What is often defined as either “scriptural” or “biblical” is sometimes actually “unscriptural” and “unbiblical.” What has often occurred in the religious world is that some have studied their way through the Bible, searching for some hint of a belief or behavior that would validate their own self-improvised religiosity. In this scurry to discover “proof text” examples of behavior of the early Christians are highlighted, copied and cloned. These examples of the early Christians then become the authority by which we determine if one’s behavior is either “scriptural” or “biblical.” So we become quite hypocritical in our use of such terms as a standard for judging others.
Examples of behavior in the lives of the early disciples have sometimes become the authority for establishing doctrinal points on our outline to identify the New Testament church. The problem with this system of establishing the identity of the church is that we are often quite inconsistent, if not hypocritical. For example, as the church we want to refer to ourselves with a specific name, while there are several different references in the New Testament to the church. Which “name” is “biblical” or “scriptural” is a matter of opinion. Also, the early Christians sold their possessions (At 4:32-35). As we read their example of doing so, we want to covet our possessions and store them away in our garages or attics. And when we assemble, we completely ignore the fact that the early Christians assembled in their homes (Rm 16:5; 1 Co 16:19). Of course meeting in a house is a supposed lower location of assembly, while “high church” must construct some structure and call such a “church house.” Unfortunately, in the manufacture of our outline on the identity of “the church,” we simply pick and choose those examples we have traditionally determined that make us “biblical” or “scriptural.” The sad thing about this narrative is that there are so many who do not see the inconsistency of promoting such divisive theology.
Using examples of behavior in the lives of the early disciples as authority in matters of faith can be quite exhausting, if not very dubious. We must also keep in mind that how the early disciples behaved was how they responded to the gospel. Being first generation Christians without the New Testament Scriptures to guide them for the first twenty to thirty years after the coming of the Holy Spirit on the apostles in Acts 2, their beliefs and behavior during those intervening years was sometimes quite flawed. The purpose for which the early letters were written to the early churches as a whole was to correct dysfunctional behavior in the lives of the first disciples. We would do well, therefore, to be quite cautious about using any examples of behavior of the early disciples as authority in our faith. We would certainly not follow all the examples of the first generation of Christians in Corinth.
Today, we have the right to respond to the gospel, and in responding, we will often find no “scriptural” or “biblical” validation for some of the things we do as we live the gospel. In other words, building a church building is not “unscriptural” or “unbiblical” because we can find no examples of church buildings in the New Testament. Establishing some “order of assembly” when we come together in assembly has no “scriptural” or “biblical” authority, though Christians are free to bring order to their assemblies by establishing an order to assembly.
Even the meeting time of Sunday morning has become a tradition for which there is no “biblical” or “scriptural” support. As far as can be determined from the New Testament, Christians must come together on the first day of the week, or Sunday, though there is no specific command to do such (See At 20:7; 1 Co 16:2). This was the day on which the early Christians came together, and thus the specific day on which they meet. Meeting in the morning or evening is our choice, depending on what the assembled group desires to do. But there is no “biblical authority” for meeting on either Sunday morning or Sunday night.
Meeting at any other time throughout the week would not be “biblical” or “scriptural” simply because we find no mandates to do such in the New Testament. Nevertheless, if those who have responded to the gospel want to meet on another day of the week, in conjunction with their meeting on Sunday, then they have the freedom to do so, though a weekday meeting would not be a matter of faith. Our faith may move us to assemble more throughout the week, but our faith is not validated by our assemblies.
As the early Christians had the freedom to respond to the gospel in their own lives—which was often determined by culture—so do we. For example, wearing of a head covering was a cultural symbol of submission. Paul even instructed the Corinthians to continue the custom (1 Co 11:4-12), as he encouraged some to whom he wrote not to marry in times of social distress (1 Co 7:26).
The examples of the early disciples cannot be established as authority for our faith today. We learn from the examples of the early disciples, but we do not establish law from the example of their behavior. If we could go back to the first century in a time machine, we could not bind all the examples of our response to the gospel today on the early disciples of the first century. Christ has set both them and us free, and thus we will not be brought into the bondage of any religious behavior of the religious world in which we now live (Gl 5:1). Our faith is determined by what we objectively read in our Bibles.
This brings us to a concept that is quite liberating in reference to our personal response to the gospel. It is critical to understand first the following statement in order to preserve our freedom that we have in Christ: We must have Bible authority in all matters of faith. We are confident that few people really understand what this statement means. It is often erroneously used in the context of binding on Christians today many things in the New Testament that God never intended to be bound, especially in reference to examples. But when understood correctly, the statement actually refers to preserving the freedom of Christians lest they lead themselves into being religionists who are far removed from God, especially in these times when ignorance of the Bible is running rampant throughout the religious world.
In the following concept, Paul laid the foundation for understanding the preceding statement: “So then faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rm 10:17). Our faith is based on what we read in our Bibles. However, if we have little knowledge of our Bibles, then it follows that we have little faith, or a faith that is not pleasing to God. Our faith, therefore, must not be based primarily on the religious heritage of our fathers of the past, or our present religious rituals and ceremonies that we have invented for ourselves in order to validate our faith. Unfortunately, in these times Sunday morning has often become a ceremony for the validation of our faith because we have performed certain religious rituals or ceremonies. Once the Sunday morning religious rituals and ceremonies are performed, we then assume the our faith is validated and we go on our way feeling renewed.
Faith to the religionists, therefore, is strengthened by adhering to Sunday morning rituals and ceremonies. We must remember that one is stuck in religion if he or she feels “unfaithful” if the performance of certain rituals and ceremonies are not adhered to regularly on Sunday morning. But at the same time, those who are walking by a faith that is based on the grace of the gospel, feel “unfaithful” if they have missed an opportunity to assemble with fellow gospel-obedient brothers and sisters in Christ. The religionist misses the performances. Those who are walking by a faith that is based on the gospel miss fellow gospel-obedient saints around the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. One can determine if he or she is involved in religion according to what he or she misses when for some unforeseen reason assembly with the saints is hindered.
This brings us closer to understanding that we must have “authority in matters of faith.” The faith that is pleasing to God must result from what we read in the word of God. The Hebrew statement could thus read, “But without faith [that is based on the word of God] it is impossible to please Him” (Hb 11:6). The religionist struggles with this matter. In the behavior of the religionist there are numerous rituals and ceremonies that are not explicitly define in the word of God. These rituals and ceremonies can be performed, but they can never become a matter of being a test of our fellowship with one another. They can never be used to validate our faith. They can never be used to grow our faith. If this were the case, then we would find ourselves caught up in the fanaticism of some cult.
An example is here in order to illustrate a very significant manner by which we behave in our response to the gospel. It is imperative to understand that “authority in matters of faith” can never endanger our freedom that we have in our continued response to the gospel. Our individual responses to the gospel will differ. We may even find some similar example of our responses in the behavior of the New Testament Christians, for they too responded to the same gospel. Our responses to the gospel may be similar to theirs, but the example of their response can never be used to validate our faith. For example, in their response to the gospel, the early Christians in Jerusalem sold their possessions and parted the proceeds to those in need (At 2:45). We have the freedom to do the same, but their example of so doing does not establish a mandate (law) that we too must sell what we have and give to those in need.
Having authority in matters of faith is not a license to twist the Scriptures to the point that we become legal religionists by which we would bind where God never intended to bind. God never intended that we should give ourselves into poverty. In the historical context of the example of the first Christians, those early Christians sold their possessions in order to aid those who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover/Pentecost feast, intending to stay only fifty days in Jerusalem before they returned home. But extenuating circumstances prevailed—the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles—and the travelers needed help to stay on at the apostles’ feet in order to learn more truth (At 2:42; see Jn 14:26; 16:13). Therefore, those local respondents to the gospel shared with those visitors from other countries who had originally intended to stay in Jerusalem for a short period of time. The selling of possessions by the local respondents to the gospel revealed the power of the gospel working in their lives.
A more simple example may be in order to make a specific application to our own situation today. Before and after assemblies, some today have customarily chosen to have an “opening” and “closing” prayer in reference to their assemblies. Christians certainly have the freedom to carry on with these prayers before and after their assemblies. However, since neither an “opening” or “closing” prayer is found in the word of God, then such can never became a matter of faith. “Opening” and “closing” prayers are only the invention of ourselves. Such prayers, therefore, have no “biblical authority.” Strictly speaking, therefore, they are “unbiblical,” or “unscriptural.” They are so because “opening” and “closing” prayers are found nowhere in the Bible.
Add to this example a host of examples that have become so entrenched in our assembly behavior that people do not feel right when there is no “closing” prayer. But not feeling right about something is subjective religiosity. “Not feeling right” about something leads us into being religionists. In other words, “feelings” become the validation for what is either right or wrong in reference to our obedience to the gospel, specifically in reference to our assemblies. This is called “subjective religion.” In other words, our behavior as a Christian is subjected to our feelings. We establish authority in our faith by what either feels good or bad.
On the other hand, having Bible authority in matters of faith is objective. It is objective because our beliefs and behavior are authorized by what is actually stated in the word of God. For example, baptism is an objective action of behavior simply because it is stated in the New Testament. One can be baptized, therefore, not as a subjective action in order to perform some religious tradition, but because of an objective reading of such in the New Testament. Baptism, therefore, is a matter of faith. We can thus establish baptism as a foundation upon which to determine fellowship, for in baptism, one is baptized into Christ (Rm 6:3-6). Those who have not responded to the gospel by being baptized into Christ, are good religious friends, but they are not brothers or sisters in Christ.
“Opening” and “closing” prayers, meeting in “church buildings,” vacation Bible schools, song books, Bible tracts and Sunday school material are not matters of faith. They are not because they are not mentioned in the New Testament. This does not mean that they are wrong to do or use, only that they are not matters of faith. Therefore, no test of fellowship can ever be made between brothers who have the freedom to use those things that are not matters of faith, that is, things that are in the realm of their freedom to use in their response to the gospel. We must understand, therefore, that when we use the phrase “Bible authority in all matters of faith,” we are respecting the freedom of others to use or do that which they have freedom to do, even though we cannot find such in the Bible. They have the right to so act even if we do not feel good about their actions. If such actions are not contrary to what the Bible clearly states, then there is freedom to act.
It is imperative, therefore, that people of faith must know their Bibles. If they do not know their Bibles, then they will become religionists, and religion is inherently divisive because the identity of each particular religion is based on the performance of certain rituals and ceremonies. For this reason, religions are essentially very emotionally based on the performance of the accepted, or traditional rituals and ceremonies. Adherents to specific religious groups, therefore, are very defensive about the identity of their particular religious group, for their faith is validated by a strict performance of the traditional rituals and ceremonies that identify one’s particular religious group. And now we understand what God meant when Hosea recorded Hosea 4:6. The Israelites became religionists after Baal because they forsook the word of God, and subsequently established their own faith that was based on their own religious inventions.