The Quest for Unity

By Irvin Himmel

Dreams of unity have motivated actions that are noble and other efforts that are disgraceful to the name of the Lord. Ironically, some unity movements have brought forth new divisions and deepened existing cleavages.

The search for happiness is an honorable quest, but true happiness can be found only in submission to God. This truth is expressed vividly in the book of Ecclesiastes. The search for eternal life is a virtuous quest, but the abundant, unending life that men desire can be obtained only through allegiance to Jesus Christ. This is the essence of the New Testament message. In like manner, the search for religious unity is a commendable quest, but the unity for which our Master prayed in John 17:20,21 can be attained only by loving loyalty to him in doctrine and in practice.

Some people are so enamored by visions of unity that they compromise New Testament teaching with religious error in order to have oneness. They surrender what is written and accept human traditions for the sake of broader fellowship. Matters of faith are shifted to the realm of opinion in order that doors of enlarged participation may be opened to them.

The Spring 1992 issue of One Body gives a good example of how far some will go in the quest for harmony with their religious neighbors. Founded by Don DeWelt, One Body promotes unity between Christian Churches and Churches of Christ. A report from Steve Bishop of Burlington, Mass., includes the following:

On December 22 the Bedford Christian Church and Burlington Church of Christ, churches not more than 13 minutes from one another, united for a Christmas Candlelight Service. The service was held in Bedford’s building and used a capella and instrumental music. The instrument being played by a member of the Burlington Church of Christ! Joining in this service was the Brookline Church of Christ.

Brookline has been participating in missions funding and other joint projects with the Christian Church for many years but for Burlington this was the first time in ten years that the churches had been together. And it was the first time the Christian Church had actively participated in a service with the Burlington Church. You see ten years ago, the Churches of Christ invited Bedford to their Fifth Sunday Worships but would not invite them to participate in any leading role. That barrier was broken this year!

For those of us in the Burlington Church and the Brookline Church instrumental music is a non-issue. We believe it is a matter of opinion, so there is really nothing to stop us from enjoying one another’s fellowship.

There is absolutely no authority in the New Testament for a Christmas Candlelight Service. When the Burlington and Brookline congregations agreed to participate in that kind of service they left the teaching of Jesus. I am unable to find anything in the apostolic writings either by example or by command that would warrant such a service. One must go to the traditions of Catholicism and denominationalism to find services of this kind. In those human traditions he also finds Easter Sunrise Services, Lenten Services, Good Friday Services, Laymen’s Day Services, Thursday Night Communion Services, and other observances that are foreign to the New Testament.

According to Steve Bishop, the Burlington and Brookline congregations have concluded that instrumental music is a I inon-issue” or “matter of opinion.” If the New Testament reveals the kind of music that we are to use in worship, and it does, how could this be a matter of opinion? If Burlington and Brookline decide that sprinkling is a matter of opinion, they can enjoy the fellowship of more of their religious neighbors. If they decide that the purpose of baptism is a matter of opinion, they can stretch their fellowship to greater lengths. If they decide that praying to Mary is a matter of opinion, presto! they can fellowship a larger company.

Since the New Testament teaches us how to worship, the invention of other ways is not to be regarded as a “nonissue.” We are taught in the word of the Lord that the action of baptism is a burial, therefore the substitution of sprinkling is not a “non-issue.” Anything that is contrary to New Testament teaching is a serious matter; to dismiss it as a “non-issue” ignores its seriousness.

The venerable J.W. McGarvey wrote in the Millennial Harbinger (Nov., 1864):

In the early years of the present Reformation, there was entire unanimity in the rejection of instrumental music from our public worship. It was declared unscriptural, inharmonious with the Christian institution, and a source of corruption. In the course of time, individuals here and there called in question the correctness of this decision, and an attempt was occasionally made to introduce instruments in some churches.

Outlining his reasons for objecting to instrumental music in worship, McGarvey noted:

. . . Seeing that in different dispensations there are some differences in the acts of acceptable worship, we cannot know what is acceptable under a particular dispensation, except by express statements of revelation with reference thereto. We cannot, therefore, by any possibility, know that a certain element of worship is acceptable to God in the Christian dispensation, when the Scriptures which speak of that dispensation are silent in reference to it. To introduce any such element is unscriptural and presumptuous.

In the Harbinger (Apr., 1868), McGarvey conceded:

This question of instrumental music is becoming a serious one. There are many who favor it, and who will listen to no argument against it. By the cry of progress and conformity, it is making its way over the heads and hearts of many of our best brethren and sisters.

There was unity on the music to be used in worship in the days of the apostles. Mechanical instruments were conspicuously absent. There was unity on this point in the early years of the Restoration Movement, when, as McGarvey expressed it, “there was entire unanimity in the rejection of instrumental music from our public worship.” Division came when mechanical instruments were introduced and a variety of attempts made to justify their presence in worship.

In Lard’s Quarterly (Oct., 1867), there appeared a long article by Dr. H. Christopher of St. Louis, Mo., giving historical facts about the use of instrumental music in worship, and pointing to the follies of innovations and corruptions. Christopher insisted that introducing instrumental music in worship violates principle. “It can not be done without abandoning our ground and giving up our fundamental principle,” wrote Christopher.

Moses E. Lard commended Dr. Christopher’s article, adding a few comments of his own:

The question of instrumental music in the churches of Christ involves a great and sacred principle. But for this the subject is not worthy of one thought at the hands of the child of God. That principle is the right of men to introduce innovations into the prescribed worship of God. This right we utterly deny. The advocates of instrumental music affirm it. This makes the issue.

To wave the hand and pronounce instrumental music in worship a “non-issue” is to sidestep a fundamental point. Compromise of principle in order to have unity places one in a trade-off position. If we can trade one principle for unity, how many other principles can we surrender for broader unity? What good is a united body of people without principles?

Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 13, pp. 387-388
July 2, 1992