The Authority of Examples
We noted in a previous article that God’s authority (God giving man the right or freedom to act, especially in religious matters) is expressed in the Scriptures. In last month’s article, we pointed out that one way we discover what God authorizes is by searching the Scriptures for His commands that apply to us today. Another way we can be assured that we have God’s authority for our teachings and practices in the church is by means of approved examples revealed in the Scriptures.
All Examples Should Be Noted
Examples are illustrations; they may illustrate something good to be followed (“…Christ… suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow in His steps”–1 Peter 2:21) or something evil to be avoided (the lying of Ananias and Sapphira–Acts 5). All examples in the Bible, whether of the apostles, good men, evil men, or whomever, are to be noted; but not all examples are to be followed.
Paul states clearly that we are to learn from the examples of Israel’s disobedience and God’s punishment of them revealed in the Old Testament. “Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted…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” (1 Corinthians 10:6,11). We are to make note of the many examples revealed in the Old Testament; we are not to follow the bad examples, but learn from them the things that God does not approve or authorize.
We are not talking about establishing authority by just any example but by an approved example. By approved example we mean an example where the people we read about in the New Testament were approved by God in their teaching or practice. Jesus said to His apostles: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). If in the New Testament we find Christians observing, and participating in, an activity commanded by Jesus and His apostles, we can rightly conclude that this practice is divinely authorized. Approved examples found in the New Testament are illustrations of Jesus’ commands being observed by His disciples.
It is important to note that the example must be spoken of by the God-inspired Scriptures as approved. There are certainly examples of unauthorized activity by people in the New Testament (such as Ananias and Sapphira). We do not mean that we can engage in just any activity found in the New Testament. Rather, only those teachings and practices which are shown to meet God’s approval. Paul instructs saints several times to follow his example. “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1—NIV). “Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us” (Philippians 3:17—NASB). “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9—NIV).
Acts 15 records a case of establishing God’s authority by approved examples. When certain men came down from Judea to Antioch and taught the brethren that the Gentiles had to keep the Law of Moses to be saved, the apostles and elders at Jerusalem came together and discussed what God’s will was in this matter. The apostles’ Peter and Paul cited themselves as approved examples which established God’s authority for the Gentiles to be saved just like the Jews by obeying the gospel without keeping the Law of Moses. Peter said it was God who chose him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, and it was God who “acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did” (vs. 7-8) for the Jewish converts. And God had approved the work of Paul and Barnabas in converting Gentiles by the “miracles and wonders God worked through them” (vs. 12). A couple of cases will demonstrate how the use of approved examples can answer questions we have today.
Raising Funds for the Work of the Church
Paul told many churches how to raise funds when they needed to carry out a work they were authorized to do: “Upon the first day of the week let each one of you lay by him in store, as he may prosper, that no collections be made when I come” (1 Corinthians 16:2–ASV). This example of taking up a collection answers the question: “How shall the church raise money for its work?” The command to assemble, and examples of early saints assembling, for worship authorizes a place for assembling; it can be a rented hall or a purchased building. How do we gather funds for a place to assemble? 1 Corinthians 16:2 shows how the early church gathered funds for works authorized by God; it was by taking up a collection, on the first day of the week, from members of the local church. There is no authority found in the New Testament for a church to have a bake sale, rummage sale, operate fund raising businesses, or solicit funds from the people of the world.
Partaking of the Lord’s Supper
We are commanded to observe the Lord’s Supper, but we have no command about how often or when to partake of the Lord’s Supper. We do, however, have an example of the early saints partaking of the Lord’s Supper. In Acts 20:7, we read the following: “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.” The text clearly indicates that the disciples came together on Sunday to partake of the Lord’s Supper (“break bread” refers to observing the Lord’s Supper). With this approved example, we know for certain that God authorizes us to partake of the Lord’s Supper every first day of the week. The text of Acts 20:7 is the only text in the New Testament which indicates the day and frequency of observance. It constitutes the sum total of God’s revelation on that matter. Today, when we observe the Lord’s Supper every first day of the week, we do so with God’s authority. However, if we partake of the Lord’s Supper on any other day of the week, we do so without divine authority. “And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9).