One afternoon in early October I came home from school and found a letter in my mailbox. I plucked it out and happily ran up the stairs to my apartment. The letter was from an elder at the church I grew up in. A man I worked for through high school and with whom I had exchanged letters during my first two years of college. We had a pleasant correspondence about our Christian beliefs, though we do not agree about everything. I was not expecting the letter to be completely positive, but I was not expecting this: "My heart is broken to see you drift away from God's word and to human wisdom. I ask myself many questions that cannot be answered. How could this be? Danny, there is so much wrong with what you are doing that I will not try to go into everything that is apparent by your letters to me."(1)
What would lead him to say something like that when my religious devotion had clearly increased since coming to college? Sadly, I already knew the answer. In my study of the Bible, I had chosen to leave behind one of the teachings that makes my church unique. To those in my church, that decision constituted a grave separation. I had separated myself from them and now I was in their "daily prayers that you will repent and come back to the true pure church of God."(2) I was raised in a church of Christ(3) and its members are known for their refusal to use musical instruments in worship, as well as their refusal to identify as "Christian" anyone who does not agree with them on this issue.
Anyone who spends very much time at a conservative church of Christ, like the one in which I was raised, will become quite familiar with the doctrines and arguments that are held there. I have been exposed to church of Christ doctrines on a regular basis, almost to the exclusion of some of the more central messages of the Bible.(4) For the last three years I have attempted to study the beliefs of the church of Christ in a more in-depth and fair way. My goal has been to consider each issue from both sides. I have known what it is like to defend these teachings staunchly, and I have known what it is like to puzzle over how anyone could ever believe some of them. At this point in my studies, my goal is not to prove or disprove any party's theories, but to know more fully the character and will of God and to look for ways to bring my life closer to what he desires for me. In relation to this issue, my studies have lead me to the realization that the Bible does not impose the same regulations for worship as the church of Christ does; rather it calls Christians to worship from the heart and to lovingly accept our brothers and sisters who do not agree with us on minor issues.
The churches of Christ trace their roots to an American religious movement known as the Stone-Campbell Movement or the Restoration Movement (the preferred name within churches of Christ). Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell were ministers in the Presbyterian and Baptist Churches, respectively, in the early nineteenth century. Independently, both men were frustrated with the division that existed between Christians in different denominations. Stone, along with some others, left the Presbyterian Church and began calling themselves simply "Christians." Several years later Campbell left the Baptist Church and his group called themselves "disciples." Both groups wanted their faith and practice to come from the Bible, not human ideas or creeds. These two decided to unite their movements in 1832.(5) For many years their followers endeavored to restore the Christian faith and practice of the New Testament. The second generation leaders began to take the movement in opposite directions. One side focused more on the idea of unity, even with Christians who held different beliefs. The other side gave priority to keeping the church in its pure New Testament form. These two goals, originally intended to be met simultaneously, would prove incompatible. One of the main issues that was present at the movement's split was the instrumental music debate. The liberal side saw it as an acceptable sign of progress and an aid to singing, but the primitivism side saw it as an abominable addition to the simple New Testament pattern. The separation was finalized when the 1906 census recorded two groups, where there had been only one before: The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Church of Christ.(6)
In Reviving the Ancient Faith, Richard T. Hughes defines sect: "A religious organization that insists that it - and it alone - constitutes the entirety of the kingdom of God."(7) Over the years, many of the churches of Christ have come to fit this description. The rejection of instrumental music in worship has served as a defining characteristic that sets them apart from all other Christian groups. In Edward Wharton's The Church of Christ: A Practical Guideline Course By Which the New Testament Church Can Be Identified and Established Anywhere on Earth, an entire chapter is devoted to singing. Wharton concludes "An obvious characteristic of the church of Christ is her worship as set forth in the New Testament. Singing is that kind of music set forth for the church of Christ."(8)
During my freshman year of college I began to study this issue on my own. I was always taught to draw conclusions from the Bible alone and to carefully scrutinize any human ideas about religion by comparing them to the Bible. When my long, prayerful search brought me to a different conclusion than that reached by members of my home church, they were very disappointed with me. As I have studied these issues, I have remained in dialogue with my parents and the leaders of the church. In a recent discussion with two of the elders from the church I was given an article entitled "Why You Hear No Pianos" by Don Hooten. He puts forward three reasons for his belief "that the use of mechanical instruments of music worship is unacceptable to God."(9)
Hooten calls his reasons the Historical Argument, the Hermeneutic Argument and the Scriptural Argument.(10) For the Historical Argument, he cites ten sources which affirm that the earliest music in Christian worship was strictly vocal with no accompanying instruments. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, "For almost a thousand years, Gregorian chant without any instrumental or harmonic addition, was the only music used in connection with the liturgy."(11) He then gives another eight quotes from church leaders including Tertullian, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Adam Clark and John Wesley. These leaders all seem to be in agreement with the author about the wrongness of instruments in Christian worship, but Hooten then says, "However, it would be absurd to say that the practice of instrumental music was wrong for the simple reason that others have thought is was wrong historically."(12) I agree with Hooten on this point. In fact, every part of my church of Christ training screams out in agreement. I was always taught that it is dangerous to derive doctrines from the statements of uninspired men.
The author admits that the opinions he has recounted do not seal his arguments: "Yet it is the reasons why these people opposed instrumental music that should be of greater consideration and imitation. And that is the Hermeneutic and Scriptural arguments."(13) He is correct in saying that we should further investigate the reasons behind these opinions, but Hooten makes an illogical jump when he claims that these men employed the same reasons for their beliefs that he does. Consider Tertullian for example. He says, "Musical concerts with viol and lute belong to Apollo, to the Muses, to Minerva and Mercury who invented them; ye who are Christians, hate and abhor these things whose very authors themselves must be the object of loathing and aversion."(14) Tertullian's opposition to instruments had nothing to do with the Bible (as Hooten claims) and everything to do with preventing the influence of pagan religion on Christianity. It is also noteworthy that Tertullian does not merely call for keeping instruments in the home and out of formal worship; he says that Christians should hate all instruments and concerts.
Likewise, Thomas Aquinas does not refuse to praise God with instruments because of the way he interprets the Bible. "Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize."(15) Aquinas is also trying to prevent the influence of another religion. Several others oppose instruments on the grounds that they are unfit for worship and a distraction from the real purpose of worship, which is to render praise from the heart. This is a matter of preference. Many of the same people who held these views also believed that harmony was not an acceptable addition to Christian worship music, yet most churches of Christ that I have attended sing hymns written in four-part harmony.
In his next section, Hooten explains his hermeneutic argument, "the argument against instrumental music is couched in the methodology we use to interpret things, namely the Bible. Simply put, our method of understanding God's will must presuppose that God's speech permits us to do things by his authority but that his silence does not."(16) This line of reason is often referred to as "the silence of the scriptures," because the prohibition comes from words that God did not say. This methodology is a bizarre take on the Restoration motto "Let us speak where the Bible speaks, and be silent where the Bible is silent." To illustrate his point, Hooten describes this situation: "If I send my son to the store to buy bread with the $2 I give him and he returns with a bottle of Pepsi, has he acted with my authority? Of course not. . . . If my silence permits him to change what I wish at his whim in one situation, it permits him to do it in any situation." This illustration is then applied back to worship, equating our adoration toward our creator and redeemer with a kid running an errand for his busy dad: "So too, if God's silence permits Christians to change what he willed in words at their whim, it permits them to do it with any situation or teaching." In the very next sentence, Hooten makes another jump in logic that I cannot follow. "And as a result, no one belief system can ever be said to be out of harmony with the will of God."(17) He assumes that anyone who does not apply the "law of silence" will be an advocate of religious pandemonium. This is a poor assumption because those who do not think that God's silence is prohibitive still believe that his overt prohibitions are. Rather than creating an anything-goes-mentality, this sort of interpretation puts the most emphasis on the things that God put the most emphasis on and leaves it up to our best judgement to determine what to do in areas where God has not spoken.
Hooten then tries to show that this silence hermeneutic is used in an inspired line of reasoning in Hebrews 7:14. The verse says, "it is evident that our Lord has descended from Judah, a tribe with reference to which Moses spoke nothing concerning priests." What makes this situation different than the question of music instruments is that, in God's instructions about the priesthood of Israel, he used very clear, exclusive language. I will demonstrate later why I think that the New Testament instructions on worship are a different genre of Scripture and should be read in a slightly different way.
The heart of the Scriptural Argument is that God "used only one word to describe how Christians praise God in music: 'sing.'"(18) Hooten quotes five New Testament verses that deal with musical praise, and they do all say "sing" and not "play." He concludes that since this is the only method mentioned, it must be the only method that God accepts. This conclusion is fraught with the symptoms of bad interpretation.
Interpreting the Bible
When I became suspicious that the things I had been taught were also influenced by poor interpretation of the Bible, I began to think critically about how I looked at the book. Is it a list of commands and rules that fell out of the sky? Or is it a collection of letters and other writings from early Christians?(19) Of course the latter is true. This fact is recognized within the church of Christ, and Bible students are often reminded that they are reading someone else's mail, but many of the peculiar doctrines taught in the church of Christ depend on an interpretation of the Bible that treats it as a mere list of commands. There are many books that provide guidelines for understanding the Bible and its historical context. Two well known Biblical scholars have written a helpful, easy to read book that spells out the basics of interpreting the Bible.
In How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart give instructions on how to understand the Bible as it is intended. There are, they claim, two tasks to proper Biblical interpretation: exegesis and hermeneutics. Exegesis is defined as "the careful, systematic study of the Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning."(20) Fee and Stuart define hermeneutics in a slightly different way than Hooten. "Although the word 'hermeneutics' ordinarily covers the whole field of interpretation, including exegesis, it is also used in the narrower sense of seeking the contemporary relevance of ancient texts."(21) This narrower definition is used throughout their discussion to contrast the "then and there" of exegesis and the "here and now" of hermeneutics. Keeping these two concepts separate helps ensure that they are done in the proper order. "The reason one must not begin with the here and now is that the only proper control for hermeneutics is to be found in the original intent of the biblical text."(22)
We can apply Fee and Stuart's guidelines to help us understand the passages in the New Testament that deal with musical worship. For our discussion we can consider Ephesians 5:19. This is the first verse that Hooten quotes, and it is one of the commonly used proof texts in the churches of Christ. It says, "Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord."(23)
A good exegesis of any passage will consider three factors: the historical context, the literary context and the passage's content.(24) The first step to becoming familiar with the historical context is to be aware of the genre. We read the poetry of the Psalms in a different way from narrative passages like Genesis. We read an epistle like Ephesians in a different way than a list of laws, as in Leviticus. It would also be fitting to know something about the sacred music of the day. Hooten himself provides some good historical background on this issue when he quotes the Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia. "There is no record in the NT of the use of instruments in the music worship of the church. In this regard, early believers followed the practice of the Hebrew synagogue music."(25) If vocal music was the preexisting norm for the regular meetings of Christians who had converted from Judaism, then it is no surprise that Paul would encourage his audience at Ephesus to use their singing to teach each other and to praise God. It is not likely that he is using this letter to establish a new practice, but to encourage the propriety of the Ephesians' singing.
The literary context is probably the key to a proper understanding of this passage. In their discussion of literary context, Fee and Stuart say, "We simply cannot stress enough the importance of your learning to THINK PARAGRAPHS, and not just as natural units of thought, but as the absolutely necessary key to understanding the argument in the various epistles."(26) They also encourage the Bible student to constantly ask "what's the point?"(27) The natural unit of thought that contains this verse begins with verse 15 and goes to verse 20. The subject of the paragraph is how to live wisely,(28) and it contains several directives for living from day to day. When read along with its accompanying directives, such as "do not be foolish," "do not get drunk on wine" and "be filled with the Holy Spirit," the call to "sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord" looks much less like a prohibition of instruments. The point of the paragraph is not to give details on how to worship, but to name it as an activity that helps us to live wisely.
The content of the passage is what Hooten is focusing on. The most important part of his argument is the fact that the word "sing" is used and there is no mention of mechanical instruments. This is true but not all that significant in light of the historical and literary contexts. Ephesians 5:19 was not intended as an exhaustive list of ways to praise God. It is an encouragement to praise God in a way that was already common among the audience.
Once we have a proper understanding of the original intent of the passage (the exegesis,) we can work on applying that intent to life today (hermeneutics.) Fee and Stuart's most emphatic bit of guidance here is that the text "cannot mean what it never meant."(29) So what does this verse mean for us today? It means basically what it meant to its first century audience: Use your singing to build up other Christians and give praise to God from the bottom of your heart.
There are some scriptures on the subject of worship that Hooten did not discuss. The most significant one I can think of is Romans 12:1, which says, "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is you spiritual act of worship.(30) This is the exhaustive list of how to worship God. Our Lord does not want us to come trembling before him twice a week, hoping that we have got all the details right. He wants us to joyfully give him our whole hearts 24 hours a day. This means that everything we do can be worship to God if our hearts are set on him. The Bible is full of stories about people who praised God in ways that he did not command. Take, for example, the singing, instruments and dances that the Israelites offered to God in Exodus 15. He did not command any of those methods of praise, and the historical account gives no indication that they had been practiced before. Without being told to, the Jews added wine to the Passover meal and they added the entire synagogue service. If their additions were sinful then Jesus would not have participated in them, but he did. Could it be that when God is silent, we are free to exercise our best judgement in praising him with our whole hearts?
I have spent many sleepless nights wishing that God's word would give a clear verdict on some of these questions. What I have slowly come to realize is that he has given clear instructions on the things that are most important, such as Romans 12:1 and Matthew 22:37-39: "Jesus replied: '"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: "Love your neighbor as yourself."'"(31) I do not want to ever be guilty of violating these commands in order to condemn someone for doing something that the Bible is silent about.
1. Larry Ritter to Danny Ferguson, 1 October 2000.
3. In this paper I follow the common church of Christ usage by not capitalizing the word "church" in the group's name. Each congregation claims to be an autonomous church, unaffiliated with any sort of nation-wide church government. The word is often in the plural as well, to demonstrate the same thing. A full discussion of this grammatical quirk is not possible here; it will suffice to realize that I am trying to use the word as it is used by members of the churches of Christ.
4. I think here especially of grace. The topic is, of course, discussed, but I do not think the same emphasis is given to it as I see in the Bible. The central message of Christianity is that we sinful humans can have a relationship with a perfect God because of his grace. I would not hesitate to say that in the church of Christ I heard more sermons on musical instruments than on grace.
5. Lester G. McAllister and William E. Tucker, Journey in Faith: A History of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (Saint Louis: The Bethany Press, 1975), 16.
6. Leroy Garrett, The Stone-Campbell Movement: An Anecdotal History of Three Churches (Joplin, Missouri: College Press Publishing Company, 1981), 606. In the churches of Christ, the most common reasons given for this division are the liberal acceptance of "the instrument" and missionary societies, but the division was much more complicated than that. It had its roots in the differences of the founders and it was aggravated by the Civil War. For a more complete treatment, see the above book or Reviving the Ancient Faith.
7. Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), xiii.
8. Edward C. Wharton, The Church of Christ: A Practical Guideline Course By Which the New Testament Church Can Be Identified and Established Anywhere on Earth (West Monroe, Louisiana: Howard Publishers, 1970), 106.
9. Don Hooton, "Why You Hear No Pianos (1.)" Truth Magazine. 2 November 2000, 14.
10. Ibid. Sadly, I was not able to look very far into the primary sources of these quotes because Mr. Hooten's citation is quite incomplete. I was not able to track down some of the books, and some quotes have no source listed at all.
11. Ibid., 15.
12. Hooton, "Why You Hear No Pianos (1)", 16.
13. Ibid., 16.
14. Ibid., 15.
16. Don Hooten, "Why You Hear No Pianos (2.)" Truth Magazine. 16 November 2000, 10.
17. Ibid., 11.
18. Hooten, "Why You Hear No Pianos (2)", 11.
19. This is not to suggest that the writings are not inspired by God. God can and did work through people in history, in fact, that is an amazing part of the Christian message: God himself became a man that existed in history. Likewise, the book was written by people that really lived. This is an amazing gift, but it also brings a great responsibility. The man and the message must be understood in relation to the time they appeared in.
20. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 19.
21. Ibid., 25.
22. Ibid. [emphasis original.]
23. New International Version.
24. Fee and Stuart, 22.
25. Hooten, "Why You Hear No Pianos (1)", 15.
26. Fee and Stuart, 54-55.
27. Ibid., 55.
28. Verse 15: "Be careful, then, how you live-not as unwise but as wise . . ."
29. Fee and Stuart, 26. [emphasis original]
30. New International Version.
31. New International Version.
Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993.
Garrett, Leroy. The Stone-Campbell Movement: An Anecdotal History of Three Churches. Joplin, Missouri: College Press Publishing Company, 1981.
Hooten, Don. "Why You Hear No Pianos (1.) Truth Magazine. 2 November 2000.
__________. "Why You Hear No Pianos (2.) Truth Magazine. 16 November 2000.
Hughes, Richard T. Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.
McAllister, Lester G. and William E. Tucker. Journey in Faith: A History of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ.) Saint Louis: The Bethany Press, 1975.
Ritter, Larry. Letter to Danny Ferguson, 1 October 2000.
Wharton, Edward C. The Church of Christ: A Practical Guideline Course By Which the New Testament Church Can Be Identified and Established Anywhere on Earth. West Monroe, Louisiana: Howard Publishers, 1970.