Open Letter to the “New Testament Church…Today” committee

The other day I received in the mail a letter from a committee calling itself “New Testament Church…Today” (www.newtestamentchurchtoday.org).  The planning committee consists of 10 men from the states of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas and they recieve oversight from the Waterview Church of Christ of Richardson, Texas.  In the letter they claim to be concerned about several issues facing the “Lord’s Church” (Churches of Christ) which include instrumental music in worship.  Their stated goal is to “elevate God’s will for the church found in the pages of the New Testament.  WIthout being mean-spirited or unloving, we simply want to open the text an discover what it authorizes God’s people to believe and do.”

I appreciate their desire to refrain from being mean-spirited and unloving.  But I object to their purpose and have drafted this open letter:

Greetings “New Testament Church…Today” Committee:

 

The letter your committee recently mailed was received.  Thank you for sharing your concern.

 

I respect the concerns of addressed in the letter but I respectfully disagree.  I believe the term “Lord’s Church” being employed to describe congregations of Churches of Christ (acapella) is being used in a sectarian and unbiblical manner.  Further more, while I respect those who hold convictions against the use of instruments in Christian worship, in my judgment (which has been shaped by scripture too) this is a very minute issue.  It is indeed a minute issue within scripture and has only become a significant issue within the Churches of Christ because certain people of influence made it just that.  It saddens me that our fellowship, the Churches of Christ continues to be so focused (to the point of division) on a matter such as this as though it were the most important issue to Christian discipleship while at the same time we have historically cared less about the issues that were of greater concern to Jesus himself (justice to the poor, love for the alien, stranger, and enemy).

 

But what concerns me even more, is that a group of ten Christian men all from the southern states of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas along with the oversight of another congregation from Texas, actually believe instrumental music is an issue here in New York.  Let me share with you a little information about the congregation in which I serve as an evangelist. 

 

Most of our members have a substantial history within the Churches of Christ.  Some of us grew up in our fellowship while others belonged to another church group at one time (Methodist, Baptist, etc…).  However, we have one couple who have been members of this church for many years.  Their background has been with the Independent Christian Churches but since there are not any Independent Christian Churches nearby, they are members of this congregation.  Like many Churches of Christ, there is a diversity of viewpoints on various issues among our members.  When it comes to acapella vs. instrumental worship, some believe instruments are wrong and others do not.  However, we are an acapella congregation by choice and have no desire to adapt instruments.  Further, most if not all of the members are completely oblivious to what is taking place in a few congregations (e.g., Richland Hills CoC). 

 

What I am getting at is this: instrumental music is not an issue for us and yet the letter mailed to us by the NTCC seeks to make it an issue for us.  Why?  What is different about that than a North American member of the Churches of Christ taking a North American issue to Brazil or Italy and making it an issue there? 

 

I am aware of what is taking place in a few Churches of Christ.  Though I do not hold the conviction that instrumental music is wrong (and I have heard all of the arguments and find them to be unconvincing), I do not know enough about these particular congregations to make any judgment as to what has taken place.  But what business of that is ours to begin with? 

 

In any movement, the factors that contribute to polarization and eventual division come from many angles and many sides.  Having said that, I have heard on more than one occasion from those who oppose instrumental music that it is those who have and continue to add instruments to worship in our fellowship that are causing the division.  But I believe that polarization and division is also being pressed by those who oppose instruments and the letter mailed by the NTCC seems to be one example, as it seeks to make an issue for many churches where such an issue does not exist and then force a choice to be made on the issue – even as minute of an issue as it is. 

 

I respect your belief that instrumental worship is wrong and therefore I would never intentionally try to ask you to violate your conscience.  However, I do not see any good purpose for what the NTCC is attempting to accomplish.  Further more, I find the attempt of the NTCC to simply be another attempt of one group within the Churches of Christ to determine the beliefs and practice for everyone.

 

Thank your for reading my response to the letter mailed out by the NTCC.  Please accept it in Christian love.

 

Grace and peace,

K. Rex Butts

I love the fellowship of Churches of Christ and I confess that I would most likely not be a Christian if it were not for this fellowship.  As a group of autonomous congregations, I pray that we would learn to spend more energy focusing on those things that matter most to the Lord (e.g., Micah 6.8; Matthew 5.1-11, 2 Corinthians 5.16-18, to name a few) and less energy on issues where there is not even unanimous agreement that such issue is an issue of scripture.

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9 responses to “Open Letter to the “New Testament Church…Today” committee

  1. “autonomous congregations” – Now there is a biblical concept that if people would really follow we wouldn’t have all these problems.

  2. 1 COrinthians 1:10- Now I plead with you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement. IT DOES MATTER, NO REGARDS TO HOW BIG OR SMALL THE ISSUE IS!

  3. Matt,

    Yes. For a movement that claims to be a collection of autonomous congregations, we shure do not know much of what that word ‘autonomous’ means.

    AZ,

    Thanks for the comment. When you learn to read the verse you proof-text within it own context as well as the larger context of the apostle Paul’s thinking you will learn that unity and uniformity are not the same. Paul is calling for unity and that unity is based in Jesus not a doctrinal construct of what the church is supposed to be. Further, the unity Paul is dealing with in the Corinthian church is related to the social aspects of the Christian community.

    Again, thanks for commenting.

    Rex

  4. Well said, Rex. In my conversations with people of other faiths and non-believers, I have never had the use of instruments come up.

  5. Rex,

    Good letter. I look at the horrors going on around the world, even the “manageable” ones that churches could actually do something about, and wonder why some people obsess on topics like this.

    My experience is probably fairly unique. I was raised Catholic, baptized while attending an independent Christian Churches Bible College and then went to Harding. I graduated from HSBS and the very next day was ordained by the elders of a Christian Church into the work/role of evangelist. I then served in Brazil in planting a cappella congregations with support from independent (instrumental) churches in the United States. I now work bivocationally with a Brazilian church in New Jersey, and one of my former supporting churches has become the “living link” church for my brother-in-law in Brazil. He’s a Brazilian missionary leading a non-instrumental church. “The instrument” simply isn’t an issue.

    One church can be instrumental and another one not. For those who believe silence can constitute an actual command this is an unacceptable stance, and I understand that. In whatever church I serve, though, I want to go for the catholic (universal) position without falling into a watered-down least-common-denominator rut.

    Sorry, long comment. :-/

  6. Adam,

    Thanks for the comment. Your experience is valuable to this conversation.

    I think you are right to say that one churhc can exist w/ instruments and another w/out instruments — and there be no division between the two. I hear some of those who oppose instruments accusing those with instruments (or adding them) as being responsible for division. But I do not hear any church with an instrument shouting out “accept the instrument or disfellowship/be disfellowshipped.” However, I do hear those who accuse the instrument church of division demanding that they either abandoned the instrument or be disfellowshipped. Who is doing the dividing?

    Rex

  7. Hey Rex, I’m in agreement with your letter.

    I really wish people would drop this issue. I’ve actually heard of prominant congregations pulling support from African missionaries in the field because they found out there a drum was present during a worship service.

  8. Rex you said ” AZ,

    Thanks for the comment. When you learn to read the verse you proof-text within it own context as well as the larger context of the apostle Paul’s thinking you will learn that unity and uniformity are not the same. Paul is calling for unity and that unity is based in Jesus not a doctrinal construct of what the church is supposed to be. Further, the unity Paul is dealing with in the Corinthian church is related to the social aspects of the Christian community.

    Again, thanks for commenting.

    Rex”

    A couple questions…

    First, you say that unity and uniformity are not the same in Paul’s thinking. Can you please enlighten on how the context and larger context of Paul’s thinking shows this. Could you please define unity and uniformity as well?

    Second, you say that the unity is based in Jesus not a doctrinal construct of what the church is supposed to be. Could you please explain to me how you arrive at Jesus without doctrine? And does Jesus exclude a doctrinal construct of the church? Is Jesus happy with accepting Him and dismissing his construct of His church? Is His church only relational in nature? How do you arrive at any relationship without covenant construction, or as many want to call it today “institutionalism?”

    Third, you say the unity Paul is dealing with is only related to social aspects. If this is the case, how did Paul bring about social unity? And how would Paul addressing social unity mean that the teachings on the structure of the church and her worship do not matter? Are you insisting that Paul was concerned about social welfare, but he did not care about the doctrine of the church and worship?

    Thank You,
    Caleb

  9. Caleb,

    To ansdwer your first question… Unity is the idea that we are all the same, one family, one body. Uniformity is the idea that we all do the same things in the same exact manner. Paul allowed for certain Christians, out of their convictions, to abstain from certain foods or consider certain days as more sacred than other days (see Rom 14). Yet Paul did not insist that all Christians abstain from certain meats or regard certain days as holy. The point is that there was not a uniform practice, yet Paul’s teaching in Romans 14 is given in order to bring unity while not forcing uniformity.

    Second question… Jesus clearly gives teaching that his followers are called to live by and to which we can read about in scripture. I never denied this fact. What I reject is this idea that the New Testament contains a neatly constructed pattern for church structure. I was always taught growing up that God gave Noah a specific pattern for constructing the Ark (which God did do) and just as with Noah, God has given us a specific pattern for the church. The problem is that God aparently forgot to lay it out in a neat systematic order like he did for Noah, thus leaving us to decide what that system is (which has resulted in a very selective use of proof-texting verse -often completely out of context-to defend the so-called pattern). As far as the church being bound to a covenant… Yes it is, it is called the New Covenant, a covenant by the blood of Jesus not a new set of laws. In fact, even though the CoC has a history of using the phrase “Law of Christ” to describe the doctrine of the church, the phrase “Law of Christ” only occurs in Gal 6.2 where it is talking about carrying the burdens of others (and strangly enough… considering the message of Galatians it is interesting that for some, the New Testament has been turned into just another Law with little, if any, grace).

    Third question… Paul’s concern was the integrity of the gospel. Division destroys the integrity of the gospel. Rather than the Corinthian Christian being one people shaped by Jesus and his cross, they are people who are exalting self based on who baptized them. They have taken the communion meal, a meal intended to represent their comm-unity, and allowed the wealthy to eat first and leave nothing for the poor . They are suing one another in a court of law rather than sacrificing their own rights to serve each other. They are also using spiritual gifts (e.g., tongues and prophesy) to exalt themselves again rather than using these God given gifts to serve the assembly. Threaded through all of their problems is the self-centered focus which is a complete contradiction to the gospel of Jesus whereby Jesus becomes the self-sacrificial servant. This is more of a social problem than theological (but theological in the sense that they have failed to understand one of the fundamental tenants of the gospel). Paul’s solution is remind them of how the gospel of Jesus calls us to live self-sacrificial lives charaterized by servanthood. This is threaded throughout First Corinthians. Even though in 1 Cor Paul does lay some specific rules down it is an open question as to whether these rules were meant only for the Corinthian church or were they meant to be universal rules. Interstlingly, in the book of Philippians, the church their is dealing with a similar problem (though probably not manifested in so many abhorant ways as with the Corinthian church. But in Philippians, Paul does not lay out any specific instructions for resolving the problem (as he does in Corinth). Rather, Paul tells them to work out their own salvation.

    _____________

    As far a context goes when interpreting the Bible… The meaning of every word is shaped its context. For example… If a Military drill instructor instructs a soldier to “run to the chow hall”, it most likely means that the soldier should literally run as fast as possible. On the other hand, if I say to someone “run to the store and buy me some bread” I am not literally limiting the word “run” to one specific use. Thus the person would be free to walk, drive a car, jog, etc… whatever is the most expedient. That is how language works. We do not isolate a single word, remove it from its context, then define it without any context, and then reinsert it back into its original context but continue to force the contextualess meaning upon that word.

    Further more, context will also tell you about the situation or problem. For example… If I talk about a person who refuses tolisten to the drill instructor command “run to the chow hall” then the context informs you that the instructor literally means to run (not walk, jog, etc…) But if I say that someone has a problem running to buy me milk at the store and in the context you notice that I point out that their problem is a car that will not start, then the context informs you that I probably did not have a literal definition in mind when I used the word “run.”

    So when we come to a passage like Ephesians 5.19 where the word ‘psallo’ (Gk. to sing) is used. We ask, what does that word mean? What was Paul trying to accomplish by using that word? From the context, we learn that style of worship (acapella vs. instrumental) was not the issue. Paul has just finished a section where he has reminded the church that they no longer belong to the darkness and therefore they must live as people who have overcome the darkness. The context seems to suggest that Paul is encouraging them to sing as a way of building each other up in their faith so that they can live as people who have overcome darkness. Even though by the first century the word ‘psallo’ meant to sing without instruments in many circles, Paul is not addressing the issue of whether or not instrumental worship is appropriate and therefore to make the passage imply that Paul is commanding a prohibition against instrumental worship is to make the passage say something more than it is saying.

    Please do not misunderstand me. While I do not believe the New Testament can be used to prohibit instrumental music, neither do I believe those who worship with instruments can textually support their choice within the New Testament. Assuming that the New Testament neither includes or precludes the use of instruments in worship, I believe it would be possible to build a case for instruments on missiological grounds but that is a completely different discussion.

    All of this is an exercise that assumes a lot of extra hermeneutical priniciples be placed upon the New Testament. For one, I do not hold the view that the New Testament is to be read as a constituional law regarding the structure of the church. Nor are we called to follow the church of the first century (or any historic period of the church). We are called to follow Jesus and live out his life. By reading the New Testament we learn how others struggled to live out the life of Jesus and thus gain insight as to how we should live out the life of Jesus. But the actuall living out the life of Jesus will be manifested in different manners (as it already is) given our different cultural contexts. For example, the first century context is one where Christians have no political freedom. Our context does have political freedom.

    I hope I addressed your questions. Whether you agree or not, I hope you understand more clearly what I mean.

    That is all for me on this post.

    Rex

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