What Makes Us Who We Are (5 of 7)

A Cappella Music

July 11, 1999 / Col. 3:16

One of the things that makes us who we are is our distinctive musical heritage and practice. Many people who visit Woodmont Hills for the first time are initially bemused that we don’t have piano, organ, or band accompaniment to our singing. A fellow came to me several years ago with the concern that our church couldn’t afford a piano — and offered to help with the purchase. Many of those persons who are initially startled by our unaccompanied music quickly discern a beautiful simplicity and power to it. "Your people really know how to sing!" they say.

We use a cappella (Latin, "in the style of the chapel/church") music for historical and theological reasons that we can articulate in a positive way. In its simplest and most straightforward manner, our reasoning is this: The New Testament and early Christian history reveal a practice of unaccompanied vocal praise to God in the church’s worship, and our commitment to imitate the life of the earliest church has led us to adopt that same style for our congregational worship.

Have we ever been extreme with our position? Yes. Have we sometimes passed harsh judgment on people with a different practice? Yes. Have we sometimes overextended our worship practice so as to violate the freedom of our members to experience and enjoy instrumental music as a gift from God? Yes. Having granted all these points, however, I remain committed to our a cappella position relative to congregational worship — as are the shepherds of this church.

Today’s sermon therefore stands to disappoint many, many people. Those who are convinced that I am a participant in a subversive plot to introduce instrumental music into the Church of Christ will certainly be frustrated with it. Those in our church family who would like for us to adopt it for congregational worship will be forlorn. Yet those who want a denunciation of instrumental music as a sinful perversion of a supposed "New Testament pattern of worship" that jeopardizes souls will be equally crestfallen.

There is no explicit instruction that either requires or excludes musical instruments in the church’s worship. The New Testament has no commandment on the subject. Neither is there any fixed pattern, precedent, or example to be cited. Biblical scholars from all denominational backgrounds agree that the church’s music in the first Christian century and for several hundred years afterward was exclusively vocal. Thus a Catholic source says the following: "For almost a thousand years Gregorian chant, without any instrumental or harmonic addition, was the only music used in connexion [sic] with liturgy."1 And a widely respected Protestant scholar writes: "There is no evidence for the use of musical instruments; and if we picture the believers as men and women drawn from the poorer strata of society and meeting clandestinely, the non-mention of instrumental music is not surprising. The ‘making melody’ psallontes: Eph. v.19 is ‘in the heart’."2,3. Christ, his apostles, and the evangelists-teachers of the earliest church are simply silent on this matter about which we have had so much to say. Ah, and there lies the problem! How are we to interpret the "silence" of Scripture on this or any other topic?

The Silence of Scripture

You can make a pretty good case for the silence of Scripture being prohibitive. The writer of Hebrews, for example, argued that Jesus could not be a priest without a change from the Mosaic covenant to a new one. Under the old covenant, priests were to be chosen from the Tribe of Levi. But Jesus was from Judah, "and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests" (Heb. 7:11-14).

You can also make a pretty good case for biblical silence being concessive. Take the synagogue as an institution, for example. The Old Testament says nothing about a synagogue with its worship rituals, officers, and authority in the daily lives of devout Jews. There is neither a command nor example to authorize one. The institution appears to have been created during the 400-year period between the testaments. More specifically, most scholars believe it evolved when the Jewish nation was in exile in Babylon. What we know for sure is that it was the central institution in the spiritual lives of the Jews in the time of Jesus. He attended, participated in, and helped lead Sabbath services in his hometown synagogue (Luke 4:16ff). Although Scripture had been "silent" on the subject (i.e., no command for it, no example of it, and no logical inference about it), human initiation of the synagogue was neither presumptuous nor a challenge to divine authority.

The truth be told, the Bible’s "silence" on a subject is most often ambiguous rather than either prohibitive or concessive. What one is willing to allow or quick to oppose is, I fear, due more to taste and temperament than to any clear application of the following cherished dictum: "Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent."

But hold on! Where did that dictum come from? It’s not a Bible verse. It’s a well-worn religious slogan that I think has some very positive value. But is it foundational enough to build a hermeneutic or theology on it? Is this human rubric so sacred that it would be worth dividing the Body of Christ for the sake of our different slants on it?

The Core Message

Jesus didn’t die over our interpretations of eschatology, congregational government, or church music. That we have fought such acrimonious battles over these things is not only shameful but is responsible for the unbelief of many. The central message of the gospel has nothing to do with whether to have Sunday Schools or orphanages. It doesn’t require anyone to stake out a position on the five cardinal tenets of Calvinism or Martin Luther’s theses nailed to a cathedral door. It doesn’t even require you to like the way we run summer camp or our small-groups ministry.

Here is what God wants churches passionate about:

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

"Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36).

"But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!" (Rom. 5:8-9).

These are the essentials of Christian faith. It is this core message about Jesus that we share in common with other Bible-believing, cross-proclaiming, resurrection-confessing, born-again persons that constitutes us a church. Outside the essence of the gospel, there are other features that reflect our history and consensus interpretations of the larger biblical message. Those things make us distinctive from other Christian groups. We have a right to those points of understanding and practice, but we don’t have the right to judge others on the basis of those peculiarities.

Distinctive Without Being Divisive

Churches of Christ hold several "distinctive" positions on issues ranging from congregational autonomy to weekly communion to our non-use of instrumental music in worship. These are part of our heritage. I value them and can offer good historical, theological, and pragmatic justification for each one. What I feel no calling to construct or issue is a ringing anathema on those who have come to different conclusions and whose practices on these points differ from ours. In fact, I believe I would come under the rebuke of the following text to do so:

For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:

" ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will confess to God.’ "

So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.

Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another (Rom. 14:9-13a).

How strong is my personal preference for a cappella over instrumental music? I am deeply committed to it. I do my best to make a strong, reasonable, biblical case for it. I would oppose anyone’s effort to introduce it into our congregational worship. In my view, it would be divisive and therefore wrong for anyone to attempt to do so.

I’m not about to champion instrumental music for the Church of Christ. I do plead, however, for a more creative, passionate, and worshipful use of vocal music. Human voices compelled by hearts zealous for Christ are capable of producing powerful, God-honoring, and participant-inspiring praise. I am an unabashed defender of our a cappella legacy. But when someone wants me to go further and to condemn to hell someone who doesn’t agree with my view, I have no interest in pursuing the discussion. Instrumental music and the atonement are not of the same status or consequence to the human soul and its eternal welfare.

Likely there should be a non-instrumental tradition within modern Christendom. I believe the Church of Christ is the best candidate for it. While I would happily be known for helping preserve that tradition, I refuse to be identified as one who makes this issue a criterion for who should be considered my sister or brother in Christ.

One Church’s Practice

The Family of God at Woodmont Hills is committed to preserving an exclusively a cappella musical style in our corporate worship. It has been and will continue to be our policy to have unaccompanied psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs for our regular Sunday and Wednesday assemblies, revivals, and the like. We seek nothing more nor less than to follow this biblical exhortation: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God" (Col. 3:16; cf. Eph. 5:19).

It has not been our practice here to stipulate a musical style for weddings or funerals, small-group or family devotionals, dramatic productions, concerts, or similar functions on our property. Neither do we try to regulate our members at other events and locations. More specifically, "Cowboy Dan" and his guitar teach Bible lessons to our children. Adult and teen devos occasionally use instrumental tracks, guitars, or other instruments. We are also free to use teaching videos or movie clips that use or feature instrumentation — even in our assemblies. For years we have done so in everything from mission reports on Papua New Guinea to photo montages on New Arrivals Day to movie scenes I have used to illustrate a point in one of my lessons. These practices are in no way inconsistent with our commitment to a cappella music in worship.

In reply to the occasional critic who claims that our use of instrumental music in small groups, devotionals, and/or concert settings is part of an "agenda" I have to introduce instruments into this church, I say (on my better days!) that he or she is mistaken and (on my less-good days!) that he or she is a liar. Our practice attempts to allow people with a variety of understandings, preferences, and backgrounds to find appropriate ways to employ their God-given gifts and tastes in a safe spiritual environment.


The issue of instrumental versus a cappella music has been needlessly divisive in Christian history, and it never needed to be so. The unity of the Body of Christ is an issue far larger in scope and significance than musical forms.

Does it ever get under your skin that the allergy of a tiny percentage of people to peanuts has caused some people to insist that peanuts be banned from the rest of us on airplanes? How do you feel toward the animal activists who firebomb restaurants that serve meat, destroy animal research labs at university hospitals, or assault people who wear fur? Don’t these actions cross the line between strong convictions and mean intolerance, between differences of opinion and onerous intimidation? And that’s how our neighbors have seen us on our more strident days about instrumental music. Basic civility and tolerance do not compromise either your strong conviction or your personal preference.

The issue in Christian worship is worship — not PowerPoint® or pianos, not old or new. That is, the real issue in worship is God — bowing down to him, praising him, reverencing him. To fight the battles we have fought and to make the judgments we have made about these aspects of our worship practice has sometimes been nothing less than idolatry, and I want no part of such distractions from seeking God himself.


1 Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913 ed., s.v. "Musical."
2 Ralph Martin, "Aspects of Worship in the New Testament Church," Vox Evangelica 2 (1963), p. 12; cf. Martin, Worship in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1974), pp. 39-52.
3 Note: Against the faulty assumption that early Christian history is somehow likely to reflect a truer interpretation of Scripture and a purer practice of faith, two things should be noted. First, Scripture itself reveals that nearness in time to Jesus and the apostles hardly guarantees true faith and practice. Consider the abuse of the Lord’s Supper at Corinth as a case in point. Second, some of the early Christian writers often cited about non-instrumentation also inveigh against females being allowed to participate in congregational hymn-singing. Scripture alone is normative for Christian faith and practice, not post-biblical history.


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