The Church of Christ and Musical Instruments

Allow me to begin with a confession:

J. P. Holding is for all intents and purposes tone-deaf and really wishes that church could be had without music, and the constant "let's stand" and "be seated" that makes me feel like a Raspberry Pop-Tart. I'd prefer a double dose of sermon any day, as long as it had enough content.

Even outside the church the music I prefer is either from the Bach school (either one of the older ones, or P. D. Q., makes no difference) or from Weird Al Yankovic. So I have no axes to grind here, and really, had I my own preference, might want to agree with the Church of Christ's stance on musical instruments -- and extend that to singing as well.

I recognize that as a personal deficiency, though, so I choose to endure it rather than fight. But for those who do enjoy music, what of the Church of Christ (CoC) and their stance banning musical instruments?

I was asked to look into an item justifying the CoC's refusal to use mechanical instruments, as presented by one Roger D. Campbell (though I also found some other material on other CoC sites). Now it is hard to tell what is meant at times by "mechanical instruments" -- Campbell names the piano, organs, and guitars, but I get the impression that "mechanical" is broadly defined for any musical instrument and not just "what you can plug in" or "anything with more than one moving part." But either way, let's see what Campbell has to say.

The item starts agreeably enough. "In every age of mankind's history the Lord God has wanted men to worship Him." Obviously true.

"[Not] every form of worship that a person might offer to God will be pleasing in His sight." Still obviously true; the examples of Cain and Aaron, to say nothing of syncretistic worship in the divided kingdom, make that clear enough. Worship has to have the right object (God only, not Baal or Asherah), the right attitude (no faking it), and the right standard (I.e., we don't burn lizards or dance naked in the moonlight).

So how does this relate to musical instruments? Campbell explains:

As we consider the matter of using or not using mechanical instruments of music (abbreviated "M.I.M.") when we sing and worship the Lord God, the question to which we will be pursuing an answer is basically this one: Is the use of such instruments according to God's truth? If so, then there is no problem in using them. On the other hand, if we do not find scriptural statements that authorize their use, then using them would not be according to His truth, and thus unscriptural.

And there we find the keystone. The Bible doesn't say that people in the NT church used instruments in worship; therefore we don't.

That sounds fairly convincing, until you take a few things into account. (For some of what follows I am indebted to a site linked below, as well as Lang's Music in Western Civilization and the Concise Oxford History of Music.)

First, in the ancient world you didn't just go down to the music store and buy a trombone. Most musical instruments were hand-crafted and very expensive, painstakingly hand-crafted by master artisans who didn't come cheap. Most people couldn't spare the money for one. Jesus' disciples at the Last Supper were certainly not wealthy enough to afford a clarinet to accompany them on the hymn -- or someone trained in music to do it for them. (Ancient musicians had professional guilds, sort of like unions today.)

Second, you didn't just get one of these instruments and start trumpeting anywhere you wanted. Paul and Silas in prison would not have been allowed to have such personal items with them; there were no traveling minstrels who came by ancient prisons to perform, and if anything any musical instruments Paul and Silas had would have most likely been smashed or stolen by sadistic guards and sold for their value. Campbell's cite of this passage is rather off base.

Third, if you got an instrument, few had the leisure time or the resources to learn to play properly. That would be necessary, too, because showing up without talent would amount to an honor insult against those you played for.

Fourth, there were some pretty sound cultural reasons why we might not see instruments in the churches at the time. The site above notes:

...Greek philosophers considered music to have great psychological and even supernatural powers. The Doctrine of ethos maintained that different types of music could affect human behavior. For example, music in the Dorian mode would cause persons to become reasonable and contemplative. Conversely, music in the Phrygian mode would cause persons to become passionate and belligerent. Orpheus, one of the great mythic men of Greece, was said to have the power to move objects and influence the gods with his music. The sound of a given instrument was also very powerful. For example, the lyre and the kithara were said to evoke reason and were linked to the worship of Apollo, the god of reason. Similarly, a double-reed instrument known as the aulos was said to evoke passion and was linked to the worship of Dionysus, the god of ecstasy.

Our other sources add that in the time of the church, "music had sunk to the lowest regions of lascivious amusement." [Lang, 41] Music was also a racketeering gig; musicians competed in games with the athletes and used bribery to make sure at least someone applauded.

NT silence on instruments therefore is not a useful argument. Added to the above, the NT affords glimpses of only about a dozen churches, cutting down even more the window we have; and not one of those NT documents had any reason to raise the subject of instruments. This means that any argument that "early Christians didn't use instruments for worship" is based on an inadequate data pool. It's like saying that "barbeque restaurants must be illegal in Hazzard County" based on a satellite survey of one square inch of Hazzard County -- in a cattle pasture -- in which you find no BBQ restaurants.

One reader noted an inherent fallacy in the CoC syllogism:

(1) The Bible is silent re: the proposition that musical instruments are wrong; therefore the proposition "musical instruments are wrong" must be prohibited also.

(2) The Bible is silent on the fact that silence is prohibitive; therefore this "silence hermeneutic" is self-refuting. For if it is true it is false, and if it is false then it is still false.

Of course some have noted today, apart from CoC issues, that certain types of music or instruments may be psychologically inappropriate for a church setting. As a tone-deaf freak, I wouldn't know, but this may suggest that:

In any event, these associations of instruments with pagan gods suggest one reason for a lack of instruments in the church -- but also suggest that, with the gods dissipated, a reason for not having them is removed (provided some modern mental idol is not put in their place.

The site goes on to verify this point:

By the time the last Roman emperor, the young Romulus Augustulus, was finally deposed in 476, the papacy had established itself in Rome and was asserting jurisdiction over the Christian church. The music of the Christian church was for centuries the only cultivated art music in existence in Europe. Early Christian music, largely monophonic chant influenced by the Jewish cantorial tradition, was entirely vocal as the church attempted to purge the masses of the instrumental music associated with competing religions.

So what does this net out to? Campbell cites several verses where people are told to sing, and concludes:

The above-noted verses point out that the first century followers of Christ sang praises to the Lord: these passages make mention of singing but not singing with mechanical accompaniment. In fact, the first time on record when those that called themselves "Christians" made use of M.I.M. in worship to God was in about the year A.D. 670, which was some 600 years after the New Testament was written.

I will take it for granted that Campbell is right on the 670 date, but this really doesn't matter. The conditions I have described above in terms of availability would endure for the next 1200-1500 years at least. Furthermore by 670 we would expect all pagan connections to various instruments to be erased; by now the church would be safe in taking over this aspect of culture and making it sacred for their own -- as they did for other social peripherals.

At the core, though, what Campbell offers is simply a fallacious argument from silence. We don't need a mention of or a command to use instruments anymore than we need one to use a hymnbook. (In that case, of course, there were also social constraints: few people could read, or read music anyway, and printing was expensive -- but the Bible says nothing about hymnbooks or sheet music, so shall we not use those?)

Instruments are a component of musical presentation just as these other elements are -- Biblical silence cannot be interpreted as lack of divine authority or non-authority, especially when there were significant social reasons for the silence and no direct provision against such things.

Beyond this of course we do have the evidence of the use of instruments in the OT. Campbell explains this away, however, by stating that the old law and method of sacrifice and worship have been abolished: "...[O]ur worship today is not based upon the teachings of the Old Testament. Israelites of the Old Testament age also burned incense, offered animal sacrifices, and went to Jerusalem to celebrate annual feasts. Are we prepared to say that all of these things that God's children did in the Old Testament worship are acceptable today? Surely not. If we go back to the Old Testament for our religious practices today, then we would be obligated to keep 'the whole law,' not just certain portions of it! (Gal. 5:2)."

Nice try -- but musical instruments are only mentioned in the law where a trumpet is sounded (i.e., Lev. 25:9), and that wasn't for musical intent. Later use of instruments in worship was something the Israelites did on their own -- and if Campbell's silence tactic is valid, we may note that God never condemned the use of such things in the context of proper worship.

Instruments were not in the law, so it cannot be part of the ritual law which Campbell argues has passed away. Indeed, such worship is a practice reflective of the Hebrew mindset in which such open praise was "the basic token of being alive" [Wilson, Our Father Abraham, 156]. The reserve of the CoC is a product of their own Western mores.

Moreover, there is a major distinction between the outward practice and the internal meaning of even the things like incense. Paul and the Jerusalem apostles did continue to visit the Temple and observe the holidays; they simply did not require new converts to do so, and they attended the festivals with a new appreciation of deeper meaning. Today churches may invite Jews for Jesus to speak and encourage parishoners to observe a Passover seder -- thereby gaining a new appreciation for their Judeo-Christian heritage.

Campbell goes further with this argument: "What about adding chocolate cake to the Lord's Supper? Is there any New Testament command that directly forbids such? No. Why, then, would it be wrong to add chocolate cake to the communion?"

This is profoundly irrelevant. The bread and wine have specific associations with the body and blood of Christ; chocolate cake would have no link at all. There is moreover a begged question inherent in this argument -- that instruments are inappropriate for worship just as chocolate cake is inappropriate for Holy Communion. But this merely assumes what has yet to be proven.

We are told correctly that worship has to have the right object and the right attitude. Musical instruments are no barrier to either of these in and of themselves. The "right standard" is what is at issue, and in that regard, it is clear that the standard, for the early church, was inextricably linked to the problem of the object.

If flutes were associated with Apollo, you didn't use flutes. If Apollo is rendered impotent, then obviously he can't have had any power with respect to flutes in the first place, and you can flute (flout?) away in worship of the true God who has proven the other false.

Christianity specialized in undermining social institutions such as slavery and the household codes -- there is no reason why it could not have effected similar reform in music, as they did as well in art. Indeed, is this not becoming salt to the world?

I find it significant that another CoC site finds it necessary to accompany this sort of argument with a closing threat: "Since we cannot be absolutely certain that God finds the use of musical instruments an appropriate form of worship, then it seems quite foolish to risk His wrath by adding something which He did not clearly authorize us to do during collective worship."

Well, as far as I can see, altar calls, weekly collections, two services on Sunday and one on Wednesday, business meetings, and other standbys aren't clearly authorized either, but as far as I can see as well the CoC isn't ceasing with those. The modern church, even the CoC, is a product of its time, and Paul and others would not recognize much of it. However, that is far from important, since the early church was also very much a product of its time; what is important is that they would recognize the members of the body of Christ.

"Do ye look on things after the outward appearance? If any man trust to himself that he is Christ's, let him of himself think this again, that, as he is Christ's, even so are we Christ's." (2 Cor. 10:7)


These objections were received from a CoC legalist.

Why would they need to go buy an instrument? I can make a musical instrument out of a tree leaf, a piece of paper and a comb, my shoe string, or yet with nothing at all (percussion instrument by clapping my hands). Mechanical instruments have always been available to any social class.

This objection indicates a critical lack of awareness of the agonistic (honor-shame) orientation of the Biblical world. In such a setting, it would be considered an insult to God and to others to attempt to perform on such an amateurish "instrument", and/or to do so with no musical training. Even today it would be considered a comic embarrassment to play in church with "a piece of paper and a comb."

Your logic involves cultural practices. Culture does not dictate what is truth, and books like "Lang's Music in Western Civilization and the Concise Oxford History of Music" are merely commentaries written about history.

But you mention "music had sunk to the lowest regions of lascivious amusement." Is this not the case today? Have you listened to the radio lately? I am sure you will agree, music is terrible, isn't it?

Some is; other types of music -- like classical, and some Christian music (not all), and even some secular music, is just fine. This is simply a black-and-white fundamentalist attitude that fails to grasp that diversity in style and form has removed music from the hands of an elite that almost wholly controlled its production, as was the case in the first century.

As for the other point, I do not say culture "dictates" truth: Rather, it helps us interpret facts so as to arrive at truth. As we have said elsewhere, by this sort of logic (typical of CoC fundamentalism), we cannot even consult a lexicon to determine the contextual meanings of Koine Greek words behind what is in the New Testament we read today.

Is there any authority in what is not authorized in God's word? What about Gopher wood and the ark?? Was God silent about wood? No...he specified Gopher wood! Was he silent about NT Music? No...God was specific about is to be singing!

The argument here fails to finish itself, for it has the unspoken premise added, "it is to be singing because...." The CoC fills that "because" in with legalistic nonsense; we fill it in with contextualized historical fact. God no doubt specified "gopher wood" for some particular reason. The best answer would be something like, "because it was plentiful and solid enough to build a boat with." The CoC would have us fill in with foolish, authoritarian answers like, "because God commanded it, period, now don't question it." It is little wonder that many of my most strident atheist opponents are former CoC preachers: Mere appeal to authoritarianism is an inevitable course towards congnitive dissonance.


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