Does Silence Mean Prohibition or Permission?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 11:11am
AN INQUIRY ABOUT MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS: “I grew up in a non-instrumental church of Christ. Now, however, I do not believe it is against God’s will to have instruments in worship. But those at my home church make a good point in that instruments are not mentioned in the New Testament. I have also heard that instruments were not used in the early churches and were only introduced later. What do you think about this argument?”
MY REPLY: It is granted that the NT does not mention instruments in public worship. The real issue, then, is this: what is the significance of such SILENCE? Non-instrumentalists claim that silence means prohibition. This is patently false. Silence is the essence of what we mean by “matters of opinion.” Everything comes down to this difference on how the silence is interpreted.
THE INQUIRER CONTINUES: “In reference to interpreting silence, I have heard it said that those who interpret silence to mean permission are too liberal. What do you say to that? Could you articulate a similar silence in the New Testament that Churches of Christ would take to mean permission?”
MY FURTHER REPLY: On the idea that “silence means permission” is liberalism, this is a use of the term “liberalism” that is limited to the churches of Christ and is not at all equivalent to how others use it. In Christendom as a whole, “liberalism” is any view that rejects the inspiration and authority of the Bible. That does not apply at all in the context of the argument over silence, which is solely a matter of hermeneutics, i.e., how to INTERPRET the Bible, not a matter of the NATURE of the Bible.
The idea that silence means permission is the very essence of two of the traditional Restoration slogans. One of these slogans is “In essentials, unity; in opinions, liberty; in all things, love.” The whole point of the concept of opinions is that these are things on which the Bible is silent, and therefore are permissible. The second slogan is “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” The point of the latter half of this slogan is this: In a matter where the Bible is silent, we should not make up any RULES about it one way or the other. The churches of Christ have done the very opposite of this. They say in a matter where the Bible is silent, the RULE is that it should not be practiced. Thus they have SPOKEN where the Bible is silent.
The New Testament is similarly silent about a whole host of issues other than the musical instrument, and the churches of Christ argue among themselves as to whether they should be forbidden or not. Since the Bible is silent about Sunday school, some say it is prohibited; but others say it is OK. Since the Bible is silent about Sunday school LITERATURE, some say it is prohibited; but others say it is OK. Since the Bible is silent about individual communion cups, some say they are prohibited; others say they are OK. Since the Bible is silent about non-congregational singing (solos, choirs), some say they are prohibited; others say they are OK. Since the Bible is silent about orphanages, some say they are prohibited; others say they are OK. The number of such items is quite long. Prof. R. J. Kidwell said once that he had accumulated a list of around 30 such things about which the Bible is silent, where some churches of Christ folks say they are prohibited while others say they are permitted.