Making Exceptions the Rule
by Dave Brown
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We have all heard the adage: "the exception proves the rule." But have you ever considered exactly what that means? For one thing, it implies that there are exceptions to just about any rule. The main principle of the adage is seen best when there is only one or a very few exceptions. In those cases the validity of the rule is proven. For, if only a very few exceptions to a rule can be found, then it must be a very good rule.
Let us test it on a simple rule of life; everyone knows "exercise is good for health." An exception to this rule occurs when the body can be injured by the exercise, as is the case when someone is recovering from an injury. But even then very light specialized exercise might be good for assisting the recovery. Do you see how it works? The exception does not negate the rule. Rather, the exception forces us to "think it through," and after we do that, we should know whether the rule is generally useful or not.
Apply the title of this article, "Making Exceptions the Rule," to the exercise rule. Would anyone say that because at certain times and in certain circumstances exercise is harmful that we should throw the original rule out and establish another rule: "Refrain from all exercise." Such is ludicrous -- it defies all common sense. And yet, some have no problem in applying this reasoning to establishing their rules for Biblical interpretation. Let us consider this error in more depth, and from a Biblical point of view. But first consider two questions to establish a better foundation: (1) Did Jesus make exceptions to certain parts of the Law of Moses? and (2) Can we make such exceptions? In both cases we will see the absurdity of allowing the exceptions to overturn sound rules. After that we will make some applications.
Did Jesus and His Apostles Make Exceptions?
While the simple answer to this is yes, it must be stated with a qualifier. When this was done it was always done in deference to a "weightier matters of the law;" and the exception was never used to nullify the original rule. This principle is stated in Matt 23:23: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye tithe mint and anise and cummin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith: but these ye ought to have done, and not to have left the other undone. The fact that there are weightier matters that should be given priority does not nullify the lesser requirements.
John chapters 5, 7 and 9 tell of Jesus healing on the Sabbath day. The Old Testament law of the Sabbath was well known, and Jesus never argued that the Sabbath law did not apply. Instead, this was his argumentation when he was accused of violating the Sabbath by healing a person:
11 And he said unto them, What man shall there be of you, that shall have one sheep, and if this fall into a pit on the Sabbath day , will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?
12 How much then is a man of more value than a sheep! Wherefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath day .
Their accusation against Jesus making an exception and doing something that they considered to be "work" on the Sabbath was not based on his divine nature and authority to "change the rules" (although there is no doubt he possessed such authority). But his mission was to totally fulfill the Law of Moses while he was on this earth. His argument was to appeal to what his critics knew to be right, and it was what they practiced. It was not wrong to rescue a sheep from falling into a pit on the Sabbath, and they knew it. This exception was allowed on the Sabbath because not acting would cause the sheep suffering, and in some cases death, to say nothing about the loss sustained by its owner. The argument is from the lesser to the greater -- if it is permissible to help a sheep, so much more is it not only permissible, but a command of God to help a person ("to do good" on the Sabbath). Since they helped a sheep but accused Jesus because he helped a fellow human being, they were indeed hypocrites.
So, did Jesus effectively set aside the Sabbath and establish the following new rule: they no longer needed to regard the Sabbath and could now treat it as every other day? Certainly we all understand that he did no such thing. The exception did not nullify the Sabbath law; it proved it, and further established it.
Let us now turn to an example of the apostles. The writings of Paul to the Roman Christians describes their understanding of what was the will of Christ with regard to their (and our) relationship with the governments that we are under.
1 Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers: for there is no power but of God; and the (powers) that be are ordained of God.
2 Therefore he that resists the power, withstands the ordinance of God: and they that withstand shall receive to themselves judgment.
This sounds like an absolute edict for which there could be no exceptions. Yet, we read ...
27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest asked them,
28 saying, We strictly charged you not to teach in this name: and behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and intend to bring this man's blood upon us.
29 But Peter and the apostles answered and said, We must obey God rather than men.
Recognize that the edict in Romans 13 was equally as binding as God's command to them (and to us) to preach the gospel (Matthew 28:18-20). Yet it is clear that the command to preach the gospel has far more soul-saving power than that of obeying our governmental powers. It is thus, a weightier matter of the law.
So, did the apostles effectively set aside the command to obey the governmental rule of law and established a new rule: anarchy? Of course not. The exception did not nullify the rule of governmental law; it proved it and further established it. For, if a command against preaching the gospel is the extent to which it is necessary to make an exception in the Bible of Christians obeying their government, then surely that rule is firmly established. The exception proves the rule. Of course, there are other exceptions as well; e.g., Daniel. Thus, the rule might be modified to: God commands obedience to our governments with the only exception where their requirements would force us to disobey God's laws.
Christians Making Appropriate Exceptions Today
The command for us to "not forsake our assembling together" is well established in Hebrews 10:25, and the verses that follow indicate the consequences of neglecting this and the related commands that precede it. Yet, there is no problem when someone is sick in their staying away from the called out. If they have a communicable disease they would be doing a great disservice to their fellow Christians, especially those that are particularly vulnerable (e.g., elderly and infants) to insist upon inflicting them with their disease. Further, their own recovery could well depend on their staying at home and getting the necessary rest.
As a second related example, consider the case where Christians are on their way to the assembly and they happen upon an auto crash where a victim is in need of immediate assistance and there is no one else to help. This should be obvious as well. Just as Jesus healed on the Sabbath, so we have the responsibility to assist those who might be in emergency need even if it means our not being able to meet with the saints.
So, do these well-justified exceptions effectively set aside the command to meet on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7), and established a new rule that we can do what we please on the Lord's day? In all cases we can see the fallacy of setting aside a good law just because it might not apply in some isolated cases. The exception did not nullify the rule of Hebrews 10:25; it proved it and further established it. For, if things like being ill or helping someone dying in a ditch are the only exceptions to Christians meeting together, then surely that rule is firmly established. In this regard, these exceptions all prove the rules.
We must be very careful in making applications of the general principle discussed above. In all cases above we see that the only thing that sets aside one command of God is a greater command. Clearly, from Matthew 23:23 we learn that there are weightier matters of God's laws. If two laws conflict we are expected to know which is the weightier matter. But this verse also teaches that we are "not to have left the other undone." That is, where there is no such conflict we do not allow the exception to nullify the lesser law or to create a new law.
Consider the misuse that some make of the following:
21 And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said unto him, One thing you lack: go, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.
In all cases we know it is critics of the Bible/Christians who want to make this into a law -- not for themselves but for Bible believers. We hear them frequently: "why don't you sell all that you have and give it to the poor like Jesus commands?" Do we have an answer? If not then we had better get on with selling what we have.
No, it is very clear that this was an exceptional situation in which Jesus was trying to impress this man, in a loving way, that he had not obeyed all of God's commands as he had stated that he had (Mark 10:19-20). Think it through: if this command (to sell all we have) specifically applied to every Christian today, none of us would be able to function. We would not be able to have families, pay taxes or have any means for supporting the preaching of the gospel or helping those in need (1 Corinthians 16:1-2). Does the command apply? Absolutely, but it applies in principle, not in the specific exception that was appropriate to the rich young ruler. It applies in the sense that God needs to come first in our lives, and our wealth should not get in the way of our service. Mark 10:22: "But his countenance fell at the saying, and he went away sorrowful: for he was one that had great possessions." And if our possessions, or anything else, comes between us and obedience to Christ, then we need to go away sorrowfully as well.
As a second example, consider the thief on the cross:
40 But the other answered, and rebuking him said, Dost thou not even fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?
41 And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.
42 And he said, Jesus, remember me when you come in thy kingdom.
43 And he said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.
Let us not be too concerned right now with the many counter-arguments that have been made to this being a pattern for our salvation today; among them: (1) that the thief lived and died under the Law of Moses since this event took place before Jesus died; (2) that the thief may have done other things in his life to conform to God's laws prior to this event; and (3) that literally the word paradise meant the garden, which may have been talking about the grave and not heaven.
No, for purposes of the present discussion, let us stipulate (assume for the sake of argumentation) that the thief had lived the sinful life of a thief and had not respected either Moses or Jesus prior to this event; and that Paradise here represents the state of salvation.
Given that, we ask the question: is this the rule, or is it an exception? If it is the rule, then we dare not neglect the entire context as given above. This would mean that we would have to be sinful thieves, we would have to hang on a cross next to Jesus, and we would have to be penitent and ask him to remember us when he comes in his kingdom. Are we ready to do that? If so then the example might well apply. But if we are willing to do all of that, then surely meeting the conditions of salvation set by Jesus would seem to be quite trivial -- nothing compared to what the thief went through. But if we are unwilling to satisfy Jesus very easy conditions of salvation, can we honestly say we would be willing to go the route of the thief on the cross?
On the other hand, let us realize this event for what it was -- it was an exception. Clearly the man on the cross next to Jesus did everything that he could to obey Jesus. He could not get down from the cross and thus he was prevented from being baptized (if that was even a requirement before Jesus died), nor could he demonstrate his love for God through any other actions at this point.
We have heard many use this as the basis for other questions in their objection to the clear command of Jesus to be baptized. For example: what if someone was out in the desert and there was no water? What if someone was in jail and prevented from being baptized? What about the person who is allergic to water? We could allow that all of these reasons and many more might be judged by God to be reasons for an exception. But is it God's will for us to use such suppositions in completely dis-assembling His conditions of salvation and making a new rule that those conditions do not apply?
If God's laws can be totally set aside because of exceptions, then there are no laws, for men can find an exception to just about any law. Then, why then did Jesus command: "teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you" (Matthew 28:18)?
We need to be extremely careful when we set aside a law of God, and be sure that it is only because there is another law of God that is of greater weight. We cannot disregard any of God's laws merely because exceptions have been made to them in the past. The very process of attempting to find such exceptions with the goal of not keeping God's law shows a distinct disregard for God's authority. God will not be mocked by such actions.
It is very important when we evaluate examples, especially those in the book of Acts, that we rightfully divide between those examples that are binding and those that are circumstantial or even exceptions to the general preponderance of scriptural evidence. Most issues raised by such considerations can easily be resolved by taking a comprehensive approach to determining the full truth on any given matter.
Related Article: Inserting the Word "Only"
What are the conditions of salvation given by Jesus?
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