When Is An Example Binding?
"The Scriptures teach" has long been the familiar and accepted preface to propositions for religious discussions, in which gospel preachers participated. Over the years, members of the church of Christ have been concerned with determining what the scriptures teach in all matters of faith and practice. We have insisted that anything proposed as an item of faith must be proved by the scriptures; nothing is to be received which is not taught by the scriptures.
Among those who claim to cling to the New Testament order, there have been comparatively few in the last fifty years, who have apostatized to the extent of openly questioning these principles. The fear is entertained, however, that some give lip service without conviction of heart. Before conviction can exist there must be understanding of what is involved. As a contribution to a better understanding, of how the scriptures teach, this paper is written. It will have to be suggestive rather than exhaustive; provoking others to think rather than adducing all the principles of correct understanding. It is an effort to aid in "handling aright the word of truth."
The scriptures teach by expressed command, approved example and necessary inference. While there may be those who claim more ways in which the scriptures teach, yet, I know of none who would deny that the scriptures teach in these ways. For those who regard the New Testament as the will of God to man today, it is enough to cite them to a command contained therein — or to an approved example or to draw out a necessary inference from facts given.
Our current study will be limited to examples, hence the title, "When is an example binding?" Of all the activities recorded in the New Testament record, which of them are to be regarded as approved examples? Through which of them do the scriptures teach? How can we determine when an example is binding, and when it is simply an historical event or an incidental practice for a peculiar local situation? There must be rules by which we can determine when examples reflect the will of God, else how can we "handle aright the word of truth"? How possible for all to "speak the same thing"? By what standard are the examples of the Bible to be judged?
We have examples of Paul teaching in the school of Tyrannus — preaching in an upper chamber, traveling by ship, reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath, prolonging his speech until midnight and etc. We have the example of the members of the Jerusalem church selling their houses and lands and giving the price of the things sold to the apostles for the use of the church. The church at Troas sets us the example of gathering "together to break bread" — meeting in an upper chamber. These examples along with many others could be found but are they all "approved examples"? That is, are gospel preachers, irrespective of circumstances, to teach in a school? Are we bound to have our services in an upstairs room by reason of the example of the church at Troas? Must we go by the same mode of travel as of Paul's day? Preach in synagogues? Preach until midnight every time we get up to preach or anytime so far as that goes? Does the example of community of goods practiced by the Jerusalem church require that the same be practiced by churches today? Did the church at Jerusalem "act on anti-scriptural principles" in this situation? If not, then how can we justify churches today in failing to follow this example? Are we justified in binding this example upon all churches today irrespective of circumstances? These are some of the problems which confront us when we begin to study "when is an example binding."
The approved example is the only way whereby certain doctrines can be established e.g., the time to partake of the Lord's Supper. The scriptures teach by example that the church is to gather "together to break bread" "upon the first day of the week." (Acts 20:7) If we refuse the teaching of this approved example, we are at sea, without chart or compass, in the matter of the proper time to partake of the Lord's Supper. Hence, we cannot reject the approved example as a way that the scriptures teach. The design of these articles is to discover the rules which determine when an example is binding.
1. The rule of Unity, or as Grubbs calls it, "The Law of Harmony" is the first rule which we will consider. An example is never to be construed in such a way as to violate an expressed principle. The teaching of expressed statements, approved examples and necessary inferences are never in conflict. The teaching of the scriptures is harmonious. The Holy Spirit did not teach one thing by command and then teach by example or inference something contradictory to the expressed statement. The unity of the faith requires this. B. Grubbs puts it this way, "The first is the law of Harmony, which as presupposing the unity of the truth, requires such interpretation and application of a given passage as is consistent with other undoubted scripture teaching." (Exegetical Analysis.) Robert Milligan expresses the same rule this way, "Every part of the sacred word should be interpreted in harmony with every other part; and that the Bible should in all cases be made its own chief interpreter." (Reason and Revelation.)
Here is an illustration of this rule: The extent of the elder's oversight is expressly stated by the apostle Peter in I Peter 5:2, "Tend the flock of God which is among you." Thus it is clear that the elders have no responsibilities as elders beyond the flock among them. To this principle most will give lip service, acknowledging that the scriptures teach congregational independence. But some of these same brethren, in an attempt to justify their practices, will urge the Antioch example of Acts 11:27-30 as authority to exercise the oversight over a work which by no scriptural or reasonable means can be identified as a work peculiar to their congregation. The scriptures do not teach one thing by expressed statement and teach contradictory to that in an approved example. The Jerusalem elders, like all other elders, by express statement of scripture (I Peter 5:2) were limited in their "tending" to the flock of God among them. They could not have constituted themselves a "sponsoring" church, receiving funds from Antioch and distributing them to the other churches in Judea without violating an expressly stated truth. We dare not therefore attempt to wrest the Antioch example to make it authorize a practice which would be in conflict with a clearly expressed principle.
Another case to illustrate this rule is the example of partaking of the Lord's supper on the first day of the week. In Acts 20 we have an account of the brethren partaking of the Lord's supper. This account is used to establish the time for partaking of the Lord's supper. The express statement of the law of the Lord's supper tells us that "as often as ye eat this bread and drink the cup, ye proclaim the Lord's death till he come." (1 Cor. 11:26.) But the question presents itself, how often? Often is a relative term; to some, once a year would be often; to others, twice a year, while to others, monthly would be often, thus confusion and division rather than order and unity would prevail. If we had no more information on this point than the law gives by express statement, we would always have to move in doubt in performing this act of worship. Consideration of the convenience of the individual would be the only guide. Each person could do that which was "right in his own eyes" and fulfill the requirement of the law, were it not for this example which specifies the time — reveals how "often". This example, of how often, does no violence to the express command but rather complements it. The prominent place occupied by the first day of the week tends to strengthen the conclusion that the first day is binding. The fact that it is associated with a set and understood assembly, (1 Cor. 16 1-2), and that this assembly or coming together is connected with the observance of the Lord's supper, (1 Cor. 11:20,) is further evidence that this example revealing time is an "approved example". The Troas example shows that this customary assembly is for the very purpose of breaking bread. That settles the matter.
But the example of "place where" in Acts 20:8 is disqualified as binding by the law of unity. In this example the place was an upper room, Acts 20:8, on a third story, v. 9. At the institution of the Lord's supper the place was an "upper room". Neither in the institution of the Lord's supper nor in its continued observance by the church is there an example of the Lord's supper being eaten any place but an upper room, hence, there is no variation in example on this matter. It should be observed, however, that although there is no variation, it is not harmonious with other scriptural precepts. By the rule of unity one (partaking on the first day of week) is judged to be an approved example and the other (meeting in an upper room) as merely a statement of circumstances.
In applying the rule of unity in this case, as in all cases, we need to first collect expressed statements and see if the example is to be rejected on the ground that it conflicts with expressed statements. The law of worship is expressed by Christ. John 4:21 and 24 "Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem shall ye worship the Father ... v. 24 "God is a spirit and they that worship him must worship in spirit and truth". Here the principles of worship in general are expressed by Christ. In this he very positively rules out any one place or location as being acceptable over another. Any place where one can worship in spirit and in truth fills the requirements of this passage. Any place, "Where two or three are gathered together in the name of Christ" will fulfill all the requirements of place where. Thus we see that the general law of worship forbids any particular place to the exclusion of others.
But what about the particular expressed statement or command with reference to the item of worship under study? Do the specifications in the expressed statement require a divinely appointed place? To answer this we have but to consider the statement of the rules of observance of the Lord's supper as set forth by the apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 11. Verse 20 makes a significant contribution which helps us to determine that the example of the "upper room" is not binding. "When therefore ye assemble yourselves together, it is not possible to eat the Lord's supper: for in your eating . . . " This reveals the fact of an assembly. No assembly (assembling together) could exist in fact without an appointed place, but as the Lord in the statement of the law did not appoint a place and as the general law of worship specifically denies that there would be a divinely designated place, we can but conclude that the "upper room" is but a circumstance which does not become binding on all Christians at all places for all time.
We have seen that the example of partaking of the Lord's supper on the first day of the week does not clash with or in any way contradict the expressed statement, whereas there is a clash between the upper room for all people in every place and the principle laid down by Christ that, "Neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem shall ye worship the Father."
The rules of constancy or uniformity of actions in examples is a subsidiary to the rule of unity. This rule may be expressed this way. When uniformity or constancy of action is absent the example is not binding. This rule is established by a consideration of modes of travel occupations — local customs etc. which we find in the New Testament. No example can be considered binding if there is variation between it and other examples of the same action. Harmony must exist not only between approved examples and expressed statements but also between the examples themselves. If we consider the example of traveling on foot as binding, we put it in conflict with the examples of other modes of travel. It has already been shown that, although there is uniformity in the examples of partaking of the Lord's supper in an upper room, we are not bound by such limitations; for such limitations would violate the law which specifically removes such limitations of place.
Other rules will be considered in the papers to follow.