In addition to explicit (part one) and implicit (part two) authority, the Bible authorizes through approved example. Just as lawyers appeal to precedent for authority in the application of the legal code, so Bible writers do the same.
The Authority of Examples
Jesus said that man shall live “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4.4). Since God gave us examples in his word, it therefore follows that Bible examples are just as authoritative for an individual's life, in one way or another, as explicit remarks and implicit conclusions.
Besides, if Bible examples are not authoritative, why should we study them at all? And why did God record them in the first place?
Bible writers often appeal to the authority of example as a means of illustrating how a principle or command may or should be applied. Indeed, God, the Father, is an example to be followed (cf. Mt. 5.48; 1 Pt. 1.15-16), as is Christ (Mt. 16.24; 1 Pt. 2.21) and Paul (1 Cor. 4.16; 11.1; 2 Tim. 1.13; Phil. 3.17).
Too, many of the men and women of Old Testament renown are cited as examples of faith which, in principle, are worthy to be emulated (Heb. 11.1-12.1). In fact, a failure to follow their example is to incur condemnation on Judgment Day (Lk. 11.31-32).
Jesus appealed to Davidic precedent to justify the actions of his disciples (cf. Mt. 12.1-8; Mk. 2.23-28; Lk. 6.1-5). And several Bible examples were written “for our admonition,” warning us not to do the sorts of things others did (1 Cor. 10.11).
Indubitably, then, Bible examples possess the force of sacred law.
That said, we must realize that, like statements and commands, some of the actions of Bible characters are mandatory for us, others are merely permitted but not binding, others were approved for specific individuals but not for us, and some are not permissible at all.
Let us review several principles which govern the applicability of Bible incidents. By process of elimination, we will be better equipped to distinguish between these classifications.
The Law of Consistency
First, the Bible incident must be consistent with the teaching of the Lord presently in force to be acceptable today (cf. Jn. 10.35). If it is not, then even though the Bible records it, the action must be avoided.
In this connection, there are two types of Bible actions which we can eliminate since they fail to meet this standard of acceptable conduct.
(1) Some actions by Bible characters have never been consistent with the will of God, whether at present, or even at the time in which the deed was committed.
For example, the Bible declares that Cain murdered his brother Abel; but that does not mean that we are permitted to murder our siblings, for the Bible condemns the act (cf. Gen. 4.1ff; 1 Jn. 3.12). Cain’s actions are inconsistent with the Lord’s instructions, both then and now.
(2) Other Bible deeds were consistent with the Lord’s will at the time (and thus were approved); however, that is no longer the case for us.
During the Mosaic regime, Samuel offered a “suckling lamb” as a “whole burnt offering to the Lord” (1 Sam. 7.9). This act was perfectly consistent with the will of God at the time (cf. Lev. 22.27), and the Lord demonstrated his pleasure at the deed through his providential activity (1 Sam. 7.9-12). However, since the law and circumstances have changed (Heb. 7.12, 22; 8.6), animal sacrifices are no longer acceptable (cf. Heb. 10.5-18). No Christian today may permissibly offer an animal sacrifice to the Lord as Samuel did.
Hence, just because an action is in the Bible (and even approved by the Lord at the time) does not mean we may perform it. It must, at the very least, be consistent with God-approved regulations presently in force. If not, it must be eliminated from the list of approved examples.
The Immutability of Principles
Second, if a Bible incident was, at one time, consistent with sacred law (such as Samuel’s sacrifice), then, even if the act itself is no longer permissible, the principles upon which the act were based are still binding. God’s law may have changed, but his principles are immutable (Heb. 6.17-18).
Samuel’s animal sacrifice is no longer acceptable, but the foundations of the practice — such as: worship, faith, obedience, and sacrifice — constitute timeless virtues. They are just as binding on us as they were on Samuel.
Scripture frequently highlights this reality. Though Christians are neither bound by nor receive authority from the ordinances of the old law, yet we may still derive profit from them (2 Tim. 3.16-17); we may learn from them (cf. Rm. 15.4; 1 Cor. 10.6). Indeed, the Old Testament “was not written for [their] sake alone…but also for us” (Rm. 4.19-24). Why? Because of the principles they maintain and illustrate.
For instance, James appealed to the examples of Abraham and Rahab to prove that God insists that faith must be coupled with obedience to be acceptable to him (Jms. 2.20-25). Abraham offered his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice on the altar. This was consistent with God’s will at the time, for God himself commanded it (Gen. 22.2). However, the act itself is inconsistent with God’s will today.
Naturally, James does not cite Abraham’s example to suggest that fathers today may offer their sons in violent sacrifice to the Lord. Rather, James insists that this Bible example demonstrates that the principle that faith must be accompanied by works in order to be pleasing to God remains valid.
Hence, the applications of the Old Law have been “taken out of the way” (Col. 2.14; Eph. 2.15) since the law has changed (cf. Heb. 7.12; 8.13); however, they remain instructive for Christians today as examples which clarify both what God’s immutable principles are and how those principles should be applied in carrying out the commandments of Christ today.
Certain incidents in the New Testament are of a similar nature. For example, Peter argued that the example of the Holy Spirit signaled a binding principle.
Since the Spirit had given the household of Cornelius (who were Gentiles) the “same gift” as he had given to the Jewish apostles, he reasoned that we must also respect the equality of the Jews and Gentiles within the Christian community (Acts 11.15-17; cf. 15.1ff). This is consistent with the teaching of the rest of the New Testament, which insists that Jews and Gentiles are one in Christ (cf. Eph. 2.11-18; Gal. 3.28; etc.). Failure to follow the Spirit’s example is to “withstand God” (v. 17). Hence, it was not merely optional; it served as a mandatory precedent.
However, Peter does not insist that the method by which the Spirit acted is mandatory. The Spirit “fell upon them” (v. 15); but that means something quite different from a man falling upon a man! And the Spirit baptized them (immersed them) into himself. Such actions are impossible for physical beings to accomplish.
Too, he gave them the gift of miraculous activity (speaking in foreign languages unlearned) — a gift which has, by divine design, now “ceased” (1 Cor. 13.8-13), and is thus no longer consistent with the present-day will of God.
Significantly, Peter does not insist that these actions are mandatory. Rather, the only logical conclusion, based upon all the evidence surrounding this incident, is this: “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life” (Acts 11.18). The principle that God is a God who blesses all the nations with the offer of spiritual salvation, not just the Jewish people, is a timeless truth which the Jewish people failed to realize (cf. Acts 17.26-31; Gen. 22.18). Christians must do the same, not obstructing anyone due to their ethnic background.
In such cases, the principle is binding; but the acts which demonstrated that principle are no longer consistent with the will of God, and thus, cannot be emulated by us today.
The Variety of Means
Third, if a Bible incident is consistent with God’s present will, both in principle and in act, then, at the very least, the act itself may be done. A higher standard exists to prove that it must be done — or that it must be done in only that manner (see below).
One of the most fundamental dictums of Bible interpretation is dubbed: the Analogy of Scripture. The concept has to do with interpreting “unclear, difficult, or ambiguous passages of Scripture by comparison with clear and unambiguous passages that refer to the same teaching or event” (Muller, 33). Put simply, we must let Scripture explain itself.
Hence, it is inappropriate to emphasize one passage of Scripture, while ignoring others. We must take into account the full Bible picture.
With that in mind, one way to distinguish between whether a Bible incident may be done or must be done is to determine whether there are other approved Bible examples achieving the same end by various means. If there are, then the Bible certainly does not insist upon a singular course of action, but instead presents us with options.
To be clear, this principle does not necessarily suggest that if there is only one example of something, that is the only way it can be done (see below). Rather, if there are multiple Bible-approved examples of achieving the same end by various means, then the means by which to achieve that end is quite emphatically not binding. Consider a few examples:
(1) John, the forerunner of Jesus, used the Jordan River to baptize people (Mt. 3.6). Even Jesus was baptized in the Jordan (Mk. 1.9). Does that action represent a binding pattern? Must we be baptized (and baptize others) in the Jordan River too?
First, since the New Testament commands water baptism (Acts 2.38; 8.36ff; 10.48; 22.16), and since water baptism logically requires a location to accomplish it, but the New Testament never stipulates where it should be performed (a river, a tub, a tank, etc.), then it follows that God has given implicit authority to immerse people in whatever venue is feasible, provided it is consistent with the teaching of the Lord (as per parts one and two in this series). Neither explicit nor implicit information ever makes baptism in the Jordan a requirement.
Second, by way of further substantiating this conclusion, we must note that there are numerous examples of baptism being performed in other venues. Lydia was baptized in Philipi (Acts 16.11-15); Cornelius in Caesarea (Acts 10.24-28); the Ethiopian Eunuch was baptized somewhere between Jerusalem and Gaza (Acts 8.26-40); Paul in Damascus (Acts 9.10-18); etc. Scores of individuals, from Asia-Minor to Macedonia and Greece, were baptized hundreds of miles away from the Jordan River.
At the very least, then, we may conclude that it is acceptable for an individual to be baptized in the Jordan, since baptism in that river is consistent with present-day sacred law. However, neither the explicit remarks of the Bible nor their implications ever make it a requirement, and this is especially bolstered by the fact that the Bible, on the whole, provides us with a variety of precedents which evince the optional nature of the locality of baptism.
(2) Consider another case in point. Paul and Barnabas “tore their clothes” to express their disapproval at the people of Lystra, who had worshiped them as gods (Acts 14.14). On other occasions, though, they expressed their disapproval in various ways: e.g., verbally (Acts 17.16-17), wiping off dust from their feet (Lk. 9.5; Acts 13.51); etc. Therefore, tearing clothes, while permissible, could not represent a binding method of venting one’s dismay, for the total Biblical context posits a variety of approved methods.
(3) Likewise, greeting one another with a holy kiss was one method of salutation (2 Cor. 13.12; 1 Thess. 5.26). However, other methods were also employed — e.g., some greeted others “by name” (3 Jn. 1.14); others did so with welcoming words (Lk. 1.44; Rm. 16.22; Phil. 4.21-22); etc. Since there are multiple, approved examples of greeting others, no single method is restrictive.
(4) Peter and John prayed at the ninth hour of the day (Acts 3.1). Paul and Barnabas, however, prayed at midnight (Acts 16.25). Neither explicit nor implicit Biblical data ever insists that prayer be conducted at a specific hour of the day; and since these examples proffer a variety of acceptable hours for prayer, we may decisively conclude that the hour of prayer is adaptable to individual circumstances. We may pray at midnight; but we are not required to do so.
(5) Sometimes the disciples went preaching by twos (Lk. 10.1; Mk. 6.7); at other times, they preached alone (cf. Acts 8.5ff; 8.26-40; 17.15-16; 1 Thess. 3.1; etc.), or with more than two (cf. Acts 18.5; 18.18; 20.4). Taking the whole of Scripture, then, no one has a right to insist upon only one of these options, for there is no definite pattern.
(6) The church at Troas assembled on Sunday to partake of the communion (Acts 20.7-8). They did so in an upper room. Must we meet in an upper room to partake of the communion too?
First, examining the explicit and implicit data of the New Testament, it follows that the Lord, by implication, authorized a variety of localities in which to do this — since he never stipulated a location for assembly, and yet a location is logically required to complete the command to assemble. No passage explicitly or implicitly restricts us to upper-room communal assemblies.
In addition, we have a few examples of the early church meeting for worship, which included partaking of the communion, in other venues — Solomon’s portico, for example, was a colonnade in the temple complex, not an upper room (Acts 5.12). Indeed, Luke expressly says they assembled to partake of the “breaking of bread” (Acts 2.42) in the temple area (Acts 2.46, 42) — not in an upper room. The evidence indicates that this was the regular, weekly communion (see, “The Timing of the Communion,” for more insight).
At any rate, since the purpose of assembling on Sunday is to partake of the communion (Acts 20.7), and since the church at Jerusalem assembled on Sunday in a place that was not an upper room, it follows that the church in Jerusalem partook of the communion in a locality which was not an upper room. Hence, we have a variety of approved examples of churches partaking of the communion in various locations.
By default, then, the upper room example in Acts 20.7 cannot be taken as a binding pattern. We are permitted to commune in an upper room, but not required to do so. Other venues are just as acceptable, as established by explicit and implicit data, as well as by approved Biblical precedent.
In short, if there are no explicit remarks or logical implications that restrict our behavior, and especially if there are several approved examples of disciples achieving the same objective by various means which are each consistent with the present will of God, then the actions themselves may be done at our discretion. No single method, however, is a requirement.
A Binding Rationale
How do we determine whether or not a Bible act is a moral requirement — one we must perform?
By nature, the historical narrative genre (i.e., the record of things that happened in the past) is not designed to relate things which ought to be, but, simply, to relate matters which were, and, by extension, which tend to be.
For example, Luke remarks that Peter took a lame man “by the right hand and lifted him up” (Acts 3.7). Yet, Luke does not cite this incident to insist that his readers ought to lift others up using the right hand instead of the left. Rather, he simply informs us as to how Peter did act.
In that light, we must acknowledge that, by default, Bible actions cannot be taken as obligatory, unless there is a sufficient rationale to do so.
Literary scholar, Leland Ryken, observed that,
“for the most part, [Bible storytellers] describe but do not explain what happened. The result…is that it is easy to grasp the basic action in a biblical story, but difficult to interpret all of its meaning and all of its human dynamics” (43).
He further elaborates upon various literary “devices of disclosure” (e.g., highlighting, contrast, arrangement, etc.) which Bible writers use to identify how we ought to respond to the characters and events they describe in their narratives (45ff). See chapter two of that work especially for an insightful study.
In short, in order to decipher whether or not a Bible incident is cited as an example which ought to be followed, the reader must find some binding rationale furnished by the author in connection with his description of the event. Gordon Fee (et al.) put it like this:
“if it can be shown that the purpose of a given narrative is to establish precedent, then such precedent should be regarded as normative” (127).
Since Luke’s narrative in Acts 3 provides no binding rationale which, in some way, urges his readers to use the right hand instead of the left when lifting others up, the action itself cannot be taken as prescriptive in nature. Using the right hand to lift is simply what Peter did — not necessarily what we ought to do.
On the other hand, there are Bible actions which are binding, since the rationale behind the act establishes standardized behavior. Consider a few examples:
(1) John appeals to Jesus’ example, when he “laid down his life for us,” as a model showing us how “we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 Jn. 3.16). Indeed, the manner in which the Lord responded to evil (i.e., enduring the wrong with patience and faith instead of injurious resistance or threat) is an “example” for us, requiring us to “follow his steps” (1 Pt. 2.21; cf. vv. 18-25). Hence, these inspired authors offer us a binding rational for emulating the Lord’s specific behavior.
(2) In like manner, Paul appeals to his own actions as establishing a precedent for the behavior of all disciples of Christ. He wrote: “I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak” (Acts 20.35).
Since Paul says that the reason he supported the weak with his own resources was to establish a precedent for other disciples to follow, the example itself is obligatory — not merely optional. We must use our income to help others, just as Paul did (cf. 2 Thess. 3.8-9).
(3) Luke informs us that the church at Troas was brought together on Sunday. Why on that day specifically? He explains: “To break bread” — i.e., to partake of the communion (Acts 20.7). Hence, the communion is the very purpose of the Sunday-assembly; such is Luke’s rationale.
Since that is so, then since other passages, both by explicit command and approved precedent, establish normative behavior of Christians assembling every Sunday (cf. John 20.26; Acts 2.1 [cf. Lev. 23.15-16]; 1 Cor. 16.1-2), and the rationale for having the Sunday-assembly is to partake of the communion, then the church must follow the example of the church at Troas and partake of the communion every Sunday. Hence, there is a binding reason for observing the communion every Sunday (see, “The Timing of the Communion;” also, “The Weekly Observance of the Lord’s Supper”).
An Exclusive Pattern
Finally, if a Bible example is binding, we must next determine whether it is restrictive — that is, is that the only way it must be done?
For instance, the example of Troas (Acts 20.7) demonstrates that the church must share the communion every Sunday. But may we partake of the communion on Monday, or any other day of the week? Sunday is obligatory; but is Monday optional?
In this particular case, there are a variety of ways to show that other days are not optional. First, there is a spiritual significance to partaking of the communion on Sunday, for that was the day on which Jesus was resurrected (cf. Matthew 28:1ff; Mark 16:1ff; Luke 24:1ff; John 20:1ff). That significance is lost on the other days of the week.
Plus, the Lord predicted that he would not participate in the communal fellowship with his disciples until he could formally do so in a “new” way in the kingdom (cf. Mt. 26.29; Lk. 22.16-18). He was referring to the day of Pentecost (a Sunday), when Peter argued that the signs of the outpouring of the Spirit demonstrated that Jesus, on that day, was beginning his reign on the throne as both the “Lord and Christ” of all creation (Acts 2.30-36). Hence, Sunday is the only day which marks the beginning of the reign of Christ on earth.
Accordingly, since the communion is a commemorative meal designed as a remembrance of these inter-connected realities (i.e., the first day of the week; the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus; the beginning of Christ’s kingdom; Lk. 22.19), and since the other days of the week cannot fulfill that significance, it is inappropriate to partake of the meal on any other day. Sunday, after all, is “the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1.10).
Second, Sunday is the only day which the Scriptures authorize for partaking of the communion. Since there is only one approved example of this, and since that example is binding, the silence of the Scriptures cannot be appealed to for justification, without erring by presumption. Sunday communion, therefore, is an exclusive pattern. No other day is permitted for that activity.
For sake of clarity, it must be repeated that the argument here is not that if there is only one approved example of something, then that example is restrictive. Rather, if there is only one approved example of an activity, and a binding rationale makes it obligatory, then that example is restrictive.
Case in point: again, the New Testament commands water baptism. Yet, the only examples of baptisms in the New Testament, so far as we can confirm, are those which take place outside. Does that constitute a restrictive pattern? Are indoor baptisms invalid?
Since Bible writers never offer us a binding rationale in their narratives for why they baptized outdoors, no one may justifiably insist that baptisms be performed only in that setting. Likely, outdoor baptisms were the norm in New Testament times merely for the sake of convenience, rather than for some spiritual necessity.
Consider another matter. Luke records that Paul “stood in the midst of the Areopagus” at Athens (Acts 17.22). Never does the Bible provide us with an example of Paul (or of any other) sitting in that place, or lying down there. This is the only approved example of how Paul situated himself there. Does that mean that one is only authorized to stand when he is on the Areopagus at Athens? Of course not, for Luke gives us no binding rationale for Paul’s posture in that place.
In order for an approved example to be restrictive, then, it must be both singular and binding. Otherwise, the example in question cannot be the only way to act.
No doubt, discerning the way in which Bible examples are applicable to us can be challenging. However, the method most harmonious with Biblical hermeneutics is through process of elimination.
(1) If a Bible incident was never consistent with the teaching of the Lord, then neither the principle nor the specific act are authorized.
(2) If a Bible incident was at one time consistent with the teaching of the Lord, then, at the very least, the principle is binding. However, more information is required to determine whether the specific act itself is still Biblically authorized.
(3) If a Bible incident is still consistent with the teaching of the Lord, then the principle is binding, and the act itself, at the very least, is permissible, but not necessarily required.
(4) Finally, if it can be determined that a Bible incident is both binding and exclusive, then it must be done and in only that way.
Fee, Gordan and Douglas Stuart. How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014. Jackson, Wayne. "The Weekly Observance of the Lord's Supper." ChristianCourier.com. Access date: January 8, 2020. https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/240-weekly-observance-of-the-lords-supper-the Muller, Richard A. Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1986. Ryken, Leland. Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2005. Warren, Thomas B. When Is An Example Binding? Colleyville, TX: National Christian Press, Inc., 2001.