Generic & Specific Authority

Introduction. (Colossians 3:16,17) The Bible emphasizes the importance of having authority for what is done in religious practice. To act without authority is to act presumptuously.

I. We Must Not Go Beyond Scripture. While the New Testament speaks of the “liberty” we have in Christ from, sin, from the Old Law, and the traditions of men, all throughout Scripture it is clear that we must not add to or take away from the word of God. (Deuteronomy 12:32; II John 9).

II. We Can Establish Authority for What We Do From Scripture. II Timothy 3:16,17 (i.e. The Bible gives us what we need to determine what to do). We can do this by looking at...

  1. Commands. (Matthew 28:19,20).
  2. Approved Examples. (I Corinthians 4:16,17). “in every church” (11:1,2) “keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you”
  3. Necessary Inferences. Many things may be inferred from something but not all thing are “necessary” inferences. My brother likes to call them “inescapable conclusions.” E.g. Acts 20:7 speaks of Christians meeting on the 1st day of the week to break bread. I Corinthians 16:1,2 describes the collection on the same day. The conclusion is that Christians met on the 1st day of the week.

III. There Are Different Types of Authority. Just as we can determine authority by what is said, described or implied, we must also understand that some things that are authorized in Scripture carry with them varying degrees of generality and specificity.

  1. Generic Authority. (Hebrews 10:24,25) The instruction here is to meet together.
    1. Examples: (Acts 20:7) in a home; (Acts 5:12) in the temple; (Acts 19:9) “school of Tyrannus”; (James 2:2) “assembly”= synagogueÊthus either the people or the place of the assembled people.
    2. This grants authority for the church to meet in a variety of places and to do what is necessary to secure a place to meet.
  2. Specific Authority. The classic OT example Noah & Gopher wood - Genesis 6:14. By indicating a specific way to carry out the instruction God disqualifies other things about which He is silent. Example: Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16 - Instructions that specify vocal music.
    1. Examples: All references to Christian worship on earth concern vocal music. Matthew 26:30 - after the Passover; I Corinthians 14:15,26 singing.
    2. It is authorized for us to worship God in song but not with mechanical instruments of music.

IV. While We Must Have Authority for All That We Do, We Do Not Have to Have Specific Authority for All That We Do.

  1. The Bible Class Issue. Pivotal to this whole controversy was the distinction between Generic and Specific authority. Those who opposed Bible Classes did so on the basis of two flawed conclusions:
    1. There is no example of Bible classes. (I would contend that there is no difference between the scores of studies that are described in Scripture between small groups or individuals outside the assembly and Bible classes coordinated by a local church.)
    2. There is no authority for Women teachers. (Just as Titus 2:3 teaches women (outside of the assembly) to teach women and children - there is no difference between that and women who teach in some effort coordinated by a local church). Note: What opponents of Bible classes were looking for was specific authority for something that had been generically commanded.

V. Specific Authority Is Usually Determined By The Specifics of the Command. In the instrumental music issue it is not simply the fact that no example is described but the fact that a method is specified in the instruction.

  1. Binding Examples. (Philippians 4:9) This teaches that we are bound by Apostolic examples (as we have already said) which are approved.
  2. Does this mean that every Apostolic example is restrictive? E.g. Acts 20:7 Paul assembled with the saints to break bread and they met in an upper room. Does this restrict all assemblies to only upper rooms? No.
    1. There is nothing in the commands to assemble or to observe the Lord’s supper which specifies anything about location.
    2. The examples regarding the assembly show a number of places where Christians met, and the only necessary inference that seems to restrict its observance is the fact that I Corinthians 11:18 describes it as a congregational activity.
      Note: Some specifics of an example are incidentals.
  3. Specific authority is usually determined by the specifics of a command, but there are times when examples will clarify the specifics of a command. E.g. Commands about the Lord’s Supper say nothing about when it is to be observed. The only example that we have regarding when it was observed is Acts 20:7 - the 1st day of the week.
         In this case Acts 20:7 lets us know that Christians did it on the 1st the week, and we are authorized to do at this same time. The witness of early church history further confirms this pattern.
  4. When we do have generic authority we need to be careful that we don’t imagine that we can only act when we have specific authority for something.
    1. E.g. an issue we discuss here from time to time - an issue that some have some deep concerns about - Is there authority to offer the Lord’s Supper when we come together a second time on Sunday evening for those who could not be here Sunday morning?
    2. There is no specific authority for this practice (any more than there is for Bible classes), but there is generic authority.
      • Christians are commanded to observe the Lord’s Supper - I Corinthians 11:25
      • The approved example of when this was done is on the 1st day of the week - Acts 20:7; by the congregation - I Corinthians 11:18.
      • Scripture does not specify a course of action for: 1. One who comes in late (we customarily give them a chance - if their conscience compels them to eat); 2. Those in another part of the building because of illness or a crying child (we give them an opportunity to eat if they feel that they should - even though they are not physically in the assembly); 3. A large congregation - large gap of time from the first who partakes and the last - yet we see that as within the generic authority of the instruction.
      • It is the same type of issue when a person (for whatever reason) is not able to be here and yet desires when he assembles with the church on the Lord’s day to observe the Lord’s supper. This is not a second observance it is giving one, whose conscience compels them to eat, the opportunity to follow the instructions of Scripture.

Conclusion. These are difficult distinctions which involve:
1. Careful examination of what the Bible does and does not say;
2. A caution that makes certain we don’t just do things out of tradition or personal desire;
3. Human judgement in the analysis of the language of Scripture, and finally,
4. A respect for the individual conscience. In spite of whether I may conclude from scripture that something is authorized - if your conscience does not permit you to act it is wrong for you to act (Romans 14:23).