By Irvin Himmel
In the New Testament “fellowship” means communion, sharing, partnership, or joint participation. It is a term of intimacy. When Christians work and worship together, following the same Master, “striving together for the faith of the gospel,” being “of one heart and of one soul,” walking “by the same rule,” and speaking “as the oracles of God,” there is a divine fellowship that transcends social sharing, association with neighbors and friends, and other kinds of human togetherness.
What happens when mechanical instruments of music are used in worship? Is such a practice a barrier (hindrance, roadblock, or impediment) to intimate spiritual fellowship? This is the question to be addressed in this article.
Learning from History
Historically, numerous cases could be cited to demonstrate that the introduction of instrumental music into congregational worship has been a barrier to fellowship. The following are a few examples:
The church in Waxahachie, Ellis County, Texas, began using instrumental music in the fall of 1885. C. McPherson, the preacher, took an active part in introducing the organ, soliciting funds for its purchase, and ordering the instrument. The organ was used (under protest) for two consecutive Lord’s days in October. Isaac M. Fuston, one of the elders, requested a 3:00 p.m. meeting of those who were opposed to the organ. McPherson came and proposed a compromise. He suggested that the organ be used in Sunday school and in the opening services when there would be preaching, and set it aside at other times. This plan was rejected as being contrary to the Scriptures. Two of the elders and some other families deemed it best to quietly withdraw and meet in private homes. To them the organ was a barrier to fellowship. David Lipscomb commented on the situation at Waxahachie by noting that it is clear that McPherson “pressed the organ into the Church, to the driving out of a number of members, that he had testified were good brothers.”1
A congregation at Kaufman, Texas, was troubled over instrumental music in 1895. Christians who could not in good conscience worship with the accompaniment of the organ felt compelled to meet elsewhere. The pro-organ group made a gesture to regain those who had left their fellowship. They agreed not to play the instrument on the Lord’s day at the hour of worship and on Wednesday night at prayer meeting, provided they be allowed to play it in Sunday school and on all other occasions. T.R. Burnett observed, “That is like unto a man saying he will not swear and drink on two days of the week if you will let him swear and drink all the rest of the time!”2
The Walnut Street church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, began using instrumental music in its worship in 1886. The congregation had met at different places and without its own building since its establishment in 1871. When a lot was purchased and a new building erected, the new meeting house contained an organ. Dr. D.E. Nelson, a physician, opposed the organ and asked that it be removed. To him it was a barrier to fellowship. After his request was denied, Dr. Nelson and a few others left and started a congregation in South Chattanooga.3 Nelson explained his position in these words: “For me to believe the use of the organ wrong and then go ahead and worship with it, I am sure would be sinning.”4 E.A. Elam encouraged the South Chattanooga brethren for building up a church where they could “conscientiously worship God.”
The church in St. Louis, Missouri, purchased a building from the Episcopalians in 1867. It was located on Olive Street at Seventeenth, and the deal included a $3000 organ. There was agitation over the organ for two years. The majority favored its use, but a strong minority, led by Dr. Hiram Christopher, brother-in-law of J.W. McGarvey, opposed instrumental music in worship. For the sake of peace the organ was rarely used. The pro-organ group eventually took control, forcing the opposition to leave.5 Dr. Christopher wrote in 1867, “We must never forget that it is not our province to determine what is or what is not acceptable worship. What pleases God should please us.” He noted, “In the apostolic church the music was entirely vocal and congregational.” He concluded that using musical instruments in the worship of the church “is an innovation on apostolic practice.”6
The New Testament instructs that we are to sing and make melody in the heart (Matt. 26:30; Acts 16:25; Rom. 15:9; 1 Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:18-20; Col. 3:16; Heb. 2:12; Jas. 5:13). Singing (vocal music) is specified; playing (mechanical music) is not authorized. All who have strong convictions that we should follow the New Testament plan for worship and regard instrumental music as a perversion of that plan must either stifle their consciences or else conclude that the use of the instrument is a barrier to fellowship.
Admissions and Warnings
Respected historians generally agree that instrumental music has been a major cause of division among people pleading for New Testament Christianity. Sober minds warned that pushing the instrument would disrupt fellowship.
W.E. Garrison, historian among Disciples of Christ, acknowledges that “many churches” divided on this issue.7 A.W. Fortune concedes, “The introduction of the organ into the worship of the church was the occasion of bitter controversy, and was one of the main causes of the division which finally came.”8 Herman Norton of the Disciples Divinity House, Vanderbilt University, avows that the practice of using musical instruments in worship “gradually increased, causing an eruption at practically each introduction” in earlier years.9 Stephen Eckstein says, “As a result of bitter controversy over instrumental music, Texas churches of Christ split into two irreconcilable bodies.”10
During the dark days of the Civil War, Moses Lard warned, “The day on which a church sets up an organ in its house, is the day on which it reaches the first station on the road to apostasy.” He proposed, “Let those brethren who oppose the introduction of an organ first remonstrate in gentle, kind, but decided terms. If their remonstrance is unheeded, and the organ is brought in, then let them at once . . . abandon the church so acting; and let all such members unite elsewhere.”11
J.W. McGarvey chastised J.S. Lamar in 1870 for his defense of instrumental music, and warned, “We can inform Bro. Lamar and all others who advocate this innovation upon apostolic worship, that they are driving a wedge which is destined to split asunder hundreds of congregations and cause worshiper alienation among both preachers and churches.”12
Conviction or Compromise?
Attempts have been made to place instrumental music in the same category as meats and days in Romans 14. The fallacy in such reasoning is that Romans 14 deals with things which are permissible but not required, whereas we are not given permission in the New Testament to add another kind of music to that which is uniformly authorized. Music in worship is not a matter of opinion. It is not a matter of indifference. It is not something left to our discretion. Instrumental music is more than an aid to the singing; it is the addition to the singing of another act.
People who suppose that instrumental music is optional do not consider it as a barrier to fellowship. Their attitude is, “I can sing with or without the instrument.” They deem it rather ridiculous to make the music question an issue, often arguing that whatever is not expressly condemned in Scripture is allowable.
Others take a different attitude toward the Bible. It is their persuasion that in all acts of worship we must do only what the New Testament teaches. It is what the Bible says, not its silence, which is our guide. Any practice which deviates from the divine plan revealed in the New Testament, whether in the work, worship, organization, or life of the church, is to be rejected. This attitude leads to the conclusion that instrumental music is a perversion or corruption of New Testament worship.
Some who claim to oppose instrumental music in worship covet fellowship with those who use it. LaGard Smith admits to worshiping frequently with a group in England where the “singing is accompanied by instruments.” He writes, “I tried to content myself with the thought that while everyone else was singing with the instruments, I was singing without them! Of course that didn’t solve the problem for someone like myself who is strongly opposed to musical instruments in worship! Their presence continually marred an otherwise enviable worship ideal.”13
How can one who is “strongly opposed” to instrumental music worship with it? If one can worship with the instrument in England, why not in America? If six months out of the year, why not all year long? Can one stifle his conscience and compromise his sincere convictions and still please God?
If a congregation corrupted its worship by serving roasted lamb as part of the Lord’s supper, would that be a barrier to fellowship? Would the burning of incense be a roadblock to fellowship? Or, would some higher aim, such as “unity,” justify compromise in such situations? Does the “unity of the Spirit” call for stringing along with error? Should one practice error while attempting to teach truth on the same subject? Would it make sense to sprinkle infants while professing to be strongly opposed to infant baptism?
Whatever is sinful is a barrier to fellowship with God. If one believes that instrumental music in worship is sinful, he should not participate in such perverted worship. Teach those who are in error? Yes. By word and example!
- Gospel Advocate, Feb. 3, 1886, 66-67, “C. McPherson’s Retreat.”
- Gospel Advocate, Nov. 14, 1895, 723, “Burnett’s Budget.”
- Herman A. Norton, Tennessee Christians, 163-164.
- Gospel Advocate, Feb. 22, 1888, 8, “The Organ Question Bearing Fruit.”
- Earl Irvin West, The Search for the Ancient Order, II: 8 1.
- Dr. H. Christopher, Lard’s Quarterly, Oct., 1867, 349-368, “On Instrumental Music in Churches of Christ.”
- Winfred Ernest Garrison, Religion Follows the Frontier, 237.
- Alonzo Willard Fortune, The Disciples in Kentucky, 372.
- Herman A. Norton, Tennessee Christians, 159,
- Stephen Daniel Eckstein, Jr., History of the Churches of Christ in Texas, 250.
- Moses E. Lard, Lard’s Quarterly, Mar., 1864, 330-333, “Instrumental Music in Churches and Dancing.”
- J.E. Choate and William Woodson, Sounding Brass and Clanging Cymbals, 33. Quoted from Christian Standard, Mar. 26, 1870, 102.
- F. LaGard Smith, Who Is My Brother?, 102-103.
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