Choosing Neither Extreme

The most common problem among the ones who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ is the lack of agreement on what is authorized and what is not. On one end of the spectrum, we find those who say "Unless the Bible specifically forbids something, we have liberty to practice it." On the other end of the spectrum, we have those who say, "Unless the Bible specifically mentions something as approved, we may not practice it." If we were to hold the first statement as true, we could use orange juice and pancakes in the communion. If we were to hold the second statement as true, the church could not hold any property (for use as a meeting place for worship), could not use automobiles, newspaper advertising, or printed tracts in the accomplishment of the command to preach the word to all nations, and we would be sinning if we met on Wednesday evenings for Bible study.

Most people will recognize the absurdity of such conclusions, but fewer will admit these things would be perfectly logical if we were to take these statements — commonly used in defense of what they are now teaching and practicing — to their logical end. This is evident in the fact that many churches who defended unauthorized activities 40 years ago are now having problems with those among their numbers who want to go even father than what these once-staunch defenders of their "liberties" would find comfortable. Ones who defended the right to do things outside the pattern God had established are now crying for the "liberals" to "seek the old paths." In their arguments for following the pattern, they are using the exact same arguments that were used against them 40 and 50 years ago, but now only because some want to "go too far." The problem is, when you have ignored the pattern God has established and rejected His word as the standard, how can you draw a line at all? Who is to say what is, or is not, authorized if you have left the pattern behind?

It is disingenuous to claim the need to "follow the pattern" now, only because others are going farther than what you initially intended, for it seems that the only standard is what you are comfortable in doing. They still call that situation ethics. We are, hopefully, more interested in using the word of God as our pattern, and not in a "do your own thing" form of Christianity, for that would not be Christianity at all.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who forbid what God has authorized, or allowed. Some are so interested in "playing it safe" that they forbid anything not specifically mentioned in the Bible (such as the aforementioned Bible classes). Because they misunderstand how authority is defined (and often because of a lazy mind), they will deem anything as sinful if it is not spelled out in exact terms in the New Testament. They do not use such things as divine example, necessary inference, or even Bible principles to justify what they do. They want "book, chapter, and verse" for everything or it is a sin to practice it.

Now, there is nothing wrong with "book, chapter, and verse" if it is used in its proper meaning. Jesus cited Genesis 2:24 to answer the Pharisees in Matthew 19, concluding, "Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate." (v. 4) Nowhere in Genesis 2:24 does it say anything about the lifelong commitment to one another, but Jesus rightly concluded that such was inferred from the text of God's inspired word. If I were to use the line of reasoning of the ultraconservative types, I could not make such a statement, for there is nothing specifically mentioned in the text about a prohibition of divorce.

What this all comes down to is the need to understand specific and general authority, and the inclusiveness and exclusiveness of the Lord's commands. Misunderstanding these things has brought us these two extremes that ignore the basic rules of interpreting what God has allowed and what is prohibited — even in cases where the specific practice is not mentioned. Somewhere in between these two extremes is the right answer. Let's look.

First of all, we should understand the inclusive and exclusive nature of the Lord's commands. The Lord's commands are exclusive in that when God specifies something, it excludes any other thing. (Ex. God's command to Noah to build the ark out of gopher wood excluded oak, pine, or cedar.) The command was specific in that it named the type of wood. His commands are inclusive in the fact that those things which are incidental to the accomplishment of that command may be used. (Ex. The command of Jesus, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations," included whatever means may have been used in the accomplishment of this command, such as automobiles, newspaper ads, or television or radio.) His command was generic in that He did not specify how to go.

If someone were to say that we could not "go" except by boat or chariot, they would be binding where God did not bind. If, however, some said we could offer cake and cookies, hot dogs and hamburgers, and Coke and lemonade as enticements to draw people to come hear the word, they would be going beyond the pattern and loosing where God has not loosed. The problem is often agreeing on whether or not the disputed practice is authorized or forbidden, with some saying anything can be offered as an enticement to reach out to others, while others rightly limit it to the methods where liberty may be applied — not the enticements used before anyone is taught.

Ask yourself: Is offering cookies to get people to come really a "method" of teaching? No, not any more than offering Gatorade to a sprinter is a means of running a lap around the track. It may certainly be an enticement to get him to do it, but it is not a method of running. Running forwards, backwards, sideways, or on your toes would be a method, but any track coach would tell you that cookies would only be a distraction. We must be honest when we are trying to determine the truth and what God has authorized, and not let our personal feelings and desires get in the way.

As we consider various subjects in the coming weeks, keep these principles in mind when searching for the answer to what is right and what is not. We cannot use any excuse such as "That's what we've always done" to justify our practice; we need to see what God has authorized. Let's do that — nothing more and nothing less.

By Steven C. Harper

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