by Mike Johnson
What should be our attitude toward the concept of “example” as an acceptable form of Bible authority? There are three possible attitudes one might have. First, a person might say that all examples are binding. However, this attitude is unlikely, and, as we will see later, this would be a ridiculous position. A second attitude one might have is that no examples are binding today. Some take this position, saying that only direct statements and commands guide us. The third position, which is the correct one, is that some examples are binding, and others are incidental. Thus, in addition to appealing to the direct statement or command and necessary inference, we rely on an “approved example,” also known as “divinely approved example” or “accounts of action.”
Consider some definitions of the approved example by some brethren who have written on this subject.
“By this, we mean the practice of the people of God in the New Testament under the guidance of the apostles” (Ferrell Jenkins, Biblical Authority, pgs. 21-22).
“An example is a recorded instance of a direct order (command or statement) being executed” (Gene Frost, Gospel Anchor, pgs. 8-75).
“A description of the conduct or activity of people in the Bible, primarily New Testament disciples, that act as a pattern that we may imitate or avoid” (Maurice Barnett, Understanding Authority, pgs. 39).
The approved example is a description of what someone did; it is teaching by “show” rather than by “tell.”
Are All Examples Binding?
God never intended for every example to be binding on us today. If every case is binding, we would have to travel by ship to preach the gospel since Paul did; have all things common because the early Jerusalem church did (Acts 1:44-45; 4:32,34-35); assemble daily (Acts 2:46-47); always partake of the Lord’s Supper in an upper room (Luke. 22:12; Acts 20:7-11); the same person would have to give thanks for the bread and fruit of the vine in taking the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25), and the list could go on.
It is also essential to keep in mind that the New Testament is full of examples of sinful actions and incidents that are a part of the historical narratives and have no bearing on our service to God.
To determine when an example is binding, one must look at the specific statement under consideration, the immediate context of that statement, and its remote context (i.e., what the rest of the Bible says about the matter). Also, there are specific logical rules, which would need consideration.
One must determine whether an example is binding. We are probably already doing this as we also make the same determination for each direct statement or command.
Old Testament Examples
It is essential to understand that the old law is not in effect today. It was for the Jews (Deuteronomy 5:1-3), and it could not take away sin (Hebrews 9:11-12; 10:3-4). When Jesus died, the old law was taken away (Colossians 2:14-17). Yet, it is clear that we do learn from the examples of the Old Testament. The old law, according to Romans 15:4, is for our learning today.
Many New Testament passages refer to people in the Old Testament as examples. In I Corinthians 10, Paul discussed the children of Israel in the wilderness. In I Corinthians 10:7, he said, urging the Corinthians to learn from this Old Testament example stating, “And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.’” In verse 11, he said, “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” Hebrews 11 calls attention to the faith of various people from the Old Testament. The writer brings up these examples for us to learn from (Hebrews 12:1). This chapter teaches the importance of faith, and that obedient faith is necessary to please God. In Luke 17:32, Jesus said, “Remember Lot’s wife.” Her example teaches the importance of obeying God. II Peter 2:4-11 mentions various ones from the Old Testament who were wicked and received punishment. The point is that if God did not spare these people who sinned, He would not save us either.
How do we learn from the Old Testament? The specific details of Old Testament examples are not binding, but the principles involved are. For example, the fact that people offered sacrifices under the old covenant would not require us to do so today.
Today, Christians still learn from the Old Testament. Consider various Old Testament characters and events. From the story of Cain and Able, we understand that it does matter how we worship God. We do not learn from Noah that we are to build an ark today, but we conclude that God will punish people when they sin. God told Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22:1-18). From this case, we learn that it is crucial to have faith in God and obey Him. We would not follow Abraham’s example, however, by offering our children as sacrifices.
We also learn principles about God from the Old Testament. We understand, for example, that God is omniscient (has all knowledge) and that He is omnipotent (all-powerful). We also learn of His love, wisdom, mercy, and wrath.
New Testament Passages
The New Testament tells us to follow Christ’s example. 1 Peter 2:21 says, “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps.” In the context of this passage, Christ is our example in how He dealt with mistreatment, but Christ, generally, is to be our example.
Paul, an apostle, said in I Corinthians (4:16), “Therefore I urge you, imitate me.” He also told the Corinthians (I Corinthians 11:1) to “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” Another significant passage in Paul’s writings is Philippians 4:9. Here Paul wrote, “The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.” Thus, not only did he tell them to follow what they had learned, received, and heard, but they were also to follow what they had seen in him. They were to “put it into practice,” as one translation says. On other occasions, Paul spoke of following his example (I Thessalonians 4:6; II Thessalonians 3:7; Acts 20:35).
Consider some areas where an “approved example” can be applied. On what day are we to partake of the Lord’s Supper? “Sunday,” someone might respond. How do we know this? We know it by “approved example.” In Acts 20, we learn that Paul and his companions came to Troas, and they stayed until the first day of the week and then took of the Lord’s Supper. Acts 20:7 says, “Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight.” Paul, an Apostle, was present; they partook of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week; there is no example, or any other authority, for taking of it on any other day. Thus, the day we are to take the Lord’s Supper is established by an “approved example.” We learn in Acts 14:23, after having started churches in various places, that
Paul and Barnabas revisited them and appointed elders in every church. By this example, we understand that there are to be “elders” in every church, and we learn that there is to be a plurality of elders in each congregation. We also learn by example that “water” is the element to use in carrying out the baptism of the Great Commission. The Bible teaches that baptism is a “burial” (Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:12), but we know that many elements may be used to “bury” something. An examination of the conversion of the Ethiopian (Acts 8:36-39) along with Cornelius and his family (Acts 10) provides an example of water as the element of baptism. There are no examples in the Scriptures of the use of anything else.
When Is an Example Binding?
We have already noted that not every example is to be binding on us today. Some cases are limited, and we must consider the generic and specific authority.
Consider some essential rules, which can help us understand the proper application of an example. Unfortunately, there is no list of these rules in the Scriptures, and the Bible does not explicitly say which examples are binding and which are not. However, God expects us to use some logic, along with common sense. These concepts, as you will soon see, are apparent.
- Rule of uniformity – To be binding, all other examples of the same matter must be in complete agreement in all essential details. It is not binding if there is variation. This rule helps eliminate incidental actions. For example, Paul traveled by ship to fulfill the Great Commission of “go” and preach the gospel. Must we journey by ship today to go and preach the gospel? No, we have other examples of people traveling by land. On the other hand, we have many cases of conversion coming about by the teaching and learning of God’s Word. Without the teaching and learning of God’s Word, there was no conversion; thus, we see uniformity demonstrated by the various examples.
- Rule of harmony – To be binding, an example must harmonize with all other teachings in the New Testament. For example, the Lord’s Supper was first instituted in an upper room (Luke 22:12) and later taken in an upper chamber (Acts 20:7). Must we observe the Lord’s Supper in an upper room today? No, these examples are not binding as Jesus taught that the place where one worships God is not significant (John 4:21-24).
- Rule of universal application – Since the gospel is for people of all generations, whatever is binding must be within the ability of everyone to perform in every generation. It is impossible for all populations of the earth today to be riding in a chariot on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, reading the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah when they learn they need baptism (Acts 8). It is impossible to go into Herod’s temple at the 9th hour of prayer (Acts 3:1). An upper room would not be available in all areas of the world — preachers are not to teach that you must build a multi-structured building to please the Lord.
- Rule of materiality – For an example to be binding, it must be material and not just an incidental matter. For example, the Bible tells us to baptize. It does not matter whether the water is running or cold, indoors or outdoors, warm or cold. A person is still only baptizing regardless of whether the water is warm or cold. These variations are not relevant to the action or purpose of baptism. Further, the Bible tells us to preach, and it does not matter if it is in a home, rented building, tent, or church building. The place has no essential relationship to the action.
- Rule of limited application – Some matters pertain to unique situations, which existed at one time but do not exist now, while some issues might pertain to a custom of the time. In I Corinthians 7, Paul told the Corinthians that it was better not to marry. However, it is clear from the chapter that he was talking about during the “present distress” (I Corinthians 7:26), i.e., during a unique set of circumstances. The holy kiss, spoken of in the Scriptures, was the form of greeting employed during that time. Today, we are to have a sincere, non-hypocritical attitude toward others. Feet were washed as an act of kindness and hospitality due to circumstances, which existed in Bible times. The way to show hospitality may vary, but Christians are always to show hospitality.
- Rule of competence – Competent evidence must support an example. Infant baptism, for example, is sometimes defended by people based on the “household” baptisms of the New Testament (Acts 16:32-34). Some assume that just because of the use of the word “house” or “household,” that people baptized infants. They draw the improper conclusion that all households have infants. This conclusion to defend infant baptism would also be incorrect as they violate the rules of harmony and uniformity. From other passages and conversion cases, it is clear that those baptized were penitent believers.
People argue that we must use logic to determine which examples are binding. However, we also use logic to determine which direct statements and commands apply to us today.
Yes, along with the direct statement or command and necessary inference, the approved example is a valid form of Bible authority.