The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture, to which nothing is to be added at any time, either by new revelation of the Spirit, or by the traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word.There are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and church government which are common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word which are always to be observed. (Chapter 1.6, italics mine)
Given the current cultural milieu, in which pluralism and relativism are becoming ever rampant problems, many Christians and churches struggle with how to apply the Bible to the many issues we face. Indeed, I often hear disagreements about whether or not a particular practice is Biblical, and it seems that a significant part of the debate centers around the fact that there is a fair amount of confusion about what various individuals and groups actually mean when they claim that a particular practice is or is not Biblical. For example, some people seem to think that a practice should be seen as Biblical only if we have an explicit command in the Bible to do it, while others would argue that any practice should be regarded as Biblical so long as there is no explicit prohibition against it in the Bible. I do not think, however, that we should restrict our assessment of whether or not a practice is Biblical to such narrow parameters, even if these are very important parameters. So, in this post, I would like to briefly set forth a more complete set of parameters for making such determinations, one which will include the two already mentioned but which will also go beyond them. I will list these parameters under four main headings: Biblical prescriptions, Biblical prohibitions, Biblical precedents, and Biblical principles.
1. Biblical Prescriptions
To begin, I think we can all agree that a practice should be accepted as Biblical if we have a Biblical prescription to do it – that is, if we have a positive command to do it. Examples of such prescriptions would be the practice of baptizing believers (Matt. 28:19) and the observance of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23-26). We know these practices are Biblical because the Bible clearly teaches that we must do them.
2. Biblical Prohibitions
Just as we know with certainty that a ministry practice is Biblical if we have a positive command in the Bible to do it, we know with just as much certainty that a ministry practice is not Biblical if we have a prohibition in the Bible against it. One example of such a prohibition would be against the acceptance of homosexuality, for the Bible clearly says, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10, italics mine). Another example of such a prohibition would be against women teaching or having authority over men in the churches, for the Apostle Paul clearly says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence” (1 Tim. 2:12).
3. Biblical Precedents
But there is yet another way in which we can discern whether a ministry practice is Biblical, for we can look to see if a practice has a Biblical precedent. One example of such a precedent would be the practice of worshiping on Sunday (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-2). Another example of such a precedent would be the inclusion of children in the worship gatherings of the church. It would appear obvious, for instance, that the apostle Paul assumed that children would be present with their parents at church gatherings when he included instructions for them in at least two of his epistles (Eph. 6:1-3; Col. 3:20), epistles which he expected to be publicly read when the church gathered for worship (Col. 4:16).
4. Biblical Principles
However, we still haven’t exhausted our means of ascertaining whether a practice may be considered to be Biblical, for we haven’t yet addressed the matter of whether a practice is in keeping with Biblical principles. Yet it is through the application of Biblical principles that we ascertain whether many practices are to be accepted as Biblical. Indeed, the Church throughout her history has recognized that much of what we do is informed not by clear Biblical prescriptions, prohibitions, or precedents, but rather by the thoughtful application of Biblical principles. Consider what the Baptist Confession of 1689 says in this regard:
Notice that the Confession first refers to those things which are essential and which are either expressly taught in Scripture or may be derived therefrom by way of good and necessary inference (the meaning of “necessarily contained” in the first sentence of the text cited). Yet, it also recognizes that not all matters faced by the Church are so directly addressed. Thus, when we are dealing with an issue or practice for which we have no explicit teaching in Scripture, the Confession recognizes that we are to rely on our wisdom and experience as informed by “the general rules of the Word,” which in this context must refer to the application of the general teaching or principles of the Word.
One example of such an issue or practice that is not addressed directly in Scripture would be the type of music used in corporate worship in the churches. The Bible simply doesn’t indicate a particular style of music or song writing that should be utilized by Christians when they meet to worship. But that doesn’t mean that we must be silent about the matter, does it? Absolutely not! For there are a number of principles that we may employ in addressing the issue. Thus, we would want to see what the Bible says about God, about how God works in His people through the Word, about the role of the Word in worship, about the nature of the Church as the body of Christ, about attitudes we should display in worship and how music might affect these, about the unity we should seek as we worship God together, etc. So, for example, if we believe that we should seek to worship God in a unified way and with one voice (as Jesus and His disciples apparently did, Matt. 26:30), we will want to choose a style of music that is written to better enable and enhance congregational singing, rather than a style of music that is written to be performed for an audience.
At any rate, I think we should all be able to agree that there are any number of ministry practices that may not be directly addressed in Scripture in terms of a prescription, a prohibition, or a precedent, but for which we may find many principles that apply. And insofar as we seek to faithfully, wisely, and prayerfully apply these principles, we may indeed say that our practice is Biblical.