Proposition 5: Where the Bible is Silent

November 9, 2005

Thomas Campbell’s fifth proposition states:

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 any thing 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 amongst christians, that is not as old as the New Testament.

This proposition addresses how Campbell felt we should handle the silence of the scriptures.

1) If the scriptures are silent about precisely how to perform some command or ordinance, no mortal has the authority to legislate the missing specifics and bind them upon anyone.

2) No mortal has authority to create new commands or ordinances which are not specified in scripture.

3) Nothing outside the New Testament may be introduced into the faith or worship of the church

4) Nothing outside the New Testament may be made a term of communion among Christians

Items 1), 2), and 4) are fairly non-controversial at face value. Item 3) hints at a class of practices that have divided thousands of congregations. Examples of items that have been introduced into worship which are nowhere mentioned in the New Testament include pianos, organs, and the like; individual communion cups; incense; statues and images; creeds; and probably many other things. The results upon Christian unity have been catastrophic.

There are a couple of ways one could view this. One might consider that these situations prove the wisdom of Campbell’s proposition. If the non-biblical items had not been introduced, the churches might still be together. Or, one might point to these situations as proof that the proposition was fatally flawed. By saying we may not introduce anything new into worship, perhaps we paint those who do so as heretics–in effect, setting up a man-made rule which is destined to lead to division. But introducing such a rule actually would be in conflict with item 4) since it makes the “introduce nothing new” rule a term of communion among Christians.

Often Mark 7:1-13 is used as a proof text for the “introduce nothing new” rule. However, if the new things being introduced are not “rules” (ie not mandated, but introduced as discretionary) does Mark 7 apply? Is there any other passage that would support “introduce nothing new” in a discretionary matter? Does the New Testament truly teach that we may not introduce anything new into the worship service? I wonder.

The entire series: Comments on the Thirteen Propositions of Thomas Campbell


  1. That’s interesting. I’ve wondered what the source of the non-instrumental, one cup, no kitchen, etc controversies were. It seems that if we were to follow this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, our churches may have to do without air conditioning, boilers or forced air heating, stained glass windows, PA systems, pews, carpeting, latex wall paint, drywall, podiums, song books, etc, etc, etc. I’m being deliberately silly to prove the point.It seems that this point of Campbell’s, like much of the Bible itself, perhaps is taken too literally and out of the context and spirit it was written. Or maybe it’s my own cultural biases clouding my judgement.What do you think?

  2. Hey Doug,I think many people reason as you have. But I think that misses the point on why some people reject instruments, individual communion cups, etc. The people who hold these views are not ignorant nor unintelligent.You might find this article helpful:A Brief History of the One Cup and Non Sunday School MovementFor example it was interesting to me to consider that for almost 1900 years every church took communion from a shared cup. A Baptist doctor invented and patented the individual cups / tray. It apparently was very controversial everywhere it was introduced for about a generation.

  3. Hello all:I’m glad you two are talking about this, becuase this is where some of my current focus is.I grew up in both the “mainline” churches of Christ and the non-institutional churches (the ones who are non-cooperative, won’t give money to institutions such as Chrisitan colleges, and are anti-kitchen). The argument that the mainline would use is that it was “expeditious” to have a kitchen and support institutions such as colleges and ophans homes. The non-institutional churches would make the same argument that it was “expeditious” to pay someone to preach and use individual communion cups when talking about our one-cup brothers and sisters.I’m sure that the independent Christian churches also argued that instruments were “expeditious” to the worship service as well. As far as the missionary society, that argument, while it comes up occasionally, isn’t used much anymore because the”institutional” argument is the same argument!Alan, you make a good point about 1900 years going by before the innovation of individual communion cups. There was no issue until the cups were invented, and many of the splits occured because of innovations that reverberated throughout the “Christian world.”The slippery slope argument for expediency and silence is one of the reasons why I have given up instrumental music as a test of fellowship. While I think that the churches of Christ got the instrument question right the first time, I don’t think we can bind it to others.-Clarke

  4. Hey Clarke,You mentioned the slippery slope argument regarding instruments etc. I think there is a slippery slope on both sides. On one hand, it seems the churches on the conservative wing of the restoration movement have slid a long way down the slope by drawing lines of fellowship based on the silence of the scriptures. OTOH if we don’t draw some lines of that nature, then anything and everything could be brought into worship. Rosarie beads and praying to Mary could be just the beginning. (“Today’s communion is brought to you by Welsch’s Grape Juice. Buy some today!”)… Clearly there must be some common sense applied. But people will differ on common sense subjects.The scriptures acknowledge a class of “disputable matters” (Rom 14:1). Those are matters that are not spelled out in plain language in the scriptures (perhaps including cases where the scriptures are silent). It seems to me that we are clearly instructed not to draw lines of fellowship on those matters. That seems to be what W. Carl Ketchersidewas advocating in the article you linked in your blog recently.

  5. Alan:I can’t agree more. There must be a line, and it must really be biblical and not just a matter of opinion. To many of us, that line may be very apparent (as you were stating, praying to Mary, etc,) but I’m sure to some it will not be. That is the hardest part of the unity question to answer. We certainly do not want to fall into the pit on either side.

  6. Here are a couple of examples where the apostles drew lines of fellowship:flagrant sin 1 Cor 5:11rejecting Jesus in the flesh 2 John 7-11Some might add Titus 3:10-11 and Rom 16:17-18 to the list.Any other examples you can think of?Basically it seems to me that there were very limited scenarios where breaking off fellowship was justified. And it seems that it always involved an individual person, not a congregation.

  7. Hey Allen. To me, 3 is a clear violation of 1.

  8. Great to hear from you, CG. It's been a while. I agree, binding #3 goes beyond what is written in scripture. Actually I think the Campbells would admit that. But it was not their original intention that this would become a dividing line for fellowship. Instead I think they thought it would be the wisest course for finding common ground. It just didn't turn out that way.

  9. […] 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 […]

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