The Law of Silence
If the authority of Scripture is not inherent in itself, then we have the option of pursuing authoritative tradition or cultural relativism as a standard. However, there is evidence within Scripture that indicates dire consequences for those who disregard pattern authority. For example, God gave the Israelites instructions about a place of worship that served as a model for the construction of the tabernacle. We know this because God said, “See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain” (Exodus 25:40). What was authorized was only what was found in the instructions.
The seriousness of God’s instructions can be seen in the sin of Nadab and Abihu. They were consumed by fire because they “offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command” (Leviticus 10:1). Another example of the pattern principle regards the instructions about how to carry the Ark of the Covenant.
The Scriptures reveal that God’s wrath broke out against Uzzah because he was not authorized to handle the Ark (1 Chronicles 13:9-11). Later, David corrected this mistake when he said, “No one but the Levites may carry the ark of God, because the LORD chose them to carry the ark of the LORD and to minister before him forever” (15:2). Not only was Uzzah not qualified to carry the Ark, it was being transported improperly: “And the Levites carried the ark of God with the poles on their shoulders, as Moses had commanded in accordance with the word of the LORD” (15:15).
Did God say anywhere that Uzzah could not carry the Ark? Did God ever say it could not be carried on a wagon? Did God ever forbid Nadab and Abihu from offering a fire from somewhere else? No. Then why did these men perish? The reason is because God’s instructions were being disregarded. Respect for the authority of God’s pattern is expressed in the principle, “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where it is silent.” In other words, when God speaks on a matter the law of silence forbids other action. This law is not a human principle of interpretation but a principle instituted by God. However, the silence of Scripture by itself does not forbid something. It is only when God has already spoken on a matter, or given us certain instructions, that the law of silence becomes operative. If our action is an addition or substitution to what God has already said about a matter then our action is in violation of God’s law of silence.
In the case of Nadab and Abihu, aromatic spices were dropped into a fire pan or censer filled with burning charcoal. The source of these hot coals was supposed to be the altar: “He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the LORD and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain” (Leviticus 16:12). God did not say specifically that this is the only source and that all other sources were forbidden; however, the deaths of Nadab and Abihu illustrate the principle that when God speaks the law of silence becomes operative. Because God said the priest was to fill his censer with “burning coals from the altar,” the law of silence eliminated all other sources of fire.
The model of Tabernacle worship that God provided the Israelites included an altar, censer, fire, and incense. This model, along with specific instructions on how to offer the incense, served as a pattern for the worshippers. The severity of punishment in this case should be a warning to those today who are opposed to pattern theology.
Gordon J. Wenham powerfully speaks to our fellowship today when he says in regard to the story of Nadab and Abihu, “In many parts of the Church the biblical view of divine judgment is conveniently forgotten or supposed to be something that passed away with the OT. Heine’s famous last words, ‘God will forgive me. That’s his job,’ have become the unexpressed axiom of much modern theology. This short story is therefore an affront to liberal thinkers. It should also challenge Bible-believing Christians whose theological attitudes are influenced by prevailing trends of thought more often than they realize” (The Book of Leviticus, p. 153).
The point is not that silence by itself forbids an action. Since God has not provided us with the details regarding the exact procedure, we are free to do as we please as long as we observe some general guidelines. In fact, God has not spoken on many things that we are free to do.
The law of silence applies only when God has stated his will concerning a matter. To illustrate, notice how the writer of Hebrews uses the law of silence to show that the priesthood of the Old Testament could not belong to the tribe of Judah: “For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests” (Hebrews 7:14). As God’s spokesman concerning these matters, Moses did not say anything regarding the tribe of Judah. He did not say they could not serve as priests; that is, there is no specific prohibition by Moses concerning the tribe of Judah. The writer of Hebrews argues, however, that the tribe of Judah is prohibited because of silence. Therefore, Jesus would be a priest “in the order of Melchizedek” and not “in the order of Aaron” (v. 11) because Jesus was of the tribe of Judah and not Levi.
There are many other illustrations of the law of silence. Through Jeremiah, God condemns false worship because it was “something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind” (Jeremiah 7:31). In the context of Jeremiah’s statement we learn that the Israelites had worshipped in ways that were false. God had given specific instructions about true worship but the Israelites worshipped in ways that he had not commanded. The principle of silence can be illustrated throughout the Bible. Although this principle was not always observed in the early church (just as it is not always observed today), it was recognized. Around 200 AD, Tertullian said, “But ‘the thing which is not forbidden is freely permitted.’ I should rather say that what has not been freely allowed is forbidden.”
The law of silence is operative regarding the organization of the church because the inspired writers of the New Testament have revealed God’s will on the matter. It is God’s will that there be a plurality of leaders called elders/overseers in each congregation. Furthermore, these leaders are to meet certain minimum qualifications and they are obligated to carry out a ministry in the church. When Paul gave us the instructions about elders and deacons in 1 Timothy and Titus, he was preparing the church for a time when he and the other apostles would no longer be present. It was not the plan of God that the church always be led by inspired apostles and prophets. These two letters and other material in the New Testament provide all that we need to know about the organization of the church. Because of the providence of God, these letters have been preserved through the centuries for our edification today. Of monarchial bishops or the papacy in Rome, the New Testament has said nothing. Therefore, the law of silence forbids addition or substitution to this model.
J B Myers