October 24, 2006

One aspect of the instrumental music debate that is not often discussed has to do with what a conscientious objector should do in an instrumental congregation. Most people I have heard speak from the a cappella side have apparently assumed that such people are bound by their convictions and consciences to leave that church. I would like to explore that question just a bit.

A person’s conscience, when properly trained about right and wrong, makes him aware of guilt when he violates that standard of right and wrong. Even an unbeliever has a conscience that functions like this (Rom 2:14-16). And even when our consciences are inaccurately trained, we are still under an obligation not to violate them. Likewise we are obligated not to tempt a brother to violate his conscience, even if he is misguided (1 Cor 8:9-13). However, it is not sufficient merely to avoid violating our consciences. We must also obey God (1 Cor 4:4)

However, I do not become guilty because of another person’s actions. There is nothing that another person can do to make me guilty of sin. My guilt or innocence hangs entirely on things I personally do. So a third party cannot do anything that puts me in violation of my conscience. In these cases, my conscience is violated only if I respond in a way that violates my understanding of right and wrong.

Let’s apply this to the instrumental music question. Suppose Brother X is convinced at this point in time that instrumental music in worship is sin. Therefore he cannot conscientiously play a musical instrument in a worship service. If he observes another brother playing an instrument in worship, does this make Brother X guilty of sin? I do not think so. As long as Brother X sings, based on his understanding of various passages, he is being obedient with respect to that teaching.

It might be appropriate for Brother X to approach the player of the instrument and attempt to persuade him to cease. Or it might be appropriate for him to bring his objection to the attention of the church leaders. But what should he do if they do not agree?

I believe he should keep his conviction between himself and God (Rom 14:21-23). He should continue to sing according to his conviction, and to abstain from playing an instrument in worship. If he does these things he is not guilty in any way with respect to his conviction about instrumental music. He may be saddened by what he perceives to be disobedience by his brothers. But God tells us to bear with the failings of the weak (Rom 15:1). We should not part ways because of things like this.

Even J. W. McGarvey, a strong opponent of instrumental music, wrote that this would be a viable option under some circumstances when he replied to a letter with the following advice (What Shall We Do About the Organ, page 9):

But as you are not a preacher and as those who stand with you are not able to organize a self-edifying church, I advise that you remain where you are, participate faithfully in all parts of the worship that are not perverted, and persevere, without growing weary, in earnest and prayerful efforts to secure the removal of the instrument. I advise this because it is the only course left open by which you can still observe such of the ordinances as are still observed according to the Scriptures. The alternative would be either to stay away from church altogether—which is a sinful course of life while there is a real church, even a partially corrupted one, within your reach—or to attend some church in which both the teaching and the worship are still farther removed from the divine order. Of course I am supposing that there is no congregation of the primitive order within reach of you to which you could transfer your membership. If there is, the path of duty is obvious.

I commented at greater length about the above article in a previous post. The relevant point for this discussion is that McGarvey did not consider it sinful for the person to remain if that were the only choice available. The presence of a nearby a cappella congregation has no bearing on whether or not singing in the presence of instrumental music is sin. It could be debated what is best in that situation, but that is a different question.

Now I acknowledge that Brother X may be confused on the subject of conscience. He may believe that he would be guilty by association if he were to be present at the instrumental worship service. In this case his conscience has been inaccurately trained. Yet he is obligated to follow his conscience, and therefore must not worship with the instruments. I believe this is the case with many if not all of those who hold the conviction that singing in worship must be a cappella. They will not attend an instrumental worship service as a matter of conscience. I hope and pray that these brothers will reexamine their understanding of conscience and guilt. Until they do so, their confusion about conscience may be causing unnecessary division in the body of Christ. At least that is how I see it.

In the meantime, Brother X could (must) still embrace the instrumental brothers and sisters in every context other than at their instrumental worship service. If God has adopted them as sons, along with Brother X, then they are all brothers, whether or not Brother X’s convictions are correct.


  1. Alan,Great post.You ask the right questions.If instramental music has caused division in the church is it a good thing even thought it may not be wrong in brother x’s eyes? The Lord hates division. I believe love should be above the liberty we have in Christ. Thanks for adding to the discussion on my blog. I appreciate your comments and insights into the text. God bless you brother.I enjoy your blog.

  2. I just want to tell you that I am enjoying your material. Let me know how you like “Kingdom Come?” I have continued my Deuteronomy thoughts on Stoned-Campbell if you are interested in the Hebrew Bible. Shalom,Bobby Valentine

  3. Hi Bobby,I’ve received the book and have read the first couple of chapters. Very interesting ideas. I plan to do a review on my blog when I’ve finished.I’ll drop by your blog and check out the new Deuteronomy material.Alan

  4. What of other issues? For example, what if you don’t agree with some of the teachings of your church or some of the leadership’s decisions? Some say that you are giving tacit approval of those things by remaining in the congregation. Do you agree?

  5. Hi anonymous,I don’t think attendance / membership in a congregation implies agreement with everything that church says or does. If the “tacit approval” idea were taken to its logical conclusion, there would be no assemblies larger than one person. I would draw the line at the point where a church attempts to require me to actively and personally disobey what I believe to be the will of God. In many situations that is not the case. OTOH when moving to a new location I would try to become a member of a group that is most compatible with my beliefs. But I think the threshold for separating from a church where I have been a member is much higher. That is what “make every effort” is all about.

  6. Questions some in our conservative groups might ask:While brother X (in your example)does not participate in a manner that violates his conscience, is it possible to be guilty by association?In other words, if brother X mingles his voice with the instrument and those who favor this type music, is he condoning its use by participating in it?Brother X’s conscience may not be violated, but if his participation causes other members-who share his opinion that instruments are wrong in the worship service-to feel betrayed by his actions, is brother X’s participation a stumbling block to his non-instrumental brothers?And the list goes on….. 🙂

  7. Hi Larry,I do not think it is possible to be truly guilty by association. To be guilty, one must commit a violation – not just be around someone else who does so.In your example, those who feel betrayed by Brother X are in the wrong. That very feeling of having been betrayed implies a party spirit, a faction that tries to maintain separation from people with whom they disagree. They feel betrayed because Brother X did not maintain the separation that defines their faction.

  8. Alan…We agree, your answers to the hypothetical questions I posed look good to me. :)Brother X is not guilty of sin in this case, because his conscience is not condemning him, and it is not a cut-and-dried absolute fact that instrumental music in the worship service is wrong.While I agree with brother X, and respect his choices, he should be prepared to reap a whirlwind of condemnation from his ultra conservative brethren.I’m looking forward to a day when all God’s children recognize each other as brothers/sisters, and we no longer refuse the hand of fellowship from those who differ with our personal scriptural interpretations and man-made traditions. That day may not come until our last earthly breath; certainly hope not!

  9. How would 2Kings 5:15-19 fit into this discussion? After Naaman is healed he confesses the God of Israel and then apologizes to Elisha because he must go serve his master in a pagan house of worship. Elisha grants him a blessing of peace. I’m certainly not suggesting that Naaman should stay in that pagan house for long (nor any contemporary of ours) but I do think that in our rush to terminate the “traditions of men” we have called upon God’s grace to forgive us moral transgressions but not doctrinal ones. Likewise we have not extended forgiveness to those who have committed what we may believe to be “doctrinal transgressions.”Perhaps in discussing this issue (Christian unity) we should refrain from using “what ifs” to determine our practice. “What ifs” have a way of becoming “you must. . .”

  10. Hi Bob,I certainly hope God will forgive doctrinal errors, since I don’t doubt that somewhere in my belief system there is a mistake.Thanks to all for the comments. Alan

  11. This article is amazingly apropos for Laura and me with our local congregation’s elders flirting yet again with the Former ICOC Unity Proposal (UP). We’ve jumped in with both feet here (coordinating the children’s ministry, doing the bookkeeping, and serving on the BOD) yet have deep conscience issues with a proposal we believe further separates us from disciples in other local fellowships.I realized that our thoughts of finding another local fellowship if we did ratify the UP was very, umm, “anti-cooperation-seeming.” Knowing our own feelings (and having observed “conscience driven” splits in the past), I also know that my own anger at the way things are handled is as large a contributor to our opinions as our conscience, and that’s not a pretty realization to come to about one’s self.OBTW – the word verification thing does not show up on my computer at home running Firefox/Linux.

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