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Sunday, August 4, 2019

Divine Authority vs. Human Wisdom in Religion

In this study we seek to consider the most important area of authority: religion.

"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 ruler.

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 destroyed.

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 will today?

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 reveals it.

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 death.

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 the gospel.

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 meaning.

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 God said.

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 wrong.

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 are displeasing.

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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