Are Approved Examples Binding? (Part 2)

Interpretation?Bible examples without a doubt are meant to teach and instruct us in what God finds acceptable and unacceptable.  Whether or not examples can teach us is not the question.  The question is, “Are we required to imitate examples that the Scriptures show have God’s approval?” Most in the Churches of Christ would answer yes.  If we answer yes, then we must have a way of telling which Bible examples are essential and which were just incidental or else we have no means of knowing which examples God expects us to imitate.  If we cannot tell the difference, then we must either imitate every New Testament account of action, or concede that we aren’t required by God to follow any of them.  In “Are Approved Examples Binding?  (Part 1)“,  we looked at answers from three different authors.  In this article we will look at one additional author’s attempt to give a means of distinguishing between essential actions and incidental actions.

George Battey has obviously given considerable thought to the matter.  Battey compiled a book of debate notes in 1994 centering around the question of individual communion cups.  In the debate notes, argument # 47 deals with the question of binding the upper room with respect to the proper place to participate in communion.  Battey denies that eating communion in an upper room is a binding example by appealing to seven rules which all must be met before an account of action is considered a binding example.  A revised set of seven rules appear in a 2008 article written by George Battey entitled “When is an Example Binding?“.  The 1994 rules are as follows.

  1. Rule of Uniformity
  2. Rule of Unity
  3. Rule of Universal Application
  4. Law of Materiality
  5. Law of Competence
  6. Law of Limited Application
  7. Law of Exclusion

The 2008 rules contain the following.

  1. Law of Background Command
  2. Law of Apostolic Approval
  3. Law of Unity
  4. Law of Universal Application
  5. Law of Essentiality
  6. Law of Competence
  7. Law of Limited Application

Proof that examples are binding?

Before we examine brother Battey’s lists we should first notice that he has made a flawed assumption that is very important to take note of.  The assumption is that Biblical accounts of action that met with God’s approval are required to be exactly imitated. It is one thing to recognize that a Bible example was approved by God, but it is quite a leap from there to conclude that the methods given in the example are the only ones approved by God!  Where is the proof that an approved example equates to a strict and mandatory imitation of said example?  Such a claim must be backed up by rigorous proof.

Battey sees proof in the definition of the word “example”. He says in his 2008 article, “The third definition for ‘example’ is ‘a similar case that constitutes a model or precedent.’ The Webster dictionary reads, ‘one that serves as a pattern to be imitated’ (Webster’s New Collegiate, 1979). Think carefully about this important definition. If an example is something that ‘serves as a pattern to be imitated,’ it becomes obvious that an ‘example’ is binding by its very nature. The action of the example must be imitated.”

Examples are indeed a pattern to be followed.  However, the degree to which examples must be adhered to cannot be found in the definition of the word. For example, if I purchase a set of blueprints (i.e. a kind of pattern or example) to build a house for myself, I am at liberty to deviate from them if I choose. If I want to leave out a wall to make one large room where the blueprint calls for two small rooms, that is my perogative. It is my house and I can deviate from the pattern all I want.  On the other hand, if I am building a house for someone else they get to decide how meticulously the blueprints must be adhered to. Is Battey’s conclusion correct; are all examples binding? The answer is that it depends on the desires of the one who exercises authority within the realm where the example applies. In a religious context, we must look to the Bible and let it tell us if God expects strict adherence to historical accounts of actions (i.e. examples). It is not enough to simply state that examples are binding. One must offer solid proof for such a claim.  I encourage you to read his material for yourself and see if he has proven this. It is my humble opinion that he has not proven this point.

From Heaven or from Men?

The observant reader will notice that the two lists do not contain exactly the same rules.  I have emphasized in red letters the differences between the two lists of rules.  The differences in these two lists speaks volumes and tells us all that really needs to be said on the matter.  What the difference says is that these “laws” are man made and since man made them, man can change them! It is certain that Brother Battey refined the rules because he gained additional knowledge and desired to improve his methods of understanding the Bible. We would all do well to follow his example.  All students of the Bible must be willing to adjust their views as they gain greater knowledge. However, the fact that the rules have been changed serves to underscore the fact that they are man made.  Since these rules can’t be found in the Bible, where else could they have come from?

Some of these “criteria” are actually time honored methods of Biblical interpretation.  Others seem to have been “cherry picked” in an effort to ensure a particular doctrinal outcome.  I do not mean to imply that brother Battey is attempting to mislead nor do I think he is a false teacher.  I think he is simply mistaken as all of us have been at one time or another.  I think he has fallen victim to the temptation that many of us have given into at one time or another; he has decided ahead of time what he thinks the Bible says and then adjusts his hermeneutic to ensure the outcome he desires. By realizing that these “laws” are rules made up by man we could justifiably brush them aside. Man made rules have no authority in the realm of religion. However, in the interest of being thorough, lets look at Battey’s 2008 list.

The 2008 rules explained

Law of Background Command: An account of action is binding only if it illustrates how to obey a previous command.

Excerpt from Battey’s explanation of this law:

“In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me’” (1 Cor 11:25). Focus on the words “This do.” This means, “Do as I have done.” Here is a command to imitate the actions of the Lord. But there is more. “This do, as often as you drink it.”  Christians are told to take the communion often, but how often and when? “Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, …” (Acts20:7). Thus, Acts 20:7 is a binding example because it illustrates how to obey a command found in 1 Cor 11:25.

(When Is An Example Binding,  page 3)

Law of Apostolic Approval: For an account of action to be binding, it must be approved by an inspired apostle.

Excerpt from Battey’s explanation of this law:

Consider a previously used illustration: “Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight” (Acts20:7). The background command for this example has already been noticed (1 Cor 11:25). The point to focus on now is that an inspired  apostle approved the action by being present and by participating. No rebuke is ever given. This is a true binding example.

(When Is An Example Binding,  page 4)

Law of Essentiality: The thing under consideration must be essential in performing the command.

Excerpt from Battey’s explanation of this law:

Things which do not meet this test include:

    • Where people are baptized – whether in a natural stream, a lake, or an artificial pool. What matters is that they are immersed for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38).
    • Where Christians assemble for worship – whether under a tree, in a rented building, or a private house. What matters is that they assemble for worship on the Lord’s day (Heb 10:25)
    • The shape and size of the communion cup – whether the cup has handles or not, or what material the cup is made of. What matters is that the vessel is a drinking vessel called a “cup.”

Things which do pass the test of the law of essentiality include:

    • One cup in communion (Mk 14:23; 1 Cor 11:25). Many times digressive preachers argue the container is an “incidental matter.” But when asked, “Do we have to have a cup?”, they answer, “Of course you have to have a cup because the fruit of the vine is a liquid; so you have to have a container of some sort.” If a container is essential (a “have to have” item), then it cannot be at the same time an incidental matter.
    • Communion on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). Weekly observance of the Lord’s supper is essential to fulfill the command to observe communion frequently (1 Cor 11:25). Once again Acts 20:7 passes yet another the test of a true binding example – the law of essentiality.
    • Much water for baptism (Jn 3:23). Baptism is called a burial (Rom 6:3-4) and therefore requires much water.

(When Is An Example Binding,  page 6)

Narrow application of valid methods of interpretation?

The remaining “laws/rules” are well known methods of Biblical interpretation.  These are guidelines that should be applied to Bible study in general.  Do they apply to accounts of action?  Yes they do, but they also apply to all other facets of Bible study and cannot merely be applied to accounts of action.

The Rule of Unity: An action cannot contradict another passage of Scripture. If something is to be considered a “binding example,” it must harmonize with all other Bible passages.

Excerpt from Battey’s explanation of this law:

This is slightly different from the “law of apostolic approval.” The “law of  apostolic approval” says there must be an apostle approving the action without any rebuke given. The law of unity says there must not be any contradiction whatsoever with other information revealed.

(When Is An Example Binding,  page 4)

Rule of Universal Application: Everything taught in the gospel of Christ must be within the realm of possibility for all people in all parts of the world.

Excerpt from Battey’s explanation of this law:

This law takes into consideration the fact that the gospel is intended for all people in all nations throughout all ages (Mt 28:19; Mk 16:15).

(When Is An Example Binding,  page 5)

Law of Competence: There must be Scripture which is competent to support the conclusion drawn.

Excerpt from Battey’s explanation of this law:

To illustrate this, consider Acts 16:33, “He took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized.” This passage is used by Calvinists to demonstrate infant baptism. But is this passage competent to support the conclusion drawn? No. There is no mention of infants whatsoever. There are many families with no infants.

(When Is An Example Binding,  page 7)

Law of Limited Application: A passage can be applied only to the circumstances which the Holy Spirit applied them to originally.

Excerpt from Battey’s explanation of this law:

The Sabbath day will be used to illustrate this law. The Sabbath day was given only to Israelites. “Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed” (Ex 31:16-17). This passage explicitly teaches the Sabbath was a sign between the nation of Israel and God. To take the Sabbath and apply it to everyone in the world is to violate the law of limited application, because the Holy Spirit Himself limited this command to the Israelites.

(When Is An Example Binding,  page 7)

Application of the Laws

Brother Battey says that an account of action must pass all seven tests above before it is considered a binding example.  Lets apply these rules to two accounts of action in the New Testament and see what the results are.

Acts 20:7

This passage records an account of action that is used very frequently by both Battey and traditionalists in the Church of Christ.  It is said that this account of action proves communion must only be observed on Sundays and must be taken every Sunday.  Do the seven rules support this conclusion?

  • Is there a background command? Yes , Matthew 26:26.
  • Is there apostolic approval? No.  It is assumed that this passage records Paul meeting with the church at Troas to eat the Lord’s Supper.  This cannot be proven for there are other explanations for what may have been taking place in Acts 20:7 (see the articles “Breaking Bread” and “The Lord’s Supper: What Day, How Often?“).  No other passage in the Bible records an apostle eating the Lord’s Supper with the exception of the night Jesus instituted it (which, by the way,  wasn’t on a Sunday).
  • Is the law of unity violated? Yes.  Interpreting this account of action to mean that communion must be taken every Sunday and only on Sundays forces a contradiction with Jesus’ and Paul’s clear statements.  Jesus and Paul did not exclude any day or frequency of observing the memorial.  To say otherwise is to bind where God has not bound!
  • Is the law of universal application violated? No.  Everyone, everywhere can eat the Lord’s Supper on Sundays.
  • Is the law of essentiality adhered to? No.  There is nothing about the communion memorial which makes Sunday an essential part of its observance.
  • Is the law of competence violated?  Yes .  There is no scriptural underpinning that forces us to the conclusion that communion must only be taken on Sunday.  As noted above, there are other possible interpretations of Acts 20:7.  Therefore, this passage is not competent to support the conclusion that communion is an every Sunday, only on Sunday event.
  • Is the law of limited application adhered to?  Yes.  The Lord’s Supper is only meant to apply to Christians.

Acts 3:1 & 10:19

These two passages record an account of action which shows Peter praying at the 6th and 9th hours of the day.  Does this mean that Christians should follow Peter’s example and set aside these two times each day to pray?  Do the seven rules support this conclusion?

  • Is there a background command? Yes, 1 Thes 5:17 and Eph 6:18.
  • Is there apostolic approval? Yes . Acts 3:1 and Acts 10:19.  The apostle Peter prayed at noon and mid-afternoon and was never rebuked for doing so.
  • Is the law of unity violated? No. Praying at these times would not contradict any other scripture.
  • Is the law of universal application violated? No .  Everyone, everywhere can pray at these times.
  • Is the law of essentiality adhered to? Yes.  Very little is required to pray.  All that is essential is a little time.
  • Is the law of competence violated?  No . There is ample evidence that Christians are to pray.  There are plenty of scriptures that support the conclusion.
  • Is the law of limited application adhered to?  Yes.  Praying clearly applies to Christians.


Law Sunday Only Communion Special Prayer Times
Background Command check check
Apostolic Approval check
Unity check
Universal Application check check
Essentiality check
Competence check
Limited Application check check

By applying these laws we arrive at two conclusions that I’m certain most in the Church of Christ would not agree with.  They lead us to conclude that the Lord’s Supper can’t be bound to only Sunday, every Sunday because they don’t pass the test of all seven laws. They also teach us that we should set aside two dedicated prayer times per day, in addition to other times we might choose to pray, because Peter’s account of action passes all seven tests! Like it or not, this is where the laws lead.  We could apply these rules to other accounts of action and end up with similar results.

Ironically, I agree that the Bible does not bind Sunday as the only acceptable day of communion.  However, I did not come to that conclusion based upon applying these seven laws.  Does anyone really think the Bible teaches that there are two special times of prayer that Christians must observe each day?  I think we can easily see that these seven laws can lead to some absurd conclusions.  Indeed, we can draw no reliable conclusions based upon man-made criteria.


George Battey’s criteria is by far the most thorough attempt that I have found which endeavors not only to prove that accounts of action are binding, but to also give a means of determining which accounts of action are binding.  In spite of that, I think it is evident that neither his proof nor his criteria hold up to scrutiny.  In the end, there is still no proof that any accounts of action require imitation nor do we have an objective way of determining which “examples” we must follow and which are merely incidental. It is my conclusion that all attempts above have failed to produce a means of determining when examples should be bound.  If no valid and objective means of distinction can be identified, then we must either bind all accounts of action or none of them! The Achilles heel of those who engage in “pattern theology” (i.e. the binding of examples) is that they assume approved examples require imitation.  This must be proven!

We all approach the Bible with certain preconceived ideas and I think all of us at one time or another have attempted to find proof for what we already believe.  J. I. Packer eloquently expresses this thought:

We do not start our Christian lives by working out our faith for ourselves; it is mediated to us by Christian tradition, in the form of sermons, books and established patterns of church life and fellowship. We read our Bibles in the light of what we have learned from these sources; we approach Scripture with minds already formed by the mass of accepted opinions and viewpoints with which we have come into contact, in both the Church and the world.…It is easy to be unaware that it has happened; it is hard even to begin to realize how profoundly tradition in this sense has moulded us. But we are forbidden to become enslaved to human tradition, either secular or Christian, whether it be “catholic” tradition, or “critical” tradition, or “ecumenical” tradition. We may never assume the complete rightness of our own established ways of thought and practice and excuse ourselves the duty of testing and reforming them by Scriptures.

We must always strive to look to the Bible with an open mind and be willing to go wherever the truth leads us.  Sometimes that journey is painful, but for those who value truth over tradition it is a journey we must take.