Finding Liberty in Silence

by Jeffrey W. Hamilton

            It was one of those interesting coincidences. In the same week I received two correspondences dealing with separate issues, but both seeking to justify their beliefs in the same manner.

            The first was in an article. It contained a quote from Gary Mattingly, a preacher for the Christian Church who had wrote: “First and foremost, we must see that there is a fundamental difference in the hermeneutics (this is the interpretation of Scripture) between the two groups. The non-instrumental brethren see the ‘silence of the Scripture’ to be prohibition. If the Scriptures do not have a ‘thus saith the Lord’ on a subject, then, to this group, we must not do it. They feel that the New Testament says nothing about instruments, therefore, they should be refused in worship. We, within the Christian Church / Church of Christ, use a hermeneutic that says for the most part, if there is silence in Scripture, we can use liberty on the subject. If the Scripture does not say ‘thou shalt use an instrument in worship,’ we find this a liberty. We can use it or not use it. This is the underlying cause for our differences today in the instrumental issue. You must see this clearly before you can talk about this further. This is a must to see!”

            The second was in a letter from James Johnson, a preacher on the north side of Omaha. He wrote: “I have no problem with a church building having any or all of the above [a long list which included kitchens and dining halls - jwh]. You, however, believe that anything we put into practice must have a ‘thus saith the Lord.’ I say we are permitted to have all of the above because they have absolutely nothing to do regarding our salvation . . . My point is, God gives the leadership of the local church the latitude to decide or make decisions in discretionary or judgmental matters (Hebrews 13:17). It is fine for brethren to choose not to have a dining facility. It is, however, a false position when brethren, who do not have a dining facility, try to elevate their opinion to the level of law. Again, it is an opinion or judgment call because the Bible does not deal with having or not having dining facilities . . . ” [The preceding was lightly edited to correct a few spelling and grammatical errors.]

            I found the similar vein of reasoning within these two correspondences fascinating. Both men state that their position is not found in the Bible. Both complain that their opposition demand a ‘thus saith the Lord,’ which they both believe to be unnecessary. They both find the liberty to implement their practice in the silence of the Scriptures.

            Unfortunately, their method of reasoning leaves the gate wide open for all sorts of innovations. The Scripture, for example, is silent about making Groundhog Day a religious holiday. Should we then find liberty in the Scripture’s silence to add a holy day to our calendar? The Bible is just as silent about Easter and Christmas as it is about Groundhog Day, yet most denominations find the latitude to add these celebrations to their religious observances. These additions, in their minds, have absolutely nothing to do with salvation.

            Come to think of it, where can I find the Catholic practices of the papacy, the priesthood, the confessional booth, the burning of incense, lighting candles, the rosary, or infant baptism? Even the Catholic Catechism acknowledges that these practices did not exist during the time the Bible was written. They turn to their traditions to justify these additions to God’s Word. Why do Mr. Mattingly and Mr. Johnson oppose these Catholic practices if the silence of the Scriptures gives liberty? Would they declare that their opposition to these practices is elevating an opinion to the level of law?

            Actually, Mr. Mattingly hedged his position. He said that the silence of the Scriptures gives liberty “for the most part.” Even Mr. Mattingly realizes there must be a limit to the liberty he claims. The problem is that this limit is arbitrarily placed, depending on who is claiming the liberty. The things I want are liberty. The things you want are prohibited.

            Fortunately, we do not have to depend on the whims of men for determining what the silence of the Scriptures allows or prohibits. God is not silent about the meaning of silence in His Law. Jesus commanded his followers to teach all the things he had commanded them (Matthew 28:20). This would not leave any additional things to be taught, else they would have failed in their mission to teach all the things Christ had commanded.

            One of those things taught by the apostle Paul was the command to have the Lord’s approval for whatever we do or say (Colossians 3:17). Despite the objections of Mr. Mattingly and Mr. Johnson, the Scripture is quite clear that we must have a ‘thus saith the Lord’ for everything that we practice and teach.

            The Bible is also quite clear about staying within the bounds of the things which were taught. Paul warned brethren to mark those who work contrary to the doctrine we learned (Romans 16:17). The word contrary is from the Greek work para which means, in this usage, going beyond the limits. What are the limits? The things we have learned from the apostles. A similar warning is given in I Corinthians 4:6, “Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other.” John also wrote concerning this matter in II John 9, “Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son.” The phrase “goes too far” is from the Greek work parabaino which refers to going beyond the limits. The word “abides” is from the Greek work meno which refers to continuing, standing, or staying within the boundaries set. What is the limit John has in mind? The limit is the teaching or doctrine of Christ.

            We must restrict ourselves to the things taught by the apostles. “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.” (II Thessalonians 2:15). Such restriction is sensible. How can we presume to know what is pleasing to God, unless God has revealed it to us? No man knows the mind of God, but God himself (I Corinthians 2:9-11). If God has revealed a matter to us, then He was not silent about the matter. If God did not reveal a matter, then how could a mere man know if God would be happy with the addition? Robert Richardson once wrote, “The silence of the Bible is to be reverenced equally with its teachings, and that to intrude into things not seen and not revealed, evinces that vanity of a fleshly mind as much as to misinterpret and pervert the express statements of the Scriptures.” When a man takes the opportunity to add to God’s Word because God was silent on a matter, he alters the meaning of what God has said. This perversion of the teachings of God is man’s desired goal to please himself (Galatians 1:6-10).

            Take a look at the Jewish Christians who went out teaching that the Old Law was still binding in Acts 15. A letter was sent by the church in Jerusalem which said in part, “we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls” (Acts 15:24). Notice that these false teachers were not rebuked because the apostles and elders in Jerusalem told them not to teach about these matters. They were rebuked because they were given no such commandment. In other words, the apostles and other leaders in Jerusalem were silent about these matters and that silence was a prohibition against the teaching!

            Even though we are not under the Old Testament laws, we still can learn things about God from them (Romans 15:4). A notable feature of the Old Laws was God’s expectation that when He gave a law, man was not allowed to alter them (Deuteronomy 4:2; 5:32-33; 12:32).

            Consider what a person does when he uses the silence of God to authorize a practice. He is adding new features to God’s Law. If they did something God had told them not to do, then they would be breaking a commandment of God. In other words, they would be removing that particular commandment’s authority. They would be subtracting from God’s Word. The prohibition from adding to God’s Word was a commandment to respect the silence of God. The prohibition from subtracting from God’s Word was a command to respect the teachings of God. As the Proverb writer wrote, we must not add to God’s word (Proverbs 30:6).

            When a person does not speak in accordance to God’s teaching, it shows their lack of righteousness (Isaiah 8:20). Is it any wonder that Peter told us to speak as God spoke (I Peter 4:11)? How does a person speak like God? It would require the person to limit his words to only the things spoken by God. He cannot add things that God has not said, nor can he remove things that God has said.

            A person who justifies an action by the silence of God implies that God did not tell us everything we need to do to live righteously. Oh, the actions added to the Scriptures are called righteous, but they are not found between the covers of the New Testament. Hence, this person is saying there are righteous things to be found outside of the Bible.

            Yet, Paul said that the Scriptures contain everything to make a man completely equipped to do every good work (II Timothy 3:16-17). Peter said that God has given us everything pertaining to life and godliness (II Peter 1:3). If a matter is not found in the Scriptures, then 1) it is not related to godliness, 2) it does not pertain to a godly life, and 3) it is not a good work in the sight of God. This leads us to conclude that such matters are sinful.

            We can only make a choice in matters when God gives us a choice. We cannot claim the right to choose for ourselves. Long have brethren used the claim, “We will speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent.” Let us, therefore, continue to respect the silence of God with our own silence.