Author: Ron Graham
Is It Scriptural?
—How we derive authority from the word of God
Many Christians are concerned to ensure that all they believe and do is approved and authorized by the Lord in scripture. In becoming a Christian, and in life and worship thereafter, the holy scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice.
Unfortunately what is “divinely authorised” can become unclear if people pay only lip-service to “going by the Bible” bending the scriptures to suit themselves, or drifting away from the principles (2Peter 3:15-18, 2Peter 4:2, Hebrews 2:1).
This lesson looks at two right ways and one wrong way to determine whether a thing is scriptural.
1 Something Directly Stated or Commanded
The strong authority
It is very easy to know whether a thing is scriptural to teach or do, when the scriptures directly say so. Many things are the subject of quite clear statements. Here are a few simple examples:
- "God commands all men everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30). In the light of such a plain statement of scripture, we have no problem knowing that when we teach people to repent of sins, we have divine authority.
- "All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death" (Romans 6:4). It is clear in Paul’s statement that baptism brings us into Christ’s death "for the forgiveness of sins" as Peter says (Acts 2:38).
- "In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God" (Philippians 4:8). Encouraging people to pray has direct authority from God.
- "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us..."(John 1:1,14). The doctrine that Jesus is both God and man is clearly scriptural because it is stated directly.
Those are just a few of dozens of examples of how we can be sure that we are believing, teaching, and obeying what comes from the Lord --when he gives us unequivocal statements and clear commandments.
2 Something Implied, Exemplified, or Expedient
The Weak authority
We also draw some authority from what is implied by the statements of scripture. This form of authority must be regarded as the weaker and secondary form, because it relies to a degree on our own reasoning when we make inferences from what the scriptures say rather than just taking what they say in so many words. However, authority derived by implication should be regarded as valid when used with due care.
We may divide this form of authority into three sub-types:
There may be more implied in a statement of scripture than what is actually said in so many words.
- Jesus himself demonstrated the authority of what is implied when he argued in favour of the resurrection of the dead (Matthew 22:31-33).
- Gambling, one of the most destructive addictions in our society, is nowhere specifically forbidden in the scripture. Does that mean God approves of it? "It is good not to do anything by which your brother stumbles" (Romans 14:21). From this we may safely infer that it is good not to gamble. If it is good not to, then how can it be good to do it?
- As another instance, we read, "Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, and you are not your own, for you have been bought with a price. Therefore glorify God in your body. Present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God" (1Corinthians 6:19-20,4:2, Romans 12:1). From this we infer the doctrine that our flesh is not evil.
- From the same passages we might well also infer that God condemns such practices as smoking or glue sniffing, which ruin the body in a prodigal manner.
A scriptural example can provide authority when it seems obvious that there was a command behind it and it is intended as a precedent for Christians in general.
- For instance we read, "Upon the first day of the week, let every one of you lay by in store as God has prospered him" (1Corinthians 16:1-2). This was something done by the Corinthians and Galatians with regard to a collection for the needy saints at Jerusalem. We infer from this example that all churches should, at their Sunday meetings, be taking up a collection of personal offerings for special needs.
- Similarly, in the Bible we find the phrases "when you come together as a church" (1Corinthians 11:18), and "when the disciples came together to break bread" (Acts 20:7). We read between the lines and infer that God wants Christians in any given locality to assemble regularly as a church.
There is a kind of inference that runs along these lines: If the teacher says, "Copy what is on the blackboard neatly into your exercise book" then she must want students who have blunt pencils to sharpen them first —even though she said nothing about sharpening pencils. By this reasoning, if God commands action A, and action B will help us expedite it, then we infer that action B is authorised by the command to do action A.
As an example, look again at the last two passages cited. To expedite and facilitate the gathering together, it may be necessary to hire or buy a meeting place. Since we have inferred that God wants Christians to gather, we also infer that he wants them to make arrangements for a meeting place. So, from the phrase "when you come together as a church" which says nothing about church buildings, we derive authority for having one!
3 Something Not Forbidden
The false authority
It doesn't make common sense to regard something as authorized simply because the authority has not forbidden it. If you face a door with a sign on it saying Authorised Persons Only, can you say you are authorised to enter by that door because nobody has specifically told you not to?
Paul makes it clear that using the scripture’s silence as authority is not right. He looks at all the things that God has not forbidden or condemned, and this is the comment Paul makes: "All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbour" (1Corinthians 10:23-24).
Clearly there has to be more to something than "God doesn’t say not to" before we can treat it as something he approves of.
Some things God has spoken about. These are things which he has bidden us to believe and do, or forbidden us to believe and do. It is only in those things that we can claim to have divine authority. Some things God has not spoken about. These are things he has neither bidden nor forbidden. In those things we cannot claim to have divine authority.
Now of course we do not always need divine authority. If I am choosing whether to have a strawberry ice cream or a chocolate chip one, I don’t need God’s authority for what I choose. But if I am standing in God’s presence to worship him, or presenting myself as his minister, then I do need his authority for what I do and teach.
It isn’t good enough to say, "It’s nowhere forbidden". That is no authority at all. The point is: if it’s nowhere bidden, then, by that very silence, it is forbidden. Here are some examples:
- Let’s jazz up the Lord’s Supper for young people by using Tim Tams and Coca Cola instead of the "bread" and "fruit of the vine" (Matthew 26:26-29). God doesn’t say not to. (If you respond, "Hey! What a good idea!" then I give up on you).
- David’s new cart is a good example (2Samuel 6). God neither bade him, nor forbade him, to transport the ark of the covenant in a new cart. God had laid down in the law of Moses clear instructions for carrying the ark. But he said nothing about it being a bad idea to use a new cart instead. Anyway when it turned out to have been a bad idea, David got angry with God. But it was David who was at fault, because he presumed to act in a religious matter without God’s authority.
- The writer of Hebrews argues that Christ has no authority to be a priest on earth because of his tribe "Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood" (Hebrews 7:13-14).
- The silence of Moses not only meant that a man of Judah had no authority to act as a priest, but the silence actually forbade him. King Saul was also of a tribe "of which Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood" and when he presumed to act as a priest, the silence of the scriptures condemned him (1Samuel 13:8-14).
We have looked at three common "grounds" of authority. Two of them (the direct statements of scripture, and what the scripture implies) are valid grounds. The third (what the scripture is silent upon) is not valid. Let’s conclude with this exhortation: "Try hard to make yourself approved unto God, a workman who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." (2Timothy 2:15).