Here is a wonderful essay by D.A. Carson, offering some preliminary guidelines to answer the question, “What parts of the Bible are binding mandates for us, and what parts are not?”
He sets up the problem like this:
“Greet one another with a holy kiss”: the French do it, Arab believers do it, but by and large we do not. Are we therefore unbiblical?
Jesus tells his disciples that they should wash one another’s feet (Jn. 13:14), yet most of us have never done so. Why do we “disobey” that plain injunction, yet obey his injunction regarding the Lord’s Table?
If we find reasons to be flexible about the “holy kiss,” how flexible may we be in other domains? May we replace the bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper with yams and goat’s milk if we are in a village church in Papua, New Guinea? If not, why not?
And what about the broader questions circulating among theonomists regarding the continuinglegal force of law set down under the Mosaic covenant? Should we as a nation, on the assumption that God graciously grants widespread revival and reformation, pass laws to execute adulterers by stoning? If not, why not?
Is the injunction for women to keep silent in the church absolute (1 Cor. 14:33-36)? If not, why not?
Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again if he is to enter the kingdom; he tells the rich young man that he is to sell all that he has and give it to the poor. Why do we make the former demand absolute for all persons, and apparently fudge a little on the second?
Here’s the outline of his introductory principles on the topic:
- As conscientiously as possible, seek the balance of Scripture, and avoid succumbing to historical and theological disjunctions.
- Recognize that the antithetical nature of certain parts of the Bible, not least some of Jesus’ preaching, is a rhetorical device, not an absolute. The context must decide where this is the case.
- Be cautious about absolutizing what is said or commanded only once.
- Carefully examine the biblical rationale for any saying or command.
- Carefully observe that the formal universality of proverbs and of proverbial sayings is only rarely an absolute universality. If proverbs are treated as statutes or case law, major interpretive and pastoral errors will inevitably ensue.
- The application of some themes and subjects must be handled with special care, not only because of their intrinsic complexity, but also because of essential shifts in social structures between Biblical times and our own day.