With my own ears

I heard it with my own ears.

It was the fall of 1987, and I don’t claim to remember every word, every inflection, but I do remember 80% of it—and part of it verbatim—along with the the general tenor of the expression.

Now, I had heard that some people in my “fellowship”¹ thought this way, but I, thankfully, had not been raised with such concepts.  This kind of explicit rhetoric, this kind of sentiment was so wholly embarrassing that I’m not sure I really believed it was ever spoken or heard.

But hear it I did.

And it went like this:

“People want to know what church the apostle Paul would choose if he visited [name of city] today.  Well, I know he would choose our church.  He would know it was the right church.  He would know it because he would drive right down [name of avenue], and he would see the sign “Church of Christ” right out front!!!”

And, even at my tender age, in a church I was only visiting, I came infinitely close that night to standing up and calling out that horrificly audacious, ludicrous claim in public, in a crowd of several hundred.  I was closer to causing cause a holy, real-time ruckus than I’ve ever come since.  Suffice it to say this:  I never returned to that building.

[Extendatis lector (yeah, I made up that Latin):  I was only beginning, then, thanks largely to Rubel Shelly’s book I Just Want To Be a Christian, to understand God’s church from a less sectarian, more universal vantage point.  It is quite possible that the experience captioned above fueled my travel down a road that has “No U-turn” signs all along the way.  In other words, I have not reversed my path; I still think the same way about sectarian exclusivity, although my position on the somewhat more neutral idea of “denominating” is more informed now.]

Fast forward 28 years.

I still receive the national, “brotherhood”¹ newspaper.  I skimmed a positive portrayal, in the August issue, of this same church.  The church is now known (at least in the paper) for being a church of love and service.

In 1987:  if I hadn’t heard it with my own ears, I wouldn’t have believed anyone would actually say it (the indented paragraph above).

In 2015:  since I did hear it with my own ears in 1987, it was difficult to believe the glowing report of this same church’s caring stance toward people in trauma.

But some churches (and some individuals) can change.

Vive la repentance.

¹ “Fellowship” and “brotherhood” are used in-house as euphemisms for that which is called “denomination” in most other circles.  In my view, “denomination” is a more apt, and certainly less disingenuous, term, although the Church of Christ certainly doesn’t have all the trappings of a full-blown denomination.


A weird boomerang (1 of 3)

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. . . .

~ ~ ~

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!).

Referential prominence

The sign outside the healthcare facility used to read “Brandywine Convalescent Home.” When the fancy new conglomerate bought the place, the sign was revamped to advertise something different:

Accord Health Services

at Brandywine Rehabilitation Center

Today I saw another sign:

America’s Best Value

by Vantage

The second one seems a more apt signifier, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it advertise more clearly the thing that’s significant to those who see the sign?  If I’m looking for my motel and I know it’s “America’s Best Value,” I could find it when I see the sign.  Conversely, when one is looking for the Brandywine Nursing Home to visit great aunt Millie, she could easily pass over “Accord Health Services.” Who really cares that it’s Accord Health that runs the nursing home?  That’s not what I need to see on the sign.

What needs to be “signed” is the thing that people who see the sign need to know. The attention should be placed on the right thing, or entity, or person.

In my way of thinking, it is highly inappropriate to name a church or church building after a human. “Johnson Memorial Baptist Church” and “Thomas E. and Margaret Weatherford Chapel” are spiritually bothersome, if not irreverent. (I don’t even like the naming rights guaranteed to large-scale donors at institutions of higher learning, but at least there’s no deity to upstage there.) “Methodist” or “Baptist” by themselves may be shades more apt than “Lutheran” or “Wesleyan,” but the hue is the same.

It should be recalled that neither Luther nor Wesley wanted a denomination named after him.  And, in my time, I haven’t known of Lutherans or Wesleyans bent on using those names with the purposes of  dividing, but the effect of erecting walls still warrants mention.  Denominating itself can be neutral, harmless … but it also can result in insidious divisiveness.

Rubel Shelly, in I Just Want To Be a Christian, begins a fair-sized shoring-up of restorative nondenominational Christianity:

The first reason I favor the attempt to practice undenominational Christianity is that it is Christ-honoring. Sectarian versions of Christianity are hardly in position to give the glory to Christ which He alone should have. Instead they tend to give honor to human leaders, human opinions, and even human creedal formulations of beliefs rather than simply centering their faith on Christ and the cross. (p. 35)

Agreed — anything in the church universal, including naming rights, that takes honor from Jesus is to be avoided.

It’s even possible to use His name divisively, as Paul mentioned in a letter to the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 1:12). In this context, Paul’s, Apollos’s, Cephas’s, and Jesus’ names were being used divisively. (And I got spirito-emotionally smacked around by my own church about 15 years ago for suggesting we were doing just that.) May we never be guilty of sectarian exclusiveness, and, on a more positive note, may we advertise to the world — in our signage and by our lives — precisely what Jesus would want broadcast.

For comment:

Words can make a lot of difference. Please share how you define, use, or differentiate among …

  • denominational
  • cultish
  • exclusive
  • sectarian
  • narrow-minded