[Gospel Way Update | Gospel+Way] Authority in Religion - August
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Divine versus Human Authority in Religion
Should We Follow Man-Made Changes in Bible Teaching? What is the proper
source or standard of authority in religion? Should we follow the Bible
as the inspired revelation of the law of God, or should we follow
man-made religious laws and rules to guide us in faith and worship? What
about human tradition, church laws, decrees of councils, and creeds? May
human wisdom change Divine law, or should we respect the silence of the
This is the subject of this month's Bible study article, which is
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Divine Authority vs. Human Wisdom in Religion
All of us are involved in authority relations: civil rulers over
citizens, parents over children, supervisors over employees, etc. All of
us at times have difficulty dealing with these relationships. One major
problem is often called a "power struggle" in which we must resolve who
will be in charge.
In this study we seek to consider the most important area of authority:
"Authority" may be defined as the right to rule or command, the power to
give instructions that others are expected to obey, the right to make
and enforce law. So we are discussing how we determine in religion what
commands and instructions we are expected to obey.
The Bible is literally filled with various terms that relate to
authority: authority, power, rule, lord, master, command, law, obey,
submit, ordain, appoint, permit, good, bad, right, wrong, evil, wicked,
sin, etc., etc. All these terms imply that someone has the right to make
rules that others should follow.
As in other areas of life, people often have problems relating to
authority in religion. Often we face a "power struggle" in which we must
decide whose rules we will follow. Or we may have questions about what
the rules are. How do we know what is right or wrong in religion?
In particular, should we follow Divine authority or human wisdom,
Scripture or man-made laws in religion? Should our standard be the Bible
or human tradition, church laws, decrees of councils, and creeds?
This subject is absolutely fundamental. People are often confused or
divided religiously because they do not agree about the rules and often
do not agree even about how to decide what the rules are.
This study is intended to give an overview of proper religious authority
and how we should determine what is right or wrong in religion.
I. All True Religious Authority Comes Ultimately from God.
A. God Is Our Spiritual Lord and Master.
"Lord" means a person who has authority over others: a master, chief, or
Psalm 97:5; Joshua 3:11,13; Matthew 11:25 - God is Lord of the whole
earth, of heaven and earth.
Deuteronomy 10:17; Daniel 2:47 - The true God is called "Lord of lords"
and "Lord of kings." He has supreme authority over all rulers. Human
lords may rule other men, but God rules over all rulers.
Acts 17:24 - God made the world and everything in it since He is Lord of
heaven and earth.
1 Chronicles 29:11,12 - Everything in heaven and earth belongs to God.
He reigns over all.
Note the connection between creation and authority. God possesses
authority over all that He created. Because He made it, it belongs to
Him, and He has the right to expect all His creatures to obey His commands.
It follows that only God possesses the ultimate authority in the
universe. Man's power is limited. Only God's power is unlimited. Only He
has all power over all created things.
[Psalm 136:3; 95:3; 97:9; 83:18; Isa. 33:22; Rev. 19:6]
B. God's Authority Today Is Exercised through His Son.
As the Son of God, Jesus is Lord of all.
Revelation 17:14; 19:16 - Jesus is "King of kings" and "Lord of lords."
As the Divine Son of God He has authority over all the created things.
Acts 10:36; Romans 10:12; 9:5; John 3:31 - He is Lord of all, "above
all" and "over all."
Ephesians 1:21-23 - He is above all power and might and dominion.
Specifically, He is Head over all things to the church.
Philippians 2:9-11 - Jesus has the name which is above every name.
Hence, every knee in heaven and on earth must bow to Him and every
tongue confess that He is Lord.
[Phil. 3:20,21; Col. 1:16; John 16:15; 17:10; Matt. 7:29; John 17:2;
Luke 4:32; 6:46]
As the Lord of All, Jesus now reveals God's will for today.
Hebrews 1:1,2 - God speaks to us today through His Son through Him He
made the worlds. [2:1-4]
Luke 6:46 - If Jesus is Lord then we must do the things He says.
Matthew 28:18-20 - As God's Son, He possesses "all authority in heaven
and on earth," so we should obey all His commands.
Acts 3:22,23 - We must hear Jesus in everything He teaches or we will be
Ultimate religious authority resides in God, and that authority is
exercised through the teachings of Jesus Christ.
[Matthew 17:5; John 6:68,63; 12:48; Col. 3:16,17; 1 Tim. 6:3]
II. Divine Authority Is Revealed in the Scriptures
Since Jesus' teaching is our authority, where can we go to learn His
A. God's Will Is Recorded in the Bible to Guide Our lives.
John 16:13 - Jesus promised the men who penned the New Testament that
the Spirit would guide them into all truth.
Ephesians 3:3-5 - What Paul wrote had been made known to him by
revelation. Formerly these things were not known but had been revealed
to apostles and prophets by the Spirit.
1 Corinthians 14:37 - So the things he wrote were the commands of Lord.
2 Timothy 3:16,17 - All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for
teaching and furnishing to all good works.
2 Peter 1:20,21 - No Scripture is of private interpretation; for
prophecy never came by will of man, but men spoke as moved by the Holy
Spirit. This includes the New Testament, since Peter also refers to it
as "Scripture" (3:15,16).
[Luke 10:16; Matt. 15:4; 22:29-32; 10:19,20; 1 Thess. 4:15; 1 Tim. 4:1;
Gal. 1:11,12; 1 Cor. 2:11-13; 4:6; 2 Thess. 3:6,12,17; John 20:30,31;
10:35; 1 John 1:1-4; Luke 1:1-4; 1 Tim. 4:11; Jude 3]
B. The Scriptures Are A Complete Revelation of God's Will.
Some people think the Scriptures are not adequate to completely guide us
in religion. So they appeal to other religious authorities for guidance,
such as church councils, human creeds, preachers, tradition, family
religion, or modern revelations. As a result they be led to participate
in practices that are not found in the gospel.
However, the gospel says that it does completely reveal to us everything
that God views as being good and approved.
John 16:13 - The Holy Spirit revealed all truth to the apostles. As
already discussed, inspired men then wrote in the Scriptures what the
Holy Spirit revealed to them. [14:26]
Acts 20:20,27 - Paul preached the whole counsel of God, keeping back
nothing that was profitable.
2 Timothy 3:16,17 - All good works are recorded in the written word. As
a result, the inspired Scriptures are profitable to teach and instruct
men in righteousness, etc.
2 Peter 1:3 - In Peter's lifetime, people received all things that
pertain to life and godliness. Peter then wrote these things down so
that, even after he died, we could be reminded of the words of Jesus'
apostles and prophets (1:12-15; 3:1,2).
The Bible does not reveal everything in the mind of God (Deut. 29:29).
But it does reveal everything that is necessary to a godly life and to
salvation. We need no additional standard of authority or revelation,
because the Bible completely reveals all God's will for man.
Consider the consequence of this for doctrines and practices that are
not revealed in the Bible. Since the Bible contains all truth, all good
works, and everything that pertains to godliness and righteousness, does
it not follow that any practice not found there is not true, not a good
work, and does not pertain to life or godliness? How then can we
practice these things and expect to please God?
[James 1:25; Matt. 28:20; Col. 4:12; Jude 3; Hebrews 13:20,21; John
20:30,31; 1 John 1:1-4.]
III. Only Divine Authority, not Human Authority, Is Acceptable.
When a practice is not included in what God has authorized, should we
participate in it or not? Remember that the Scriptures provide us to
every good work. What about works it does not provide?
This issue is fundamental because many modern religious practices in
worship, salvation, or church work and organization differ from what is
revealed in the Bible. Are they right or wrong?
People often defend these acts by saying, "God nowhere said not to do
it." But are the practices acceptable as long as God nowhere expressly
forbids them, or are they wrong unless He says to do them?
Consider these Bible principles:
A. Divine Wisdom vs. Human Wisdom
Isaiah 55:8,9 - God's thoughts and ways are completely different from
ours. We cannot possibly know God's will about a matter unless He
Jeremiah 10:23 - The way of man is not in himself. It is not in man who
walks to direct his steps.
Proverbs 14:12 - There is a way that seems right to man, but the end is
2 Corinthians 10:18 - Not he who commends himself is approved, but he
whom the Lord approves.
Luke 16:15 - What is highly esteemed by men is an abomination to God.
The fact that we approve a thing does not at all mean that God approves it.
Since we do not think like God does, we cannot possibly know God's will
unless He reveals it [1 Corinthians 2:10-13]. Knowing this, God
completely revealed His will for us in the Bible, then He warned us not
to follow human wisdom to participate in anything not revealed in the Bible!
Often people will defend some religious practice because it "makes
sense" or "seems reasonable" to them. But human wisdom cannot determine
what is or is not pleasing to God apart from Divine revelation. It
follows that we must practice only what is revealed.
[1 Cor. 1:21-24; 2:5]
B. True Worship
John 4:23,24 - To please God, worship must be in spirit and in truth.
But God's word is truth (John 17:17), and all truth is revealed in the
gospel (John 16:13). Since the inspired writers received and recorded
all truth, and since we must worship according to the truth, then any
practice is unacceptable if it is not included in what was revealed in
Matthew 15:9,13,14 - Worship is vain (worthless) when based on precepts
of human origin. But Jesus says that every religious practice is based
either on God's authority or else on man's authority (Matthew 21:23-27).
If God did not originate it, then man did.
Since the Bible reveals everything God has ordained, then any practice
which is not revealed in the gospel must be human in origin and
therefore displeasing to God.
People often defend their religious practices saying, "I like it," or
"We're satisfied with it." But do we worship and serve God in order to
please and satisfy ourselves?
The purpose of worship is to please and glorify God. We honor and
respect Him when we do what He says. If instead of doing what God says,
we do what men say to do, then we are not showing respect for God and
His will. Instead we are showing respect for the men who invented the
practice. So God is displeased.
C. Faith in God
Hebrews. 11:6 - Without faith it is impossible to please God.
2 Corinthians 5:7 - We walk by faith, not by sight. Faith must be
demonstrated in action - our "walk." [Cf. Galatians 2:20; 5:6; James
2:14-26; Hebrews chapter 11.]
Romans 10:17 - Faith comes by hearing God's word. But some people think
that, as long as they believe in God and trust Him, He will accept what
they do, whether or not it is in the Bible.
Proverbs 3:5,6 - Trust in the Lord and don't lean on your own
understanding. Acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths. True faith
teaches us to do only what the Lord reveals. If we do what we think is
right, though it is not revealed in the Bible, then we lean on our own
understanding, rather than to allow Him to direct us.
When people practice things they cannot find in the Bible, they show
that they do not really trust in God. Instead they trust in the human
who invented those practices. It is impossible to practice anything by
faith if it cannot be found in the Bible. To truly walk by faith we must
restrict ourselves to doing only what God has revealed.
D. The Will of God
Colossians 3:17 - All we do, in word or deed, should be done in Jesus'
name. To act in Jesus' name is to follow His authority (Acts 4:7-10).
But Jesus' authority for today is completely revealed in the Bible.
Practices not included in Bible teaching, therefore, cannot be done in
Jesus' name. To practice them would be sinful.
Galatians 1:6-9 - Any man is accursed if he preaches a gospel different
from what inspired men taught in the first century. That gospel
completely reveals all good works God wants us to do. If a practice is
not included in the gospel, then for us to include it would be to preach
a different gospel.
2 John 9 - Whoever goes beyond and does not abide in Jesus' teaching,
does not have God. To have God we must abide in Jesus' teaching. But all
Jesus' teaching is revealed in the New Testament. So to practice things
we cannot find in Jesus' teaching would be to separate ourselves from Him.
Revelation 22:18,19 - When we truly respect God's word, we will refuse
to add to or take from what He says. We will do exactly what He says
without changing it. [Cf. Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32; Proverbs 30:6.]
Although the Bible does expressly forbid some acts, God never intended
for His word to specifically itemize all the things He does not want us
to do. Had He done that, the Bible would have been so huge we could
never digest it. Instead, God tells us what He does want us to do. Then
He tells us that other things are unacceptable.
When we study about a certain practice, then, we should not ask, "Where
does God say not to do this?" Instead ask, "Where does God's word show
this act would be acceptable?" If the act cannot be found included in
God's will for us, then we should refuse to participate in it.
[See also 1 Peter 4:11; 1 Corinthians 4:6; Romans 10:1-3; Colossians 2:8.]
IV. Divine Authority May Be General or Specific.
We have learned that, in order to please God, we must do only those
things that are included in what He has instructed. However, we should
not conclude that an act must be expressly named or specifically
mentioned in order to be authorized. Some people conclude that any act
is acceptable unless it is expressly, specifically forbidden. Others
conclude an act is wrong unless it is expressly, specifically mentioned.
Neither view harmonizes with what we have learned.
A. A Statement of the Principle of General and Specific Authority
When God wants man to do a thing in a particular way, He instructs us by
choosing words that are specific or narrow (limited, precise,
restricted, detailed, exclusive) in their meaning.
He has told us not to practice things that do not fit the meaning of His
instructions. So, when He wants a thing done in a particular way, He
words His instructions in such a way as to leave us no choice. If we
then do things differently, outside the limits of the meaning of the
terms He uses, we displease Him.
When God wants to leave men free to choose from several alternative ways
of doing a thing, He instructs us by choosing words that are more
general or broad (inclusive, comprehensive, all-encompassing) in their
We are still restricted to doing only what fits the meaning of what He
said, but in this case there are various ways of doing what fits the
instruction. We can then use our own wisdom to choose from any course of
action that fits the meaning of what God said to do. Any such choice
that we make would be acceptable because we would still be doing what
B. Applications of the Principle
Noah and the ark - Genesis 6:14
God told Noah to make an ark of gopher wood. Metal, pine, walnut, etc.,
do not fit the definition of gopher wood. They constitute different
kinds of materials. God did not expressly say not to use them, but they
would have been wrong to use because He said "gopher wood" and was
silent about metal, pine, etc.
Had God wanted to leave Noah free to use any kind of material, He could
simply have said to make an ark, and specified no material at all. Then
Noah could have chosen any kind of material and He would still have been
obeying God. But when God specified the material, Noah was left with no
other choice. He had to use the kind of wood God specified, or He would
have been disobedient.
On the other hand, God said to make an ark, but there are many things a
person can do that would fit the definition of making an ark. He might
use a hammer and saw, an ox cart to carry the wood, etc. None of these
tools are specifically mentioned, but they would have been acceptable
because, while using them, Noah would still be doing what God said to do.
Had God wanted Noah to do things in a particular way in these matters,
He could have simply stated it, such as "Cut down the trees with an ax."
Then the use of a saw would have been different from what God said and
would have been unacceptable.
Going and preaching the gospel - Mark 16:15
God said to go preach the gospel to every creature. If we preach
man-made doctrines, we are not preaching the gospel. Therefore, to
preach them is unacceptable.
On the other hand, there are many ways a person might "go" into all the
world. He might walk, ride a donkey, car, chariot, plane, etc. These
things may not be specifically mentioned, but any or all of them would
be acceptable because they fit the definition of what is stated - go.
In the same way, there are many things a person could do that would
constitute preaching the gospel. He might speak directly to a group of
people, write them a letter, divide them up into classes, speak over
radio or TV, or write on a blackboard or overhead projector or computer.
All such would be acceptable, though not specifically mentioned, because
they fit the meaning of what God said to do. When doing them, we are
simply doing what God said - preach the gospel.
Baptism - Romans 6:4; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38
God said people should be buried in baptism. Sprinkling and pouring do
not constitute burial. They do not fit the definition. If God did not
care what action was involved, He could have simply said, "Put water on
the people," or "Make them wet." But when He said to bury them and
nowhere said to sprinkle or pour, then sprinkling and pouring must be
Likewise, we are told that, before they can be baptized, people must
hear the gospel, believe it, and repent of sins. Babies and animals
cannot do these things, so to baptize them would be to do differently
from what God said. This would not fit the meaning of God's
instructions. God may not have expressly said not to baptize babies or
animals, but to do so would be wrong.
On the other hand, you can bury someone in water in a river, lake, or
man-made baptistery. No matter which you use, you are doing what God
said: you are burying people in baptism.
The collection - 1 Corinthians 16:1,2
God said for the church to obtain funds by taking up a collection of the
first day of the week. Nowhere did He say for churches to have rummage
sales, bake sales, or to operate businesses for profit to make money. To
do these would be to do something different from what He said.
Likewise, to take up collections on some other day of the week would be
different from what He said. He may not have expressly said not to do
these things, but when He said to take up collections on the first day,
and He never said to do these other things, then we can know that to do
them would be to displease Him.
On the other hand, when we take up collections, there are many different
kinds of containers we might use - hat, basket, tabletop, etc. If we use
any of these, we are still doing what God said - taking up a collection.
Hence, they would be acceptable even though nowhere specifically mentioned.
Likewise, God said the first day of the week, but no particular time is
mentioned. So whether we do it morning, afternoon, or evening would not
matter, as long as it was the first day of the week.
The Lord's Supper - Matthew 26:26ff; Acts 20:7
Jesus said to use bread and fruit of the vine in the Lord's supper. And
the church did this on the first day of the week, the same day on which
they had the collection. To use hamburger and Coke or to have the supper
on some other day of the week would be to do different from what Jesus
said. That would displease Him as surely as would the pine wood in the
ark or the sprinkling for baptism.
On the other hand, as with the collection, God has not specified any
particular kind of container, nor any particular time on the first day
for the Lord's supper. No matter what container(s) we use or what time
on the first day, we would still be doing what God said: eating the
bread and drinking the fruit of the vine on the first day of the week.
Music in worship - Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16
God said to "sing" psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Every New
Testament passage that mentions music in worship says to "sing." Nowhere
does God say to play on instruments. To play on instruments then, would
be to do something that falls outside the meaning of what God said to
do, just like using pine wood in the ark or hamburger on the Lord's
supper. God does not have to expressly forbid them. The fact that He
expressly said to sing, but nowhere says to play instruments, shows they
On the other hand, if we sing songs that we find in a songbook, or if we
sing various parts (soprano, alto, etc.), we are just doing what God
said. We are singing and making melody in our hearts. The fact the
songbooks and parts are not expressly mentioned does not make them
wrong, since they fit the definition of singing.
Proper application of Bible authority shows us that many religious
practices are wrong, even though they are not expressly forbidden. On
the other hand, many practices are right even though they are not
expressly mentioned. Whether a practice is right or wrong is determined
by whether or not it falls inside or outside the meaning of the terms
God uses to instruct us regarding His will.
When God tells us what to do, but a certain act does not fit the
definition of what He said, then we are to avoid that act. We do not
need to have a passage that expressly forbids it. On the other hand, in
carrying out a command that God gave, we may be doing some particular
thing that God has not expressly mentioned. Yet if what we are doing
fits the meaning of what God said, He is still pleased.
The point is that it is not up to us to determine what we will do
according to what we want to do or what we think is good, apart from His
revealed will. God is the ultimate authority; only He can determine what
He wants done. What He has determined is what He has revealed through
Jesus in the Scriptures. If we love Him, have faith in Him, and really
respect His authority, we will do what He said and only what He said.
Are you living your life in harmony with God's authority?
(C) Copyright 2002, David E. Pratte
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