Friday, June 23, 2023

The Silence of Scripture

I was probably a pre-teen when I first heard the phrase, "Speak where the Bible speaks, and be silent where the Bible is silent." I didn't know at the time that it was a quote from Thomas or Alexander Campbell, or that neither of them likely originated it. It's a great quote, of course. But, like most great quotes, it oversimplifies.   

     I stumbled across a question on social media this week: “Where does the Bible say you can use social media to spread the gospel?” Now, no one was trying to say that you can't; the question is really about something else -- the silence of Scripture. And in this series of posts on reading the Bible, I want to take some time to deal with that. 

     In the question about using social media to share the gospel, most everyone would say that we can, even though the Bible is silent about social media. Of course it is; the documents that make up our Bibles just slightly predate any of those technologies. You might as well expect Scripture to prohibit air travel (“Lo [low], I am with you always?”) or weigh in on cell phone etiquette. In Matthew, Jesus does tell us to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Seems like he leaves the methodology up to us. Paul said he hoped to save “some” by “all possible means,” and wondered how anyone could preach the gospel unless they are sent. He wrote letters to communicate with people he couldn’t be present with.

     In response to the social media question, someone invoked “general authority”: God has given us “general authority” to go and make disciples. Acting on that general authority, it’s OK to use social media, even though the Bible is silent on it. 

     Here’s where I want to get a little contrary: Why? Where do we get that concept of general authority? 

     Please understand, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with using social media to spread the gospel. 

     I’m saying that there’s something wrong with the whole idea of arguing for or against anything from silence. 

     The fact is, my response to a question like this has usually been to wonder why in the world anyone would think we need express authorization from God to use one method over another. Share the gospel on TikTok, Facebook, public access TV — hey, use smoke signals or semaphore if it works for you. I don’t think God is a micro-manager.

     Let me get specific. There are well-intentioned folks who I love dearly among my people in Churches of Christ who are absolutely convinced that it’s wrong to sing with musical instruments on Sunday morning. There are some who just prefer it, who appreciate the tradition and feel that maybe it encourages congregational singing better than a full band. But some say it's wrong, unacceptable to God, and they argue their opinion on the basis of silence. God tells us to “sing.” He doesn’t tell us to play. He tells us what he expects, and it’s wrong for us to do something else. 

     What I wonder, if "general authority" worked, is why we don't invoke it there. God gives us authority to sing, just like he gives us authority to go. There are different ways to do both. Why is silence on how to "go" permissive, but silence on how to "sing" restrictive?

     Those who say instrumental music is wrong would almost certainly deny that they're arguing from silence, that God has spoken and said that he wanted us to sing. But of course they are, because God hasn’t spoken on instrumental music.

     Well, actually, he has, and in the affirmative. It’s just in the Old Testament, which we don’t think has authority for us in the same way that the New Testament does. (Something else we need to talk about soon.) Interestingly, a story from the Old Testament is sometimes appealed to by those who would argue from silence: Nadab and Abihu.

     That’s a really interesting choice, because Nadab and Abihu are said to have offered “unauthorized fire” (“strange fire” in the KJV) on the altar in their work as priests. The Bible doesn’t elaborate on that, which may make us want to tap the breaks on using this story to strike fear into the hearts of those who would strum a guitar in worship. A few verses later, Aaron is cautioned against drinking too much before coming before the Lord to serve as priest. A few chapters later, he’s warned about going into the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle “whenever he chooses.” Maybe that had to do with Nabad’s and Abihu’s infraction. Maybe they took coals from the wrong place, or offered the wrong kind of incense, or did it at the wrong time. 

     But is it a fair comparison? The ancient Israelites were given very specific laws on how and when to come before God to make offerings. When Paul tells the church in Ephesus to “sing and make music” in their hearts, he isn’t writing laws for worship. He’s telling them about what arises from and/or encourages being “filled with the Spirit.” When he tells the church in Colosse to sing to God with gratitude, it’s about letting “the message of Christ dwell among [them] richly.” Nadab and Abihu violated laws that by their very nature — and maybe explicitly — proscribed other ways of doing things. In neither Ephesus nor Colosse is Paul handing down a new Levitical law for entering God's presence; he’s encouraging Christians to be mindful that their lives — not just their worship — make room for the message of Christ to live among them and for the presence of the Holy Spirit to fill them.

     Now, I know that this is an interpretive assumption on my part. I know that sisters and brothers in Christ may disagree with me. But this is sort of my point, and it’s the reason that I don’t think that generally speaking arguments from silence are very helpful. Everyone makes interpretive choices regarding the silence of Scripture. We just don’t always think about it in those terms. Silence about social media is permissive, but silence about instruments is restrictive? Based on what — something called “general authority”? (Which I think you’ll find the Bible is, ironically, silent about.)

     A really interesting comparison is the command — at least four times in the New Testament, twice the number of commands to sing — to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” I don’t know about you, but I normally shake hands or maybe hug someone in greeting. What authority do I have to change the greeting God has authorized? God says “kiss” — is it OK to shake? 

     Here’s a good interpretive rule about silence: When the Bible is silent about something that we do, or think we should, we call that silence “permissive.” When it’s silent about something that we don’t do, or think we shouldn’t, we call it “restrictive.” Oh, we generally come up with some textual acrobatics to justify our choices, but in the end they’re still choices — interpretive choices.  

    We’re all making interpretive choices, even when we cover them with something else. Let’s please not confuse those choices with Scripture. Let’s listen to and learn from each other, instead of labeling and attacking, as we’re sometimes inclined to do. 

     And please, let’s try not to be too sure that the Bible’s silence supports our own points of view.

     But what if your conscience really can’t get comfortable with instrumental music, or something else that other Christians seem fine with? That’s what we’ll talk about next — reading the Bible in a way that’s true to our consciences.

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