“But the Bible doesn’t say not to!” This is the defense many make when asked why they engage in the religious practices they do.
“Why do you have mammoth theatrical productions in worship?” “The Bible doesn’t say not to!”
“Why do you worship God with mechanical instruments of music?” “The Bible doesn’t say not to!”
“Why do you have a birthday celebration for Jesus?” “The Bible doesn’t say not to!”
“Why do you sprinkle babies and call it baptism?” “The Bible doesn’t say not to!”
Since God does not specifically say not to do something, the reasoning goes, it must be permitted. But is this reasoning reasonable? Does the Bible permit that which it does not expressly forbid?
A Universal Principle?
The reason many feel that Bible silence permits is because they believe that all silence permits. “The court system will not imprison someone for breaking a law that isn’t on the books—how could God condemn a practice He has never directly addressed?” Certainly, there are times in our society when silence permits—but is this universally true? Can one always do what is not specifically forbidden?
If an employer sends an employee to purchase paper towels for the restroom, what will the employer’s response be if the employee returns with paper towels and new paper towel dispensers? The employee might respond, “You didn’t tell me not to get paper towel dispensers.” However, this would be immaterial—the employer said nothing about getting paper towel dispensers; therefore, the employee was not authorized at that time to purchase them.
Picture a mother telling her children, “You may go outside to play in the yard.” What if those children proceed to play in the yard for a few minutes, and then go across the street to play at the park? One can imagine the ensuing conversation:
“I said you could play in the yard.”
“We did play in the yard!”
“But I only said you could play in the yard—not in the yard and at the park.”
Clearly, the children were not allowed to play at the park, but why? The mother never specifically stated that the children could not play at the park. The mother was silent about the park, and thus permission was not granted to play at the park.
If a teacher sends a disorderly student to the principal’s office, is it acceptable if that student makes a quick detour over to the Coke machine? “But you didn’t say not to!”
Can anyone in any situation really say that authorization has been granted if no one in authority has said anything on the matter one way or the other? Evidently, silence cannot always be equated with permission; it quite often equates to prohibition. So why would so many make the leap to say that the silence of the Scriptures permits?
God Tells Us How to View His Silence
Obviously, the Bible does not directly address every issue that mankind faces today; yet we are assured, “[God’s] divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3). Sometimes the Bible teaches by implication—for example, the Bible does not directly address drug use; but because of its exhortation to “be sober” while it condemns drunkenness (cf. 1 Thess. 5:6-8; 1 Cor. 6:10; Gal. 5:23), one must infer that recreational intoxication of any type is displeasing to God. But even when the Bible is completely silent on an issue, the Bible somehow teaches how we should respond to that issue. There are only two possibilities with regard to the silence of the Scriptures: (1) The silence of the Scriptures permits, or (2) The silence of the Scriptures forbids.
The Holy Spirit instructs us that we are to have authority for all we do: “And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him” (Col. 3:17, emphasis LM). If one were to hear banging at his door accompanied by a gruff, “Open up in the name of the law”; he would know exactly what his visitor meant—the law gave the police officer authority to compel the homeowner to open his door. The officer could not compel anyone to open his door in the name of the law until he first obtained authority of the law. Before we can do anything “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” we must obtain authority of the Lord Jesus (see also Acts 4:7), which authority can only be found in His testament (the New Testament) in the Bible. The Bible gives us everything we need for Christian doctrine and practice, completely furnishing the Christian for “every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17; compare with 2 Pet. 1:3). If there is a good work, the Bible instructs us in it. If the Bible does not instruct us in it, it is not a good work. Since we are commanded to “Prove (‘Test,’ New King James Version) all things; hold fast that which is good” while we must “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thess. 5:21-22; compare with Psalm 119:104), anything the Bible does not authorize explicitly or implicitly must be rejected.
The Israelites were given a general principle—“Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you” (Deut. 4:2). For one to “add” to God’s word, one would have to foray into areas where He is silent. The principle of “not adding” to God’s word continues throughout the Scriptures:
Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar (Prov. 30:6).
For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book (Rev. 22:18-19).
God has given us boundaries within which we must remain. These boundaries are defined by His word. Paul wrote several things to the Corinthians “that in us ye might learn not to go beyond the things which are written” (1 Cor. 4:6, American Standard Version). The apostle John wrote, “Whosoever transgresseth (‘goeth onward,’ ASV), and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son” (2 John 9). One must remain within the confines of Christ’s doctrine, the New Testament, or that person has fellowship with neither God nor Christ. When one acts where the New Testament is silent, he has gone onward from the doctrine of Christ.
The Bible teaches us how to view its silence—and emphatically declares that its silence prohibits. Of Jesus Christ the inspired writer penned, “For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law” (Heb. 8:4). Notice that it does not say He could not be a priest on earth because the law said He couldn’t—it says He could not be a priest on earth because the law only authorized certain others (descendants of Aaron, of the tribe of Levi) to serve as priests. “For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Juda; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood” (7:14, emphasis LM). Moses’ silence concerning the tribe of Judah serving as priests forbade those of the tribe of Judah serving as priests—even Jesus. Friend, if even our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was constrained from acting where the word of God was silent, how much more should we be constrained by the silence of the Scriptures?
God will not condemn anyone for breaking a law that “isn’t on the books.” However, God has given us a general law regarding His silence which is “on the books.” There may be numerous religious practices the world can conjure which are neither authorized nor expressly forbidden in the Bible. However, when the Bible teaches us that we are not to add (religious practices or otherwise) to God’s word, we are forbidden from practicing them, and condemned when we do.
Probably no one who would profess to be a Christian would say that anything not specifically forbidden would be an acceptable religious practice. However, no doubt many will continue to defend their desired religious practices with the excuse, “But the Bible doesn’t say not to!” However, the idea that silence permits is neither universal nor Biblical. As we consider what religious practices to continue, let us not make the excuse, “The Bible doesn’t say not to”—let us each rather say, “I will just do what the Bible says to do.”