Examples and The Pattern
Many questions concerning the New Testament pattern for the church and our personal lives are reduced to questions about how to interpret New Testament examples. "Are no examples binding?" "Or, are all examples binding?" "How can we decide which examples God intended for us to include in the pattern?" Our conclusions on many issues, such as church organization, are built upon the answer to these questions. Therefore, to properly examine these issues, we must first examine the root of all such issues, "When are New Testament examples binding?"
The Heart of the Matter
This study can be divided into and based upon two fundamental points. First and foremost, as in all of our previous studies, we must recognize the supremacy and authority of God's pattern. Secondly and closely related to this first point, we must determine how the Bible examples fit into this pattern. This second point is really the heart of the matter because the Bible does not provide direct commands concerning the church's organization and many other issues. In these cases, the only Bible commentary is the examples of New Testament Christians and churches operating under the approval of God.
In a separate article, we considered a closely related topic, the importance of Bible authority and establishing right from wrong. In another, we explored the Bible's teaching on the danger of deviating from God's pattern. But, in this article, we would like to consider if New Testament examples are part of the pattern. If New Testament examples should be included, then the well established warnings are clear for those who do not follow the pattern.
"You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you." Deuteronomy 4:2
"He answered and said to them, 'Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? ... "In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrine the commandments of men"'" Spoken by Jesus to the Pharisees in Matthew 15:3,9
"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. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who work iniquity.' " Matthew 7:21-23
In addition to these passages, the examples of Nadab and Abihu, King Saul, and Uzzah, clearly show that God's wrath was directed toward those who acted contrary to His will. Moreover, the final passage promises final condemnation upon Judgment Day for those who have disobeyed God, even with good intentions. However, the question with which we are now concerned is, "Does the pattern include examples?"
From our studies of Bible authority, we learned that Jesus Christ is the head of the church (Ephesians 1:20, 22-23), and that He promised His apostles would be guided "into all truth" (John 16:7-13). Moreover, we find that His apostles did receive "all truth" through inspiration by the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 2:10-16), and when we read their letters, we can develop the same understanding that they had (Ephesians 3:2-5). Since we have their record in the Bible and consequently, all that we need "for life and godliness" (II Peter 1:3), we know that the Bible must contain God's will on all matters. Therefore, God's will for the inherent authority in examples, church organization, and all other issues is contained in the Bible, and it alone should reign as the supreme standard in establishing the pattern for us today.
Determining this point leads us to our second question: "Are examples part of the pattern?" "How do we know which, if any, examples are binding upon us today?"
This is the issue that is truly at the heart of the matter - determining when, or if any, New Testament examples are binding upon us today. Examples that are "binding" are those that have inherent authority and obligate us to obey them. This phrase comes from Jesus' statement in which He foretold of the authority that would be given the apostles to "bind" and "loose" (Matthew 18:18). The question that we are now considering is the extent of "binding" authority that is inherent in their approved New Testament examples.
There are two extreme ways of approaching this question: Either all examples, or no examples are binding upon us today. While a few people hold to one of these views, most people realize that neither of these extremes are true. Most people take a more balanced view that differs only in its bias: Either all examples are binding until proven otherwise, or no examples are binding until proven otherwise. These are the two viewpoints that we will primarily consider, while only briefly considering the two extremes.
Examples Can be Binding
Clearly, the two extreme views can be seen to be incorrect from an examination of a few Bible passages. First, we know for certain that the Bible does use examples to teach and instruct:
"Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come." I Corinthians 10:11
"Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind. Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern." ... "The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you." Phillipians 3:16-17; 4:9
"For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore I urge you, imitate me. For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church." I Corinthians 4:15-17
The New Testament contains these and numerous more instances in which the apostles gave instructions for people to pattern their lives after those who were doing right (I Thessalonians 2:14; I Corinthians 11:1; II Timothy 3:10-14; II Thessalonians 3:7-9; I Peter 3:1-2). Since examples do teach and instruct, they are by definition necessarily binding, but they cannot all be exclusively binding. We find examples of the apostle Paul traveling by both land and sea. Obviously, each of these examples cannot be exclusively binding, since they we would exclude each other; therefore, this extreme must also be incorrect. The Bible does teach and bind using examples, but not every example is exclusively binding.
Based upon this foundation, we will continue our study with the following question, "Which is the default?" "Are all examples binding or loosed until proven otherwise?" "How should we treat examples that have no commentary?"
"When Is a New Testament Example Binding?"
The answer to this question will be governed by one's attitude toward the Bible in general. Obviously, the Bible should direct this attitude. So, let's review some passages to see what kind of attitude is expressed in the Scriptures?
"You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you." Deuteronomy 4:2
"If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen" I Peter 4:11
"For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book." Revelation 22:18-19
The answer is the same for this question as it is for the question of requiring a "Thou shalt not..." to parallel each "Thou shalt...". We do not need to a "Thou shalt not" to know that something is wrong. The silence of the Bible is binding. If the Bible teaches a certain thing is right, then any replacement is an addition, and it is therefore wrong. Specific examples are just exclusive as specific commands. We must have either general or specific authority from the Bible to justify any practice.
The same Biblical attitude applies to both - "You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it." Therefore, until sufficient reason is provided for dismissal, all examples are binding. This is the conclusion that we must default to prevent us being found guilty of "adding to" His Word. However, this raises one last question, "What guidelines can we use for the dismissal of a New Testament example?"
"When Is a New Testament Example Not Binding?"
This previous conclusion profoundly shifts the burden of proof. It should not be the responsibility of those trying to hold to the Bible pattern to find scripture condemning any and every addition. Rather, the above scriptures teach that those desiring to defend a practice must find authority. Similarly, it is not the responsibility of those defending the pattern to produce a specific command or corroborating scripture to back up an example. Rather, it is the burden of those wishing to vindicate a tradition to find either an example, command, or necessary inference to justify its practice. Therefore, it becomes not a question of "When is a New Testament example binding?" but rather, "When is a New Testament Example not binding?" Consequently, the authority in a single example not only can exclude all others, but it is by default exclusive until shown to be otherwise.
As a side note, the importance of differentiating general and specific authority cannot be overly emphasized. The Bible does not have to specifically authorize every action. It often provides general authority through a general command. Many practices fall into this classification, such as church buildings, located preachers, and song books. Please review the article on general and specific authority for further examples and clarification.
Guidelines for Dismissal
To help us decide which examples we may dismiss, two guidelines are introduced here: Consistency and Materiality. These notions are not original with this author, but neither should their repeated use cause one to think they are a creed. Rather, they should be seen as Biblically based guidelines that will help us determine if an example is exclusively binding or if it reflects one of many options that are justified by general authority. Therefore, they should help us determine if an example provides general or specific authority. Herein lies the real challenge for most Bible students. Please recall that if these guidelines, or those similarly Biblically based, do not apply to a given example, then it is by default exclusive and binding. Now let us examine these guidelines and the Scriptures upon which they may be based.
Guideline of Consistency:
Sometimes called the "Rule of Unity" or the "Law of Harmony", this concept is based upon the Bible idea that God cannot lie and the Bible, as His inspired word, must also reflect this inability to contradict or lie. The harmony of God's Word is taught by the following passages:
"Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath, that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us." Hebrews 6:17-18 - See also Titus 1:2
"If He called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, 'You are blaspheming,' because I said, 'I am the Son of God'?" John 10:35-36
Therefore, every scripture on any subject must be in complete harmony with all other scriptures, even examples. So, if a certain activity is consistently repeated with no deviation, then this corroborates the exclusiveness of the authority vested in those examples. However, if multiple New Testament examples demonstrate varying ways to do the same thing, then any one of those ways cannot be bound exclusively, or else the examples would be in conflict, violating the above passages. Therefore, if we see more than one way to do any activity, then we have general authority to perform the activity in a way that is consistent with the rest of the Bible. The example then illustrates an option under general authority rather than exclusive specific authority.
Guideline of Materiality:
This guideline simply gives a name to the idea that incidental matters should never be bound upon people. Considering whether an example is material and relevant to God's people and His will for them is an essential part of determining the exclusiveness of an example. The same scriptures that were used above could also be brought to application upon this point. All passages relating to any one subject must be in complete harmony and agreement. Therefore, we must be careful to not bind incidentals that may elsewhere be de-emphasized.
Examples of this would be dismissing the circumstantial reference to Christians meeting in an upper room in Acts 20:1-7. This is accomplished by considering other Bible passages that teach the location of worship is immaterial. Instead, the heart of the worshipper should be emphasized (John 4:21-24; Matthew 18:20). Therefore, any example that we interpret as binding must be material and relevant; otherwise, it becomes subject to dismissal from be considered exclusively binding.
Other Guidelines of Interpretation
Other Biblical rules of interpretation should, of course, be applied as they would for all other Bible statements. Multiple uniform examples and references solidify and emphasize the binding quality of an example, although only one is sufficient. All passages should be brought to bear and considered in their context. Related to this idea is the recognition that some statements were applicable only to a certain audience or time period (I Corinthians 7 - "in view of the present distress"). The context will be the key to determining if such statements have limited application under whose jurisdiction we may or may not fall. Finally, we must recognize the exclusive nature of God's Word. God does not have to specifically say something is wrong for it to be wrong. If Bible references cannot be produced which justify a practice, then it is "adding to" God's Word, and those guilty of such should take warning of God's promised wrath. Whether it is a command, inference, or example, all are binding until sufficient scriptures can be introduced to sustain dismissal. This places the burden of proof upon those who wish to introduce or defend a practice. This is something that we should be able to do for our Christianity and our faith (I Peter 3:15; II Timothy 2:15). To shift the burden of proof onto those denying a practice's justification would be to ignore the power of the Bible's silence and the exclusive nature Scriptures. If you are still not convinced of the danger of "adding to" God's Word, please review the examples of Nadab and Abihu, King Saul, and Uzzah, which were "given for our admonition" (I Corinthians 10:11).
Based on the Bible attitude, "You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it", we have concluded that all New Testament examples are binding until sufficient scripture is introduced to prove otherwise. The common-sense, basic Bible guidelines of "uniformity" and "materiality" were introduced as a basis for determining when examples are not specifically exclusive. Examples that are either loosed by command, necessary inference, or differing examples serve as illustrations towards multiple means of accomplishing a work under general authority. Recognizing this distinction between general and specific examples is essential for determining the place of New Testament examples in God's pattern for the church and our lives.
Footnote: As with all of our studies, please keep in mind that these articles are a work in progress. We hope to continue to learn more as we study. If you have any comments or thoughts about this article, its author would be glad to hear them. Any improvements or corrections on this difficult subject would be much appreciated by this article's author.
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