Question #10: How Do You Determine Scriptural Authority?
If the “Church of Christ” claims to worship God only as “authorized” by scripture because they sing only (and do not use instrumental music), then where do they get the “authority” to use hymnals, pitchpipes, pews, and indoor baptistries in their worship services? If the answer is that they are “aids to worship,” where does the Bible allow for that? Where is your required authorization? If a pitchpipe can be an “aid to worship” for the song service in the “Church of Christ,” then why can’t a piano be an “aid to worship” for Baptists who may need more help in singing?
The “question” here expresses the kind of confusion over how to correctly ascertain authority that has been fostered by denominationalism. God created us with a brain and he expects us to use that brain. He created us to be thinking and logical beings after his own image (Gen. 1:26). When a person is honestly striving to please God according to what he has commanded in his word, they don’t have any problem determining what is authorized and what is not authorized. The problem with how to correctly ascertain biblical authority, and the principle of authority in general, only arises when people are trying to justify doing something for which they have no authority from God to do.
In ascertaining biblical authority we find two levels of authority. The first and primary level is specific authority. That is, we are authorized to do those things that are specifically authorized by Scripture. Specific authority comes in three ways.
First, we have specific authority to do those things that are explicitly stated. For example, we are explicitly commanded to sing in our worship to God (cf. Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; cf. 1 Cor. 14:15; Heb. 2:12). We are explicitly commanded to be subject to the civil authorities (Rom. 13:1-7). We are explicitly commanded to give on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:1, 2). We are explicitly commanded to be in subjection to the elders (Heb. 13:7). Explicit statements like these simply state what is required. Obviously, such explicit statements authorize us to perform the action commanded.
We also find specific authority in approved examples. We have examples of the approved activities of the New Testament church to follow in our work and worship today. By approved we mean that the example is given as something that the church was doing in obedience to God and is recorded in a positive manner. For example, in Acts 2:42 we have the approved example of the Jerusalem church assembling on the first day of the week to hear God’s word, take the Lord’s Supper and pray. The text refers to the church engaging in these activities in a positive manner with no indication that they were doing anything wrong. This is an inspired example of the activity of the New Testament church and gives us inspired authority by way of that example to do the same today.
We also have specific authority conveyed by means of necessary inference. Simple inference does not provide authority. It must be necessary inference. Necessary means that it is an unavoidably required conclusion to the information provided. For example, Jesus used the principle of necessary inference when he corrected the Saducees on the doctrine of the resurrection (Luke 20:37, 38). If Moses said that God was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob after those three men were dead and God is the God of the living and not the dead then the necessary inference is that when a person’s body dies that person does not die, his soul lives on. That is the unavoidable necessary conclusion.
It is by necessary inference that we know the doctrine of water baptism is included in what it means to preach Jesus (Acts 8:35, 36). The text only says that Philip preached Jesus to the eunuch. However, when the eunuch heard and believed he knew he needed to be baptized in water. Therefore, we must conclude that Philip taught him to be baptized in doing what the text calls “preaching Jesus.”
It is by necessary inference that we know only men are authorized to serve as elders (1 Tim. 3:2). Because an elder must be the husband of one wife and only a man can be a husband (according to God’s divine definition of such) we know that only men are authorized to serve as elders in the Lord’s church. This is how necessary inference works and one of the ways we receive specific authority from God’s word.
When people ask why we do the things we do, we should be able to turn to a passage that grants us the specific authority for that activity by one of these three means. If we cannot find such authority for whatever we do in word or deed (Col. 3:17) then it cannot be said to be done with the authority of God.
But what about the way we do certain things. That is, not so much the specific what but the way we do it. For example, some congregations sing using song books while others sing using projected lyrics. Some congregations have the sermon first and then take the Lords Supper while others do it the other way around. Some congregations sing six songs and have three prayers during their worship service while others may sing eight and have four prayers. Some song leaders use a pitch pipe to get the pitch of a song while others may hum the pitch before beginning the song while others just start singing.
So which way of doing these things is authorized or are they all authorized? To answer this we go to the second level of authority, generic authority. Now the “question” asks for proof that such generic authority exists and where it is biblically authorized. Most thinking, rational people use and understand this level of authority in every aspect of their lives. They only want it thrown out when it interferes with them doing whatever they want and calling it worship. Not to worry though, generic authority is very easy to demonstrate from the Bible, thus establishing its Scriptural nature. Before we do that, however, lets notice some important fundamental elements of generic authority.
Generic authority only exists where specific authority exists. If there is no specific authority for an activity then it cannot be said to be authorized on the generic level. Generic authority is subordinate to and dependent on specific authority. Therefore, generic authority can only facilitate obedience to specific authority.
For example, we have already shown the specific authority for meeting on Sunday for the worship of the church. However, nowhere in any explicit statement, approved example or necessary inference is the time specified. So, because we know the specific day of assembly and there is no specific authority for the time of assembly, we have generic authority to specify the time on a local level. We also have generic authority for meeting houses to facilitate a congregational meeting. We know we are commanded to meet but the specific place is not given, therefore we are authorized to specify and maintain a meeting place by generic authority.
We have specific authority to sing in our worship assemblies. We also have specific authority for congregational singing (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). We are also commanded to have all things decent and in order (1 Cor. 14:40). So, from this we know that having a means of facilitating everyone singing together in a decent and orderly fashion is authorized. So, there is generic authority for things like song leaders, song books, projected lyrics or whatever else would facilitate the kind of singing commanded without contradicting or altering the command to sing congregationally.
This is also a good example for how to determine what is not authorized. We know we are authorized in congregational singing because these passages say each one is to sing to each other one. However, this would not authorize things like solos because a solo is not each one speaking to each other one. It is one person speaking to the rest. So, in order for solos to be authorized a person would have to find an explicit statement, necessary inference or approved example of such being done in the New Testament church. Since there are none we know that singing solos in worship is an unauthorized and man-made form of worship.
Because these passages refer to “speaking” and “teaching” and “admonishing” one another we also know that singing words is authorized. Other vocalizations like humming and imitating instrument sounds is not authorized by these verses. A person would need to find a passage or passages that authorized that specific activity. Since there are no passages authorizing this kind of activity it could not be said to be authorized generically because there is no specific authority being facilitated by it.
Likewise, these passages do not authorize the use of mechanical instruments in the worship of the church. These passages describe and authorize congregational singing. Authority for the use of mechanical instruments in the worship of the New Testament church would have to be found in another passage or passages. Because there are no passages or explicit statement, necessary inference or approved example of the New Testament church using mechanical instruments we know that there is no divine authority for that activity. It is not authorized by generic authority because it is a different type of music than that described and authorized by the text. Generic authority cannot be applied to an activity that would alter or contradict a specific command.
While there may be differences in the way generic authority is used to facilitate obedience to specific authority, specific authority is set and doesn’t change from group to group or individual to individual. Specific authority is unalterable while generic authority will vary from instance to instance. For example, one group meets at 9 AM Sunday mornings for worship while another group meets at 10 AM for worship. Are both groups authorized to meet on Sunday for worship? Yes, by specific authority as found in the approved examples and necessary inferences of the New Testament church (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:18; 16:1, 2). Is the one group authorized to assemble at 9 AM? Yes, by application of generic authority. Is the other group authorized to assemble at 10 AM? Yes, also by generic authority. The application of generic authority can vary while the specific authority is the same, i.e. worship on Sunday. Both groups are simply facilitating the command to assemble on Sunday for worship by setting a time when everyone knows to be there. Whether the assembly is at 9 AM or 10 AM or 8 PM doesn’t matter, it is authorized by the specific authority to assemble on Sunday for worship.
What about another group meeting on Saturday instead of Sunday for their worship? They have no specific authority to do so, therefore, what time they assemble doesn’t matter. Since there is no explicit statement or approved example or necessary inference giving them specific authority to meet on Saturday instead of Sunday, there can be no generic authority for anything else associated with that unauthorized assembly.
Generic authority can only facilitate specific authority, it cannot alter it in any way. If a practice alters a specific command then that practice is unauthorized. A person cannot make an appeal to generic authority for an activity that alters something else that the Bible specifically authorizes. This is where our denominational friends miss the mark in ascertaining biblical authority.
Because we make the biblical appeal to authority for what we do and in exposing the errors of denominationalism, denominationalists attempt to show that we too engage in things not authorized by Scripture. They say we cannot show biblical authority for song books, microphones, pews, church buildings, projectors, etc., etc., etc. What they mean is that we cannot show explicit statements where these things are authorized. It is true that we don’t have explicit biblical statements authorizing the use of PowerPoint projectors but that doesn’t mean we don’t have authority for their use. Some of these things are authorized specifically by necessary inference and approved example while others are authorized by generic authority.
We have already seen that buildings, songbooks, pitch pipes, set meeting times, among other things, are authorized by generic authority. One of the most common erroneous attempts to show inconsistency is to point out the use of projectors. We have the specific authority to study God’s word together in the assembly of the church (Acts 2:42; 20:7; 2 Tim. 4:2; et. al.). The method of teaching in the worship assembly is preaching. Do we have approved examples of biblical preachers using visual aids for their lessons? Yes, we do (Matt. 18:2-5; 22:19; 24:1; et. al.). So, if Jesus used visual aids in his preaching then, obviously, the use of visual aids is authorized for his preachers. We have authority to use visual aids by the approved example of Christ himself, not to mention the numerous other biblical preachers who used visual aids.
The kinds of objections raised in the “question” is evidence of rejecting God’s authority more so than ignorance of it. To point out the use of pews as an example of something that is not authorized, as though that would justify doing things that aren’t authorized in other areas, is simply dishonest and illogical. We’ve already seen that the church is commanded to assemble. So, where does the Bible specify where the assembly sits? It doesn’t! Therefore, the use of pews as a seating option is authorized by generic authority. Do we have authority to use something to sit on in our assemblies? Yes, by virtue of the fact that we are commanded to assemble. The same goes for having and maintaining meeting houses. In no other aspect of life would anyone question whether or not an activity necessary to carry out somethings specifically authorized was authorized or not. It is only when one wants to rebel against the authority of God that such illogical arguments are made.
Indoor baptistries are authorized by virtue of the specific authority to baptize (Matt. 28:18, 19). The specific authority is to baptize for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38). Therefore, having a body of water sufficient for baptizing facilitates the command to baptize and is, therefore, authorized. Where the body of water is does not alter the specific command in any way.
Now let us briefly note some biblical examples of generic authority being applied. Noah was commanded to make the ark of gopher wood (Gen. 6:14). But he wasn’t told where to get it or how to carry it. Would he have been authorized to buy gopher wood at the local lumber yard? Yes, in order to facilitate the specific command. Was he authorized to go out and cut his own gopher wood? Yes. Whether he bought it at the lumber yard or went out and cut it himself, the command to build the ark of gopher wood was being facilitated. He was also authorized to carry it by whatever means would facilitate obedience to the specific command without altering it or contradicting other commands.
Jesus commanded the disciples to go and teach (Matt. 28:19, 20). However, the manner of going is not specified. When we look for examples of how the disciples went in the New Testament record we see them going in all manner of ways (ships, chariots, on foot, by messenger, by letter, etc.). All of these ways were authorized because they facilitated the specific command to go. Likewise, today when we go by way of TV, radio, Internet, tract, book, CD, etc., etc, these too are authorized generically by the specific command to go.
We are commanded to do all things according to the authority of Jesus Christ (Col. 3:17). I pray that this article will aid the reader in knowing how to do that.