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Scriptural, Un, or Non

by Tim O'Hearn

Words have meaning. If they didn’t there would be no reason for their existence. Babies do babble with meaningless syllables, but they could not be called words. We usually refer to their “first word” as the first utterance where they clearly identify a person, place, or concept such as “dada,” “mama,” or “no.” Unfortunately, sometimes what a word means to one person is not what it means to another. This may be due to cultural or educational differences. When this happens it often leads to confusion. Debaters are taught to first define your terms. Sometimes they define something in a way that varies from the norm, but favors their argument. Sometimes the terms seem self-evident, but it turns out that defining them was beneficial.

When we use a word we feel we fully understand without clarifying our meaning we get into conflicts with others who have a different understanding. Many disagreements among churches fall into this category. Some understand baptism to be immersion in water, as in the scriptures, while others believe that sprinkling water on someone may constitute baptism under certain circumstances. Others understand that a “pastor” is another term for one who holds the office of elder in a congregation, while many use the word to mean any preacher.

Perhaps it might be beneficial, then, to define a particular set of words that some see no confusion while others think differently. The words are: scriptural, unscriptural, and non-scriptural.

Scriptural is the easiest to define. It means according to scripture. If the Word of God says to do something, then that something is scriptural. To use an example from our worship practices, the Lord’s Supper consists of two elements: bread and the fruit of the vine. (1 Cor 11:23-26) While Paul there uses a word that could mean any bread, we know that when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper it was during a Passover meal, and was, therefore, unleavened. (Matt 26:26; Mk 14:22; Lk 22:19) Therefore, taking the Lord’s Supper using bread and the fruit of the vine (fermented or unfermented is not specified) is scriptural; there is specific biblical basis for it.

Unscriptural is likewise easy to define. If there is specific scripture to do or not to do something, then doing the opposite would be unscriptural. It is a violation of scripture. To use the previous example, to take the Lord’s Supper using water or apple juice instead of the fruit of the vine would be unscriptural. For Noah to have used teak instead of “gopher wood” would have been unscriptural. (Gen 6:14)

Non-scriptural seems easy as well. If the scriptures do not say anything about something, it is non-scriptural. Contrary to some people’s opinion, if the Bible says nothing about a matter, that doesn’t make it unscriptural but non-scriptural. That is an easy definition, but not always easy to apply. In congregational worship, the Bible says nothing pro or con about a man standing before the congregation to lead them in the singing. To have a song leader is perfectly acceptable, as also is singing together without a leader. On the other hand, a case could be made that to have a woman stand before the congregation to lead singing is unscriptural. “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man.” (1 Tim 2:12) The use of a car or airplane to “go into all the world” (Mk 16:15) is non-scriptural but not unscriptural. The Bible doesn’t specify how to go.

There are certain areas where one person believes a practice to be unscriptural (i.e. the use of musical instruments when singing) while another may, because of cultural or educational reasons or personal opinion believe it to be non-scriptural, and thus allowed. It is this (sometimes) grey area that causes division in churches. It behooves us to study the scriptures to determine what they say, as well as what they do not say.