General and Specific Authority

by Heath Rogers

Previous articles in this series have set forth the need for authority in religious matters, the proper source of authority, and how to establish what God has authorized. This article will consider an important distinction that must be made in understanding what has been authorized by God. We will study the difference between general and specific authority.

The meaning of these words clarifies what we are studying. General is defined as "of, for, or from the whole or all; not particular; not specific; not precise." General authority includes any method, thing, or means that would fulfill a command or approved example. Specific means "limiting or limited; precisely formulated or restricted; definite; explicit." Specific authority excludes every method, thing, or means that is not specified in a command or approved example. In short, general authority includes while specific authority excludes.

We reason this way about things in our everyday lives. For instance, if you take your car to a mechanic and say, "fix my car," you have authorized him to do anything he has to do to get your car running. If you say to him, "fix the starter," you have specified what he must do. He is not authorized to do anything else. We shouldn't be surprised to find that God has communicated His will to us in the same way.

Examples of General Authority

When Jesus commissioned His apostles, He told them to "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15). The command to "go" was a general command that could be obeyed any number of ways. The apostles could walk, ride an animal, ride a chariot, or sail in a boat. Any manner they chose would be approved by God.

The wisdom of God's use of general authority is seen in the fact that it accommodates improvements in technology. Today, we can "go" by riding in a car, bus, train, or plane. If Jesus had said His disciples were to walk in their efforts to take the gospel to the world, we would be limited to only that mode of transportation today.

Jesus told His apostles to teach the disciples to observe all things He had commanded them (Matthew 28:20). This teaching was done in various ways. Paul taught publicly and privately (Acts 20:20). He engaged opponents in public debate (Acts 15:1-2) and sent handwritten letters to churches and individuals. Today, the Lord's church can utilize technology such as the internet, radio, television, newspapers, or mass mailings. We can hand out Bible tracts to neighbors, share audio CDs of sermons with relatives, or conduct a live Bible study online with someone in another country. Since the Lord did not specify the exact teaching method, we are free to utilize the most effective method at our disposal.

Examples of Specific Authority

The Great Commission also gives us an example of specific authority. The apostles were told to "preach the gospel" (Mark 16:15). They were not allowed to go and make political speeches, share the popular philosophies of the day, or entertain the masses with stories and folklore. They were to preach the gospel. That command automatically excluded every other message they could share.

Today, the Lord's church is free to utilize many of the teaching methods or formats available, but we must use them to only teach the word of God.

The church is only authorized to take up a collection on Sunday. This is the day that was specified with Paul's instruction to the church in Corinth. "Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: on the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come" (I Corinthians 16:1-2). We do not take up a collection on any other day of the week because God has specified Sunday.

We do not use instrumental music in our worship because we are only authorized to sing. "Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord" (Ephesians 5:19, see also I Corinthians 14:15; Colossians 3:16). When the New Testament specifies singing (vocal or a cappella music) that excludes any other kind of music.

Common sense allows us to understand when someone is being specific with us. We must use this same common sense to understand when the Bible is using general authority or specific authority.

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