Is the Bible Permissive or Restrictive?
Even though there are over three-quarters of a million words in the Bible, there are lots of matters on which the Bible is either silent, or at best, gives us only vague hints.
When the Bible is silent about a matter, should that silence be thought of as a permissive silence (ie, the Bible doesn’t expressly forbid it, therefore it should be allowed) or is it a restrictive silence (ie, the Bible doesn’t expressly allow it, therefore it should be forbidden)?
We see a similar difference in some countries with their approach to civil rights. In the US, that which is not restricted is generally permitted, and additional rights exist above and beyond those listed in the Constitution, but in many other countries, rights which are not specifically listed may not exist.
Which is the better approach?
Possible Underlying Issues About Creating the Bible
In the case of the Bible, we also need to consider its divine inspiration. God of course knew that he was creating a “manual” for our lives and our worship that would be required to last thousands of years, and also has stated that there would be no ‘updates’ (see Proverbs 30:5-6). Do you think he would have thought it best to set out every issue for every possible present and future thing that would happen over the centuries and millennia?
If he did so, that would give us certainty, although one wonders how people 1,000 years ago might have reacted to sections setting out policies for virtual worship, the internet, and so on and so forth!
On the other hand, perhaps he chose to set out general guidelines, explaining to us the important major principles and concepts, trusting us to ‘get it right’ in terms of how we interpret and apply the general concepts to the specifics of our evolving life and society and technologies, and forgiving us for any sincere but erroneous interpretations.
We see echoes of these different approaches being debated in other contexts. For example, the contentious Second Amendment to the US Constitution – does the right to keep and bear arms apply only to those types of weapons that were developed in the mid/late 1700s, or does it extend to all man-portable weapons that have been developed since that time?
The issue of how to handle matters that the Bible is silent on has split denominations in two – for example, the Churches of Christ and the International Churches of Christ. The former believes that if matters aren’t specifically allowed (particularly to do with forms of worship) then they are prohibited, the latter believes the opposite, as do most other denominations (although note we hesitate to ever ‘go with the flow’ and accept the majority opinion, and prefer to research from first principles as much as possible).
Hermeneutics and Exegesis
There are entire sciences devoted to understanding and interpreting the Bible (and any/every other written work too, for that matter). The two key approaches are given the fairly opaque names of Hermeneutics and Exegesis.
It isn’t necessary to fully understand what these are, or what the difference between them is. But, in case you wonder, one possible explanation is that exegesis is the process of understanding the text in the Bible to uncover its original meaning. Hermeneutics is a broader field that then takes the original meaning of the text and seeks to then apply it in relevant form today. Here is a discussion of the difference on Quora, although the chances are you’ll find the various posts and their definitions as confusing as we did!
However, none of this semi-science can help us understand what is not in the Bible. It may or may not help us understand what is in the Bible, although there’s always the danger that the more ‘interpretation’ that is done, the more potential there is for personal bias to creep into the analysis. But it can’t help us understand what is not in the Bible.
Here’s an excellent article about Bible interpretation in general. It features a worked example that includes the use of both hermeneutics and exegesis, without trying to bamboozle us with the terms themselves and their largely irrelevant meanings. Common sense is always a great tool (as is prayer).
A Suggested General Principle
If you go to a book shop or library and visit their section on Christianity, you’ll see an abundance of books, all interpreting the Bible, all claiming to be correct, and, alas, all offering up different perspectives and opinions!
While we love scholarly research and seek accurate understandings as much as anyone else, we don’t feel that the broader cause of Christianity is well served by allowing ourselves to be fragmented into many different denominations, each with differences in beliefs and practices. Most regrettably, in general, the differences between different groups are much smaller than the commonalities shared between them. The Bible is supposed to be our unifying base, not the source of dissension and disagreement.
So, as with everything in life, we suggest the key is to understand what things are truly important, and to focus on those, while simultaneously understanding what things are of lesser importance, and ignoring those.
We have confidence that the Good Lord has given us sufficient information, and sufficiently clearly, that if we follow the obvious guidelines and requirements within the Bible, we’re getting it sufficiently right to please him and assure our salvation. Does God really care if we observe the Sabbath on the historically correct Saturday of each week, or if we shift it to Sunday instead? Indeed, how essential is observing the Sabbath these days, anyway?
There’s actually an apparent answer to that question within the Bible, in two parts. First, Colossians 2:16 seems to show that previous laws about the Sabbath are now less rigid. And second, which is perhaps a gentle suggestion for how we should treat many of these differences of opinion in general, is Romans 14 (discussed a bit further below) and, with specific regard to the Sabbath, Mark 2:27-28 (AMP version follows)
27 Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath [and He has authority over it].
The concept of the Sabbath being made for man, not vice versa, could possibly be applied to other points of doctrinal difference, too.
Moving back to the general rather than the specific, Paul’s letter to the Colossians 2:8-23 gives us tremendous guidance, and a warning not to get dragged down to meaningless details of past laws and their interpretations. Here’s the AMP text
8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception [pseudo-intellectual babble], according to the tradition [and musings] of mere men, following the elementary principles of this world, rather than following [the truth—the teachings of] Christ.
9 For in Him all the fullness of Deity (the Godhead) dwells in bodily form [completely expressing the divine essence of God].
10 And in Him you have been made complete [achieving spiritual stature through Christ], and He is the head over all rule and authority [of every angelic and earthly power].
11 In Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands, but by the [spiritual] circumcision of Christ in the stripping off of the body of the flesh [the sinful carnal nature],
12 having been buried with Him in baptism and raised with Him [to a new life] through [your] faith in the working of God, [as displayed] when He raised Christ from the dead.
13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh (worldliness, manner of life), God made you alive together with Christ, having [freely] forgiven us all our sins,
14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of legal demands [which were in force] against us and which were hostile to us. And this certificate He has set aside and completely removed by nailing it to the cross.
15 When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities [those supernatural forces of evil operating against us], He made a public example of them [exhibiting them as captives in His triumphal procession], having triumphed over them through the cross.
16 Therefore let no one judge you in regard to food and drink or in regard to [the observance of] a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day.
17 Such things are only a shadow of what is to come and they have only symbolic value; but the substance [the reality of what is foreshadowed] belongs to Christ.
18 Let no one defraud you of your prize [your freedom in Christ and your salvation] by insisting on mock humility and the worship of angels, going into detail about visions [he claims] he has seen [to justify his authority], puffed up [in conceit] by his unspiritual mind,
19 and not holding fast to the head [of the body, Jesus Christ], from whom the entire body, supplied and knit together by its joints and ligaments, grows with the growth [that can come only] from God.
20 If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were still living in the world, do you submit to rules and regulations, such as,
21 “Do not handle [this], do not taste [that], do not [even] touch!”?
22 (these things all perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men.
23 These practices indeed have the appearance [that popularly passes as that] of wisdom in self-made religion and mock humility and severe treatment of the body (asceticism), but are of no value against sinful indulgence [because they do not honor God].
A second source – another epistle from Paul, provides a similar caution against judging people based on their observance or non-observance of former Old Testament requirements. Romans 14 is worth reading in its entirety, and we’ll quote here specifically Romans 14:13-17 (AMP version)
13 Then let us not criticize one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block or a source of temptation in another believer’s way.
14 I know and am convinced [as one] in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean [ritually defiled, and unholy] in itself; but [nonetheless] it is unclean to anyone who thinks it is unclean.
15 If your brother is being hurt or offended because of food [that you insist on eating], you are no longer walking in love [toward him]. Do not let what you eat destroy and spiritually harm one for whom Christ died.
16 Therefore do not let what is a good thing for you [because of your freedom to choose] be spoken of as evil [by someone else];
17 for the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking [what one likes], but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
There may be a broader meaning to Paul’s comments in this chapter of Romans. Are we free to do what we think is right, in general, and with judgment about our choices being reserved to God? The earlier parts of this chapter seem to imply that to be so.
3 The one who eats [everything] is not to look down on the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat must not criticize or pass judgment on the one who eats [everything], for God has accepted him.
4 Who are you to judge the servant of another? Before his own master he stands [approved] or falls [out of favor]. And he [who serves the Master—the Lord] will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
5 One person regards one day as better [or more important] than another, while another regards every day [the same as any other]. Let everyone be fully convinced (assured, satisfied) in his own mind.
6 He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord. He who eats, eats for the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; while he who abstains, abstains for the Lord and gives thanks to God.
7 None of us lives for himself [for his own benefit, but for the Lord], and none of us dies for himself [but for the Lord].
8 If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. So then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
9 For Christ died and lived again for this reason, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
10 But you, why do you criticize your brother? Or you again, why do you look down on your [believing] brother or regard him with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God [who alone is judge].
What follows is our opinion and only that. We try, above and within the summary below, to explain our reasoning, but you are totally free to form your own opinion.
Our general sense is that the New Testament is permissive rather than restrictive, but that we are obliged to make honest and sincere decisions about how we lead our lives, and remain answerable to God. The key requirement is our faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9, Philippians 3:9).
We also believe that God does not wish to trick or trap us, so if there are important guidelines or rules or requirements, they would surely be included in the Bible. This belief supports our view that the Bible as a whole and New Testament in particular is permissive rather than restrictive.
We therefore suggest a modified approach to “filling in the gaps” on matters where the Bible is silent or ambiguous. Clearly, we are given plenty of general guidance and advice about how best to serve God, and also, we are given latitude and told to focus on the important things (ie Christ’s gift of salvation) rather than unimportant things (most of the Old Testament/Jewish rules such as the Sabbath, foods to eat or avoid, etc). One of the key messages of the New Testament is that we now obtain salvation through accepting the substitute sacrifice, on our behalf, of Jesus, rather than through carefully following every element of the previous laws set out in the Old Testament.
So it seems fair and consistent to say that if the New Testament is silent on a matter, the silence probably means the matter is either totally self-evident as not to be needed to be written about, or that the matter is sufficiently trivial as not to need an official point of guidance. In such cases, we should choose to proceed in a manner that is consistent and doesn’t conflict with the other teachings in the New Testament, and, more weakly and in general, influenced by the teachings of the Old Testament.
We should be able to explain what we do and why, and not be critical of other Christians if they choose to interpret matters in a different way (1 Peter 3:15, 2 Timothy 2:25).
But this is just our suggestion, and in keeping with the two verses cited in the previous paragraph, if you feel differently, and your differences don’t interfere with the core of our common shared faith, then you have our respect and support, and we hope your approach brings you more comfortably closer to God.
We close by urging you to take Paul’s words in the first epistle to the Thessalonians to heart. 1 Thessalonians 5:21 in the AMP translation tells us
But test all things carefully [so you can recognize what is good]. Hold firmly to that which is good.
Please see Our Guiding Principles for more of the core elements of how we approach our faith and the worship of God.