For some of us, views on the use of instruments in worship assemblies change through the years. Here’s a sort of outline of my life with congregational instrumental music, using a boomerang metaphor:
Phase One: Boomerang in hand — completely sure of my stance, my grip, “knowing” that instrumental music was an unauthorized “addition” and, therefore, ill-advised at best . . . not actually poised to throw the boomerang; pretty much planning to hold onto it forever
Phase Two: Boomerang flung — completely sure that I had been completely wrong, often worshipping privately and publicly while aided by instruments, advocating for them, and attempting to influence some whose boomerangs were still in hand
Phase Three: Boomerang on a sort-of altered, return-arc trajectory — sure that my initial hold on the boomerang was not particularly smart, yet acknowledging that the launching of my particular, weirdly shaped boomerang hadn’t been very intelligent, either . . . and seeing, now, that the boomerang probably won’t return to the point from which it was winged
As was the case with a recent post on a related subject, I’m fully aware that some who read this may be going,”Huh?” So, if I may (& I may!), let me put this in more understandable terms. . . .
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Explanation of Phase One. I was raised to believe that instrumental worship was a mistaken, if not sinful, addition to the Christian assembly. This anti-instrument stance was unspoken much of the time in my moderate congregation; neither did my parents gravitate to the “brotherhood watchdogs” and their pet issues. I really have no way of knowing how many nearby siblings actually thought using instruments with worship was wrong, but the fact was, no one in my closest Christian circles used instruments in public, Christian gatherings (or talked about it openly if they did it in private).
The anti-instrument thinking stems from an argument from silence that says, simplistically, “Because there is no explicit authorization of instruments in passages that speak to New-Covenant worship, instruments must be wrong.” At its best, this argument grows out of quite a sincere desire to do as God says.
I remember writing a love song to a high school crush — a song whose lyrics spoke of God somehow, indirectly. I questioned myself on this — and felt uncomfortable when I played the song to get my mother’s feedback, but I don’t remember any censure from her. I thought it was probably OK since the God words were indirect enough, and it wasn’t worship per se, i.e., it wasn’t an expression to God Himself.
Anyway, I held onto my boomerang, checking my grip and my stance and foot position. This phase lasted well through my college years and through my first teaching job.
Over a period of a couple years, though, I grew out of thinking that way. My feet twitched. I dropped the boomerang to my side, preparing to change the grip, or the stance, or the direction of the launch, or some combination of the above.
Explanation of Phase Two. I went on a walkabout, so to speak. Or I flung the boomerang. Take your pick.
Many Sundays during a year or two, I would visit a different church, before or after being with my “own” church. I attended many worship events of various sizes in various buildings with various groups of various stripes. A couple of the best times were large-scale worship events hosted by Integrity Music. One of the worst experiences was a then-new Vineyard church near the Delaware-Maryland-Pennsylvania line, where barking like a dog was allowed to disturb someone’s penitent testimony.
I bought and read books and articles on worship and on music in worship. I was usually disappointed with arguments on the non-instrument side. They didn’t hold water for me. Even the respected philosopher, teacher, and author Rubel Shelly (then preaching for a progressive CofC in Nashville, later President and then Professor/Religion Chancellor of Rochester College, a Christian institution in Michigan) wrote a little volume called Sing His Praise! in which he overtly upheld the traditional CofC non-instrument viewpoint. Shelly, who had influenced me greatly along restorationist, nondenominational, simple-Christian lines with his I Just Want To Be a Christian, left me flatly disappointed with this book on singing in worship. I believe the words were sincerely penned, but I also presumed that the publication of the book simultaneously represented an intent to satisfy conservatives who thought he had “gone liberal” in his other writings, when in reality he was more biblically conservative than they were.
My own grandfather, Andy T. Ritchie, Jr., wrote a fine book on worship that was used as required reading in Christian college courses. This book, Thou Shalt Worship the Lord Thy God, was written on the heels of a period of particular numerical growth in the Church of Christ, and one might have expected the party line to have been vigorously articulated in such a book. I recalled no section on the use of instruments in worship, but I just pulled a copy off my shelf and had a look. Sure enough, although hints of the CofC mindset appear in the “Some Scriptural Criteria of Worship” chapter, my grandddaddy dismissed the “cold legalism” of some who would suggest that, simply because something is “within the bounds of law,” it is right. Instead, Granddaddy employed terms such as guiding principles and restraining influences instead of dealing in hard-nosed, supposed legal rules. Later, in the chapter touting singing as expression in general, Granddaddy did spend a grand total of a page making a brief case against instrumental music — because it is not “authorized” in the NC scriptures.
All during Phase Two, I was leading and affirming a cappella worship, and arranging and composing scads of voices-only scores, never dreaming of introducing instruments in a milieu in which they would have disrupted unity. However, I no longer believed a cappella was the only, commanded way.
In a late-1990s internet-based discussion group — composed mostly of people within the American Restoration Movement from which I sprang — I dialogued rather intensely with a man named Phil, then the preacher for a comparatively narrow/conservative CofC in Nashvhille. (Phil went on to be the host of a TV show produced by a larger church in OK City.) Phil was articulate and kind, yet unoriginal and unconvincing to me, in pushing the traditional arguments in my direction. Here is a portion of our conversation, pasted in:
Brian to Phil:
>>And God allows me to use my wisdom to determine how and when to use
>>instruments in my worship — for the present, with certain small groups
>>and by myself and in larger gatherings in which I’m a guest. In my
>>present congregation, it would not be wise to introduce instruments in
>>a Sunday assembly. Also, even in small groups which I might lead, I
>>have found that some worship music is better left unaccompanied.
>>Instruments are tools and need discerning users.
Phil to Brian:
>God’s plan for our musical worship is to sing, speak, teach and admonish.
>Your addition does not help you do that. It does something different, and
>it is its own form of worship. Playing doesn¹t sing, teach, admonish or
>speak. Leave it alone, my brother.
Brian to Phil:
God doesn’t say, “This is my *plan* for your musical worship.” There are NT writings which speak to aspects of it, I’d say, but there is no comprehensive *plan* laid out which describes in detail every aspect.
I’ll have to say you’re simply incorrect in your second sentence. My use of various instruments, and my listening to worship music which is sometimes accompanied by non-vocal instruments, DOES help me worship. You really cannot know what does or does not help me commune with God.
I will qualify the above by noting that simply because I feel that something helps me doesn’t mean I should do it. But in this case, I believe at this juncture in my development that there is no Biblical injunction against any certain instrument, and so I am personally free to use other instruments. Silence where the Bible is silent, while not stated as a maxim in the Bible per se, seems both logical and scripturally implicit.
Phil to Brian:
>The tools Noah used were tools to build. Your “tool” does something other
>than sing, speak, teach or admonish. The tool you use is not like Noah’s tools.
Brian to Phil:
The tool I use often is my digital piano. It helps me build new songs, and it helps me arrange songs for various media. It helps me meditate, and it helps me worship. It aids my vision for glorious praise, and it is quite a practical aid in preparing rehearsal tapes for others to learn music. My tool does not worship, and it is not an animate being; it is simply, for me, a tool which my Lord has freed me to use for His honor.
Like a weird boomerang that doesn’t take the anticipated path, I was never to return to the precise point of origin (i.e., the conscientious aversion to instruments in worship). I had been flung, so to speak.
In part 2 of “A Weird Boomerang,” I’ll include a little more of this past conversation, now nearly 15 years old. Then I’ll describe the current boomerang trajectory and invite readers to describe their own journeys (maybe more briefly than I have!).