Determining The Binding Elements of An Example

We noted that examples are given in the New Testament and they are binding upon us today. The examples that are applied universally to various people in diverse locations and in many different circumstances are the examples that are binding. Throughout the book of Acts, for instance, we see numerous examples of conversion. In each of the examples, we noted they end in the believer submitting to baptism in water for the remission of sins. Therefore, it can be concluded that is a binding example and practice that we should keep today.

However, not all examples are binding—even apostolic examples! For example, the apostle Paul took a vow and cut his hair (Acts 18:18). We are not expected to keep the same vow and cut our hair if we want to be faithful Christians. So we must use discernment and understanding to ascertain which biblical, apostolic examples are approved by God. This means there may be some elements of Bible examples that are incidental to a particular situation and circumstance that are not binding upon us now.

An example is binding when:

1. The purpose and intent is clear—in relationship to baptism, the reason immersion in water is practiced is because it is for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38).

2. The element of the example is binding—take the Lord’s Supper as an example. The elements of the Lord’s Supper are unleavened bread (Luke 22:7, 19) and fruit of the vine (Luke 22:18). Concerning

baptism, it must be immersion in water (Acts 10:47). Philip went down into the water with the eunuch (Acts 8:38), demonstrating there was enough water for it to be immersion—not simply sprinkling or pouring. No other elements in these examples were used and we are not at liberty to substitute anything else for them.

3. The subject of the example must be considered. When we read of a baptism in the New Testament it was of a believer (Mark 16:16; Acts 8:36-37; 16:30-31, 34). There is no example of babies, or unbelievers, baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus; only penitent believers were baptized in the New Testament.

4. Uniformity and similarities are also indicative of the binding nature of an approved example. Three thousand in Jerusalem were baptized (Acts 2:41), many people in Samaria were baptized (Acts 8:12), and Cornelius was baptized in Caesarea (Acts 10:47-48). There are similarities in each of the accounts, but they were all slightly different. However, they agree in the essentials—purpose, intent, elements, and subjects.

Even in these examples, where some elements are binding, there are specific details which are merely incidental to the purpose and nature of the example themselves. Consider: in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost when 3,000 were baptized, it was about 9AM (Acts 2:15), whereas the Philippian jailer was baptized at night (Acts 16:33); Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper at night (Mark 14:17), on a Thursday, and in an upper room (Mark 14:15). In Acts 20:7 Paul preached until midnight, but there is not a mandate that preachers continue preaching until midnight. (Aren’t you thankful for that?) While there are binding aspects to each of these examples, the time of day and location are incidental to the example and not binding. 

Cultural practices surrounding many of the examples are not binding either. For instance, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet in John 13. In a time when people traveled by foot, washing a guest’s feet was an accepted and common practice. This was not an ordinance given to be kept in the churches; it was an example of service, submission, and selflessness. Greeting one another with a kiss was another cultural aspect of welcoming guests and friends (Romans 16:16). We can learn to be kind- hearted, friendly, and hospitable to people today without greeting one another with a holy kiss. These were cultural customs that we can learn great lessons from, and are good examples, but the custom is not a binding example upon us today.

If there is any variation between approved, biblical examples then it must be an incidental; therefore, not binding. As noted above, the 3,000 were baptized during the daytime, but the jailer was baptized at night. Cornelius was likely baptized in his house (Acts 11:12; 10:47-48), whereas Lydia was likely baptized in a river (Acts 16:13, 15). May a person be baptized inside? Yes. May a person be baptized outside? Yes. Neither of these incidentals are binding requirements nor essential to keep.

In the Bible we read of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, where it was held at night in an upper room. That does not mean observing the Lord’s Supper in the morning is sinful. We never read of a person being baptized in a church building, much less a baptistery, in the New Testament. That does not invalidate a person’s baptism who was baptized inside a church building. A person who was baptized in a baptistery is just as much a Christian as the person who was baptized outdoors in a natural body of water. We must use discernment in understanding these examples and which aspects are binding.

Also, we must be aware that some details are given in some accounts, but those details might be missing in others. Remember, variations between examples are incidentals. Some details may be given in one account, but only generally stated in others. In Acts 8, for instance, the Scripture reports both Philip and the eunuch went into the water. This is the only example where it specifies anything about the actions of the one doing the baptizing. Other times, the only information we are given is they were baptized (Acts 18:8). With variation between accounts, or lack of information, we cannot bind what was not intended to be bound, since it is an incidental it is not a binding element.

Where there are incidentals, there is freedom and expediency. We must exercise wisdom in carrying out these examples, but we must also recognize the principles of freedom, liberty, and general authority. We do not have to build a two-story church building in order to keep the Lord’s Supper; it is not only baptisms that occurred in natural bodies of water that are genuine. Some elements are simply incidental to the persons involved and the details given in the examples. We must discern the binding aspects of each biblical example.

by Sean P. Cavender

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