Law and Liberty in the Church
Enlarged May 26, 2016
David Cloud, Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061
A principle that has helped me, and a principle that I delight in is that when things aren't spelled out in Scripture, there is liberty for the Lord’s will to be sought and followed in each particular situation. 

When the Bible’ teaching is clear, that is law. When the Bible is silent, that is liberty, and there is a lot of liberty. 

One man put it like this: There is form and freedom. The form is the words of Scripture rightly interpreted. The freedom is anything beyond the form.

This is the teaching of Romans 14. Paul says that in matters such as diet and holy days, we are not to judge one another. There is liberty. Those are examples of things that aren’t spelled out in Scripture. There are no dietary laws or laws about holy days in the New Testament dispensation, so there is liberty in all such matters. Though the New Testament does mention Sunday as the day of the Lord and it does say that the brethren assembled on that day, it doesn’t spell out what can and cannot be done on that day as in Israel’s Sabbath laws, so there is great liberty.

I strongly disagree with those who try to make laws out of things that the Bible isn't clear on. The Bible’s silence is not law; it is liberty.

For example, the principle that churches should not use musical instruments is based on the fact that the New Testament is silent on that. But the silence isn’t a law against musical instruments; it is liberty to use them or not use them so long as they are used according to Scriptural principles. Some within the house church movement make laws out of silence in things such as graded Sunday Schools, youth ministries, and nurseries. Though the Bible doesn’t describe such things, it also doesn’t forbid them if they are operated according to scriptural principles.

What we have a difficult time doing, and I speak for myself as well as from my experience with others, is in 
not making our own interpretations and "assumptions" a rule for others. I have strong opinions about every aspect of church government, but I must stand back and make sure that I am not reading things into Scripture and making those interpretations a law for everyone. This touches on the error of the Jews, who gradually replaced the clear teaching of Scripture with their questionable interpretations and applications of Scripture that became authoritative laws. I believe that there is the tendency toward Phariseeism in all of us. 

The matter of form and freedom applies to many aspects of church life and government. Form and freedom applies to the services (the number of them, the time, the function, the order). Form and freedom applies to the Lord’s Supper. There is some clear teaching on the Lord’s Supper, but there is also room for some differences as to how often it is taken, when it is taken, and, to some extent, who participates, in my estimation. Form and freedom applies to the selection of deacons. There is room for differences pertaining to exactly how they are selected (chosen by the congregation, chosen by the elders) and how long they function (permanently, yearly). Form and freedom applies to how the church conducts business and how the pastors and church family work together in making decisions. There is room for differences in regard to which decisions are made by the pastors and which by the church, what constitutes a quorum, how much unity is required for a decision, etc.

Let me also say that when a church decides to do something, as long as that thing is not contrary to Scripture, the church members are obligated to obey.

For example, while the Bible doesn’t spell out a Wednesday evening prayer meeting, if the church leaders determine before the Lord that the church should have a Wednesday evening prayer meeting or a Thursday evening prayer meeting or a Saturday morning prayer meeting, the members can’t stay home and say, “I have liberty in this matter.” Hebrews 10:25 and 13:7 come into play at this point. Three times in Hebrews, the pastors are said to “have the rule” (Heb. 13:7, 17, 24). This is a strong emphasis. Pastoral authority has often been abused and a spirit of Diotrephes is not uncommon in Baptist churches, and I have preached against this forcefully and unequivocally (how many men, for example, have written a book about “The Hyles Effect”?), but the fact remains that God has given pastors authority. They are called
episkopos, which is translated bishops and overseers. They are called rulers. They are said to be “over you” (1 Th. 5:12).

This principle applies to the time and frequency of services, standards for workers, dress standards, choir rules, parking rules, and many other things. As a matter of practicality, many decisions have to be made and many rules established that aren’t strictly based on Scripture, and when those decisions are made by duly constituted authority, God’s people are to obey, so long as they are not contrary to clear Scripture. This is how everything is done “decently and in good order,” which is God’s express will (1 Cor. 14:40).

The same principle is true in a family when the parents make a decision about the home. The family rules might not be based exactly on Scripture (e.g., take out the trash; clean your room; brush your teeth; come straight home after school; finish your homework before 8pm), but the parents’ rule is the law as long as it is not contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture, because God has made it the law (Eph. 6:1-2). God is the God of law and order, and He has established authority figures and given them authority (Romans 13:1).

Returning to the main subject of this report, when the Bible is silent, there is liberty for each individual and each family and each church to make its own decisions and its own rules under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

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