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Instruments in Worship: When "Silly" Theological Differences Signal Divergent Premises

Instruments in Worship: When "Silly" Theological Differences Signal Divergent Premises

I'll be the first to admit I try to screen churches before I visit them. I don't really want to waste a Sunday morning on a service that will, at minimum, chafe me the entire time because of basic disagreements or, worst-case scenario, cause me to walk out. I think it's sensible to seek out churches with which you have a more-than-minimal level of agreement; that way, you can spend less time criticizing and more time worshipping.

Because most churches have websites now, I can usually form a basic opinion of my level of agreement with a church in under five minutes (sometimes, in under one). Why? I have a few basic things I look for because, while they're not "central" theological issues, they can tell me a lot about what the church believes. For example, if the church is "open and affirming" or has a female pastor, I can form a fairly reasonable idea of how they handle the Scriptures.

I don't generally rely on denominational affiliation, with some exceptions (e.g., Episcopals), because there's often some level of variation. For example, all Southern Baptists are going to be credobaptist, but not all of them are Calvinist (though many are nowadays). Presbyterians are Calvinist, but there are differences of opinion on many topics, like abortion, within even the various Presbyterian denominations.

Which brings us to the use of instruments in worship.

Instruments in Worship: A Century-Long Fight

My religious background is primarily the instrumental Churches of Christ. That's a very important distinction to make; those of you familiar with the Churches of Christ (or "churches of Christ", as some pedants among them style it) are more likely aware of the non-instrumental Churches of Christ.

What's the difference? You guessed it: we use instruments in corporate worship, and they don't. Yes, there was a formal split in 1906 over it. Does that seem like a dumb reason for a denominational split? I'm going on a very short limb that you answered in the affirmative.

But really, instruments were just the most noticeable difference between the theological approach of the two groups. They both roughly hewed to the dictum of Thomas Campbell: "Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; and where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent." However, they took significantly divergent approaches in resolving how to be silent when the Bible is.

For the non-instrumental bunch, the fact that the Bible did not mention the use of instruments in worship in the New Testament, but only singing, shows that instruments ought to be forbidden. God is silent, they reason, so those who would authorize instruments are speaking about the Church in a way He did not see fit to do.

For my fellow instrumentalists, we deny that the lack of a specific, literal authorization to use instruments in the New Testament is not the kind of silence Campbell spoke of. Many scriptures speak of how we ought to worship God and mention instruments. Instruments are not contrary to Scripture, and therefore, because they are connected to worship in the Bible at large, they are permitted in worship.

So goes the instrumental issue, but, as you can likely see, the conflicting principles behind each position lead to far more issues than just the presence of a piano. What should a Christian believe about gambling? Should Christians engage in political action, including the vote (which, by the way, doesn't exist in the New Testament)? Is there a difference between corporate worship and evangelistic services, and in what kind of setting should each take place? What about children's church? (Maybe we shouldn't have that one for reasons beyond the lack of NT mention, but that's fodder for another post.)

Instruments are noticeable and affect the worship service; as I noted to someone, splits are often over ecclesiology rather than more substantial theological differences because it affects the worship service itself, where it's harder to agree to disagree. The use of instruments, then, just serves as a symbol of the larger issues lurking beneath the surface.

As with the other examples earlier in the post, people employ a "silly" or non-central theological issue as a sorting mechanism. It's a legitimate move, provided you understand what a certain position on that issue signifies. And, perhaps, it can help us realize why these seemingly "silly" issues, like splitting over the organ, are quite a bit more substantial than they appear.