When you look around you see so many different strands of Christianity and churches. You might have asked the question–”why?” It’s not just because of historical factors–ultimately it’s because there are different answers to the question of authority. What does God require from all Churches and Christians? What has God’s authority as opposed to the authority of mere human beings?
This is of course a huge question but let’s explore it in the most straightforward way we can. The Bible specifically tells us that we will be able to discern what the good and acceptable and perfect will of God is (Romans 12:2). Something has divine authority if it is commanded by any law of God or something that is equivalent to a divine law. Some of the London ministers at the time of the Westminster Assembly produced a book (Jus Divinum or The Divine Right of Church Government) which deals with this question. The following is an updated summary of various chapters in that book. There are five different levels of divine authority; they go from a lower level to the highest level.
1. Natural Knowledge
Before the Fall the natural knowledge man possessed was perfect in corresponding with the divine law of God’s image within (Genesis 1:26-27). Even after the Fall with the effects of sin in our nature we do have some sense naturally in our conscience and understanding of what God wants. He has put that knowledge there or it is evident from what He has created around us. The heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1-2). Food and weather declare the goodness and the wisdom of God (Acts 14:17). Paul makes it clear to the Athenians that God has been made known to them (Acts 17:27-28). Paul speaks about how this revelation of God’s “invisible Godhead” and attributes leaves people “without excuse” (Romans 1:18-21). They “knew God” but did not act in accordance with this knowledge. The law was also written in their hearts in some measure (Romans 2:12, 14-15). Sometimes Paul even makes an appeal to what nature teaches us when he is speaking to Christians (1 Corinthians 5:1; 11:13-15; 14:7-11, 34-35). In inspiring Scripture the Holy Spirit therefore condemns or commends certain things in relation to natural knowledge. Anything contradictory to natural knowledge in matters of religion is therefore condemned by divine authority and vice versa.
2. Bible Examples
There are obligatory examples in Scripture which God’s people are required to follow and imitate. The Holy Spirit has recorded and affirmed such examples for believers to imitate. This is clearer and more specific than natural knowledge. There are many examples in Scripture that we are not obliged to imitate. They are recorded for another purpose. We can conclude that Christ anything to be done that He makes known to His Church and people through an obligatory Bible example.
Christ’s humility in washing the disciples’ feet is intentionally affirmed as an obligatory example. It binds both the disciples and us to do the very meanest service to one another in love and humility (John 13:4ff, 13-15). Christ’s suffering innocently and patiently is an example for all Christians to imitate (1 Peter 2:21-23). Christians are to be generous as Christ was even if it makes them poorer (2 Corinthians 8:9). There are also others ways we follow Christ (Ephesians 5:1-2; 4:32; 1 John 2:6).
The examples of others are for us to follow (1 Corinthians 10:11; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; Hebrews 6:12; 13:7; James 5:10). The book of Acts for instance is a whole book of examples meant to guide us in relation to the Church. The apostles are frequently said to be those we are to imitate (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7; 1 Corinthians 4:6-7; 11:1; Philippians 4:9). Certain examples are clearly commanded (3 John 11). These commands clearly prove that many Bible examples are obligatory for us to imitate. When God condemns or commends anything it is virtually the same as requiring or forbidding it.
We have to think through what is essential to the action and what are the circumstances surrounding it. We have to look at what was unique and what is of a moral and abiding nature. In general we can say that if the example of those who are godly and approved in Scripture does not go against the principles and commands of Scripture we should follow it. Here are some principles to guide us:
(a) if an example is commanded or approved we must follow it;
(b) if an example is of a moral nature we must follow it;
(c) if an example is said to be a pattern for us or is the common practice in Scripture we must follow it;
(d) if an example is done by someone in their capacity as a believer (as opposed to fulfilling a particular function) we must follow it; and
(e) if an example is related to extraordinary gifts and calling we must only follow it if we have the same extraordinary gifts and calling.
3. God’s Approval
When God approves something it is equivalent to Him commanding it. God cannot approve of something that is against His will. And vice versa, He forbids things by disapproving of them, showing that they are against His will and unlawful. God approves or forbids things in different ways.
(a) Commending or Condemning. God commended Josiah for his zeal in Reformation (1 Kings 23:25). The Angel of the Church of Ephesus is commended for not bearing with those who are evil and hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:2-6). Christ approved the Angel of the Church in Pergamus for not denying the faith when faced with danger and persecution (Revelation 2:13). That becomes a rule for all pastors and churches. God commending is divine commanding. The same churches are also reproved for their failings (Revelation 2:4, 14-15,20; 3:15). The Church of Corinth are condemned for their division and disorder (1 Corinthians 11:17).
(b) Promising or Warning. Christ makes promises to His people (Mark 10:29-30; Matthew 16:19;18-18-20; 20;23; 28:18-20 and John 20:23). He also warns and threatens His people for leaving their first love, tolerating false teaching and lukewarmness (Revelation 2:4-5, 14-15, 20-23; 3:15-16). These teach us what to do and what to avoid.
(c) Rewarding or Chastising. God rewards faithfulness (Exodus 1:17-21; 1 Timothy 5:17). He chastises disobedience (1 Samuel 13:12-14; 2 Samuel 6:6-7; 2 Chronicles 26:16). The Corinthians were chastised for abusing the Lord’s Supper as a divine warning to all Churches in the future to avoid partaking of communion unworthily (1 Corinthians 11:30).
4. God’s Actions
Anything God has done in or for the Church of God is of divine authority. For instance, God rested on the seventh day and sanctified and blessed it (Genesis 2:2-3). That action is taken to be significant in instituting the sabbath. The Lord’s Day under the New Testament was instituted by Christ (changing the seventh day to the first day). Christ rose on the first day of the week, He appeared to the disciples on that day and sent the Holy Spirit on that day. These actions (together with the practice of the apostles: Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2) have authority in setting apart that day. Likewise the whole ceremonial law is fulfilled by Christ’s death when He cried “It is finished” (John 19:30; Colossians 2:14; Ephesians 2:14-15).
5. God’s Commands
Whatever is commanded or forbidden by God in His Word is either a duty or a sin. We can divide these commands into explicit and implicit.
Some of these are obvious such as the Ten Commandments or commandments of Christ (e.g. Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 11:23-24). Commands that God gives through the inspired apostles are also of authority (1 Corinthians 7:12,25,40; 14:37). Whatever is explicitly commanded by God in plain and evident terms is of divine authority without any controversy. But we do have to consider the nature of the thing commanded and the Lord’s purpose in commanding. Some commands are moral and abiding e.g. honouring father and mother. Other commands are temporary like the ceremonial and civil law for Israel under the Old Testament. Likewise there are things commanded that have a special temporary relevance but can still be binding on us in terms of their principle. Acts 15 forbids the Gentiles from stumbling fellow believers who were Jewish in relation to certain practices. There may be aspects of this that were temporary but the principle of not stumbling others certainly remains. Others are unique to particular situations, like the Israelites “borrowing” gold from the Egyptians (Exodus 11:2).
Even the Ten Commandments imply more than the words in themselves state. The commandments that forbid sin also require us to do opposite duties and vice versa. Christ explains the sixth commandment in this way (Matthew 5:21-27,43). It is not only outward actions that are forbidden but also inward actions (Matthew 5:21-22). The same is true in relation to adultery, lustful looks and thoughts are forbidden (Matthew 5:27-30). Everything implied in a commandment has divine authority.
Implicit commands also include the many things that are clearly deduced from explicit commands. Do ministers have an explicit command to baptise? No, but it is deduced from the command to the apostles and the promise that Christ will be with them always to the end of the world (Matthew 28:19-20). So we have to draw out the logical consequences of what is commanded in Scripture. No one says that just because we do not have any examples or commands for women to receive the Lord’s Supper they cannot. We infer from the example of whole families engaging in the Passover (Exodus 14) and the fact that male and female are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). Paul proves that minsters are to have financial support from the command concerning the ox treading corn and the support for priests (1 Corinthians 9:14; 1 Timothy 5:17-18).
This survey of establishing what God commands gives us the tools we need. God’s complete will concerning all things that are necessary for his own glory, our salvation, faith and life, is either explicitly stated in Scripture or can be derived from it in a valid way. There are differences within applying this. The Bible limits us to deriving our doctrine and worship from itself alone. If it’s not commanded it’s forbidden. On the other hand there are many commandments and principles in the Bible that teach us God’s will for our lives that are to be applied in the detail of everyday life. By it’s very nature this is much more expansive and requires much wisdom.
We are not to be unwise or foolish but to “understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:17). We have a natural tendency not to want to do the hard work of searching out God’s will in Scripture. We also have a sinful tendency to want to limit God’s authority on our lives and activities – even in the life of the Church. The reality is that we are able to experience liberty when we seek God’s commandments (Psalm 119:145).