It is studying the Bible to determine what the words meant as written to the original recipients of the words. The Holy Spirit had one and only one original message. Of course, passages could have different applications to different readers of different cultures, but there was only one original meaning, and we should seek to discover that meaning. This would involve determining to whom the passage was written, why it was written, when it was written, and where ti was written. This would involve trying to understand the circumstances involved.
Technically, none of the Bible was written to us today. For example, all the New Testament was written to someone living in the first century. The Old Testament was written to people living back then. Paul did say that those things in the Old Testament were written “for” our exhortation, but they were not written directly to us.
Of. course, there are principles that, even though they were written to someone living in the first century, should have the same impact as if they were written directly to us. For example, the command for husbands to love their wives as found in Ephesians. That was not written to us us today, but I’m sure the Holy Spirit would command husbands today to love their wives.
James Stewart Russell calls this “audience relevance”. He looks at each passages and asks, “What was the relevance of this to the audience being written to”? That’s easy to accept when it comes to Noah being told to build an ark. We know that wasn’t spoken to us, and that we are not being commanded to build an ark. But then we get to a New Testament command where Jesus told his apostles to “wash one anther’s feet” (John 13). Is that a command for us also? Many take it to be such and practice foot washing. Others find a way to rationalize that it was a cultural thing only needed for the apoostles’ dirty feet back then and that it is not a command for us to follow. So who decides which commands are spoken to someone else in the New Testament and yet are commands for us also? Often we leave this decision to individual conscience or to group preference (the Primitive Baptists practice regular foot washing in their church assemblies). Sometimes a group will decide that a command is for us also and will make it a test of fellowship with other Christian groups. For eample, Jesus told his apostles to take the Lord’s Supper, “as oft as you do this”. Although He was commanding this of his apostles at the Last Supper, most of us take this to be a command for us also. Then we find the early church apparently taking the Lord’s Supper in their assemblies on the first day of the week. That is what is called an “inference” based on 1 Cor 16 where they took up a collecdtion on the first day of the week and on 1 Cor 11 where they were rebuked for not partaking of the Lord’s Supper in the proper way. So, some groups take all this to be a command for us to take the Lord’s Supper every first day of every week. Some would make that a test of fellowship. Others take of the Supper but not every week. It is interesting that some who make the taking of the Supper every week a test of fellowship use 1 Cor 16 as part of their arguments. But in that passage, Paul is telling the Corinthians to take up a collection for the saints in Jerusalem. This was a big part of his 3rd missionary journey, getting the Gentile churches to take up a collectdion for the poor saints in Jerusalem who were suffereing from a recent famine. He teells them to take up that collection every week and have it ready for him to take when he comes to visit them. Obviously, that command was for them and them only. Even then, the command would cease to apply to them after he came and took the collection. Yet there are groups that have used 1 Cor 16 as a basis for making a collection a part of the commands that we must do on the first day of every week.
So what commands are for us today and who decides? Each believer must decide for himself. As Paul said in Romans 14, some believe there is a command to not eat meats and others eat meats. Some observe one day above another. He says in that chapter that each should follow his own conscience and that we should not judge or withdraw our fellowship from those who disagree with us. Grace will cover us even if we are not understanding a command accurately and that we should not violate our conscience.
But are there some basic commands or teachings that we absolutely must understand and obey accurately or else we cannot be saved? Certainly. The core teaching of the gospel is “salvation by grace through faith in the propititatory sacrifice of Jesus on the cross”. In the New Testament, sinners are told to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. Surely that is a command for all sinners for all times. The apostle John says that is a test of whether we are waling in the light or not, of whether we have fellowship with the Father, Son, or other believers (1 John 2). He goes on to say that love is a similar test of fellowship, as well as obedience to moral commands for purity. Surely those would be commands for us today also. Paul gives a list of sins that he says we cannot “practice” and still inherit the kingdom of God and salvation. Only diehard Calvinsts say that a convertred sinner can continue to stay drunk the rest of his life and still be saved (once saved, always saved).
But notice that there are very few such commands that must be understand and obeyed just as they were given in the first century in order to be saved. Multiple other commands should not be tests of fellowship even if we disagree on whether to keep them or not. In the Church of Christ fellowship, multiple splits have occurred over which New Testament examples are binding on us. The argument is that we must have an “approved example” for every religious practice we do today. The argument is that we must have such an example of a church using money out of the collection plate to send to a non-Christian group or even to help a non-Christian. Why would anyone say that just because someone practiced a command in a certain way in the first century means that we have to practice it in the same way way today. Of that if they didn’t practice it in a certain way i nthe first century means that we can’t practice it in any other way than the way they practiced it? Yet this illogical reasoning has split multiple churches over issues like Sunday school classes, one cup for the communion, etc.
BTW, Paul says in Galatians 4 that there is great danger if we make such “non-essential” commands and issues as tests of fellowship. The Judaizers were demanding that the Gentile converts be circumcised. They were withholding fellowship from those who. refused to do this. Paul told them they could choose whether to be circumcised or not, but if they made this issue a test of fellowship that they would “fall from grace”. Making it a test of fellowship would mean that they are trusting in their own methods of law keeping instead of grace for salvation. That is “legalism”. I personally will not make any issue or command or doctrine a test of fellowship unless the Bible specifically makes it a test of fellowship as in 1 John.
Some believe that the use of instrumental music in worship is a sin, and many who feel that way have made it a test of fellowship. The arguments used to condemn its use are not the subject of this essay. Each person must analyze the arguments and decide if it violates his conscience to use instrumental music in worship: if it does, then he/she should not use it. He probably would not be able to worship with those who use it. But he/she should not make it a test of fellowship. The New Testament does not specifically make this a test of fellowship issue. It is simply one that we choose to disagree over. Surely grace will cover the one who uses it even if it is actually forbidden by whatever arguments some might use. One of the main issues that separated the Christian Church and the Church of Christ was the use of instrumental music. It is interesting that Barton Stone, one of the founders of the Church of Christ movement, once commented that it was good that the congregations were not making its use a test of fellowship. That changed toward the end of the 19th century when some decided it should be a test of fellowship, and a few years after that the separation came. Paul did indeed tell the Ephesian and Colossian Christians to “sing and make melody in your hearts”, but why would that mean that one could not sing along with a harp, as David would have done? But again, even if the command to sing excludes the use of all other types of instruments of music, which is the argument usually made, why would I make the way I understand that to be a test of fellowship?
Finally, examine each passage to determine what the Holy Spirit meant it to mean to the people He was speaking or writing it to through some inspired apostles, prophet, or teacher. Then try to determine how it might or might not apply to us today. Then follow your conscience and obey any command that you thnk applies to you. Determine if you think the command or issue in an “essential to salvation” issue or not. If not, then allow the grace of God cover those who disagree with you and do not withdraw fellowship from them. If you determine that it is an “essential to salvation” issue, then stand firm on that issue. Paul said in 2 Timothy 2:24-26, “the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive [i]by him to do his will”. That might mean withdrawing fellowship.