A Proposal For Unity Part 4: Silence of the Scriptures

August 12, 2007

The only source of divine authority available to the church today is the scriptures. Topics on which the scriptures are silent are inherently disputable matters, since there is no final word from the Lord to settle a dispute on these topics. Therefore no authority can be inferred from the silence of the scriptures.

Thomas Campbell’s fifth proposition addressed the silence of the scriptures. He held that no mortal man is authorized to make rules or to implement requirements in the church which are not found in the scriptures. Further, he insisted that nothing should be accepted into the practice of the church “that is not as old as the New Testament.”

That last part is where the greatest difficulties arise. In effect, he was saying that scriptural authorization is required for every single thing done in the church. Where the scriptures are silent, therefore, the church would be prohibited from acting.

I have written previously here and here and here about the silence of the scriptures. I will not rehash that ground here. Instead, I want to take a historical look at the doctrine of silence.

The notion that silence prohibits did not originate with Campbell. At least as far back as Huldreich Zwingli (1484-1531), in the Swiss Reformation, the prohibitive nature of silence was a fundamental tenet. In contrast to Martin Luther, Zwingli believed that not only the faith but also the practice of the church had become corrupt, and therefore need to be restored. Luther focused on the spiritual realm, particularly on the process for receiving forgiveness of sins. So Luther made relatively few reforms in the outward practices of public worship. Zwingli, on the other hand, removed the statues, relics, pictures, altar equipment, priestly vestments, and audible music (both instrumental and vocal) from the church. He held that Christians were to make melody “in their hearts” and not their mouths. (Discovering Our Roots — The Ancestry of the Churches of Christ, p. 27)

However, Zwingli stopped short on one topic: infant baptism. The relationship between church and state brought with it a relationship between citizenship and church membership, which made it difficult to postpone church membership waiting for an adult believer’s decision. But the Anabaptists, who lacked the state’s sanction, had no conflict of interest on the subject, and challenged Zwingli on his inconsistency. These Anabaptists held an even more fervent commitment to the prohibitive nature of silence, and soon brought their views into America, becoming the Amish and Mennonite churches.

The Puritans found their way into America in the 1600’s, bringing with them their belief in the prohibitive nature of the silence of the scriptures. Here they sought to coerce Baptists, Quakers, and others to conform to Puritan doctrine, by methods including imprisonment and public whippings. These are the same Puritans who, before the end of the century, executed twenty people and imprisoned nearly 200 in the Salem witch trials.

The Baptists emerged from English Puritanism in the early 1600’s, with similar views on silence. They brought those views to America. One important branch of this movement was known as the Separatist Baptists. They sought to restore the New Testament pattern in their worship. They held to

“nine Christian rites”: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the love feast, the kiss of charity, anointing the sick, laying on of hands, dedicating of children, and the right hand of fellowship. They also appointed elders, deacons, and deaconesses, believing these offices to have precedents in the New Testament. Their writings were filled with appeals to scriptural “precedent” and to the “primitive Christians.” One writer claimed that, upon examination, people would find the Baptist Church “exactly corresponds with the rule and line of the Gospel in every part of it.” (Discovering Our Roots — The Ancestry of the Churches of Christ, p. 67-68).

These Separatist Baptists rejected all creeds, claiming to follow the Bible “without note or comment.”

The Stone-Campbell movement emerged from the same communities where these Separatist Baptists had taught for generations. Many of those early converts came from a Separatist Baptist background. The strong views in the churches of Christ on the silence of the scriptures can be traced through these separatist Baptists, through the Puritans, all the way back to Huldreich Zwingli. Along the way, hundreds if not thousands of well educated, zealous and sincere men have been imprisoned, tortured and burned at the stake rather than renounce their conclusions drawn from the silence of the scriptures. Indeed, these were true believers.

So what is the point of all this historical review? Simply that all these devoted men, who proved that they loved God more than life itself, could not agree on their interpretations of scripture. Zwingli, the Puritans, the Anabaptists, and the Separatist Baptists all came to different conclusions based on the silence of the scriptures. Collectively, they demonstrated that the doctrine that prohibits based on the silence of the scriptures leads to division and strife.

Of all people alive today, surely the churches of Christ ought to understand this point. Has any group in history divided more often, over more doctrinal controversies, with more acrimony, than the churches of Christ? Can this possibly be what Jesus had in mind when he prayed for our unity? Does the world really believe God sent Jesus, because they see our unity? Do they recognize us as disciples of Jesus, by our love for one another?

Five hundred years of history has proven that the doctrine of prohibitive silence is divisive. No wonder the inspired scriptures command us not to pass judgment on disputable matters!

Any proposal for unity among Christians must address a topic that has led to so much division in the past. So here is Proposal #4:

Proposal #4: Topics on which the scriptures are silent are inherently disputable matters. Therefore authority cannot reliably be inferred from the silence of the scriptures. So we must not draw lines of fellowship over such matters, and we must not quarrel over these topics. Instead, “whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.” (Rom 14:22)


  1. Alan, Silence is a difficult subject. If one is a Pharisee, silence enhances legalism. If one is permissive, silence can be used as permission. Either way, silent matters can not be fellowship breakers. The heart of the individual (legalist or libertarian) obsessed with what the scriptures don’t say – their hearts should be examined. Besides, God gave us plenty to chew on with what the scriptures DO say. Thanks for your insight and please do not infer anything from what I did not say. Sincerely, Phil RestorationUnity.com

  2. Hi Phil,That reminds me of what Mark Twain reportedly said on a similar subject… It’s not the things I don’t understand in the Bible that worry me. It’s the things I do understand. (or something like that)Maybe silence is neither permissive nor prohibitive. Silence says nothing. That makes sense to me.

  3. Hi Alan,I very much appreciate your work here on silence. You are absolutely correct in that too much division has been effected because of the CoC’s stance on silence. As I wrote early on in my blog, what I found in my studies years ago was radical inconsistency based on the application of the silence of scripture. I like how the Independent Christian Church often handles such issues: a matter of opinion and not of faith.Also, your article has spurred me to purchase another book…my wife thanks you. :)Blessings!Ray

  4. Dear Alan,I´m a christian in Brazil. I was baptized in ICOC in 1998, but now I´m a member of COC. A brother and I are planning write a webblog like yours with the same theme. In Brazil our churches have difficulties to be united and we hope to help them. I would like to ask your permission to traslate some of your articles to Portuguese and publish in our blog. Do you permite? Thanks a lot. Sorry about my English skill… André Lopes

  5. Hi Andre,I would be very happy for you to translate articles from this site and post them on yours. Just be sure to provide a link back to this site, and indicate that I’m the one responsible for writing the original articles. It’s great to hear of others trying to do the same thing!

  6. I would like to encourage you to research Romans 14 when studying this issue. I was raised in a very religous family that constantly taught “If the Bible don’t say it, we don’t do it”. Upon doing a study in the book of Romans, I found that chapter 14 really enlightened this issue for me. When put into proper perspective, I believe that Paul has addressed this question quite adequately.

  7. Hi Shawn,

    I agree. Several articles on this blog attempt to make the point that Romans 14 provides the answer to many disagreements in the church. A couple of examples:


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