Handling Aright the Words of Truth (XIX)

By Morris R. Bailey

In this article it is my purpose to point out that handling the word of truth aright, requires that we recognize

The Role Of Approved Example

Because of conditions and attitudes that have developed within the brotherhood during the past quarter century, this has become a much discussed issue. There was a time when there was almost complete agreement among brethren as to the role of approved apostolic examples in establishing scriptural authority for a practice. Consequently anything that ran contrary to example was rejected as unscriptural.

Today, however, there are some brethren who deny that an example, of itself, is sufficient to establish authority for any practice. Lest anyone think that this is an unfounded and unjust charge, I call attention to the fact that a few years ago an article appeared in a prominent brotherhood publication entitled, “What constitutes Bible Authority?” In that article the following statements appear; “No example is binding unless it is backed up by a command, specifying what is to be done.” And, “An example, unless backed up by a command that applies to us today, has no authority.” Still another writer is on record as saying, “I will show a Bible command for everything I do in religion, and for everything that God binds on anybody.”

Do not misunderstand me. I am not minimizing the binding force of commands that are applicable to us. There is, or should be, no disagreement among brethren on that point. What I am pointing out is the sentiment of brethren who minimize the authority of examples. The idea that is set forth in the above quotations is that an example only serves to demonstrate what a command authorizes. In that case the authority would inhere in the command and not in the example.

The Position Tested

One of the best methods of testing a position or doctrine is to pursue it to its logical conclusion. This is the method that was adopted by Paul when discussing the no-resurrection doctrine held by some of the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:12-19). If such a testing leads to a conclusion that one would be unwilling to accept it is time for such a one to re-examine his position. This leads us to make the observation that if examples, in themselves, do not provide us with a pattern to follow, we are going to have to revise much of our preaching as well as our practice. That is conceivable, of course. For we should be ready and willing to abandon anything that is not scripturally authorized. But before we begin such a wholesale revision, let us consider the following:

1. The act performed in baptism. Yes, it is by example that the average reader learns what act is performed when one is baptized. Some one says. “Oh, but we know that the word baptize means to immerse.” True; but how do we know it? We will not learn its exclusive meaning from the dictionary, for it defines baptism as sprinkling or pouring as well as immersion. Actually, the word baptize is not an English word, at all, but a Greek word with an English ending. So to define this Greek word, one would have to be sufficiently familiar with the Greek language to speak with authority on the subject. That is a qualification that few readers of the Bible possess.

So it is only by observing the examples of baptism in the New Testament that we can learn what actually took place. There we learn that baptism involves going down into the water and coming up out of the water (Acts 8:38, 39). It requires a burial and a resurrection (Rom. 6:4).

2. The element in which one is baptized. Having established that baptism is immersion, there is implied an element in which one is immersed. But that element does not inhere in the word baptize. It must be learned from the context. Jesus promised that his apostles would be baptized in the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5). He also spoke of a baptism of suffering (Mark 10:38,39). It is only when we go to the examples of baptism that took place under the great commission that we learn the element in which people were baptized in obedience to Christ. At the house of Cornelius Peter asked, “Can any man forbid water that these should not be baptized?” (Acts 10:47). See also Acts 8:36-39. Without these examples one would not know in what element people are to be baptized.

3. Eating the Lord’s supper only on the first day of the week. Acts 20:7 says, “And upon the first day of the week when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul discoursed with them . . . .” This had proved to be a difficult passage for those who are disposed to discount the authority of examples. First; because they are not yet ready to abandon a practice as firmly entrenched among churches of Christ as that of eating the Lord’s supper only on the first day of the week. Secondly; having denied the authority of examples they have cut themselves off from the only passage in all the New Testament where the Lord’s supper is associated with the first day of the week.

They have gone to 1 Cor. 16:2, where Paul speaks of the first day of the week but does not mention the Lord’s supper. They have gone to 1 Cor. 11, where Paul speaks of the Lord’s supper but does not mention the first day of the week. So the fact remains that it is only by the example of Acts 20:7 that we know on what day the Lord’s supper is to be eaten. Take away this vital passage with its example and there is no reason to believe that the Lord’s supper could not be eaten any day or every day.

4. Church government. It is by New Testament example that we learn the form of government that God has ordained for local congregations. Where is the command, addressed to all congregations, requiring them to appoint elders? However, we do have an example. When Paul and Barnabus began retracing their steps on the first missionary journey, “They appointed elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). In writing to Titus, Paul said, “For this cause I left thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and appoint elders in every city as I gave thee charge” (Titus 1:5). True, this was a command; but it was addressed to Titus and is now history, so it becomes to us an example of what God required in regard to the appointment of elders.

Moreover, we learn by example something of the responsibilities of elders and the limitations of their oversight. To the elders of the church at Ephesus Paul delivered the solemn charge, “Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock over which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops, that ye feed the church of the Lord, which he purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Without these examples what would we know about the necessity of elders in every church? What would we know about the limitation of their oversight to the congregation where they were appointed? The conclusion from the above observations is irresistible. Examples do reveal the will of God and are sufficient, within themselves, to authorize a practice.

The Power Of Example In The Home

Webster defines the word example as “1. a pattern”; “2. a model or copy.” Every parent, every teacher, in fact everyone who has been associated with the rearing and educating of children, can attest to the power of example as a teacher. Long before the child is able to fully understand verbal instruction he or she begins to imitate the parents. In fact, that is the way that the child learns to talk, by hearing others talk. Those of us who have had experience in rearing children have often been amused and delighted with their efforts to imitate us. This places a tremendous responsibility upon parents. For it is the example that the child sees in its father and mother that constitutes the first and, therefore, the most lasting impressions in life which will determine to a large extent the course that child’s life will take.

The Testimony Of Scripture

The ultimate authority on the role of examples is the testimony of the scriptures. Time after time the inspired writers of the New Testament appealed to examples to enforce their teaching of the great truths of the kingdom of heaven.

1. Examples were used to warn. In the tenth chapter of First Corinthians, Paul recited Israel’s history of disobedience; in verse six he said, “Now these things were our examples, to the end that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted.” In a similar context the writer of Hebrews said, “Let us therefore give diligence to enter into that rest, that no man fall after the same example of disobedience” (Heb. 4:11).

2. Examples were used by the writers of the New Testament as a source of encouragement to Christians under persecution. The writer of the book of James said, “Take, brethren, for an example of suffering and patience, the prophets who spake in the name of the Lord” (Jas. 5:10).

3. We are urged to follow Christ as our example. “For hereunto were ye called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that ye should follow in his footsteps” (1 Pet. 2:21).

4. The apostle Paul held himself up as an example to be followed to the extent that he followed Christ. “Be ye imitators of me even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).

5. Moreover Paul ascribed equal authority to what he taught by word of mouth and by example. To the Philippians he wrote, “The things which ye both learned and received and heard and saw in me, these things do, and the God of peace shall be with you” (Phil. 4:9).

6. Finally, to say that the New Testament does not teach by example is, in effect, to deny the book of Acts the useful role that it so obviously fills in the New Testament. In giving the great commission to his apostles, Jesus said, “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you ….” (Matt. 28:19, 20). The book of Acts is a record of examples of conversions that took place under the great commission. But the apostles were also to teach the new converts to observe all that Jesus commanded. The book of Acts is, thus, also a record of examples of how churches were set in order, how they were governed, how they worked in preaching the gospel and caring for the poor. From the foregoing observations we conclude that the New Testament does teach by example. Human experience attests to the place of example in teaching. The New Testament declares it to be so.

Truth Magazine XXII: 8, pp. 134-135
February 23, 1978