And So, In Conclusion… (Sept-Dec 2010)

By Matt Dabbs

By Jay Guin

Is the instrument a salvation or fellowship issue?
Is the instrument sin?
Is the instrument wise?

It is my view, for the reasons stated in this series and in the earlier series on Patternism, that the answer, quite clearly, is that the instrument is neither sin nor a fellowship or salvation issue.

Sadly, this is not the view of many of our institutions. Most of our publications and many of our colleges and universities continue to teach that the instrument is not only sinful, but damns. And this teaching, I believe, violates the gospel, running afoul of the teachings of Galatians in particular and, more generally, misunderstands the nature of the gospel and the character of God.

Therefore, whether a congregation uses the instrument or not, it’s imperative that the leadership teach the true gospel of grace. Legalism separates us from Jesus and the joy of our salvation. Legalism leads to division — which really is a great sin.

When some insisted that Paul’s disciple, Titus, be circumcised, so that he might preach to the legalists, Paul declared that he “did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved“ (Galatians 2:5 ESV). But then, Paul did allow Timothy to be circumcised. You see, it’s all about freedom. And sometimes we give up our freedom to be more effective evangelists — as in the case of Timothy — but we never, ever give up our freedom in order to affirm the views of the legalists among us.

Therefore, it might be entirely appropriate and wise to surrender the instrument in a culture and place where the instrument interferes with teaching the gospel. But it’s never appropriate to surrender the instrument to appease those who argue for a diminished, weakened gospel within the church. No, within the church we are called to work for a strong, robust gospel that brings freedom to our congregations —

(Galatians 5:1 ESV) 1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Of course, we must also honor our obligations to our brothers as instructed by Paul in Romans 14.

(Romans 14:21 ESV) 21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.

We must not push anyone to sin against his or her conscience. If a congregation adds an instrument and they have members who cannot worship in good conscience with an instrument, they might obey Paul’s instructions by adding a new service. But just so, those members who consider the instrument sin must obey Paul’s commands, too —

(Romans 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.

(Romans 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 …

Now, this brings us to the question of wisdom and expedience. How does a congregation decide whether to worship with an instrument? The usual approach is political: how will the members respond? A better approach is missional: how will the lost respond?

The elders must wrestle with their congregation’s reaction, but this is a matter of teaching and pastoring toward serving God’s mission. But there can be no question of whether the church will serve God’s mission. It must! The question is, rather, how best to do so, and the answer will vary from place to place.<br><br>But it’s very easy to assume that what’s convenient is also what’s right. It’s more convenient and less scary not to change, and so we look for reasons not to change. What we should do instead is look at the data — what does experience teach us about the impact of instrumental music on a church’s effectiveness?

Here’s what I know —

  • The independent Christian Churches, which are doctrinally very similar to the a cappella Churches of Christ other than the instrument, are growing rapidly. The a cappella Churches of Christ are in numeric decline.
  • The a cappella Churches of Christ have very few congregations over more than 1,000 members. The independent Christian Churches have far more.
  • The largest a cappella Churches of Christ that have added an instrument, such as The Hills (formerly Richland Hills) Church of Christ and Farmers Branch Church of Christ, when they expand to a new campus, offer only instrumental services at their new campuses, because they find their growth coming largely in the instrumental services.
  • The fastest growing congregations outside of the Restoration Movement offer contemporary instrumental services. They may also offer traditional organ music or traditional hymns with piano, but they’ve all added contemporary instrumental services, because this is where their growth occurs.
  • I recently interviewed a leader in church planting among Restoration Movement churches. His organization supports both a cappella and instrumental church plants. I asked whether the choice whether to use the instrument impacts the success of the plant. He listed the most effective, most evangelistic church plants he knew, and they were instrumental.

The evidence is that instrumental music helps a church reach the lost. That’s not to say that a cappella churches can’t. Some do. Nor is that to say that all instrumental churches are evangelistically effective. Many are not. Rather, the point is simply that the instrumental service helps.

And instrumental music only helps if the worship is in a contemporary style. The music has to speak to the “heart language” of the worshipers. A church that worships to Bach cantatas — as beautiful as they are — will not do well, because the surrounding community won’t find their hearts moved toward God by Bach.

It’s interesting to ponder why the choice between instrumental and a cappella matters. I think it’s for these reasons —

  • A cappella music is very much outside the mainstream of American music. You’d struggle to find CDs of a cappella music in the record store. Few people outside the Churches of Christ could name an a cappella singer or composer. Therefore, when a church insists on exclusively a cappella music, it has to defend its unusual taste in music.
  • In the minds of many in the Churches of Christ, a cappella music is a salvation issue. And that attitude is closely tied to the idea that only members of the Churches of Christ will go to heaven. Thus, a cappella music reminds many of the sectarian attitude that we are trying to escape.
  • While it’s possible to defend the choice of a cappella music as a matter of tradition, it’s impossible to defend our frequent insistence on a cappella music, where we even bind our congregation’s tradition on other churches. When we insist that the churches we plant or the missionaries we support worship a cappella, we make a law where God didn’t make a law and we do so at the cost of missional effectiveness. When we do this, we prove ourselves to still be trapped in legalism — and this legalism harms our ability to seek and save the lost. Indeed, we’re often willing to handicap our missionaries and church planters just to avoid having to keep two families in our home congregation happy — no matter how many souls that decision costs God. We are often far more about avoiding conflict than saving souls. And avoiding conflict means avoiding an opportunity to teach.

You see, it’s all about the mission — whether we are willing to do whatever it takes to be effective in seeking and saving the lost. And until we have that attitude, we’ll not be effective. If we’re not willing to lay our worship preferences at the foot of the cross as a sacrifice to Jesus, our hearts won’t be right and our ministry won’t be effective.

Now, this surely sounds as though I’m insisting that we give up a cappella music — but I’m not. I’m just saying that we have to be willing to give it up for the sake of Christ if it would help. And once we have that attitude, we’ll no longer ask: “Are you saying we have to give up a cappella music?” Rather, we’ll ask, “Will adding an instrumental service help us be more effective servants of Jesus?”

And once we are willing to ask that question, it becomes essential that we figure out a way for our congregations to share experiences about how to make the transition, how not to make the transition, whether the transition to an instrumental service actually helped serve God’s mission, where instruments have helped and where they haven’t, and how we can do it all better.

You see, once we understand that mission matters more than the choice of worship style, those become critical questions — and they are best answered in community. Questions of expedience and wisdom are answered, in large part, based on shared wisdom and experience. No congregation should have to struggle with these issues alone.

We are at a crossroads: will we pursue tradition even if it costs souls? Or will we turn the internal conflict over the instrument into an opportunity to teach a better, truer gospel — so that our churches will have the freedom to serve as effectively as God’s will allows? And are we willing to openly discuss and share our experiences, good and bad, about whether to make to add instrumental services and how best to do it? Will we make our decision based on what is easy or what best serves God’s mission to redeem the world?

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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