The Hierarchy of Scripture

2 Timothy 2:15 - Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

Acts 2:38 - Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins may be forgiven."

1 Corinthians 1:17 - For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel.

What is the "hierarchy of scripture," anyway? Doesn't the word "hierarchy" mean that items are arranged in order so that each item is subordinate to the one above it? Can that be said of Scripture? Does that mean that some books of the Bible are more important than others? Somehow that sounds a little heretical! So can we say that there is a hierarchy to the books of the Bible? Yes, there is a hierarchy to the books of Scripture!

Wait a minute! How can there be a hierarchy of scripture if the whole Bible is the inspired Word of God? Answer: the hierarchy of scripture has nothing to do with the inspiration of scripture, and the hierarchy of scripture has nothing to do with the canonicity of scripture, either. Some books of Scripture are not more "Bible" than others! Every book of Scripture is just as inspired and just as much a part of the Word of God as every other book of Scripture. However, this does not mean that every book of Scripture carries the same weight or authority for the Christian when it comes to application for today.

O.T. versus N.T.

Leviticus 5 and other Old Testament scriptures teach that God's people should sacrifice lambs and goats on an altar. Why don't Christians sacrifice lambs and goats today? Because we recognize the "hierarchy of scripture" principle! For the Christian, the Old Testament ceremonial laws are subject to (or subordinate to) the doctrine of the New Testament. The regulations of Leviticus 5 were part of the Mosaic Law, and these regulations ended with the coming of Christ (Romans 10:4). Thus the written scriptures containing the ceremonial instructions for God's people under the Law do not carry the same degree of authority for the Christian today as do the New Testament scriptures. Christians must recognize this principle of biblical interpretation--it's essential for "rightly dividing the Word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). Think of the confusion that would result if we didn't consider the hierarchy of scripture when we interpret Leviticus 19:19. "Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material"! As Christians we can certainly draw many principles and lessons from the legal and ceremonial portions of the Old Testament, but when it comes to doctrinal authority we must subordinate these scriptures--along with doctrinal differences from all of the Old Testament--to the teaching of the New Testament.

Consider the subject of divorce. Christians who justify divorce on the basis of Old Testament regulations are not following the hermeneutical principle of the hierarchy of scripture. God's original plan for marriage has never changed, but during Old Testament times He allowed His people to write certificates of divorce. When we come to the New Testament, however, we find a much stricter view of divorce and remarriage. While there are certain conditions under which divorce and remarriage are open for discussion (see Matthew 19:3-9 and 1 Corinthians 7:10-16), the hierarchy of scripture principle demands that Christians uphold a New Testament position on divorce, rather than using the "less strict" regulations of Old Testament days.

Gospels versus Epistles

The concept that the Old Testament should be subject to the New Testament in the hierarchy of scripture is easy for most Christians to understand. But what about the New Testament? Is there any hierarchy among the books of the New Testament? Yes! When any kind of doctrinal differences are under consideration, the Gospels must be subject to the New Testament Epistles. Consider, for instance, the difference between the "Church" and the "Kingdom of God." In the Gospels the Church was only predicted--it had not yet been established when the Lord Jesus said, "I will build My Church" (Matthew 16:18). In the "gospel setting" an offer of the Kingdom of God on earth had been made to the Jewish people only, as we see in Matthew 10:5-7. "These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them, saying, Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand."After the King and His Kingdom on earth were rejected by the Jewish people, the Church was formed. "Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit" (Matthew 21:43). The Church, however, is not identical to or synonymous with the Kingdom! The Lord Jesus Christ is never identified as the "King" of the Church. The Church is not a theocracy, and the Church does not have the responsibility to establish the Kingdom of God as the government of the United States or throughout the whole earth. The Church is the body and bride of Christ, established at Pentecost (after the time and setting of the Gospels), and its responsibility is to preach the Gospel and make disciples in all nations. The Church is specifically subject to the doctrine of the New Testament epistles. So, for the Christian, when we find doctrinal differences between the "Kingdom of God passages" in the Gospels and the teaching of the Epistles (which are directly addressed to the Church), the teaching in the Gospels must be subject to the teaching of the Epistles.

The Sermon on the Mount, for example, is a "kingdom passage" which presents the moral qualifications of those entering the Kingdom, but does not contain a clear message of "the way of salvation." The mission of the Church is not to preach the Sermon on the Mount to the world, but rather to preach the way of salvation. The doctrine of the way of salvation is clearly found in the Epistles--in fact, the first four verses of 1 Corinthians 15 present the salvation message more clearly than the entire Sermon on the Mount! As Christians, we draw many valid moral and spiritual lessons from the Sermon on the Mount and other "Kingdom passages" in the Gospels, but we always must remember that the Gospel of the Kingdom of God on earth was given in a "pre-Cross" setting. When apparent doctrinal differences arise, we should resolve them by placing the teaching of the Gospels in a subordinate position to the Epistles in the hierarchy of scripture.

Because many Kingdom passages apply just as much to the Christian today as they did to the Jews whom our Lord addressed in His day, the principle of "the hierarchy of scripture" is not needed that often for Kingdom versus Church clarification. Christ's statement to Nicodemus, for example, that a person "must be born again in order to see the Kingdom of God" (John 3:3), applied to all unbelievers then, and applies to all unbelievers today. Furthermore, the parables of the Kingdom in the Gospels were given with the foreknowledge that the King and His offer of the Kingdom on earth would be rejected by Israel, and thus these prophetic parables often illustrate the form the Kingdom would take until the King would return. So there will be some "Church truth" within the Kingdom parables because every Christian is certainly part of the Kingdom of God as it exists today, as well as a member of the Church, the body of Christ. But remember, the church and the kingdom are not identical or synonymous, and the distinction must be maintained in order to "rightly divide" these parables along with the rest of the scriptures in the Gospels concerning the Kingdom. Consider, for example, the policy of tolerance and co-existence in the Kingdom, as it is now, which is taught in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Weeds) in Matthew 13. The co-existence illustrated in this parable ("allow both to grow together until the harvest") must certainly be subject to the teaching of the New Testament epistles concerning policies for church discipline and requirements for individuals being accepted into the fellowship of a local church. So any "church truth" found in the parables of the Kingdom, or anywhere else in the Gospels, for that matter, must always be subject to the "church truth" of the New Testament epistles.

Acts versus Epistles

Just as the Gospels must be subordinate to the New Testament epistles, so the book of Acts must also be subject to the Epistles in the hierarchy of scripture. Let's take the doctrine of baptism, for instance. What scriptures control the doctrine of Christian baptism? Obviously not the Gospels, or we might still be practicing John the Baptist's "baptism of repentance" today! What about Acts? No! Acts is not a book of doctrine for the church--Acts is a book of "acts"! Acts is the record of the events that took place as the Church emerged out of Judaism. When determining doctrine, biblical narrative (Bible stories) must always be subject to the didactic (teaching) passages of Scripture. If we let the events recorded in the book of Acts govern the doctrine of Christian baptism, we could build a pretty good case that water baptism is necessary for salvation. Indeed, that's how some folks interpret Acts 2:38, which says, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven." But the transitional practices of Acts 2 must be subject to more definitive Church doctrine given in the Epistles, such as "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9), and "You also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in Him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit" (Ephesians 1:13). Clearly, these (and other) scriptures in the Epistles teach that water baptism is not an essential component of salvation. Would the apostle Paul ever even consider writing a scripture like 1 Corinthians 1:17 if baptism were necessary for salvation? No way!

The truth of the matter is that the book of Acts records the different ways in which God worked to bring diverse groups of people into the Church, the one Body of Christ. For the Jews at Pentecost it seems that salvation, baptism and the receiving of the Holy Spirit all took place at about the same time (Acts 2:37-41). When the gospel was brought to the Samaritans, salvation and water baptism took place before they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:12-17). God delayed the bestowing of the Holy Spirit upon the Samaritans until Peter and John arrived from Jerusalem, in order to demonstrate to the apostles that the Samaritans (whom the Jews disliked and despised) were actually part of the same Church as the Jews! At Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7), it appears that both water baptism in the name of Jesus and the receiving of the Holy Spirit were subsequent to the time that those "disciples" became believers in Christ. But for the Gentile believers at Antioch of Syria (Acts 10:44-48), the gift of the Holy Spirit was "part of the package" of salvation, and water baptism was subsequent to belief.

It's easy to see that building a doctrine of baptism from the book of Acts could lead to confusion and contradiction, depending on which chapter is emphasized. If we follow the "hierarchy of scripture" principle when we interpret these scriptures, however, potential problems are eliminated. The Epistles clearly indicate that while Christian water baptism is important, it is not essential for salvation. Thus Church doctrine in the Epistles sorts through the differences in Acts and indicates that the sequence of salvation and baptism of the believers at Antioch (Acts 10:44-48) would be normative for today. So, according to the hierarchy of scripture principle, information and events recorded in the book of Acts must be subject to Church doctrine found in the New Testament epistles, whenever there might be doctrinal differences.

Most of the time when interpreting Scripture we don't need to worry about the "hierarchy of scripture" principle because we automatically practice it, especially when it comes to Old Testament versus New Testament. When someone asks us how to become a Christian, for example, we instinctively quote John 3:16, not Leviticus 5:5-6! And doctrinal differences between the Gospels and the New Testament epistles or the Acts and the Epistles are not overwhelming in number. But as we diligently seek to be "skilled craftsmen," who carefully and "correctly handle the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15), we will occasionally need to use a good and helpful tool--the principle of the "hierarchy of scripture."

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