Silence of the ScripturesJanuary 12, 2006
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One central issue that has divided Restoration Movement churches has been this: What conclusion can we draw from the silence of the scriptures? When the scriptures explicitly command or authorize something, or prohibit something, the required response is obvious. When we see an example in the Bible of a first century practice which was allowed by an apostle, we can reasonably conclude that it is allowed for us as well. The difficulty arises on subjects that are not addressed in the scripture–that is, subjects on which the scriptures are silent. I touched on this topic in my comments on Thomas Campbell’s fifth proposition from the Declaration and Address of 1809. I would now like to examine the question more thoroughly.
Ninety-four years after the Declaration and Address, J W McGarvey addressed this subject in answering a letter concerning the introduction of an organ into a church. He wrote:
I think you put the question in the proper form. If the “strong points of the argument” will not convince, it is certain that the weak ones will not; and it is well to save words by discussing the former alone. I begin by arguing that the practice belongs to a class of things expressly condemned in the New Testament. Jesus said in reference to certain additions which the Pharisees had made to the ritual of the law: “In vain do they worship me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men.” In these words he propounds the doctrine that all worship is vain which originates in human authority; or, to put it negatively, that no worship is acceptable to God which he himself has not authorized. Paul echoes this teaching when he condemns as “will worship” the observance of, ordinances “after the precepts and doctrines of men.” (Col. 2: 20-23, R. V.) The Greek word here rendered “will worship” means worship self-imposed, as distinguished from worship imposed by God; and the practices referred to in the context are condemned on this ground, thus showing that all self-imposed worship is wrong in the sight of God.
Now it is universally admitted by those competent to judge that there is not the slightest indication in the New Testament of divine authority for the use of instrumental music in Christian worship. He who employs it, therefore, engages in “will worship” according to Paul, and he offers vain worship according to Jesus.
Here McGarvey was presenting what he considered the strongest case for prohibiting the use of an organ in worship. Thus it is a central argument to consider for our discussion.
I have the utmost respect for the scholarship and integrity of J. W. McGarvey. However on this subject I believe he is mistaken in his use of the scriptures, and therefore in his conclusion. He presents two scriptures in support of this argument, which I will examine one at a time.
First, he refers to Mark 7, where Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for imposing their own rules on the people. The passage describes several rules created by the Pharisees which were not from God:
Mark 7:3-4 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
Jesus goes on to describe a particularly gross example in which the Pharisees’ rule actually prevented people from following one of God’s rules. He quoted from Isaiah, and stated that the passage was a prophecy about the Pharisees. Their worship was in vain because they taught as doctrines the rules of men.
Note the examples of such rules that we are given in the passage:
- Do not eat until you have given your hands a ceremonial washing.
- After returning from the marketplace, wash before you eat.
- Rule requiring the washing of cups
- Rule requiring the washing of pitchers
- Rule requiring the washing of kettles
- Give what you would have given to your parents, to the temple instead.
One thing was wrong about all of these rules: They were not found in the scriptures, but instead were created by men. These rules may have had the appearance of making a person religious, and may have been consistent with certain biblical rules, but they were extensions created by men and therefore of no value. In fact, those who taught these rules (the Pharisees) were worshipping in vain. Note that this is not said of those who practiced the rules, but of those who taught them.
Each of the rules above specified something they were to do, in a particular way. People were expected to comply with the rules in the prescribed manner. The implication was that this was required in order to be in good standing under the Pharisaic rule of the Old Covenant.
This is a curious passage for McGarvey to choose to support the rule of no instruments in worship. It seems that this passage would prohibit McGarvey’s rule in exactly the same way that it prohibited the examples in the text. His rule, like theirs, is not found in the scripture. While his rule may be consistent with other things in the scripture, it is an extension created by men and therefore is of no value. His rule specifies that music in worship must be done in a particular manner (without instruments). And his rule clearly has been advanced as a test of who is in good standing under the New Covenant. His rule stands or falls along with the washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles.
The second passage advanced by McGarvey to support the rule of no instruments is Col 2:20-23:
Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
Earlier in the same context, Paul said:
Col 2: 16-17 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
In this context Paul admonishes the Colossian Christians against imposing additional rules and regulations beyond what God had delivered. He illustrates with quite a few sample rules:
- Rules on what to eat
- Rules on what to drink
- Rules on religious festivals
- Rules on New Moon celebrations
- Rules regarding the Sabbath
- Do not handle
- Do not taste
- Do not touch
These examples are rules that someone might think of imposing on the church, but which are not stated in the New Testament. Included in his examples are rules on worship, which are not written in the scriptures. He acknowledges that such rules have an appearance of wisdom. But he categorically denies that they have real value, and admonishes the church not to follow such rules.
Again, this passage seems to argue against the rule McGarvey wants to support. McGarvey’s rule of no instrumental accompaniment to singing in worship is not written in scripture. Without question men like McGarvey can make a case that these rules have an appearance of wisdom. Nevertheless that rule has no more value than Paul’s examples.
In the above two arguments, McGarvey attempts to support the rule of no instrumental music based on the principle of the silence of the scriptures. He offers the strongest argument he knows to support that position. However, the passages he uses actually seem to prohibit the rule he wants to support. We are not authorized to add rules based on the apparent wisdom of men. If the scriptures are silent, we must not step in to supply the supposed deficiency (Thomas Cambell’s fifth proposition).
After arguing from these two scriptures, McGarvey provides an argument based on the history of the use of instruments in worship. I will not dwell on that argument, since it hangs upon human reasoning and non-biblical history.
In the second letter at the same link, McGarvey addresses the question of conscience:
In Rom. 14: 23, R. V., he teaches that he who doubts the right to eat is condemned if he eat; and as you doubt the right to worship with the organ, you will be condemned if you do it. They, in trying to force you to do it, are trying to bring you into this condemnation. In regard to meats he teaches (verse 20) that all are really clean, but that it is evil for him who eats with offense; and, therefore, even if the use of the organ were innocent, it is evil to him who uses it with offense. He says (verse 15): “If because of meat thy brother is grieved, thou walkest no longer in love.” Therefore it must be equally true that if because of thy use of the organ “thy brother is grieved, thou walkest no longer in love.” He says (verse 19): “Let us follow after things which make for peace, and things whereby we may edify one another.” Tell them that you would gladly do this by consenting to the use of the organ but for the fact that you believe it to be wrong, and insist that as they do not consider it wrong to sing without the organ, this precept requires them, for the sake of peace and edification, to desist from their purpose.
On this point I agree wholeheartedly with McGarvey. We should dispense with instruments or any other nonessential that would otherwise divide brothers. However, that does not address the question of the silence of the scriptures.
What does this mean for me today? I must not draw lines of fellowship which are not drawn in scripture. If God has adopted a man as his son, he is my brother. It is not my choice whether I like that or not. God made it so. As long as a person is a son of God he remains my brother.
Rom 14:13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.
The urgent need of the church today, in order to bring about unity, is to eliminate the walls of division based on things not found in the Bible.
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