Our Singing Idol

On another blog recently, a friend adjured me to keep breaking down idols.

It hadn’t occurred to me until then that my fellowship’s obsession with a cappella-only worship is an idol.

It is.

We of the churches of Christ worship it above the unity Christ prayed for on the night He was betrayed. We worship it above the teaching of Paul to Galatia that adding any law to the atonement of Christ is a fruitless attempt to weaken the power of His blood. We worship it above dozens of more life-shaping, world-saving instructions Jesus explicitly left, which we ignore at our own leisure – and peril.

And by “worship,” I mean that we elevate a cappella-only worship above all of these things. We preach it. We argue it. We condemn others who do not accept it.

Yet a cappella-only worship is a teaching of man which – though it may go back to a human preference expressed very early in church history – has no firm or inarguable basis in scripture. There is certainly no command for it. There is no example of it. There is no unimpeachable inference of it, for those who require such things.

It is a doctrine which pends solely – not on love for God and for others – but on a singular way of looking at scripture as law, the silence of which on any given practice expresses God’s disapproval and condemnation.

That “law of silence” is called the “regulative principle of worship,” and has its origins in the teachings of John Calvin, many of whose other teachings my fellowship (Churches of Christ) would immediately repudiate.

And the view of scripture as law persists in spite of verses like:

“But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” ~ Romans 7:6 

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.” ~ Romans 8:1-4

“So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.” ~ Galatians 5:16-18

The clear implication of these passages – and many, many more – is that we didn’t need more law. We needed grace. We needed Christ. We needed the guidance of His Spirit within us.

No matter what anyone tells you, scripture doesn’t tell you that Christ came to bring more law. His singular commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you,” expresses all the law and the prophets; for love that acts for the benefit of others mirrors God’s love, and expresses love for God as well. This is the “law of Christ,” spoken of in Galatians 6:2, because it expresses love by carrying others’ burdens. This is “Christ’s law” spoken of in 1 Corinthians 9:21, because it wins those not having the law, rather than binding its restrictions on them.

Law does not express love. Law expresses guilt and failure and judgment. It does not unite; it separates. It sees everything as intrinsically right or wrong, where common sense reveals that some things are neither. Because law must be interpreted, authority is required to clarify. Judgment must take place. Violators must be punished.

This is the case with the law of silence, specifically reformulated within the Restoration Movement to exclude everyone who didn’t agree with what the excluders believed, especially about a cappella-only worship. I am sorry to have to speak so plainly; it is a shameful fact of our history.

We can choose to perpetuate this error by continuing to condemn those who do not bow down to our idol of a cappella-only worship.

Or we can

  • repent of our guilt,
  • stop condemning what God commanded and approved in the Old Testament (and never repealed, if we can only see scripture as a matter of law)
  • stop consigning to hell those who practice vocal and instrumental worship,
  • admit that a cappella-only worship is a matter of personal preference – and has been since just after the first century –
  • and that New Testament scripture says virtually nothing about it.

(Except, of course, that it does not seem to be practiced in the eternal heaven revealed to John in Revelation 15:2-3.)

If we refuse and say, “I’d sooner die first,” then God can certainly arrange that. He has done so before for idolators. And we just might end up somewhere that a cappella-only worship does not take place.

But it might not be the place we’d prefer.

19 thoughts on “Our Singing Idol

  1. Thanks, gentlefolk. I don't expect to see a lot of supportive comments here … for some, to leave one would be to risk much. I completely understand. But, every once in a while, something just wells up in me and insists that those who defend a cappella-only worship do not have a patent on fiery rhetoric or conviction or even righteous indignation.

  2. I'm one of those people who has to post anonymously…..I couldn't agree more — it is most definitely an idol. This needs to be said a lot more in our fellowship. I long for the day when we can move beyond this.

  3. Thanks for telling the truth. Many people in our COC churches agree with you but are afraid to give voice to the truth.I think it is past time to be in the role of an enabler.Royce

  4. Thank you for this post, and for convicting us by pointing out that many will be fearful of leaving a comment. I know all the arguments and have recited them all my life, and I can definitely say, at the very least, that I am tired. I don't feel blessed by having carried this for so long, and when I see my two young sons, it pains me to think of them carrying it, too.

  5. Amen; you have put it as simple as you could. Of course; my family will still think I'm going to hell, but you and I know I am free on grace. Keep going brother!Blessings,Greg

  6. Keith, there is a handful of congregations here who are a cappella. They use the name Church of Christ and have nothing to do with the Churches of Christ. I don't know enough about the history of the RM in Australia to know if the Churches of Christ were ever a cappella only. I guess I should find out!

  7. Well said. I had a dream this past Saturday night that I went back to the CofC I have left. They were singing some of my favorite songs…the funny thing is, we sang at least two of those songs in worship Sunday and they were awesome with the instruments. I think God is reminding me that I am okay….you are helping him with this great post!

  8. I disagree w/ your assessment of a Capella singing being an idol. Your reference to Romans 7 (and I might add other Scriptures teach the same thing) "we are released from the law," is a reference to the law of Moses not all law. The Hebrew writer says God would put His "laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts." We are under the law of Christ which James refers to as "the law of liberty."It was not Calvin that originated the idea of "the silence of the Scriptures," but this principle is found in Scripture:In the first chapter of Hebrews we find an argument for Jesus' superiority over angels and thus the gospel being superior to the law given by the mediatorship of angels (Gal 3:19); based on silence of the Scriptures [For to which of the angels did God ever say, "You are my Son, today I have begotten you"? Or again, "I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son"? (Hebrews 1:5 ESV)]. Again, in verse 13, Christ is greater than angels based on the following statement: [And to which of the angels has he ever said, "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet"?]. Another argument from the silence of the Scriptures. Also, in Hebrews 7, we find: [For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.(Hebrews 7:12-14 ESV)].In the Old Testament the same principle is found. Note the following: [Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.(Leviticus 10:1-2 ESV)]Historical evidence bears out the fact that musical instruments in worship was an addition by man.

  9. koscheiman, welcome to this blog's commentors.How can you be sure that in every case in New Testament scripture that the term "the law" or even just "law" (in many instances in the original Greek) refers exclusively to the law of Moses?I spoke to the law of Christ in the post – did you miss that?If Calvin did not first elucidate the principle of regulative silence, then who did? Because the scriptures you quote tell me much about Christ's superiority over angels, but say nothing about silence. Doesn't that constitute teaching the silence of scripture from the silence of scripture?Nadab and Abihu appear to be in violation of several explicit commands when they offer their fire (How Do You See God?). When one draws a principle from this incident, one must make several assumptions, including: that God punished them only for an unexpressed command, that there was no expressed command forbidding other fire (there may have been one that scripture doesn't record), and that God punishes in every instance the violation of His commands. Clearly, the survival of Nadab and Abihu's disobedient brothers Eleazar and Ithamar just a few verses later in that chapter indicate that He showed mercy to them in Moses' satisfaction with their response.Can we draw a principle from that incident about God's grace?Finally, historical evidence that isn't scripture is simply that – history. And in every instance I've seen quoted – from Eusebius and Clement to all who followed – expressed a personal opinion, a conviction … and that is all those opinions can be, unless we are willing to place the mantle of inspired authorship on any or all of these post-first-century writers (A Cappella and the Ancients).

  10. koscheiman, a quick second note. I know I am supposed to be able to conclude something about silence from the passages in Hebrews that you're citing because I've read them before, from someone who has told me what conclusion I should draw from it. But I can't remember right now what that conclusion is – maybe because I haven't been schooled in it and had it drilled into me repeated exposure.So it occurs to me that it has to be a conclusion that someone came up with, since it's not self-evident from the scriptures themselves.But if the conclusion I'm to draw is that Jesus is the only one who will be a son of God (Hebrews 1:5), then what does Paul mean in Romans 8:23 and 9:4 by our "adoption as sons"?If it is that only Jesus is the only one superior to the angels, what does Paul mean when he says in 1 Corinthians 6:3 that we will "judge angels"? Or when he tells Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:12 that "we will reign with him"?If the conclusion I'm supposed to draw is that Jesus is a priest solely by virtue of scripture's silence about the tribe of Judah, I'd have to ask whether it was those under the law who ordained Him as priest? Or is the point of the scripture that Jesus was superior to the law, not by its silence, but by virtue of the fact that He fulfilled it and the prophecies?

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