Silence of the Scriptures

by Darrell Hamilton

I was asked recently to put together a short document detailing the authority of the silence of the scriptures. I don't mind saying that this has been much harder to do than I thought it would be. It is also a LOT longer. Part of me sees the topic as fairly easy and straightforward. Another part says that I'll be stepping on toes no matter how I present the material. As I asked a few people to review this, I did find that it is hard to satisfy everyone on a topic like this.

Without trying to oversimplify the whole issue, there are really two main polar positions on the silence of the Scriptures. Neither position actually defines the problem, but it is hard to even begin a discussion on silence without recognizing them. One position is that “anything that the Bible does not expressly prohibit, is authorized.” This is more commonly recognized by the plea, “but the Bible doesn't say not to.” The polar opposite of that view is “anything not expressly granted is prohibited.” The former side justifies their position by selectively bringing up topics for which there are no instructions whatsoever in the Bible, gaining consensus on the “obvious” courses of action, and then stretching that principle to cover topics for which only part of the picture is shrouded in silence. The other side points to the various verses that speak of the commands of God, pointing out the areas where clear instructions have been given and then stretching the principle to cover all cases, claiming that God left instructions “somewhere.” Those of the first position will often counter claim that those of the second position have deliberately ignored grace. Those of the second position will claim that those of the first have ignored law. Depending on how far one tries to push their position, both claims are probably true.

Grace and Law

When one holds to the position that silence means that we are free to do whatever we want, then it is just a short step to potentially do things without authorization and offend God. It is one thing to have comfort in the knowledge that God is gracious, it is another to callously flirt with sin.

Paul said in Romans 6:1-2, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Even in Paul's day some wanted to turn freedom in Christ into a license to do anything that they wanted. The claim would be that since God is going to forgive us anyway, why don't we just do whatever we want? Paul basically said, “because it wouldn't make sense to live like that and try to claim that we are dead to that kind of behavior.” Paul later adds in 6:15-18, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness”. If all there was to living for Jesus was a matter of avoiding being condemned, Paul would not have had to explain this. However, he says that salvation is a matter of being a servant of righteousness.

Those that would like silence to be license to do anything they want, need to temper their thinking with the stark reality that we are judged on a standard that is higher and more complex than simply, “did I avoid evil enough.” Grace certainly has a place, but it is not to the exclusion of law, but rather it coexists with law.

At the same time, we can not make up rules that fit every occasion. The Pharisees (and others) were directly chastised by Jesus for inventing rules, especially when adding rules that made it harder for someone to comply with what God wanted done. Jesus warned in Matthew 15:9, “They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” So while we might find it convenient to add a rule to help enhance our effort to serve God, we have to be very cautious not to become a religion of rules or a collection of hurdles that make it hard for others to serve God. I think it is interesting that Jesus talked about the possibility of worship being changed into something worthless by the addition of rules. When men (Pharisees included) wanted to improve their worship, they added rules. Some of the rules make sense from a worldly point of view, but Jesus said those additions made their worship worthless.

Where does that leave us? When the Bible is silent, we can not afford to add rules to span the gaps. When the Bible is silent, we can not be presumptuous to assume that it was a gap left there to see how close to unrighteousness we could live out our lives. Silence is just – silence.

So how much silence is really in the scriptures? Do we seek to claim the silence of the scripture in order to cover our lack of understanding? Do we hide from trying to understand how authority is presented in the scriptures, seeking to justify our conduct with an easy rule of thumb?

In order to understand silence, we have to understand authority. I know of no better place to discuss authority than with Noah. I like to use the story of Noah because it is obvious that everything Noah was required to do applies only to Noah. Therefore none of us has any “skin in the game.” We can pick on Noah and not feel any personal threat to our pet topics.

Genesis 6-7

Noah was told to build an ark. He was told a lot about the details. Some of the details are gopher wood and tar, specific dimensions, one door and one window. If Noah had only been told to build an ark and no further details were given, he would have been free to build the ark to any dimension he wanted or out of any material. However, because he was specifically told some of the details, those details had to be incorporated. If he had chosen to build the ark out of cedar or add six doors or do anything outside of what he was told, he would have risked angering God and finding himself on the wrong end of the flood. The stakes were high and it was not something that could be corrected once the rains came down.

But Noah was not told all the details – even about the commands that he was given. For example, how big was the door? Was the door round or square? How about the window? I know of some people who jump right in at this point and say, “of course the window was square, Noah would not have known how to build a round window.” It is easy to see, though, that any judgment by us on the shape of the window is a complete guess. We don't know what shape the window was. God was “silent” on the shape of the window. He was not silent on windows, just the shape. So what did the silence authorize? I would think it was obvious that the silence authorized Noah to make the window into any shape that he wanted. God's silence on the shape did not authorize Noah to change the number of windows, though.

There is another silence in this story that is even more intriguing. What tools was Noah allowed to use? You can go through the story a hundred times and you will not find where God gave Noah any hints on tools. I can imagine that Noah probably used an ax, saw and hammer at least, but I don't know that. Now Noah was given a significant amount of time to build the ark (either 100 years or 120 years depending on how you read the story). In a hundred years, I would expect that the state-of-the-art in tool making probably changed. What was available when he first started may have been crude compared to what was available to do the finishing touches. So what was Noah allowed to use? At this point you are probably wondering what planet I was born on to be asking so dumb a question. The obvious answer is that he can use any tool that helps him accomplish the mission of building the ark. He can even try to use tools that he later determines won't work. He can invent tools that had never been invented before. He can make his tools out of any material he wants. He can do everything the hard way or the easy way. One thing he can not do, though. He can not build the ark without tools. We are talking about a pretty good sized ship and it will take all kinds of tools in order to build it.

In both cases, the silence of the command of God allowed freedom to do anything within the topic area. The freedom was constrained by what God had said to do, but that still left a lot of freedom.

Arguments to the Absurd

Some people reading this may have already figured out that I am “up to something”. No one could possibly have made so many obvious observations without having an ulterior motive – and you would be right. For some reason, when we leave Noah we sometimes leave behind the lessons he taught us. They are absurdly easy to see when talking about Noah, but far harder to see when talking about religion. Let me begin by having some fun with a few.

Based on the way some people reason with religion, Noah would:

  1. Have only been allowed to use the tools that were available at the time God gave the command.
  2. Have only been allowed to use the absolute minimum number of tools necessary to complete the command. Additional tools would be frivolous and therefore sinful.
  3. Not had to build the ark at all. Because God never told Noah to use tools, it should have been apparent to Noah that the “ark command” was actually a test to see if Noah would obey God or go beyond what was commanded. Using tools is obviously going beyond what was written and Noah would fail the test if he built it.
  4. Have to build the window in the shape of a rain drop in order to symbolize the coming rain and the judgment of God (what do you mean that's not in the command – it's obvious!)
  5. Build a monster truck. That ark stuff is for the birds anyway. Noah is going to be saved by the grace of God anyway, so why bother with details.
  6. Be able to add as many windows and doors as he liked, just as long as he had at least one.

Do you recognize the religious arguments?

Determining Our Boundaries

I think one concern is with people who try to claim that the silence of scripture means that we are forced into doing nothing – at least when the topic is preached. It is easy when talking about generalities and theoretical topics to say that the silence of the scriptures requires inaction, but every group eventually realizes that there are real questions that need real answers – and God does not provide all the details as to what he finds pleasing. When it comes to making application, the practical ends up trumping the theoretical. What congregation has not faced the “all important” questions of what color to paint the walls in the auditorium or whether to buy a riding lawn mower? They are not covered in scriptures and a lot of people will get all upset over “spending money on unauthorized things” all because they do not understand the authority of silence.

As an aside, I once worshiped with a man who had such a limited view on authority, that he wanted a detailed explanation for every expenditure of the church. We once had a big disagreement over whether “buying stamps” was an authorized purchase by the treasurer (who was authorized to pay the bills, but had not been told he could buy stamps in order to pay the bills). Not surprisingly he left us soon afterward because none of us “cared about the silence of the scripture”.

What does the “silence” of God do? Just as in the case of Noah, it authorized freedom of action within the confines of the directive. At the same time, due to what Paul said in Romans, it demands that we do not try to bind anyone else to our decision if we are justifying our conduct within the realm of silence. I'm sure there are hundreds of examples that could be used as a demonstration, but I'll stick to just a couple.

For example, the Lord's Supper. Paul tells us in I Corinthians 11 that it was commanded by Jesus and consisted of the bread and the cup and each one was instituted with a prayer before partaking. Normally we would say that there is not a lot of room to maneuver around this command. The details are pretty much spelled out. However – we humans manage to make the simple hard. We have to ask or argue all around the simple command. I have heard all of the following: What kind of tie should the servers wear? Can the handle to the lid of the communion tray be a cross or must it be a button? Can the serving table have a table cloth? Should the serving tray be made of cheap metal or expensive (it is in honor of the Lord after all)?

If we limit ourselves to I Corinthians, we find Paul silent on all of these issues. What does the silence imply? The silence implies that there are no requirements beyond those given. All other options are up to us to determine, by wisdom or preference, what we will do.

No rule is broken if congregation A decides that lace doilies are needed at the communion table and congregation B thinks that doilies distract from the service. There is a violation of the silence, however, when anyone tries to impose the decision of congregation A on anyone else.

Take the question about requiring a tie in order to serve the Lord's Supper. Since the Bible is silent on ties at the Lord's Supper, are we free to require one within a congregation? Can we add a requirement in our service to God in order to “improve” the service? It is like many things with the Bible, one passage is not the entire story. James 2:3-4 says, “If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "Here's a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, 'You stand there' or 'Sit on the floor by my feet,' have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” The Bible has more to say on the topic of clothing in general – which again narrows the boundaries that we have to work within.

Holding Hands in Prayer

Take for example, the practice of some to require everyone to hold hands during prayer in an assembly. This is obviously a cultural topic because some societies would consider it abhorrent to even think about such a practice. But assume that we are talking about America where the practice is not condemned, but there are social “rules” where hand holding is considered an invitation into one's personal space (i.e., hand holding is regarded as a sign of intimate friendship). Are we enhancing the prayer to the benefit of all or are we satisfying some other need? The rules that Jesus put down about prayer include Matthew 6:5-6, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” And when asked about how to pray (next few verses), he responds with a very simple prayer, emphasizing the content of the prayer and not the beauty of it.

The boundaries on the topic of prayer seem to concern our motivation behind it. I'm not against holding hands per se. I often hold my wife's hand during prayer. However, I have been in a few congregations where it was announced that we would all hold hands for the prayer. I thought about refusing and wondered what the reaction would have been. Would those next to me think I was being rude? Would they wonder if I had just sneezed in my hand and wanted to keep from spreading germs? Would they spend several minutes waiting until I “caved”? Would they think I have a racial prejudice (if the person next to me was a different race)? Would they assume that I really don't want to hold hands with a woman who is not my wife, because I wish to respect her husband? The list of possible questions could go on and on. And someone may even rationally say that if I did it often enough, that my inhibitions would leave and I would think nothing of it. And they would probably be right.

But why do it? When I have asked why they did it, the best answer anyone has given me is that they feel like it makes the congregation more connected. But, have we enhanced the worship by making some people uncomfortable? I usually get a blank expression to that and then the reply has been, “but the Bible doesn't say not to.” And once again we are back at the original issue.

I would argue that because Jesus knew that men like to pray in order to be seen and he condemned it, that we need to make sure that our public prayers are not turned into “see what we are doing” events. Even if we are not willing to admit it, I think much of the hand-holding is a desire to show “the world” that we are a “spiritual” group, every bit as hip as the denomination down the street. Now, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe everyone's intention in holding hands is honorable except mine. Maybe it enhances our ability to think about the prayer. But I doubt it. I have a DVD of a comedian who makes fun of hand holding for a prayer and all the distractions that it brings about in his mind. His comments are quite entertaining, most likely because of how close to the truth he is.

If God had dictated holding hands as part of prayer, I would not have an issue with it. Whatever social qualms I may have grown up with, I would learn to undo them. But just because God “did not say not to” and we have the freedom to engage in such a practice, does not mean that we have the freedom to require anyone else to enjoy our liberty.

Conclusion

Where does that leave us? There is a degree of freedom in the silence of the Scriptures, but there is also a degree of responsibility. We can use that freedom as we need in order to enhance our service to God, but like many other things, we are not allowed to use that freedom to nullify anything that God has said. We may have been given the privilege of being allowed to decide how best to use the silence, but we have not been given the authority to dictate how that freedom is to be used by others.

One of the reviewers of this article who had read an earlier draft said that I'm ending the discussion too abruptly. So I'll mention a little more in passing. I had originally thought of discussing several of the following topics, but the article is already long and the applications are very similar.

  • Christians can never go into a bar or any establishment that serves alcohol.
  • “Church of Christ” is the only authorized name of the church.
  • The phrase “church of Christ” must always start with a lower case “C”.
  • Worship services don't really start until the first prayer.
  • Contemporary music is required if we are going draw people to Christ.

There are a host of “silence” questions that can be analyzed through the eye of Noah and a lot of “disagreement” between brethren would cease to exist. I just list them here to show that there are still more topics to cover. As a math professor once said about some incredibly hard homework assignment, “the rest is left as an exercise as it is quite easily done.”