Precept or Principle?

2 John 10 – If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him.

3 John 6-8 – You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth.

Following biblical directives is not always easy. Obviously it’s not easy to obey a biblical command when great steps of faith, courage, self-denial and sometimes even sacrifice are required to live it out. In these cases, the difficulty is not in understanding what the Bible commands, but in having the moral strength and determination to carry it out. However, sometimes carrying out even the not-so-demanding biblical mandates is difficult, primarily because it’s not always clear whether the directive is intended as a precept or as a principle. Sound confusing? Stay tuned, and hopefully it will become clear.

Examples from Exodus and Acts

Following a biblical directive as a precept means that we obey the command just as it was intended to be obeyed when it was given in its biblical setting. For example, in Exodus 20:13 God said, “Thou shalt not murder.” This command against murder is just as much a precept today as it was when it was given, and it should be followed today as a precept. Well, that’s obvious, you say! But what about the directive of Acts 1:4 and 8? “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

 How do we follow this biblical mandate today—as a precept to be literally obeyed, or as a principle for evangelism? If we followed it as a precept, and we’re interested in serving the Lord in foreign missions, should we literally travel to Israel and wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes upon us in power, and only then begin to evangelize? And should we start out in Jerusalem, and then branch out to the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and then finally be free to go “to the ends of the earth” and the land of our missionary calling?! Such a scenario is almost laughable, you say. That’s true, but be careful. We shouldn’t say that this biblical directive doesn’t apply today -it does apply today. We follow it not as a precept but as a principle for evangelism. In fact, there are several principles for evangelism that we can draw from Acts 1:8. We’ll just mention three principles as examples:

  1. The power of the Holy Spirit is essential for effective evangelism.
  2. Potential foreign missionaries should start evangelizing right where they are, before setting off for a foreign mission field.
  3. It’s good missionary strategy to evangelize the big cities first, so the gospel can ripple out to the countryside.

Certainly other principles could be drawn from Acts 1:8, but the point here is that today we follow the directive of Exodus 20:13 as a precept, whereas we follow the directive of Acts 1:8 only in principle. Why the difference? What are the guidelines? At this point most of you would say that it’s pretty obvious which one we take as a precept, and which one we follow as a principle! Usually a formal course in hermeneutics (principles of interpretation) is not required to differentiate between precept and principle in following biblical directives today. While it was pretty straightforward and obvious which way to go in the examples given above, many times it’s not so clear. To emphasize this point, let’s look at two examples from the epistles of John. How do we follow the directives given in 2 John 10 and 3 John 6-8 today?

Examples from 2nd and 3rd John

In 2 John 10 the apostle John writes, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him.” Should we follow this biblical directive as a precept today? Should we literally keep anyone who denies the deity of Christ (such as a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness) out of our homes? Or should we follow this directive in principle only, by drawing out of the Scripture a general principle for dealing with unbelievers who deny the deity of Christ?

When following 2 John 10 as a principle, a believer might feel that it’s OK to invite a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness “missionary” into his or her home to discuss the errors in their theology, with the goal of leading them to Jesus Christ as God and Savior. However, because the warning from which they draw their principle is very strong, these believers should be very careful about how friendly they become with these “agents of Satan” (that’s who they really are, even if they’re ignorant of the fact). However, if believers decide to follow 2 John 10 as a precept today, they would literally bar any agent of such serious false doctrine from their homes. So- precept or principle? That’s the question!

Now what about 3 John 6-8? “You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth.” Should the biblical directives given in these verses be followed as precepts today? Should people who are involved full-time in Christian service today receive financial aid from fellow believers only? Is a church or ministry disobedient to Scripture if it receives any financial help from non Christian sources? And should believers give financial help only to people in Christian ministry who receive no help from unbelievers?

On the other hand, are we to simply draw out biblical principles from these directives? A couple of principles that we might draw from 3 John 6-8 would be:

  1. Be very cautious about taking money for the Lord’s work from non Christian sources. Make sure there are no strings attached!
  2. Believers have a responsibility to extend hospitality and financial support to people who are involved full-time in the Lord’s service- especially when they have no other source of support.

So once again the question—precept or principle? We see that the question of precept or principle is a valid hermeneutical consideration when interpreting biblical directives. Do we follow the not-so-obvious imperatives of Scripture today by precept or principle? What are the guidelines?

Guideline #1

The first guideline is that “Biblical directives can always be followed by drawing out valid principles.” Even when we might go further and follow a biblical directive as a precept, valid principles for Christian living can also be drawn from the directive. To be valid, a principle should not be forced, but should fall “naturally” out of the Scripture under consideration. And remember, a principle is valid only when it is supported by the rest of Scripture. For example, “Don’t ever invite any unsaved person into your home” would not be a valid principle to draw from 2 John 10, because it’s not supported by the rest of Scripture.

Furthermore, even valid principles can become invalid if carried to extremes. The principle that “believers have a responsibility to extend financial support and hospitality to the Lord’s servants” (a valid principle from 3 John 6-8) becomes invalid when followed to the extreme of supporting lazy “freeloaders” who make a pretense of working in Christian ministry. In this case, the principle becomes invalid because it contradicts other clear directives of Scripture, such as 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12, which is summed up in verse 10: “If anyone will not work, he shall not eat.” So Guideline #1, with safeguards, opens up the treasure chest of Scripture for the growing Christian today. Always look for valid principles for Christian living in biblical directives!

Guideline #2

The second guideline is a general rule for interpreting any scripture: “Always proceed from then to now.”

 This guideline will help us to determine whether we should go beyond principle and follow the command as a precept today. In biblical interpretation we must always determine the meaning of any Scripture in its historical context (this is the basic definition of interpretation), before we try to determine the application of that Scripture for today. So if a passage of Scripture contains a directive, we must first determine “who, what and why.” “Why was this command written?” “What was the historical purpose?” “Who were the people the biblical author was addressing?” “What was the occasion and the situation and the setting for the verses and book under consideration?” When these (and other related) questions are answered, we’ll be on safe hermeneutical grounds as we determine application for today.Carefully following the rule of “Always proceed from then to now” goes a long way in helping us determine whether we should follow a particular biblical directive today as a precept or a principle—especially in light of Guideline #3!

Guideline #3

The third guideline is also a general rule for interpreting and applying any Scripture: “Always find as much common ground as possible between the interpretation and the application.”

It’s already been mentioned that we can come to a proper interpretation of a biblical directive only if we know as much as possible about the original setting, purpose and situation in which it was given.

Although there can be only one true interpretation of a passage, there may be more than one way to apply a properly interpreted passage. But there must be close common ground between the proper interpretation and any application we draw from it. And if there is not a close parallel between the interpretation and your application, we’re either distorting God’s intention for that Scripture, or pulling the passage out of its context and inventing an imaginative (and possibly dangerous) application. The best applications are those which most closely parallel or have the most common ground with the interpretation. As a general rule, the more common ground that exists between interpretation and application, the more likely it is that we should follow the directive as a precept, and not just as a principle.

Guidelines Applied

In 2 John 10, we know that the false teachers John had in mind were the early Gnostics. Gnosticism was a second century heresy, but incipient Gnosticism was already making inroads into the Christian community by the time that John’s epistles were written. The Gnostics taught many unbiblical ideas, but their outstanding error was a denial of the full deity of Jesus Christ. In 2 John 7 the apostle writes that “many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world.” So already we can see a lot of common ground between the interpretation of the passage and the application to “Christian” cults today. In fact, Jehovah’s Witnesses are sometimes called “modern-day gnostics.”

Undermining the person and work of Jesus Christ is a critical error, both then and today! The apostle John insisted that there was to be no affirmation of those who taught this heretical doctrine. It is reported in early church documents that on one occasion when the apostle John was about to enter a Roman bath facility, he learned that Cerinthus, an early gnostic teacher, was inside. John promptly turned and left the Roman bath so that he would not in any way associate with this agent of satanic doctrine!

There’s a lot of common ground between the gnostic situation of John’s day and the cult situation of today. Following 2 John 10 as a precept regarding cults today would certainly be a valid application. In fact, following 2 John 10 as a precept for dealing with purveyors of false doctrine today is nearly an exact parallel to the situation in John’s day. Remember, we’re drawing our parallel with the zealous false-doctrine pushing cult member—not the average student or colleague at work who may have ignorantly dabbled with a cult, or who has never heard the truth about the deity of Jesus Christ.

In 3 John 6-8, the apostle John discusses financial support for traveling preachers and teachers. Gaius, to whom the letter was written, was commended for his faithful hospitality and support of these early traveling evangelists and itinerant teachers of the Word. The “Gentiles” or “pagans” mentioned in verse 7 were unbelievers who followed the pagan religions and worshiped the Greek and Roman gods. It was very important that the traveling evangelists not solicit or receive any money from pagan people, lest there be confusion about the freesalvation that was being offered in Christ. It was therefore very important for believers to supply the financial needs of the traveling servants of the Lord, so they could continue to teach and preach the gospel without having to worry about finances.

As we follow our guidelines, and with this interpretation in mind, the application of 3 John 6-8 today is pretty straight-forward. The more common ground that exists between the “then” and the “now”, the more we are on safe hermeneutical grounds to move from principle to precept. For example, 3 John 6-8 should obviously be followed as a precept if a Christian ministry is offered funds from a pagan religious source! It would certainly be unbiblical for a Christian ministry to accept any kind of financial support from a Hindu or Buddhist source, because of the close parallel with 3 John 6-8. On the other hand, a Christian college might consider that 3 John 6-8 allows it to accept a grant from a secular source in some cases, and with great caution! In this case, it could be argued that the principles found in 3 John 6-8 would be followed by avoiding binding agreements, or deals with “strings attached,” or any “gift” that would taint the reputation of the Christian college.

We’ve seen that it’s not always easy to decide whether the not-so-obvious biblical directives should be followed today as precepts or principles. However, following the hermeneutical guidelines makes our task less difficult. Always look for the valid principles that can be drawn from any biblical directive. Then look for the amount of common ground between the biblical situation as it was then, and the situation today, before moving from principle to precept in application.
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