Handling Silence

This morning a friend posted a meme on Facebook that got my attention. Now, before I continue, understand that I consider this brother a friend and respect his views and opinions greatly. So nothing I say here should be taken as a rebuke of the brother. Everything here is meant to address the meme itself and the underlying view. Whether my friend actually holds this view or not is unknown to me. Even if he does, that doesn’t matter because I intend to show some problems with the view and not with those who hold it. One thing we need to learn as Christians is to separate the person from the views they espouse. I actually sent him this for review before posting.

The Meme is posted here:

bible doesnt say

It shows the sons of Aaron—Nadab and Abihu—offering incense. It is of course based on the story of these two who were punished for offering ‘strange fire’ upon the altar.

If you look at the meme you see Abihu asking Nadab if he is sure this act is acceptable, to which Nadab responds “Yeah bro! The Bible doesn’t say we can’t.” The reason this meme inspired such thought in me is that it commits a serious error. I’ll list those here, but must first lay out the underlying concept this meme is meant to ridicule.

There is a train of thought which says, “If the Bible doesn’t say it is forbidden, then it is permissible.” It is a way of interpreting the Scriptures that would take all moral considerations and ask: “Does the Bible make a positive command concerning it?”

It’s common to look at the decision making process this way:

I am considering action A.

Does the Bible command me to take action A?

If not then I am not required to take action A.

Does the Bible forbid action A?

If not then I am free to perform action A.

However, it is based on a mistaken idea. It assumes the Bible contains instructions (positive to prescribe or negative to proscribe) for all possible moral considerations. There is a way to handle this question, which is acceptable (I’ll address it in a moment), but the problem is when people do, as the meme implies, and make anything not negatively proscribed into positive permission. They assume that because the Bible doesn’t forbid something they should therefore consider it proper and moral, as if Scripture was giving them direct permission through its silence.

Now, before going further, allow me to point out that the meme itself, even ignoring the underlying assumptions, is actually fallacious. It is pulling this story out of context and applying it in a way the Scriptures never intended. Actually, Nadab and Abihu knew their action was abominable. The meme insinuates that they had no command against doing this so they assumed it was acceptable. However, even the passage which records this (Leviticus 10:1f) says their actions were “contrary to his command (NIV)” or were actions “which he had not commanded them (LEB).” Leviticus 9 tells of them helping their father perform the proper sacrifice, so they knew what was proper. They were not acting in the absence of a direct command. They were acting in opposition to a direct command: Scripture said how to sacrifice and make offerings and forbade doing them any other way. If the Bible says “Do this and this alone” any person deciding “I’ll do that instead” is disobedient. Because of this, the meme’s subject matter doesn’t even apply to the argument about whether all actions not negatively forbidden are permissible—it’s a misapplication.

Getting back to the issue this meme poorly addressed, I spoke earlier of those who say “Anything not forbidden in the Bible is acceptable.” I would argue both sides of this question. First off there is the question of whether silence in Scripture should be taken as permission, but one must also consider the implications of silence in Scripture.

To take silence in Scripture as permission is fallacious: “God did not address it, so he must approve of it.” Actually God not addressing it in Scriptures just means it was not an issue he chose to address—for whatever reason. It may still be unacceptable, but God, in his sovereignty, chose not to speak to the issue. Perhaps it wasn’t an issue in the age when Scripture was being revealed. Perhaps it wasn’t a major consideration among the people to whom he was speaking. We must use our divinely given wisdom and the prompting of the Holy Spirit to know whether we should take an action or not take it when Scripture is silent. But never make the mistake of assuming Biblical silence equates to Biblical sanction.

But now, there is another dimension to this discussion—the implications of scriptural silence. What about those addressing an issue upon which Scripture is silent, who decide that even in the face of silence action A is not permissible (not something God would want them to do)? This is fine. This is an act of conscience. The problem comes when that person takes this decision and tries to make it a command for all to follow: “I believe this is forbidden even though Scripture is silent on it. Therefore, I insist it is forbidden to all Christians.” There is a problem with this—and not just a small one. Such Christians need to rethink their view of Scripture. Most protestant Christians would say, “Scripture is our only rule for faith and practice.” If so, then if you cannot find a command on it in scripture, or at least a concept that reasonably allows an inference of a command, you cannot declare it binding upon all. It remains a matter of personal conviction—it may still be unacceptable, but it is up to the Holy Spirit to guide the heart of the other person to that conclusion (which you are of course free to encourage through teaching and counsel). Some examples of this are eating certain foods, drinking alcohol or smoking. There are many areas of our lives which fall under this category.

We must be careful not to take silence of Scripture as permission. We equally must be careful about making Scripture say what the author of Scripture never chose to say. Both practices abuse the Scripture and do not show proper respect for the revelation of God to man.

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Ken Cluck
Senior Pastor at Resurgent
Ken has served in various cultures and settings, including two Native American reservations, rural communities, Korean churches, and has worked with Asian refugees living in the US.

Ken's passions are Theology, Philosophy (especially Philosophy of Religion, Ethics and Logic), History and Politics.

Ken has been married to his wife, Yong, since 1987. She is the center of his world and the greatest joy of his life.