When to Keep Silent

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The spoken word is vital to Christianity. Indeed, in many respects, Christianity is an oral religion. Of course, this is not to deny that the gospel transforms the entire life of a believer, nor is it to overlook the practical and liturgical components to the Christian faith, such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Yet, at its core, Christianity hinges upon the spoken word, for it involves both speaking the gospel to unbelievers and exhorting believers with the Word of God.

The New Testament reveals that in many contexts Christians are obligated to speak. As was just noted, a fundamental tenant of Christianity is that believers are to share the gospel with the lost (see Matt. 28:19–20) and are verbally to “confess Christ” (Matt. 10:32) before all men. The oral nature of Christianity can also be seen in Paul’s exhortation to “comfort the fainthearted” (1 Thess. 5:14), presumably with words. Later, in his instructions to Timothy, Paul wrote, “Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear” (1 Tim. 5:20; see Matt. 14:3–4; Eph. 5:11).

Even in the Old Testament we can see the importance of the spoken word, as David reminds God’s people to praise God out loud (see Ps. 40:9–10) and Solomon observes, “A word spoken in due season, how good is it” (Prov. 15:23). Note, however, that Solomon also taught that there is “a time to keep silence” (Eccl. 3:7). In accord with this idea, the prophet Amos instructed God’s people, “The prudent keep silent . . . [in] an evil time” (Amos 5:13). Therefore, while Christianity has essential oral elements, there are times when it is best not to speak.

Believers are under no obligation to speak if their listeners have already heard a truth, understood it, and rejected it.

Observe that both Testaments contain examples of God’s people not speaking on certain occasions, and doing so in an acceptable manner. For instance, at Mordecai’s command, Esther did not talk about her heritage, and God used this silence for His own purposes (see Esth. 2:10). Similarly, Jeremiah’s life was spared when he did not speak with some of the royal princes about the details of his conversation with King Zedekiah (see Jer. 38:24–27) and on several occasions Jeremiah did not pray for Israel, at God’s command (see Jer. 7:16; 14:11).

In the Gospels this theme of sometimes keeping silent continues as we read that Jesus charged the disciples to tell no one He was the Christ (see Matt. 16:20), to not speak about His transfiguration (see Matt 17:9), and to refrain on occasion from talking with the Pharisees (see Matt. 15:14). Along these same lines, Jesus Himself concealed certain knowledge from His disciples (see John 16:12), refused to disclose the authority behind His actions when asked by the Pharisees (see Matt. 21:27), and did not speak with Pilate at His trial (see John 19:10).

The idea that sometimes it is best not to talk invites the question, “When shall we keep silent?” In partial answer to this question, we can observe that Christians recognize that it is best to keep silent if our words themselves would be sinful, such as prideful boasting, lies, misrepresentation, deceit, and the like (see Gen. 3:4–5; Acts 5:1–10). Yet, when is it best not to speak truthful or otherwise non-sinful words?

While the examples cited above are wide-ranging, the Bible reveals there are at least two instances in which Christians are free not to speak. First, from Jesus’ example and instructions, it seems that believers are under no obligation to speak if their listeners have already heard a truth, understood it, and rejected it. To speak on such occasions is what Christ referred to as “cast[ing] your pearls before swine” (Matt. 7:6) and Jesus’ instruction regarding certain obstinate leaders who had rejected His teaching is helpful, as He exhorted His disciples, “Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind” (Matt. 15:14; see Hos. 4:17).

Second, Scripture teaches that believers should “not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the wisdom of your words” (Prov. 23:9). The reason for such silence is that speaking before a fool is itself folly (see Prov. 16:22), often produces ridicule (see Prov. 29:9), and may result in abuse or even personal injury (see Prov. 9:7). Such results are why David tried not to speak in the presence of evil men (see Ps. 39:1) and Paul counseled both Timothy (see 1 Tim. 6:5) and Titus (see Titus 3:10) to withdraw from and to reject evil men.

So, while the spoken word is essential to the Christian faith, we must keep in mind that on some occasions—however, rare they may be—it is best to keep silent. Discerning when to speak and when to keep silent can be challenging, but as Paul exhorted the church, believers must apply wisdom to their words as they “aspire to lead a quiet life . . . [and] to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men” (1 Thess. 4:11; Titus 3:2; see 2 Thess. 3:12–13; 1 Tim. 2:1–3).

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David W. Jones

Dr. Jones is a Professor of Christian Ethics and serves as the Associate Dean of Theological Studies and Director of the Th.M. Program at Southeastern Seminary. He is the author of many books, including Every Good Thing, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics and is the co-author of Health, Wealth, and Happiness. He comments on the Bible over at redeemedmind.com.

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