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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

EECC 1.2: Liturgy—Worship Styles (Rationale & Rebuttal)

As we have seen, the primary mode of lyrical worship for the CofCs is a cappella, that is, solely vocal music. But where does this idea come from? Why do we primarily stick to a cappella music? The most common argument I've heard is that it is "scriptural". By this my fellows have generally assumed an argument from silence. This is when something is based on what is not said rather than what is. It is not stated explicitly in the New Testament that Christians (Jewish or Gentile) worshipped using anything but their voices. Aside from the argument from silence, there is one primary passage which has been used to defend an "a cappella only" stance: Ephesians 5.19, and using only a small section of this short verse:
...ᾄδοντες καὶ ψάλλοντες τῇ καρδίᾳ ὑμῶν τῷ κυρίῳ... 
...singing and making music in your heart to the Lord...
Thusly, in our attempt to mimic the 1st century church as best we know, we generally do not use instruments in our worship. The last argument to be mentioned here is that there are no records of Christians utilizing anything but their voices in a worship gathering until around the 3rd or 4th centuries. That no one wrote down any instances of such a worship is considered significant.

On their own, these reasons do not sound unlikely. However, this is only one side of a discussion. I have tried to make it my business to think from as many angles as possible and usually end up playing devil's advocate in discussions like this, but it's not a bad mental exercise to learn to think in unfamiliar territory. Thus I shall offer some replies to these statements.

The Argument from Silence
I just recently finished listening to the audiobooks of the entire Harry Potter series, which is about 4 days, 20 hours long. In fact, it would take less time to listen to an entire audio Bible of the Protestant Short-Form Canon (the NIV Dramatized Audio Bible is approximately 3 days, 4 hours long). In Book 7, Harry, Ron, and Hermione have a little sit-down chat with Xenophilius Lovegood about the Deathly Hallows. When Hermione raises her doubts about whether the Hallows exist, Lovegood asks her to prove that they do not. This is, in discussions of logic, considered ludicrous. It's like saying that just because no one has ever seen a Hobbit does not prove they do not exist.

To say something is true because it cannot be disproved is a weak argument at its very best. This is my qualm with claiming the church's disuse of nonvocal music. It is true that the texts we have do not say anything like, "And they gathered around, prayed, broke bread, drank the wine, and praised God with the lute and lyre." However, if it is not said that they didn't, then it is equally not said that they did. It is, within this line of argument, equally possible either way for the presence or absence of instruments in worship. The problem with silence, then, is that it is remarkably unhelpful, regardless of your stance on the issue.

Singing and Making Music in Your Heart to the Lord
The term in Eph 5.19 for "making music" in Greek is ψάλλω. I am told by a friend who grew up smack in the middle of the raging music wars of the Churches of Christ that ψάλλω was one of about three Greek words the Churches used with any frequency, and that not one of them knew what they were talking about. This term is used only four times in the NT: Romans 15.9; Ephesians 5.19; 1 Corinthians 14.15; and James 5.13.

According to BDAG (a ridiculously large Greek-English Lexicon), ψάλλω is defined as "to sing songs of praise, with or without instrumental accompaniment, sing, sing praise" (emphasis original). The article for this definition goes on to say the following about the Eph 5.19 passage:
[H]ere ψάλλω is found with ᾄδω (to sing)..., and the question arises whether a contrast between the two words is intended. The original meaning of ψάλλω was 'pluck', 'play' (a stringed instrument)'... In the LXX (the Greek version of the Old Testament) ψάλλω frequently means 'sing', whether to the accompaniment of an instrument (Psalm  32:2; 97:5) or not, as is usually the case (Psalm  7:18; 9:12; 107:4)...
As far as this term goes, it's pretty flexible. BDAG warns against "relying too much on the earliest meaning of ψάλλω," but does not rule out this possibility.

No Instrumental Usage until the 3rd/4th Century
It is true that, to my meager knowledge at least, no records of Christians using instruments are found to have been written prior to Christianity's legalization. It is roughly at the same time that Constantine legalized the practice of the Christian religion (if perhaps it may have been called such at the time) that records of musical instruments began showing up in our history. Though I admittedly know only a little about this time period, two possibilities seem available to me. (1) The legalization of Christianity under Constantine corrupted the church in order to better make her a means by which the Empire might be united; or (2) due to the prior illegality of Christian worship, it would have been ill-advised to draw attention to worship gatherings lest all the members die out along with the faith.

I am inclined to consider the latter as more probable, but both seem entirely possible. Many things about the church changed after it became okay to be Christian (i.e., the loss of the political significance of the statement that 'Jesus is Lord'), and this was one of them. Whether for better or for worse, the change was still present.

It is generally easier to provide a rebuttal without legitimately considering the possibility that one's opponent might be right. This is but a small amount of the discussion available concerning instruments and worship in the CofCs. Whether the early church avoided detection by quietness or they simply felt instruments would have been wrong, we cannot truly know and are stuck with guesswork.  While there is much more to be said concerning New Testament worship styles, I believe this is enough for now. Next time we shall engage in a critique of a cappella, exploring its pros and cons, and seeing whether it actually matters how worship is engaged.

Grace and peace,
-Reed Hamil

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