Friday, October 12, 2007
The "Law of Silence"
The default hermeneutical position among conservative Churches of Christ is that biblical silence is prohibitive. This is a radical position that holds if God said nothing about some doctrine or practice in the New Testament, then that doctrine or practice is excluded, and to go against this “law of silence" is to sin and risk your salvation.
The obvious example (here I go feeding the fire again), is that there is no direct reference in the New Testament to instruments in a corporate worship setting. Therefore, according to this “law of silence," the use of instruments is sinful – not just a matter of preference, but sinful! The fact that these excluded practices do not dishonor God, or prove to be spiritually harmful to the church, is irrelevant. The only concern is the contention that the scriptures are silent with regard to the practice in question, regardless of the merit or worth of that practice. Period! End of discussion! Biblical silence equates to only one thing: exclusion! I grew up with this hermeneutical stance as my default mode of thinking. But now I repudiate this “law of silence.” It is a deeply flawed way to read the Bible, it is inherently inconsistent, and it is dangerous because it is necessarily divisive. Some people will say I am being argumentative, or calling names, or feeding the fire, but it is time to rise up and challenge the absurdities of this way of thinking. Here’s an example of the inherent inconsistency of this way of thinking – the four cups of wine in the Passover. (I want to thank Al Maxey for a lot of the research on this topic.)
Exodus 12 talks about the establishment of the Passover. After specifying when it would be celebrated, and the various elements of the meal, God said to Moses, “This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover” (Exodus 12:11). Just three verses later the people of God are informed that it was to be celebrated “as a lasting ordinance.” God was very specific as to what He wanted included in this memorial feast. However, God never mentioned anything to drink. The Passover was constantly referred to in scripture as a feast during which Israel would eat the meal; they were never urged to drink anything. The Bible is silent about drinking anything during this feast. So, if we were to apply the “law of silence" to this situation, we would have to forbid as sinful any form of drink being added to the Passover feast. After all, I’ve heard it taught that hamburgers and coke are “unauthorized” for inclusion at the Lord's Supper. Would consistency not require the same conclusion regarding the addition of wine to the Passover? In addition to the command of God Himself regarding the Passover, we have several biblical examples of the Passover being celebrated by Israel. In none of these Passover observances is there any mention of wine. Even in 2 Chronicles 30 (in which the people of God “ate the Passover contrary to what was written”) there is still no mention of wine being consumed. There is not a single, solitary word anywhere in the Old Testament that speaks of wine being connected in any way with the Passover.
By the time of Jesus, however, things had changed. Rather than being eaten “in haste” (Exodus 12:11), it had become customary to eat it while reclining at a table. This is how Jesus celebrated it. Another innovation was the addition of drink to the Passover as part of the ritual. Four cups of wine had been added by the rabbis to the Passover celebration. These were not just for the purpose of washing down the food,” these cups of wine were purposefully added for their spiritual significance to the feast itself. The Jews themselves admit that these cups of wine were a rabbinic tradition, and thus were not originally part of the divine commands. The use of four cups of wine during the feast had become mandatory, and crucial to the significance of the feast itself. What exactly is the purpose and significance of these four cups of wine? They symbolize the four activities of God described in Exodus 6:6-7. The four cups represent God's saving activity, one cup for each of God's sovereign acts as He fought against Pharaoh. Clearly, the use of four cups of wine during the Passover celebration was not something that was prescribed by God. It was a human addition to a God-ordained commemorative feast.
If silence prohibits, and constitutes sin, we have a problem! Jesus embraced the practice of the four cups of wine! In the gospels it seems that Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper by associating it with the third cup of wine. It was known as the “cup of redemption,” linked in rabbinic tradition to the third of the fourfold promise in Exodus 6, “I will redeem you.” Jesus associated this cup of wine with His atoning death. If the “law of silence” is valid, then Jesus violated it. If violation constitutes sin, then Jesus sinned by worshipping God in an “unauthorized manner.” Furthermore, Jesus worshipped in synagogues, and celebrated the Feast of Lights – both innovations that are not mentioned in the OT. And yet to this day people will, seriously, not celebrate Christmas as a “religious holiday” because it is not “authorized” in the NT!
Jesus embraced and utilized the four cups of wine, he worshipped in the synagogue, and he celebrated Hanukkah. Jesus demonstrated that innovation and addition are not necessarily wrong if that to which they are added is not negated or replaced or diminished by the addition. In other words, the four cups of wine in no way negated, replaced or diminished what God had prescribed in the Passover. The things which God commanded continued. The same is true with singing. By the addition of musical instruments, one does not, in any way, replace, negate or diminish the heartfelt expressions of devotion by those singing. Singing continues to occur. It still comes from the heart. It is time for this “law of silence” to be cast aside, and for rational minds to approach the task of biblical interpretation and application in a more serious and humble manner.