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The Role of the Old Testament in the Church

By Brian M. Abshire
August 31, 1998

As I write this column, I am also celebrating(?) my 44th birthday. Middle age has come with an unexpected vengeance. I still think of myself as fairly young and am constantly shocked by the old man looking back at me out of the mirror. My manly red beard has more than a few strands of white in it these days, and the bulging muscles of my arms and shoulders that I had in my twenties seem to have all migrated south around my midsection. Just so I wouldn’t miss the significance of the loss of youth, cards and letters have poured in from friends and family commiserating with me for reaching such an advanced age. My wife teases me about the inordinate amount of pink scalp peering through the crown of my head (“My, my. Dear, looking a bit Benedictine these days, are we?”), while my children warn me about not blowing out my birthday candles too hard lest my teeth fall out. Though I am still vigorous enough to chase my wife around the house, when I finally catch her, by mutual agreement we usually decide that a good night’s sleep is ample enough reward.

There is a relationship, I think, between our attitudes towards age and our appreciation of the Old Testament. In our youth-oriented culture, age is often associated with obsolescence. That which is new is, by definition, superior. Across the world, the broad evangelical church has largely abandoned the Old Testament, assuming it to be nothing more than the quaint musings of an old man not quite in touch with today’s modern world. Consequently, while we may occasionally pay polite attention to his reminiscences, we do not really think he has anything of value to say.

From the start, as the church imbibed deeply from the wells of Greek philosophy, problems developed in both understanding and applying the Old Testament. It has either been spiritualized away, or simply ignored. Old Testament religion is a gutsy, earthy, visceral religion that, quite frankly, offends the sensibilities of Greek-influenced Christianity. As a result, modern Christians are sundered from their past and fail to understand the unity of the Scriptures. New Testament Christianity sits on a pyramid of Old Testament religion. If you remove the foundation, then the capstone collapses. Without a proper understanding of the role and significance of the Old Testament, the church is susceptible to every kind of error. The apostate, bland, ineffectual, culturally compromised church of today has only to look at its rejection of the Old Testament to discover the source of many of its errors.

In Authority (2 Tim. 3:16-17) When the Apostle Paul wrote to encourage Timothy in his duties, he said that “all Scripture was given by inspiration of God.” Amazingly, this verse, so often quoted as evidence of the authority of the Bible, is seldom quoted in context. The Scriptures Paul was talking about here was NOT the New Testament (after all, it was in the process of still being written!) but rather what we call the Old Testament. For first-century readers, the Bible WAS the Old Testament, and Paul consistently appeals to it as his source of authority. God had spoken to his church authoritatively and sufficiently through the Old Testament which is sufficient to “make one wise unto salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15). Therefore, the Old Testament was to be revered, read, studied and applied. True, Jesus rebuked the traditions of men that had grown up around the Scriptures, but he fully affirmed their authority (Mt. 5:17-19). Granted, the Old Testament spoke in shadows, types and figures and a great part of the New Testament revelation was designed to show the reality that the ancient prophets and writers only glimpsed dimly. But the fact is, one cannot understand New Testament revelation without understanding the Old Testament foundations. Hence, repeatedly, Paul appeals to the Old Testament to demonstrate the authenticity of his message.

In today’s church, the authority of the Old Testament is either ignored or so reinterpreted as to become meaningless. I remember a painful sermon on Elijah and the Shummanite woman who built and furnished him a little room on the top of her house. We listened for a good hour about all the hidden, spiritual meanings behind the furniture (as I recall the bed represented rest in the Lord, the lamp for study, the chair for discipleship, etc). But we never heard about the necessity of hospitality. In other words, the CLEAR message was ignored, and instead we were treated to men’s imaginations. The Old Testament is simply not allowed to speak for itself, and therefore the church’s foundations are undercut and destroyed.

In Worship: the Regulative Principle

I deeply appreciate our Puritan and Presbyterian ancestors, but they must be understood in their historical context. Coming out of the corrupt church of Rome, they struggled against the apostate, man-made religious practices that, like weeds, had choked true worship out of the church. As a consequence, they sometimes overreacted in their own theology of worship. It’s almost as if they said, “If Rome did it, then it MUST be wrong,” rather than develop a consistent Biblical view. Hence, while most Christians today take for granted singing hymns with musical accompaniment, the seventeenth century Reformers in Scotland and England rejected this. Strict psalmody with no instruments was the rule. There are still a few brothers today who maintain this position, but in doing so, I fear that they have become operational dispensationalists, demanding a radical break between Old Testament worship and New. Old Testament worship was replete with musical instruments of various kinds all making a joyful noise unto the Lord. I always find it a bit amusing to worship with my exclusive psalmody brethren and, while singing the Psalms with them, watch them pointedly ignore the commands to worship with stringed instrument, flute or lyre! When Scripture enjoins us to clap our hands, or raise them in prayer, most Reformed people wish those verses would ago away. Because, you see, if the charismatics do it, it MUST be wrong! And hence, a full-orbed worship service, demanding all of our strength and heart and soul is often missing because we do not appreciate God’s requirements for worship. Those commands cannot possibly be relevant today, because, of course, WE have never done it that way. We ask, “Can any good come out of charismatics?” And we maintain this position even though there is not a shred of New Testament evidence that these practices somehow passed away with the establishment of the New Testament church. A strong argument can be made that many Christians are drawn into the deviant theology of so many charismatic churches simply because that worship is so heartfelt, so vigorous—dare one say, “so BIBLICAL! “We ignore the Old Testament to our peril. As a friend of mine once noted, many Reformed Christians worship as if they were baptized in pickle juice! It is astounding that the sheer exuberance of so many of the Psalms is hidden by singing them to tunes that deny the very joy the words so powerfully command!

In Polity (1 Tim. 3:1 ff.)

As a convinced Presbyterian, I believe that our form of government is the one ordained by God himself. Notice I said the FORM of government, not necessarily all the particulars. God’s church is to be ruled by elders. This is very clear from 1 Timothy 3:1ff., 5:14ff., etc. But this method of church government did not just spring full blown from the Apostle Paul. In Acts 15 at the Jerusalem council, the church was already being ruled by the apostles and elders. Where in the New Testament do then we find the specific instructions that this is the right form of government? Simple answer: no where. It just suddenly seems to appear! The reason, of course, is that the church is to be governed exactly the way that Israel was to be governed under Moses—by elders. Elders were to govern their homes, their families, their tribes and ultimately the nation. Elders were to govern the Tabernacle and Temple. Elders governed the local synagogues. But you will not find this explained in the New Testament; it is found only in the Old. Bannerman, the classic Presbyterian apologist for church polity, understood this and based his concepts on their Old Testament origins. One cannot possibly understand, let alone rule, God’s church apart from the theological and practical basis laid out in the Old Testament.

A related issue is the procedure used to place elders over a congregation. In this country, Presbyterian elders are always elected by the congregation. But in the two passages that teach about elders, we find that the elders were to be appointed by Timothy and Titus. Think about this for a moment, especially you good Presbyterians. If we base our polity ONLY on the New Testament, guess what—the two relevant Scriptural passages seem, on the surface, to support Episcopacy, rather than historic Presbyterianism! However, if one finds the origins of church government in the Old Testament in the way Israel as to be ruled, Jethro’s advice to Moses allows an “avenue of escape.” The people were to elect their elders. Moses then ORDAINS them to rule over the people. Hence, when the church is being organized, one can assume, because of testamental continuity, that a similar process was followed. When Paul therefore instructs elders to he “appointed,” Timothy and Titus would have followed the same procedure as ancient Israel: they would have asked the congregation to select worthy men, and those men would have been approved, appointed and ordained by the apostolic messengers. This in fact is very similar to the way that modern Presbyterians choose their church officers. Men are elected by the congregation, but ordained by the session or the presbytery.

A subject near and dear to every pastor’s heart is where his paycheck is coming from (and how much is in it!). While Paul says that elders are worthy of a double honor (ITim. 5:17) he bases their RIGHT to be paid for their ministry (as opposed to all the other ministries that people do for the church gratis) on the Old Testament law regarding muzzling the ox. Hence the theological basis for paying elders is not out of expediency, and not by direct command (though Jesus did say the “laborer is worthy of his hire”) but rather an obscure Old Testament reference to animal welfare! Look what happens if we ignore the Old Testament basis. Pastors are either starved into submission (people will give money to anything in the church EXCEPT to pay most pastors a living wage) or the pastor becomes a vampire, sucking the life out of the church. There is no balance, because there is no theology of how much is enough. Broad evangelicals do not know the theology and therefore pervert the practice. (How would you like to submit YOUR tax returns to the church so everyone can criticize how you have spent the Lord’s money? You think I am joking?) The point here is that the New Testament, in and of itself, does not and cannot form the foundation of the doctrine of the church. Without the Old Testament, we are left in a morass of subjective opinion, with no clear basis for developing a Biblical church polity.

In Vision (Mt. 28.19-20)

One of the first verses 1 was required to memorize years ago while involved with a parachurch ministry was the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20. Evangelism and discipleship were the life blood of this ministry, and we were all expected to share a “simple” explanation of the gospel; and, when people prayed the prayer with us, we were to “disciple” them by taking them through one of those fill-in-the-blank Bible study booklets. Even with all the deviant theology and practice that this method represents, it is still LIGHT-YEARS ahead of the average broad evangelical church. At least we took these verses seriously and were personally committed to doing something about them. The average broad evangelical is quite happy leaving the Great Commission to the Bible geeks and four-eyed girls with sensible shoes who want to go to the mission field. Neither the modern church nor the para-church can adequately understand or fulfill the Great Commission because it does not acknowledge the Old Testament background behind it. Jesus was not doing something new here. He was not instituting some radically new program, because the Great Commission is simply the dominion mandate of Genesis 1:27 all over again! We are to fill the earth and subdue it, not just through natural generation, but through evangelism. Furthermore, it is not just the odd branch plucked from the fire that is to be evangelized; instead, it is entire nations that are to be discipled to obey Jesus. In the Great Commission we simply have the final statement on how the original Covenant of Creation is to be fulfilled. It is a resounding postmillennial commission, implicitly assuming that as the church goes forth and depends on the sovereign power of the resurrected and ascended Christ, our enemies will be converted, the nations subdued, and every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. The church cannot know who she is, where she is going, or even what she is supposed to be until she understands her Old Testament roots.

Without the Old Testament, the church is susceptible to every kind of error and heresy. There is no doubt in my mind, that the current deplorable state of the church is directly attributable to her abandonment of truly Biblical religion.

Hey folks, there are no “New Testament” churches; there are only Biblical ones. And that means understanding and applying what the WHOLE Bible says, not just a few bits here and there.


Topics: Biblical Law, Church, The, Old Testament History, Theology

Brian M. Abshire

Rev. Brian Abshire, Ph.D. is currently a Teaching Elder associated with Hanover Presbytery. Along with his pastoral duties, he is also the director for the International Institute for Christian Culture, has served as an adjunct instructor in Religious Studies at Park University and is a visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at Whitefield College.

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