Regarding Responsible Reformation
Al Maxey

Issue #15a
February 8, 2003


Specificity or Silence?
Determining Prohibition & Exclusion
-- Responding to a Reader's Question --

When our thinking is challenged, especially with regard to cherished traditions, it is often essential to greater understanding and ultimate acceptance of differing perspectives that clarification be quickly provided when legitimate questions are posed. The so-called "Law of Silence" is a cherished interpretive device of some within Christendom. It has been used for generations among certain conservative groups to produce, promote and preserve various practices and precepts regarded by their proponents as constituting God's Truth. Thus, to question this interpretive device is in effect to question the very foundation of their belief. One does that at great personal risk. Thus, it is critical to respond immediately to concerns raised when the tenets of one's traditional understandings are challenged.

One of the readers of these Reflections Regarding Responsible Reformation, who is from North Carolina and who has been very openly supportive of my writings and ministry when it was not always popular to do so, has sought clarification of my position with respect to a particular practice associated with our corporate worship. A beloved professor of mine, when I was in graduate school, used to say, "If one student speaks up and asks a question in class, ten others are probably silently wondering the same thing." I believe this reader's concern is a legitimate one, thus I shall seek to address it to the best of my ability and understanding.

The two passages from the writings of the apostle Paul that some have focused upon in their formulation of their doctrine with respect to what is "musically acceptable to God" in the context of corporate worship are Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16.

Ephesians 5:18-19
Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another
in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing
and making melody with your heart to the Lord.

Colossians 3:16
Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you,
with all wisdom teaching and admonishing
one another with psalms and hymns and
spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness
in your hearts to God.

As one can quickly perceive, nothing at all is discussed in the above passages with respect to instruments of music, although some would argue that the allusion is to be found in the original meaning of the term "psalms" (signifying "to pluck," as upon a stringed instrument). Others would suggest that as Christians sang many of the OT psalms, they would be singing words favorable to instrumental accompaniment (Psalms 149 and 150, just by way of example). One could also point to the presence of harps in the book of Revelation as a symbol of joyous praise unto God. Would the Lord God, it is argued, employ such a symbol in His teaching to those under the New Covenant if the reality of that symbol had now become an abomination to Him? Would one be cast into Hell for using on earth what is depicted symbolically as being acceptably used in Heaven? Some have difficulty accepting such a dogma as this.

But, with respect to the issue of "silence," the two passages written by the apostle Paul clearly say nothing at all about the use of instruments. No statement is made either for or against them. This is also true for the remainder of the NT writings. Instruments of music in the corporate worship of believers is neither commanded nor prohibited. There is only SILENCE.

One thing that is specified in the two passages written by Paul, however, is SINGING. This singing is to come from our hearts (i.e., it is to be heart-felt, genuine, sincere), and it is to evidence a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving for our many blessings received from our Father. It is a worshipful expression of our love and devotion. It is additionally depicted as a teaching tool within the assembly of believers. Thus, our singing also teaches and admonishes our brothers and sisters in Christ. Therefore, when we sing it expresses the innermost feelings of our heart, and it also touches our minds so that we better understand the great Truths of the Word. It may even challenge us to reform our way of living. Paul declared, "I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also" (1 Corinthians 14:15).

There is no question that God desires His people to SING. It is specified. Thus, it is ordained and approved and authorized. But what about instruments of music? What is God's feeling about these in the context of corporate worship today? The reality is -- in the NT writings there is a deafening silence with regard to their use. Nothing is specified one way or the other. Therefore, must we conclude that they are forbidden by God? Does silence equate to sin? We obviously cannot conclude they are commanded for the church today, for they are not. But, on the other hand, neither are they specifically forbidden. Thus, silence alone is neither permissive nor prohibitive.

According to the so-called "Law of Silence," however, if the Scriptures are silent about something, it is therefore and thereby excluded. There is no directive either for or against instruments of music in corporate worship in the NT writings, therefore, according to this "law," they are excluded, and any attempt to utilize them in any form or fashion constitutes SIN in the sight of God. Coupling this with the knowledge that early church history reflects early disciples most likely did not use instruments in worship (for whatever reason, and there are many possibilities), some have formulated a theology of exclusion with respect to musical instruments in worship. They are perceived as an abomination in the sight of God, and those who employ them do so at the risk of their very eternal salvation. Fellowship is broken and factions are formed over this personal perception of the force of biblical silence.

Thus, we have the basis and background of the questions posed by one of our readers. What truly has the force to determine divine prohibition and/or exclusion? Is it specificity or silence? I maintain it is the former, not the latter.

The Ephesian and Colossian passages specify singing. Thus, we are to sing. If we REPLACE singing with something else (like dancing), then we have transgressed the command to sing. Instead of singing, we are dancing. That would not be a fulfillment of the specified command. When the Lord specifies something, He expects that which is specified to be honored through our acceptance and compliance. When God says sing .... WE SING. Replacing it, deleting it, negating it, invalidating it are forbidden. Specificity excludes our substituting something else in the place of that which our God specified. Thus, it is not silence about dancing that excludes dancing in this case, rather it is specificity about singing. If I tell my son to go to the store and buy a gallon of milk, I would be disappointed if he came home with a gallon of grape juice instead. True, I was silent about grape juice, but the fact that I specified milk excluded all other items in that category. Thus, it was specificity, not silence, that was determinative.

What if the store was having a special promotion where they were giving away a box of cookies with every gallon of milk purchased? Would that be a transgression of my "silence" if he came home with cookies as well as milk? After all, he obeyed my command .... he brought home milk. He did exactly as I said. He obeyed fully. Would the addition of something NOT specified thereby NEGATE or INVALIDATE the command to bring home milk? Of course not. And this would especially be relevant if I had previously expressed to my son, in times past, that I loved cookies. Since he had no reason to believe I had changed my mind on that matter, he would be doing this out of love for his Dad.

God has previously expressed His approval of instruments of music in corporate worship. That is a fact. Nowhere has God ever stated He has changed His mind. That too is a fact. Yes, His covenant with mankind has changed with the sacrifice of His Son, but aspects of our heartfelt expressions of love and devotion are just as relevant today as they were under previous covenants. He still appreciates prayer. He still approves singing. Loving one another transcends the atoning elements of specific covenants. Although offering bulls and goats is no longer needed, since Christ (the substance) has replaced those daily sacrifices (the shadows), nevertheless worshipful expressions remain valid. Hebrews 9:1-10 informs us that "regulations of divine worship" have now been removed under the new covenant (this "time of reformation"). Thus, matters of "self-made religion," such as decrees like "don't do this and don't do that" are abolished (Colossians 2:20-23).

God has specified singing. Thus, we sing. We don't replace it with something else. However, musical accompaniment is not a replacement of singing. Jesus pointed out the distinction quite clearly in Matthew 15:4-6. God commanded that one's parents be shown certain considerations by the children. Some religionists were seeking to avoid their responsibility here by replacing the command with one of their traditions. Jesus condemned them, saying, "And thus you INVALIDATED the Word of God for the sake of your tradition" (Matthew 15:4-6). Was there anything wrong or sinful about their tradition? Of course not. In fact, had these religionists done both (God's command and their tradition) they would have been commended. It was that they sought to REPLACE the former with the latter that constituted the sin and drew the rebuke. Their tradition did not accompany God's command, it invalidated it. That was the problem.

The use of musical instruments as either accompaniment or as an aid to SINGING in no way whatsoever invalidates or negates or replaces singing. Singing still occurs. It is still just as heartfelt as before, whether "Bertha tinkles the ivories" in the background or not. The case of the "four cups of wine" added to the Passover feast, and the fact that Jesus and the disciples embraced this addition, clearly demonstrates that additions are not necessarily wrong in themselves IF they do not replace, negate, invalidate or diminish that which is commanded. Musical accompaniment does none of these, thus there is no biblical justification for its prohibition. On the other hand, neither is there any justification for commanding its use. Since God Himself, in His NT documents, has neither commanded nor prohibited its use, it thus falls under the umbrella of "biblical silence." It is thereby relegated to the realm of responsible judgment. If it can be employed without replacing or negating or invalidating what God HAS prescribed, if it can be employed in such a way as to bring glory to God and uplift His people, then there is no just cause to exclude it. Those who choose to employ musical instruments as an accompaniment or aid to their singing are just as approved by God as those who choose not to employ it (Romans 14). It is purely a personal preference, nothing more.

Fellowship in the ONE BODY should never be severed over personal preferences with regard to worshipful expression. As long as one is complying with God's specification -- SING -- then preference with respect to accompaniment should be honored among brethren. As the old saying goes, "You don't have to be my twin, to be my brother."

To sum up, specificity does indeed exclude all that would seek to replace, negate or invalidate that which is specified. If God says "sing," He doesn't expect us to "dance" in its place. Silence, however, neither proscribes nor prescribes. It merely calls for the exercise of responsible judgment in light of that which has been specified.

Let me close with one last illustration. If I am the host of a Country Music show, and I spot my brother-in-Christ Randy Travis (a well-known country recording star, and a member of the churches of Christ) sitting in the audience, I might say, "Randy, would you come up here on stage and sing us a song?" I'm sure Randy would comply. If he gets up on stage, grabs a guitar which is sitting in a corner of the stage, and then sings one of his hits while accompanying himself with the guitar, has he complied fully with the request I made of him? Of course he has. I asked him to "sing a song," and Randy sang a song!! Did the fact that he played a guitar as accompaniment invalidate his compliance with my request? Of course not. Using the guitar in no way whatsoever negated, replaced, invalidated or diminished the SINGING of that song by our brother Randy Travis.

If, on the other hand, Randy had come up on stage and never opened his mouth, but played an instrumental piece on the guitar instead, he would NOT have complied with my request. I had requested that he "sing a song," and he "played a piece of music" instead. That would have constituted an invalidation of my request. Why? Because he replaced what I asked for with something different.

In this example it was not silence that excluded, it was rather specificity. Playing an instrumental piece was not contrary to my will because I was "silent" about playing an instrumental piece, rather it was contrary to my will because I had "specified" that he "sing a song." However, my silence about playing a guitar did not prevent him from using a guitar as accompaniment or an aid in fulfilling what I had specified. Whether he used the guitar as an aid, or whether he chose to sing a cappella, would not have mattered. As long as he sang a song, he was in compliance with the request.

I hope and pray this has helped clarify the vital distinction between specificity and silence. It is a critical distinction, and confusion with regard to it has led to the formulation of some horrendous theological precepts and practices that have resulted in the fragmenting of the ONE BODY into feuding factions. It is my prayer that we can begin moving toward a responsible reformation of our thinking in the Body of Christ, and that we can begin to enjoy that unity, harmony and oneness for which our Lord so fervently prayed on the night of His betrayal and arrest (John 17).


Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, Reflections #15 is a very clear and accurate stating of the propositions of the so-called "law of silence." It is a handling of the subject long overdue.

From a Reader in Nevada:

Al, thanks for Reflex 15 -- right on!

From a Minister/Author in California:

In defense of Maxey's alleged radicalism, I have this to say. Al is not a radical in any sense that is negative. He is actually a moderate who is willing to listen to the other side of an issue and compare it with his understanding of the Scriptures. That he takes so-called "unorthodox" positions in no way suggests he is a radical, but that he is a thinker and serious student of God's word. Often the orthodox position is simply the status quo or mere repetition of what someone stated long ago as to truth. Just because an idea is 200 years old or 1900 years old does not lend it credibility per se.

Without men like Al who are willing to look at Scripture without prejudicial glasses (almost an impossible feat to do), some of us would still be groping in the darkness of medieval Catholicism. If Al makes me think, does that make him radical? Perhaps in the sense that few out there actually call us to think beyond our own pre-conceived notions of right and wrong, truth and error. I applaud Al for his convictions, often expressed knowing that great criticism will be heaped upon him. If it weren't for the studious minds among us, few of us would have even a rudimentary ability to discern fact from fiction, truth from falsity. If Al Maxey is a radical then I say give us more like him.

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