What should be our attitude toward the concept of “example” as an acceptable form of Bible authority? There are three possible attitudes one might have. First, one might say that all examples are binding. This attitude is unlikely, however, and, as we will see later, this would actually be a ridicules position to take. A second view one might take is that no examples are binding today. Some take this position saying that we are guided by direct statements and commands only. The third position, which is the correct one, is that some examples are binding and others are incidental. Thus, in addition to appealing to the direct statement or command and necessary inference, we appeal to what might be called “approved example” as a form of authority. An approved example is sometimes referred to as “divine approved example,” “approved apostolic example,” or sometimes this form is known as “accounts of action.”
Consider some definitions of the approved example by various brethren who have written on this subject.
- “By this we mean the practice of the people of God in the New Testament under the guidance of the apostles” (Ferrell Jenkins, Biblical Authority 21-22).
- “An example is a recorded instance of a direct order (command or statement) being executed” (Gene Frost, Gospel Anchor 8-75).
- “ . . . A description of the conduct or activity of people in the Bible, primarily New Testament disciples, that act as a pattern that we may imitate or avoid” (Maurice Barnett, Understanding Authority 39).
The approved example is a description of what someone did; it is teaching by “show” rather than by “tell.”
Are All Examples Binding?
It is clear that all examples in the Bible are not meant to be binding on us today. If every example is binding, we would have to travel by ship to preach the gospel (since Paul did); have all things common because the early Jerusalem church did (Acts 1:44-45, 4:32, 34-35); assemble daily (Acts 2:46-47); always partake of the Lord’s Supper in an upper room (Lk. 22:12, Acts 20:7-11); the same person would have to give thanks for the bread and fruit of the vine in taking the Lord’s Supper (Mt. 26:26-29; Mk. 14:22-25), and the list could go on.
It is also important to keep in mind that the New Testament is full of examples of sinful actions and also incidents that are a part of the historical narratives which have no bearing on our service to God.
To determine when an example is binding, one must look at the specific statement under consideration, the immediate context of the specific statement, and the remote context (i.e., what the rest of the Bible has to say about the matter). Also, there are certain logical rules which would need to be considered.
One must determine whether or not an example is binding. This is not unusual as the same determination must be made for each direct statement or command.
Old Testament Examples
It is important to understand that the old law is not in effect today. It was for the Jews (Deut. 5:1-3); it could not take away sin (Heb. 9:11-12; 10:3-4). When Jesus died, the old law was taken away (Col. 2:14-17). Yet, it is clear that we do learn from the examples of the Old Testament. Romans 15:4 teaches that it was written for our learning.
New Testament writers refer to people in the Old Testament as examples. In I Corinthians 10, Paul discussed the children of Israel in the wilderness. In verse seven he said, urging the Corinthians to learn from this Old Testament example, “Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them . . .” In verse 11 he said, “Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition . . . .” Hebrews 11 calls attention to the faith of various people from the Old Testament. These examples were brought up for us to learn from (12:1). We are taught in Hebrews 11 about the importance of faith, and that an obedient faith is pleasing to God. In Luke 17:32, Jesus said, “Remember Lot’s wife.” Her example teaches that God must be obeyed. II Peter 2:4-11 mentions various ones from the Old Testament who were wicked and were punished. The point is, that if God did not spare these people who sinned; He will not spare us either.
How do we learn from the Old Testament? The specific details of Old Testament examples are not binding, but principles involved are. For example, the fact that animal sacrifices were offered under the old covenant would not require people today to offer animal sacrifices. As we have seen from the passages above, Christians are instructed to learn from the Old Testament.
Consider various Old Testament characters and events. From the story of Cain and Able, we learn that it does matter how we worship God. We do not learn from Noah that we are to build an ark today, but we do learn that God will punish mankind when he sins. Abraham was told to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice (Gen. 22:1-18). We learn from this story that it is important to have faith in God and to obey Him. We would not follow Abraham’s example, however, by offering our children as sacrifices.
We also learn principles about God from the Old Testament. We learn, for example, that God is omniscient (has all knowledge) and that He is omnipotent (all-powerful). We also learn of His love, wisdom, mercy, and wrath.
New Testament Passages
In the New Testament, we are told to follow Christ’s example. I Peter 2:21 says, “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps.” In the context of this passage, Christ is our example in how He dealt with mistreatment, but Christ, generally, is our example.
Paul, an apostle, wrote in I Corinthians (4:16), “Wherefore I beseech you, be followers of me.” He also told the Corinthians (I Cor. 11:1) to “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.” On other occasions, Paul taught this concept (I Th. 4:6; II Th. 3:7; Acts 20:35). Another significant passage in Paul’s writings is Philippians 4:9. Here Paul wrote, “Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.” Not only were they to follow what they had learned, received, and heard, but they were to follow what they had “seen” in him. They were to “put it into practice,” as one translation says.
Consider some areas where “approved example” can be applied. On what day are we to partake of the Lord’s Supper? “Sunday,” someone might respond. How do we know this? We know it by “approved example.” In Acts 20, we learn that Paul and his companions came to Troas, and they stayed until the first day of the week and then partook of the Lord’s Supper. Verse seven says, “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight.” Paul, an Apostle, was present; they partook of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week; there is no example, or any other authority for, partaking of it on any other day. Thus, the day that we are to partake of the Lord’s Supper is established by “approved example.” In Acts 14:23, we learn that Paul and Barnabas, after having established churches in various places, revisited them and appointed elders in every church. By this example, we understand that there are to be “elders” in every church, and we also learn that there is to be a plurality of elders in each church. We also learn by example that “water” is the element that is to be used in carrying out the baptism of the Great Commission. The Bible teaches that baptism is a “burial” (Rom. 6:4, Col. 2:12), but many elements can be used to “bury.” An examination of the conversion of the Ethiopian (Acts 8:36-39) and the conversion of Cornelius and his family (Acts 10) provide examples of water being used as the element of baptism. There are no examples in the Scriptures of any other element being used for baptism.
When Is an Example Binding?
We have already noted that every example is not intended to be binding on us today. Some examples are limited, and generic and specific authority must be taken into consideration.
Consider some rules which can be helpful in understanding the proper application of an example. These rules are not listed in the Scriptures. The Bible, however, does not specifically say which examples are binding and which are not. God certainly expects us to use some logic, along with common sense. These concepts, as you will soon see, are obvious.
• Rule of uniformity – For an example to be binding, all other examples of the same matter, must be in complete agreement in all essential details. It is not binding if there is variation. This rule is useful in eliminating incidental actions. For example, Paul traveled by ship to fulfill the great commission to “go” and preach the gospel. Must we travel by ship today to “go” and preach the gospel? No, we have other examples of people traveling by land. On the other hand, we have many examples of conversion coming about by God’s Word being taught and learned. Without the teaching and learning of God’s Word, there was no conversion, thus, uniformity is demonstrated by the various examples.
• Rule of harmony – To be binding, an example must harmonize with all other teaching in the New Testament. The Lord’s Supper, we are told, was first instituted in an upper room (Lk. 22:12) and was later observed in an upper room (Acts 20:7). Must the Lord’s Supper be observed in an upper room today? No, these examples are not binding as Jesus taught that the place where one worships God is not important (Jn. 4:21-24).
• Rule of universal application – Since the gospel is for all men of all generations, whatever is binding must be within the ability of all men to perform in all generations. It is not possible for all populations of the earth today to be riding in a chariot on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, reading the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, when they learn the need to be baptized (Acts 8). It is not possible to go into Herod’s temple at the hour of prayer (Acts 3:1). An upper room would not be available in all areas of the world— preachers are not to teach that you must build a multi structured building to please the Lord. On the other hand, immersion in water, the elements of the Lord’s Super, the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week, congregations being autonomous, and the church fulfilling the work that God has assigned can all be carried out anywhere.
• Rule of materiality – For an example to be binding, it must be material and not just an incidental matter. We are told to baptize. It is not important whether the water is running or still, indoors or outdoors, warm or cold. A person is still simply baptizing regardless of whether the water is warm or cold. This would not be relevant to the action or purpose of baptism. Further, we are told to preach, and it does not matter if it is in a home, rented building, tent or church building. The place has no essential relationship to the action.
• Rule of limited application – Some matters pertain to a special situation which existed at one time but does not exist now; some matters pertain to a custom of the time. In I Corinthians 7, Paul told the Corinthians that it was better not to marry. However, it is clear from the chapter that he was just talking about during the “present distress” (v. 26), i.e., during a special set of circumstances. The holy kiss, spoken of in the Scriptures, was the form of greeting employed during that time. Today, we are to have a sincere, non hypocritical attitude toward others. Feet washing was dictated as an act of kindness and hospitality due to circumstances which existed in Bible times. The way to show hospitality may vary, but Christians are to always show hospitality.
• Rule of competence – An example must be supported by competent evidence. Infant baptism, for example, is sometimes defended by people on the basis of the “household” baptisms of the New Testament (Acts 16:32-34). An assumption is made that just because the word “house” or “household” is used that infants were baptized. The improper conclusion is drawn that all households have infants. This conclusion to defend infant baptism would also be incorrect as the rules of harmony and uniformity would be violated. From other passages and conversion cases, it is clear that those who are to be baptized were penitent believers.
If it is argued that logic must be employed to determine which examples are binding, it must be noted that logic must be employed to determine which direct statements and commands apply to us today.
Certainly, along with the direct statement or command, and necessary inference, the approved example is a valid form of Bible authority.