Somewhere, on any given Sunday, guests from another heritage visit a Church of Christ and for the first time experience unaccompanied congregational singing in four-part harmony. Those visitors often compliment their hosts afterward, comparing the singing to that of the heavenly hosts, and remarking that “the whole church sounded like a choir!”
Churches of Christ are known for singing a cappella or “chapel style” — an Italian phrase for singing without musical accompaniment. Such singing can be indescribably beautiful, as, of course, can accompanied singing and instrumental music alone. Unaccompanied singing in church was part of my upbringing. I love it, and I would not relish losing it altogether. However, Churches of Christ do not have a monopoly on the practice. This is also the custom of Primitive Baptists, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, Plymouth Brethren, the Amish, many Mennonites and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Sadly, good things can also become bad. An Episcopalian friend once remarked to me: “The best thing about the Episcopal Church is its open-mindedness. The worst thing about the Episcopal Church is also its open-mindedness.” The brazen serpent, which served as an instrument of physical salvation in Moses’ day, eventually became an object of idolatry. The metal snake remained the same. The people’s perception of it drastically changed.
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Among Churches of Christ, discussions about singing with instruments often generate more heat than light. The movement had split in 1906 and the controversy over music was a major factor. Churches divided, families fractured and friendships dissolved. Pro-instrument members were usually in the majority and managed to retain the real estate. Stunned and dismayed, many a cappella congregations drafted deed restrictions in an effort to prevent the same thing from happening in the future.
For many humble souls scattered through the non-instrumental brotherhood, unaccompanied singing was simply one expression of their desire to please God as they understood his will. They refused to judge their instrumental brethren, and they knew the difference between “the music question” and the gospel. With popular attention focused on the most strident and extreme, these gentler souls were often denied the respect they deserved.
In most Churches of Christ, however, opposition to musical instruments “in church” evolved into a prerequisite for fellowship and even a condition for salvation. Non-instrumental churches saw themselves as the faithful remnant, and unaccompanied singing identified those who really belonged to the group. Once again the brass snake had become an idol.
Because Churches of Christ did not use instruments, their members often found themselves isolated by conscience from the larger Christian community. And believers in other Christian groups came to view them with incredulity, suspicion and sometimes, quite ironically, with concern as to their very salvation.
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The past two or three decades have seen a spiritual awakening among mainline Churches of Christ, resulting from a Scripture-based emphasis on Jesus and a fresh appreciation of the grace of God. The awakening has led to greater awareness of other believers and has inspired some reconciliation between Churches of Christ (non-instrumental) on the one hand, and Christian Churches and Churches of Christ (instrumental) on the other. This rapprochement has been acknowledged and, to some extent, celebrated by major universities associated with Churches of Christ, including Pepperdine in California and Abilene Christian in Texas.
Change is not confined to attitudes. Various a cappella congregations now include some accompanied singing alongside purely vocal numbers. Several churches now offer fully-instrumental alternative services. Among these are two of the largest Churches of Christ in Texas and the world — Oak Hills Church in San Antonio (Max Lucado is preacher), and Richland Hills Church of Christ in Fort Worth (Rick Atchley is preacher). Houston’s largest Church of Christ, the First Colony congregation in suburban Sugar Land (Ronnie Norman, preacher), added an instrumental service early this year.
Meanwhile, dozens of new instrumental churches are springing up across the USA, as the result of spin-offs and church plantings by congregations that always have been non-instrumental themselves. Responding to these changes, one unofficial Directory of Churches of Christ now omits congregations that add an instrumental service, a move that is generating its own controversy within the brotherhood of supposedly autonomous churches. And we cannot overlook the influence of the Christian music industry, which has also done much to build a spirit of unity among Christians across the board, including many within Churches of Christ.
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No one disputes that God once commanded his people to worship him with singing, accompanied by musical instruments of all sorts. All agree that the biblical Psalms were written to be sung with instruments, that the New Testament urges Christians to sing psalms, and that Revelation portrays instrumental music in heavenly worship. But because the New Testament does not specifically mention instruments in Christian worship assemblies, opponents of the practice conclude that God now dislikes what he once commanded, and that he prohibits on earth what he approves in heaven. They are convinced that anyone who plays or sings “in church” with any instrument other than the human voice displeases God. And many believe that whoever does that will finally be lost.
No matter how hard I try to understand this reasoning, it still does not make sense to me. So, when my friend Jay Guin recommended Missing More Than Music: When Disputable Matters Eclipse Worship and Unity, by Danny Corbitt (Authorhouse.com, 2008, 172 pages, $13.99), I ordered it immediately and read it straight through. Corbitt has done exemplary work, whether we think of biblical exegesis, historical research, even-handedness, clarity, logical progression of thought, irenic spirit, humble tone, or warmhearted generosity in dealing with authors holding opposing views. Indeed, More Than Music will remain a worthy model of Christian advocacy for future disputants, no matter what their topic might be.
What effect will this book have? Churches of Christ have fought this battle for 100+ years. In most of their minds, singing without instruments is nothing less than a mark of the true church. A very good book such as Corbitt’s will change some opinions, but even it is unlikely to produce immediate or widespread changes in practice. And that is actually okay, since it is neither necessary nor particularly desirable that every non-instrument congregation should become instrumental.
However, two changes do desperately need to occur, and the sooner the better. First, everyone on either side of the issue who has spoken or acted from a sectarian or legalistic mindset needs to repent of those sins, to renounce them for what they are, and never to repeat them again. Second, the anti-instrumental rhetoric needs to cease, since it lacks an intelligible basis in either Scripture, history, language or logic. Believers with a non-instrumental understanding will still be free to set forth their best case for unaccompanied singing. However, I predict that many who read Corbitt’s Missing More Than Music will want to ask themselves whether they really wish to do even that.