Silence of the Scriptures

January 12, 2006

Note: Click here for the complete series on hermeneutics of the churches of Christ.

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:

  1. Do not eat until you have given your hands a ceremonial washing.
  2. After returning from the marketplace, wash before you eat.
  3. Rule requiring the washing of cups
  4. Rule requiring the washing of pitchers
  5. Rule requiring the washing of kettles
  6. 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:

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:

  1. Rules on what to eat
  2. Rules on what to drink
  3. Rules on religious festivals
  4. Rules on New Moon celebrations
  5. Rules regarding the Sabbath
  6. Do not handle
  7. Do not taste
  8. 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.

Click for the complete series on Restoration Hermeneutics


  1. Alan:Wonderful analysis. I think that you are correct about no instruments being a rule propagated by men.I also agree with you and McGarvey about the instrument offending the conscience. I have come to the conculsion that while it makes me slightly uncomfortable to be in a worship service that has instruments, it does not violate my conscious. What I think would would be for me to actually play the instrument during worship. But thats just me. I do use a pitch pipe when leading singing though…hmmm…-Clarke

  2. Hey Clarke, There have been others who went beyond merely requiring acappela singing. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the book “Life Together”, argues that singing in harmony is wrong. I suspect he would have opposed to the pitch pipe as well. But his argument is not based on the silence of the scriptures (more along the lines of eliminating things that interfere with worship from the heart).I do not object to a group of Christians, by mutual consent, seeking to do only those things explicitly authorized in scripture…though they do so at their own peril, since that approach has proven to be fraught with danger of division. However I think people go too far when they attempt to bind that approach on others. Alan

  3. Your right, Alan, we are thinking and blogging about much the same things lately.This “law of silence” issue has been one of the most dividing opinions we’ve held in restoration movement churches in the past. I’m glad so many are re-thinking its validity. I’ll be posting more on this soon.

  4. I read your blog with interest. Since I hold the view that McGarvey holds, I felt that you missed the point badly.Whether Mark 7 or Colossians 2, McGarvey’s point is that no one has a right to humanly devised worship or practices.When people first employ and bind on others a humanly devised practice or worship, both Jesus and Paul show its vanity and its lack of approval (Matt. 15:13).Jesus never dared to innovate. He only taught and did what the Father instructed Him to do. This is the real teaching for us. To venture out into a practice for which we have never seen Biblical authorization is planting what God never planted. It shall be uprooted.For these reasons, we cannot agree that we should dispense with the prohibitive nature of silence.Thanks for allowing me an opportunity to post. I say this with kindness in my heart.Phil Sanders

  5. Hi Phil,Thanks for sharing your point of view. I understand what McGarvey was trying to say. I just don’t think that is what Jesus was saying in Mark 7, nor what Paul was saying in Col 2. I’m not saying that there is no prohibitive silence. But conclusions drawn from silence are inferences by their very nature. Like Thomas Campbell, I don’t think we should bind our inferences on those who don’t see what we think we see. I respect those who disagree.Thanks again for stopping by.Alan

  6. It is hard for me to tell where you stand. Perhaps you are waiting for the wind to blow. Is silence prohibitive or not? I think less analysis of mens writing and more of Bible may help. As an elder you should take a stand as many are looking to you as a guide. Thanks, Donald Raby http://onlyoneauthority.blogspot.com/

  7. Raby,If you reread my post I think you’ll see that it really is an analysis of scripture (Mark 7, Col 2, Rom 14) And I think it states pretty clearly how I think we should understand silence. The last sentence in my post sums up my view: If the Bible is silent on a topic, we must not divide over it. That’s where I take my stand.Alan

  8. Perhaps I misread you. I thought I saw you said some silence was prohibitive. As I look back I do not see it. If I was wrong, I apologize. As for Mary Worship we should not unite with participants, nor accept their practice as nuetral (ie. example of other things silent).I do find you posting interesting, but I do not see unity with denominational doctrines and practice as following Christ. Thanks DR

  9. Hi Raby,There certainly are some practices on which the bible is silent, which I would not practice (veneration of Mary being a good example). OTOH some things are obvious without being spelled out (Gal 5:19), and we are expected to figure those things out. If we agree that the scriptures are the only source of God’s instructions for us, and that the scriptures are silent on certain subjects, then it necessarily follows that God has not told us what he will do in those cases. Reading between the lines I might have an opinion, but I can’t say definitively what God will do in some scenarios because he has not told us.Alan

  10. The “no instruments rule” was not propagated by man. Historically, the evidence shows that mechanical instruments were added much later in the church’s history. Scripturally, we are told to “sing” which requires using our voices. That’s it. So the use or addition of mechanical instruments was propagated by man.Singing, which we are commanded to do, requires the use of one instrument – the voice. Pianos, organs, and other mechanical instruments are ADDITIONS to what God has commanded. Pitch pipes are not 1) an instrument, 2) are an aid to assist us to carry out God’s command to sing. There appears to be confusion regarding the difference between aids and additions.

  11. Hi anonymous,Actually, the “no instruments” rule is a rule made by men. It does not occur in scripture. The use of instruments is also an addition by men. The real question is not whether man added the instruments to NT worship, but whether that is a problem or not. It seems to me that adding man-made rules is prohibited. (Mark 7, Col 2) Adding instruments is a different matter because it is not a rule.

  12. Alan,I feel like you completely ignored my post. You didn’t address it. I explained why NOT using mechanical instruments is Scriptural (our voices are the only instrument commanded in “singing”)while adding mechanical instruments is NOT Scriptural.

  13. Obedience to God includes, but is not inclusive, of following “direct” commands. An example of a direct command is “love one another.” We also understand what God wants us to do by example. The church met on the first day of the week to partake of the Lord’s supper (Acts 20). We follow that example.We have a direct command to “sing to one another in hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs.” So what does that authorize us to do? Our voice is the instrument we use to sing. ADDING any other instrument, i.e., piano, organ, drums, guitar, is NOT authorized. That would be going beyond what God has authorized us to do. That would be adding to what God has authorized, which is wrong.

  14. Hi anonymous,I did not ignore your post. But we are apparently misunderstanding each other. As I posted previously, I agree with your statement that the use of instruments is an addition to what is specifically stated in the new testament. I think that is what you also said. I assumed you feel that additions like that are a problem (perhaps I assumed incorrectly?) I do not think that such an addition is a problem. Explaining why I believe that is far too involved for a comment thread. Let me refer you to some other posts where I talk about that subject:Comments on Restoration Hermeneutics (note the additional articles in the series linked on the right hand side of the page)Thoughts on SilenceIn the Name of the Lord (Col 3:17)I would also like to point you to Rick Atchley’s three-sermon series on the decision to add an instrumental service at Richland Hills. Especially in the second of the three sermons, he makes a very well reasoned scriptural case for permitting instrumental music, including dealing with the issue of the silence of the scriptures.

  15. Alan,In other words, you do not believe that it’s wrong to add to what God has commanded and go beyond what He has authorized. This is the reason why we see so many churches doing and teaching error. I have heard all the arguments against the silence of the Scriptures, and they violate common sense and logic, not to mention the Scriptures! Moses is a perfect example. In Numbers 20, God told Moses to speak to the rock. Previously, God had told Moses to strike the rock, but this time Moses was to speak to the rock. Moses struck the rock AND spoke to the rock, and God was displeased! He added to what God commanded, and he was condemned.The problem is that you do not respect the word of God, in which case, we have no common source to discuss to determine God’s will.

  16. I am well aware that there are people who disagree with me about the silence of the scriptures. I do not accuse them of lacking respect for the scriptures, and I request the same in return. I have no desire to quarrel about the subject, nor to attack the messengers who disagree with me.The questions you raise have all been addressed at the links I provided. I hope you will take the time to read them. In any case I wish you the best.Alan

  17. Alan,I have no desire to quarrel about the issue as well. I’m just very concerned about the inability on the part of Christians to establish biblical authority. This is my last message. God will judge.

  18. I agree that this is one example of going beyond what Scripture says. It occurs to me that as Jesus and his disciples sang a Psalm and since many of the Psalms contain specific instructions about which instruments should be used to play it, it could be argued that if a harp or lyre were handy, Jesus and his followers, as faithful Jews, would have used it- although to insist that this is what happened would would be to fall into the same trap of arguing from Silence!”Raise a song, and bring here the tambourine, the pleasant lyre with the harp.”(Psalm 81:2 WEB) – almost sounds like a command, doesn’t it?Erasmuswww.blues4jesus.info

  19. I am not a Christian am looking for be a Christian. So this is very valuable for me. I believe the God. I very well read your issue. I have some doubt about that. However, thanks a lot for information. ……………NishanthaChristian-drug-rehabhttp://www.christian-drug-rehab.org

  20. Very well written and objective.It hurts me to see so much division continue among our “brotherhood”.

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  22. […] 1, 2006 In the previous article I suggested that the combination of CENI and the principle of Silence of the Scriptures leads to almost inevitable divisions in the church, at least as these principles are traditionally […]

  23. […] examples and inferences are considered binding, and when that is combined with a belief that the Silence of the Scriptures is binding, we have a volatile mix which has frequently resulted in divisions in the […]

  24. […] have written previously here and here and here about the silence of the scriptures. I will not rehash that ground here. Instead, […]

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