One of the major complaints that many of our contemporaries have about the church of Christ is the supposed lack of consistency when it comes to applying the Bible to modern situations. On the one hand, we say that the we want to practice Christianity without additions, revisions, or human doctrines, while on the other hand we have church buildings, air conditioning, and Bible classes – all of which are not found in the Bible. It seems to some that there is a great disparity between what we say we believe and what we actually practice. We insist that everything we practice must be authorized by scripture, but then do all kinds of things that are never specified by it. So, must everything we do be specified by the New Testament in order for it to be authorized?
At the crux of the matter is how we interpret commands and examples from the Bible. To apply a commandment properly, one must consider all of the context. To whom was it written? When? What about the command applies and what comes with liberty? Christianity is a religion that fits all cultures for all time (Revelation 5:9-10, Galatians 3:28), so there must be some liberty in there for changes over the centuries in language, custom, and technology. The difficulty is in determining what is authorized and what is not. What makes a church building with bathrooms acceptable but a church building with a gym or pool unacceptable? What makes Sunday Bible classes authorized but church-sponsored pancake socials unauthorized? What it all boils down to is understanding the basic function of communication. In every facet of life, when we want our will to be known, we ask for something, show something, or imply something. There is no other method of communication aside from these three options. So why would God and His word be any different? Furthermore, in every form of communication there are specific statements and general statements. Often, general statements have specific components, and vice versa. So how do we know what is authorized by the bible, and what is not? “Once again, the answer to this question goes back to the fundamentals of logic and communication. By doing this, we can avoid making arbitrary rules about authority that fit what we like, and instead we can be grounded in the actual communication process that functions logically everywhere. In other words, this is not just some biblical rule we are making up, but rather it is how communication works in all areas and we are simply recognizing its function in biblical application. The beauty of this is that we already know how it works” (“Must Everything Be Specified To Be Authorized?”, Doy Moyer, mindyourfaith.com).
The Bible For A Changing World
When we talk about generic and specific authority, we are saying that commands in the Bible contain both “general” and “exclusive” implications:
- Generic authority is simply the realm of unspecified options that a command may or may not give us, depending on the language of the command. In a command, God may be specific about the “who”, “what”, or “where” but leave the “how” ambiguous.
- Specific authority involves the precise or unambiguous aspects of a commandment. There are statements made by God through inspired writers that eliminate all other options because of their specific nature.
An excellent case-in-point is Matthew 28:19-20, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” The method of going is left very generic, but the “who” and “what” are very specific. We are commanded to teach a very specific thing (“all that I command you”) to a specific group (“all nations”), doing a very precise act (“make them disciples, baptizing them”). However, as long as it does not contradict the specific statements made, every other aspect of the command is left wide open. In the word “go” we have the generic authority to walk, drive, fly on a plane, sit on a train – essentially, we can fulfill the commandment to “go” however we want without rejecting God’s authority. Also, the method of teaching is left unspecified. As long as we teach what is commanded specifically (“all that I command you”), the “how” is generic. We can teach with a Bible tract, a sermon, a Bible class, with PowerPoint presentations, on the bus, in the church building, with a DVD or CD, or any other way just so long as we do not tread on the specified part of the command.
Some will argue, however, that we are inconsistent because we use certain things that are never even mentioned in the Bible, such as Sunday morning Bible classes, PowerPoint projectors, or websites. But the problem with this argument is that it fails to see that the message of the Bible does not change simply because technology changes around it. If we are expected by God to precisely emulate everything about first century Christianity, without utilizing any modern day amenities, then we must speak Aramaic or Greek, wear period clothes, bake our unleavened bread using wood burning stoves, and sing hymns by memory in a language none of us understands. Making the distinction between generic and specific authority is the only way we can appropriately wed the concepts of primitive Christianity and modern day conveniences.
As I mentioned already, this is how we already communicate in every area of life. If I was asked to get somebody a writing implement, how would I go about fulfilling such a request? Even though it is never specified, I could get a pen, a pencil, a crayon, etc. I could get any color, as well. But I could not get that person a rock, or a banana – because then I have fundamentally missed the point of their request. If somebody asked me for a red pen, I still have the freedom to get any brand I want, or ball point versus gel. But I may not get a blue or green pen. The same works when a person implies something. If I was asked to get a pen for somebody because they needed to write down a phone number, the implication is that they need the pen immediately. A person does not need to specify a timetable when urgency is implied. Consistent patterns also help us in communication. If I asked my wife to get me a pen, and I always used a specific brand, in a specific color, then she would imply that this pattern carries some weight. This is how we all communicate, every day. So why should we treat the Bible any different? Consider a few examples.
Generic and Specific In The Old Testament
First, consider the command given to Noah in Genesis 6:14-16, “Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch. And this is how you shall make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, the breadth fifty, and the height thirty. You shall make a window for the ark, and finish it to a cubit from the top; and set the door of the ark in the side of it; you shall make it with lower, second, and third decks.” Every command of God comes with generic and specific aspects. For example, the type of wood was very precisely noted as “gopher wood.” This excluded all other types of wood. If Noah had built it half of Gopher and half with spruce, the ark would have been unacceptable to God. However, Noah could procure the wood from any source he desired – that was generic. He could cut it down himself, bought it from a lumber dealer, etc. The word “make” is also very generic. Noah could have made the ark however he wanted, which would include his choice of tools, scaffolding, the hiring of labor, etc.
Notice especially this valuable concept: when God specifies something, it excludes all other options. Therefore, a thing does not need to be specifically forbidden in the scriptures for it to be wrong. It was not necessary for God to say, “Make it of Gopher wood, but not spruce, ash, fir, oak, etc.” Carefully note, in addition, that choosing something of generic authority is not breaking the commandment – it is simply fulfilling the command in a way that God leaves up to us to decide. “Let’s keep these facts clearly in mind: choosing something that is an option of generic authority is not adding to nor going beyond God’s word, nor is rejecting one option in favor of another doing less than what God commands” (Understanding Bible Authority, Barnett, p. 24).
The Passover lamb of Exodus 12:5 is a good example, as well. Specifically, the lamb had to be unblemished, but there was room for human judgment since a man certainly may have more than one lamb that would fit the requirement. “A Male” naturally would exclude a female lamb.
The story of Uzzah shines as a sobering example of the authority of God’s specific authority. When they transported the ark in a number of unacceptable ways (moved by the wrong people, in the wrong way), Uzzah becomes the victim of his own impropriety. Later, David realized that this happened because of what was written in the Law (1 Chronicles 15:15). Specifying the Levites as the only ones to move the ark excluded all other tribes (1 Chronicles 15:2, Deuteronomy 10:8, Numbers 4:15).
Examples From The New Testament
We do not have time to examine every case of generic and specific authority in the New Testament, but this is a sampling of how it would be applied in hermeneutics.
“Speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your hearts to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19). What about this command is specific and what is generic? Also note Colossians 3:16, “With all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Essentially, what are we allowed to do in our attempt to follow this directive?
- The command is to “sing” and “make melody with the heart” which means all other musical modes are excluded.
- If something does not fit into the category of singing it is not acceptable to God. You cannot sing a guitar, sing a drumset, or sing a piano.
- Also, choirs and solos would be excluded because the language is “to one another.” This means the singing must be communal, not soloistic or exclusivist.
- We must be “teaching and admonishing” with our songs, which means that songs cannot contain false doctrine.
- Our worship music must fit into the category of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”, which excludes anything that is flippant, secular, vulgar, or fails to produce a sense of spirituality.
- The command to sing comes with it the freedom to purchase song books. This does not break the command, but is an aid in fulfilling it.
- We are free to develop a musical style that is suitable to our culture and our preferences. We can sing fast songs, slow songs, chants, call-and-response, or songs in a round.
- We can have a song leader. The very idea of congregational singing seems to require someone to get up, pick the songs, and start and stop them at the right time.
Consider some of the implications in Hebrews 10:25, “Not forsaking our own assembling together…” The command not to forsake the assembly infers that Christians are commanded to assemble, which in turn authorizes us to have a place for that purpose. The place is generic. We are never commanded where to worship, and there are too many examples in the New Testament of the variety of worship locations for any one of them to be “the right place.”
- There are people worshipping in the temple porch in Jerusalem (Acts 5:12);
- Other worshipped from house to house (Acts 5:42);
- Some women gathered for prayer on a riverbank (Acts 16:13);
- Paul preached regularly for a church that met in a school (Acts 19:9);
- In Troas, Christians met in an upper room of a home (Acts 20:8);
- The church in Colossae met in Philemon’s house (Philemon 2).
If we have the generic authority, therefore, to meet anywhere we desire, then we also have the authority to make that worship space comfortable. Any large building that is going to hold people needs bathrooms, seats, microphones, a parking lot, and a drinking fountain. In determining what is acceptable and what is not, it is important to remember other verses on a particular topic. The reason we do not build a gymnasium is because it is not the work of the church to play sports. We cannot use the Lord’s money for things He does not authorize. The difference is this:
- God authorizes us to worship, so we can purchase a building for worship. God authorizes us to teach, so we can maintain a website, purchase Bible tracts, or build classrooms for that purpose.
- God does not authorize the church to play sports, teach pottery classes, or eat meals in our place of assembly (1 Corinthians 11:22), so things like gyms and fellowship halls are also not authorized.