(Heath Rogers)


Previous articles in this series have set forth the need for authority in religious matters, the proper source of authority, and how to establish what God has authorized. This article will consider an important distinction that must be made in understanding what has been authorized by God. We will study the difference between general and specific authority.

The meaning of these words clarifies what we are studying. General is defined as "of, for, or from the whole or all; not particular; not specific; not precise." General authority includes any method, thing, or means that would fulfill a command or approved example. Specific means "limiting or limited; precisely formulated or restricted; definite; explicit." Specific authority excludes every method, thing, or means that is not specified in a command or approved example. In short, general authority includes while specific authority excludes.

We reason this way about things in our everyday lives. For instance, if you take your car to a mechanic and say, "fix my car," you have authorized him to do anything he has to do to get your car running. If you say to him, "fix the starter," you have specified what he must do. He is not authorized to do anything else. We shouldn't be surprised to find that God has communicated His will to us in the same way.

Examples of General Authority

When Jesus commissioned His apostles, He told them to "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15). The command to "go" was a general command that could be obeyed any number of ways. The apostles could walk, ride an animal, ride a chariot, or sail in a boat. Any manner they chose would be approved by God.

The wisdom of God's use of general authority is seen in the fact that it accommodates improvements in technology. Today, we can "go" by riding in a car, bus, train, or a plane. If Jesus had said His disciples were to walk in their efforts to take the gospel to the world, we would be limited to only that mode of transportation today.

Jesus told His apostles to teach the disciples to observe all things He had commanded them (Matt. 28:20). This teaching was done in various ways. Paul taught publicly and privately (Acts 20:20). He engaged opponents in public debate (Acts 15:1-2) and sent handwritten letters to churches and individuals. Today, the Lord's church can utilize technology such as the internet, radio, television, newspapers, or mass mailings. We can hand out Bible tracts to neighbors, share audio CDs of sermons with relatives, or conduct a live Bible study online with someone in another country. Since the Lord did not specify the exact teaching method, we are free to utilize the most effective method at our disposal.

Examples of Specific Authority

The Great Commission also gives us an example of specific authority. The apostles were told to "preach the gospel" (Mark 16:15).  They were not allowed to go and make political speeches, share the popular philosophies of the day, or entertain the masses with stories and folklore. They were to preach the gospel. That command automatically excluded every other message they could share.

Today, the Lord's church is free to utilize many of the teaching methods or formats available, but we must use them to only teach the word of God.

The church is only authorized to take up a collection on Sunday. This is the day that was specified with Paul's instruction to the church in Corinth. "Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: on the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come" (1 Cor. 16:1-2). We do not take up a collection on any other day of the week because God has specified Sunday.

We do not use instrumental music in our worship because we are only authorized to sing. "Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord" (Eph. 5:19, see also 1 Cor. 14:15; Col. 3:16). When the New Testament specifies singing (vocal or a cappella music) that excludes any other kind of music.

Common sense allows us to understand when someone is being specific with us. We must use this same common sense to understand when the Bible is using general authority or specific authority.


When God specifies something, everything else is automatically excluded. However, when God gives us a general command, we are free to choose how to fulfill that command. This is where the study of expediency must be applied.

An expediency is something that we use to help us carry out God's commands. The word expedient is defined as something "characterized by suitability, practicality and efficiency in achieving a particular end: fit, proper, or advantageous under the circumstances." God gives us general commands to assemble, worship by singing, partake of the Lord's Supper, teach the gospel, baptize believers, help needy saints, etc. The things we use to help us carry out these commands are authorized as expedients.

People have sought to justify a multitude of unauthorized things as expedients in the practice of religion. For some, the good that is done authorizes their use and there is no need to consider the matter any further. However, God has not given us a blank check with "expediency" written on it. General authority does not mean "do whatever you want." General commands must be fulfilled within the boundaries set forth in God's word. There are rules to using something as an expedient.

1. It must be lawful. "All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any" (1 Cor. 6:12, KJV). The matter of authority must be settled before expediency can be considered. We can't go beyond what is written in Scripture (1 Cor. 4:6; 2 John 9-11).

The Lord commands us to baptize believers for the remission of their sins (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38). The use of a baptistry helps us to lawfully fulfill this command. Substituting sprinkling for immersion may be convenient, but it completely changes the action of baptism (Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 2:12) and is an unlawful practice, not an expedient.

2. It can't be specified. Expediency involves the right of choice within what God has authorized. When God has specified there is no choice.

God told Noah to build an ark. He was free to use whatever tools he had available, but he was not free to choose the materials. God specified gopher wood, which excluded any other kind of wood (Gen. 6:14).

God has specified vocal singing in our worship (1 Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Hymnals and pitchpipes can be used to help us carry out the command to sing. Using instrumental accompaniment completely changes the type of music that is being offered to God. A piano or organ can't be used as an expedient because God has specified singing.

3. It must edify. "All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not" (1 Cor. 10:23, KJV). To edify means to strengthen or build up. We are not allowed to do anything that will tear down and destroy one another's faith.

Peace and unity in the local church are important and must be maintained (Eph. 4:1-6), but never at the expense of God's will. When God has given a specific command, it must be obeyed, regardless of what brethren think. However, when God has given a general command, we are free to choose how to best fulfill that command, but we are not free to choose ways that will threaten or destroy the unity of the local church.

4. It can't offend the conscience of a brother. "Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God" (1 Cor. 10:32, KJV; see also Rom. 14:13-23). This is a rule that governs the exercise of our personal liberties, but also applies to a congregational use of an expediency. A method or practice becomes unlawful when it causes a weak brother to violate his conscience and believe he has sinned.

Conclusion: Matters regarding specific authority are easy to understand. The choices granted with general authority can pose problems. There are rules to follow in properly fulfilling God's commands. Sin and division in the body of Christ occur when unlawful practices are justified as expedients. It is important that we understand how to employ expediencies in lawfully carrying out matters in general authority.