General versus Specific Authority

Introduction

The terms general and specific authority refer to a concept that applies to all of God's instructions.  Whenever anything is authorized in the Bible, it usually contains some general instructions and some specific instructions.  These terms simply refer to this distinction.  Sometimes God gives very specific instructions, and sometimes He gives general instructions, leaving the details to our best judgment.

Understanding this difference is key to successfully determining authority for all things.  It is the final piece to this part of our search.  Once it is completed, we will be properly equipped for pouring over the pages of God's will and solving complex questions that would have otherwise remained unanswered.

Examples of General Authority

The best way to illustrate proper use of general authority is to consider some Bible examples.  Perhaps the easiest example to consider would be the Lord's delivery of the Great Commission to his apostles:

"Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.  Amen"  (Matthew 28:19-20)

Jesus' commands both to "Go" and to "Teach" illustrate this principle of general authority.  Both command to do something, but many of the details are left to us.  For example, we are to "go", but it does not say how.  Therefore, we can walk, ride a camel, fly in a plane, or sail in a boat, and all of these would be authorized.  General authority includes authority for anything that falls within the general instruction.  Of course, care would need to be taken to not violate another of God's commands.  "Teach" also instructs what to do, but there is not specific mention of how to accomplish this.  We could teach publicly in the streets, privately in the home, or in groups and classes.  All of these are still teaching and, therefore, are authorized by the general instruction to teach.  Moreover, no man has the authority bind one of these methods.  Binding where God has not bound constitutes "adding to" His Word, which is a serious transgression, condemned by the Bible.

Now let's apply this principle towards a more difficult question, church buildings.  They are nowhere mentioned in the Scripture.  How do we get authority for church buildings?  First, let's examine a scripture about the mission of the church:

"And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ."  (Ephesians 4:11-12)

From this passage we learn, among other things, that the church is to "equip the saints".  This implies teaching, encouraging, and admonishing within the local church.  But, how is this accomplished?

"And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the day approaching."  (Hebrews 10:25)

So, how is this "equipping of the saints accomplished?  Through the "exhorting one another" that is derived from "assembling together".  Moreover, this is exactly what we find in the New Testament examples.  Saints gathered together to worship God and exhort one another (Acts 2:42-47; 20:7).

From these commands and examples, we have established God's general authority to "equip the saints" and a small part of this is "assembling together."  The instruction is general to some extent.  He does not say how, where, or the time of day.  Therefore, local churches have authority to operate within the boundaries of this general instruction.  If they choose to meet in people's houses, in a rented building, or in their own building, it makes no difference.  All of these fall within God's generic instructions to "equip" and to "assemble".  Therefore, we have general authority to build a church building and assemble within it.

Examples of Specific Authority

Actually the first example that we examined also illustrates specific authority.  When the disciples were told to "go and make disciples", the exact method of "making disciples" was not left general, but rather, it was specified.  They were to "baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit".  Also, they were not allowed to teach anything they wanted.  Jesus specified what they were to teach:  "to observe all things that I have commanded you".  So, for the same instructions, we see that while some things are left general, other things are specified.  And, when something is specified, the Bible teaches that it is a sin to deviate from the specific pattern.

Now, let's use the principle of specific authority to help answer another difficult question, instrumental music.  The first concept that must be recognized for this question is the distinction between the Old and New Testaments.  From that study we learn, that Old Testament commands and examples are not authoritative for us today, since we are under a new and separate law.  Understanding this eliminates much of the confusion, yet we must still answer if God cares about using instrumental music today.

After studying the Old and New Testaments, we can observe that God, through David, gave detailed and specific instructions about how to use instruments in Old Testament worship (ordained by King David in I Chronicles 15:16-28, see also I Chronicles 23:1-5 and II Chronicles 23:18).  Yet we find no mention whatsoever of instrumental music being used in New Testament worship.  In fact, we have only the following specific instructions:

"speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord."  Ephesians 5:19

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." Colossians 3:16

Both of these passages teach that we are to make music unto the Lord, but what kind?  Does the Lord care?  Please read the passage again.  These verses specify "singing", "speaking", and "making melody in your heart."  These are the "instruments" of New Testament worship.  No where else will we find mention of any other type of music in the New Testament.  Now, if we choose to add instruments to the worship, then we become guilty of "adding to" God's Word, which sin, the Bible strongly speaks against.

Conclusion

Let us be careful to stay true to our course and goal, to do God's will in God's way.  This may mean tearing down the transgressing traditions of men, just as Jesus and His prophets taught.  Whatever we do let us make sure that is in "the name of the Lord" and we are neither "adding to" or "taking away" from God's Word by teaching doctrines of men.  Part of this requires understanding that God issues commands that are both specific and general in nature.  Moreover, we must recognize the general and allow for different judgments within the authorized scope, but we must also observe the specific and and be diligent to carefully adhere to God's specific pattern.  By carefully observing God's general and specific authority, we will be better equipped to properly understand and apply God's Word.

Series Conclusion

We hope that you have enjoyed examining the many scriptures that were found in each of these articles about properly interpreting the Bible.  And, we hope that they will be beneficial to you and your search for truth.  If you are not comfortable with some of the conclusions that are found here, or on any other portion of this website, please question anyone in our contact directory.  However, if you agree with most of what's found here, then we would encourage you to continue your search by using your tools of study to establish God's pattern on how we can be saved.

Often, people have many questions concerning the proper interpretation of Scriptures. We have some additional articles devoted to answering specific objections raised in opposition to a careful study of God’s Word and obedience to Him:

Otherwise, please proceed to a study of God's Plan for Salvation

Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the New King James Version, copyright © 1994 by Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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