The Silence Of The Scriptures


If you were to visit a number of different worship services, you could not avoid noticing the many different worship styles and activities.  For example, most worship services would involve singing accompanied by mechanical instruments of music.  You would not find that among faithful churches of Christ.  Some churches involve elaborate pageants and rituals with ornate costumes and even dancing.  Churches of Christ make a maximum effort to engage only in practices which are specifically authorized by the scriptures.  If the word of God does not authorize a practice either implicitly or explicitly, we do not include it in the worship services.  Is that so difficult to understand and follow?


Have you ever wondered why these enormous differences in worship services among the various churches exist?  Is it because the scriptures are so imprecise and uncertain?  Or could it be because some preachers and other church leaders are not very much concerned about the teaching of God’s and design the worship to please themselves and the congregation?  It is not unusual to hear a preacher or leader say, “But I prefer this or that in worship.”  The vital question is: Who is the audience for our worship-God or man?  If man is the audience, then we can do whatever we please.  But if God is the audience, we must do what pleases him.  And how do we decide what pleases God?  There is one way or one way only-by following the explicit teaching of scripture. 


One of the crucial elements in the work and worship of the church is the silence of the scriptures.  O I am aware that many preachers make fun of the very concept.  “If God does not forbid it,” they reason, “we are free to practice it.”  James S. Woodroof’s Book, The Church in Transition (Searcy, AR: The Bible House, Inc., 1990), includes a very illogical and poorly written poem with the title, “A Dream of Judgment.”  Two lines from the poem show how unreasonable the thesis of the poem is.  “For silence neither gives consent, nor yet does silence e’er forbid” (p. 187).  I shall spend the remainder of our time today examining the silence of the scriptures.


Just in case you may be tempted to think that only churches of Christ are concerned about the silence of the scriptures, I want to refer briefly to a book published in 1888.  Paul Earnhart in Christianity Magazine (November 1987) wrote an article, which asked the question, “Who Started the Argument from Silence?”  A few brief excerpts from his article should be enlightening.  “The students of John L. Girardeau, professor at Columbia Seminary, South Carolina in the 1880s, asked him to explain to them why he opposed the use of instrumental music in the worship of the Presbyterian churches.  In response, he wrote a book, which was published in Richmond, Virginia in 1888.  It was entitled Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church.  Girardeau’s expanded discussion of this subject gives some valuable insights into how men of the Reformed tradition in late 19th century America decided the question of whether a practice was pleasing to God. 


“Girardeau began his discussion with a statement of principle which guided his arguments throughout the book: ‘A divine warrant is necessary for every element of doctrine, government, and worship in the church; that is, whatsoever in these spheres is not commanded in the Scriptures, either expressly or by necessary consequence from their statements is forbidden.’

“It may surprise us that a 19th century Presbyterian seminary professor not only understood the ‘argument from silence,’ but used it and felt confident that others would be persuaded by it.  I suspect that there has been the feeling on the part of some who labored so earnestly in the last century to turn back to simple New Testament Christianity, that they were the originators of the idea that God’s silence on a matter was equal to a divine prohibition.  Clearly, that was not true.”  I plan to refer to the article again later in the lesson, but let us now examine the scriptures to ascertain if the silence of the scriptures has any relevance to the New Testament church.


Girardeau appealed to Paul’s statement about the inspiration of the scriptures.  “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect (or full-grown), completely furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  If an act of worship is not mentioned in the all-sufficient scriptures, it is not included in “good works.”  Does God know what he wants us to do in our worship to him?  Has he given us adequate instructions regarding our worship?  If he has not, how can Paul say that the scriptures furnish us to all good works?


Girardeau also appealed to a number of Old Testament passages to sustain his argument from silence.  Please listen to these verses.  “And look that you make them after the pattern, which was shown you in the mount” (Ex. 25:40).  “You shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall you diminish ought from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you” (Dt. 4:2).  “Whatever I command you, you must be careful to do it: you shall not add thereto, nor diminish from it” (Dt. 12:32).  It would have been difficult for the Lord to have been more explicit in his regulations regarding the Israelite nation.  The Jews were required to do exactly what God commanded-nothing more, nothing less and nothing else.  If these verses do not bind the silence of the scriptures, what would it take to do it?


John L. Girardeau, a Presbyterian professor, extends his argument from silence by examining some specific examples from the Old Testament.  He mentions Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron, the high priest.  Moses describes the tragic incident involving the deaths of two of his nephews.  “Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded not.  And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord” (Lev. 10:1-2).  What distinguishes “strange fire” from any other kind of fire?


The answer to that question sheds considerable light on the silence of the scriptures.  “Strange fire,” according to the King James Version, is fire which the Lord commanded not.  If the Lord did not command it, then how could their actions be wrong?  Surely, the Lord did not condemn men who were operating on the principle of silence.  Gordon Wenham’s excellent commentary on The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979) explains the significance of this incident.  Dr. Wenham says the expression, “fire which the Lord commanded not,” might be rendered “unauthorized” fire.  Dr. Wenham comments: “What really mattered is stated next: it was fire which he had not commanded them.  The whole narrative from (Leviticus) 8:1 has led us to expect God’s ministers to obey the law promptly and exactly.  Suddenly we meet Aaron’s sons doing something that had not been commanded” (p. 155). Professor Girardeau adds: "Nadab and Abihu presumed to add to God’s commandments exercising their own will in regard to his worship.  They did that which he did not command them, and they were instantly killed for their wicked temerity.”


As every serious student of the scriptures knows, Moses was one of God’s great servants.  God chose him to lead the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage to the land God had promised to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.  The Israelites became angry with Moses because they had “no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither was there any water to drink" (Num. 20:5).  The Lord commanded Moses: "Take the rod, and gather the assembly together, you, and your brother Aaron, and speak unto the rock before their eyes, and you shall bring forth to them water out of the rock: so you shall give the congregation and their beasts drink” (Num. 20:8).  Moses disregarded the Lord’s command and smote the rock and said, “Hear now, you rebels; must we bring forth water for you out of this rock” (Num. 20:10)?


Do you hear one word in this recitation about not striking the rock?  The Lord told Moses to speak to the rock, but he did not way one word about not smiting the rock.  Since God was silent about striking the rock, should not Moses have assumed that he was free to strike the rock?  Surely the man who wrote the little poem, “A Dream of Judgment," can understand from this example that silence forbids striking the rock, even though Moses had been commanded on a previous occasion to strike the rock.  The principle illustrated by this story is very simple.  We must do what God says do in the way he says do it.  We are not at liberty to choose how we shall obey the Lord, unless the Lord grants us that freedom.  If he instructs us to obey a command, but does not tell us how to do it, we are free to do it as we think best.  For example, the Lord commands his followers to go into all the world to preach the gospel (Mt. 28:19-20), but he did not tell us how to travel.  So we are free to walk, to drive, to fly an airplane or to ride in a boat.  If the Lord had commanded us to walk, that would have eliminated all other means of travel.  When the Lord told Moses to speak to the rock, that excluded striking the rock.  God’s law of including and excluding is very simple and very important. 


Uzziah was one of the kings who reigned during the time when Isaiah was engaging in the work of prophesying.  Uzziah had begun to reign as a sixteen-year-old and reigned until he was sixty-eight years of age.  He certainly was a better than average king, but he made a grievous mistake.  He was the king--not a priest.  He went into the temple of the Lord to burn incense upon the altar of the Lord.  Under the leadership of Azariah, about 80 priests challenged the king for his transgression of God’s law.  These are the priests’ words to the king: “It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense unto the Lord, but to the priests the sons of Aaron, that are consecrated to burn incense: go out of the sanctuary; for you have trespassed; neither shall it be for your honor from the Lord God”  (2 Chron. 26:16-18).  Uzziah should have repented and sought the forgiveness of God.  Instead, he became very angry.  For his presumptuous and rebellious behavior, he was made a leper.  He remained a leper until his death (2 Chron. 26:19-21).


Does it not seem to you that the punishment was greater than the crime?  Should not a man—whether king or otherwise—who is so committed to the Lord that he wants to burn incense as an act of worship be rewarded rather than punished?  After all, there is not one command in the Old Testament, which forbad the king to burn incense in the temple?  Did God punish king Uzziah for disregarding the principle of silence?  Should he have known that God’s command for the priests to burn incense excluded the king and everyone else from that act of worship?  Can you understand that God's law of inclusion and exclusion applied even to the king?  But does it apply under the new covenant? 


The book of Hebrews has a lengthy discussion of the relationship of the Law of Moses to the gospel of Christ.  The author of Hebrews offers argument after argument to sustain that theme.  He tells us that the new covenant does not include the Levitical priesthood.  Instead, we have a new priest after the order of Melchisedek--and not after Aaron (Heb. 7:11).  Now listen to this argument.  “For the priesthood being changed, there is made also of necessity a change in the law” (Heb. 7:12).  Modern theologians who want to keep parts of the old covenant should read that verse again.  We cannot live under the old covenant because we no longer have the Levitical priesthood.  The law of Moses passed away with the removal of the Levitical priesthood.  Who can miss the force of this argument?


The one who was to come and be a priest after the order of Melchisedek belonged to another tribe which meant he could not serve as a priest under the old law.  “For he of whom those things are spoken pertains to another tribe, of which no man gave attendance at the altar.“  Now please listen carefully.  “For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Judah; of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning the priesthood” (Heb. 7:13-14).  Is the author of Hebrews saying that Jesus could not be a priest because he came from the wrong tribe?  What else could he mean?  Jesus came from the wrong tribe to be a priest under the old covenant.


But the Law of Moses did not say, “No man from Judah can serve as a priest?" Surely, an inspired writer cannot be making argument from silence can he?  My friend, if you know the teaching of these verses, you know that is what he is doing.  God gave positive commands for men from the tribe of Levi to serve as priests.  They alone were authorized to serve as priests under the old law.  King Uzziah could not serve as a priest; king David could not; Jesus Christ could not.  Why?  Because the law of inclusion and exclusion did not permit it.  When God authorizes, nothing else is permitted.  A violation of that principle will bring the curses on those who disregard it, as king Uzziah had to learn.  Why do modern men have difficulty understanding it?


Professor Girardeau’s arguments can be summarized as follows: “The mighty principle has thus been established by an appeal to the didactic statements of scripture and to special instances recorded in scriptural history...that whatsoever is not in the Scripture, either explicitly or by good and necessary consequences, is forbidden.”  Girardeau says that instrumental music was never used in the worship of Israel without God’s explicit command (2 Chron. 29:25-26), and therefore, could not be used in New Testament worship without an explicit New Testament command.  He notes that instrumental music was never used in synagogue worship and that Rabbinic literature forbade its use on the sabbath save in the temple.


Professor Girardeau asks, “Did Jesus teach it or practice it?  Did the apostles teach it or practice it?”


Many leaders in various denominations continually harp on unity within the religious world.  They often refer to Christ’s high priestly prayer in John 17.  Jesus prayed, “That they may all be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.  And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them that they may be one, even as we are one”(John 17:21-22).  The unity for which Jesus prayed was not what some called “unity in diversity.”  It was to be modeled after the unity between the Father and the Son.


But can there ever be that kind of unity when churches introduce into the worship whatever pleases them?  If churches are going to violate the principles of silence, there is never going to be the kind of unity for which Christ prayed.  Should churches be willing for the sake of unity to forego every belief and practice, which cannot be sustained from the word of God?  Churches which honor the silence of the scriptures cannot conscientiously sacrifice that principle for unity, as valuable and desirable as unity is.  We must have scriptural authorization for every act performed in the name of Jesus Christ.


If you have not studied the principle I have discussed with you today, my lesson may seem like a foreign language.  Millions of honest people have not even thought about the silence of the scriptures.  They have accepted whatever their churches do without any thought of their scripturalness.  I am not for one moment questioning anyone’s honesty.  I am asking you to think seriously about the topic I have discussed with you today.  Compare what your church does with what the scriptures teach.  If you find your church to have introduced into its worship some practice without any scriptural authority, I plead with you to use your voice in opposing it.  You need to realize that not just church leaders—but all church members will have to give an account in the day judgment.  Will you please study these matters openly and honestly?


Winford Claiborne

The International Gospel Hour

P.O. Box 118

Fayetteville, TN 37334