EXPEDIENT, LOCAL, PERMANENT OR UNIVERSAL?

Not everything the Bible tells us to do was meant to be a permanent obligation on all people. Some commands of the Bible have to do with a particular person or group and not everyone in the world. Some have to do with local and temporary problems or situations and were never meant to be applied beyond that time. Some teachings are about expedient ways of doing a thing instead of a law for all time. How can we know for sure which is which.

Think of some personal teaching that don’t apply to everyone. Jesus said to the blind man to go and wash in the pool of Siloam in order to cure his blindness. But he didn’t mean that any blind person in the world could go to that pool and wash and be able to regain their sight. He told the rich young ruler to go and sell all you have and give it to the poor and come follow me and you will have great treasures in heaven. This was a command from the Lord, but not meant for all people. Actually, this is the only time the command was made to anyone. When Jesus was on the cross and said to the thief “Today you will be with me in paradise” it was a personal statement to one person. It doesn’t mean that every person in all time who says to Jesus “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” will receive the same response. When reading Scripture it is important to ask the question “Who is he talking to?” so that we don’t fall into the habit of reading other people’s mail. When Jesus told the apostles to wait in Jerusalem until they received power from on high he was giving a personal instruction to the apostles. It didn’t mean that everyone should go to Jerusalem and wait to receive a miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

There are also many commands or teachings that relate to local situations in a specific time and do not apply, except in principle beyond that time. In I Corinthians 11 Paul discusses two major topics one of which was local and temporary and the other permanent and for all. First he dealt with the problem they were having with women who had been converted to Christ ridding themselves of all restraints when they gather with other Christians for prayer and teaching. It was the custom in Corinth at the time for women to wear a veil when they were in public. The fact they had been converted evidently made them believe they didn’t need to follow such customs any longer and Paul tells them they need to be concerned about their influence on others. To take this as an admonition for all women in all times to wear veils when they come to pray or study with others would be a mistake.

Then he talks to them about taking the Lord’s Supper when they come together as a church. They were in the habit of eating a meal or love feasts when they gathered and that feast had become mixed with the communion. In the meal together some brought a lot and others had little to bring and some left hungry while others left stuffed. He challenged them to think of each other and to make the primary purpose of their gathering to take the Lord’s Supper. In this connection Paul asked the question of them “Do you not have houses to eat and drink in or do you despise the church of God?” This question has been misapplied and misused far too often. Many have taken it to mean that we shouldn’t eat in the church building since they were to eat at home. That overlooks the fact they didn’t have church building at that time and wouldn’t have any such buildings for some 250 more years. The church was meeting in homes during this era. He wasn’t telling them they couldn’t eat in their homes when the church was meeting. He was pointing out that their eating shouldn’t become a place of abuse or erecting walls between each other.

He went back to the primary teachings of Jesus about the Lord’s Supper and told them they proclaimed the Lord’s death until he comes by taking the communion. This communing together was to build unity and cause them to think of fellow members of the body of Christ instead of just about themselves.

Some teachings of the Bible are meant as expedient ways of doing a thing but not as something to be followed in all time. One of the best illustrations of this point is found in I Corinthians 7 when Paul was answering questions about marriage. In this chapter he recommends that they remain unmarried because of the present distress. That wasn’t the common teaching. Even in such a time he declared that if one didn’t have that gift and was burning with passion for another they should marry for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

He talks about Christians married to Christians and Christians married to non-Christians and the obligation of the Christian to stay in the marriage if the other was willing. He then went into a discussion of staying in the situation in which you were called as a Christian. He used the illustration of slavery and circumcision saying that if one was a slave they were the Lord’s free man and if they were free they were the Lord’s slave. He said if one could get his freedom then do so. If one is circumcised or uncircumcised it doesn’t matter, just remain where called. He then applies that principle to marriage saying that if one is called as married then don’t get a divorce and if one is called unmarried or released from a marriage don’t seek a wife. Then he adds, “But if you do you have not sinned and if a virgin marries she has not sinned.” He goes from that to talk about this present distress they were under and his desire to keep them from trouble in the flesh. The fact he said one could do differently from what he told them without it being a sin demonstrates that it is a teaching of expediency and not a matter of law.

Some things in the Bible are intended to be for everyone and for all time. Some times even when discussing a local problem there are basic principles that one can learn that applies in all times. In I Corinthians 14 Paul talked about the gathering of Christians to worship God. He especially dealt with the value of prophesy in comparison to speaking in tongues in the assembly. Much of this chapter has to do with miraculous elements that are no longer available for us. Yet the fundamental principle that all things should be done for the building up of the body stands as a basic teaching for all time. In a context where he had been discussing miraculous prophesies and tongue speaking and has told them to keep silent in the assembly unless there is someone who can translate what is said for all to understand and the prophet to stay quiet until the one speaking has stopped, he also mentions women keeping silence in the church. He said it is not permitted for a woman to speak in the church, as the law also says.

The major question is whether this teaching about the woman in the assembly is intended as a permanent instruction for all time or was it part of the local and temporary teaching that compares with the instruction about prophesy and tongue speaking.

It seems that a running principle in the whole book of I Corinthians is that women are to submit in the gatherings of Christians, since it is mentioned in chapter 11 and 14.

Finally, some things mentioned in the Bible are matters of personal conscience and we should not judge each other in those matters. In Romans 14 he talked about things like eating meat and observing special days. In each case he said that it didn’t really matter which way one believed but we shouldn’t judge each other and we should follow our conscience. He also pleads that we not allow matters like this to bring division into the body and not argue over insignificant matters. He tells us to think of one another and not do things that would spiritually injure each other.

When teachings are universal and permanent we must obey them always and teach them to others constantly. It is vital in such matters that we teach what is actually taught in the Scriptures rather than our interpretation and explanations of what that means to us. Some times we confuse our understanding of what a text means with what is actually said and try to bind our applications or interpretations right along with the word of God. Only Scripture is inspired of God, not our commentary on the Scriptures.

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About leoninlittlerock

Preaching minister for Central church of Christ in Little Rock. Author of over 20 books including: When a Loved one Dies, Spiritual Development, Skid Marks on the Family Drive, Challenges in the church, To Know Christ and A Drink of Living Water.
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