Chapter 1.
Making the Bible the Functional Authority

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living, so that the person who serves God may be fully qualified and equipped to do every kind of good deed.—(2 Tim. 3:16-17 TEV)


Question for reflection: Is every new approach proposed or every tradition challenged, thoroughly evaluated by the entire group through rigorous examination of all biblical data, bringing all church doctrine and practice under the functional authority of Scripture?


When I came back to faith from my sojourn in agnosticism, for me the question of authority was settled. Or was it? Actually it's been a lifelong pilgrimage of discovery. How does one make this God-breathed-out book the actual functioning authority? Those who declaim most vigorously the inspiration and authority of Scripture may in fact actually revere it as a constitutional monarch, celebrating the glories of the monarch while true authority is vested elsewhere. Often the actual authority is a tradition or system of traditions handed down, but for many it's the opposite—the latest innovation exploding across the contemporary scene. It may be the mind-set of a therapeutic society for doing church, or the dictums of cultural anthropology for doing mission. Probably, whatever else the functioning authority may be, there's the ever-present stealth takeover of postmodern ways of seeing or feeling. And thus in one way or another the full authority of Scripture—designed to determine what we are to think, what we are not to think, how we are not to behave, and how we are to behave (2 Tim. 3:16)—has eroded, and we are no longer well equipped and qualified to do God's work in God's way.

In this unit, then, we will first construct a grid for sorting out those enduring principles of Scripture that should sit at the controls of our entire ministry. Then we'll use the grid, by way of example, to work through some of the contemporary challenges to biblical authority: postmodern thinking and the therapeutic captivity of sanctification. After laying that foundation, in the balance of the book we will use the same grid to sort out God's enduring principles for doing ministry. We will look carefully at the purposes of the local congregation; discover how to release the energizing power of the Holy Spirit; examine how the congregation can identify, develop, and release each person's ministry calling; and, finally, engage the leadership of the church in the quest for unity and purity.

Functional Authority: Constructing the Grid

To ascertain God's revealed will for any concept or activity of ministry—or to make sure he has no preference in the matter—certain steps must be followed:

To illustrate the use of this grid or matrix, I've chosen the "seeker friendly" concept of doing church. We will not try to fully analyze, much less establish conclusions, but in this chapter we will simply use one issue to demonstrate how to use this approach to knowing God's revealed will for ministry in the chapters and units that follow.

Identify the Issue So Precisely that Both Advocates and Opponents Agree with the Identification

Pastor Bridgebuilder has just returned from a conference where hundreds of pastors gathered to hear about an exciting and successful approach to doing church: "Seeker Friendly." The congregation's leaders gathered to hear his report and decide whether to make the radical changes needed to implement the approach.

"Sounds like what I hear at my American Management Association conventions, Pastor," said chairman of the board, Solomon Highcastle. "We can't just commercialize this operation, can we?"

"Where's the cross?" said elder Peter Steadfast. "Jesus threw up roadblocks, you know. If you don't take up your cross, forget it. That was his message. Doesn't sound exactly 'friendly.'" He flipped through his concordance in the back of his Bible and found Luke 14:25. "Listen to this, Pastor. Notice it was a huge crowd of seekers he addressed." Steadfast read the entire passage and closed at verse 33: "So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be my disciple" (NKJV). He quickly checked his marginal note on that passage and commented, "I count four more occasions just like this" (Matt. 10:34-39, 16:24-25; Mark 8:34-35; Luke 9:23-24).

"Quality, not quantity, I say," Deacon Dorcas chimed in. "Sounds to me like you've bought into the devil's old line about nothing matters but numbers. Besides, you bring in some new-fangled idea every few months. I get weary...."

Pastor Bridgebuilder was taken aback. "Dorcas, it's true. I keep seeking for a solution to our big problem: plateaued growth. I promise this will be my last try for now. But all I'm suggesting is that we try to create a program and an atmosphere in at least one of our Sunday morning services that doesn't put off interested non-believers, but rather attracts them to give the gospel a hearing."

They began at the right place—defining the issue. Precisely what is being advocated? Until that is settled, there is no need to proceed. In fact, you can't proceed. At least, not very far.

Identify All Scripture that Might Bear on the Issue, Both Pro and Con

It won't do for Pastor Bridgebuilder simply to appeal to the incarnation as God's model of becoming seeker friendly. He can't just ring the changes on the apostle Paul's approach, becoming all things to all people in order to win some. He has to deal honestly with Peter Steadfast's problem. The hard sayings of Jesus have to be fitted in. After all, the seeker's cross was a major theme of Jesus' "evangelistic" messages, far more than his gentle invitation, "Come to me all who are worn down with heavy loads." They need to be sure they've evaluated all Scripture has to say on the subject—both pro and con.

If there isn't exhaustive Bible knowledge in the group, they can begin with a concordance or topical reference volume, or a Bible computer program. When it comes to a theological issue, good sources are systematic theology texts. For the "seeker friendly" issue, they could check out "soteriology" or "Christology" or "ecclesiology," not merely for arguments pro and con, but for identification of relevant biblical texts. Then of course, in this case at least, there are many books both for and against. The local church may not have time to read all of them, but it is important to check out an authoritative treatment that holds a position opposing the one advocated. That tends to keep everyone honest and pinpoints Scripture that might correct or balance the position advocated.

What then, should they look for in approaching this subject?

Are there any direct commands that demand this change? Assistant pastor, Junior Bookman, raised that question. "I can't find any command in Scripture that demands we do that kind of evangelism, Pastor. Where does it say, Go into all the world and preach seeker friendly messages?"

"Well," responded the pastor, "you're not saying there must be a direct command for everything we do, are you? After all, the principles of Scripture are just as binding as the direct commands."

"I'm not so sure," said Bookman. "There are over six hundred commands in the Old Testament and six hundred commands in the New. Are you saying they don't count?"

"No, I'm not saying they don't count. They do count. In fact, no direct command can be invalidated by some principle we derive. But we must obey the principles, too, and what could be of higher priority than God's own example in the incarnation, and Paul's example in doing evangelism?" Failing to find a direct command doesn't end the matter. They're pushed to the next level of inquiry.

Are there any principles that demand this approach? Pastor Bridgebuilder needs to give attention to how he establishes a principle from Scripture. Of course, principles maybe directly stated in Scripture, such as, "It isn't good for man to be alone." If the principle is directly stated, the principle is just as binding as a specific command and it is our responsibility to aggressively seek out how God intends us to apply the principle. Principles, unlike specific commands, have a universal application and are thus very powerful. But principles can also be derived from direct commands. Nowhere does Scripture condemn pornography or voyeurism, but forbidding them on the basis of the command, "You shall not lust," is not only acceptable. It is a principle demanded by the command.

And then there is historical precedent. But as a source of deriving authoritative principles, that's tricky. Historic precedent was the basis of Pastor Bridgebuilder's argument. But just because Paul did something or even because God did something doesn't necessarily mean that we are bound to do the same thing, or even that we are permitted to do the same thing. History is recorded in Scripture on purpose and we do well to attempt to identify that purpose. But if Scripture itself does not identify the action or event as an example to follow (or avoid), we may not use it to derive an authoritative principle. Sometimes the historical context commends or condemns the action reported. Then we have a clue as to God's intent for his people.

Sometimes another passage will point out the good or bad in what was done, as in the case of the deception of the Egyptian midwives. If they are commended for their lies, we are pressed to search for the reason. But if we are not told in Scripture why an action is commended or condemned, we are still left with the dilemma of figuring out from other commands or principles whether or not the action illustrates an abiding principle. Pastor Bookman made this point.

"But," responded Pastor Bridgebuilder, "I'd say God's own example has to be good."

Yes, if Christ or God does something, it can't be wrong. At least for God! But that doesn't mean everything Christ did is an example we must follow. For example, his remaining in Israel for his entire ministry. Is that the example we should all follow? Christ commanded his disciples to do the opposite. Or the example of his cross. We're commanded repeatedly to follow that example. But then debate rages in missiological circles over how his atoning death can be an example without undermining his unique role in our salvation. Historic precedent, then, must be handled with care. Look for confirmation in direct teaching, principle, or command before seeking to establish principle from history. Even with biblical confirmation of a principle, the history is better used as illustration than prescription.

For example, Pastor Bridgebuilder might argue the fact that Paul adapted his message to suit his audience as evidence that Christ's incarnation model is for us today. Impressive as part of a larger biblical argument, no doubt, but of itself not conclusive.

Worst of all is the notorious argument from silence on which so much debate over ministry is based. If the argument from silence were valid, how do we justify church buildings, denominations, praise bands, children's work, and youth ministry? None appear in the New Testament church. No, Pastor Bridgewater, you can reject out of hand Junior Bookman's objection that he can't find a seeker-friendly command in the New Testament. He'll need to find teaching against it. Silence alone can't decide an issue.

Thus there are acceptable ways for establishing what a biblical teaching is, whether direct command or derived principle. The church board should do its best to ferret out all the Bible has to say about adapting the message of the gospel to specific audiences. But there's more.

Determine If Any Given Passage Cited Is Addressed to the Contemporary Church

Once the search for God's will in a matter moves to specific passages of Scripture, the first thing that must be ascertained is whether the teaching was intended for all people or just for some. How do you go about deciding? The context itself may indicate a limited audience: "Blessed are you poor," said Jesus. Are all poor of all time blessed? He addressed a particular audience. The context may not clearly limit the audience, but other Scripture may, as in the case of Old Testament ceremonial law, set aside by Jesus or the apostles (Heb. 9-10).

Since Pastor Bridgebuilder did not appeal to any direct commands, his appeal to historic precedent assumed that Christ's example of becoming incarnate among us and Paul's example were universal in their application to all believers and all churches. Certainly Bridgewater's opponents assumed that their arguments were from universal principle as well. In this particular church conflict, then, this step did not settle the issue, but we shall find it essential in future chapters and units of our study.

Exegete the Passage Carefully to Determine the Meaning Intended by the Original Author

We shall risk going far astray if we impose meaning on the text. Most often this has happened historically by imposing a predetermined doctrinal structure on a given passage. The only way "God so loved the world" can be interpreted as "God so loved the elect" is to have already decided from other Scripture a doctrine of the atonement that requires setting aside the plain meaning of the text. More recently, cultural norms have been given greater authority than the text. But our goal is to determine what the author of any given text had in mind when he wrote it. Establishing those principles of interpretation lies far beyond the scope of this book, but this step may be the most important of all. Pastor Bridgebuilder and his leadership team will need to examine all relevant texts in this way. For example, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 where Paul explains in detail his policy of becoming all things to all kinds of people in order to win them to faith would need thorough examination. But in their case, something more is needed, something very confusing in this case.

Test for Biblical Emphasis and Balance with Other Teaching

There is no question but that Peter Steadfast is right to point out the pervasive "hard sayings" of Jesus, his constant confrontation of would-be seekers with the demands of the cross. On which side does Bible emphasis lie? Since all Scripture is our authority, how can these two apparently diverse teachings be reconciled without discounting either? This step requires that we bring into harmony, as best we can, all that Scripture teaches on the subject. Only then are we ready to launch, modify, or dismantle the approach—launch the new program or ministry, or dismantle the old. We may need to adjust the approach to bring it under the functional authority of all the teaching of Scripture.

Implement If Demanded by Scripture

We are free to implement the principle if it is not in violation of Scripture and it is judged desirable.

How do you think the "seeker-friendly" proposal will fare if the entire group in humility (each recognizing his own finitude and fallenness) gives faithful diligence to search the Scripture (2 Tim. 2:14-16), and love one another, each preferring the other more than themselves (Phil. 2:1-4)? My guess is that they will decide Peter is on the side of biblical emphasis but that the pastor's proposal is not prohibited by Scripture and that they could move forward, being careful to safeguard their implementation from violating any basic biblical principle. It's hazardous to guess, however, since (1) we're dealing with human beings and (2) we haven't done our own homework on the disputed subject yet! Making changes is never easy and must be pursued with great care, especially if the initial investigation yields a "free to implement" conclusion. In that case the debate shifts to pragmatic concerns. That shift must be carefully noted and observed, with neither side claiming to be on "God's side"! We will revisit the dynamics of change in unit 5.

In this brief outline of the steps needed to bring proposals under the authority of Scripture, rather than examining the issue to a conclusion, we have mined a popular concept for illustrations of how the steps could be implemented. As we move forward it might help to expand these steps into two exercises: checklist for insuring the functional authority of Scripture, and checklist for applying a Bible passage.

Questions to Ask for Evaluating the Biblical Authority of a Doctrine or Activity

  1. What is the basic idea (presupposition, objective, etc.) behind this plan (program, method, activity)? A way to state the basic idea often involves defining terms being used.
  2. Is this activity or objective commanded in Scripture? Is there an explicit declaration of the will of God?
  3. If not commanded, is it obviously required by clear biblical principle?
  4. If not required, is it permitted by scriptural teaching, compatible with Scripture?
  5. Have I brought this activity into alignment with all biblical data that might be related, whether directly or indirectly?
  6. Does the emphasis represented by this activity maintain balance with all other related biblical truth in such a way as to maintain the biblical emphases?
  7. If this activity is extrabiblical, am I careful to make this fact clear and divest it of ultimate authority both in my own thinking and in the way it is presented?

These diagnostic questions can be put in the form of a flow chart for ease of use.