Generic and Specific Authority

By In In Remembrance On November 22, 2015

We have shown in previous articles that God authorizes (gives man the right and freedom to act) through commands, approved examples, and necessary inferences recorded in His inspired word, the Bible. Some commands, examples and inferences are very specific in what is being authorized. Others provide generic authority for actions in religious matters.

Illustrating the Principle of Generic and Specific Authority

Suppose you were to send me a letter stating: “Please use this enclosed $5,000 to buy me a car.” Since you did not specify what make of car, I would have the generic authority to buy a Ford or Dodge, or any other make of cars. If the letter stated, “…buy me a Ford Explorer,” I would understand that you authorized me to purchase only that specific make and model. If I were to reason like some people in the religious world do today, I might say: “Well, you didn’t say I couldn’t buy a make other than a Ford, so I am free to buy a Dodge or Chevrolet.” But suppose your letter stated: “Please use this enclosed $5,000 to buy me a Ford Explorer. Do not go, or think, beyond what is written in this letter…do not add to or take away from the words of this letter…and whoever transgresses and does not abide in the statements of this letter does not have my approval.” Now it is clear that “buy me a Ford Explorer” is specific authority to buy only that specific make and model. Let’s examine a few instances of generic and specific authority in God’s word.

Elements for the Lord’s Supper

“Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me’.” (Luke 22:17-19). The content of the cup is identified as “the fruit of the vine;” the bread would be “unleavened bread” because it was during “the Feast of Unleavened Bread” (22:1) that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper.  If the record said that Jesus took food and drink to give His disciples as elements “in remembrance of” Him, then we would have generic authority to use steak, beans, rice, milk, orange juice, or any other specific food and drink items as elements for the Lord’s Supper. But the specifics, “fruit of the vine” and “unleavened bread” provide authority for only these two elements. Any other elements are excluded because of the limitations stated in God’s word: we are “not to think beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6); “If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book… God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city…” (Revelation 22:18-19);  “Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God…” (2 John 9).

Singing Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16). In all of the New Testament, “singing…psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” is specified as the kind of music we are authorized to offer as worship to God. If God’s word had just said “make music,” then we would have generic authority to sing, whistle a tune, or play a mechanical instrument, and we could even sing secular, popular, or country western songs as acceptable worship to God. Since God’s word has specified “singing,” and singing “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs,” any other forms of making music or types of songs are excluded and unauthorized because of the limitations stated in God’s word: “whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of (i.e., by the authority of–rsb) the Lord Jesus…” (Colossians 3:17; also, as above: 1 Corinthians 4:6; Revelation 22:18-19; 2 John 9).

The specific command to sing provides generic authority for a group of singers to have a song leader, and sing four part harmony, and use song books or other means to view the songs because all that is being done is still singing. Some argue that all a group is doing is just singing even when the singing is accompanied by mechanical instruments, but the group is singing and playing. The Bible makes a distinction between singing and playing (see Psalm 68:25; 87:7); singing and playing are two separate actions just as singing and dancing (see 1 Samuel 18:6) are two different actions. “Singing…psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” is clearly authorized by the New Testament; authority, generic or specific, to play mechanical instruments in worship to God cannot be found in the New Testament.

Assembling for Worship and Edification

The Hebrew writer says: “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together…but exhorting one another…” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Paul’s instructions to the church at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 14, were given so that “the church may receive edification…” (vs. 5); they were to make proper use of their spiritual gifts in their assemblies for worship in order to “let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel…” (vs. 12). Their worship to God and their edification of one another was to take place when “the whole church comes together in one place” (vs. 23). These passages, and others, provide specific authority for saints to assemble with one another for the purpose of worshipping God and edifying one another.

Since the particular place to assemble is not specified, we have the generic authority to decide where “the whole church comes together in one place.” It could be in a house (1 Corinthians 16:19), in a porch like Solomon’s (Acts 5:12), a rented room or building, or a building owned by the church. The New Testament does not authorize the church to finance a building for the purpose of social gatherings or recreational activities. When some at Corinth were turning the Lord’s Supper into a common meal, Paul said: “What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?” (1 Corinthians 11:22). To be a church that is of Christ, we must abide by and limit ourselves to, what He as Lord and head of the church authorizes (Colossians 1:18; 3:17; 2 John 9).

The Work of the Church

God could have given the church the generic authority to do any work that the members thought would be a good work. Instead, the New Testament is specific regarding the works God authorizes for the church: evangelism, especially by supporting preachers of the gospel (Philippians 4:15-16); edification of saints (Ephesians 4:11-12); benevolence to needy saints (2 Corinthians 8:1-4). Other specific works—sponsoring recreation and parties, operating day cares or secular schools, general benevolence to the community or providing medical care, etc.—are not authorized by God. While some reason that God didn’t say the church cannot engage in whatever “good work” they chose, the Bible affirms that God has said we cannot—again, see Colossians 3:17; 1 Corinthians 4:6; Revelation 22:18-19; 2 John 9.

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