I wrote a long series of comments over at the New Wineskins issue on instrumental music I’m the editor for. The comments aren’t too long for a post, just for comments — and the 3,000 character limit at New Wineskins made posting these problematic. And so, here are the comments, somewhat edited —
Deciding Whether to Use an Instrument
Once we agree that the scriptures grant freedom as to instrumental music, whether to exercise that freedom is a matter of wisdom and experience. No congregation should have to make that decision alone. Rather, we should also learn from one another. What mistakes have others made that we can avoid? How much benefit did the addition of instrumental music bring? How much detriment? What proved to be a good way to manage the transition? What proved to be a bad way?
These questions need to be discussed because we exist in community and need to share our experience and wisdom. That doesn’t mean that I can decide for your church what is best for your church (within the realm of expedience), but I may well have information or experience that would be profitable to your congregation’s leadership as they wrestle with the question (and vice versa).
Moreover, although we certainly have freedom on the issue, it’s freedom for a purpose. We are free, but we are also committed to God’s mission. We exercise that freedom in faith and love. And if one choice or another would better serve God’s mission, the mission is paramount.
Hence, the decision to add or not add instruments must be made, not based on internal political grounds, but on missional grounds. Of course, any leadership that loves its flock will want to avoid a division and avoid losing members, but this isn’t done by compromising the gospel. It’s not done by condoning legalism. It’s done through teaching the true gospel, the gospel that gives freedom.
And once the congregation’s leadership has taught freedom in Christ and taught it well, the instrumental question should cease to be political and become missional.
We then ask such questions as: would the instrument make us more effective evangelistically? And we ask that question in community, by learning from the experience, good and bad, of other churches.
The question of whether to remain a cappella is certainly a congregational decision, not to be dictated by other churches (or editors!), but it’s also a decision to be made in community, with wisdom and experience pooled and shared. We don’t all have to do the same thing, but I think all congregations should be part of the conversation.
The Impact of the Mission
Elders have obligations both to our flock and to the lost. Both obligations are defined by the gospel.
As to the lost, the gospel tells us to pursue God’s mission of redemption to invite them into the kingdom. As to the saved, our obligation is much, much more than not giving offense. Indeed, giving offense, in the English sense of the word, isn’t really the question. Rather, as to the saved, we much teach them how to live out the gospel they’ve already accepted.
The gospel tells us that instrumental music is not a salvation or fellowship issue. If our members think it is, we have to teach them better. Indeed, to let them believe otherwise is to let them suffer from the very heresy that Galatians was written to confront. While instrumental music may well be a matter of faithful obedience in the hearts of many members, if they see it as also a salvation/fellowship issue, they are guilty of a works religion, and elders are charged to teach them the true faith. I see no other choice.
Indeed, if someone sees instrumental music as a salvation issue, he likely sees many other such issues as salvation issues and will protest if his congregation extends fellowship to sister congregations that disagree — and this would be division and factiousness. It’s sin. You see, the command to be united is not limited to unity within a single congregation. The entire body of Christ must be united. It’s a command.
Offending the Members
It is true, of course, that Rom 14 teaches us —
(Rom 14:13 ESV) 13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.
To “offend” in Rom 14 is not cause someone to judge you. He’s commanded not to judge you! To offend is to tempt to sin against one’s conscience. Therefore, I should not use peer pressure to tempt a member to worship against his conscience. But the obligation is on him not to judge or look down on me if I worship with an instrument —
(Rom 14:4 ESV) 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
(Rom 14:10 ESV) 10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God;
We can’t let his sin guide the church’s conduct. No, we teach our members to obey Rom 14 and we don’t tempt our members to sin against their consciences. Nothing else leads to true unity. Indeed, anything else leads to factiousness — and a congregation of the Lord’s church cannot agree to be factious just to please a brother’s weak understanding of the gospel.
I think Rom 14 is honored when we add an instrumental service rather than replacing our only a cappella service with an instrumental service. We don’t require members to sin against their consciences, but we do allow members to exercise their freedom while calling on those with weaker faith (to use Paul’s term) not to judge or despite their brothers with stronger faith.
Now … with all that in mind … the elders should not consider themselves bound by the scruples of members with the weakest faith. After all, to feel that way would be to give de facto leadership to the most legalistic members. No, the elders lead, not the most legalistic members. But the elders lead with compassion and kindness.
And so, to my way of thinking, this means —
* The elders teach grace to the church, over and over, in many different ways, so that it’s not just the elders who understand that the gospel doesn’t require a cappella music.
* The elders teach mission to the church, over and over, in many different ways, so the church transforms from a rules-based, check-the-box theology to a missional theology, with mission trumping preference and tradition.
* The elders prayerfully consider whether God’s redemptive mission would be better furthered if that congregation has an instrumental service. And this is decided without regard to what we feel comfortable with or prefer, because we laid all those things at the cross when we submitted to Jesus as Lord.
And this is why I’ve published the interview with Rick and Chris. Their churches have done exactly this. They honored Rom 14 and they honored God’s mission, viewed through the lens of grace. They made the transition prayerfully and with kindness. Those members who objected were not tempted to sin against their consciences. The gospel and mission prevailed.
That doesn’t mean all congregations must be instrumental. But I think it does mean that no congregation should consider itself so bound by tradition and fear and the consciences of its most conservative members that instrumental music can’t be considered. It has to be on the table for prayerful consideration.
And I would add this: even if a church decides not to go the instrumental route, no church has the option of refusing to fellowship instrumental churches because they are instrumental. To do that is to be factious, which is sin. And this is one reason it is so very important that our members be taught that the instrument is not a fellowship issue. Making it a fellowship issue is to divide the body of Christ.