Reflections on the Instrumental Music Question

bible.jpgHere I am, an elder of an a cappella Church of Christ, and we just had another wonderful worship service with truly marvelous singing. We’ve figured out how to do a truly excellent job with our singing (praise team of at least 8 voices, good sound board work, skilled song leading–and a spirit of freedom and joy in the Spirit). And here I am arguing that instrumental music is not a sin.

Angel with harpI mean, it’s not like my church needs instrumental music to have a great worship service! We are drawing many new members from instrumental backgrounds, and no one’s begging for a piano or guitar. I personally have no interest in introducing instruments. I think what we have is plenty good enough. In fact, an organ would be, as Alexander Campbell said, “Like a cowbell in a concert.”

Nonetheless, I find my spirit drawn into this controversy, not because I care whether anyone buys a piano, but because the thinking behind our position leads to so many other problems. I just don’t think we can ever enjoy the unity and fellowship that God has given us unless we put this bit of very bad theology behind us. Indeed, our views on the instrument even deny many of us the indescribable joys of grace.

For years, I’ve argued for grace and unity while avoiding the instrumental music issue, simply pointing out that the instrument is very clearly not a salvation issue. And it isn’t. But my experience is that the argument isn’t quite effective enough. You see, even if the class is persuaded to fellowship those who use the instrument, they are still left with a flawed hermeneutic built on a flawed understanding of the heart of God.

You cannot fully understand grace until you understand God. If you see God as a trickster who hides his rules from us, making it unnecessarily difficult for us to know how to please him, we start with a distorted understanding of our Father.

Or else we think figuring all this out is incredibly easy, and so we wonder why “the denominations” refuse to get such a simple thing right. This gives us a distorted view of ourselves and of others, and leads to arrogance and condescension.

You see, to feel justified in considering ourselves saved and other believers lost, we need to think of them as having bad motivations or else as being foolish. Then we don’t feel so bad about their eternal damnation. But in fact our Baptist and Methodist friends aren’t stupid and they do have good hearts. (There are exceptions, of course, but we have a few “exceptional” people among our number, too!)

Therefore, we really need to look at all this from a very different perspective. It’s something like this–

* We are all sinners. We make doctrinal and moral mistakes–all of us. We are thus only saved by grace. Therefore, we can look down on no one. We may only boast in the Lord!

* God has given his people certain commands to follow. These are found in the Bible in the form of commands. You see, only commands are commands.

* Examples are not commands. In fact, if we try to make examples into commands (“binding examples”) we are left with the very subjective task of discerning which examples bind us. Must we have all things in common? Must our women cover their heads in church? Etc. No one has yet articulated a concise rule for making such distinctions.

* Safety (just another word for salvation) is found in grace given us because of the crucifixion of Jesus. There is no safety in binding a rule God doesn’t bind. Indeed, such thinking is specifically prohibited. If we want to avoid the fate of the Pharisees, we need to very carefully never bind anything not bound by God!

* Attempting to perfectly replicate First Century practices as doctrine is fraught with problems. You just can’t find enough guidance in the Bible itself and so you inevitably begin to rely on the uninspired writings of early Christians–which puts you on very uncertain ground. Worse yet, there’s no consensus on these things. We can’t even agree among ourselves.

1 Timothy 5 describes an “order of widows” that lasted at least into the Second Century. Why don’t we do this?

Jude describes a periodic “love feast” that continued into at least the Third Century. Why don’t we do this?

The early deacons were charged with doing benevolence themselves. Why do we make them department heads?

The early church met in homes, with elders being over several house churches, often every house church in the community. We don’t do this.

The Jerusalem church met daily. The author of Hebrews told his readers to encourage one another “daily.”

There is no Biblical support for Wednesday services or for offering communion twice on Sundays.

We offer the “invitation” every service. This practice was invented as a part of 19th Century Frontier Revivalism–by the Methodists!

I could go on. We ignore some very explicit examples–even commands–and invent others. And then we claim to have replicated the First Century pattern. We haven’t. It’s just not true.

Rather, what we’ve done is taken church as it was practiced on the American frontier around 1820 and then found proof texts to defend the practices as they’d evolved to that point. In fact, where we couldn’t find a proof text, we found support among uninspired writers.

We made some changes–taking communion weekly, for example. But the frontier churches were already a cappella and largely practiced the same “five acts of worship” Alexander Campbell prescribed.

But we were unconsciously selective. We didn’t adopt the weekly love feast that is very amply evidenced in history and in the Bible because it just wasn’t how things were done in 1820.

We didn’t have an order of widows because the church had abandoned that practice 1500 years earlier.

These questions weren’t even discussed. We were blind to the question because we were certain we already knew the answers.

Over time, additional practices accreted. We added a second service on Sunday nights for those who had to work on Sunday morning as doctors and nurses or otherwise. We added a Wednesday night prayer service, likely to pray for the troops during World War I. We added Sunday school. More recently, we added asking new members to “place membership” by coming forward during the assembly.

And none of these are wrong at all. They just aren’t remotely First Century practices. If you want to conduct a First Century worship service, meet in homes, take communion as part of a common meal, and provide enough extra food for the several poor people who are a part of your fellowship. And then set up a support structure for poor widows and put your deacons over it. Greet each other with a Holy Kiss. And sing a cappella.

This is entirely doable today. We just don’t do it. But then, we don’t have to.

And so, should we keep singing a cappella? It’s a question for each church and its leaders. Just don’t ever teach that it’s a command. It’s not. In fact, unless we affirmatively teach that it’s NOT a command, we’ll leave ours members judging the decisions of their leaders based on their false understandings of history and bad hermeneutics, rather than a much-more important test.

We desperately need to train our members to instead think missionally–that is, in terms of what best serves God’s mission on earth–first and foremost. The question of how to worship thus becomes a missional question rather than a doctrinal one.

Our doctrine tells us how we are to understand and relate to God–but not the details of how to conduct the assembly. At that point, mission takes over. But as I’ll explain in the next post, it’s quite possible to preserve the spirit of Restoration while also being very missional in how you do church.

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6 Responses

  1. […] Better Way to Be a Restoration Church In the last post, I suggested that a better approach to the assembly is to think about how we can best accomplish […]

  2. I happened upon this article and read it because my in-laws were both from the Church of Christ background. When visiting with them I tried repeatedly to go to church with them and it always ended up with me steaming over the preaching on some subject like,
    use only the King James Bible
    no instruments
    communion every week
    baptism to gain salvation
    always the, what I call distinctions of Church of Christ. It made me so sad that the hate of other denominations was preached from the pulpit. I know… CoC is not a denomination… etc. etc. I have been through that. In one place where a number of CoC joined a group of us in a small home church setting-this was in Australia- they told me they could no longer fellowship with me because I did not believe the things they did about salvation. Baptism being the major problem for them. (Maybe for you too)
    I worship and work at a Baptist Church, but am not a Baptist. I am not a “anything you believe is great” person, I am not a “God must work this way and no other person” –with the exception of salvation through faith in what Jesus did for us on the cross. I don’t know why I read your article here but I am glad I did. I wonder if the CoC is beginning to change some or if the ones I was involved with were the exception. Nice. Maybe I will try them again some time.

  3. I found your article searching for blogs about the restoration movement.

    You’ve asked some great questions! I’m still pondering what message the examples have for the modern church. It seems to me that what was permitted for them would also be permitted for us, though not necessarily mandated to us.

    And how about commands? Some of the things that people today commonly reject as cultural (eg. head coverings, silence of women) were clear and emphatic commands to the churches in the first century, and were normative in all the congregations of that day. Are these commands still applicable? If not, then how do we decide which commands do still apply?

    I’m not convinced we have yet found a consistent hermeneutic. You’ve illustrated that well with the inconsistencies of the traditional church of Christ practices.

  4. after reading thousands of other websites and responses concerning this problem, it is good to get a breath of fresh air. The main article was refreshing and I think it fit many of the Church of Christ/Christian outlook. I will continue to await more of your insights. God Bless

  5. Thanks much 🙂

  6. Mr. Guin,
    I read your thoughts with great interest. How could I get in contact with you oher than just leaving a message on this website?

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