The can has been opened and the worms are out! I have not really said much about this issue in the past because it is highly charged with strong feelings on both sides. I think it is a mistake to stand idly by while a whole generation of young people leaves the church because they are dissatisfied with worship. Both sides think their side is right. Both sides feel like they can make their point from scripture. Both sides feel they have to get their way to get their needs met. I know those are generalizations and not everyone fits one side or the other but those feelings are not uncommon on either side of the debate. The only reason I bring it up is because if we do not discuss it and come to grips with some sort of solution/healthy understanding we will divide ourselves even further than we already have. Before I go any further I want you to know the purpose of this post is not to express my views but to help us understand where our young people are coming from, what they are questioning, how they are questioning, and how to be fair with scripture and with them.
If we were really focused on Christ’s priorities I doubt we would find time to argue about this issue. I am sure there have been board room meetings of Christian men arguing about this for hours while the people across the street remained lost because people would rather argue pet issues inside their fortress walls than try to leave our doctrinal fortresses and make an impact on the world around them for Christ. Hear me out, I am not saying doctrine is not important. If Christ was in town when one of those meetings was being held where do you think he would be? Would he go argue his point at the meeting or would he be reaching the lost? I am not saying this is not an important issue or that we can only discuss it once all the lost people are saved. I am saying we need to keep it in perspective. I am saying this is not THE issue that we prioritize everything else around. As far as we can tell Christ didn’t spend his time in private drilling his disciples on minute pieces of doctrine and tests of faith. Yet it seems that is the model many churches have developed for equipping Christians for service (or more likely for winning arguments). Christ spent his time in the world transforming it through contact with the lost and hurting. For too long we have made instrumental worship an identity issue of first priority. We need to put it where it belongs.
An identity issue:
Have you ever been asked what the church of Christ is like? What is your typical response? “We are the guys who don’t worship with instruments, baptize, take the Lord’s Supper every week, and don’t have a choir.” “Oh.” We just gave that person a brief primer on what we do but have they learned anything about who we are/what our identity is in Christ? Not really. We have made our a capella worship an issue of who we are/how we are different from “those other guys” so much so that we don’t start off answer that questions with, “We are Christ-followers who love God and worship him in response to his saving acts through Jesus Christ.”? If so, that is problematic. We are not first and foremost a capelians. We are first and foremost Christians – Christ followers.
Jesus spoke far more about unity than he did about instrumental music. In fact, he said volumes about unity and absolutely nothing about instrumental music. Yet we have divided over something he said nothing about. Does that seem like a problem to you or is it just me? You can argue against instruments from history and from some very obscure and tentative connections within the New Testament and with some extremely loosely connected “case studies” from the Old Testament. You cannot argue for or against instruments based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. What you can argue from the teachings of Jesus Christ is that we are much more likely to need to withdraw fellowship over all sorts of other things that we have allowed to go on in the church for generations. After we address things like hypocritical leadership, legalism, and sexual immorality (all of which Christ condemned) maybe we will be on better footing to talk about something of lesser priority like instruments in worship. I am not saying it is not important. I am saying discussing it cannot be our number one priority. It does not define who we are. Only Christ does that.
Arguing from Scripture
How do you take scripture and argue against instruments in worship? You can point to the Old Testament and the story of Nadab and Abihu and show that unauthorized worship is punishable by death. But they were privy to some pretty specific instructions regarding worship. They were not violating an argument from silence because how God wanted them to worship was pretty explicitly laid out. If we use the story of Nadab and Abihu to inform us on worship that seems problematic because if the Old Testament begins to shed light on how our worship should or should not be couldn’t that in and of itself open the door to worship as they did – with instruments? Obviously that kind of reasoning doesn’t work. Nadab and Abihu don’t give us anything clear we can really say about if instruments are right or wrong. Moses wasn’t writing those things down thinking, “Some day some Christians will have to figure out whether or not they can worship with instruments so I better write this one down.” So what about the New Testament? We point to verses like Eph 5:19 and Col 3:16 that tell us to sing and to pluck the strings of our hearts in worship. They say nothing about instruments and so we argue from silence that because he didn’t say to do it with an instrument we shouldn’t do it that way either. So why do we use grape juice in the Lord’s Supper when the clear example of the New Testament was wine? Why do we shake hands and hug instead of greet each other with a holy kiss (which is a command in scripture) and why don’t we teach very much about fasting (which is a command or at least expected for us to do in scripture)? Did Paul really pen those words in Ephesians 5 or Colossians 3 and think, “Let’s see if they can figure out from all of this that what I am really saying is that instruments in worship is a sin?” I am just asking questions here! Does anyone have any answers to any of these? I don’t think the instrumental music question was on the minds of any of the New Testament authors when the wrote the verses we use in defense of a capella singing. I think if that was at issue in those texts they would have been far more explicit about it.
My point is this – we can either argue it from scripture and do it well and honestly or we can’t. One or the other. If it can be proven from the New Testament that the intention was a capella worship and nothing else then we must hold to that, teach our children that, and, I would add, have some mutual submission in our song selection in deference to our young people’s taste. If we find that we can’t, then we cannot condemn those who do it. We cannot disfellowship them. We cannot snub our noses at them. We cannot treat them any different because of their worship style. I understand that at that point it would still remain an issue of conscience for some people. For those who understand it cannot be proven from scripture but still have a hard time with it, they should not be coerced into worshiping with instruments.
The issue is here and it is big. It has transformed from an inter-denominational argument to something that is having a bearing on our young people and on our future as a church. We cannot hide from it. We cannot have puny answers. We cannot be afraid of the answers we find when we honestly and open approach scripture. I have more I want to say about this but I think I have said enough for now before I end up with a post longer than the urban ministry one.
There are many more things to say about this but I think I have put enough on the table for now.