In Holiness, Ryle has a chapter devoted to a warning for the visible church drawn on the letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3. In this chapter, Ryle remarks,
I never can believe, if a certain form of Church government was so very important as some say, that the great Head of the Church would have said nothing about it here. I should have expected to have found something said about it to Sardis and Laodicea. But I find nothing at all. And I think that silence is a great fact.*
It is no doubt an argument that persuades many. We know this because the same argument is trumpeted about by what are known as “Red-Letter Christians.” The idea is that if Jesus didn’t say something about it the words directly attributed to him, then it isn’t really Christianity. By this means people pick and choose what parts of Scripture they must follow and what parts they can disregard. It is essentially Marcionite in its approach.
The rebuttal to this is simple:
First, there is the teaching that all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable (2 Tim 3:16-17). We should not devalue some parts of Scripture because it isn’t repeated in other parts. If something is said then we should consider it authoritative when it is rightly understood and applied. It is the discipline of systematic theology to correlate the passages, not to discount them. And once is enough. If God said it, he doesn’t need to repeat it (though he might).
Secondly, there is the reality that much of Scripture is topical in nature, or what theologians call “occasional.” By “occasional,” we don’t mean “every now and then” but “written to address a particular occasion.” This reminds us that a message or a letter in Scripture need not address every single thing but only the things that were important for the recipients of the message at the time of the writing.
So with respect to Ryle’s particular argument, we must not devalue church government because it isn’t mentioned in Revelation 2-3. It may well be that church government wasn’t the problem. It is entirely credible that the churches in these seven cities were indeed in order when it came to their polity. The problem was something else.
Let us be careful not to discount a truth from God because it isn’t in every verse of Scripture.
All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable.
*J. C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties and Roots (London: William Hunt and Company, 1889), 326–327.