I’m pausing to insert something into my three planned essays on instrumental music and corporate worship. Here, in a sort of special edition, are some reflections on comments from Steve K. (You may find his complete comments attached to the last post.) After reading Steve’s comments, I knew I had to do something with them.
Since I often find it easier to digest substance when it’s not on a computer screen, I printed these thoughts. He used the expression “awful familiar,” and on my paper here, those words appear just above “a cappella” and “instruments” on the next line. It looks like this at the end of the line:. . . sounds awful familiar . . . . . . a cappella vs. instruments. . . .
I could imagine that (1) some folks with the old CofC mindset would make what they thought was a funny point, letting their eyes connect the word “awful” with “instruments.” On the other hand, (2) those who have left non-instrumental music behind might prefer to associate “awful” with “a cappella.” The fact that I’m even bothering to type this paragraph may be as nonsensical as the overall topic to some of you. I tell you, though: it is beyond question that some old-schoolers would absolutely resort to such antics as in (1) above, in order to support their belief that instruments supposedly are awful in God’s mind. I have witnessed this sort of behavior in the past, although not too recently, thankfully.
There is this old argument that employs the Greek word psallo (ψαλλω), toward which a cappella champions tend to rush. Although the usage seems to favor the “sing” meaning in the 1st century, the older meaning (plucking the strings of an instrument) also comes into play during the same time period (Rubel Shelly, Sing His Praise!, pp. 77f). Words are primarily defined in literary context, and even if it could be proven beyond a shadow that psallo meant precisely, only “singing” to New Covenant authors, that still wouldn’t prove that instruments weren’t used. The historical psalm and its verb form could also be be brought to bear here.
Incidentally, around the 1st century and in later times that sought to reflect the Greek arts doctrine of ethos, plucked-string instruments appear to have been preferred, over winds and percussion and bowed strings, by and for the higher sorts of people. The associations of Greek and Roman cultures with certain instruments might well have been factors in Christian practices during the centuries immediately before and after Jesus.
As Steve reminds us, the earliest Christians do appear to have worshipped without instruments. We ask why and are bumfuzzled & befuddled by the lack of information — other than some connections with synagogue worship of the 1st century, which result in part out of the Exile in Babylon. This Exile bit is one I hadn’t thought about, but it makes sense — and more so than the notion that the first Christians couldn’t use instruments because they had to hide in the catacombs. (Surely that was the case for some, but it wouldn’t have been the reason instruments weren’t used.) Even though synagogue practice, as I’ve understood, was typically a cappella, that mere fact is impotent to illuminate the reasons(s) for any lack of instruments in later Christian worship.
There is this deafening silence about instruments in the NC writings. What to do with that silence? Notable scholars in Christian history, quite apart from the American Restoration Movement, have gone on record about the early a cappella practices. The historical notes of John Calvin and either F.F. Bruce or William Barclay (I forget which of the latter) are sometimes quoted by a cappella prophets, yet I have not been convinced that their words suggest any divine intention for all time.
Others have made entire careers out of defense of the position that God’s silence equals God’s prohibition. I don’t buy that. I really, really don’t buy that. And that is all I’ll say about it, other than to affirm, as Steve did, that we really just need to “take a few steps back.”
We must decide that, although obedience is certainly desired by our Father, what He wants on a deeper level is an orientation to relationship with the Who instead of an undying devotion to telling others all the Whats. The foundation is God, not the supposed blueprint (which of course is absent) for every action; our approach to reading the scriptures must acknowledge that a certain amount of judgment and discretion is called for by our Lord. (Steve mentioned Hebrews 7:14 as a reference point for the silence/exclusion argument, and, for the life of me, I don’t recall anything coming from that verse, but that’s OK, because I, too, have moved into a different mindset/orientation/relationship.)
Speaking of moving, a few highly visible CofC preacher-leaders have pastored their flocks through motions into a state in which instrumental music is OK in the assembly. Chief among these are Rick Atchley of The Hills near Ft. Worth, and Max Lucado, formerly the preaching minister at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio. Those moves, believe me, were not made without thought or consternation. They were made over a long period of time, and they have resulted in angst and critique, as well as presumed growth and openness to those of other traditions. Not incidentally, it might be noted that neither of those churches carries the name Church of Christ as prominently, or at all. Other, less celebrated congregations have also moved toward instruments in one or more of their regular assemblies.
I’m grateful to Steve for spurring some additional comments here. My last essay on this topic is essentially ready and should be published in a couple of days.