Negative vs. Positive Hermeneutic – The Question of Ministry Practice
by Certified Church Consultant, Dr. Michael Rackley
In the 21st Century in America, there are church practices on/off social media platforms that are unprecedented. As we look to the Bible, the question is often asked, “what is the role of the New Testament in determining ministry practices?” In other words, how do church leaders determine and navigate what ministry practices are acceptable/unacceptable according to the Bible?
There are two answers I want to explore to determine which one is correct, the negative hermeneutic and the positive hermeneutic.
“Hermeneutics is the science and art of interpreting the Bible. It is the science (principles) and art (task) by which the meaning of the biblical text is determined.” Hermeneutics is taught as a requirement in most Bible colleges, Christian universities, and seminaries.
The Negative Hermeneutic Position
- Church cliché: “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; and where the Bible is silent, we’re silent.”
Probably, many Christians have used this cliché once or twice in their early years as believers or even now. But is it Biblical, or a practice that’s been used for decades without proper vetting or discernment?
“If a church practice is biblical, one should be able to find support for it in the Bible. Conversely, if a church practice can’t be found in God’s Word, it’s unbiblical and must be discontinued.”
- Instrumental music: Since the New Testament is silent about using musical instruments in the early church, the church today is unable to use them in worship.
- Church membership: Here is another prohibited practice, that many churches are guilty of, including the church I attend. Why? Supposedly, no evidence exists in the New Testament as a standard for routine for requiring people to join an assembly.
- One-man pastorate: Another forbidden practice is allowing one pastor to lead the church. “It’s argued that a form of government with only one elder, or pastor, is not found anywhere in the New Testament.” Supposedly the leadership of the early church involved a plurality of elders.
A Few Arguments in favor of a Negative Hermeneutic won’t stand up under scrutiny.
It is based on a Non-Sequitur Argument
In Latin, non sequitur means “it does not follow.” The phrase was borrowed into English in the 1500s by people who made a formal study of logic.
- It is said, “Simply because a practice isn’t found in the Bible doesn’t mean that we either should or should not do it, or even prohibit its practice in churches today.” Absence of proof isn’t proof of Absence.
- Finally, just because we can’t find a certain practice stated anywhere in the Bible (this is called an argument from silence) doesn’t mean the church can’t do it today.
It eliminates Parachurch Ministries
The argument is “that parachurch organizations aren’t found in the Bible and therefore are unbiblical.” Parachurch groups or ministries are religious organizations known for their work alongside the local church to promote the cause of Christ.
The Positive Hermeneutic Position
The Positive hermeneutic argues that though the practice isn’t found in the scriptures, we are still free to perform it as long as it doesn’t differ from or contradict in any way the clear teaching of the Bible (Psalm 119:160).
This qualification is necessary, for the Word of God is always the final authority regarding what the church can and can’t do.
The positive hermeneutic emphasizes the church’s freedom to choose practices that don’t contradict Scripture.
Though the Bible is silent about many contemporary church practices, this doesn’t mean they are taboo. The key factor is whether a practice is banned in Scripture.
Finally, “just because the text is silent on a particular issue doesn’t mean it is prohibited.” Again, to drill down on this matter, the challenge isn’t whether a particular practice is (or isn’t) cited in the Bible. Rather, it’s whether it contradicts the clear teaching of the Bible.
Time won’t allow for an exhaustive study of the topic or subject. For further information please refer to the resource.
Sources: Doing Church, a Biblical Guide For Leading Ministries Through Change by Dr. Aubrey Malphurs