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Reverence Is Not Legalism

The British have a strange form of government. They have a queen, but she does not exercise any real power. Her authority is only ceremonial and her crown is worth nothing more than the gold and jewels that compose it. The real power was stripped away from her family by the people and one of them, the prime minister, is now the head of English government.

Modern Christianity has done much the same thing to its king, Jesus Christ. While people still recognize his crown, they do not attach much significance to his exercise of authority in all matters of faith. Hence, various denominations proudly boast doctrines and missions growing out of their own interpretation of the Bible, most generally not a literal interpretation at all.

The last will and testament of Jesus Christ contains his decrees for his brethren, the redeemed, and the conditions placed upon them should they wish to attain the inheritance he left for them, a mansion in heaven for all eternity. As the monarch of a great universal kingdom, he and his ministers, the apostles, set down the law for his subjects in the New Testament.

To disregard a single word of Christ’s will is to invite displeasure and disinheritance from a king whose crown of thorns is more valuable and powerful than all the golden diadems on earth. The matter of silence in Bible authority is just as important as the matter of God’s voice. What God says will not matter if we do not respect his silence equally. As many religious errors result from abusing God’s silence as result from disregarding his voice.

God’s Voice

In Exodus chapter three, Moses was impressed by the voice of God emanating from that burning bush which was never consumed by its flames. That ground on which the man stood was holy and important because there he began to receive the word of God. The remainder of this man’s life would be affected by these few moments, in which he stood barefoot and listened and prepared to become submissive out of a reverent heart. Today, we say as Christians, that we make our stand upon the word of God, seeking a “Thus saith the Lord” for all we do in the name of the Lord, striving to speak only as the oracles of God in humble deference to the apostolic ideal (see First Peter 4:11). If we are impressed with the setting at the burning bush, we must be even more impressed to learn that this event was but a foreshadowing of the divine communication to come (Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:1-4).

Reverence is Not Terror or Legalism

Jesus is a king and the church is a monarchy; before the servants can act, they must have his authorization and He gives that good word through the scriptures. His own last will and testament designates him as the church’s legislator (see Matthew 28:18-20, James 4:12), judge (see John 12:48, Second Timothy 4:8) and executive (see Second Thessalonians 1:6-10). In the minds of some, discussions of Bible authority strip away the message of love and grace that is at the heart of the New Testament, but it was Jesus himself who stated he would judge love by submission (John 14:15, 15:11-14).

The apostle John passed this principle on to his readers many years later, establishing the fact that law and love are no enemies (First John 2:1-6). True love for the king will compel you to seek to understand his will and to follow it in every regard (see Colossians 3:17). Paul stated that he delighted “in the law of God according to the inward man” (Romans 7:22) as he began to define genuine spirituality (Romans 8:1-8). To establish what is the will of God, we must consider both what he has said and what he has not said. The silence of the scriptures is just as important as their voice.

How Authority is Expressed

It is generally recognized that a parent has authority over a child while that child lives in his parents’ home. This exercise of this authority is like Christ’s. Suppose a woman and her daughter go grocery shopping, but forget one item and the mother sends the girl back by herself to pick up some bread. Her authority and instruction have been expressed in three ways in that simple example. She gave the girl a direct command to go to the store. She taught her by example how to buy things just before and the girl may infer that anything necessary to fulfilling the command is authorized as well (she can take some money with her and she can walk down the street by herself). She was not authorized to buy anything but bread, nor go anywhere but the store, nor obtain the bread by any other means than purchase. Her mother’s silence about these issues is not treated as permission, but rather prohibition, and if she comes back with candy bars instead, she will have violated the authority.

Everyone understands these rules of communication and authority in worldly matters, but in spiritual matters, they become confused and end up at the wrong place. Christ’s last will and testament is communicated to us the same way we communicate with our children – by command, example and implication.

We partake of the Lord’s Supper every Sunday because of Christ’s authority, expressed in command, example and implication. Jesus commanded the observance of the Lord’s Supper in the night he was betrayed (see Luke 22:19-22) and Paul taught that all disciples should mark the feast (First Corinthians 11:23-26). The early disciples, directed by inspired apostles, show us by example that the Lord’s supper was taken on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7).

We learn by the implication of the scriptures that this must be every first day of the week. Leviticus 23:5 prescribes the date of the Passover with the obvious implication that it was to be observed on this date each year. Numbers 28:11 commands an observance of the new moon and implies it was for each month. Exodus 20:10 commands the observance of the Sabbath and by implication, we know that the Sabbath was every Saturday, not just some, every other, or a quarterly or annual Saturday. So we learn the frequency of the Lord’s Supper through the implication of the scriptures. The Lord’s Supper, then, is taught by command (eat and drink), example (on the first day of the week) and divine implication or necessary inference (every first day of the week).

Every choice we make should be tried in the crucible of God’s word to see if it is explicitly commanded or prohibited, if it is approved by example, or if it is necessary to the fulfillment of some command or example. The church is authorized, for example, to own a meeting house, because it is necessary to fulfill the command to assemble (see Hebrews 10:25). It is not authorized to build a gymnasium or banquet hall, for these are not necessary to any command given the body (see First Corinthians 11:34).

God’s Silence is Golden

Before the Protestant reformation, John Wycliff was a very influential reformer of the apostate church. Among his followers was Bohemian John Huss (1373-1415), who earlier than Luther opposed the papal sale of indulgences and use of armed force. Huss’s own followers, though, were deeply divided into two camps.

One group known as the “Utraquists” forbade only those practices specifically condemned by the Bible, thus tolerating anything without explicit condemnation. The other group, known as the “Taborites,” rejected all practices for which express warrant in the Bible could not be found, thus rejecting transubstantiation, the worship of saints, prayers for the dead, indulgences, priestly confession, dancing, and other such amusements. In a war that broke out between the two factions, the Taborites were defeated in 1434 and almost swept away. The Taborites, though, had been on the right track, regarding the importance of the silence of God’s word.

When Martin Luther came along and made forceful objections to papal tradition, he validated by his influence the idea that the silence of the scriptures on any given matter was implicit authorization. Luther was reacting to the apparent excesses of his more radical supporters in declaring that, “What is not contrary to Scripture is for Scripture and Scripture for it.” The application of this principle was that anything which was not expressly prohibited in the Bible was therefore implicitly authorized. That influence continues to be felt today in almost every Protestant denomination.

There was a third reformer, however, who stands out. Huldreich Zwingli, the foremost leader of the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland, was born January 1, 1484, seven weeks after the birth of Martin Luther. While a student at the University of Basel (1502-06), an instructor impressed him with the sole authority of the Scriptures. Zwingli’s approach to Bible authority was far narrower than Luther’s; he believed that authority existed only for that which clear authorization could be identified in the scriptures. As a result, he rejected the papacy, mass, intercession by the dead, monasticism, purgatory, clergy celibacy, relics, images and instrumental music.

Luther and Zwingli agreed on many points, but the silence of the scriptures in authority was not one of them; to Zwingli the will of God as set forth in the Bible, and conformity to it, was the central feature of religion, while Luther tended more toward emotionalism and subjectivism. Some of Zwingli’s followers did not believe even he went far enough in applying the principle of the silence of the scriptures. They began to doubt also infant baptism and started practicing full immersion as they saw in the scriptures. Their views spread and they became known as “Anabaptists,” or “re-baptizers. They also supported a common observance of the Lord’s Supper and congregational autonomy, in deference to the silence of the scriptures concerning the usual practices of their day.

Two Viewpoints

Thus two viewpoints emerged through the reformation, with one of them continuing to this day to define denominationalism, while the other caused people to tend toward restoration instead. The first perspective on scriptural silence, held by Luther and Calvinists, is that silence is implicit authority. The second perspective, held to varying degrees by Zwingli and later by Campbell, Stone, et al., is that scriptural silence is no authority at all. The only question that matters, however, is what do the scriptures say?

Silence is the absence of authority

Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests” (Hebrews 7:11-14).

In discussing Christ’s priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek, the Hebrew writer concedes that under the law of Moses, Jesus could never be a priest, for the Old Testament only expressly authorized descendants of Levi to serve in that office. Verse 14 is then an argument from the silence of the scriptures that authority was absent and liberty extinct. Moses spoke nothing concerning a priest from Judah; thus it was unauthorized and impossible. Today, people demand to see an explicit condemnation of any act to which someone objects and yet the Hebrews were satisfied that God’s silence was the lack of authority.

When a school teacher today tells a student he may be excused to go to the restroom, his silence regarding a trip to the cafeteria, pay phone and parking lot is not considered authority to do all those things, but is considered to be the lack of authority and ground for punishment on the basis of presumption.

Pious intent is no excuse

“Now when the king lived in his house and the Lord had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, the king said to Nathan the prophet, ‘See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.’ And Nathan said to the king, ‘Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you.’

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, ‘Go and tell my servant David, “Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar’”’” (Second Samuel 7:1-7).

David’s intention was to build God a temple, and his plans were noble, but misguided and presumptuous. God’s reply is an appeal to silence – “When I have ever spoken a word” regarding this project. Folks today will defend their projects and intentions against accusations they are unauthorized by boasting of their good intentions and even results. You cannot object to church sponsored orphanages, old folks’ homes or colleges without hearing this refrain. Trouble is, good intentions have never been a substitute for Bible authority and God’s silence on any matter is an invitation to abstain, not presume.

Worship innovations are unwarranted

“Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord has said, “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace” (Leviticus 10:1-3).

All these priests wanted to do was offer God something different; perhaps they were weary of the same old worship and figured that God must be as well. God did not want their worship innovations, for man’s creativity was not evidence of growing piety, but shrinking reverence for God’s explicit revelation and his thundering silence. The innovation of New Testament worship – emotionalism through testimonies and dimming of lights, instruments in music and applause, etc. – is supported today as evidence of a filling with the spirit and a deeper feeling of love and praise for God. Nadab and Abihu would testify that God has no desire for man to improve upon the divine pattern and approaching him with innovations is regarding him as unholy.

Speak as the oracles of God direct

“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God” (First Peter 4:10-11).

If we limit ourselves to speaking only as God’s recorded oracles reveal, we will eliminate much of what passes for religion today. Everything that intrudes upon God’s silence will be done away with and only those things with firm foundation in book, chapter and verse will remain. Instead of standing on thin ice or shifting sand, we will be founded upon a rock of certainty. We must learn to speak where the Bible speaks and remain silent where the Bible is silent.

We must have no creed but Christ

“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (Revelation 22:18-19).

The creeds of men are designed to clarify the confusion of God’s word and improve upon his communication to us. Like the traditions of the Jewish elders and opinions of the scribes and Pharisees, however, they erect a wall of doctrinal disunity that is not easily shattered, a wall which God did not build. To invade God’s silence and speak in its place one’s opinions is to invite a dismissal from the Book of Life.

Don’t go beyond or stop short of God’s standard

“Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him s takes part in his wicked works” (Second John 9-11).

Not abiding in Christ’s doctrine is going beyond it; going beyond what is revealed to that which is not and asserting that one can take advantage of God’s silence to authorize anything not specifically condemned.  The principle is clear – going beyond what we can read is sinful; God’s silence is golden and must be revered and not broken.