Fourth, we need to spend just a moment regarding obedience. We have a tendency to insist on perfect obedience to the least important commands and to tolerate poor obedience to the most important commands.
Thus, we want to damn those who worship God with an instrument, while we accept those who are hateful, bitter, and divisive, that is, very unloving.
Indeed, the idea that instrumental music is sin is at best an inference built on top of other inferences. There is no command. But love is commanded over and over.
Paul declares as “acts of the flesh” “discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions” (Gal 5:20) and says that “those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21). The 20th Century approach to Christianity evidenced by the Churches of Christ is far closer to “discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions” than “faith expressing itself through love.”
I mean, just look at our history. Read what we wrote about each other.
Why on earth do we suppose that instrumental/a cappella music establishes the border of the kingdom of heaven, when the scriptures speak in entirely different terms? I mean, when the Bible is addressing whether our salvation is secure, it does not ask whether we have five acts of worship or proper church organization.
Well, what we argue is that a failure to sing exclusively a cappella means we aren’t being obedient. The argument is that Christians must be obedient (true) and so must sing a cappella (not true). You see, what we unconsciously do is subtly shift the meaning of “obedient” depending on the context and the outcome we wish to achieve.
When the context is love, “obedient” means “diligently try to obey.” When the subject is love, we are confident that God’s grace will cover our failure to get it right. Indeed, God’s grace will cover our failures even when we know better and even when we don’t know what the loving thing is.
When you come upon a homeless beggar, is it loving to hand him a $20? Or are you enabling laziness? You don’t really know, do you? We know we are supposed to love, but we often aren’t always sure how to love. Grace covers that.
However, when the context is worship, “obedient” means “obey perfectly, even if you are unaware of the command you are to obey.” Thus, if I infer that God approves instrumental music and worship him with a guitar in all good conscience, completely unaware of the arguments in favor of a cappella music (they are far from obvious, you know), I’m not “obedient” and so I’m damned — my penitence and faith are of no avail at all.
We damn those who disobey commands that aren’t even commands (they are inferences at best), while honoring those who disobey the plainest of commands.
What does John say?
(1 John 2:3-6) We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. 4 The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5 But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: 6 Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.
This verse, and parallel verses in the Gospel of John, have frequently been cited to argue that if we disobey (don’t sing a cappella) we are damned. There are two reasons this syllogism doesn’t hold.
First, read the next passage —
(1 John 2:7-11) Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. 8 Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining. 9 Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. 11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him.
What command does John have particularly in mind? Love. Obviously. And yet — of all the commands — this is the one we obey the least perfectly. If “obey” means “perfectly obey,” we’re toast.
Second, John just wrote,
(1 John 1:8-10) If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. … 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
John begins his letter by telling us that we’re all sinners and we have no business pretending otherwise. To determine whether we’re saved, we start by admitting our sinfulness.
Obviously, therefore, “obey his commands” does not mean “obey certain commands perfectly.” It just can’t.
Rather, “obey” means the same thing as “repent” means the same thing as “listen to us” — means that we submit to Jesus as Lord and turn our hearts, and therefore our obedience, toward God, realizing that our obedience will always be imperfect and incomplete.
Therefore, if someone — a penitent believer — who listens to the apostles — misunderstands God’s will regarding how to worship him, he is still a penitent believer, and he is obedient — not perfectly obedient, but obedient — and so he remains saved.