Bible Silence: Permissive or Prohibitive?

ShhhhWhen the Bible is silent about something, is that thing permitted or prohibited?  This debate has been going on since at least the second century and differing views on it have been the cause of division among congregations of the Restoration Movement.  Does the Bible itself give us a clue about which is true?

First of all, we would do well to recognize that there is a difference in the Bible between being silent and being exclusive.  Much confusion exists because well meaning people blur the lines between the two. When the Bible specifies one kind of thing, all other similar kinds are excluded.  We frequently say that the Bible is silent on the excluded kinds but this is not correct.

By way of illustration, lets consider a familiar example.  God specified that Noah was to use gopherwood in the construction of the Ark.  In Genesis 6:14 God said, “Make yourself an ark of gopherwood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and outside with pitch.” God specified the type of wood and in doing so excluded the use of all other kinds of wood without having to name each and every excluded kind.  God was NOT silent about the other kinds of wood.  By expressing His preference in the type of wood to use, God necessarily inferred that the other kinds of woods were forbidden.  Is this really silence?  Anything conveyed by necessary inference carries as much weight as something specifically stated.  That is, as long as the inference truly is necessary.  In this example it is easy to see that the inference is necessary.  Many would say that God was silent about the other kinds of wood and that is why they were forbidden.  I think this is an error.  God was not silent about the other kinds of wood.  He excluded them by necessary inference. Therefore God did indeed speak regarding the other kinds of wood!  True Bible silence is when God gives no instruction at all.  With this distinction in mind, lets proceed with our study.

Two Important Passages

There are two principle passages which tells us how to treat the silence of the scriptures.  We know from 1 John 3:4 that sin is defined as transgression of the law. What happens when no law is given (i.e. the Bible is silent)?  Romans 5:13 says, “…sin is not imputed when there is no law.”  Is this not a major indicator as to how Biblical silence should be viewed?  When there is silence no sin can be committed because no law has been given that we can transgress!

1 Corinthians 10:23 is also an important commentary on silence – All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify. Paul says all things are lawful… with the obvious exception of those things specifically prohibited (we know that theft, fornication, lying, drunkenness, etc. are wrong because God specifically condemns these things).  However, not all things are profitable or edifying…  just because some things aren’t sinful doesn’t mean they are automatically helpful. If we engage in something that is lawful in a religious context, but it doesn’t build us up spiritually then we are probably wasting our time. Here is a very important question, “How can all things be lawful if the silent things are unlawful“? Are not the silent things a part of all things?  If Paul isn’t teaching that all things not specifically condemned are lawful, then I don’t know what meaning 1 Cor 10:23 has.  Either all things are lawful or they are not.  If all things are lawful, then this includes things that the Bible is silent about.

General Authority

Most of us understand the concept of general authority.  For example, in Matthew 28:19 Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…”.  If He had told us how to go (by way of walking perhaps) then He would have specified how to go and this would have been a case of specific authority.  Since Jesus did not say how to go, we have general authority to go. Thus we are free to travel, in the making of disciples, in whatever way we have available.  In effect, Jesus leaves our transportation choices up to us.

Herein lies a crucial principle that we must grasp. It is the silence inherent in a general command that gives liberty. When we are told to do something but not told how to do it, does not the silence authorize all ways of doing the thing?  Is it not His silence in regards to “how” we are to “go” which authorizes us to travel to any way we see fit?  Doesn’t this mean that silence equals liberty?  In other words, we have authority to do something not because of the concept of general authority, but because silence authorized it.  Stated yet another way, authority is generic when silence is involved in the command.  It is the silence that authorizes.  If silence prohibits, we could not obey generic commands because they inherently are silent about how to carry out the task!

If Biblical silence prohibits, every instance of generic authority is a paradox

What I mean by not being able to carry out general commands is that if silence prohibits, it would be impossible to carry them out.  Again using Matthew 28:19, allow me to illustrate the paradox. Jesus says to go and make disciples.  He is silent about how to go.  If silence prohibits we can’t obey this command. Jesus was silent about how to go so therefore His silence prohibits all methods of “going”.  He tells us to go, but His silence about how to go would leave us in a position of violating the silence principle if we actually attempt to obey the command to go. He has created a contradiction that is impossible to reconcile if we think that silence prohibits! The premise that “silence prohibits” turns this command (and all like it) into a paradox that is impossible to obey.  The only way such commandments can be prevented from being a paradox is if silence authorizes.  Jesus’ silence on how to go authorizes all ways of going.

When we teach the concept of general authority, we are by necessary inference teaching the concept that silence is NOT prohibitive whether we realize it or not and whether we like it or not.  If silence isn’t prohibitive in relation to generic commands, how can we say it is prohibitive when not tied to a generic command?  I don’t think you can get around it.  A general command is defined by silence, is it not? It is a general command BECAUSE it does not specify all ways of carrying it out (i.e. silence is involved).   If silence really does prohibit, then general commands present a paradox that cannot be dealt with.  To prevent the paradox, silence cannot prohibit.

What about Hebrews 7:14?

For it is evident that our Lord arose from Judah, of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood.

Many people who see silence as prohibitive appeal to this verse assuming that the Hebrew writer is making an argument based upon silence.  Is the Hebrew writer making an argument based upon silence or upon exclusion?  It is obvious from Old Testament scriptures that Moses specified the priestly tribe.  The following passages make it abundantly clear that Aaron and his sons (who were of the tribe of Levi) were to be priests.

Now take Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that he may minister to Me as priest, Aaron and Aaron’s sons: Nadab, Abihu, Elemazar, and Ithamar.  – Exodus 28:1

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Bring the tribe of Levi near, and present them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister unto him. And they shall keep his charge, and the charge of the whole congregation before the tabernacle of the congregation, to do the service of the tabernacle. And they shall keep all the instruments of the tabernacle of the congregation, and the charge of the children of Israel, to do the service of the tabernacle. And thou shalt give the Levites unto Aaron and to his sons: they are wholly given unto him out of the children of Israel.And thou shalt appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall wait on their priest’s office: and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death. –  Numbers 3:5-10

God was not silent about the other tribes, He excluded them.  Just as God excluded all other kinds of wood when he told Noah to use gopherwood, He excluded all the other tribes from the priesthood when He specified the tribe of Levi.  God was not silent about the other tribes but spoke through necessary inference by means of exclusion!  For this reason, it is apparent that the Hebrew writer was not basing his argument on silence, but on exclusion.

What did Jesus do with the silence of the Scriptures?

When Jesus observed the Passover with His disciples, they drank the fruit of the vine (wine, grape juice).  Consider Luke 22:7-20.

Then came the Day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover must be killed. And He sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat.”  So they said to Him, “Where do You want us to prepare?”  And He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him into the house which he enters. Then you shall say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, “Where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with My disciples?”’ Then he will show you a large, furnished upper room; there make ready.” So they went and found it just as He had said to them, and they prepared the Passover. When the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve apostles with Him. Then He said to them, “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.

When God gave the instructions regarding the Passover observance in Exodus 12, He was completely silent about the use of wine.  If silence prohibits, then surely it was unlawful to drink the fruit of the vine during the Passover   Yet, Jesus didn’t seem to think this was a problem.  Likewise, the Old Testament is completely silent about synagogue worship.  If silence prohibits, then surely synagogues would have been unauthorized.  Yet, Jesus obviously participated in synagogue activities. Consider Luke 4:16-20.

So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: “ The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To Preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

It is apparent that Jesus did not regard the silence of the Old Testament as a prohibition against using the fruit of the vine during the passover nor as a prohibition against synagogues.  What else can we conclude but that Jesus considered silence to be permissive? Since Jesus is our example in all things, then we must also follow His example regarding the silence of the Scriptures.


Jesus Himself participated in religious activities that the Old Testament was silent about.  The Bible states that sin is not imputed when there is no law and that all things are lawful. And finally, with the obvious implications regarding general authority we cannot help but conclude that where the Bible is silent, God has granted us the freedom to choose our actions and practices. Does the Bible give us hints about what to do with silence?  Most definitely yes. Where the Bible is silent, we have liberty.