Scott D. Crawford
For several months now this publication has contained articles dealing with different areas of hermeneutics and exegesis, and since we are at the end of the publishing year one more topic in this general vein is appropriate. As with any important document that deals directly with our lives, knowing how to deal with what the document DOESN’T say can be perplexing at times. Truly, as with any significate topic, what individuals believe on a topic can become very polarizing; yet, we firmly believe that the Lord of Creation has left us the ability to understand what to do when the Scriptures appear silent on an issue.
Before we continue, it might be helpful to describe two scenarios that are frequently brought into the conversation when speaking about Biblical Silence (BS). Sometimes we hear folks say something like “but the Bible doesn’t say what type of car I should drive, or where I should live, etc., so silence in the Bible must be permissive.” True, the Bible never speaks for or against a Chevrolet Corvette, but this doesn’t mean that the Bible is silent on the issue of the Corvette. The type of car we drive is a circumstance of our life, and the authority to drive a Corvette can be found in the Scriptures. Can you afford a Corvette? If not, then buying one would fly in the face of Biblical teaching on the necessity of good stewardship. On the other hand, there is the generic command to “Go” and a Corvette is a method by which “Going” can be achieved; the car becomes nothing more than expediency. The same might be said about whom one might marry. There is no explicit statement about whom a Christian should marry, but as we study our Bibles we find passages that build principles that effect both major and minor decisions in our live,1 even a potential mate.
Second, sometimes this comment is heard: “The Bible never mentions church buildings, a baptistery, or song books and yet you use them … you aren’t being consistent.” Things along this line fall under the general authority implied by commands and examples (for an excellent discussion of Implication see articles written by Bro. Jim Miller in previous publications). Without delving too deep into the subject of implication, it can safely be stated that those things that are required to carry out a direct command are authorized unless those things are condemned or forbidden in other passages of the Bible.2 Even some of the strictest Biblical interpreters have little problem with things mentioned above because they are considered “so incidental to other clear objectives that they must be right.”3 Both of the above mentioned questions, if asked in earnest, can be a valuable starting point for study, but often these types of verbal jabs are presented as nothing more than a you are wrong so I can be wrong too argument (as if somehow all of us being wrong is more acceptable in the sight of God than some of us being right). But, let us continue.
In essence, there are only two sides to the coin of BS: Biblical Silence Permits (BSP), or Biblical Silence Forbids (BSF). There are some that take the position that BS is neither forbidding nor permissive; therefore, it is the individual’s choice if that action can be performed. This is the same as saying an action not mentioned in the Bible is permitted, and is therefore the same as saying BSP.4 It is interesting that for some of the BSP proponents, this is the bottom line. One author makes this observation:
“If Scripture speaks, obey it. If it is silent, write God your own “note” between him and you. Don’t copy other people’s notes and don’t make others write your note. Let it be yours alone. … True biblical silence is permissive.”5
In other words, if the Bible is silent on something then that “something” would be in doubt, having neither pro nor con Biblical instruction and the individual gets to decide. Does the Bible speak about doing something when in doubt?
“23 But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).6
This was written to those that doubted an action – eating meat sacrificed to idols. This is an example of the when in doubt, don’t principle.7 Those that were in doubt weren’t instructed to write a note between themselves and God, they were instructed to abstain from the action in question. This principle also applies to us for the simple reason that unless we have Biblical direction about BS, then we are forced to have doubt and not to act.
So … do we have directions regarding BS?
In his commentary on the book of Acts, J. W. McGarvey makes a very pertinent remark on the topic of silence – “if men are allowed (thus) to prove what is Scriptural doctrine, by what the Scriptures do not mention, there is no end to the doctrines and practices which the Bible may be made to defend.”8 There is certainly a depth of truth to that statement. As seen above, in the absence of a specific passage, sometimes it is a group of passages that provide the general principles by which a Christian can decide which course of action should be taken. First, look at 2 Timothy 3:16, 17:
“16 All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Please notice that the Scriptures speak of itself as being inclusive of all good works. Now with this verse in mind look to 1 Thessalonians 5:21:
“21 Test all things; hold fast what is good.”
In this verse Paul instructs us to test, to prove, or to determine if something is good and only to do that. One should remember that the specific word used by Paul translated as “test” is related to the refining of metal in fire, thus removing the impurities. For a Christian, the fire in which we hold both doctrine and practice to remove the impurities must be the Scriptures – the word of God. So, if the Scriptures do not address a particular work (or is silent about it) then that work cannot be considered good, since all good works are in the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16, 17; cf. 2 Pet. 1:3). But, we are also instructed to “hold fast,” or to do only that which we can prove to be good (1 Thess. 5:21). Therefore, if “we do that which is not in Scripture, where ALL good works are found, we violate 1 Thessalonians 5:21 and thus sin. In other words Bible silence forbids.”9
Going further into the Scriptures, look back to Romans 14:23 which was quoted above. There the person that doubted was condemned because their actions didn’t proceed from faith. So, where does faith come from? How wonderful the Lord of Life told us specifically where faith is born. “17 So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). Considering these verses we discover two things that can be set in stone: (1) whatever is not from faith is sin, and (2) faith comes by hearing the word of God. Presented in this fashion, these two truths amazingly adopt the form of the major and minor premise of a syllogism and therefore we can make a conclusion. Consider this … whatever isn’t grounded in faith is sin, and we are clearly told that faith comes from hearing the word of God; therefore, whatever isn’t grounded in the word of God is sin. Thus, Bible silence forbids.
Finally, look at Colossians 3:17 – “17 And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” There are some very inclusive thoughts in this verse: “whatever,” “in word or deed,” and “all.” This speaks to the fact that authority (“in the name of”) to act is of utmost importance for a Christian. Even the most superficial level, those that advocate BSP should be forced into inaction since something that is not mentioned in the Bible cannot produce authority to act. When we seek authority for something within the Scriptures, we find that authority in either explicit statements (Acts 2:38), implicit statements (Mark 16:16), approved examples (Acts 20:7), or by expediency (Matthew 28:18-20). There is no better summation that could be written than these words of Goebel Music:
“The Bible authorizes by the above-mentioned ways, and if we do that in religion for which we do not have at least one of these ways establishing Bible authority, then we do that thing without divine sanction, without Bible authorization. No one can be pleasing unto God unless he has Bible authority for what he does. Doing a thing without Bible authorization is displeasing to God.”10
1 A. Berkeley Mickelsen. Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1963), 360.
2 George F. Beals. How Implication Binds and Silence Forbids, (Ann Arbor: PC Publications, 1998), 149.
3 F. LaGard Smith. The Cultural Church. (Nashville: 20th Century Cchristian, 1992), 195.
4 Ibid., 87.
5 Jeffery S. Stevenson. All People, All Times: Rethinking Biblical Authority In Churches of Christ, (United States of America, 2009), 96.
6 Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
7 Beals, 89.
8 J. W. McGarvey, A Commentary on Acts of the Apostle (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Co., 7th Ed.), 204.
9 Beals, 94-95.
10 Goebel Music. Behold the Pattern, (Colleyville: Goebel Music Publications, 1991), 358.