or reference. . . 2. specified, precise, or particular. . . 5. concerned specifically with the item or subject named. . .”
General authority includes all that is necessary to the carrying out of a command. Specific authority excludes everything except that which is precisely stated. Let us see how the concepts of general and specific authority have a role in establishing Bible authority.
A. Generic Authority
At times, God has left the actual method of obedience to the judgment of Christians. When God has not specified what he wants us to do or the method by which we are to obey, we may use any action or method which comes within the realm of the general command or example. General commands and examples include all that is necessary to the carrying out of that command.
When Jesus gave the Great Commission, he commanded the apostles to “go” and “teach” (Matt. 28:1820). How were they to carry out the command to “go”? Since God did not specify, they could ride, walk, sail, etc. The choice of how to go was left up to man. How were they to carry out the command to “teach”? Since Jesus did not specify a given method, they were free to choose. God’s word may be taught in the public assembly, in Bible classes, on radio or television, through door knocking or personal work, by means of gospel meetings, lectureships, etc. All these are acceptable methods of carrying out our Lord’s command to teach, and no man has the right to bind one specific method to the exclusion of others.
Christians have an obligation to regularly assemble together for worship (Heb. 10:25). However, some would ask the question, “Where are we to assemble?” Since God did not specify, we are free to choose the most expedient place. We could meet in a private home, a rented hall, under a brush arbor, or in a building owned by the church. Because this is a general command, no man has the right to bind one particular method of obedience.
Prayer should be an essential part of Christian life (Phil. 4:6). Yet, some would ask the question, “What posture should we take in prayer?” A reverential attitude is essential, but the Bible does not restrict worshippers to a particular stance in prayer. Instead, we read that various postures are acceptable. Prayers can be offered while bowing one’s head (Lk. 18:13), falling prostrate (Rev. 4:10), standing (Mk. 11:25a), kneeling (Lk. 22:41; Eph. 3:14), lifting up hands (1Tit. 2:8). Since there are many different ways of praying, no man has the right to bind a single posture in prayer.
God has commanded us to worship in song (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). How are we to go about obeying this command? We could sing songs from memory, with the aid of a book, or with the words projected on a screen. What part shall we sing? Shall we all sing soprano, alto, tenor, or bass? Since God did not specify which part we are to sing, we have a choice in the matter. We can sing whatever part that we please. No man has the right to legislate in this area.
B. Specific Authority
At times, when teaching by command or example, the Lord would specify the particular aspects of obedience he required. When God specifies what he wants us to do, or the method by which we are to obey, we are limited to what he says. In such cases we are not free to use any other methods. Specific statements or examples exclude anything outside the scope of that which is specified (Num. 24:1213; 2 Jn. 9; Rev. 22:1819). We must learn to respect the silence of God’s word. The silence of God often prohibits rather than permits.
God chose the tribe of Levi to serve as priests in the tabernacle (Num. 3:57). Furthermore, God warned that only Aaron and his seed were to serve in this capacity (Num. 16:40). The fact that God specified Levi as the priestly tribe eliminated all others. He did not have to individually name each tribe and say, “You cannot serve as priests.” Those who ignored this stipulation were condemned. Even Christ could not serve as priest under the law of Moses, for he was of the tribe of Judah. The writer of Hebrews argues this point as he seeks to prove that the old covenant has been superseded by the new (Heb. 7:14).
The New Testament specifies singing as the type of music God desires in Christian worship (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). This excludes other types of music, such as instrumental music.
The mode of New Testament baptism is immersion in water (Acts 8:3839; Rom. 6:45). There is no Bible authority for any other mode of baptism, such as sprinkling or pouring.
The New Testament specifies that the Lord’s supper is to be observed with unleavened bread and the fruit of the vine 1 Cor. 11:2325). This excludes any other element, such as coke and cookies.
The New Testament records that each congregation was independent and autonomous. The apostles appointed elders in every church (Acts 14:23). Furthermore, the oversight of elders is limited to the local congregation in which they are members (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2). This excludes any arrangement in which a local eldership assumes the general oversight of a regional work. Following such a path leads, not to Jerusalem, but to Rome.
An expedient is simply an advantageous means or method that one may use to accomplish a goal. It signifies that which is suitable for achieving certain ends. Webster defines an expedient as something “useful for effecting a desired result; suited to the circumstances or the occasion; advantageous, convenient.”
As children of God, our goal is to obey and glorify God. Certain things may be allowable in fulfilling his commandments that may not be specifically mentioned in his word. General commands include all that is necessary to the carrying out of that command. For instance, it is reasonable to assume that Noah was allowed to use various tools in building the ark (Gen. 6). How does this principle apply to us? When can a matter be justified as an expedient? The Bible sets forth certain guidelines in this matter, and it is essential that we recognize them. Without such guidelines, men could do anything in religion and justify it as an expedient.
In order for a thing to be an expedient, it must first be lawful. If a thing does not fall within the bounds of what God has authorized, then we have no right to practice it. If no command, approved example, or necessary inference can be found in the Bible to justify a practice, it must be laid aside. Ignoring this principle will jeopardize our relationship with Jehovah God (Matt. 15:79; 2 Jn. 9).
The Old Testament story of Uzzah well illustrates this point (2 Sam. 6:37). When the oxen stumbled, Uzzah surely thought it was expedient to reach out and steady the ark. However, he tragically discovered that an act cannot be an expedient if it is unlawful. God had strictly prohibited anyone from touching the ark of the covenant (Num. 4:15). David is the real villain in this story because he did not make sure the ark was moved as God had directed. The ark of the covenant should not have been carried on an ox drawn cart, however new it might have been. Instead, the law specified that it was to be carried by the Levites. Uzzah was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. He touched the ark and suffered the consequences.
Today certain denominations claim that it is expedient for them to ordain women preachers. Yet, this practice is inconsistent with New Testament teaching. In spite of the powerful influence that can be exerted by a woman, it is unlawful for her to teach in the public assembly (‘1 Cor. 14:3435; 1 Tim. 2:1112).
An expedient has to do with a best choice among various options. Yet, we have no options when God specifies exactly what he wants done. In such cases we are not free to do something else and call it an expedient. When God’s commandments are clear and precise, we have no choice but to obey. To go beyond this is to add to his Word (Deut. 4:2; Rev. 22:1819).
The case of Nadab and Abihu well illustrates this point (Lev. 10:12). These two sons of Aaron died because they offered “strange fire” unto the Lord. The RSV translates this expression as “unholy fire” while the NIV renders it “unauthorized fire.” They did not follow the procedure that God had specified regarding this aspect of temple service (Exod. 30:3438). They suffered the consequences of rebellion.
This point is also illustrated in the matter of baptism. In the New Testament, baptism is repeatedly pictured as a “burial” (Acts 8:3839; Rom. 6:34; Col. 2:12), and the Greek word itself means to dip, plunge, or immerse. Some would claim that sprinkling is a means of carrying out God’s command concerning baptism. Not true! Sprinkling is a substitute. God has specified the “mode” of baptism he desires, and no other will do. On the other hand, whether the immersion takes place in a river, lake, pool or baptistry would be a matter of expediency. God has not spoken in this area, so man is free to choose.
When God commanded us to make music in worship, he specified the type music that he desires: We are to “sing” (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Thus we cannot justify instrumental music as an expedient. It is not merely an aid, but is in fact an addition to God’s commandment. The use of instrumental music is unauthorized and cannot be practiced “by faith.”
There are churches that claim that it is expedient for one set of elders to oversee all or part of the work of other churches. This practice cannot be an expedient because God has specified that elders are to oversee only the church of which they are members (Acts 14:23; 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:14).
True expedients deal with matters of wisdom, judgment, and choice. When dealing with a matter of choice or human judgment, we should never select a path that tears down rather than builds up (1 Cor. 14:26). We must not create strife and division by insisting upon our own way (Phil. 2:34).
Likewise, a thing cannot be considered an expedient if, when implemented, it causes someone to sin. One should not insist on exercising his personal liberty in nonessential matters if weaker Christians would feel compelled to follow his example and thus violate their conscience, and sin (1 Cor. 10:2333; Rom. 14).
The question of authority in religion is the most fundamental of all issues. In Christianity, it is the supreme question. We are treading on dangerous ground when we act without divine authority (2 Jn. 9). When individuals or congregations engage in practices not authorized by the New Testament, they act without divine authority, and are judged as sinners (1 Jn. 3:4). Churches that reject God’s law in favor of human traditions risk forfeiting their right to be lights of the world (Rev. 2:5). Individuals that substitute the will of self for the will of God are in danger of eternal condemnation (Matt. 7:2123). It is important that we “learn not to go beyond the things which are written” (1 Cor. 4:6, ASV). Let’s be able to give “Book, Chapter and Verse” for those things that we teach and practice (1 Pet. 4:11).
Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 19, p. 5-7
October 6, 1994