Churches of Christ do not sing a cappella because we dislike other kinds of music. Most of us have as many songs on iPods as the next person. We do not lack financial means to purchase instruments or capable musicians to play them. We are not just trying to be different or stubbornly upholding a longstanding tradition. Why, then, do we sing a cappella?
We Must Follow the New Testament NOT the Old Testament
The church is a New Testament institution, purchased on the cross and established on Pentecost (Matthew 16:18 f; Acts 2:1–47; 20:28). The covenant (New Testament) Jesus delivered by the Spirit is a rule of faith and practice, not the Law delivered to Moses at Sinai (Old Testament).
The New Testament Records This Transition:
- Hear Christ, not Moses (Matt 17:5).
- Preach the gospel to all nations (Matt 28:18–20).
- Judged by Christ’s Words (Jn 12:48).
- Loosed/delivered from the law (of Moses) (Rom 7:1–7).
- “Christ is the end of the law (of Moses)” (Rom 10:4).
- “Engraven in stones” law (of Moses) abolished (2 Cor 3:7–14).
- Separating wall removed (Eph 2:14).
- Old law nailed to cross (Col 2:14).
- Change in priesthood required a change in law (Heb 7:12; 9:11).
- New effective after Christ’s death (Heb 9:16–17).
- Christ came to take away the first law (of Moses) to establish second (law of Christ) (Heb 10:9).
A new law changed humanity’s response to God. Christians no longer offer animals, keep the Passover, observe Sabbaths and new moons, or avoid pork and catfish (Col 2:14–17). Worship is not conducted by a special class of priests; blood is not sprinkled on a mercy seat; and unusual ceremonies involving goats, red heifers, and burnt animals are not required.
In the changeover, God omitted such things as burning incense, golden vessels, colorful tapestries, dancing before the Lord, bitter herbs, and instruments. He kept unleavened bread, the fruit of the vine, prayers, and singing.
Was this incidental? God always meticulously planned worship (Ex 25–40 f; Lev 1–27). He spent more than six thousand years completing His plan for the church (Eph 3:11 f; Gal 4:4–5) so nothing was left to chance.
The Old Testament is written for our learning but not for our obedience (Rom 15:4). Going back to the Old Testament for a study is helpful in understanding many things, but going back to the Old Testament for any practice obligates one to keep all its ordinances (Gal 5:1–3 f; Jam 2:10).
Understanding of Worship
True worship is done in spirit and in truth (Jn 4:24). Individually, God only accepts worship “in spirit”—that which comes from proper attitudes, such as reverence, thanksgiving, and humility (Heb 13:15). We must examine ourselves before worshipping (2 Cor 13:5).
Collectively, God only accepts “in truth” worship, which means according to His Word (Jn 17:17). We have no authority to put words in God’s mouth, or to ignore words from His mouth (Matt 4:4 f; Revelation 22:18–19). Man is not at liberty to select a worship form that appeals to him. The danger for any church is to make worship entertainment oriented. The important thing is not what draws a crowd but what pleases God. Loving God supremely means acquiescing to His will (Matt 7:21 cf; 22:37–38; 23:23 f; Jn 7:17).
Reproducing the Original Church Today
The church of Christ sang a cappella in the days of the apostles, so the church of Christ sings a cappella today. It really is as simple as that.
Churches of Christ today strive to be identical to the church in the New Testament (Rom 16:16). Before we practice anything, we verify that it was practiced by the first-century church. Thus “proving all things,” we hold “firm that which is good” (1 Thess 5:21 f; Jer 6:16). It is the safest approach one can take in religion—the way that is right and cannot be wrong.
No scholar (of whom I am aware) says early Christians used instruments. No Bible verse records it. The phrase a cappella, which now means “without instrumental accompaniment,” originally meant “as in church.” Instruments were available and widely used in pagan worship and theaters, as well as the Jewish temple, but they were not used by the church.
More than five hundred years passed before instruments were used. The organ is said to have been introduced into church music by Pope Vitalian in 666 ad.
At first, the organ was played only before and after the “liturgy” (worship service). Years later, it was moved into the service proper. Then it caused such controversy that in ad 1054 it led to a split between Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. (Orthodox Churches, with few exceptions, continue to use vocal music only to this day.)
Most Protestant churches did not use instruments until the 1800s. In the time of the Reformation, churches opposed instruments in stronger language than we would likely use today. Martin Luther, founder of the Lutheran Church, called the instrument “an ensign of Baal”. John Calvin, founder of the Presbyterian Church, wrote, “Musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting up of lamps, and the restoration of the other shadows of the law”. John Wesley (1703–1791), founder of the Methodist Church, said: “I have no objection to instruments of music, in our chapels, provided they are neither heard nor seen” Adam Clarke (1762–1832), prominent Methodist scholar, wrote: “Music as a science, I esteem and admire: but instruments of music in the house of God I abominate and abhor”. Charles Spurgeon, a renown Baptist preacher, wrote in his comments on Psalm 42: “We might as well pray by machinery as praise by it”. He never allowed instruments in his ten-thousand-seat Metropolitan Tabernacle in London.
These quotations are not given as authority, and certainly not to offend, but simply to show that church history is firmly on the side of a cappella singing.
The practice stems from our conviction that we must add nothing to the Scriptures.
Divine Authority For All We Say and Do
Churches of Christ believe strongly in having divine authority (a scripture) for all we teach and practice. We do this because the Bible says, “Whatsoever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col 3:17). “Whatsoever” and “all” are comprehensive words. To do a thing “in Jesus’ name” means to do it by His authority. The Bible warns against venturing beyond “that which is written” (1 Cor 4:6) or adding anything to the Bible (Rev 22:18–19). We must continue in the doctrine of Christ and His apostles (Acts 2:42 f; 2 Jn 1:9).
What are the Bounds Regarding Worship?
The New Testament does not say much about music in the early church. The one time music is used (Luke 15:25), is not even talking about worship, but about the party held for the returning prodigal. A few verses mention pipes and harps (e.g., Matt 11:17 ff; 1 Cor 14; Revelation 14–15), but none in the context of church worship. Singing, however, is mentioned seven times in that context (Acts 16:25 ff; Rom 15:9; 1 Cor 14:15; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16; Heb 2:12; Jam 5:13).
Singing is definitely “In Bounds.”
Singing is commanded (Eph 5:19). There are examples of Christians singing (Acts 16:25 f; 1 Cor 14:15). It is in the principle of offering God the fruit of our lips (Heb 13:15).
On the other hand, the New Testament is silent on playing songs for God. Instrumental music is not commanded in the New Testament nor is there any example of the early church using it. If the Lord did not command the use of instrumental music in worship, then why are you doing it? If there are no biblical examples of New Testament Christians using instrumental music, then why are you doing it? New Testament Christians were commanded not to change (Gal 1:6-9), go beyond (1 Cor 4:6), add to or take from (Rev 22:18,19) the law of Christ. New Testament Christians were commanded to “speak the oracles of God” (1 Pet 4:11) and whatever we do in word or deed, we must do all in the name of the Lord Jesus (Col 3:17).