by Al Maxey

Issue #71 ------- September 22, 2003
If music be the food of love,
play on; give me excess of it.

--- William Shakespeare


Musings On Music
Interpretative Issues Involving Instruments

The apostle Paul wrote the following wise counsel to the young evangelist Timothy: "The love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Timothy 6:10, KJV). Many, when reading this statement, do not truly perceive the point Paul makes. It is not money itself that is held up as being "the root of all evil," rather it is the LOVE of money. The problem lies in the heart, not with the object desired. Money itself is neither good nor evil; it is neutral by nature. It is what men do with money, and that which motivates them to such actions, that determines good or evil.

I have heard some declare, with regard to musical instruments, "They are the device of the Devil. They are evil." Without argument, we affirm that they most certainly can be used in a devilish manner and with devious, divisive, destructive result, but the determination of good or evil lies in the nature of the user's heart, not his harp! A musical instrument is just a lifeless, inanimate object (1 Corinthians 14:7), nothing more; it is neither good nor bad inherently. It is how one uses a musical instrument that distinguishes saint from sinner. This may all seem "rather obvious," but it is an important distinction to make initially in the course of this inquiry.

One of the questions that I get rather frequently from the readers of these Reflections concerns the use, and misuse, of instruments of music. Specifically, they seek to determine if "instruments are sinful in the assembly." I usually, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, reply, "No, the instrument itself is not 'sinful' in the assembly, but some who use it are!" We all know that this issue has been a very divisive one over the years, and many brethren are separated one from another over their differing perspectives regarding the use or non-use of instruments in a "worship assembly." Consider the following three requests from readers, all of which I received in just the last couple of weeks:

  1. From Illinois --- "I have briefly perused the archived topics, but did not notice one devoted to instrumental music in the worship service. Can you direct me to it if there is such a discussion in your Reflections archives? Thanks for your thought-provoking articles. Please subscribe us to your Reflections newsletter. I found you through Edward Fudge's GracEmail."

  2. From New Mexico --- "Al, we are studying church traditions, and I was wondering if you have written anything on musical instruments in the church? If so, would you please send it to me? If not, would you mind putting something together for me? I really enjoy the Reflections articles. Thanks for sending them. Keep them coming!"

  3. From Kentucky --- "Brother Maxey, You may have already done an essay on this, but if not could you possibly do one on instrumental music in the assembly? The pulpit minister I work with (as associate minister) recently asked me to help him preach a dialogue sermon on why we don't use instruments in service. I somewhat surprised him when I said that I couldn't do that with a clear conscience because I question our stance on that issue. So, today he preached the sermon without my assistance. I would like to hear what you have come to believe regarding this subject. Thanks for all that you do!"

To my knowledge, there are only two issues of Reflections which examine with any depth the matter of instrumental music in worship, although there may be indirect references to and comments on the subject in a few other articles I've written. Thus, rather than repeating those comments in this present article, an exercise in redundancy, I will simply refer the readers to the following articles:

This is one of those issues where many ministers tend to tread very carefully. Because this topic has frequently proven to be explosive, and because emotions can easily become inflamed when disciples begin sharing their convictions with one another, many ministers, elders and teachers simply avoid it. Frankly, this is unfortunate. We should never fear exploring the particulars and parameters of our faith with fellow disciples in Christ. However, we should also make very sure that such dialogue occurs within an atmosphere of love and respect for one another as beloved brethren in Christ. When such honest discussion leads to heated dissension, however, you can rest assured that there are heart problems involved. Some feel personally threatened by any challenge to their convictions, which makes any serious, legitimate dialogue virtually impossible, and which, therefore, perpetuates schisms and factions among us. We should all develop a willingness to lay our beliefs and practices on the table before us, as did the "noble-minded" Bereans (Acts 17:11), so that we may "examine the Scriptures to see whether these things be so" -- i.e., whether they be of Truth or tradition. And even if they are determined to be of the latter, that certainly does not suggest they are wrong or that they should be discarded. It merely provides proper perspective for what we preach and practice. That should be a good thing ... shouldn't it?! After all, genuine TRUTH has nothing to fear from honest investigation.

Nevertheless, it is a sad and tragic fact that leaders in the church who dare to broach certain subjects run the risk of being "marked," and they will frequently undergo the harsh experience of being "tossed up on tongues." This is especially true if the conclusions proffered differ from the preferred positions of the past or of those in power. Therefore, it is with not a little personal trepidation that I even consider sharing my perspectives on this matter. Nevertheless, since this is an issue that has divided my brethren, and since my goal is to help bring healing to this division, I feel the need to carefully, and prayerfully, share a few thoughts that may plant a seed in the hearts of my brethren that, in time, might grow and bear the fruit of unity and harmony in the Body of Christ.

The first observation I would make is that, in my opinion, this is primarily a hermeneutical issue, rather than a theological one! In other words, much of the debating over "issues" among disciples is really over one's approach to biblical interpretation; one's hermeneutic. Thus, this is far less a debate on instruments than a debate on authority, and how best to establish it. Dr. Thomas Olbricht once asked Reuel Lemmons, many years ago in an interview, "Do you think the main roadblock to fellowship is instrumental music?" Reuel replied, "No, I do not think the main roadblock is instrumental music. Instrumental music is simply a result of the main roadblock. As I see it, the thing that really separates these two great groups of the brotherhood is their respective positions regarding the Scriptures." I concur with that analysis.

The reality is, as acknowledged by both sides of the debate: God has neither condemned nor condoned the use of instruments in worship in the New Testament writings. Thus, those who promote the use of instruments, as well as those who prohibit their use, must do so largely from assumptions drawn from the silence of the text and from extra-biblical appeals. For example, many will point out that there is little or no historical evidence that the early church employed instruments in their public worship. Thus, it is asserted by some, such use today violates their example. Yes, that is most likely true. But, there is a greater question here that demands a hearing: Is their example, as best we can determine the true nature of that example from our deductions from the biblical text and extra-biblical sources, determinative with regard to the establishment of ultimate Truth? May the assumptions of fallible men regarding those examples then be elevated to the status of divine law? May such laws then be declared normative for all men for all time, and may lack of compliance be punished by forfeiture of fellowship and the threat of eternal damnation? If so, where in the New Covenant documents is such ever specified in unequivocal terms? These are the questions that must be addressed and answered if the patternistic perspective is to be shown any serious consideration by biblical scholars and competent students of the Scriptures.

My own personal conviction in the matter, for what it is worth, is that when God Himself, in the NT writings, chose neither to specifically permit nor prohibit instruments of music, I should wisely follow suit rather than try to fill in the legislative gaps left by His silence! Thus, I personally shall neither condone nor condemn the use of instruments of music in worship. If my GOD chose not to, it is rather presumptuous of ME to do so! Yes, I do indeed have my personal preferences regarding the issue at hand, but human preference does not equate to divine precept! I may choose to order my own life by these convictions, but I have no authority to bind them upon others. For me to attempt to do so is not only arrogant, but divisive.

We can argue at length the meaning of the word "psallo" during its different historical phases, we can engage in lengthy debate as to why the early disciples of Christ may have chosen not to employ instruments in their worship (and there are numerous possible reasons), we can quote ad infinitum the church "Fathers" and enumerate the perspectives and practices of various denominational groups throughout the history of Christendom, but in the final analysis both sides of the issue are left with the same stark reality: If "authority" either for or against the practice is to be established, it must be established apart from an appeal to clear command in NT Scripture ..... i.e., by an appeal to examples, inferences, deductions, assumptions, history, church "Fathers," lexicons, and the like. Thus, again, the matter is truly reduced to a hermeneutical issue, rather than a theological issue; one where subjectivity is a key factor. As such, we must exercise great caution lest we invest our deduced assumptions with such an aura of divine authority that they come to be regarded among us as tests of fellowship and conditions of salvation. When we carry our convictions this far, then in my view we have carried them too far.

My personal conviction on the matter -- once again, for what it is worth -- is that the use or non-use of an instrument as an accompaniment or aid to singing in worship is NOT an issue that affects one's ultimate salvation. Therefore, neither shall I make the use or non-use of an instrument in worship an issue that affects my fellowship with my brethren in Christ Jesus. I have found not one single passage in the entire Bible where the Lord Himself has specifically linked either fellowship or salvation to the use or non-use of instruments. Indeed, I do not even find a single hint of such from any inspired biblical writer. If it is there, I have yet to discover it (if any of you have discovered it, please write and share it with me). Thus, it is my firm conviction based on my study that it would be rather presumptuous for me to declare God's disapproval of something about which He Himself has never expressed disapproval ... or even hinted at such disapproval. What gives me that right? Sorry, but I'm just not bold enough to put words into His mouth that way. That's not my place! I figure if GOD had wanted to make an issue of this, He easily could have ... and would have. Since He didn't, He obviously doesn't need me to come along and "correct His cosmic oversight!"

Yes, the examples of the first century disciples are indeed enlightening to us, but they are not regulatory in nature. Their methodologies, employed in their culture during their period of history, are nowhere divinely declared or decreed to be the sole universal standard to which all peoples must scrupulously submit in every detail or they will perish in the fires of hell. Additionally, inferences, assumptions and deductions concerning these examples are most certainly not intended by God to be regulatory in nature, as we are all finite, fallible men subject to countless fallacious assumptions, inferences and deductions. You likely would not want MY assumptions governing YOU, thus why would I want YOURS governing ME? What's good for the goose is good for the gander. This reality was stated quite eloquently in the year 1809 by Thomas Campbell in his now famous Declaration and Address:

I believe Campbell was absolutely correct in this declaration, and I am in complete agreement with what he has asserted above. Those who are patternistic in their approach to the interpretation of Scripture, however, will most likely vehemently reject and oppose the statement by Campbell. The hermeneutic of patternism gives equal, and sometimes even more, authority to the deductions of mere men as it does to the clear commands of God. Assumptions regarding matters never specified or even discussed in Scripture are elevated to the status of divine, universal LAW, and a fractured fellowship quickly and inevitably follows when others fail to perceive the relevance of such human inferences. This hermeneutic has led to countless feuding factions within the church, for with each new perception and deduction of men the parameters of fellowship are drawn anew. What is truly tragic, however, is that even the patternists themselves cannot agree on the true nature of this elusive pattern; thus, the fragmentation of the family continues unabated as each new perception is promoted to precept. Brethren, unity will never be achieved as long as our quest is for uniformity.

Thus, when asked upon which side of the debate on instruments I stand, my answer is: "On neither side!" I am neither for nor against them. I embrace those on both sides of the issue as my beloved brethren; I seek only to help them learn to accept one another in Christ Jesus. I love and respect those many precious brethren who prefer to sing a cappella, and I will continue to work and worship among them. I also love and respect those many precious brethren who prefer to sing praises to God with instrumental accompaniment, and I will not hesitate to worship alongside them as we lift our voices to our Father in worshipful expression.

If anyone can show me in the Scriptures where our Lord has specifically declared His disapproval of the use of instruments as either an accompaniment or aid to singing, then I will reverse my position and declare that divine disapproval publicly. In the absence of such evidence, however, I must choose not to put the assumptions of mere men into His mouth. If all of this was truly a matter of eternal life and death, as some assert, I find it most odd ... don't you?! ... that God never uttered a single syllable about it anywhere in the Bible. He didn't even hint at divine disapproval. Thus, neither shall I.

My study and research has led me to reject the hermeneutic and attendant tenets of patternism, thus I must also reject the theological conclusions drawn from such an interpretative process. I do not, however, reject my beloved brethren who have chosen to embrace that hermeneutic. Although I disagree with some of their theology, and although their theology may not allow them to embrace me, I shall nevertheless continue to love them with all my being and shall strive daily and tirelessly for the godly goal of bringing us all closer together in sweet fellowship in One Body IN CHRIST JESUS.

Reflections from Readers

From a Deacon in Alabama:

As always, I appreciate your willingness to set aside various traditional viewpoints as you strive to dig deeper to learn what is actually taught in Scripture. I trust you also realize that, despite our valiant attempts, we may still fall short of a perfect understanding of every matter. But, isn't it exciting to search and study anyway?! And isn't it great to know that our perfection in such is not necessary for salvation?! I have been studying your thoughts on the nature of man and his eternal destiny. And, as you would expect, you have shared things that contrast greatly with my traditional upbringing. But that's okay. I've been praying diligently for the past few years for greater knowledge and wisdom and an open mind to accept such things. It is indeed exciting to ponder new viewpoints.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Al, Good job with responses to the "ministering to the dying" issue. It ain't easy to work through! Keep up the task of challenging our thinking. As I mentioned at lunch the other day, you are experiencing the same thing (occasional harsh criticisms) that I did in politics. I think the only way to face these folks is to focus on the larger picture.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

I have struggled with this issue for years. It says in Ecclesiastes 9:4 that the living have hope. Some ministers believe that on your deathbed, even though you have life, you do not have hope! The Bible says differently. God asks only what we can do. Remember the woman in Mark 14:8 who anointed Jesus at Bethany? She was forgiven of her sins because she did "what she could!" Do all that you can, that is all our Lord wants us to do. Most of us can be baptized, and we should. If we refuse, we will be in danger. As long as there is life, there is hope! How wonderful! Keep those Reflections coming!!

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Al, Thanks so much for the effort you are making in this ministry. Your talent is evident. I enjoyed this Reflections as it served to reinforce what I believe. It also caused me further consideration. As I was considering the question "Does God require more of a person than that person is capable of giving or doing?," the thought crossed my mind about the eunuchs of the OT. According to the covenants made with Abraham and Moses, the men were to be circumcised. Where did that leave the eunuchs? The command to be circumcised would have been an "impossibility" for the eunuch. So where did that leave him in regard to the "covenant of circumcision" (Acts 7:8)? In Exodus 12:48 it says that a stranger who wants to eat the Passover must be circumcised. Could it be that those leaders holding up the "covenant of circumcision" had dismissed the eunuch as ungodly because he was unable to be circumcised (maybe somewhat like those who dismiss the deathbed conversions as invalid)? Thanks again for the work you're doing.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Brother Maxey, Thank you for the insightful article concerning all the sins of Sodom. For years I have known there was more to it than mere homosexuality, but have not done an in-depth study on the topic. I am catching up today reading your Reflections, as my husband and I are still struggling to know what to do in our spiritual lives (I wrote you several months ago about our situation). Thank you for lending perspective yet again as we strive to make decisions regarding our spiritual lives. I ask you to continue praying for us as we try to find a place to work and worship. We (my husband, my parents, and I) are at various stages of recovering from legalism, so please keep our search in your prayers, and as always, we are open to any godly input that comes our way. Thanks again for all the courageous work you do with your Reflections -- helping people such as ourselves who have studied themselves out of many legalistic traditions with which we grew up.

By the way, my husband and I were in Honolulu in February of 1995 and visited with the church there. Was that during your time there? Interesting to think we might have met that day with little knowledge of what an impact you would later have on our life!?!?!? The world gets smaller with each passing day, and I am constantly amazed at how the Lord brings His will to fruition. Thanks for all your work and courage.

From a Reader at the University of Chicago:

Dear Brother Maxey, Your work serves a truly ecumenical purpose, helping to fulfill John 17:11, 21 -- "that they may all be one." I note with deep gratitude that you included a quotation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church in your most recent issue. I am also grateful for the many challenging quotations from other sources. The Talmud is considered the prime example of legalism, and indeed it is filled with hair-splitting inquiries into correct practice. But, no honest reader -- and certainly no committed Jew -- could overlook this startling statement from Sanhedrin 106b: "God requires the heart" (literally, "the Compassionate One requires the heart"). The Musar literature expounds to great effect on the inward aspects of Jewish faith and what it means to love God. Among many other works, I think here of Bachya ibn Pakuda's classic, "Duties of the Heart." The Holy Spirit finds expression in the strangest of places, including places where we might expect to find only Pharisees!

From a Ph.D. in Alabama:

First of all, I want to say that I think your Reflections are excellent. I love how you are able to cover a subject thoroughly, yet succinctly, using logic and evidence rather than diatribe and sloganeering. I have read material from a number of writers on religious themes, but I find that your writing style surpasses them all. While I don't necessarily agree 100% with every point you make, I respect the fact that you make the effort to support each of your points with scriptural evidence and sound reasoning. You are an excellent writer. You are clear and concise. You are the ideal person to summarize and defend the "liberal" position within the Church of Christ. If you ever get the time, I would love it (and I'm sure that many of your other readers would as well) if you would devote an issue of your Reflections (or perhaps a short series of issues) to succinctly summarizing the key tenets of the so-called "liberal" position -- e.g., unity through love vs. uniformity through enforced orthodoxy, tolerance of others vs. judgmentalism, liberty vs. law, love vs. legalism, God judges the heart of the believer vs. God judges how closely we follow a set "pattern" of worship, etc. -- and defending them scripturally. I would then be able to send your comments to my conservative friends and say: "Here is the 'liberal' position and its basis in scripture, presented clearly and concisely -- I may not have the skill to deliver a compelling argument, but Al Maxey does!" (It would also be a perfect opportunity for me to introduce my conservative friends to your writings.) I'm sure there are many other people out there who are facing the same sort of struggle that I am, and I know that this would benefit them as well.

Second, I especially like reading the negative comments sent in by some of your readers. There is no better way to show the error of their way of thinking than by letting them speak for themselves. Their lack of Christian love -- and, in some cases, ordinary human decency -- is obvious in the tone of their responses. Their unwillingness to provide a reasoned rebuttal to your comments, supported by scripture, is evidence of the weakness of their position. If they are able to refute the things that you say, then why don't they? Why resort to name calling -- Apostate Al (I love that one) -- and vitriol if the truth really is on their side? If no one is willing to enter into civil debate with you, and the only criticism you get is from the mudslingers, then you must be on the right track. Keep up the good work.

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