By Matt Dabbs
By Jay Guin
So the question must be asked: should our churches add instrumental services? Or is it good enough to remain a cappella? Well, what are the arguments pro and con?
In favor of exclusively a cappella worship —
- Adding instrumental worship damns.
- Adding instrumental worship is sinful.
- A cappella music is a mark of the church.
- A cappella is our identity. The Churches of Christ were founded as an exclusively a cappella fellowship, and to add instrumental services is to, therefore, be something else.
- Adding instrumental services will lead to division, because many churches will split rather than tolerate an instrumental service.
- Many dearly loved members will feel compelled to leave to preserve relationships with family members elsewhere who won’t fellowship those who tolerate those who worship with an instrument.
- The instrument isn’t needed for the church’s mission. We can grow without it.
In favor of adding an instrumental service —
- Instrumental music doesn’t damn (as demonstrated in the series on Patternism and the earlier post in this series “On God’s Salvation, Galatians, and the Instrument”
- Instrumental music isn’t even sinful sinful (as demonstrated by several earlier posts in this series).
- Nowhere do the scriptures suggest that the church will be marked by the form of its worship. It is indeed marked by whom it worships and by its love (John 13:34-35) and unity (John 17:20-21). It’s marked by the indwelling Spirit (Ephesians 1:13). But not by a cappella music.
- Our identity is in Christ. Indeed, when we speak of “us” as a subset of the Kingdom with its own traditions and heritage, we risk becoming sectarian, even factious, in our thinking. Is “us” the body of Christ, the church of Christ, the Kingdom of heaven? Or is “us” the portion of those who have an a cappella heritage? Why should we insist on an identity other than Christ? Why isn’t being in Christ enough?
- Refusing instrumental music leads to division. We are divided from brothers who worship with the instrument already — by our own decision to refuse fellowship. Why do we blame others for our own sinful attitude? Moreover, no one is suggesting that we deny our members the opportunity to worship a cappella. Therefore, if a member leaves because someone else in his congregation worships with an instrument, it’s not because he is being tempted to sin. It’s not because he is being asked to violate his conscience. Rather, he is acting on a false gospel that teaches that an entire congregation is damned if it allows any of its members to use an instrument — and that he leaves in violation of the truth of the gospel.
- It is a sad truth that many members will be more loyal to their earthly families than to their congregations — and so leave their congregation to avoid a fight with their families. But wouldn’t it be better if they, instead, took the opportunity to teach a better, truer gospel to their families?
- Whether the instrument helps a church be more evangelistically effective depends on the local setting. But in most settings, I am convinced that the instrument will help. And how many souls should we be willing to sacrifice for the sake of internal peace — when internal strife over things like the instrument is sin? Why would we let the immaturity and false understandings of our members stand in the way of the Kingdom? Why not, instead, patiently, gently, and lovingly teach the truth of the gospel, over and over, until the members understand — and then change?
I would like to offer this simple proposal. I think each Church of Christ — regardless of faction — should do at least one of the following three things:
- Begin a diligent program of teaching the grace of Christ. A proper course of study would include an understanding of the eternal purposes of God and his plan of redemption , Romans, the Gospels, Galatians, Hebrews, and Ephesians, all taught from a gospel perspective (which is also how they are written).
- For those churches that have already done this, make your teaching reality by either (or both) —
- Actively and visibly fellowshipping instrumental congregations, demonstrating to your congregation and to the community that you truly consider instruments not to be a salvation or fellowship issue; and/or
- Adding an instrumental service to your own worship.
Think about it. If you aren’t willing to actively and visibly fellowship an instrumental congregation, then you have some serious teaching to do. Even if you’re persuaded that you don’t need the instrument to be effective in your mission, you must be united with the entire body of Christ. It’s a command. You don’t even have to infer it from silences.
If in your setting you’d be more effective in Kingdom work with the instrument, I don’t see how you have a lot of choice. You can’t trade effectiveness in the work Jesus died for you to do for peace with legalists who misunderstand the gospel. For them, the proper response isn’t giving them control of the church. It’s instruction. For you, it’s being about your Father’s business.
The Instrument as Proxy
I guess I’ve always known it, but until I was reviewing the interview with Rick Atchley and Chris Seidman, it didn’t really hit me that instrumental music is a proxy for nearly every division in the Churches of Christ. You see, the theology and hermeneutics we invented over the last 150 years to require a cappella singing and justify our division over the issue has led to a series of other divisions.
It’s been often argued that if instrumental music is sin and if we must divide over instrumental music, then X is sin and we must divide over X, too. And thus the 20th Century is filled with one division after another over this X or another, all based on the doctrines invented to justify division over the instrument.
Therefore, if we finally persuade each other than we can’t bind the opinion of Third and Fourth Century bishops on one another, finally putting the whole instrumental music issue to rest, we’ve only cured one of many divisions. We’ll still argue over whether we must damn one another over elder re-affirmation or the role of women. The division will continue until we realize that the whole scheme that leads to this kind of thinking is anti-scriptural and wickedly divides the body of Christ.
(1 Corinthians 3:16-17 ESV) 16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
“You” is plural in each occurrence in this passage. “You” is the church, and “destroys” refers to dividing God’s church.
The only way I can figure that we can atone for dividing God’s church is to re-unite it. It’s not enough to say we’re sorry. It’s not enough to teach a better gospel. These are necessary steps, but we must swallow hard, eat a little crow, and shake the hands of those we separated from. We must actually unite and be in fellowship with the entirety of the body of Christ. Anything short of that is to be an accessory-after-the-fact, permitting the continuance of destructive divisions that we may not have caused but which we inherited and that we are charged to heal. We are called to be peacemakers, not keepers of the status quo.
And if we’ll put the instrumental music controversy behind us by taking an affirmation step to reach out to the instrumental community of Christians, we’ll not only take a step toward unity as to the instrument, we’ll help put to death the entire body of doctrine that seeks to divide and damn over countless petty disagreements.
God called us to do good works, and I can think of none greater than working for the unity of his people.
The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ
In the interview, Rick and Chris made a powerful point regarding the future of the progressive Churches of Christ, which is that these churches are plateaued and soon to die if they don’t change.
Up until now, most progressive Churches of Christ have operated as hospitals for broken Church of Christ members but not as beachheads of the Kingdom in the world. My own congregation has many members who grew up in legalistic a cappella Churches of Christ, and we’ve experienced dramatic growth because of they transferred from less grace-centered churches. But we’re plateaued. Why? Well, in part because you can’t grow but so much through transfers, and in part because we aren’t very evangelistically effective.
Meanwhile, in my home town, community churches that teach a non-denominational Christianity that places scripture above tradition and that study the Bible rather than their denominational history are growing. They stole our playbook!
There is unquestionably a need for a church that nurses and heals those broken by the legalist congregations of our denomination. But that need is quickly ending as the old legalistic congregations are dying. Members my age tell me of their old churches back home being down to 20 members, demanding one more sermon on baptism and the Five Acts. We won’t be receiving any more wounded from those churches.
While we still need to help wounded Christians recover from legalism, the greater need is to help heal a wounded world. And we are working to becoming that kind of church. But, yet, one thing remains. We have to become united with the rest of God’s Kingdom. We can’t plausibly claim to be a part of the body of Christ while isolated from our instrumental brothers in other congregations. And our members have to decide that we have to give a few comforts up to be more effective in the mission of God.
Recent studies show that evangelical churches aren’t growing much at all as a whole, but that non-denominational community churches are growing rapidly. That means the denominational churches are losing members to non-denominational churches. And isn’t that what the Restoration Movement has always been about? Calling believers out of the denominations to be united on just the gospel?
Of course, it would be woefully inadequate to merely steal sheep from the denominations in order to grow a congregation but not the Kingdom! No, the goal is the expansion of the Kingdom, and that can only be accomplished by uniting the Kingdom — which is quite impossible if we insist on being separate.
As Thomas Campbell wrote in 1809 —
Meantime the truly religious of all parties are grieved, the weak stumbled; the graceless and profane hardened, the mouths of infidels opened to blaspheme religion; and thus, the only thing under heaven, divinely efficacious to promote and secure the present spiritual and eternal good of man, even the gospel of the blessed Jesus, is reduced to contempt; while multitudes deprived of a gospel ministry, as has been observed, fall an easy prey to seducers, and so become the dupes of almost unheard of delusions. Are not such the visible effects of our sad divisions, even in this otherwise happy country. — Say, dear brethren, are not these things so.
The goal of the Restoration Movement was to heal divisions. Thomas Campbell and Barton W. Stone had founded the Movement and seen it grow and prosper long before anyone even thought about an instrumental music controversy. The goal was unity, and we can’t claim to be promoting unity while insisting on remaining a sect separate from other believers, divided by our anti-gospel refusal to fellowship those who use the instrument.
Finally, our children care nothing about the instrumental music controversy. They’ve not heard the sermons, and they’ve not engaged in the debates. To them, the instrument just isn’t an issue. And that’s true of the children of many very conservative Churches of Christ. In an age when the Bible is available in easy-to-read contemporary English, and when the struggle against the world is vastly more important than the church’s internal struggles, our kids are just not persuaded that we need to divide over the instrument.
And this means that they’ll find a church that helps them grow in faith and serve Christ without regard to the instrument. And a church that’s entirely a cappella may well appear legalistic to the eyes of a young man or woman, even if the church teaches the true gospel. They will look for churches that practice what they preach — including unity and including presenting the gospel in terms of the local culture.
I’m not saying that an instrumental service is essential to a church today. Rather, I’m saying —
- Actively and visibly fellowshipping instrumental churches is essential to being the church God calls us to be.
- Choosing to be exclusively a cappella because your members are too legalistic to permit it means you have some serious teaching to do.
- If the world is searching for nondenominational Christianity that puts scripture above tradition and works of service above doctrinal disputation, then God has answered the prayers of the Restoration Movement. We should join in the work of God by making as many churches of this kind as possible.
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