When God Says Nothing (1)

By Wayne S. Walker

There are two basic attitudes toward Bible authority. One attitude says that the New Testament was intended as a divine pattern or rule book for the church and that we must have Bible authority for everything we do in religion. (Such is the position taken by this author.) The other says that the Scriptures are more of a general guide for us today and that we can use our own judgment in following or not following certain specific teachings based upon our own needs and circumstances. This difference can be seen as far back as the early Reformation period. The Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli taught that, if the Bible does not tell us to do something, we ought not to do it. In contrast, the German reformer Martin Luther held that if the Bible does not tell us not to do something, then we are at liberty to do it.

This same difference arose among New Testament churches of Christ back in the middle to later part of the nineteenth century of our nation when brethren were discussing the missionary society and instrumental music issues. In his book The Stone-Campbell Movement (1981), Leroy Garrett gave an illustration of this divergence of view. Speaking of a 1969 unity dialogue, he quoted a statement made be Reuel Lemmons. “When Lemmons, editor of the Firm Foundation, was asked if he saw instrumental music as the main roadblock to fellowship with the Christian Church, his answer was no. ‘The thing that really separates these two great groups of the brotherhood,’ he said, ‘is their respective position regarding the Scriptures.’ He explained that the Churches of Christ speak where the Bible speaks and are silent where the Bible is silent, while the Christian Churches speak where the Bible speaks and ‘where the Bible is silent we are free to choose'” (p. 666).

Brother Lemmons has said much with which I cannot concur. However, with this observation I am in full agreement. (By the way, the book which is the source of this citation is not one which I can recommend.) Even closer to our own time, the attitude, “We can do many things for which we have or need no authority,” has led to the introduction of sponsoring church arrangements, church-supported benevolent institutions, church-subsidized colleges, church-arranged recreation and entertainment, and other innovations which have divided congregations of God’s people. And now, there are some among us who are saying that we ought to go ahead, recognize all the people who accept these things as faithful brethren, and have fellowship with them because if we do not find a passage of Scripture that says, “Thou shalt not” do something, we cannot say that folks are wrong when they do it.

What does the Bible itself have to say about this problem? We need to lay aside all that fallible men have said about the silence of the Scriptures, go back to the Bible, and see what it says about what to do when God says nothing. And the best place I know to turn is Hebrews 7:11-14. “Therefore, if perfection were through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need was there that another priest should rise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be called after the order of Aaron? For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law. For He of whom these things are spoken belongs to another tribe, from which no man has officiated at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord arose from Judah, of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood.” (See chart #1).

The Principle Stated

First, we want to look at what God said. Concerning the priesthood, God said that the priests were to come from the tribe of Levi (v. 11). God named Aaron, a Levite, to be the first high priest (Exod. 4:14; 28:1-3). He and his sons after him were appointed to this office (Exod. 40:12-15). The tribe of Levi was appointed over the tabernacle (Num. 1:47-54). This tribe was to minister to Aaron instead of the firstborn from the other ten tribes (Num. 3:6-13). Aaron’s brethren of the tribe of Levi were to be joined with him in keeping charge of the sanctuary (Num. 18:1-7). The Levites were separated from the other tribes to stand before the Lord (Deut. 10:8-9). They were specifically chosen by God to come near him (Deut. 21:5). God gave them authority to bring incense before him and offer burnt sacrifice to him (Deut. 33:8-10). Thus, any of the descendants of Aaron would be qualified to serve as priests.

God did not say, “Thou shalt not have priests of the tribes of Reuben, Benjamin, Ephraim, Judah, etc.” But neither did he say that such was permitted. He was silent on the matter. Did his silence authorize or prohibit? It certainly did not permit Dathan, Abiram, and On, descendants of Reuben, to bring incense before the Lord (Num. 16:1-35). King Saul, of Benjamin, was rejected because he offered a burnt sacrifice (1 Sam. 9:1-2; 13:8-10). One of the sins of Jeroboam, king of Israel and member of the tribe of Ephraim, was to make priests of people who were not the sons of Levi (1 Kgs. 12:25-31). Even in Judah, when king Uzziah tried to burn incense in the temple, he was struck with leprosy to show God’s displeasure. Why? Because he was not of the tribe of Levi.

As we turn to the New Testament, the same principle holds true. Even God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, could not be a priest upon the earth. “Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens. . . . For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law” (Heb. 8:1-4). Why? Again, it was because he was of the tribe of Judah, “Of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood.” God did not have to say, “Thou shalt not. . . ” and then name every other tribe of the children of Israel. When he specified one tribe, Levi, he automatically forbade all others.

The Principle Repeated

Before we go on, we want to look at a few passages of Scripture where this principle is repeated. From a positive standpoint, all we do is to be done in the name of Christ Jesus. “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” (Col. 3:17). To act “in the name of” someone means to act by his authority. An ambassador who goes to another country “in the name of” the President of the United States is authorized only to do those things which the President actually instructs him to do. Also, we are to speak only as the oracle of God. “If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 4:11). This verse is the basis for the saying, “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; and where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” Only in this way can God truly be glorified.

From a negative standpoint, the Bible tell us not to go beyond the things that are written. “Now these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes; that in us ye might learn not to go beyond the things which are written; that no one of you be puffed up for the one against the other” (1 Cor. 4:6, ASV). Also, we are told that the one who transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. “Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds” (2 Jn. 9-11). Furthermore, the latter passage commands us not to have fellowship with nor give our approval to one who has gone beyond the doctrine of Christ.

In fact, Jesus condemned those who work lawlessness. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonderful works in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'” (Matt. 7:21-23) The word “lawlessness” (KJV, “iniquity”) is defined in the original language by C.L. Wilibald Grimm (translated by Joseph Henry Thayer) as, “prop. the condition of one without law, – either because ignorant of it, or because violating it.” It describes one who is acting without authority. Those who operate without the expressed approval of Jesus are guilty of lawlessness or iniquity. Thus we can see that only what can be proven to be the will of the Father in heaven is authorized.

The Principle Applied

Let us look at some examples of the application of this principle. First, we shall notice how it applies to specific authority (see chart #2). God has said that we are to eat the Lord’s supper. In addition, he has said specifically that we are to use bread and the fruit of the vine (Matt. 26:26-29). He was silent about using any other elements, such as hamburgers and sodas. Does this silence authorize or prohibit? There is no command, “Thou shalt not use hamburgers and sodas on the Lord’s table.” If the position that when God’s word does not specifically condemn an action it is permitted be true, does that mean that it is all right for us to have hamburgers and sodas in the Lord’s supper? And, if we decide not to, but other folks do, can we be united with them and bid them godspeed?

What God Said: This Specified: Silence:
Eat the Lord’s Supper

(Matt. 26:26-29)

Bread and


Fruit of Vine



and Soda

Baptism Essential


(Acts 2:38)



(Rom. 6:3-4)




Music in the


Worship of the Church



(Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16)




Christ has said that baptism is essential for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38). Moreover, he has specifically said that the action of baptism involves a burial or an immersion (Rom. 6:3-4). His word is silent concerning any other action, such as sprinkling or pouring. Does his silence prohibit or authorize? We have no command, “Thou shalt not practice sprinkling or pouring for baptism.” If the view is true that whatever is not prohibited is permitted, may we be allowed to substitute sprinkling or pouring for immersion? Or, if we choose not to do so but other people do, must we refrain from condemning them because “the Bible does not say not to”?

The word of God has spoken concerning music in the worship of the church. And whenever music is used to praise the Lord under the new covenant, singing is specified (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16). Some have argued that the New Testament is silent about congregational singing but mentions only individual singing. But it should be obvious that for us to “teach and admonish one another,” we must be together. “One another” is a reciprocal, reflexive pronoun that suggests mutual action. If it could be established that congregational singing is not authorized in the New Testament, then we should abandon it. However, congregational singing in worship is authorized. Instrumental music is not. Therefore, by the same principle that using hamburgers and sodas in the communion service or substituting sprinkling or pouring for baptism is to be rejected, instrumental music must also be prohibited and those who practice it considered apostates.

However, it is also affirmed that the New Testament is as silent on instrumental music as it is on church buildings, song books, and collection baskets. These are expedients, therefore instrumental music can be classified as an expedient and its use thereby justified. The argument runs, “Since the Bible is ‘silent’ about all these things, we may choose to use nor not to use any of them.” The problem here is one of equivocation as to what is meant by “silent.” We must understand the difference between generic and specific authority. If God had merely told us to “make music,” the choice of what kind would be left up to our discretion. But the Bible specified “singing.” That is what God said. To add another kind of music (whether in congregational or individual worship) is an area where God has not spoken. Thus, we need to examine how the principle applies to generic authority (see chart #3).

God says to assemble for worship (Heb. 10:24-25). However, he has said nothing specifically as to a required place. (Actually, such a place is loosed for us in Jn. 4:21-24.) A church building, with pews, lights, etc., is simply an expedient way of carrying out a generic command. When we have a building, lights, and pews, we are still assembling for worship. However, the Bible is silent about churches building kitchens, dining halls, gymnasiums, etc., because we have no command, even generically, to assemble for recreation or entertainment. Thus, there can be no expedient ways to do such.

God says for us to sing in worship (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). But he has said nothing as to the specifics of how to read the words or obtain the pitch, two necessary elements of singing. Song books are an expedient to obeying a generic command and do not add another kind of music. We are not singing and “booking.” We are merely reading the words to facilitate our singing. Nor does a pitch pipe add another kind of music. It merely gives us a pitch which enables us to sing. However, the Bible is silent about instrumental music, and the use of a mechanical instrument does add a different kind of music. It is no longer just “singing” but singing and playing. It is not an expedient to singing.

God says for Christians to give of their means on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:1-2). He has said nothing about a specific method of taking up this collection. A collection plate is only an expedient tool to accomplish this generic command. It does not in any way change the nature of the command itself. At the same time, taking up weekday collections and selling goods for profit do change the nature of the command. The first changes the specified day and the second changes it from a free-will offering. Therefore, these cannot be expedients because they do not accomplish what God has said that he wanted to be done. The Bible is silent about them.

So the equivocation is clear. The Bible is not actually “silent” about church buildings, song books, and collection baskets. While they are not mentioned specifically by name, they are authorized generically to carry out what God has specifically told us to do. We shall close this article at this point and in a concluding article we shall continue our application of this principle of Bible silence to some other problems that have bothered members of the Lord’s church down through the years.

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 14, pp. 434-436
July 20, 1989