Vol.XI No.V Pg.7
July 1974

?You Know What?

Robert F. Turner

Dear Bro. Turner:

How does one know what is "just a custom" (as, "holy kiss" 1CO. 16:20)) and what is unalterably commanded?


All communication (writing, speaking, hand-waving, etc.) is done in an historic (social) setting, and is influenced thereby. People who question this have given too little attention to what influences their own way of saying things. The Scriptures were given in a limited, historic setting, and (initially) to the people of that period. This influenced particulars-the Application of truth to that time.

When Peter wished to contrast "outward adornment" with godliness, he cited examples common to that period: "plaiting the hair," "wearing gold." Had he been a part of and writing to some different culture, he may have said, "filing teeth" or "wearing decorative bones." The point was not to forbid "apparel" or decorations per se, but to stress inner beauty.

Paul did not command Timothy (or other evangelists) to "drink wine." He commanded (if we must put it that way) to take care of himself. The "wine for thy stomachs sake" is the result of the influence of first century medical practices upon the form and content of communications then. (I surmise, due to the setting of the statement, Paul may have been warning Timothy against asceticism -extreme self-denial (over-righteousness) with mystic overtones.) The "holy kiss" enjoins warm, non-sensual greetings, as we might give a genuine (not simply a cold and formal) handshake. We "wash one anothers feet" as we humbly serve one another, in this or in many other ways (1TI.5: 23; JOH.13: 1-f).

But how does one determine the difference in specifics intended for all time (as baptism, Lords Supper, etc.) and practices which were but first century applications of principles? Sometimes this is indicated by the type of arguments made. Paul (1 CO.11:) states a universal truth re. the relation of man and woman; but indicates the manifestation of this (the covered head) was custom (vs. 16). He appeals to their sense of shame (vs. 6), to their judgement of what -was comely or fitting (vs. 1-3), to what nature taught them (vs. 14), and to uniformity of practice among churches (vs. 16). These enforced head covering in that culture, but lose their force in an entirely different culture.

Another means of differentiating essentials and incidentals is to look for Bible stated significance. What if someone proved that Jesus used one container only in instituting the Lords Supper? The Scriptures attach no significance to the container, so it is no binding precedent. Suppose the early saints did meet in an upper room. It is not commanded, nor is any significance attached, by example or inference, hence no precedent. On the other hand, significance is given the action of baptism (ROM.6: 4), and particular elements of the Supper, etc.

This is not offered as a complete "set of rules" but will, I trust, put us on the right track. Too often we have dealt (?) with this problem by simply declaring what was important.