How do Christians know what they are supposed to be and do? How do we come to know what God’s will for the Lord’s church is? How can anyone be sure what in the scriptures is meant to be binding and what is merely background material or circumstantial events?
The concept of “speaking where the Bible speaks and being silent where the Bible is silent” can be somewhat slippery, in terms of consistent application. When are commands recorded in the Bible intended to be taken as “law” for all time, and when are they conditional and limited in their application? When is an example in the Bible intended to be seen as part of a pattern, and when is an example merely an event? How do Christians know the difference?
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you.” (1 Cor 11:1-2 NIV). This “commandment” in the midst of a discussion of idolatry, authority, and the Lord’s supper, things relevant to both the everyday life of believers and the meetings of the church. What did it mean for the Corinthian church to follow the example of Paul, and to remember him “in everything”? For one thing, it apparently meant doing as he had shown them in the Lord’s supper (11:23). It also seems to mean having the same attitude Paul claimed (9:22-23, 27). In fact, Paul has just commended the Old Testament as a source of examples to teach Christians how to live (10:6). It seems to be very important to read the Old Testament as a source of examples that Christians should learn from, so as not to repeat mistakes others have made, and also very important to live as Paul lived, and for the church to follow the example he laid down in action and in teaching. We can read about his actions (and those of other apostles) in the book of Acts, and the letters of the New Testament. We find his teachings (and those of other apostles) in the same sources.
The only way the church can arrive at any conclusions about how to conduct itself in a way that pleases God is to look to the instructions and the examples found in the Bible. We can learn by way of example that the Lord’s supper is a necessary regular event which every church should engage in. Acts mentions the practice (Acts 2:42, 20:7) so that we know it was a regular and important part of church meetings, on the first day of the week. Paul instructs the Corinthian church in the practice (1 Cor 11:17ff). These instructions and examples connect with Jesus’ directions to the apostles the night of his betrayal to give us a consistent pattern, showing both the importance and the time and circumstance of this event. The consistent examples fill out the pattern so that the church in all generations can know that it is God’s original design and intention that on the first day of every week the Lord’s death should be memorialized until he comes again, in a way described by Jesus himself. The first day gathering and Lord’s supper observance are alluded to consistently in the scriptures, though no explicit command that could be called a law is given to the church about the conduct of this practice. Examples in the scriptures make it clear that what the New Testament church did, under the direction of the apostles, is what the Lord desires. The examples are utterly consistent.
Several times Paul says to follow his example, in different areas of discussion.
Philippians 3:17 Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. NIV
2 Thessalonians 3:7 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, NIV
Phil 4:9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me-put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. NIV
1 Thess 1:6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. NIV
There is an enduring principle that Christians are to learn from and follow the example of Paul as he himself followed the example of Christ. That is, the church of the first century was shown how to conduct itself by Paul (and other apostles and gifted leaders), and the church of all time is to follow the same example and teachings. These examples and teachings are found in the writings of the New Testament. The examples and teachings complement and supplement each other, then and now. It is not the example of the early church we are to follow in this regard, it is the example of Christ’s emissaries who showed the church how to conduct itself.
Paul connected properly qualified and appointed leaders for the church (1 Tim. 3:1-13) with the role of the church in upholding the truth of Christ and coping with heresy (1 Tim. 3:14-4:6). In order for the church to be “the pillar and foundation of the truth” it must be structured as Paul described to Timothy. Paul tied eternal truths and the purpose of the church to Timothy following his instructions on elders and deacons. Paul also indicated that errors about the second coming and other speculative “chatter” resulted in the destruction of faith for some (2 Tim. 2:16-18). It seems that the gospel is tied irrevocably to the entirety of New Testament teaching, both commandments and examples.
When Jude wrote about contending “for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3) he wrote about “godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.” He specifically talks about people who ”pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings” (v. 8). So, moral choices, and proper submission to authority, and appropriate respect for spiritual beings are seemingly tied in with contending for the faith already delivered. Again, it seems that the gospel is tied irrevocably to the entirety of New Testament teaching.
The New Testament is completely consistent in showing us by example (Paul’s and the other apostles) that the practice in those early days was to appoint more than one elder in every church (as opposed to an elder in each church) at the time of initial appointment. We have the consistent references to New Testament churches that had elders/overseers having more than one (Jerusalem Acts 15:4, Ephesus Acts 20:17, and Philippi Phil. 1:1 are specifically mentioned). We have the “body of elders” laying hands on Timothy (1 Tim. 4:14), and the appointment of elders in every church (Acts 14:23) and every city (Titus 1:5). We have the elders among the elect shepherding the flock of God (1 Pet. 1:1-2, 5:1-5) which is among them, in which the consistent reference in Peter’s language is to plural elders shepherding “the flock of God.” Peter has no direction here for an elder leading the flock, but for elders leading the flock. There is no precedent, example, or instruction in the Bible for anything except a plurality of qualified elders to lead churches, rather there is a unanimous chorus in examples and instructions for a elderships (multiple elders in each church) when there are men qualified to be appointed. For anyone to decide to appoint a single elder (bishop or pastor) for a congregation would be to decide something that is completely foreign to the scripture, not simply something left unaddressed.
In order for the church as a whole and each Christian as an individual to know what God desires, to learn what obedience is, examples must be considered along with specific commandments and instructions. This is not to say that we are to follow the example of the early church per se, but rather the example (and instruction) presented to the early church by the apostolic leaders, including such matters as appointed leaders, communion, giving, moral behavior, worship, and a multitude of others.Share this article: