I am publishing today an article submitted to me by an individual for whom I can personally vouch as a man of integrity, a competent, careful Bible student, and above all, a faithful Christian. I asked him for permission to publish this material. At first he was reluctant, but agreed under the provision that I not disclose his identity. I can understand his reluctance to get involved in the kind of thing that goes on among brethren when someone takes exception to a cherished opinion. I did not know this brother believed as he did until the firestorm that has raged over the articles I recently published broke. I did not ask him to write this article – he just told me that he had an article and read some of it to me. That is when I asked him to allow me to publish it. Here is his article exactly as he submitted it to me.
I have heretofore remained fairly quiet regarding this whole debate on the best way to interpret scripture. Personally, I fully accept the authority of command. I know that we are instructed to follow examples of godly men and women as they imitate Christ. However, I question the validity of the concept of “necessary inference.” Why? Because it opens the door for opinion and for binding things that cannot be specifically supported.
As for the issue of example, I believe we give lip service to it, but we do not follow every example we see in scripture. I’ve asked preachers and teachers, for example, why we don’t follow the example in Acts 2 and in Acts 4 regarding what can only be described as a communal arrangement among Christians. It has been argued that the communal arrangement was because of the itinerant nature of those first Christians in the days after Pentecost, and they needed to provide for the brethren who were far from home. That is pure speculation. This practice is actually a better example of the establishment of a “treasury” than the special collection for needy saints discussed later, but we are frequently so tight with the funds that we let large amounts build up without actually using it for the benefit of people, which was the practice among the earliest Christians.
In the same section of Acts, the earliest Christians gathered daily in homes and broke bread. The same term is used for both the observance of the Lord’s Supper and for taking a common meal. That they broke bread daily is all we know, and whether it involved a daily observance of the Lord’s Supper or not is pure speculation. The language does not explicitly say. By example in Acts 20, Christians did meet on the first day of the week and there, broke bread—again without distinction of a meal or the Lord’s Supper.
Certainly not every example can possibly be said to apply to us today. In Acts 21, Paul agreed to participate in a Jewish purification ritual, to pay the expenses of the sacrifice for four men who had completed the requirements of a vow. This was a religious observance, the regulation of which is found in Numbers 6. I do not believe that we are to do that today. Paul confronted Peter regarding the Judaizers’ requirement of physical circumcision, yet Paul himself subjected Timothy to the mohel’s knife to ease relations with the Jews in various places they would travel. Again, I have never heard anyone appeal to this example of a religious ritual practice as binding on anyone today.
A classic example of necessary inference involves baptism. We know that baptism is commanded, and the inference is often offered that because Philip and the Ethiopian went down and came out of the water, immersion is to be practiced. I believe that immersion is the appropriate form not by inference, but because this is actually an example. Also, the meaning of our word, to baptize in its original language was to immerse. Again, this is not inference, but identity, requiring no logical inference to proceed.
Through inference, though, we bind that the consumption of all wine is sinful, but Jesus apparently disagreed, since he turned water into wine at the wedding at Cana. The word there is the word for fermented wine, not juice or new wine. To say that his example is not applicable since the incident occurred before the establishment of the church is illogical: Jesus would then be saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.” In I Timothy 3, overseers are not to be “given to wine”, although deacons are not to be “given to much wine.” Is there a different degree of consumption allowed for these different offices? Or do we—here it is—infer that the intent was to prohibit drunkenness? What is certainly condemned by example and direct statement in both the Old and New Testaments is drunkenness. (But so is gluttony, which the preponderance of preachers judiciously avoids to discuss.)
With respect to elders in I Timothy 3, one group infers that overseers can only be married to one woman ever, and another group infers that they can be married to more than one woman, if the first wife has died. One group infers that a faithful man who meets all requirements but has been widowed cannot continue to serve since he is no longer the husband of one wife. Who is right? Proponents of each argument say their position is the only one that is right, and all others are damnable heresy.
To further see the inconsistency of inference, some of those who argue for serial monogamy for the overseer bind a singular marriage to the widows taken into the church’s care in I Timothy 5. Suppose a woman was married, had no children because of some organic condition leading to infertility or her children have died, remarried scripturally, again had no children, and was widowed a second time. By these rules, this woman might, barring the charitable action of someone else who could support her, be left to fend for herself and starve. This point is for all intents and purposes moot today, since we have Social Security and government assistance to provide for these people. Since we effectively no longer practice this, are we wrong for not complying with direct instruction?
Similarly, different groups view marriage and divorce with very different and contradictory conclusions. If Paul says in I Corinthians 7 that a believing spouse who is abandoned by an unbeliever is not bound, how can we say that this person is not free to marry? Was Paul not inspired? Does it contradict Jesus’s arguments in Matthew 19? Jesus was talking to Jews, who apparently wanted the right to divorce their Jewish spouses on demand. Paul is talking to Christians married to non-Christians, and who would be the “victim” in a spurious divorce initiated by the unbeliever. If a believer is no longer “enslaved” or “bound” when abandoned by an unbeliever, how can we bind anything different in this specific case? To be sure, Paul gives no quarter on the issue of the Christian initiating the divorce with another Christian or a non-Christian: they must not do it except for marital infidelity (as Jesus taught), or if they do, they must accept the consequence of their decision and remain unmarried.
Of course, there is the argument that the most “conservative” action is the best: “I can’t go out of bounds if I don’t move.” But life is not always cut and dried, black and white, either/or. Life is a continuum, a moving target, and how we deal with various issues that were not in any way, shape or form addressed in scripture will require careful, appropriate judgment and a fuller understanding of mercy, with the expectation that we will receive as we have given. Remember Jesus’s question about God desiring mercy and not sacrifice? What about the parable of the servant who “conservatively” hid the money he was given to invest and failed to bring forth any increase? What about what James said about judgment without mercy being reserved for those who fail to show mercy?
I have sat through what seemed like endless hours of sermons that dissected minutiae of inferred doctrinal points of variance among various churches and various factions within the churches of Christ. These technicalities have virtually no relevance to how Christians should live and act. They do not bring people closer to God or Christ. While they seek to unify under some banner of technical precision, they actually further divide.
I have heard these same preachers speak disparagingly of “all that love stuff.” I was totally dumb-founded by this statement, since I base much of the application of my faith on John’s teachings in I John, and I highly regard Paul’s treatise in I Corinthians 13. Apparently, the topic of grace is for all those “other” churches, too, and most of the teaching I heard for years about grace was what it isn’t rather than what it is.
If we are completely honest with ourselves, it is impossible to completely, flawlessly reconstitute the 1st century church. Why? Well, for one reason, because not one person living today has any miraculous spiritual gift. The argument will be made that we have the completed revelation in the Bible, and we don’t need those gifts anymore. However, not one original manuscript is in existence, and if it is, it is either lost or hidden. Scribes did make errors through centuries of manually copying text. Only by comparing many texts of different ages can genuine scholars discover the most likely language of many of the difficult passages. The first generation church existed in the only time in the history of the church that there was a direct line to the ultimate authority through the gift of prophecy and miraculously inspired teaching, and even then, people failed to live up to the standard (e.g., I and II Corinthians) and expressed differences (Philippians).
I asked a visiting preacher once why he spent so much more time talking about hellfire and brimstone (he was indeed the only preacher I had ever heard who would refer to brimstone multiple times in nearly every sermon) and virtually none of his time talking about heaven, and grace, and love. He derisively looked at me like I was something he wanted to scrape off his shoe and said, “You only heard what you wanted to hear.” I heard what I heard: an angry man literally yelling about hell, perhaps out of some ill-placed sentiment that screaming about punishment somehow encourages people to straighten up and fly right. What it may do for some is to make them come to the conclusion that, “If you represent all that will be in Heaven, it sounds more like hell to me.” My point is that sometimes, we yell so loudly about a single topic that we fail to see any other rational answer that may even be better than the one we have espoused through some inference that we have not made, but that was made by some other fallible human in some previous generation and handed down by tradition as gospel that must not be questioned.
If we continue to split and divide and partition ourselves off, we will achieve the opposite of unity. If we continue to infer rules and bind them on others who have reached significantly different conclusions based on the same set of evidence, we condemn ourselves for failing to show mercy and for displaying the prideful attitude that only those who believe exactly as we do are right. A dear friend of mine once said that we should study the Bible from the position that we may be wrong about something, and seek to uncover the truth, not reinforce our preconceptions. That same wise man also said that if we can only fellowship those who are in 100% agreement with us on every point, we will find ourselves in a congregation of one. In Philippians 3, Paul declares that he had not achieved perfection, but that he continued to strive forward to do better and to be a better servant of Christ, and that each one should “hold true to what we have attained.”
When a person becomes a Christian, we have the right to ask only two things of them, like Philip asked the Ethiopian: 1) “Do you understand…?”, and 2) whether or not one believes with all his heart (that Jesus is the Son of God). When Jesus addressed his followers in Matthew 25, the separation of sheep and goats was not based on which hermeneutic the person employed, but how the person lived, whether selflessly or selfishly, with mercy or contempt. These are the most fundamental measures of fellowship. Certainly, each much follow the commands of Christ and those revealed by the apostles. We must examine all biblical examples and follow them if and as they apply to us. But we must be extremely careful in any point that we bind upon others based upon any form of inference, especially when men of equal intelligence, integrity, and gravity reach radically different conclusions.
Ultimately, our salvation will not be sealed by adherence to any man-made hermeneutic formula. We will be judged by what we have done, or what we have not done, by our deeds and by our hearts. And ultimately, even the best of us will depend on God’s grace to see us through. “Leave her alone….she has done what she could,” Jesus said of the woman who anointed his head with costly ointment at the home of Simon the leper. If we, like her, have done what we could, lived up to the best we can attain in terms of our understanding as Paul urged, practiced the purity of religion that James described, and through love become one with the essence of God as Peter and John revealed, we will meet with his approval and receive the ultimate gift of eternal grace. Isn’t that inference? Perhaps it is. But I prefer to see it as the big picture, the ultimate gestalt, the universal fact, or cosmic reality that supersedes any dependence on a singular point. I once read that the Bible as we know it begins with God and ends with grace. (You can look it up.) I do not think that is coincidence. We would all do well to remember that.