If you visit a Church of Christ on a Sunday, one of the first things you will notice is that they sing without the accompaniment of mechanical instruments.[1]

Why? Why do we sing without instruments?

Not long ago, someone began a thread on Facebook by asking this exact question. I responded with a condensed version of an essay I have written on the subject but the author immediately deleted the post. The author said that the discussion had turned into an emotional argument rather than a principled discussion.[2] The author was quite upset that someone had hijacked the thread. I hope these frustrations were not directed at my comments. I offered them there, as I do here, as one flawed human beings’ attempt to understand how this unusual practice came to be so important among Churches of Christ.

So, back to my question – Why do we in Churches of Christ sing without instruments?

My conclusion is that we sing without mechanical instruments because of the history of how God’s people have worshiped Him through the centuries.

If you are interested in reading the essay that explains my understanding, my reasoning, and my conclusions on the question, click here.

          [1] This is not universal across the country as there are many churches that use the name Church of Christ and do not follow the a cappella tradition. Furthermore, there are some Churches of Christ that are questioning the tradition, refusing to follow it, and allowing at least some worship with mechanical instruments; however, as a general rule, if it is a Church of Christ from within the Stone-Campbell Movement, also known as the American Restoration Movement, chances are good that if you visit you will experience worship in the a cappella tradition.

            [2] An Internet search will reveal that there are many who take this discussion very seriously. There are even some who take it to its logical extreme and claim: “If you do not worship a cappella as the first century church did then you are apostate, not Christian, and outside the grace of Christ.” I am not one of those people but they are out there – in droves.


Stricken by Sin, Cured by Christ

There is much talk today about the Christian doctrine of sin. A new book has just been released:

  • Jesse Couenhoven, Stricken by Sin, Cured by Christ: Agency, Necessity, and Culpability in Augustinian Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

As a preacher in Churches of Christ, this book is a challenging read for me.

Many non-Christians in America are turned off by the Christian teaching on sin. Why would anyone want to go to church and sing about human failure, death, and dying?

Perhaps more surprising, however, is the fact that some Christians find the biblical depiction of human sin overly pessimistic.

  • When Scripture speaks of human corruption, some Christians speak of human potential.
  • When Scripture says “all have sinned,” some Christians say, “Yeah, but I have overcome all that now.”
  • When the Lord Himself says, “With men, [salvation] is impossible,” some Christians say, “Get over it—pull yourself up and let’s do this thing!”

In Churches of Christ, a movement born on the American western frontier and steeped in the rationalism of the Enlightenment, as well as the views of John Locke and Scottish Common Sense Realism, we deny the traditional, orthodox Christian teaching on “original sin.”

Many of our critics accuse us of being “Pelagian” in our view of human sin. Right or wrong, our critics do point out a serious issue in our theology, in our view of the human condition after the Fall.

My question to our people is, “What do we believe about sin and its effects on the human condition?” What did we inherit from Adam, if anything? What were the effects of “sin entering the world” through Adam’s disobedience? What is Paul’s point in Romans 5:12-21?

As a man who makes his living preaching in and for Churches of Christ, I want to know what to teach about the ability of human beings to overcome sin by themselves. Do I go with Christian orthodoxy and risk losing my position of employment? Or do I go with the party line and, while retaining my job, run the risk of violating the overwhelming testimony of our Sacred Text? This presents quite a dilemma.

I have heard sermons within Churches of Christ, many sermons, which could be accurately characterized as Pelagian. According to these sermons, even after the Fall human beings at birth are, following the philosophical view of John Locke, a “clean slate.” According to these sermons, every human being born after the Fall is capable of living a perfect life. Our logic is, “Otherwise, God could not hold us accountable for sin.” Or, “How could God command us to keep a law that is impossible for human beings to keep?”

Fair enough, at least according to “common sense.” But what about Paul’s clear teaching–teaching inspired by God’s Holy Spirit–that it is humanly IMPOSSIBLE to keep the Law, or any law, perfectly? What about Paul’s teaching that it was never the purpose of the Law, or law, to produce righteousness but, rather, to expose human sin?

Furthermore, the other side of the question is, “If every human being born after the Fall is capable of living a perfect life, why did it take the miraculous birth of Christ—the incarnation of God Himself—to produce a human being who could actually accomplish that feat?” Surely if it were possible for every human being to live a perfect life, there would be at least one example from history. Heaven knows many have tried. The problem is that each and every one who has tried has failed, most failing miserably–except One, and He was God-in-the-flesh.

My present sermon series is an expository journey through Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia. In this hard-hitting letter, Paul is attacking the human tendency toward self-reliance head on. He is intense, he is angry, and he is pulling no punches. Why? Because Paul has discovered hope—true hope for the human condition.

And true hope does not come from the power of positive thinking. No! True hope comes from “the truth of the gospel,” which is: Christ and Him crucified is the ONLY cure for human sin. This truth is pessimistic to some, but liberating to those who see its power.

In his new book, Jesse Couenhoven makes some very insightful observations:

  • The Christian teaching on sin seems pessimistic only to those who think we ought to be able to justify ourselves, by ourselves.
  • The view that we can justify ourselves degrades the Bible’s teaching on human sin.
  • The belief that we participate in—or even contribute to—making ourselves righteous offends God’s claim that righteousness (justification, salvation) is a free gift, given by grace.
  • The Bible’s teaching that we are not masters of our own goodness and cannot justify ourselves is not a counsel of despair but testimony to our only true hope—Christ and Him crucified.
  • Freedom is NOT an autonomous achievement but, rather, a free gift. One that we ought to receive joyfully.

I am still wrestling with this mystery. Regardless of which view one takes, there remain unanswered questions. It seems to be impossible to tie up all the loose ends in this challenging debate.

After more than three decades of struggle, however, my conclusion is this: Regardless of “who made me do it,” I have personally participated in Adam’s rebellion—I am guilty of sin.

And so I do not need a self-help remedy for my sin problem. I need a Savior.

Praise God that He has provided One for me—and for everyone else who comes to Him in humility, repentance, and submission.

For the last ten years I have been a graduate student in theology. Very academic, very rigorous, very challenging. My preaching has reflected that. Over the past decade, the feedback I have received from elders and members has had a common theme:

  • Good sermons but sometimes too complicated to follow.
  • Good preaching but sometimes gets off track, too many details, hard to grasp all of the information.
  • Great teacher but sometimes I have a hard time knowing what I am supposed to do as a disciple.

You get the idea.

About a year ago I completed my grad school training for ministry and started dabbling in some more popular books in sermon preparation. How to preach a parable, how to preach so people will listen, how to preach better sermons. The list is extensive.

I even joined a newly-formed group that promises to help me preach better sermons. It is a one-year program that offers coaching, resources, feedback, and other help. I am eager to learn from them.

One thing continues to jump out at me as I reassess my preaching. Whereas the academic world laid a huge emphasis on information, details, nuances, and intellectual rigor, the resources I am now considering recommend things such as:

  • Keep it simple: make sure the message is appropriate for 9th graders.
  • Keep it portable: make sure the main idea is memorable (can I put my entire sermon into a tweet?)
  • Keep it visual: tell a good story, use a vivid object lesson.
  • Keep it compelling: never simply give information. There must be a compelling reason that your hearers need to know the information. Tell them why they need to know what you are telling them, what they need to do in response, and how they can go about doing it.
  • Keep it focused: have only one main point to the message (a sword only has one point).

What is funny is that my sermon preparation is no less rigorous using this paradigm. If anything, it is more intense for a stuffy lug head like me. Creativity is not my strong suit.

But, what is a joy is the fact that preaching this way is a whole lot more fun. A simple sermon is much less complex and so I am less tied to my notes. Being less tied to my notes makes me look at the people more. Looking at the people more gives me immediate feedback on whether they are with me or not. And when they are with me they actually respond once in a while (I love to hear a good “Amen” now and then, don’t you?)

So, you can teach an old dog new tricks. The church deserves some kind of award for enduring preachers the way they do!

The results from the 2010 Census confirmed the trend: Hispanics are the largest minority group in the United States of America. There are over 50 million people living in this country who are of Hispanic origin. That means that Hispanics or Latinos constitute 16.3% of the total United States population. (See a full report here).

Obviously these figures have huge implications for the Lord’s people living within the United States. ‘The possibilities for starting new Hispanic or Latino churches in . . .  the United States is staggering,” says Geoff Giesemann, author of the book, Hispanic Ministry in the USA.

According to the 2009 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States there are 241 independent Hispanic congregations in the United States. Another 287 congregations offer Spanish-speaking Bible classes or worship assemblies. This latter group of churches—ones offering classes or services in Spanish—represents a 20% increase since 2006. A step in the right direction.

However, Abel Alvarez estimates that 90 percent of all Iglesias de Cristo have only 35 to 75 members. Even with 241 congregations nationwide there is still a huge need to reach out to the over 50 million Hispanics living among us!

The numbers for Virginia are as sobering as the national statistics: Hispanics are the second-largest and fastest-growing minority group in Virginia. The latest Census, conducted on April 1, 2010, counted more than 630,000 Hispanic residents in Virginia. With a total state population of just over 8 million, this means that 8 out of every 100 Virginians are Hispanic.

Even more sobering is this: the Hispanic population in Virginia has increased 92% since the 2000 census.

Something must be done-and quickly! But what? How can a small group of Christians meeting in Richmond, VA make a difference?

Beginning on Sunday, February 19, 2012, the Church with which I am affiliated began offering Bible study, worship assemblies, and Christian fellowship in Spanish to the community. Again, a step in the right direction.


Just read this from the Christian Chronicle, “An international newspaper for Churches of Christ.”

According to their numbers, there are over 100,000 fewer “men, women and children in the pews of Churches of Christ in the U.S.” than there were just 9 years ago.

Tough stuff.

As a Preaching Minister for A Cappella Churches of Christ, it is even tougher, especially after reading through the comments to the Christian Chronicle piece and after sifting through yet another “church growth study,” not to feel guilty, depressed, responsible … something.

Bottom line seems to be: the church needs to do more, be more, do better, be better. And people in roles of leadership feel that immense responsibility very acutely even though the things that need to be done are not all that clear. There are as many solutions as there are those who would be solvers.

But, you know another bottom line? Our culture simply is not interested in traditional Christianity anymore. Been there, done that, tired of it. Grew up with it, memorized it, grew disillusioned with it, and now I hate it. (And, by the way, so does Jesus! Click here to see more).

One response is: that’s right, the Church is ridiculously out of touch with the culture. Therefore, the Church needs to change and give the culture what it wants.

Are we sure that is the right answer? Personally, I’m not so sure.

I agree, much would be better if we changed some things about the way we do Christianity. But, I run into very few people with the wisdom and insight to discern the difference between changing the form and changing the content.

There are some out there. I’m not saying there are not. All I am saying is that right now we need more of them to step forward and lead the way.

Unfortunately, as the situation becomes more and more chronic, fewer and fewer people are willing to step forward to lead us through the difficulty. In fact, some of our best and brightest are stepping down from positions of leadership, which only compounds the problem.

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” That is what is commonly referred to as Newton’s Third Law of Motion. It appears that this law applies to the area of theology as well!

In the waning years of the 19th century liberalism argued that Scripture could be reconciled with the intellectual advances of the day if one merely abandoned the need to interpret the biblical text literally. One day did not mean one day, virgin birth did not mean virgin birth, and so on.

Christian fundamentalists reacted to this liberal approach by demanding a literal interpretation of the Sacred Text. Every word was inspired and, therefore, every word was absolutely true in its most literal sense.

This reaction led to the resurrection of millenarianism, a doctrine that has been around since the second century AD; a doctrine that depends upon the literal interpretation of Scripture for its survival. As each side of the discussion pressed its case, the chasm between them became impassible. It was not long before one’s view on the Millennial Reign of Christ became a “test of fellowship.” It was not long before all those who believed in a literal 1,000 year reign were on the outside looking in.

Differences of viewpoint are nothing new. The chasms they create aren’t either. The question is, “Do these gaping holes in our relationships honor the God who created us?” T.B. Larimore (1843-1929) didn’t think so. He refused to involve himself in the wrangling of his day. Although he was deeply influenced by staunch participants in the fray, he refused to state his position on the issues publicly. He did not dabble in issues over which “the wisest and best of men disagreed.”

Partisans on both sides of the widening chasm criticized him harshly; each side demanded that he declare his values and decide his loyalty. Instead, he openly fellowshipped with both sides, preached wherever he was invited, was on the list of Preachers for the “opposing party” until 1925, and wrote for religious papers in both groups.

Larimore’s goal was, as was the goal of the first generation within the Stone-Campbell churches, Christian unity. His approach was to “concede to all, and accord to all, the same sincerity and courtesy I claim for myself, as the Golden Rule demands ….”

Chasms in human relationships will always exist. Clearly we must never be the cause of such phenomena. The challenge is to navigate our lives so as to not contribute to their expansion.

We often approach Scripture trying to “prove” something (often some relatively minor thing). For example, we “study” Romans 6:3-4 in order to prove that baptism is by immersion in water. We may be able to fashion such an argument and then prove it with Paul’s discussion in Romans 6; however, approaching Scripture in this manner deprives us in two fundamental ways:

  • First, it is most likely that we will never arrive at a final answer to our question because the biblical writer is not specifically addressing our question in the first place; and
  • More important (in my mind at least), in our obsession with the minutia we completely miss the penetrating, life-altering theological implications of what the biblical writer (Holy Spirit) is teaching in the larger passage of Scripture.

I must candidly confess that when I think about, teach about, or preach about Christian baptism I am doing exactly what the Bible does not do (and exactly what I try to avoid in my general approach to Scripture): quickly isolating individual places in the New Testament where baptism is mentioned, lopping them off from their larger context, and then extracting meaning from each one in order to “prove that we are right on this baptism thing.”

Nowhere do we find anything even closely resembling “Paul’s 13-Week Study on Baptism.” In order to understand Paul’s view of baptism, we must see baptism in its broader framework. In each of the sixteen places (Beasley-Murray, 127-209) Paul mentions baptism he does so within a broader, redemptive-historical framework. The purpose is to focus on the big picture rather than give us the externals of baptism.

But, if we back away and look at the big picture we see that

  • God has broken into our history and accomplished human redemption through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  • This feat of God finds human expression in the act of Christian Baptism.
  • In redemption and in baptism God gives His People a new identity, a new ethic, and a new worldview.
  • My baptism marks the beginning of my participation in God’s redemptive act. Baptism serves as my initiation into God’s redemption in Christ.
  • As a baptized believer, my life is now a daily living out of God’s redemptive act.
  • Remembering what God did to me at baptism helps me fulfill that purpose.

As I said in my last post, this view of baptism as the initiation into Christ is BY FAR the majority view. And, it is the ancient view, going all the way back to Paul and continuing right up to today. This is the view we gain when we compare all the New Testament passages on the topic, the earliest Christian writings outside the New Testament, the early church fathers, the early Creeds, and even most of the reformers.

One thing I need to correct about my previous post: in it I intimated that John Calvin would agree that water baptism has nothing to do with salvation. That is incorrect. Both Luther and Calvin opposed Zwingli’s innovations on Christian baptism (as well as many of his other innovations).

My sense is that the battle cry, Sola Fide (faith alone) was taken to an unhealthy extreme by some second and third generation reformers. Faith alone does not exclude human participation—it never has and it never will.

Many scholars within evangelicalism are beginning to see this overreaction and are saying some very healthy things about Christian baptism as part of the conversion process. For examples see Moo’s commentary on Romans and Schreiner’s commentary on Romans.

The sad reality is that while these scholars are moving toward affirming Christian baptism as an essential part of the conversion process, many preachers within our fellowship are jettisoning baptism. Funny how that works.