Resistance to Unity

July 25, 2006

Thanks to Phil Spadaro for pointing to recent articles from the Christian Chronicle about varying perspectives on the recent unity discussions that have occurred at several lectureships. It is clear that many Christians welcome the renewed dialog between a cappella churches of Christ and the instrumental Christian churches. And it is equally clear that many are not pleased with these developments.

One of the Christian Chronicle articles presents an interview with a minister named Alan Highers articulating the a cappella position. Highers considers it impossible for the two sides to come to unity as long as one side continues to worship with instruments. He points out that the churches of Christ “have been trained to seek book, chapter and verse,” and that they will not accept a practice that is not authorized in scripture. He correctly points out that there are thousands within his family of churches who cannot conscientiously worship with instruments. And he sees the current dialog as neglecting the key issue that prevents unity.

Highers raises the question as to whether instrumental music in worship is sin. Clearly it is sin for those who believe as he does (Rom 14:23) I do not expect, nor even intend, to change the minds of those who believe it to be sin. If there were some of that persuasion in my local congregation, I believe we would be obligated to accomodate their consciences by refraining from using instruments. (Rom 14:15, Rom 14:21)

But I believe their conviction relies upon flawed human reasoning. I believe the requirement for “authorization” (ie, the belief that the silence of the scriptures is prohibitive) is based on faulty exegesis of passages that actually teach against rules such as prohibiting instruments. (I previously blogged on this topic.)

I believe those who hold that silence prohibits are inconsistent in their application of their rule. They permit some practices as expedients, even though they are not authorized in scripture. They sing in harmony, using song books, without any scriptural authorization. They meet in a church building owned by the church, purchased with funds contributed as an act of worship, again without scriptural authorization. Many of them take communion using individual cups, without scriptural authorization. All of these practices are considered expedients and therefore are permitted. But (apparently arbitrarily) they refuse to classify instrumental music as an expedient. I have not yet heard a reasonable (not to mention biblical) explanation showing the difference between instrumental music and the other items mentioned.

The important point here is that, whatever rule is used to distinguish permissible expedients from things prohibited by silence, the application of that rule would require human judgment. Therefore such a rule must not be used to draw lines of fellowship. (See earlier articles here and here for my earlier comments about Thomas Campbell’s propositions on this topic.) Inherently, these issues are disputable matters. And we have a very clear command on how to handle those things. (Rom 14:1, Rom 14:22) Those issues must not be permitted to stand in the way of unity. Why do we fail to obey these clear commands, and instead attempt to bind our own fallible inferences?

In the Christian Chronicle article, Highers asked:

What kind of unity would it be if people who claimed to be united could not even worship together?

The solution to that apparent dilemma is for the instruments to be left out when the two groups are together, and for both groups to embrace one another without passing judgment on disputable matters. Surely that would be a greater degree of unity than we have today.


  1. Many RM churches that differ drastically within their own tribe have no problem continuing in fellowship, but seem incapable of extending fellowship to other churches with the same problems.As long as many in the COC continue to twist the silence of the scriptures belief, forcing it’s application to suit themselves, unity will be tough enough within the tribe, and next to impossible to achieve with other groups.

  2. I’ve never understood the argument that someone needed to break the unity of the church because they must use instruments.That would put the first 600 years of the church’s worship example as faulty.

  3. Larry and son of adam,It seems to me that there is as much tendency to divide within the RM as there is between the RM and other groups. I agree that the the predisposition to divide over disagreements is dysfunctional. Perhaps it could be called an obsessive – compulsive disorder. It seems to be the only way some people know to respond to a disagreement. But I wouldn’t characterize everyone in the churches of Christ that way.

  4. Alan-I know that we disagree on some things but I am right there with you on the silence of scripture thing. I just don’t get it. And, it saddens me to read Highers and read other things that come across my desk that are so narrow. I am really torn right now. On the one hand, I have enjoyed participating in some of the conversations with the Christian Churches. I enjoyed the NACC. On the other hand, I don’t know if I should continue to talk about unity when our own group, the Churches of Christ, is so obviously splitting apart. How do we manage this? In the end, I would point you to Travis Stanley’s blog where he talked about the real issue. The real issue is not instrumental music or missionary societies. The real issue is how we approach scripture and our hermeneutics. Until we confront this issue we will continue going around in circles. The fact is that those of us in Churches of Christ who are interested in unity with our brothers and sisters from the Christian Churches are on roughly the same level as them when it comes to how we look at scripture. However, those of us “progressives” are so far away from the “conservatives” in Churches of Christ when it comes to interpreting scripture that it’s just sad.Thanks for the post.Kent

  5. Hey Kent,It’s fine for us to disagree on some things. Hey, sometimes I disagree with myself!As I said in the series on hermeneutics I think there are some serious problems with the hermeneutics of the churches of Christ which inherently and repeatedly lead to division. I think the biggest issue is when they bind their inferences (including their conclusions based on silence of the scriptures) on others. As long as they hold them as “private property” they are harmless. But when they draw lines of fellowship based on these things they are going too far. That even violates their own rule. There is no scriptural authority to draw lines of fellowship based on inference. If we need explicit scriptural authorization for anything, certainly withdrawal of fellowship would be at the top of the list.

  6. Isn’t it absurd to discuss unity as if you can have unity between carnal Christians who conveniently choose a verse here, a phrase there, only to bolster their own opinion?The usual “springboard” verse to unity discussions is found in Ephesians 4:3, “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”They then tear into each other ignoring the first 2 verses of Ephesians where words like lowliness, gentleness, longsuffering, and bearing with one another in love lead up to the “unity” phrase.Not fellowshipping with other believers over some of the nonsense that I read about is secondary seperation, has nothing to do with “the unity of the faith”, and is sinful.The only item that gives groups of believers unity is their common faith in Jesus, not ten thousand and one trivial matters that only concern the most immature of us.

  7. Hi Royce,Thanks for dropping by.I agree that many of the things that separate Christians are secondary matters, where patience and acceptance are needed rather than division. But I wouldn’t automatically characterize those who hold those views as carnal or immature Christians. I don’t think they are any more carnal than the folks who deride them for their beliefs. To an extent, we are all carnal and immature. But one of our top priorities needs to be to grow in our ability to accept one another without passing judgment on disputable matters. That goes for people on both sides of the issues.

  8. One thing that I have always found interesting, we have always had this idea that what we do must be “authorzed by scripture” as if we hae no freedom to do “anything unlawful.” My question is, where does that come from? Can we look back over the entire history of God’s people and see this hermenutic applied or is this something that we just made up? Where is the authorization for the synogogue anyway? The OT seems to be very specific on what was authorized in worship and what was not. Why did Jesus not condemn it? Was it not an innovation? After all, much of our worship style and organizational structure comes from the syanogogue. It seems to me that we are trying to lay a template of law over the New Testament that just doesn’t fit.

  9. Hi Joel,I think some people get that idea from Leviticus 10, Nadab and Abihu offering unauthorized fire. They also defend that belief from Mark 7:7. I commented on the Mark 7 passage here. I do think there were some strict limits on what was permissible in the OT law, but I don’t see the same thing carried forward to the new covenant. In fact it seems Paul argued forcefully against that kind of thing. I think you raised a good question about Jesus’ acceptance of the (apparently unauthorized) synagogue system. I’m not an expert on that aspect of history but it would be interesting to learn more about the origins of the synagogue system.Alan

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