“The Early Church and Today,” by Everett Ferguson, Part 5 (The Argument from the Nature of the Christian Assembly)

EarlychurchWe continue to consider Ferguson’s arguments in chapter 21 of his The Early Church and Today, vol. 1 and vol. 2, edited by Leonard Allen and Robyn Burwell. This chapter is titled “The Case for A Cappella Music in the Christian Assembly.”

A principal purpose of the Christian assembly is edification. Vocal music serves this purpose. Instrumental music can contribute nothing to it and may interfere with it. …

Paul gives his most extensive instructions on the Christian assembly in 1 Corinthians 14. He argues against speaking in tongues in the assembly unless there is an interpreter. Throughout the chapter he sets edification as the standard for what is done (note verses 4, 5, 12, 17, and 26). Edification requires that the speech be intelligible (verses 9, 16, and 19). On this basis prophecy is superior to speaking in tongues (verses 3, 6, 24, and 31).

(Kindle Locations 4994-5000).

First, I question the claim that instruments can contribute nothing to edification. As proof, I offer two arguments. The first is experience. I’ve heard on the radio, on YouTube, and in churches plenty of worship songs accompanied by instruments, and I find many of them very edifying — more so than if there were no instruments.

In fact, it’s not unusual to find purely instrumental pieces edifying. In particular, there are transcriptions of Bach’s Christian music that affect me deeply.

The reality is that some songs are just better with instrumental accompaniment. Ask any worship leader who’s tried to take a song from Christian radio and lead it in an a cappella assembly. Some songs just don’t work a cappella.

(Isa 40:1-3 KJV) Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. 2 Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’S hand double for all her sins. 3 The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

After hearing Handel’s instrumental arrangement of the words of Isaiah, you’ll never read these words the same way again.

(1Co 15:51-53 KJV) 51 Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.

And so the trumpet adds nothing to the song? Seriously? It’s hard to analyze these things, it’s so subjective, you know, but Handel’s use of the trumpet powerfully declares the reality of Paul’s words. The clarity and beauty of the music reflect the clarity and beauty of Paul’s words. And the trumpet — as well as the orchestra — make the words incredibly celebrative. No one can doubt the faith of Handel as he composed this piece, because he so powerfully declares the word of God.

Or consider our contemporary culture. Go to the record store, iTunes, or Amazon and try to find recordings of a cappella music. There aren’t that many — and rarely does a cappella music get played on the radio. We live in a culture where singing without an instrument is something of a novelty. In fact, outside of Church of Christ circles, if you ask a group of people to sing, someone will inevitably ask for a guitar or a piano.

This is not just culture. It’s also the fact that the instruments add to the words. A song with excellent instrumentation can provoke stronger feelings and communicate its message much more powerfully.

Second, consider the fact that the scriptures urge us to sing, not to recite. Why sing? If the only part of the music that matters is the words, we should do responsive readings or the like. We shouldn’t waste our time with the melodies and harmonies.

But there’s something about singing that makes the words all the more edifying. The addition of pitch and rhythm evokes powerful emotions and associates the words with important, Godly feelings.

Ahh … and this is key. You see, the word of God is about much more than propositional truths. God has created us to be emotional beings, and  involving our emotions in worship and praise is therefore important.

(Deu 6:5-6 ESV)  5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.

God doesn’t want us to merely know his commands. He wants them to be on our hearts — he wants us to feel his commands, to be emotionally caught up in his will.

Here’s a contemporary Christian tune, with a gorgeous melody. The melody adds deeply to the words, and the subtle instrumentation adds even more.

And so, how do we deal with Paul’s teaching about instruments in 1 Corinthians 14?

(1Co 14:7-9 ESV) 7 If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? 8 And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? 9 So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air.

Consider Paul’s point about the bugle sounding the call for battle. He doesn’t say that the bugle conveys nothing of value, but that the bugle would have no value if it gives “an distinct sound.” Just so as to the flute or harp. Paul asserts that they must play “distinct notes” so that the listeners will “know what is played.”

His point isn’t that instruments are useless but that they can become useless if they don’t play distinct sounds. Thus, he argues that speaking in tongues without a translator is useless because they can’t be understood — just as an instrument will not be understood if it plays indistinct notes.

Paul is not comparing tongues to instruments but to instruments very badly played. There is nothing here against instruments themselves.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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5 Responses to “The Early Church and Today,” by Everett Ferguson, Part 5 (The Argument from the Nature of the Christian Assembly)

  1. Royce Ogle says:

    Excellent! But how dare you try to get people to think for themselves!

  2. Clyde Symonette says:

    *Rousing round of applause* Well done Jay! Excellent series!

  3. A principal purpose of the Christian assembly is edification. Vocal music serves this purpose. Instrumental music can contribute nothing to it and may interfere with it.”

    I continue to be amazed at the combination of myopia and monomania that allows Ferguson and so many others to categorically dismiss that which the whole world knows to be true. Music has been used to motivate and uplift people for thousands of years. Ferguson speaks like a man who lives in a cave and who actually thinks the whole world is like that cave. Since one cannot dismiss Ferguson as intellectually disabled, one must find some other diagnosis for such grossly fallacious thinking. These are not even really arguments, but conclusions based on demonstrably false ideas. It is as though someone declared, “Since shrimp are small and scattered across the sea, it would be entirely impractical to think of catching them as a financially-viable business.” “Coffee has no food value, which is why nobody consumes it.” “Since the earth is clearly flat, the purported photos of it as a blue sphere are obvious frauds.” These are not merely flawed arguments, they are simply incorrect at the base. I appreciate Jay correcting Ferguson’s blatant error, and marvel at his patience, but I wonder at the necessity of it. It’s like taking someone by the hand and walking him around the entire planet so that he can see for himself that the earth is not flat.

    Behold the vast amusement of the chuckling demonic imp who has the power to waylay us with unclever deceptions and grandiose ignorance regarding such trivialities. When this music business has at last been sorted out, he will convince us that the wearing of socks is a matter of eternal salvation and we will spend another hundred years dithering over whether argyle is of God, and over whether the wearing of tube socks by women constitutes “that which pertaineth to a man” and endangers their delicate souls. Then somewhere around 2113, a sensible brother will suggest that the use of socks is not really a matter of eternal importance, and have to spend his life defending himself from accusations of anti-sockianism. And our little pal from perdition will have start working up some new, even more bizarre sillyness to occupy us and separate us and provide fodder for scholarly discourse.

  4. R.J. says:

    Also the Greek term used by Paul is “inanimate(aspuchos)” in the neuter gender. In contexts, this is simply a taxonomic term that many in his day used to label everything. So the verse should literally read…

    “In the same way, if inanimate objects, weather flute or harp don’t give off distinctive sounds, then how will anyone recognize what is played?”

  5. Jay Guin says:

    Clyde! Great to hear from you!

    Readers, I learned the Jer 31:2-4 reference from Clyde — who must be credited with noticing that the coming of the Kingdom is to be celebrated with instruments.

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