By Edward O. Bragwell, Sr.
Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven (Matt. 7:21).
Three procedures are crucial in determining and doing the will of God: information, interpretation, and application. Error in any of these causes one to miss the mark. So, care must be exercised at each, juncture.
All Scripture is inspired of God, able to make one wise unto salvation, and furnish the man of God unto every good work (2 Tim. 3:14-16). Therein is God’s complete and final revelation to man all the information needed to do God’s will (Jude 3).
Knowledgeable Bible students, good concordances, commentaries, good articles, good books or other helps may great assist us in finding the needed information, but we must accept only the Scriptures as divine authority. The noble Bereans had an open mind to receive help from those who preached to them, but they were careful to “search the Scriptures daily to see if the things were so” (Acts 17:11). Such is an excellent practice.
One needs all the information on a subject before deciding what God’s will is on that subject. One verse, one chapter or even one book seldom has all of the information needed. For example, the steps in becoming a Christian are put together by combining the information from several passages. The same is true of what God expects of us in worship to him and other aspects of his will.
After gathering information from the sacred text, one must correctly interpret it. Even though we often hear, “Oh, that is just your interpretation,” from some whom we try to teach, “interpret” is not a bad word. Brethren sometimes, out of frustration, reply, “We do not interpret, we just take what it says.” Perhaps it would be more profitable and accurate to ask such a person to show us wherein we have misinterpreted or mishandled the word of Truth. We also rightly deplore the Catholic idea that the Scriptures must be officially interpreted by the Church.
So, if, by “interpret,” one means arbitrarily giving the Scripture a meaning that suits him, then no one has the right to interpret. However, if by “interpret” one means determining the correct meaning in the light of context, word definitions, idioms, etc., then we must do a lot of interpreting. Words must be considered in the light of their definitions, contexts (general and immediate), historical settings, etc. For example, David said, “I prevented the dawning of the morning” (Psa. 119:147 – KJV). Did David keep the sun from rising? Looking up the archaic definition of “prevent” (to go before or precede) helps to understand that David simply meant that he got up before daylight. It took a little “interpreting,” but we now know what David was really saying.
“Oh,” but you say, “I still think we should always just take the words at face value without any interpreting.” It is not always that simple. Sometime ago, while visiting my hometown, I met a brother, whom I had known from childhood. He asked if I had heard that a certain married couple, whom we had both known for years, had been separated. When I expressed surprise, he said, “Well, it must be true, because last week during our meeting down at (he called the name of the place), she (the wife) came forward at the invitation song and the preacher said she had ‘left her first love.”‘ How could I argue with evidence like that? It is obvious that my friend accepted the words, at least in his mind, at their face value – without interpretation,
So, while no one has the right to interpret, or more correctly misinterpret, Scripture any way he chooses, everyone has an obligation to interpret correctly.
After searching the Scriptures for information and correctly interpreting it, thus having a clear understanding of the teaching, one must proceed to application. He must translate his knowledge into faith and practice. He must apply what he has learned to situations at hand. For example, he reads that “lasciviousness” will keep one from the heavenly kingdom. He correctly interprets the term. Now, he must apply it to certain speech, gestures, clothing, etc.
We learn from the Scriptures that New Testament congregations were always autonomous. We must apply this principle to the structure of congregations today to see if we are in harmony with it.
It is important that we understand both principles and applications. It is my conviction, based on observation, that the same basic problems repeat themselves among brethren because of a failure to grasp both principles and applications. Some understand scriptural principles quite well, but have problems progressing from principle to present-day application with any degree of accuracy. They may believe the New Testament teaching of the autonomy of the local church, yet not see that “associations,” “conventions” and “sponsoring churches” violate the autonomy principle. They understand that the Bible commands “modest apparel,” but are hard pressed to name any specific clothing that should be considered immodest.
Conversely, some have learned, from applications they have heard teachers make, that certain things are right or wrong. So, they may vigorously defend certain practices while opposing things that are exact parallels in principle. Or they may oppose certain things while accepting parallel items. For “ample, some have heard so much preaching against certain immodest articles of clothing that they would not be caught in public wearing these items. Yet, let a new style come along that may be just as sensual as what they already accept as wrong and they are the first to wear the new thing – maybe even to church. Or they may be heard speaking and seen gesturing in a way that reflects as much immodesty of character as anything anyone has ever worn. They believe certain things are “immodest” without having really learned anything about modesty.
The failure to understand both principle and application spells trouble down the road. An analysis of the institutional controversy of the ’50s and ’60s illustrates this problem. Generally speaking, all sides of the institutional/sponsoring church controversy taught the same principles. It was rare to find a preacher who would not say that: (1) the church is sufficient to do all that God gave the church to do, and (2) the Bible teaches congregational autonomy. The differences arose over the application and/or misapplication of these principles. The divisive controversies of the 1800s and early 1900s had left most brethren with the deep conviction that churches of Christ should not support “missionary societies” nor use “the instrument” in worship. No preacher, on either side of the issues of the 1950s and 1960s, wanted to be identified as endorsing either the societies or mechanical instruments of music in worship. Most of them had heard from their youth that such innovations were wrong and to be avoided. However, many showed their lack of understanding of the principles that made the societies and instruments unscriptural innovations. They had learned the applications well but had failed to grasp principles.
They did not see that the principle that makes it wrong to build and maintain societies through which churches do their preaching work, also makes it wrong for churches to build and maintain benevolence societies through which churches care for the needy. They had trouble seeing that the same principles that make instrumental music wrong, also makes other innovations to the work and worship of the church wrong. While many held steadfastly to the principles, they did not apply the principles across the board. As the years passed, many have abandoned the principles. They have come to see that they cannot consistently hold to the principle of congregational autonomy while supporting institutions and “sponsoring churches,” so they no longer believe in the autonomy principle. Some have seen that they cannot maintain the principle that we must have command, example, or necessary inference for all that we do in religion while practicing many of the innovations (such as the many “ministries” and “ministers” not found in the New Testament) of the past few decades. So, many no longer make any pretense of holding to such a principle of authority.
This is why it is so vitally important for those who still have a deep respect for scriptural authority to spare no effort in fully collecting, properly understanding, and correctly applying the information contained in the Book. Once we understand the principles with their applications, we need to fully teach them. It is not enough to just teach scriptural principles without making clear and logical applications as we teach. Nor is it enough just to list the specific applications without making every effort to help folks fully understand the principles behind the applications. Let us learn skillfully to combine the two unto the edifying of the church.
Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 2, pp. 38, 55
January 18, 1990