Musical Instruments and the COC

Q – I need your assistance please. I have tried searching and have had no success. I have a co-worker who attends a “Church of Christ” and they only sing acappella style. They believe that since there is no reference biblically/scripturally in the New Testament they do not practice music with instruments (i.e. pianos or organs). I have said, “But it is stated, ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven’ as well as ‘when the trumpet sounds.’ etc.” And he said that there is no reference to any kind of worship being done with musical accompaniment. Hence my question: Is this really true? And if not, how do I address it?

Thank you for your website and for your wonderful ministry, it truly is a blessing.

Jim – Thank you for taking the time to write. It’s always very gratifying to hear from our readers and listeners out there on the Internet. And thanks for the very kind and encouraging words.

You have come across a classic instance of people preferring their traditions to the Word of God. The lack of musical accompaniment during worship is a hallmark of most Churches of Christ (COC). But, my experience has been that most COC members do not even know where that tradition began or why they continue it today.

To adequately answer your question, however, we need to get a bit of ecclesiastical background. When it comes to the question of what is appropriate for worship in a church setting there are two schools of thought. During the time of the Reformation, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin argued that anything not explicitly mentioned or recommended in the New Testament was forbidden. Martin Luther took the opposite view, contending that anything not explicitly forbidden in Scripture was allowable. And all churches fall into one of those two camps. I lean toward the Lutheran view, trusting that men and women of good conscience will worship “in Spirit and in truth” without having to have every particular liturgical detail scrutinized. Nevertheless, I do believe it’s important that everything we do in God’s service is done with proper reverence, remembering the holiness of the One we serve. But, I am certain that God is not offended by the presence of musical instruments.

Okay, that being said, let’s take a look at the COC’s position on musical instruments as an aid in singing and worship. Most often they point to Ephesians 5:19 as their proof text in support of acappella singing. The passage reads:

“Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is. And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.” (Eph. 5: 17-21)

The argument normally goes like this: “This verse says that we are to sing spiritual songs, making melody in our hearts, not with musical instruments. Surely, if Paul had meant to say that we should use musical instruments, he would have mentioned it here. But inasmuch as Paul failed to suggest the use of instruments, we cannot go beyond what he has proscribed. Hence, we sing without the aid of instruments rather than offend Scripture.”

Now of course, this is an argument from silence. It bases its conclusions on what the Bible does not say, as opposed to what it does say. And Paul did have a great deal to say about Christian freedom of conscience.

I do find it interesting that in Ephesians 5:19 Paul admonished his readers to speak to one another in psalms and hymns. Surely, given his Jewish background, this was a reference to the Psalms we find in the Old Testament canon – the only Scripture Paul and the early Church knew in their day. Yet, in the Psalms we find multiple references to musical instruments. In fact, in Psalm 150 David instructs his readers to use instruments specifically for the purpose of praising God.

“Praise ye the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power. Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his excellent greatness. Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp. Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs. Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals. Let every thing that hath breath praise the LORD. Praise ye the LORD.” (Ps. 150)

Surely, Paul was aware of this language in the Psalms and if he had been opposed to musical instruments in worship he would have mentioned his opposition and given firm instruction to avoid them. Granted, this is also an argument from silence, but it carries the same logical weight as the COC’s standard conclusions concerning this verse.

Now, the COC apologists I have encountered respond to this line of reasoning by saying that they are a “New Testament Church.” As such, they contend that anything written in the Old Testament is only applicable if it is repeated in the New. That way, they avoid the many references to instruments in the Psalms and elsewhere. Of course, that argument is also illogical because the First Century Church – the very historic church on which the COC claims to be founded – had no Scripture called “The New Testament.” Paul based all of his theological teaching on the books of the Hebrew Bible; what we call the Old Testament. So, to argue that the Old Testament is somehow irrelevant to the discussion of ecclesiastical matters within the early Church absolutely undermines the very basis on which Paul founded “The New Testament Church.”

Also, we must remember that the early church was persecuted severely for their faith. Their gatherings were usually in homes, in hiding, in caves or in the catacombs of the dead. It would be self-defeating for them to make a great deal of noise or strike up a band, leading their persecutors to their assemblies. The lack of musical instruments in the First Century Church may have been a matter of self-preservation as much as it was a liturgical standard.

But more to the point, we really must ask whether the COC’s conviction concerning musical instruments in worship stems from an honest exegesis and application of Scripture or whether it has its historic roots elsewhere. As I mentioned, most COC members do not know where their own traditions began. I have yet to meet a COC member who could make a consistent argument where this tradition was concerned because they apply it rather inconsistently.

Here’s what I mean – the COC contends that musical instruments cannot be used as an aid to singing because they are not mentioned in the New Testament. So, they adhere to that strict standard. However, the New Testament never mentions songbooks as an aid to singing, either. I have yet to attend a COC that had banned the use of song books. The New Testament says nothing at all about meeting in church buildings. But, most every COC assembly meets in a building, complete with a steeple and a sign. The New Testament never mentions pews, pulpits, bulletins, or air conditioning. You get my drift.

Now, if the COC had merely said that they opted not to use musical instruments as a matter of preference, then I’d have no real argument with them. That’s their decision, based on their conscience. But, when they say that it is a matter true worship and that churches with instruments are in opposition to Scripture, then it is absolutely vital that they be consistent with the application of their own rules. So songbooks, buildings, pews and the rest must be similarly rejected. The fact that they are not only shows how inconsistently they have applied their own standard.

Okay, back to my original question. Where exactly did this custom begin? Well, the Churches of Christ grew out of the Stone-Campbell movement in the early 1800’s. They were part of a movement known as “The Restoration.” Like any denomination, they went through revisions, splits and various forms. Eventually the movement divided into the Disciples of Christ in the North and the Churches of Christ in the South. After the Civil War there was increasing tension between the two sister-denominations.

In their book “Renewing God’s People – A Concise History of Churches of Christ” authors Gary Holloway and Douglas A. Foster write:

“The notion that anyone in America before, during, and after the Civil War could have remained unaffected by such a momentous event is remarkably naive. The war created two very different moods in the country – one in the north and one in the South – that no one could escape. Northerners had won the war. There was a general sense of victory, progress, and prosperity, mixed with a desire to punish or rehabilitate the South. Southerners had been defeated. To survive, they interpreted their defeat as discipline from God to keep them from becoming like the materialistic North and to preserve their virtues as an example of God’s ideal culture.

Thus, it was not just the war but its aftermath, particularly Reconstruction in the South, that broke Christian fellowship. After the war, many churches in the prosperous northern cities became successful in society. They built large buildings with expensive stained glass. They preferred educated ministers. They could even afford expensive organs for their new buildings. Indeed, as we shall see, some opposed instrumental music in worship more for its “worldliness” than because they thought it “unscriptural.” (Page 91)

“The issue did not appear in the early history of our movement, perhaps because few frontier churches could afford instruments. The first recorded instance of an instrument used in worship among the Stone-Campbell churches was in Midway, Kentucky, in 1859 … Only after the Civil War did many churches bring in instruments. Those who did argued that they were aides to singing and appealed to a new generation of worshippers. Opposition to instruments came primarily, but not exclusively, from the South. Part of that opposition was social and economic: how could northern churches waste money on organs while their southern brothers and sisters starved? Others argued that the use of instruments put too much emphasis on the beauty of the music to the neglect of glorifying God. Their use did not promote spiritual worship.” (Page 95)

So, according to these COC authors, the decision to exclude musical instruments from worship services was not based primarily on textual evidence or the zeal to strictly follow New Testament guidelines. The history of the tradition finds its basis in the socioeconomic conflict between the North and the South after the Civil War. And, like any tradition, once it had become entrenched it was necessary to uncover some biblical proof text to defend an activity that had already become ingrained in the conscience and practice of their congregations.

In conclusion, let me be quick to state that every church has its traditions. Even those churches that claim to adhere to no traditions refuse to recognize that their claim to lack of tradition is in itself their fundamental tradition. The Bible speaks of traditions in both a good and bad light. We must make sure that those traditions we cling to serve to glorify God and edify his people, rather than add to their bondage or support our pet form of legalism.

Okay, that’s a long answer to a short question. But I wanted to spend the time on it because it is a perfect example of how easily tradition can overwhelm the text of Scripture. Remember, whom the Son sets free is free indeed (John 8:36). We should not allow the traditions of men to place us back in bondage to rules and regulations that are of no eternal value.

Thank you for asking the question in giving me the opportunity to address it.

Yours in Him,

Jim Mc.