When people use the term “unscriptural” they usually mean that there is no BCV for whatever doctrine or method they disagree with (BCV = book, chapter, and verse). Of course, what people are often saying is that they just don’t like, aren’t comfortable, or aren’t used to whatever it is. After all, every church does things for which there is no BCV: radio programs, buildings, microphones, and hot water in the baptistry, among many, many more.
Jesus even did things that were not “lawful” or, as we might say, “scriptural.”
For example, Jesus went to Jerusalem for the feast of Dedication, what we know as Hanukah (John 10:22). Jesus also reclined at the Passover table (instead of stood), drank from four cups at the Passover (nowhere is wine even mentioned in connection with the Passover), met at synagogues (which started no later than the 3rd century BC), and endorsed His disciples picking heads of grain on the Sabbath (something the Pharisees criticized as unlawful), all things which aren’t found in the Scripture.
Was Jesus unscriptural in the way we typically define? Well, He couldn’t find BCV for everything He did, but does this make Him anti-scriptural? Absolutely not.
Instead, Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).
The Bible doesn’t speak of church buildings, so are they unscriptural? What about radio programs, automobiles, church busses, communion trays, and Sunday schools? Some of these very issues have divided the Churches of Christ in the past.
Again, just because something is “unscriptural” does not mean that it is anti-scriptural.
So, how do we determine if something is unscriptural, anti-scriptural, or maybe none of the above?
Before we answer that, let’s talk about holy kisses.
In Romans 16:16, the Bible says to greet each other with a holy kiss. I don’t know about you, but the only people I get any kind of kisses from are my wife and my 23-month-old. Are we breaking a clear command of God by not giving our church members holy kisses? Is this a sin of omission?
Of course not. For one, the New Testament doesn’t function like Torah; it isn’t a book of Laws. Also, when it comes to this specific passage, we understand that we follow the spirit, not necessarily the letter, of what Paul is saying. We give holy kisses through handshakes and hugs, high-fives and fist bumps.
If one were to insist on holy kisses because “the Bible says it, I believe it, so that settles it” they would miss the point of the passage. It wasn’t mean to be some kind of universal guideline for all churches for all time; it was meant to be a unique guideline to encourage the Roman saints, who were divided at the time, to greet each other as equals regardless of their differences. (Check out Dallas’s essay “Oddities in Pattern Theology” for a funny “holy kiss” story.)
So even when something is “scriptural” (like holy kisses) we still have to use wisdom in applying it today.
Isn’t it interesting that we have a clear command to give holy kisses, which Christians understand not to be a universal command to be followed everywhere for all time, but we bind things, such as acapella only or Lord’s Supper only on Sunday, when there is no command in the New Testament about only using our voices in a Sunday morning assembly or even to take communion on Sunday.
In fact, there is not a command in the New Testament about a Sunday morning worship assembly with five acts. Sure, we have examples of people singing without instruments (such as Paul in prison), and we have examples of people taking communion on Sunday, but we also have examples of elders praising Jesus with the harp and the early saints breaking bread daily. Why are some of these examples binding while others aren’t? And why are clear commands, like holy kisses, dismissed as simply cultural?
Is having such a service on Sunday scriptural? Not in the sense we discussed earlier. That is, there is no BCV for such a service that has five acts that must be performed, but is it anti-scriptural? Not within and of itself, but when it becomes a means of deciding who is Christian and who isn’t, dividing congregations, and condemning others, it can become anti-scriptural.
So there are things in the Bible that we do not do strictly according to the letter while there are “inferences” we get from scripture that we practice and even bind on others, inferences we call “necessary.” What’s the deal?
So, back to our question: how do we determine what is scriptural, what is not, what is anti-scriptural, and what is simply cultural?
Well, if there was a clear answer, we wouldn’t have over twenty-five unique divisions within the Churches of Christ over everything from pianos to the number of communion cups to how we break the bread, but let me offer my thoughts. Now, this isn’t meant to be a solution, but it might be the start of the solution.
The hermeneutic we might use is what I call the love hermeneutic. It’s only one question long:
Is what I’m doing going to enable me to or hinder me from loving God, my neighbors, my enemies, and my brothers and sisters in Christ?
Since we are all different and all of our congregations are different, the answer to this question may vary from place to place and culture to culture. This is, after all, why our congregations are supposed to be autonomous.
For example, should women wear head coverings? Paul might offer different advice to the church at Corinth from what he would to the church in Atlanta. Should women preach? A congregation in Ephesus that was close to the temple of Artemis might reach a different conclusion than a church blessed to have an Anna, Priscilla, or Phoebe. Should we take communion on a Wednesday, use a projector, or maybe even use instruments? Different congregations in different cultures from different backgrounds may answer these questions differently.
Some answers may be “unscriptural,” but are they anti-scriptural? In other words, do they hinder our ability to love God, love our neighbor, etc.? Some things, like our AC units, may not have clear BCV, but can’t we see how having AC shows love to our neighbors?
Asking “is such and such authorized by the New Testament” assumes that is has to be. It assumes that the New Testament functions like a Law book. When God gave Moses the pattern for the tabernacle, priesthood, sacrifices, and everything else, He did it all at once. Moses then read the Law to the people.
This is not how we received the New Testament. The Eunuch, for instance, went on his way rejoicing with nothing but the book of Isaiah and the wet clothes on his back. The New Testament letters were written over a span of about thirty years to different people in different cities in different cultures.
If God expected them to follow a five-step plan every Sunday morning in the precise way we demand it be done today, He would not have spread it out like bread crumbs over various books which would and has led to countless divisions. Wouldn’t He have given it all at once in the same clear, step by step, specific way He did it for Moses? The New Covenant is supposed to be easier to bear, not harder. But the problem isn’t with the Bible; it’s with the questions we ask of it.