Are Approved Examples Binding? (Part 1)


It has been taught for many generations that Bible authority is derived in three ways.

  • Direct command or statement
  • Necessary inference or conclusion
  • Approved examples

It is said that if we cannot find a “thus saith the Lord” by means of one of these three methods, then a religious practice cannot be authorized.  It is also said that these methods are axiomatic – they are self evident truths.  These methods are a credible means of determining God’s will for us, but only up to a point.  For example, no sane person today obeys these direct commands:

  • Make yourself an ark of gopherwood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and outside with pitch.”  –  Genesis 6:14
  • Bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas when you come—and the books, especially the parchments.”  –  2 Timothy 4:13

Here are two direct statements in the Bible yet we do not obey them!  We don’t obey them because everyone knows that these statements were directed at a particular individual, at a particular point in time and for a particular reason, none of which applies to anyone today.  So we conclude that not all direct commands are meant to be obeyed.  We must use our God given powers of reasoning along with a little wisdom and common sense to determine which commands are to be obeyed.

Likewise, we must determine which inferences really are necessary. That is, the conclusion that is drawn is the only possible conclusion.  It is not the best conclusion from among many likely conclusions but the only conclusion that is possible.  Great care must be taken when we say something is binding based upon a necessary inference.  The logic that we use when making such an inference just might be faulty!

What about examples?  Just what is it that makes imitating New Testament practices binding upon Christians today?  There are some examples we bind and others that we ignore.  Upon what basis do we decide which examples must be imitated and which are not important?

Is there a logical way to distinguish between significant (binding) and incidental (non-binding) examples?

If there is any validity to the idea that Christians are required to imitate some New Testament examples, then of necessity there has to be a way to tell which ones are to be bound.  Lets use Acts 20 as an example. It is commonly believed that “breaking bread” in Acts 20:7 is speaking of the Lord’s Supper.  Since this is the only passage in the Bible that tells what day of the week that Christians observed the Supper it is said to be a significant example and therefore binding.  Therefore, it is reasoned that we may not take the Lord’s Supper on any other day of the week. However, the breaking of bread was done in an upper room on this occasion (and on the occasion that Jesus instituted the Supper) but it is said that this example is not binding.  We may partake on the ground floor, basement, outside or any where else the church is assembled.  Who decided that Sunday was binding, but the upper room was not?  How did they arrive at this conclusion?

This is not a new question, but one that is rarely asked. In attempting to find an answer to this question, I have discovered three attempts that others have made to deal with this dilemma.  I cite the authors below not in an attempt to embarrass them or question their sincerity, but simply to show common threads of thought amongst the brethren.

Three arguments used in an attempt to determine a logical method of distinguishing the difference.

1.   Examples are binding only when they demonstrate required obedience.

The fundamental question is, “are approved examples binding”?  David Pharr begins his article (Binding Examples) by asking this very question, “Are we bound (obligated) to follow the examples of New Testament congregations, and, if so, to what extent?” Pharr begins to answer the question by correctly stating that it is commands which must be obeyed:

“First it must be understood that, precisely speaking, the only thing that can be obeyed is a command. In the Great Commission it is commands that are to be observed (Matt. 28:20). Christ saves those that obey Him (Heb. 5:9), but in the very nature of things obedience implies that there must be commandments. What are bound upon us, therefore, are the Lord’s commands (I John 2:3; Phil. 2:12; etc.)”.

No rational Bible student would disagree with this quote. While we may imitate examples, only commands can be obeyed. In the next paragraph of Pharr’s article, he states as fact that there are binding examples but does not tell us by what logic he arrived at this conclusion.

“When we speak of “binding examples,” however, we are not referring to every incident and every detail. Certainly we are not referring to examples of sinful conduct; but neither do we hold that every approved example requires that we imitate it. What is the basis, then, by which we determine that we are required to follow some examples and not required to follow others”?

He assumes that some, but not all, examples are binding (When we speak of “binding examples…) which is the very thing that must be proven! By asking the question, “What is the basis, then, by which we determine that we are required to follow some examples and not required to follow others?“, he reveals that he has already taken for granted that there are some examples which Christians today are required (bound) to imitate. Remember that his original question was, “Are we bound (obligated) to follow the examples of New Testament congregations?“. He has assumed that the answer is yes without ever giving a reason why and then attempts to derive a method of telling which examples are binding and which are not.  

Pharr’s method of making the distinction is this: “Keeping in mind that it is commands that are to be obeyed, an example is binding only when it is a demonstration of required obedience“. Unfortunately, this method is meaningless unless it is proven that examples are to be bound in the first place. He makes the leap from commands which are to be obeyed, to turning historical demonstrations of obedience into binding examples without ever giving any evidence that examples are to be bound in the first place. Pharr doesn’t give us a tool which aids us in determining which examples are binding and non-binding.  What Pharr’s method actually does is allow us to determine which examples are approved but not which, if any, examples are binding.

2.   If the NT only reveals one way of doing something then it is a binding example.

Don Martin (in the article “When is an example binding?“) says that “Binding examples are exclusive, the only way done“.  In other words, in the absence of a direct command or necessary inference, if we see something done in only one way in the NT, then it is a binding example.  If a thing is done in more than one way it is not binding. This sounds pretty good on the surface, but breaks down under scrutiny.  By this logic, we have no authority to take communion anywhere except an upper room.  The only passages that say where the Supper was eaten say that it was in an upper room.  We see it done in no other place, so therefore the upper room is binding. This is an absurd conclusion and one that would not be possible for all Christians in all places to adhere to.  Robert Farish (in an article cited below) recognized the absurdity of such a conclusion:

“Were it the Lord’s will that our assembling to partake of the Lord’s supper be in an “upper room”, then the Eskimo must be converted not only from his former manner of life but also from his former manner of architecture. He will have to build three storied igloos!! The same would hold true with other peoples. Our preachers who are preaching in Japan, Africa and other remote regions would need to arrange for “upper rooms” before they could teach the converts the will of God on partaking of the Lord’s supper”.

Martin says that the upper room is not binding and uses Acts 16:13 as evidence.  However, Acts 20:7 and Acts 16:13 are not apples to apples.  It is assumed that the church was assembling for the purpose of eating the Lord’s Supper in Acts 20:7.  However, the riverside meeting in Acts 16:13 was not a meeting of the church, it wasn’t the first day of the week (but the seventh), and there is no mention of the Lord’s Supper.

If Martin’s method is shown to be invalid in even one instance, it can’t be trusted as a reliable method of distinguishing binding from non-binding examples.

3.   The rule of unity and the rule of legitimate extension.

Robert H. Farish has a three part article (Part 1: When Is An Example Binding?) that attempts to answer the question:

How can we determine when an example is binding, and when it is simply an historical event or an incidental practice for a peculiar local situation? There must be rules by which we can determine when examples reflect the will of God, else how can we “handle aright the word of truth”?

If examples are binding, then we must have a means of determining which ones we are required to imitate and which ones were incidental or insignificant. His series of articles makes no attempt to prove that examples are binding, the aim is only to determine which are binding. Consider the following quote from Farish’s article.

“The approved example is the only way whereby certain doctrines can be established e.g., the time to partake of the Lord’s Supper. The scriptures teach by example that the church is to gather “together to break bread” “upon the first day of the week.” (Acts 20:7) If we refuse the teaching of this approved example, we are at sea, without chart or compass, in the matter of the proper time to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Hence, we cannot reject the approved example as a way that the scriptures teach”.

Astonishingly, Farish reveals that he binds examples not because he can prove that they should be bound but because he cannot accept the possibility that God has left some things loosed. He then goes on to give the first of two rules for figuring out which examples should be bound.

Rule number one is the “Rule of Unity”.  Simply stated the rule of unity is the idea that approved (and thus binding) examples never contradict other principles of scripture.  This essentially is the same argument made by David Pharr; that “an example is binding only when it is a demonstration of required obedience“. Like Pharr’s method, the “Rule of Unity” only aids in understanding which New Testament historical events had God’s approval.  The rule does not help us determine which, if any, examples require imitation.

Also in Farish’s first article, he introduces a rule that is “subsidiary” to the Rule of Unity called the “Rule of Constancy”.  In a nutshell, the rule of constancy states that when the New Testament reveals only one way of doing something then it is binding. If the New Testament reveals many ways to carry out a commandment, then these examples are not binding.  This is exactly the same idea put forth by Don Martin and is invalid for the reasons previously cited above.

In part 2 of When Is An Example Binding?, Farish introduces the “Rule of Legitimate Extension”.  Farish explains this rule:

No example is to be extended beyond its legitimate province. No New Testament action (of apostles, Christians or churches) is to be considered as binding beyond the proper province of that action. If the action be in emergency situations it is not to be extended to include normal or regular action e.g., the community of property practiced by the Jerusalem church. There was an emergency situation in Jerusalem that called forth this action of selling “their possessions and goods” and parting “them to all, according as any man had need.” (Acts 2:45.)

He goes on to give a few more examples of “emergency situations” to show how the “rule of legitimate extension” works and they hinge upon abnormal situations. In other words, some rules apply during an “emergency” but different actions are required under normal circumstances.  This naturally raises the question, “How are emergencies to be defined”?  In order to know when to bind or loose we now must know when to declare an emergency!  Farish does not tell us how emergencies are defined and in failing to do so has simply made the solution to the problem “one step removed”.  This is akin to atheist scientists who upon failing to explain how life arose on Earth say that life arrived from space when a comet collided with the Earth.  The question still remains as to how life originated on the comet! Thus the “Rule of Legitimate Extension” fails to aid us in our understanding of which, if any, New Testament examples must be imitated today.

In his last installment (Part 3: When Is An Example Binding?) Farish’s comments are essentially summarized as follows.

“Rules for determining when an example is binding should be based upon scriptural precepts. Care should be exercised to avoid laying down arbitrary rules based upon human reasoning. Hence, in trying to establish that the teaching of approved examples exclude other actions we appeal to scriptural precepts”.

Yet, it seems as if arbitrary rules are exactly what resulted from the three articles.  He goes on to comment, “In studying the question of “When Is An Example Binding,” the problem which presented the hardest knot is the “upper room” item in Acts 20“.  Indeed, all three authors seem to struggle with the “hard knot” of the upper room for by following the “rules” the authors have tied a knot that is impossible to unravel while remaining consistent.

It is my conclusion that all three attempts above have failed to produce a means of determining when an example should be bound.  Furthermore, in discussing the matter with other brethren, no one that I am aware of has produced a logical means by which the difference between significant and insignificant examples can be ascertained.  If no objective means of distinction can be identified, then we must either bind all examples or none of them! Indeed, we have been very inconsistent in the binding of examples.  There are a number of examples that would seem to have God’s approval yet we do not bind them upon ourselves. Consider the following “approved” examples which we don’t imitate.

  • Eating the Lord’s Supper on a Thursday (the day Jesus instituted it).
  • Baptizing outdoors.  The only passage under the new covenant which records where a baptism took place says that it was outdoors (Acts 8:36-39).
  • Eating the Lord’s Supper only in the evening. The only passage that mentions the time of day that the Supper was eaten says that it was in the evening. By definition the word “supper” means an evening meal.  (Mt 26:20)
  • Restrict the number of deacons in local congregations to 7.  (Acts 6:3)
  • Setting aside the ninth hour as an hour of prayer. (Acts 3:1)
  • Observing the feast of Pentecost as Paul did.  (Acts 18:21, 20:16)
  • Daily assemblies.  (Acts 2:46)

Why do we not bind these examples? How have we been able to logically conclude that they are insignificant and not worth binding?

A more consistent approach.

If an objective method for determining when an example is binding and when it is just incidental existed, wouldn’t we already know about it? If such a method existed, it would stand to reason that our forefathers in the Restoration Movement would have recognized it long ago and it would have been handed down to us. Instead, all we have are subjective methods (guidelines, common sense, etc.) for making the determination. When subjective methods are used, division is the inevitable result.

God is fully capable of expressing Himself.  He did so in painstaking detail in the Old Testament when specifying the intricacies of temple worship, priestly duties, instructions regarding sacrifices, etc.  God was still capable of clearly expressing Himself when the New Testament was written.  When God desired to bind things in the New Testament, we have no doubt about it.  For example, we know that fornication, theft and drunkenness is wrong.  We know that He requires faith, repentance, confession and immersion in order for a person to become a disciple of Christ.  God clearly expressed Himself on these matters. Had He desired that we strictly imitate the historical demonstrations of obedience that we read about in the New Testament, God would have made it plain that we should do so.  Lacking clear direction from God on the matter of binding examples, and lacking a reliable means of separating important examples from unimportant ones, we are forced to conclude that New Testament examples are not binding.  This is not to say that New Testament examples have no value. Like examples from the Old Testament, we can learn about eternal principles and attitudes that God finds pleasing or displeasing and adjust our actions and attitudes accordingly.

When one recognizes these facts and realizes that New Testament examples apparently were not meant to be bound, all of these “hard knots” simply unravel.  Many of the issues that have divided brethren for the last 100+ years are the result of binding examples. When we stop binding examples, issues such as the following are no longer relevant nor divisive.

  • How the church treasury may (or may not) be spent
  • How churches may (or may not) cooperate
  • If we may have multiple Bible classes when we meet
  • Located (full-time local) preachers
  • Day of week, time of day and frequency of the Lord’s Supper
  • Number of communion cups
  • Number of loaves used during communion

These are not things that God has bound but has left them up to our best judgement. Consistency and logic shout out to us to stop binding examples. When we drop this man made requirement, we’ll be a step closer to the unity that God desires amongst his children and be in a better position to understand Biblical concepts that are truly significant.