Should we bind examples as commands?

December 14, 2014.

There is a hermeneutic that is used in our fellowship to try to lay out a systematic approach to biblical interpretation. This hermeneutic is given the name Command, Example or Necessary Inference (CENI). The logic behind this hermeneutic is that we can figure out all of God’s laws for Christians in the New Testament age by looking at what the New Testament says and picking out anything that is directly commanded by Christ or the New Testament writers, binding examples that we are given in the bible as commands for us today and/or using necessary inference to figure out what we are to do (meaning that we understand the command through inferring it, not it being directly said). Today I would like to mainly look at the “example” portion (though we may get a little into the necessary inference) of CENI and discuss why we interpret the bible with this in mind and whether or not we should.

I will begin by saying that one of the biggest problems with this hermeneutic is not that it is necessarily flawed in concept, but rather we never actually apply it consistently. The fact of the matter, however, is that Jesus and the New Testament writers actually did often go back to examples in the Old Testament to teach a point (though I think today we would frown on this use of the Old Testament…). Let’s look at some examples (ironically) of this in action.

Jesus and the Sabbath day.

One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
(Mark 2:23-28)

I believe that this is a pretty well known story. If you know much about the gospels, then you know that Jesus was often criticized for doing things on the Sabbath, a day of rest for the Jews as commanded by God, that they thought He shouldn’t be doing. Usually this criticism came after He had healed someone who was sick, but in this case Jesus’ disciples are criticized because they were plucking heads of grain to eat. Jesus was confronted about what His disciples were doing, and what does He do? He goes back to an example set forth by David found in I Samuel 21:1-6 as he was fleeing from King Saul who was set to kill him.

What did David do? He and his men ate of the bread of the Presence which was only for the Priests to eat. Why? Because they were hungry and needed food, which is what Jesus’ disciples were doing at the time (not the same food, but still “going against law,” as the Pharisees would see it, because they were in need of food). Then Jesus explains the purpose of the Sabbath, which the Jewish leaders had completely missed. It was not to place a burden on man, but to help him. And beyond this, Jesus was Lord of the Sabbath, having complete authority. That’s a little off topic, but the point I’m making is that Jesus used an example from the Old Testament to teach a point about the law to the Pharisees.

Paul and the Lord’s Supper.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. ”For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
(I Corinthians 11:23-26)

In the same way, when Paul wrote to the church at Corinth giving them instruction and answering some questions that they had, he used the example that Jesus gave during the passover about the institution of the Lord’s Supper to teach the Corinthians about what they should do. Paul calls back to their memory of what Jesus did just before His death on the cross and what He told His disciples to do (proclaim His death until He comes). This is a good example of a bible author using a previous example to teach an authoritative lesson.

The hall of faith.

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God.And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.”
(Hebrews 11:4-7)

This is only a short segment of a wonderful chapter that details people of faith by the examples that they set forth. The Hebrew writer calls on these examples to be lessons to all who were to come after them. They were to look on these people of faith and live by their example, gaining strength and confidence through their stories. Thus, the Hebrew writer indeed taught by example.

And these are just three of the many places in the bible where you can find an author calling upon a previous example to prove a point or teach a lesson. Thus, it would seem that we can and should draw commands from examples, right? Well, I think that would be moving a little too quick on the deliberation. I believe a closer look is needed.

So what’s the problem?

As I said in the beginning, the biggest problem with using this hermeneutic is the inconsistency in its application. I don’t think this is necessarily because we want to be inconsistent with it, but more so because we have no way of deciding which examples are binding and which are not binding. I suppose the only conclusive way to get around that (and still be a proponent that examples are indeed binding commandments) is to say that every and all examples in the New Testament are binding. That may work on paper, but I assure you that no one actually does this in practice. Let me give you an example.

“On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.”
(Acts 20:7)

This is a favorite verse to go to for many in our fellowship and say, “Look! See, this is why we are supposed to come to worship and have the Lord’s Supper (because that is obviously what breaking bread must mean) on Sunday, because that was the example laid out by the disciples here in Acts!” And thus we regard Sunday as “the Lord’s Day” (even though that’s not found in scripture- there is only one place “the Lord’s Day” is found, and there is no definitive mention of which day of the week this was on, but I digress). We have a binding example here that we use as a command to worship on Sunday.

But what about the rest of the “command”? Paul prolonged his speech until midnight. I don’t see many preachers doing this today. This was undoubtedly a night meeting (Paul did not preach for 14 hours) which is why it’s not unreasonable to understand why his speech went until midnight. We regard Sunday mornings as most holy. This might have even been on a Saturday night, because in Jewish time, the first day of the week started on our Saturday night (though there is some disagreement of whether Luke was writing by Jewish time or Roman time here). Suggest doing the Lord’s Supper on a Saturday night and you will quickly be thought of as “liberal” by many in our fellowship. And if you read further, you will find that the disciples didn’t actually break bread until after Paul was done talking (which may have been more of a question answer type discussion than our lecture style preaching) in the wee hours of the morning. Certainly none of us do this.

So what’s my point? The point is, if we are going to use Acts 20:7 as a binding example that commands us to meet together on the first day of the week to have the Lord’s Supper, we must bind the rest of the “command” as well. There’s no way around it, other than us saying “well, the other stuff doesn’t really matter as much as the point that they came together on the first day of the week.” Why? Who decided that? You? Me? Your preacher? Tell me, who on earth has the authority to decide which parts of examples are binding and which parts aren’t? We aren’t even talking about separate examples. This is all the same example, yet only one part of it is binding? That, my friends, is inconsistency.

Let’s go on, shall we? This time, we will look at an example we talk our way around, justifying why we don’t do it.

When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”
(John 13:12-15)

This is a relatively well known story about Jesus washing His disciple’s feet. Let’s go over what we see here. The disciples come in with dirty feet, but there is no servant in the room to wash their feet as would be customary in their time. So, Jesus, who is their Master, gets up and proceeds to wash their feet, taking on the form of a servant and displaying humility that none of them seemed to posses at the time. Then explains what He did (there is a lot more, you should read the whole story) and explicitly says, “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” He explicitly says that this is an example to follow! So, we have an example, which we saw from the previous lines of reasoning can be considered a binding command, but then Jesus directly says to follow said example.

How many times does your church teach the physical washing of people’s feet?

See, we have many ways of getting around this example. The most common one is to say that the lesson that was being taught here is not the physical washing of feet, but to be servants to one another. I think there is a lot of truth in that, and I agree that that is the lesson that Jesus is trying to convey. But, that does not in any way negate this as an example. And if we are to bind all examples as commandments, then we must in turn bind this one as well. We must see this as a literal commandment, as there is even much more evidence that it is (via Jesus direct words) than you could ever draw from Acts 20:7. Yet, we do not see this as a command, but simply as a custom they had then (the second way people get around it) and a teaching of humility. This, my friends, is inconsistency.

How about one more? This, I am convinced, is one of the most ignored passages about an example in the entire New Testament. There are no clever ways of getting around it, we simply don’t even acknowledge it as an example. Period.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
(Acts 2:42-47)

We are quick to go to Acts 2:37-38, but then it seems we quit reading! Look at all the examples we have set before us here. They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching. Sure, I guess we could claim that. They broke break. We can claim this, only if we assume this has to mean the Lord’s supper (which it doesn’t necessarily). They prayed a lot. We might be able to say we do this. But then it get’s rough. (Before you read this in anger, I am generalizing what the majority of mainline Christians do, not everyone, so if you do these things, assume that I am not talking about you.) They had daily fellowship with one another. We see each other on Sunday’s and perhaps Wednesdays. They sold all their possessions and distributing the proceeds according to the need. Sounds too much like communism for us. They were attending the temple daily. “Well, we live under New Testament today, which doesn’t involve a physical temple.” … -They were Christians too. They met together in each other’s houses daily, receiving their food with glad and generous hearts… Well, you get the point.

Why are each of these not binding on us today, and yet the first line in Acts 20:7 is absolutely binding and cannot be broken? That, my friends, is inconsistency.

How do we fix the problem?

I think the first step in our recovery from this inconsistency is to understand more deeply the relevance and importance of examples, and how they should be applied. To say that every example is a direct command from God that we must bind on one another today I believe is an errant and unrealistic statement. However, to say that all examples have nothing to do with what we are to believe and practice today is just as errant. So what do we do?

As with all things, we must find the middle ground. Let’s look at what was actually being taught when Jesus and the disciples used examples in their teaching.

When Jesus referred to David to explain why His disciples were justified in their actions, He was never binding a literal example as a command. His disciples did not enter and eat of the bread of Presence like David and his men did. Jesus and His disciples were not running from King Saul. The point of using the example was to show the concept of the example. The Sabbath was placed in the law for a reason, and the example of David and his men showed that that reason was not to starve man. Thus, the Jesus’ disciples were justified because the Sabbath was not set in place to starve them. It was the concept, the intent, of the example that mattered, not the literal happenings of it.

When Paul called back the example of Christ and His initiation of the Lord’s Supper, he was not binding the Corinthian church to the literal example of Christ. Paul never told them they had to meet in an upper room as Jesus and His disciples did. Paul never mentioned that they could only observe the Lord’s Supper during the passover, as Jesus and His disciples did. Paul never said that they had to do it on Thursday night, as was the time when Jesus initiated it. What was Paul saying? He was rebuking the Corinthian church because they were not carrying out the intent of the example. They were not fellowshipping with one another. They were not in communion, as Jesus and His disciples were. They were disgracing the Lord’s Table by not being one with one another, but rather showing off and shaming those who didn’t have. This was unacceptable. It was the concept, the intent, of the example that mattered, not the literal happenings of it.

Following this logic, it is easy to see that the Hebrew writer was not saying that all Christians had to literally follow the examples of those who had been in times past great people of faith. They were not required to offer their first born child as Abraham was. They were not required to build an ark as Noah was. They were not required to pass through the Red Sea on dry land as Moses and the children of Israel were. But they were required to have the faith of these people, trusting in the Lord to deliver them and obeying Him through faith. It was the concept, the intent, of the example that mattered, not the literal happenings of it.

So what does that mean for us? Is it wrong to teach by example? Absolutely not. In fact, this is a common technique use in New Testament writing and is very profitable.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
(II Timothy 3:16-17)

“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
(Romans 15:4)

Examples provide us with the principles, the concepts, that God would have us live by. But they do not serve as binding commands. How could we ever decide on which examples are binding and which aren’t? Simply put, we can’t unless we were told by the Father, and not any man. But this does not mean that the concepts put forth in the examples are not binding. I believe they are more so. The concept of the example of David justified the disciples. The concept of the example of the Lord’s supper was binding on the Corinthians (ref. I Cor. 11:27). The concept of the people of faith from the Hebrew writer showed that we are justified by faith. These are the teaching of the examples.

With this in mind, the examples that we ignore make more sense. The concept of Jesus’ washing the disciples feet was to teach us to be humble servants (at least we got one thing right). The concept of Acts 20:7 was that the disciples did meet together and had fellowship with one another. The concept of Acts 2:42-47 shows the same. From these examples we should pull the principles to live by instead of binding the literal example. Is it wrong to do the literal example? Certainly not. But it is wrong to condemn others for not strictly adhering to the letter of the example (as we have seen that we also do not do).

Teaching concepts by example is a very sound hermeneutic. Binding literal examples is not. We need not get the two confused.

Suggested Daily Reading: Acts 1-5, Hebrews 11-12.

Grace and peace.


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