One of the core principles of the Restoration Movement and among churches of Christ is the principle of Silence. Simply put, if the Bible does not explicitly or implicitly authorize an action, then we choose to abstain from it. Thomas Campbell famously said, “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are Silent, we are silent.”
However, in studying this issue, I have discovered that it is not unique to churches of Christ. It is common among conservative evangelicals including some Presbyterian churches and southern Baptist churches. Expect they do not refer to it as the “principle of Silence.” They instead use the term the “Regulative Principle of Worship.”
Like churches of Christ, among these conservative denominational groups there are two trains of thought that branch off from the Regulative Principle (principle of Silence). One side say if the Bible does not directly command it then it is forbidden. The other side says if the Bible does not directly forbid it then it is acceptable.
Below, I want to examine several Old Testament passages in light of this question: Is the Silence of God permissive or prohibitive?
The regulative principle is very clear cut in God’s command to Adam concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God explicitly commanded, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (Gen 2:16-17 ESV). This is an example where God is not silent, but He openly commands Adam to not eat of the tree and in Gen 3:6; he and his wife break this command; and punishment follows. This first example shows that when God makes an explicit command, he is serious. Both views of the regulative principle affirm this.
After the failure of their parents, Cain and Abel later came to make an offering to God. Cain, who was a “worker of the ground” (Gen 4:2), brought “an offering of the fruit of the ground” (Gen 4:3). Abel on the other hand was a “keeper of sheep” (Gen 4:2) and brought an offering “of the firstborn of his flock of their fat portions” (Gen 4:4). The result was that “the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” What about their offerings resulted God’s acceptance or rejection? They both offered their best as Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. Hebrews 11:4 sheds some light on this passage which explains that at least part of the reason Abel’s sacrifice was accepted was because he offered it “by faith.” Paul also taught that “faith proceeds from hearing, and hearing proceeds through the word of Christ.” If Abel acted out of faith, did he not do so in accordance to God’s command? The problem is that God’s command in this story is not recorded. Had God commanded an animal sacrifice? Scripture does not reveal what occurred. However, in regard to the Regulative Principle, if God had commanded an animal sacrifice, would he also have had to state that a fruit sacrifice or any other type of sacrifice was unacceptable? Or would his explicit command to provide an animal sacrifice be sufficient?
Our next case study comes from the story of Noah. God gave him very explicit and specific instructions about how he should build the ark in Gen 6:14-21. The text says that “Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him” (Gen 6:22). God gave Noah clear commands and Noah carried them out in a way pleasing to God. Here it seems the regulative principle is prohibitive. God commanded the ark to be made of gopher wood (Gen 6:14). Could Noah have acceptably used gopher wood and used another type of wood alongside it? God commanded that the ark be constructed with “the door of the ark in its side” (Gen 6:16 ESV). Could Noah acceptably have added a second door elsewhere on the ark? God commanded the ark be built “with lower, second, and third decks” (Gen 6:16 ESV). Could Noah acceptably have carried this out and have added a fourth floor to the ark? This might seem redundant, but it illustrates that when God explicitly makes a commandment, he does not have to explicitly exclude all other options. This affirms the first view, which states that the regulative principle is prohibitive.
Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu suffered a tragic death when they failed to adhere to the regulative principle. The text says,
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 (Lev 10:1-2 ESV).
They offered an “unauthorized” fire. The Hebrew word זָר is defined as “prohibited,” “unauthorized,” “illegitimate,” and “strange.” The text tells us why the fire was considered “unauthorized.” It says it was a fire that God “had not commanded them.” Something about the fire or the procedure did not follow God’s command. Here again is an example of the regulative principle functioning as prohibitive rather than permissive.
1 Samuel 13
Shortly after Saul had been anointed king of Israel (two years), he gathered three thousand soldiers and went to battle the Philistines in Michmash. The Israelites were intimidated and hid in the caves of Gilgal as they were waiting for Samuel to come and offer a burnt offering of behalf of the Israelites. After waiting seven days (1 Sam 13:8), Samuel had not shown up. Finally, out of desperation, Saul decided he would offer the sacrifice (1 Sam 13:11). After he had done so, Samuel arrived and said, “You have done foolishly, You have not kept the command of the LORD your God, with which he commanded you” (1 Sam 13:13 ESV). The law specified that only the high priest was authorized to make the offering (Exod 30:7-8; Lev 16:11-13). The law did not include statements that explicitly said no one else could make the offering, however, it explicitly said Aaron (and those to follow him) were to make the offering. Samuel was now in Aaron’s position and only he was authorized to make the offering. Here again is an example where the regulative principle is prohibitive.
2 Chronicles 30
King Hezekiah was a young king who “did what was right in the eyes of the LORD” (2 Chron 29:2 ESV) in contrast to some of the recent kings before him. He cleansed the temple (2 Chron 29:3-19) and he restored temple worship. In 2 Chron 30, King Hezekiah desired for Israel to observe the Passover. The problem was that the priests “had not consecrated themselves in sufficient number, nor had the people assembled in Jerusalem” (2 Chron 30:3), therefore instead of observing the Passover on the on the fourteenth day of the first month (Exod 23:15; Lev 23:4-8), they observed it in the second month (2 Chron 30:2). The text clearly acknowledges that they were doing something the law had not prescribed yet, the Lord appears to overlook this (2 Chron 30:18-20). This story is often cited as an example of the regulative principle being permissive. It is also cited as an example of mercy triumphing over sacrifice (Cf. Hosea 6:6; Matt 9:13; 12:7). However, it appears that this whole situation falls in line with Num 9, where there were some men considered unclean from touching a dead body and Moses allowed them to celebrate the Passover on the fourteenth day of the second month. Moses then passed this example on to future generations (Num 9:9-11). Therefore, this is hardly a valid example for the regulative principle being permissive.
by Noah Icenhour