Instrumental Music and the Silence of the Scriptures

There is the story of the gospel preacher who was approached after a service by an obviously affluent visitor, who offered to make a contribution sufficiently large to help the church purchase the piano or organ which they seemed to be unable to afford. If a typical ending to this story was told, it would probably represent the rich visitor as going away in puzzlement over a group of people who would go to the radical extreme of making an issue out of what seemed to him to be a trivial matter. Because the custom of using instruments of music in worship is almost universal, the churches of Christ have been judged by ignorant men to be everything from "poor" to "radical" for failing to include them.

Our contentment to sing without the accompaniment of musical instruments in our worship is not a matter of personal preference, however. It is reasonable to assume that many worshipers in the churches of Christ might prefer to employ instruments in supplement to our singing, if given a choice. But, if they are grounded well in truth, all of them recognize that the absence of mechanical devices of music in our meeting houses serves as a witness to our adherence to a respected principle of Bible interpretation, the prohibition of divine silence.

In almost any sectarian religious body, some instance could be found to show that this principle is applied to some peculiar practice. For example, our Baptist friends follow and extol the principle of local church autonomy. And, when their conventions or associations become too powerful, and encroach upon the independence of the local church, a hue and cry is raised against them. But Baptists would not have adopted the hallowed practice of local church autonomy had it not been for the fact, that they respected (in this one instance, at least) the silence of the Scriptures. The New Testament has no stated prohibition of centralized government for the churches. It does, however, give an extensive set of examples implying local church government, and supplies only directives regarding the rule of local churches. Beyond this information, Scripture is "silent."

Catholics, likewise, steadfastly refuse to follow the lead of Protestants in attempting to legitimatize justifications for divorce and remarriage not mentioned in Scripture, because of this rule. Numerous other examples could be cited to show the occasional respect given to this principle in Denominationalism.

A problem arises among them,.however, from the fact that there is no consistent application of the rule. Countless examples can be given to show that denominations apply the rule to only a few practices, while ignoring it in many others. The consequence follows that many innovations have been adopted by religious bodies that have absolutely no precedent in Scripture, with no recognition on their part of the inconsistent application of scriptural authority nor of the danger which such inconsistency has for their souls.

On the other hand, concerned and conscientious disciples of Christ are careful to apply the principle of respecting the silence of Scripture consistently to every aspect of the work and worship of the Christian and the church. This spirit of submissiveness to such a rule is governed by their knowledge of the consequence suffered by those in the Bible who failed to observe the rule.

The Bible relates a number of incidents to carry this message to children of God. The classic case of Nadab and Abihu illustrates that when those early priests, in the absence of expressed prohibition, "offered strange fire before Jehovah, which He had not commanded them, " the wrath of God devoured them in fire for their failure to "glorify" God and what He had commanded (Lev. 10:1-3). In spite of such lessons, the spirit of innovation practiced by Nadab and Abihu is widespread, today, perhaps because so many innovations have been introduced since then with apparent impunity.

Innovators today do not expect to suffer instant physical death because of their presumptions (and seem unaware that their sin has brought them "spiritual death"), so they find it relatively easy to treat such introductions of unauthorized practices as inconsequential. It is true, however, that swift and severe punishment is a deterrent to sinners, for God reveals this truth in such passages as Ecclesiastes 8:11, Deuteronomy 13:6-11, and Acts 5:1-11. By observing the suffering consequent in the mistakes of others, we can be warned to avoid a simulation of the error. David learned to respect the silence of the Scripture in this way.

In his desire to win the nation of Israel to-a reformation of their religious practices, King David sought to relocate the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle, from which it had been so long absent that they "sought not unto it in the days of Saul (1 Chron. 13:3)." Thus, for several decades, the Israelites had apparently forsaken the ritual of Annual Atonement, a most important ceremony which prominently involved the Ark (Lev. 16). The Ark had been stored in the house of one Abinidab (1 Sam. 7:1, 1 Chron. 13:7), and David's plan was to remove it to a site in Jerusalem (1 Chron. 15:1). He called "all Israel" together to participate in a grand procession, and the record says that "they carried the Ark of God upon a new cart . . . and Uzza and Ahio drove" it. Presently, the oxen stumbled, and in his concern for the safety of the cargo, "Uzza put forth his hand to hold the ark . . . and the anger of Jehovah was kindled against Uzza, and he smote him . . . and there he died before God (1 Chron. 13:5-10)."


Now, it is true that there was a prohibition against "touching" the holy objects of the Tabernacle in Numbers 4:15, but there was other information in the passage from which David sought a deeper understanding of the proper handling of the Word of God. After some apparent study, he found a reason for the sudden visitation of God's wrath. Gathering the people again, he said, particularly to the Levites, "Sanctify yourselves, both ye and your brethren, that ye may bring up the Ark of Jehovah, the God of Israel, unto the place that I have prepared for it. For because ye bare it not at the first, Jehovah our God made a breach upon us, for that we sought him not according to the ordinance." When the Levites "bare the Ark of God upon their shoulders with the staves thereon, as Moses commanded according to the Word of Jehovah," they had no more problems (1 Chron. 15:12-16:3).

The use of the "new cart" to carry the Ark was an "innovation" adopted in ignorance of the will of God. The Lord had "commanded" Moses to use the Kohathites, one of the families of the Levites, to carry it. From this specific direction of the Law, David drew the proper conclusion that "none ought to carry the Ark of God but the Levites: for them hath Jehovah chosen to carry the Ark of God" (I Chron. 15:2). David did not need additional information to realize that when God has specifically chosen the means for transporting the Ark and has revealed that will to men, they are, therefore, forbidden to alter or amend the order, even when other means are not specifically prohibited! David showed a respect for the silence of God in this, avoiding any further mistake that might be the result of presumption. David learned, from seeing the punishment inflicted by God on innovators, that God demands adherence to His will coupled with respect for His silence. Should we not learn the same lesson from the same example?

The matter of the use of instruments of music in the worship of the church is parallel to these examples in Bible history. If we respect the principle (demonstrated in a former lesson in this series) that we are confined to the New Testament for our source of authority regarding acceptable worship in the church, we learn that "singing" is exclusively commanded as the musical communication between the worshipers themselves and to God (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; James 5:13). Another writer of this series has shown that the Greek word here must be construed to mean vocal music, in the same sense that the English word "sing" means "to produce musical tones by means of the voice" (Webster's Collegiate Dictionary). Nothing is said in these passages, or in any examples of music among the saints, about the use of mechanical instruments of music. In addition, it is also to be admitted that the New Testament records no prohibition of their use. Yet, the principle applies that when God is silent beyond a specific command, we are not permitted to innovate upon His will.

The condemnation of such innovations implied in the terrible deaths of Nadab, Abihu, and Uzza leads us to the conclusion that liberties presumed by innovators are contrary to God's will, and punishable. Only the sort of obedient spirit that was found in Moses and Aaron in the case of Nadab and Abihu, and in David in the case of Uzza will be tolerated by God. Only by this means can God and His will be exalted above the will of man. The Christian who consistently exalts the will of God above man's, through an application of this principle, will never worship God in music, except by singing.

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Author: jfm

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