Mike Johnson

There are many who have failed to understand the concept of generic and specific authority. They may understand that we are governed by direct command or statement, approved example, and necessary inference.  However, if they do not understand the concept of generic and specific authority, along with the concept of aids and expedients which may be used in carrying out commands, confusion can certainly result.  A failure to understand these concepts can cause people to become frustrated in their attempts to apply important principles of Bible authority.


Generic authority can be defined as “a command authorizing the performance of some act without giving directions as to the manner or method of its performance.”  In contrast, specific authority carries with it the manner or method of its performance.  Generic authority includes; specific authority excludes.

 Some Illustrations

Consider this very simple illustration regarding generic and specific authority which appeared, in essence, a few years ago in a book by Maurice Barnett called Understanding Bible Authority.  A man steps into a room full of people and says, “Go get some bread.”    Locomotion was specified with the word “go.”  Also, the man specified that “bread” was wanted, but, beyond these specifics, there are several things not stated which are important to fulfilling the command.  First, the man did not specify who was to get the bread so anyone in the room could go. Second, he did not specify where they were to get the bread or even how the bread was to be obtained.  The bread could be bought or borrowed, and someone could go to any store — close by or across town.  Next, the man did not specify when the bread was wanted (although it might be assumed that it was wanted in a short time) or how much bread was wanted (a small amount or numerous loafs).  Further, the man did not specify what kind of bread to get so a person could get wheat, white rye, or any kind of bread. Although those in the room had to do what they were told (get bread), there would be many unspecified options left for them to decide.  They would be free to choose.  This illustrates generic authority.  Suppose, on the other hand, that the man went into the room and said to a particular person, “Here is the money; take my car right now; go to the grocery store on the next corner; buy one loaf of fresh, thin-sliced, white, sandwich bread, and bring it back to me.”  This illustrates specific authority.  There is much less room for choice in this statement.

Consider a few more illustrations. Suppose that someone was told, “Go and climb a tree.” This command would be generic as to the kind of tree that could be climbed.  Any tree would do — a person climbing an oak, pine, or maple would be obeying the command.  The command would be specific in that only a tree could be climbed.  Someone could not climb a “ladder” and fulfill this command, however.  Suppose that someone was told to offer an animal sacrifice.  This command would be generic in that any kind of animal would do.  Offering a sheep, horse, or cow would be acceptable.  However, the above command is specific in that only animals can be offered; vegetables could not be offered.  If the command was “offer a four-footed animal,” then the command would be specific in that only aninals with four feet could be offered (a bird would not do), but it would be generic from the standpoint of any four-footed animal being acceptable.

 Old Testament Examples

Consider the Old Testament case of Noah.  Noah was told (Gen. 6:14), “Make thee an ark of gopher wood. . . .”  If Noah had been told to make an ark of “wood,” he could have constructed the ark out of any kind of wood.  This command was specific, but he was told “gopher wood,” so all other kinds of wood were eliminated by the command.  If there were different kinds of gopher trees, then the command would have been generic as to the kind of gopher tree that Noah would have been permitted to use.  Noah could have used either small or large gopher trees and would have still been doing exactly what God told him.  It must also be understood that aids and expedients (means) are used in carrying out commands.  Noah probably used hammers, ropes, and oxen to carry out the command to “build an ark.”  If so, would these have been authorized?  Yes, they would have been “aids.”  In using these, Noah would have still been doing exactly what God said to do when He said to build an ark.

In Numbers 19:2, the Bible shows that the people were to offer a “red heifer.”  A red heifer was a specific kind of animal.  Since it was specified, all other animals were eliminated, and all heifers which were not red heifers were eliminated.  If the command was “offer a heifer,” a heifer of any color could have been offered.  If he said, “offer an animal,” the command would have been generic as to the kind of animal, so a rabbit, horse, or any other kind of animal could have been offered. Again, aids and expedients could have been used to carry out the above command.

 New Testament Examples

In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus spoke the Great Commission to his apostles.  He said, “ . . . All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.  Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:  Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.”  From these verses several observations can be made.  First, “go” is a generic command; it specifies movement, but they were not told “how” to go.   Thus, any means of locomotion would do; they were free to choose.  They could have traveled by boat, chariot, animal, or by walking.  In addition, today, we can travel by automobile, plane, bicycle, or bus.  Next, there is the command to “teach.”  Specific arrangements for teaching are authorized.  We can teach by sermons, by classes, to a group or an individual, by radio or television.  Aids and methods can be employed in carrying out this command such as blackboards, charts, overhead projectors, and public address systems.   Whether one teaches a group or individuals, by radio or in person, the command to teach is still simply being carried out.  There is also the command to baptize.  Carrying out this command necessitates a place.  A person could be baptized in a river, pool, or lake.  The water can be warm or cool, or it can be inside or outside.  A baptistery, for example, is authorized as an aid in carrying out the command to baptize.  Remember, however, that the Great Commission specifies that the “gospel” is to be taught, so human traditions and philosophies are eliminated.  These would not be aids or expedients but additions.

We also learn that the church is to assemble (Heb. 10:25).  This command is generic with regard to the place.  We are not told where to assemble.  The church could assemble in a home, a tent, or a meeting house.  Some say that we do not have the authority for a church building.  This is wrong; as we have generic authority for the church to spend its money for a meeting place.  The church is to assemble (Heb. 10:25, Cor. 14); we are to gather together for worship — a place is necessitated.   A building expedites the carrying out of the command to assemble.

The Bible also teaches that Christians are to “give” as they have been prospered on the first day of the week (I Cor. 16:1-2).   This command specifies how the church is to take in its money.  A church taking in money by raffles, suppers, or operating a business has added to God’s Word, not respecting the silence of the Scriptures.  Baskets, or plates, to take up the money are aids in carrying out the command to give.  When a church uses a basket or a plate, it is still just simply giving as God said.  By the way, the day that we are to give (first day of the week) is specified so it would be wrong for churches to take up money on any other day.

The Bible also specifies the kind of music that Christians are to use in worshiping God (Col. 3:16, Eph. 5:19, I Cor. 14:15).  These New Testament passages, and others, say that we are to sing.  Since God specified the kind of music — singing — all else is eliminated.  If God had said, “Make music,” He would have given a generic command, and Christians could use any kind of music that they wanted.  But, God specified “sing,” so all other kinds of music are excluded.   Expedients and aids may be employed in carrying out the command to sing. The use of a song book, song leader, and four-part harmony would not be wrong.  When these are employed, the church is still just doing exactly what God said — Sing!   A pitch pipe is sometimes used by the song leader to get the right pitch.  This is not a different kind of music but is simply an aid.  Sometimes people argue that an organ or piano is just an aid like a public address system, a blackboard, song books, lights, etc. i.e. — it is an aid in singing.  An instrument of music is not an aid; it is a different kind of music in the same way that beef would be adding another kind of food if added to the Lord’s Supper.  The instrument is an addition to God’s Word.

An aid must be subordinate, not coordinate (equal).   If a person is ordered to “walk,” he could not use a car as an aid to walking as walking and riding are coordinates.  Riding would be a different kind of transportation.  A cane, on the other hand, is an aid to walking, it is not another kind of transportation.  A person, who walked, employing a cane, would still be doing exactly what the command said.  If a person told a tailor, “Hand stitch a suit for me.”  The tailor could use a needle, thread, scissors, and a thimble.  These would be subordinates and would be acceptable.  But, if he used a sewing machine, he would be using another way to make a suit and would have violated the order.  A sewing machine would be coordinate to hand stitching the suit.  In like manner, singing and playing are coordinates.  They are two different kinds of music.

The Bible also specifies that the church has a three-fold mission. It is to teach the lost, teach its own members, and relieve needy saints (I Tim. 3:15; Eph. 4:11-12; Acts 11:28-30).   This work has been specified, so no other work can be added.  The church is not to provide for entertainment, recreation, and secular education.  Its work is not to provide for medical clinics or for anything else which does not fall under its God-given work.

 Misunderstanding Generic Authority

There have been divisions over the years because some have misunderstood the concept of generic authority. Many years ago, the church was split over the Missionary Society issue. The Missionary Society was a separate organization from the church, set up to preach the gospel to the lost.  It was supported by money being sent to it by various churches. The argument was that the Missionary Society was simply a method which could be employed by the church to preach the gospel.  The Missionary Society, however, was not actually a method of preaching the gospel but a separate organization which used means and methods.  The church is its own missionary society.  It is to oversee its own work of evangelizing, and it is not to turn that work over to some other organization thus becoming just a money-raising organization.  The same argument was used many years later to justify the church support of benevolent societies.  It was said that the orphan home was just a method for the church to carry out its work of benevolence.  Again, these organizations are not merely methods but separate organizations which employ means and methods themselves.   Just as the church is its own missionary society, it is also its own benevolent society.  The church is to oversee its own benevolent work.  It cannot become a fund-raising organization for some human institution.   In the two controversies mentioned above, the question was not how but who.

Sometimes we might ask for authority for a certain practice.  When authority from God’s Word cannot be produced, people at times respond by saying that there are a lot of things we endorse for which we have no authority.  Some have said this when asked for the Biblical authority for the church to build what are called “fellowship halls” or recreation buildings.  They argue, “You endorse song books, restrooms, drinking fountains which are not mentioned in the Bible but oppose kitchens in the church building and recreation buildings which are not mentioned either.”  This is an argument of inconsistency.  (An argument to prove inconsistency does not disprove another’s position; it only proves inconsistency.)  It must be understood, however, that a water fountain is not the same as a recreation building.  Water fountains, lights, and heating and cooling units are authorized under generic authority.  The church is to assemble; this necessitates a place, and a place to assemble would include the above items.  If the church were told to “provide recreation,” to be involved in the “social gospel,” then, under generic authority, a building and equipment would be authorized to carry out this command.  Since providing recreation is not revealed to be a mission of the church, then there is no authority to provide facilities to carry out this work.  The church can provide facilities for anything which is its work, but recreation cannot be shown to be the work of the church.

We must have authority for all that we believe and practice.  It is important, however, to understand the importance of generic and specific authority.  A failure to do so, can result in error and confusion.