In recent studies, we have noticed the binding nature and elements of approved examples. This is one of the ways which God expresses His will. We learn what God wants us to do by following and keeping these examples. We also noted that some aspects of these examples are merely incidental and not essential elements. Any discussion on biblical authority would be incomplete without understanding principles of general authority and specific authority.
When God specifies something that He wants in particular, then it is binding and approved. We are not free to change the command or pattern. God told Noah to build an ark of gopher wood (Genesis 6:14). By specifically and deliberately telling Noah what to use, all other types of wood were excluded. God gave the specific dimensions that He wanted Noah to use to build the ark. These were not to be changed by Noah or anyone else. The New Testament instructs Christians to sing (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). Any other musical expression besides singing is an addition and change to God’s law; instrumental music is excluded and unauthorized.
However, when God told Noah to build an ark of gopher wood, He did not specify all the equipment that Noah might use. This introduces us to the realm of general authority—what God states generally, or when examples are general in their execution and application. In matters of general authority there are
some liberties and freedoms in how we obey the commands. For example, Noah was free to use a saw for cutting, some sort of tool to measure, a hammer, and scaffolding, etc. to help him in the construction of the ark. When Jesus told His disciples to go into all the world (Mark 16:15), He did not specify the way they were to go. Therefore, they were at liberty to go by sailing, walking, or chariot, etc. Today we might go by airplane, automobile, or use of media (Internet, TV, newspaper, radio).
The tools and aids which assist in fulfilling God’s expectations that He has authorized become expedients. They are the means by which we obey God. Expedients must be lawful, cannot be specified, must be helpful, and cannot change the nature of what has been authorized. Expedients may not be bound as law. If some action or means is specified and demonstrated in a pattern, then it is law and not an expedient. For example, when the New Testament refers to baptism, it is referring to baptism in water (Acts 8:38-39; 10:47).
In the New Testament, Christians assembled regularly: they met in a home (Acts 12:12; 1 Corinthians 16:19), in a school (Acts 19:9), and in an upper room (Acts 20:8). There was not one specified type of location where saints must assemble. Locations were incidental to God’s expectation of assembling. Therefore, we have liberty to choose what might be expedient and helpful to fulfilling the obligation to assemble for worship. Church buildings are expedient and helpful to obeying this command (cf. Hebrews 10:24-25).
We also read of baptisms occurring in the New Testament. Some of these baptisms occurred outside (Acts 8:36-39). Again, a location of where a baptism must take place is not specified nor required by God. Since many congregations today have church buildings, they also have baptisteries. The baptistery is an expedient; the type of baptistery is incidental in any discussion. Some local congregations do not own a building, nor do they use a baptistery. Immersion in water is required, but baptisteries are not required nor essential to baptizing a person in the name of Jesus Christ. Use of a tub, swimming pool, lake, pond, or river would be acceptable—as long as enough was water present to immerse the penitent believer.
Discernment, wisdom, and a good attitude must be held by all parties when considering some of the needs of the congregation and the best way to fulfill those needs. We must put other people’s thoughts and needs before our own (Philippians 2:3-4). Therefore, we must not be too exacting in forcing people to keep the expediencies we prefer. We ought to consider the thoughts of others and make an informed decision on what is appropriate and best for everyone at large. This is the nature of all decisions pertaining to the realm of general authority.
by Sean P. Cavender