Does Silence Authorize?
During the course of asking people for Biblical authority for their practices, it is not uncommon to encounter the response: “Where does the Bible say we cannot do it?” This is an attempt to justify some practice based on the idea that if the Bible is silent about it, then it is authorized by God. Many practices in the religious world today are supported with an appeal to the silence of the Scriptures. “Where does the Bible say we cannot have instrumental music in worship?” “Where does the Bible say the local church cannot provide recreation and entertainment?” “Where does the Bible say we cannot have a sponsoring church arrangement to do good works?” These questions are based in the view that God’s silence is permissive; the argument is that unless the Scriptures specifically forbid a belief or practice, they may be allowed in the church. The Scriptures reveal that God’s silence is intended to be prohibitive; unless the Scriptures authorize a belief or practice, they are forbidden by God.
Illustrating the Principle of Silence
Suppose you were to send me a letter stating: “Please use this enclosed $5,000 to purchase a Ford Explorer for me.” If I delivered a Chevrolet Trailblazer, you would likely object because your letter authorized the purchase of a Ford Explorer, not a Chevrolet Trailblazer. If I responded like some people in the religious world do today, I might say: “Where does your letter say I could not buy a Chevrolet Trailblazer?” Most people understand that your silence about other makes and models of vehicles would not authorize the purchase of other makes and models. In fact, it should be clear that if your letter stating “purchase a Ford Explorer” had to also state what makes and models you did not authorize me to purchase, your letter with a list of prohibited makes and models would be exceptionally long.
But suppose your letter stated: “Please use this enclosed $5,000 to purchase a Ford Explorer for me. Do not go, or think, beyond what is written in this letter…do not add to or take away from the words of this letter…and whoever transgresses and does not abide in the statements of this letter does not have my approval.” Now it would be clear that “purchase a Ford Explorer” would grant me the authority to buy only that make and model, and your silence about other makes and models would not allow me to justify what I did by saying: “Where does your letter say I could not buy a Chevrolet Trailblazer?”
God’s word it just a clear as this illustration. The Bible provides written authority for what God desires and it clearly warns that we are not to add to or subtract from what God has revealed in His word. It will be instructive to note a few Scriptures that reveal God’s silence does not authorize.
God’s Silence about Angels
The Hebrew writer, in order to affirm that Christ is superior to the angels, makes an argument based on the silence of the Scriptures: “For to which of the angels did He ever say: ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You’? And again: ‘I will be to Him a Father, and He shall be to Me a Son’?” “But to which of the angels said He at any time, ‘Sit on My right hand, until I make Your enemies Your footstool’?” (Hebrews 1:5,13). These Old Testament references (Psalm 2:7; 2Samuel 7:14; Psalm 110:1) were stated prophetically about Christ, but the Scriptures are silent about God saying such things about an angel. The writer’s argument is based on the silence of the Scriptures; and by this silence there was no authority to regard the angels as equal to or superior to Christ. Surely we can see that anyone who contends that an angel is to be regarded as, or equal to, God’s Son based on the argument, “Where did God say an angel can’t be His Son?” would be wrong.
God’s Silence Regarding Priestly Fire
The case of Nadab and Abihu is a plain example of God’s disapproval when someone does what God has not commanded them to do. “Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane (unauthorized—ESV) fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:1-2). God had revealed the source of the fire to be used by the priests (Numbers 16:46 indicates the source was to be “fire from the altar”), but the fire used by Nadab and Abihu came from a source of which God “had not commanded them.” God was silent about fires other than the fire He commanded to be used; any fire God was silent about was not authorized.
Upon seeing his sons literally burned alive, Aaron could have reasoned as some do today, “but God, You didn’t say we couldn’t use fire from one of the campfires…You didn’t say we couldn’t use fire from under the boiling pot at the door of the tabernacle” (Leviticus 8:31). God would remind Aaron that He did, through Moses, warn against using other sources of fire: “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:32). With such a vivid lesson before them, I cannot imagine the next priests that were in line to offer incense thinking that God’s silence would authorize them to obtain fire for their censers from any other source than what God had revealed.
God’s Silence about Other Tribes for Priests
The Hebrew writer clearly shows the restrictive nature of the silence of God. “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” (Hebrews 7:12-14). Jesus was born into a tribe, Judah, of which “Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood.” God, through Moses, only spoke of priests coming from the tribe of Levi. For Jesus to be a priest, there had to be a change of law. While the law did not expressly deny the right of one from Judah to serve as priest, its silence on the matter was in itself a prohibition.
Under the Old Testament law, could someone from the tribe of Judah claim he could be a priest with God’s approval on the basis that God didn’t say priests could not come from the tribe of Judah? Of course not! God had stated that priests were to come from the tribe of Levi and God’s silence about other tribes did not authorize priests coming from other tribes. In addition, God clearly warned: “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you” (Deuteronomy 4:2).
The Bible Does Say “You Cannot…”
God has revealed His will for His church on the pages of the New Testament, and He expects His people to respect His silence; only what is revealed by God in the Scriptures is authorized. God warns we cannot teach or practice things that are only authorized by men: we are not to go, or think, beyond what is written (1Corinthians 4:6); we are not to add to or take away from what is written (Revelation 22:18-19); “Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God” (2 John 9). We are to be silent, in teaching and practice, where the Bible is silent.