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Mark Reynolds

That with respect to the commands and ordinances of our Lord Jesus Christ, where the Scriptures are silent as to the express time or manner of performance, if any such there be, no human authority has power to interfere, in order to supply the supposed deficiency by making laws for the Church; nor can anything more be required of Christians in such cases, but only that they so observe these commands and ordinances as will evidently answer the declared and obvious end of their institution. Much less has any human authority power to impose new commands or ordinances upon the Church, which our Lord Jesus Christ has not enjoined. Nothing ought to be received into the faith or worship of the Church, or be made a term of communion among Christians, that is not as old as the New Testament
(Mattox, 323 Emph. mine MER).

When Thomas Campbell wrote the above statement as part of the “Declaration and Address” it was thought to be groundbreaking, and shattering to the idea of division in the Christian religion. The impact that it had on many who read these statements can best be summed up in a statement by one of the readers: “Mr. Campbell, if we adopt that as a basis, then there is an end of infant baptism” (Dunagan, 1). The point was logical, easily understood, and came to be a key of the Restoration Movement: “We speak where the Bible speaks, and are silent when the Bible is silent.”

Although Campbell may have been one of the first to advocate this principle during his era, he was certainly not the first to teach the importance of appreciating the silence of the Scriptures. In 1525 Huldreich Zwingli wrote A Commentary on the True and False Religions advocating that the Scripture would allow in church services only what the Bible approved (Mattox, 256).

Tracing the principle of the silence of the Scriptures back to the Restoration Movement, or even to the Reformation is not good enough. In order for it to carry any weight, or to be binding today it must be found within the sacred Scriptures. Not only is the principle found in the Bible; it is a powerful proof of the wisdom and inspiration of God’s holy word. Three areas are profitable to show the power of arguing from the silence of the Scriptures. (1) The silence of the Scriptures point to inspiration. (2) Examples of being bound by the silence of the Scriptures in the Bible. (3) Its application and importance to modern-day Christians.


In his sermon on the inspiration of the Bible, J.W. McGarvey made the point that the brevity of the New Testament narratives regarding Christ, and other monumental moments in the New Testament shouts inspiration (McGarvey, 5). As John wrote, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25). How could Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, all of whom were willing to die for the story they were writing, in as few as twenty-nine pages (Mark) and at the most forty pages (Matthew) capture all of the events of Jesus birth, life, suffering and death? (McGarvey, 5). They were restrained in their writing, but the Scriptures they wrote did not suffer in the least!

This brevity continues to be impressive when one thinks of the accounts given of single incidents in the New Testament. The baptism of our Lord itself could have been a whole book of the Bible, if not more:

There was the humble yet lofty mien of him who came to be baptized; the surprising demeanor of the great preacher as he confessed his unworthiness to baptize such a person; the solemn act of the baptism itself; the still deeper solemnity of the prayer on the river’s bank; the startling voice which was heard from heaven – the voice of Jehovah – which had not thus broken the silence of the skies since it thundered from the summit of Mount Sinai; the graceful descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove; and the oracle, big with the fate of a lost world, in which God confessed his own beloved Son. What man with a writer’s instinct could have stopped short of many pages in describing the scene as to do it justice? (McGarvey, 6).

How much space was taken up by the gospel writers? Matthew wrote twelve lines; Mark and Luke both used six; and John only alluded to it. The resurrection of the Lord, the ascension of the Savior, and many other terrific events that could have taken up volumes were condensed to a few short paragraphs. And again, it does not take one iota of power away from the Scriptures!


Noah and the Ark

When God saw that the wickedness of man was great, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually, He knew what needed to be done. He needed to destroy man from the face of the earth. “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8). God would not destroy the good with the bad so He instructed Noah on how he and his family could be saved. “Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch” (Gen. 6:14). Noah’s salvation rested in the building of the ark.

This example is one of the oldest to show the power of the silence of the Scriptures. This writer, however, does not apologize for using it. It is one of the oldest, because it is one of the best. And it is one of the best because after all these years it still cannot be answered! God told Noah what type of wood to use, and that command eliminated all other kinds of wood. Noah could not use a different variety and say to God: “You did not say, I could not use this type!” When God gives a specific command it eliminates everything else.

Nadab and Abihu: Leviticus 10:1-3

And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said unto Aaron, This is it that the Lord spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace.

When one looks back to the verse that precedes these verses one sees that God used fire to symbolize and signify to the congregation that He was satisfied with their strict adherence to His prescribed law (Lev. 9:24). Now God uses this same fire to execute immediate punishment on Nadab and Abihu, and to show His displeasure at their straying from His prescribed law. Nadab and Abihu had done everything right: They were authorized to perform this part of the worship; they used the proper censers; they lit the censers with fire; then placed the incense on the censers. They did everything right until they used unauthorized fire. What made the fire unauthorized? It was not the fire that God had specified for them to use in worship!

It was not that God had specifically forbidden the fire they used, but rather He had specified what fire they must use (Lev. 16:12; Num. 16:46). God did not have to go down a list of other sources of fire, specifically forbidding each source; He only had to tell them which fire to use and that eliminated all other sources.

Moses in the Desert of Zin

Numbers 20 records the account of the Israelites murmuring in the Desert of Zin. On this occasion they were murmuring because of a lack of water. Moses spoke to the Lord about the situation, and Jehovah told him to “take the rod, and assemble the congregation...and speak ye unto the rock” (Num. 20:8). The results of this action would produce water for the people. Moses, however, in his anger, “…lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also. And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them” (Num. 20:11-12).

Moses violated the principle of the silence of the Scriptures. God did not tell him not to strike the rock, but did tell him to speak to the rock. Speaking to the rock eliminated everything else, including striking the rock. How serious is God regarding His silence? All that Moses had done in leading the people of Israel out of Egypt did not keep God from excluding him from the Promised Land because of going beyond God’s word.

Acts 15:24

Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment (Acts 15:24, emph. mine, MER).

Since the apostles had given these false teachers no authorization to teach these things, the teachers had no right to speak. Silence did not authorize their teachings.

Hebrews 7:14

While explaining why Jesus could not be a priest on earth, the Hebrews writer appealed to the argument of the silence of the Scriptures: “For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Juda; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood” (Heb. 7:14). The Law of Moses made it clear that all priests serving under that law must be from the tribe of Levi (Num. 3:5-13). Why could a man from the tribe of Judah not be a priest? The Law of Moses spoke nothing about it. God specified the tribe from which priests must come, and when He did, it eliminated all other tribes.

When the Bible is silent on a matter, God’s children must respect it. Not only is the teacher’s soul in jeopardy when he disrespects the silence of the Scriptures, but also the souls of those he teaches! Had God not punished Nadab and Abihu, the whole congregation would have believed that God’s silence gives approval. Had the apostles not corrected the false teachers in Acts 15, the church would have been led back to the Law of Moses rather than following the perfect law of liberty! Mankind must respect the silence of the Scriptures! 


Most false teaching and practices come not from a misinterpretation of what the Bible says, but rather, from violating the principle of the silence of the Scriptures. The punishment is just as severe today as it ever has been. In fact, it is the same punishment that those in the first century faced: 

For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book (Rev. 22:18-19).

This principle is just as relevant today as ever before! Yet many religious people continue to believe that if the Bible does not specifically prohibit an action, then it permissible to practice it in Christian worship and service. It is no wonder why there is such a strong “anything goes” attitude in religion today.


Law of Exclusion

            It would be humorous, if not so serious, to treat those who take liberties with the silence of the Scriptures the same way they treat God’s Word. In other words, it would be interesting to see how lenient they would be when the law of exclusion was violated when they were involved. For example, suppose a man who believes that he can practice anything in religion that the Bible does not specifically condemn, takes his automobile to the mechanic to get his oil changed. He tells them, “Please change my oil.” After giving the mechanic these instructions, he goes back to his office and works the rest of the day. Can you imagine his surprise when he returns back to the shop to see that the mechanic has not only changed his oil, but has also put a new engine in the car, tinted all the windows, put on new tires, and painted the car pink! Obviously he would want to know why they mechanic had done all of this without his authorization. He might say, “I only told you to change my oil!” Can you imagine his rage when the mechanic replied, “But you did not tell me not to do these things.” Surely one who expects God to be lenient would not be so patient when the same violation was used on him.

            The Law of Exclusion simply means that when a command is given everything else is excluded. When the man in the above illustration told the mechanic to change his oil, it excluded everything else. If the mechanic found something else that needed repaired in the car, he would need to get the owner’s permission before repairing it. Even children understand the Law of Exclusion. If a child’s mother tells him to play in the front yard, an obedient child understands that the backyard is excluded.

            We would not stand for it when someone violated the Law of Exclusion when we were involved. Nor does God stand for it! When He told Nadab and Abihu what type of fire to use, it excluded all others! When he told Moses how to retrieve water from the rock, it excluded all other methods. When God told Noah what type of wood to use, it excluded all others. When God commanded that all priests of the Old Law must come from the tribe of Levi, it eliminated all other tribes. When God tells Christians to sing praises to him using the heart as an instrument, it eliminates all other instruments (Eph. 5:19). When God tells Christians to partake of the Lord’s Supper upon the first day of the week (Acts 20:7), it eliminates all other days of the week. When He promises us that He will add all the saved to His one church (Mat. 16:18; Col. 1:18; Acts 2:41-47), it eliminates all other churches. When God says a man can only be saved when he has been washed in baptism (Acts 2:38; 22:16), it eliminates all other ways of salvation.


One preacher attributed the following quote to the late and lamented Gus Nichols: “As soon as we stop preaching on an issue, it will become a problem again”(Highers). It may be that we thought we had the issue of the silence of the Scriptures settled a long time ago. Unfortunately a misunderstanding at best or a complete disregard at worst, of the silence of the Scriptures had led to much digression from some who are members of the church of Christ. In fact, one of the main arguments Rick Atchley used to defend the use of mechanical instruments in worship was from a misunderstanding or disregard of God’s silence. “New Testament commands to sing neither prescribe nor prohibit instrumental music” (Miller, 38). In other words, the Bible does not say we can or cannot use instrumental music. Dave Miller answers by showing the need for respecting the silence of God’s word: “New Testament commands to eat bread at the Lord’s table neither prescribes nor prohibits the eating of hamburgers” (Miller, 38). There is a command to eat bread as part of the Lord’s Supper, which excludes hamburgers. And there is a command to sing in worship, which excludes playing instruments.

Faithful Christians will always need to know how to answer those who teach that anything the Bible does not specifically condemn is approved. Sadly, we have been fighting this battle for years with the denominational world. It is even sadder, however, when we have to answer the argument from our own brethren. But answer it we must!



Dunagan, Mark. “Silence of the Scriptures.”

Highers, Alan. “The Church’s Landscape as I See It: Preparing Congregations for the

Days Ahead.” A sermon presented at Polishing the Pulpit, Aug. 27, 2010.

Mattox, F.W. The Eternal Kingdom. (Delight, AR. Gospel Light Publishing Co., 1961).

McGarvey, J.W. McGarvey’s Sermons. (Delight, AR. Gospel Light Publishing Co., 1975).

Miller Ph. D., Dave. Richland Hills and Instrumental Music. (Pulaski, TN. Sain Publications, 2007).

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