Does Silence Mean Prohibition or Permission?

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.

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Does Silence Mean Prohibition or Permission? — 6 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this Dr. Cottrell. When I was in Bible College several of my fellow students were disappointing me with their lack of involvement in local churches. I would often try to recruit people to assist me with my weekend ministry just so that I could get them to be active within a local church context. One day on my way to the church where I worked I decided to stop at one of the many Restoration churches in that area that I had not heard of before. Being from the north I wasn’t thinking about the fact that there may be a reason that I had not heard of them because they were acapella and therefore did not wish to have a relationship with the instrumental college I was attending. My goal was to see if the church could use a youth minister or children’s minister that I could hope to recruit for them from the college. I was surprised when the minister offered a couple of hours of explanation as to why our school was apostate. I became more familiar with some of the common arguments through my encounter with this well-meaning minister. When I inquired as to why silence would be interpreted as prohibition he brought up the Old Testament story of Nadab and Abihu and noted that the “strange fire” that God killed them for using was something that He had only “not approved.” I felt that this argument was a weak example partly because we know so little about the events in that story and also because there seems to be a biblical pattern throughout that suggests that silence and prohibition should not be assumed. To me the issue becomes much more clear when we realize that indoor plumbing, carpet, pews, and air-conditioning all must be drawn into question. The issue becomes even more difficult once we start thinking about the church as actual people and stop wondering just how this influences the actual “worship service” and the building within which the church is meeting.”

  2. While it’s not the main point of this post, I want to thank you for the remark, “In Christendom as a whole, ‘liberalism’ is any view that rejects the inspiration and authority of the Bible.” The “L” word is applied too freely these days to those who affirm biblical authority but differ with some on how the Bible ought to be understood and applied in certain instances.

    When I have been called “liberal,” I have wanted to reply, “I believe in the inspiration and authority of the entire Bible. I believe in and affirm the inerrancy of the Bible. I am committed to believe whatever the Bible teaches. How much more theologically conservative can a person be? Do you want me to affirm the inspiration of the Old Testament Apocrypha too?”

    Also, I happen to vote Republican, but that’s a different kind of “conservative.”

    • Thanks for the comment, Jon. I agree with what you are saying, and am very glad to read your informal statement of faith on Biblical authority. When I talk about liberalism, I do make a distinction between “liberalism” (small “l”) and “Liberalism” (capital “L”). The former (as defined in my post) is the generic kind, while the latter is the historical movement spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Ritschl, Fosdick, etc.).

  3. One reasoning point made once by a non instrumental book demonstrated to me silence is prohibitive. This may sound “hokey” at first, but I give it credence

    If I send my son to the grocery store and tell him to buy bacon, eggs and milk, I expect him to return with bacon, eggs, and milk. If he comes back with a candy bar, I would be upset. By going further than what I said, he took liberties with my money that were not his to take.

    That little example has always stuck with me. It is implied that when I am being specific I expect a specific response. I guess what it comes down to with instruments: Is God being specific or just teaching about the joys of singing when writing of pubic worship?

    • I think you are putting too much weight on this “illustration.” If you think about it, you can make up an illustration that agrees with any viewpoint you want to believe. The illustration proves nothing; it just explains or represents your belief about something. I could make up another illustration that represents the opposite view. E.g., if I send my son to the store with MY $20 and tell him to buy bacon, eggs, and milk, then I will expect him to return with bacon, eggs, and milk, along with my change. But while he is at the store he is free to buy anything else he wants with his own money, since my instructions did not include a prohibition against buying something else. Of course, my illustration does not PROVE my viewpoint, anymore than your illustration “proves” the opposite. We could just keep on making up illustrations tailored to our viewpoints, to no real avail.

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