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.

“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.

           Whenever I teach a class on Restoration History it seems to trigger a mild firestorm. Alexander Campbell (“AC,” as he signed all of his articles in his periodicals) is such a paradox. He was so dogmatic on some things and so “liberal” on others. How are we to understand this great American churchman?

His plan for Christian unity was detailed and dogmatic. Return to the ancient order of things so that all Christians could visibly unite. His plea was for all Christians to come out of the denominations and to unite in one church. Most of his work was spent hammering out the parameters of that one church-the one that is formed after the ancient pattern that clearly appears in the pages of the New Testament. He inherited this concept from his father, Thomas. After reading his father’s Declaration and Address, he dedicated his life to pursuing this lofty goal.

The paradox, however, arises when one considers what AC said about who is a Christian. If one applies his conclusions from all of his dogmatic work on answering the question, “What does the ancient church of the New Testament look like” to the very different question, “Who is a Christian” one will reach a conclusion that AC refused to reach. Logically, one would think that AC believed that only those who had embraced his program of reform and entered into the churches within his movement were Christians. But this conclusion, while quite logical and almost expected, is very, very, very wrong.

Starting in 1837 and continuing on for about three years, AC had an ongoing public discussion on this issue. When asked, Who is a Christian, he emphatically declared his opinion thus:

Every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will.

This response was (and still is) quite shocking from someone with a reputation of being fairly dogmatic. But, again, he was dogmatic when it came to answering the question, What does the ancient pattern for the church of Christ look like? When it came to answering the question, Who is a Christian? His dogmatism vanished. In fact, when it came to handling those who were making mistakes-even religious mistakes-God’s grace shines through this otherwise dogmatic reformer. Consider these quotes:

With me mistakes of the understanding and errors of the affections are not to be confounded. They are as distant as the poles. An angel may mistake the meaning of a commandment, but he will obey it in the sense in which he understands it.

John Bunyan and John Newton were very different persons, and had very different views of baptism, and of some other things; yet they were both disposed to obey, and to the extent of their knowledge did obey the Lord in every thing.

There are mistakes with, and without depravity. There are wilful errors which all the world must condemn, and unavoidable mistakes which every one will pity. Many a good man has been mistaken. Mistakes are to be regarded as culpable and as declarative of a corrupt heart only when they proceed from a wilful neglect of the means of knowing what is commanded. Ignorance is always a crime when it is voluntary; and innocent when it is involuntary. Now, unless I could prove that all who neglect the positive institutions of Christ and have substituted for them something else of human authority, do it knowingly, or, if not knowingly, are voluntarily ignorant of what is written, I could not, I dare not say that their mistakes are such as unchristianize all their professions.

True, indeed, that it is always a misfortune to be ignorant of any thing in the Bible, and very generally it is criminal. But how many are there who cannot read; and of those who can read, how many are so deficient in education; and of those educated, how many are ruled by the authority of those whom they regard as superiors in knowledge and piety, that they never can escape out of the dust and smoke of their own chimney, where they happened to be born and educated! These all suffer many privations and many perplexities, from which the more intelligent are exempt.

These comments set off a firestorm among Campbell’s followers. A flood of “hate mail” poured in. In future issues of his Millennial Harbinger (in issues dating from 1837 to 1840) he was forced to face his critics time and time again. Although he sought repeatedly to clarify his position and assure his opponents, few could ever get past his original statements. They were convinced he had “left the faith,” and that he no longer accepted immersion as being a vital part of God’s plan of redemption for fallen man. On September 28, 1837 (in his Millennial Harbinger), Alexander Campbell sought to assure his critics with this clear statement

My opinion [this point was emphasized over and over in later letters from AC – this whole discussion was HIS OPINION] is no rule of action to my brethren, nor would I offer it unsolicited to any man. But while we inculcate faith, repentance, and baptism upon all, as essential to their constitutional citizenship in the Messiah’s kingdom, and to their sanctification and comfort as Christians, no person has a right to demand our opinions on all the differences of this generation … He is certainly safer who obeys from the heart ‘that mould of doctrine’ delivered to us by the Apostles …

In December of 1837 AC wrote this:

[what I have said in the past is my opinion and, as the opinion of a fallible human being] it imparts no certainty of pardon or salvation to any particular unbaptized person whatsoever. . . . In no case, indeed, can there be the same certainty (all things else being equal) that he who was [baptized in some other manner] shall be saved, as there is that he that first believes and is then, on his own confession, immersed, shall be saved. In the former case, at best, we have only the fallible inference or opinion of man; while in the latter we have the sure and unerring promise of our Saviour and Judge. . . .

AC believed and taught this: restoring the ancient order of things would set the stage for all Christians to unite upon the essentials of the Christian faith into one universal church. This was his life-long objective. However, becoming a Christian did not require one to accept all of the essentials of the Christian faith that he and his movement had hammered out. For Alexander Campbell being right with God-being a Christian-was a matter of obedience from the heart to the level of knowledge attained at any given moment. God’s grace is big enough to cover mistakes-even religious mistakes.

In short, Alexander Campbell believed that his reform movement was making Christians only. He did not, however, believe that his reform movement contained the only Christians.