We 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.”
Ferguson next presents “The Argument from the Nature of Human’s Service to God.”
God is a spirit, and a person is linked to God by his or her spiritual nature. Therefore, the New Testament emphasizes that the Christian’s service to God proceeds from the highest part of his nature—his spiritual , intellectual, rational nature. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4: 24). “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12: 1). “Like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2: 5). These verses draw on terminology and concepts used in early Christian times to express a worship that was non-sacrificial, non-material.
(Kindle Locations 5006-5011).
Ferguson argues that these verses argue for a “non-sacrificial, non-material” worship. I disagree. In fact, I find the argument a bit Gnostic, and certainly foreign to the scriptures he cites.
(Joh 4:23-24 ESV) 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Jesus uses “spirit” in the sense of “God is spirit.” He is referring to the essential nature of God himself. Therefore, to worship “in spirit” is to worship by the Holy Spirit.
That the Holy Spirit is in mind is clear from the preceding discourse between Jesus and the Samaritan woman regarding “living water,” which is about the coming Holy Spirit, as John makes clear in John 7:37-39.
To worship in the Spirit has nothing to do with instruments or no instruments but what or who prompts the worship. If it is the Spirit within us who moves us toward worship, it’s worship in Spirit.
(Rom 12:1 ESV) I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
In Romans 8, Paul had extensively discussed the influence of the Spirit on the believer. “Therefore,” Paul argues, we should surrender our bodies to God. It’s not just our minds and our intellects. It’s not just our emotions. It’s our whole beings that must be sacrificed.
If this is worship, then worship is a whole-body event. It’s physical. Indeed, this passage is, if anything, a celebration of our physicality. God has given us bodies, which we in turn give back to him in living sacrifice.
So what’s the complaint with instruments? That they’re too physical? Too tangible? That they’re played with our bodies? That to play an instrument can be a whole-body experience rather than the merely intellectual experience of singing?
You see, Ferguson has it exactly backwards. Because instruments are played with the body, and the body belongs to God, the body should be involved in our worship.
Of course, the playing of an instrument is not the only way that we may worship physically, but it certainly doesn’t contradict Paul’s teaching.
(I should add that Paul has much more in mind here than the Sunday morning assembly as “worship.”)
(1Pe 2:4-6 ESV) 4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
Peter declares that we are “living stones” — parts of God’s temple! — being built together as a “spiritual house” in which we are to offer “spiritual sacrifices.”
Well, if we assume that instruments lack spirituality, then we could argue from this passage that instruments aren’t proper because they aren’t spiritual. But that requires that we assume our conclusion. We must “beg the question,” as the debaters say.
But there is nothing here that says the playing of instruments in celebration of God’s work lacks spirituality. Indeed, “spiritual” here in pneumatikos, which N. T. Wright has shown to mean something like “coming from the Spirit” rather than “made out of spirit.”
Greek adjectives that end in -kos do not describe the substance out of which something is made. They describe the force that is animating the thing in question. It’s the difference between saying on the one hand, “Is this a wooden ship or a steel ship?” and saying on the other hand, “Is this a nuclear-powered ship or a steam-powered ship?”
Thus, we are to offer Spirit-powered sacrifices, not ethereal, intangible sacrifices. Peter makes this very plain in the next few verses —
(1Pe 2:11-15 ESV) 11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.
What are our spiritual sacrifices? Well, to abstain from fleshly passions, to conduct ourselves honorably, to do good deeds, to submit to human institutions, to do good. These are, of course, behaviors that the Spirit prompts within us. But these are not limited to the intangible and ethereal. Our good deeds may well be very physical.
(1Pe 2:20-21 ESV) 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.
Indeed, our “spiritual sacrifice” may be submitting to a very physical beating of our bodies for the sake of Christ.
Ultimately, Ferguson has slipped unconsciously into a form of Gnosticism, treating the tangible and physical as unholy, whereas Judaism and Christianity celebrate both the physical and mental, the emotional and intellectual, as given by God.
This happens because, I imagine, Ferguson’s theological roots come from a heritage that minimizes the work of the Holy Spirit. Thus, he unconsciously takes passages that are all about the work of the Spirit and reads them in terms of the intangible and ethereal.
And that mistake inevitably leads toward Gnosticism — the notion that the physical is corrupt and unholy — a teaching that is very far removed from Christianity. Indeed, these passages teach us the opposite — that our bodies are worthy offerings to God.