This month’s Christian Chronicle (October 2007) features a two-page ad from a group of Church of Christ preachers organized as NewTestamentChurchToday.org. The ad advocates a cappella music as the exclusive authorized means of worship.
The purpose of this post is to consider the arguments made and whether they in fact reflect Biblical truths. And to issue a challenge.
A salvation issue?
The article refers to those that use the instrument as “the nations (the churches) around us.” The language echoes Deuteronomy 17:14 and clearly implies that the churches around the a cappella Churches of Christ are like the nations that surrounded ancient Israel–not among the chosen.
I personally have no beef with any preacher or eldership that chooses a cappella worship. My own congregation is a cappella, and those who lead in that area do a great job. Our worship is attractive to many unchurched people and to people coming to us from many different denominational backgrounds.
However, I take great offense at any preacher or eldership that claims a cappella is a salvation issue. And this ad is saturated in that assumption. The great danger of this presumption is this line of reasoning: if getting the a cappella question wrong damns, then what else damns? The Churches of Christ have divided and subdivided and sub-subdivided scores of times over exactly that question–that and the fact that we can’t even agree on what issues are salvation issues.
Hence, some consider kitchens in the building a salvation issue. Others consider it “think and let think.” Others make how the church treasury is spent or whether the church hires a minister or supports a Christian college or whether elders stand for re-affirmation into salvation issues.
You see, as soon as we decide THIS is a salvation issue–and offer no explanation for why THIS one is–we open up the floor for creative minds to add an infinite list of issues to the list of salvation issues. And on it goes.
The road to safety?
The ad argues, “A cappella music is safe,” and “We can worship with confidence only when we worship according to God’s will.” Safe from what? Confident in what? Are we seriously arguing that those who use the instrument might be damned?
Consider Matthew 15:9, where Jesus says,
“They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.”
In this passage, Jesus was condemned for not washing his hands before a meal. You see, the Pharisees wanted to be safe. Many things a man might touch could make him unclean. Who knows whether your hands might have touched a leper or a menstruating woman! If so, to prevent any uncleanness from entering the body, the Pharisees commanded their followers to wash before eating. Jesus refused to do so.
The great danger Jesus taught against was making up rules that God doesn’t make up. If an individual wishes to wash before a meal, by all means, wash! But if you insist that others do so to be safe, then you’ve imposed a teaching of man as though it were a teaching of God! And this is a very serious sin indeed.
Hence, if you wish to worship a cappella (as I do), by all means, worship a cappella. But don’t insist that others do so to be safe. There is no safety in adding to the word. Indeed, it’s just as wrong to take from the word as to add to the word! Therefore, if the will of God is not clear, we cannot bind a rule. CANNOT! Or else we risk the sin of the Pharisees: “Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition … . They worship me in vain.” (Matt. 15:6,9).
Safety is not found in binding rules. Safety is found in the grace of God bought by the blood of Jesus.
The historical argument
The ad argues that we know from history that the early church worshiped a cappella, noting the contrast of the early Christian worship with Davidic temple worship, where the instrument was used. I’ve addressed the argument from history before.
Most people I know who are convinced of the rightness of the a cappella argument find this the most compelling argument. I once did myself.
But then it occurred to me: How can I argue for doctrine–indeed, a salvation issue–based on uninspired writings that are not part of the Bible? How can I do this and say “We speak where the Bible speaks and are silent where the Bible is silent”?
Indeed, how can I tell the Catholics and Orthodox that they are wrong to treat these early uninspired writings as authoritative and then teach my students based on the authority of these very same writings? Plainly, I was a hypocrite to have done so.
In legal terms, the evidence is simply inadmissible. We believe in sola scriptura–the scriptures only. And this teaching separates us from the Catholics and Orthodox. And I think we are right to limit our teaching to God’s word itself.
After all, if we need Justin Martyr and Thomas Aquinas to prove our point, then we are saying, in effect, that the scriptures are insufficient, that God forgot to finish them! I will not do that.
Some try to skirt this problem by arguing that these uninspired writings create a “presumption” that resolves doubts otherwise arising from the Bible. Well, as any lawyer can tell you, let me decide what creates a presumption of truth, and I’ll win every argument!
How’s this for a presumption: God knows how to say what he means and the Bible is entirely sufficient. Don’t waste my time with sources the Protestant Churches correctly rejected 500 years ago. It’s a colossal step backwards, and I’ll have none of it!
Is authority necessary?
The ad argues that we must “respect the clear teaching of the New Testament and the example of the early Christians on this issue.” Now, the “example” which is supposedly binding on us is not even found in the Bible. It’s in uninspired Christian writings that even the early church refused to consider inspired. Some “example.”
“Clear teaching”? Sorry, but I’ve not found it. Does the New Testament clearly teach that the early church sang? Yes. Does it clearly teach that the early church sang a cappella? No. It just doesn’t. And it’s all too typical of my brothers that they over-argue their case at this point.
No, the only way to get to this conclusion is to argue that worship must be in certain “authorized acts.” Hence, the absence of authority becomes a de facto prohibition.
This argument goes back to the founding of the Reformation Movement, and is built on a false dichotomy. The argument is that everything not specifically authorized must either be prohibited or permitted. As many evil things are not specifically forbidden, clearly we must make the “safe” choice to prohibit all that is without authority.
As I’ve argued before, this is a false choice. It is, you know, entirely possible that those practices that lack authority may be right or wrong based on some principle other than authority! Perhaps whether the practice is true to the gospel? or love for one’s neighbors? Who made authority the test? (For further on this point, see this post). Why not use a test actually found in the Bible and stated to be the foremost test? Maybe love?
I’ve addressed the 1 Corinthians 4:6 argument elsewhere, suggesting that Paul’s injunction not to go beyond that which is written is a demand for authority. It’s simply profoundly bad exegesis of a passage teaching against division and having nothing to do with the authority question (other than to dismiss human authority — a teaching that is relevant indeed).
Others have argued that silence is a prohibition because that which is not from faith is sin. But “faith” in the New Testament is always faith in Jesus. “Faith” does not mean a doctrinal system that defines a denomination. “Faith” means Jesus–Christ, Lord, and Savior.
It’s a huge misreading of the Bible (and of the Restoration leaders) to suggest that any argument based on scripture is “of faith.” Not so. Only the gospel is faith. Only the story of Jesus is faith. “Faith” simply does not include rules for how to worship or organize a church. That’s just not how the word was used.
The ad argues that instrumental music should be avoided because “there is a long history of division that has resulted when some within the church seek to introduce something that is not taught or practiced in the New Testament.” The facts are true enough, but are the conclusions sound?
Which group has suffered more division in the 20th Century, the a cappella Churches of Christ or the instrumental independent Christian Churches? Well, the Churches of Christ evidence far more division.
You see, it’s not the instrument that creates division but a theology that makes the instrument a salvation issue and, by obvious extension, makes just about anything else a salvation issue. I mean, for over 100 years we’ve suffered from the argument: If we were right to divide over the instrument, then surely we must also divide over [fill in the blank].
Book, chapter and verse–and a challenge
Finally, the ad states that most arguments for instrumental music fail to appeal to scripture. I’ve not counted. This may be true. But only one correct argument is enough, isn’t it?
But the ad makes a challenge:
Rarely does one read an argument that gives book, chapter, and verse from the New Testament for the introduction of instruments. We will continue the practice of “singing only” in worship until we find New Testament evidence that instrumental music is pleasing to God.
Detailed book, chapter, and verse arguments are found as follows:
On whether a cappella music is mandatory–
And these do indeed cite lots of books, chapters, and verses.
If anyone wishes to refute my arguments, I’ll be glad to publish their arguments right here. I’m delighted to debate the topic. I mean, if it’s a salvation issue, it needs to be discussed just as thoroughly as possible, and so I’ll gladly post anyone’s responsible response.
Now, by “responsible” I mean (a) coherent (I get some comments that defeat all efforts at interpretation), (b) dealing with the issues not personalities (personal invective is inappropriate in Christian discourse), and (c) based on scripture (don’t tell me what Martin Luther or H. Leo Boles said on the subject. Tell me what God says.).
Again, I have no interest in introducing musical instruments in my own church. I’m very, very pleased with our current worship. It’s excellent, I think. But any doctrine that seeks to divide brother from brother based on a supposed theology of safety found in human reasoning rather than Jesus has to be challenged.