The Sound of Silence

PART ONE: LESSONS IN LEGALISM

Ryan Ross

"But that's just your interpretation!" How often I encountered this outcry when trying to convince my friend about religious matters! I would defend myself by saying that she was being unfair. I would point out that an All-Powerful God is certainly capable of making Himself understood by His own creation. Indeed, religious unity would be achieved if people would simply "speak where the Bible speaks and remain silent where the Bible is silent." (Who said that? Campbell? Lipscomb? Biden?)

It worked. My friend would agree with the points I made. Of course there is an Absolute Truth that transcends all human Perceived Truth, and, yes, it can be discerned by an honest individual who looks for it with an open mind. However, she would go on to suggest that I did not appear to be an individual with an open mind!

Of course, I was using my own interpretation. For any message to have meaning it must be interpreted. She and I had two different methods of interpreting the Bible; I was convinced that my method was right and her method was wrong; and the whole conversation was about my trying to get her to agree with me. So she was right on the other charge, too: I did not have an open mind!

At the time I was an ardent Legalist. I was viewing the Bible through the Legalist's Lens, a system of interpretation that I had been taught in the Church of Christ. The Preachers learned it in Preacher Training School. Whenever they got a new job, they started with a series of lessons on this system so their congregations would be "well grounded." Of course, no preacher called it "the Legalist's Lens;" "legalist" was one of those unfair monikers that Denominationalists stuck on "true Christians." Few preachers even called it a method of interpretation at all. It was called Bible Authority, or The Silence of Scripture, or Biblical Hermeneutics (did I spell that right?), or simply God's Divine Will. Nevertheless, it was always a method of interpretation...the Church of Christ Method. And I believed it. Many people still do.

What made the Legalist's Lens an attractive approach was all the claims made for it. The most important claim was that it constituted "The Only True Method of Understanding The Bible;" a Christian who used this method consistently could be sure that his conclusions were God's conclusions. (Likewise, any other method was said to be of fallible human origin and, if used consistently, would result in total chaos; the Bible would mean anything a person wanted it to mean.) Other claims followed from this one; such as, the method is consistent, honest, and rational; it respects the silence of Scripture, it was wise, and it led to Truth.

All of these claims are false. I could no longer be a Legalist once I discovered this.

The fact is that the Legalist's Lens Method is the exact opposite of everything it claims to be. It is extremely inconsistent, arbitrary, and divisive. It speaks very emphatically where the Bible is silent, it is inherently ludicrous, and it ultimately results in total chaos. Its result is the very thing it claims to oppose: the Bible means anything an individual wants it to mean.

When my new Local Pulpit Minister discovered that I had abandoned a fundamental Church of Christ belief, he began yet another series of lessons on "The Silence of Scripture and What it Teaches." I have told him to save his breath. I used to preach it, too, and I can still give the sermon. But there's one difference: now I apply the method consistently. It makes it much more interesting...

LESSON 1: PROCEDURE
The Legalist's Lens and How to Use It

In order to interpret the Bible according to this Method, two basic laws must be understood at the outset. I call these the Lordly Laws of Legalism because it's my sermon and I like alliteration. The Lordly Laws of Legalism are linked:

1. In religious practice, we must have Bible Authority (a command) for everything we do;

2. Any practice not Authorized (commanded) in the Bible is a sin.

The Second Lordly Law is important. It is often called the Law of Exclusion because of the way it defines Sin. "Sin" according to the Law of Exclusion, is not merely "doing something forbidden" but is also "doing something not commanded." Therefore, we can condense these two precepts into one main Law:

Everything Not Mandatory Is Prohibited.

To be fair, it should be admitted that there is some room for individual freedom of choice within this framework. This is made possible by what Legalists call General Authority. General Authority is what we get when the Bible commands an action in a broad sense, without relating the details. The various possible details are called expedients. The action is still mandatory, but the Legalist may choose from among various options for the most "expedient" means of carrying out the action.

Specific Authority is something quite different. Specific Authority is what we get when the Bible commands an action in a narrow sense, supplying details about its execution. In this case the Law of Exclusion is employed: we are to understand that the details are just as mandatory as the general action, and that to change any of the details would be a sin. In practice then, "specific" means "exclusive."

It should be mentioned that every command has a General meaning and a Specific meaning. This is because all words have such meanings. For example, the word hero may be defined as George Washington, Spiderman, or sandwich from Howard's deli, depending on what details one has in mind. But the word has an exclusive, Specific meaning in that it cannot mean coward, concupiscence, or Congressman. The same applies to Scripture, as we will see.

When the Legalist says the Bible "authorizes" something, he means that the Bible commands it. The command may take one of three forms; only one is an actual "command" but all the forms are commands in effect, since they make actions mandatory. The three forms of Authorization are:

    1. Direct Command ("Do this.");
    2. Approved Example ("The disciples did this.");
    3. Necessary Inference ("The disciples did that"...but they needed this in order to do it.)

All of these forms are really Examples. The "Approved Example" is obviously an Example. The "Necessary Inference" must be drawn from an Example. The "Direct Command" is an Example of someone giving a direct command. What gives these Examples the force of a Divine Command is the fact that they are in the Bible.

But not every Example in the Bible has authority. For an example to be binding it must be an "Approved Example.'' When the Bible makes it plain that the people it describes have God's approval in what they are doing, we are said to have an "Approved Example." Therefore, the actions of the apostles, early Christians, and New Testament writers - all "approved" - are Binding. The actions of Caiaphas, Judas, and Diotrephes - all obviously "disapproved" - are not.

This concludes the description of the Method. Some of the lingo is different, but so far all the points are the same as any self-respecting Preacher School grad would make. There is just one more thing that he would mention before going on...Remember that this is not a method of interpretation; it is The Method of Interpretation. The Lordly Laws of Legalism are not men's rules; they are the Will of God. If used consistently they will enable us to understand the Bible alike. But remember that all traditions, opinions, and modern substitutes must be abandoned; we must follow the Biblical Pattern, and it only.

Now the sermon requires some illustrations from Scripture to show how the Method is used. First up -- a Church of Christ favorite.

LESSON 2: PIANOS
"Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord.."- Ephesians 5:19

Using the Legalist's Lens, this passage will be easy to understand. It is a Direct Command, written by an Inspired Apostle to "the saints" (Eph. 1:1), so we should understand that it is a Binding Example on our church practice.

The word "sing" commands us to sing. It has a General application in that it doesn't specify how loud we are to sing, how well we are to sing, or which color hymnal we are to use. Therefore we are at liberty to choose from among the various expedients in these areas - as long as we obey the command to sing. (Although it should be admitted that the "Congregational Singing Brethren" insist that, since solos, female or male groups, or choirs are not mentioned, everyone in a congregation should sing every note of every song.)

But the word "sing" also has a Specific application. It automatically excludes any other form of music-making, whether with a piano, a bass krummhorn, or a Yamaha DX. Therefore we must conclude that instrumental music in worship is a sin. It violates the Silence of Scripture.

There are people who say, "But we can play and sing!" These people do not understand the Law of Exclusion: "sing" means "sing only." Any other kind of music is unauthorized. Also important here is the statement, "make music in your heart." This is actually a Specific command about accompaniment. The singing is to be accompanied "in your heart," not on a piano. "ln your heart" means "only in your heart."

Some people say, "But it doesn't forbid a piano!" It doesn't have to. The Law of Exclusion forbids it. Remember God telling Noah to build his ark out of "gopher wood"? That command automatically forbade using oak, walnut, kumquat, and particle board; God didn't have to list these. Genesis would be a very long book if it had to contain everything God didn't mean!

No, we can't offer modern substitutes. The Bible means just what it says.

Most sermons on Bible Authority that I have heard wrap up the lesson somewhere around here. Some go on a little further and add Acts 20:7 as an illustration. Since it is also an "Approved Example" (early Christians), it is also considered Binding. The Law of Exclusion is applied to show that we are required to meet on every first day of the week to break bread, and that we may break bread only on the first day of the week.

Maybe we should allow more time for sermons. That way, we might get a few more lessons on the following topic...

LESSON 3: PUCKERING
"Greet one another with a kiss of love."- 1 Peter 5:14

Using the Legalist's Lens, this passage will also be easy to understand. It is a Direct Command, written by an Inspired Apostle to "God's elect" (1 Peter 1:1), so we should understand that it is a Binding Example on our church practice.

The phrase, "Greet one another with a kiss of love," commands us to greet one another with a kiss of love. It has a General application in that it doesn't specify how long the kiss is to take, which part of the anatomy is to be kissed, or how many times we are to kiss. Therefore we are at liberty to choose from among the various expedients in these areas -- as long as we obey the command to greet one another with a kiss of love. (Although it should be admitted that the "One-Kiss Brethren" insist that, since the word "kiss" is singular in this passage, only one kiss per individual is authorized in any given greeting.)

But the statement, "Greet one another with a kiss of love" also has a Specific application. It automatically excludes any other type of greeting, whether with a handshake, a compliment on a dress or a discussion about the Cowboys game. Therefore we must conclude that any other form of greeting is a sin. It would violate the Silence of Scripture.

There are people who say, "But we can shake hands and kiss!" These people do not understand the Law of Exclusion: "with a kiss of love" means "with a kiss of love only." Any other kind of greeting is unauthorized. (See "make music in your heart," which specifies the type of accompaniment; compare with "a kiss of love," which specifies the type of greeting.)

Some people say, "But it doesn't forbid a handshake!" It doesn't have to. The Law of Exclusion forbids it. (See "gopher wood.") 1 Peter would be a very long book if it had to contain everything the Inspired Apostle didn't mean!

No, we can't offer modern substitutes. The Bible means just what it says.

It has been said of the Legalist's Lens that it is the interpretive method which we use to understand any message, Biblical or not. If that is true, then a consistent sermon should include an illustration of this commonsense, everyday use of the Method as well...

LESSON 4: PONTIACS
"Drive the Pontiac to the Piggly-Wiggly." - Mrs. Fawley to her daughter, P.J.

Using the Legalist's Lens, this statement will be easy to understand. It is a Direct Command, spoken by Mrs. Fawley to her daughter, P.J. Since P.J. is an obedient daughter, we know that she will consider her mother a Binding Example.

The statement "Drive the Pontiac to the Piggly-Wiggly" commands P.J. to drive the Pontiac to the Piggly-Wiggly.

It has a General application in that it doesn't specify what kind of Pontiac P.J. is to drive, or to which Piggly-Wiggly she is to drive it. Therefore P.J. is at liberty to choose from among the various expedients in these areas - as long as she obeys the command to drive the Pontiac to the Piggly-Wiggly. (Although it should be admitted that P.J.'s brother insists that, since it isn't mentioned, a Pontiac with a Chevy engine is unauthorized.)

But the word "Pontiac" also has a Specific application. It automatically excludes any other make of car, whether Ford, Fiat, or Ferrari. Therefore we must conclude that for P.J. ever to drive any of these kinds of cars would make her a disobedient daughter.

The word "Piggly-Wiggly" also has a Specific application. It automatically excludes travel to any other destination, whether to the parking lot across the street from the Piggly-Wiggly, to the Jitney Jungle to get a Coke, or to the gas station to fill up the car. Further it excludes driving home; "home" has not been authorized as a destination. Once at the Piggly-Wiggly, P.J. is required to stay. For her to drive to any of these unauthorized destinations would make her disobedient to her mother.

Some people say, "But P.J. could drive to the Piggly-Wiggly and drive back home!" These people do not understand the Law of Exclusion: "To the Piggly-Wiggly" means "to the Piggly-Wiggly only." It cannot mean anything else without allowing any meaning one wishes. (See "make music in your heart," which describes accompaniment; compare with "to the Piggly-Wiggly" which describes destination.)

Some people say, "But her mother didn't forbid P.J. to drive back home, or to gas up the car!" She didn't have to. The Law of Exclusion forbids these. (See "gopher wood.") P.J.'s mother would have to stand on the front porch talking for a long time if she had to explain everything she didn't mean!

No, P.J. can't offer substitutes. Mrs. Fawley meant just what she said. Knowing P.J. to be an obedient daughter, we will expect her to drive only Pontiacs for the rest of her life...and to drive them only to Piggly-Wiggly stores.

LESSON 5: PRACTICES

A good sermon should conclude with ideas for listeners to consider further. A truly consistent application of the Legalist's Lens should give them plenty to think about.

Here is a list of church practices. Each of them is derived from an "Approved Example" by applying the Law of Exclusion...

Church attendance is mandatory. -Heb. 10:25.

A weekly collection is required. - 1Cor. 16:2.

Deacons are men only. -- 1 Tim. 3:8.

Men with only one believing child are disqualified to be elders. - 1 Tim. 3:4.

Women must wear head coverings when speaking in the church. - 1 Cor. 11:5.

Women are forbidden to speak in church. - 1 Cor. 14:34.

Since women are forbidden to speak in church, they are forbidden to sing in church. - Eph. 5:19.

Unmarried or childless women are disqualified to be younger women. - Titus 2:4.

Men's business meetings are unauthorized. - Acts 6:2, 5.

More than one communion cup is forbidden. - 1 Cor. 11:25.

Christians are forbidden to eat out together. - 1 Cor. 11:34.

Elders must be appointed by an evangelist. - Titus 1:5.

Collection money cannot be spent; it must be held until an apostle comes to pick it up. - 1 Cor. 16:2.

We are required to permit tongue-speaking in church. - 1 Cor. 14:39.

Prayer meetings must be held on riverbanks. - Acts 13:7.

Food may only be distributed to widows by appointing seven men to organize it. - Acts 6:3-4.

Once saved, Christians are forbidden to move, marry, or accept promotions. - 1 Cor. 7:20.

Christians are free from stupid man-made regulations. -- Col. 2:20-23.

And now, as they say,...the lesson is yours.

(See Part II )