By Morris W. R. Bailey
Having pointed out in a preceding article that handling aright the word of truth requires that we recognize the role of examples, it is incumbent that we study the somewhat complicated problem of
When Is An Example Binding?
By the term, binding example, it is understood that such an example would carry all mandatory force of a direct command, and that a failure to follow said example would constitute disobedience as surely as the failure to comply with any given command. There are three conceivable positions that may be occupied in regard to binding examples. They are as follows:
(1) No example is binding.
(2) All examples are binding.
(3) Some examples are binding, while others are not.
Having dealt with the first of these positions in the preceding article, I direct your attention to the second of these positions: all examples are binding.
This would obviously be an untenable position for anyone to occupy. Seventh Day Adventists have long made the argument that Jesus Christ kept the Sabbath, and since Jesus is held up as our example, (1 Peter 2:21) we must therefore keep the Sabbath day if we would follow His example. It is not sufficient for us to point out that Jesus kept the Passover, too, for if all examples are binding then we are under obligation to keep not only the Sabbath and Passover, but the various other feasts that Jesus kept.
In addition to the above observation, there is the fact that we find many examples of apostolic action as well as church action with evident apostolic approval, which we have always regarded as incidental and, therefore, not binding upon us today.
Take, for instance, the manner in which the apostles traveled from place to place. Much of the time they walked. Sometimes they traveled by sailboat (Acts 16:11). One gospel preacher rode in a chariot as he preached Jesus (Acts 8:26-31). While it is agreed that it would be permissible for gospel preachers to use those methods of travel today, I do not suppose that anyone would insist that the above examples are binding, or that the gospel preacher is rebelling against God when he drives an automobile or travels on a DC 8 jet to a preaching appointment.
There is also the example of the Lord’s supper being eaten in an upper room, or on the third floor of a building in Troas, as recorded in the twentieth chapter of Acts. When you emphasize the fact that Acts 20:7 is our authority for eating the Lord’s supper on the first day of the week, you will often meet the objection that the chapter that tells that the Lord’s supper was eaten on the first day of the week also tells us that it was eaten in an upper room, and, thus, if the first day of the week is binding, the upper room is equally so.
Still another example is that of using a personal messenger as the means of sending messages and money from place to place (1 Cor. 16:3). So when we try to point out to people today that in New Testament times when a church sent wages to a preacher (2 Cor. 11:8) or benevolent help to another church (Romans 15:26), the money was sent directly to the preacher or church, we meet the objection that if we insist upon following the example of sending directly to the recipient, then to be consistent we must use the personal messenger.
From what has been said it becomes evident that one is thus, by a process of elimination, forced to take position number three: some examples are binding, while others are not. This implies the need for some reliable criteria whereby we can distinguish between binding examples and such as only relate to incidental matters.
A Suggested Rule
For a fuller discussion of rules whereby we can determine the binding, or non-binding nature of examples, the reader is urged to procure and study brother Roy E. Cogdill’s book,, entitled Walking By Faith. Chapter five contains a splendid treatise on examples. In the remainder of this chapter, however, I propose to pursue a line of thought that appears to me as useful in distinguishing between binding and non-binding examples.
In the many discussions with digressive brethren over the use of mechanical instruments of music in worship, it has been pointed out repeatedly that in the apostolic age, and for some time afterward, no instruments of music were used. The force of this argument lies in the fact that they were widely used during the latter half of the previous dispensation. So it therefore cannot be said that there were no instruments in New Testament times, and therefore no opportunity to use them. The opportunity to use them was there. From this we conclude that the Holy Spirit, who guided the apostles in all truth in setting things in order in the churches and establishing their system of worship deliberately excluded instruments of music.
From this fact a principle emerges, which we state in the following words: Whenever we find an example of a practice having been excluded when there was opportunity to include it: or whenever we find an example of something practiced exclusively when other options were available; or wherever we find that a command was consistently carried out in a certain way when other ways of carrying it out were possible, then we may reasonably conclude that the thing excluded, or the thing practiced, or the way in which the command was executed as a part of the truth revealed by, the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and therefore becomes a binding example to us.
This is not to say that other rules suggested by brethren who have written on the subject are not useful. They are useful. But it is my conviction that the above rule will greatly assist in determining whether a given example is of binding force because of its specific nature, or if it relates only to incidental matters. I shall now apply the above rule to some matters that have been the occasion for considerable discussion during the past few years.
The Meeting At Troas
Acts 20:7 says: “And upon the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul discoursed with them, intending to depart on the morrow . . . .” This example is being repudiated by some as having any authority within itself to bind on us the eating of the Lord’s supper exclusively on the first day of the week. One writer (J. D. Thomas, in his book, We Be Brethren) said: “There is nothing in the context of Acts 20:7 to prove that the first-day-of-the-week-meeting was not just an optional meeting.”
This raises a question implied in the rule I suggested. Was there the opportunity to have met on some other day? Does the context indicate that the fact that they met on the first day of the week, and not the third or fourth day, was only incidental? Or does the context indicate that it was a deliberate act.
I suppose that Brother Thomas would agree that verse 6 is in the context, so let us notice it. “And we sailed away from Philippi after the days of unleavened bread, and came unto them to Troas in five days; where we tarried seven days.” Notice that expression: “we tarried seven days.” So there were seven days when they had the opportunity to meet to break bread. But it was not until seven days had elapsed that they met together to break bread which was done on the first day of the week. The matter of their tarrying for seven days is all the more significant when compared with another verse, also in the context. Verse 16 says: “For . . . he was hastening if it were possible for him to be at Jerusalem for the day of Pentecost.”
Tarrying for seven days on a journey when one is hastening to reach a destination is unusual behavior, and can be accounted for only on the basis that there was sufficient reason for such tarrying. But since they met together to break bread on the first day of the week following the seven days of tarrying and the following day resumed their journey, is it not evident that meeting on the first day of the week was the established practice of the disciples? Can anyone give a more logical reason? And since the meeting on the first day of the week to break bread occurred with the approval of an apostle, would it not fall into the category of an apostolically approved example? Moreover, since it is the only scripture that gives us any information as to when to eat the Lord’s supper, are we not thus limited to that one day?
The point is, it was obviously by design that they met on the first day of the week to break bread when they had the opportunity to meet on any one of seven other days.
Human Organizations And Sponsoring Churches
The same rule concerning opportunity may also be applied with reference to human benevolent societies built and supported by the church and sponsoring churches. While these did not exist in New Testament times, it was not for lack of opportunity. There were the poor who needed to be cared for. There was the never ending need to preach the gospel. Had the disciples of that day been thus minded they could have formed a missionary society, and Paul with his tireless zeal would have made a splendid president. They could also have formed benevolent societies with their boards of directors to care for the poor, and Barnabas, with his concern for the poor would have made a splendid president of such an institution. The church at Thessalonica with its zeal for the spread of the gospel (1 Thess. 1:8) could have promoted itself into a sponsoring church, soliciting and receiving funds from other churches to do “a great work.” Yes, the opportunity for the missionary society, the benevolent society, and the sponsoring church was there. But just as the mechanical instrument is conspicuously absent from the worship of the New Testament church, go also were the institutions and organizations of men conspicuously absent from its work. Instead, we know that, working in their congregational capacity, they cared for the poor, and in a third of a century preached the gospel throughout the whole inhabited world (Col. 1:23).
Methods Of Travel, And Personal Messengers
To the foregoing conclusion the objection is sometimes raised that if we must follow the examples of the New Testament church in the matter of benevolence and evangelism, then we must follow the examples of means of travel and the personal messenger for conveyance of letters and money.
But the cases are not parallel. Think a minute. Why did not Paul drive an automobile, ride a train, or fly in a DC 8 jet? Obviously because there were none and, hence, there was no opportunity. Does anyone believe that Paul would have walked, or even ridden in a chariot of that day if our modern vehicles had been available?
Why do we not use the personal messenger today? Again, think a minute. In New Testament times they did not have our modern postal system. Hence the need for the personal messenger. Does anyone believe that if our modern postal system had been in existence then, that Paul would have used a personal messenger?
I trust that the foregoing thoughts may serve to throw some light on the much-discussed question of when examples become a pattern that must be followed in doing the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way.
Truth Magazine XXII: 9, pp. 151-153
March 2, 1978