2 Timothy 3:16-17
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
Perhaps your church is deciding how to be seeker friendly as a church. Perhaps there is division as to whether to have a Saturday evening service or gather only via Zoom. Short term missions vs long term missions? Pastor search procedures, and perhaps leadership strategy, even divorce, arranged marriages, care for parents, or women in leadership policies are issues of the church in which we differ.
When struggling to ascertain God’s revealed will for any concept or activity of ministry or to make sure one has no preference in the matter, certain steps must be followed.
These are offered in simplicity. We will not try in one day’s reading to fully analyze, much less establish conclusions, but today we will simply demonstrate how to use this approach to knowing God’s revealed will for ministry.
1) Identify the issue so precisely that both advocates and opponents agree with the identification.
Begin at the right place – defining the issue. Precisely what is being advocated? Until that is settled, there is no need to proceed. In fact, you can’t proceed. At least, not very far.
2) Identify all Scripture that might bear on the issue, both pro and con.
If there isn’t exhaustive Bible knowledge in the group, begin with a concordance or topical reference volume, or a Bible computer program! When it comes to a theological issue, good sources are systematic theology texts. Then of course, in many cases at least, there are many books both for and against. The local church may not have time to read all of them, but it is important to check out an authoritative treatment that holds a position opposing the one advocated. That tends to keep everyone honest and pinpoints Scripture that might correct or balance the position advocated.
What then, should we look for in approaching this subject?
- a) Are there any direct commands that demand this change?
Caution, no direct command can be invalidated by some principle we derive. But we must obey the principles, too, and what could be of higher priority than God’s own example in the Incarnation, and Paul’s example in doing evangelism?” Failing to find a direct command doesn’t end the matter. Principles are merely pushed to the next level of inquiry.
- b) Are there any principles that demand this approach?
Leaders need to give attention to how they establish a principle from Scripture. Of course, principles may be directly stated in Scripture, such as, “It isn’t good for man to be alone.” If the principle is directly stated, the principle is just as binding as a specific command, and it is our responsibility to aggressively seek out how God intends us to apply the principle. Principles, unlike specific commands, have a universal application and are thus very powerful. But principles can also be derived from direct commands. Nowhere does Scripture condemn pornography or voyeurism but forbidding them on the basis of the command, “You shall not lust,” is not only acceptable. It is a principle demanded by the command.
And then there is historical precedent. But as a source of deriving authoritative principles that’s tricky. But just because Paul did something or even because God did something doesn’t necessarily mean that we are bound to do the same thing. History is recorded in Scripture on purpose, and we do well to attempt to identify that purpose. But if Scripture itself does not identify the action or event as an example to follow (or avoid), we may not use it to derive an authoritative principle. Sometimes the historical context commends or condemns an action that is reported. Then we have a clue as to God’s intent for his people. Sometimes another passage will point out the good or bad in what was done, as in the case of the deception of the Egyptian midwives. If they are commended for their lies, we are pressed to search for the reason. But if we are not told in Scripture why an action is commended or condemned, we are still left with the dilemma of figuring out from other commands or principles whether or not the action illustrates an abiding principle.
Yes, if Christ or God does something, it can’t be wrong. At least for God! But that doesn’t mean everything Christ did is an example we must follow. For example, his remaining in Israel for his entire ministry – is that the example we should all follow? Christ commanded his disciples to do the opposite. So debate rages over how his atoning death can be an example without undermining his unique role in our salvation. Historic precedent, then, must be handled with care. Look for confirmation in direct teaching, principle or command before seeking to establish principle from history. Even with biblical confirmation of a principle, the history is better used as illustration than prescription.
Worst of all is the notorious argument from silence on which so much debate over ministry is based. If the argument from silence were valid, how do we justify church buildings, denominations, praise bands, children’s work, and youth ministry? None appear in the New Testament church. Silence alone can’t decide an issue.
Thus there are acceptable ways for establishing what a biblical teaching is, whether direct command or derived principle. The church leadership should do their best to ferret out all the Bible has to say about adapting the message of the gospel to specific audiences. But there’s more…
3) Determine if any given passage cited is addressed to the contemporary church.
Once the search for God’s will in a matter moves to specific passages of Scripture, the first thing that must be ascertained is whether the teaching was intended for all people or just for some. How do you go about deciding? The context itself may indicate a limited audience: “Blessed are you poor,” said Jesus. Are all poor of all time blessed? He addressed a particular audience. The context may not clearly limit the audience, but other Scripture may, as in the case of Old Testament ceremonial law, set aside by Jesus or the Apostles (Hebrews 9, 10).
4) Exegete the passage carefully to determine the meaning intended by the original author.
We shall risk going far astray if we impose meaning on the text. Most often this has happened historically by imposing a pre-determined doctrinal structure on a given passage. The only way “God so loved the world” can be interpreted as “God so loved the elect” is to have already decided from other Scripture a doctrine of the atonement that requires setting aside the plain meaning of the text. More recently, cultural norms have been given greater authority than the text. But our goal is to determine what the author of any given text had in mind when he wrote it. Establishing those principles of interpretation lies far beyond the scope of today, yet this step may be the most important of all.
5) Test for biblical emphasis and balance with other teaching.
On which side does Bible emphasis lie? Since all Scripture is our authority, how can two apparently diverse teachings be reconciled without discounting either? This step requires that we bring into harmony, as best we can, all Scripture teaches on the subject. Only then are we ready to launch, modify or dismantle the approach – launch the new program or ministry, or dismantle the old. We may need to adjust the approach to bring it under the functional authority of all the teaching of Scripture.
6) Implement if demanded by Scripture. Free to implement if not in violation of Scripture and it is judged desirable.
How do you think a proposal will fare if the entire group in humility (each recognizing their own finitude and fallenness), give faithful diligence to search the Scripture (2 Timothy 2:14-16), and love one another, each preferring the other better than themselves (Philippians 2:1-4)? My guess is that they will decide on the side of biblical emphasis, that the proposal is not prohibited by Scripture and that they could move forward, being careful to safeguard their implementation from violating any basic biblical principle. Making changes is never easy and must be pursued with great care, especially if the initial investigation yields a “free to implement” conclusion. In that case the debate shifts to pragmatic concerns. That shift must be carefully noted and observed, with neither side claiming to be on “God’s side!”
In this brief outline of the steps needed to bring proposals under the authority of Scripture, rather than examining the issue to a conclusion, we have mined for illustrations of how the steps could be implemented. 
 For an in-depth analysis of this algorithm, the reader is encouraged to read Robertson McQuilkin’s texts, Five Smooth Stones and Understanding and Applying the Bible.