Rejecting the Church and Secular Instruments?

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Josh Claybourn and co. at In the Agora have brought in a new blogger, Seth Zirkle. Along with Jollyblogger, who gets the tip of the hat on this one, I very much appreciate Seth's call to recognize the importance of the local church in a time when there's a serious fad to abandon it on grounds that are downright contradictory, i.e. a pretense that someone can be a Christian without being part of the church, which defies the very definition of the church. The church is manifested locally, and each local body is the church. Thus rejecting what is sometimes called the organized church is rejecting God's people as a whole. [For more on this, including more careful support of the fundamental premise, see my Organized Religion and the Church from two years ago.]

For similar reasons, I have an extremely strong presumption against leaving a local body except for reasons of serious heresy or immorality among the leadership, and even then only when the church as a whole refuses to confront that issue or the relevant people. Of course if you are leaving the area and wouldn't be present to attend your local congregation's meetings, it's a pretty good idea to commit to a different congregation. For reasons other than those sorts of things, leaving a local body is tantamount leaving the church, even if where you end up is also the church. What you left was the church, fully the church, and not just a part of the church. The New Testament knows nothing of local bodies that are just part of the church, and what you do to any local body you therefore do to the church. For these reasons, I greatly appreciated the main point of Seth's post.

Yet there's this one line that sort of spoils it for me. One of his points is that no local congregation is perfect. It's hard to find a local congregation that teaches the Bible rather than just giving topical sermons. In the same breath, Seth also says that it's hard to find a local congregation that avoids "secular instruments, such as pianos, guitars, and drums". If I hadn't been warned by Jollyblogger, I would have been stopped in my tracks.

I can think of a lot of questions that might be important to ask when looking around for a congregation in an area you just moved into. You could ask if this congregation is fulfilling the purpose of the church. You could ask if the word of God is being preached. You could ask if people are worshiping God with daily lives that honor God and then also when they come together in corporate worship. You could ask if it is a praying church. You could ask how carefully they think about important truths and important matters of praxis. You could ask if they are meeting each other's needs and then reaching out to the community. Perhaps more important even than some of these is what sort of giftings you have that you can bring to the congregation that they lack, and it's also a pretty good idea to try to restrict yourself to congregations that are close enough to where you'll be living that you can be part of the community life of the congregation and not just a Sunday commuter. There are all sorts of things you could ask, and I'm not opposed to asking any questions like those if you're newly arrived in an area and looking for a congregation.

But what instruments the congregation uses for its public worship just doesn't seem to me to be even on the list, never mind so high that stands up at the top with whether they preach the gospel. One of my most important criteria is how fully they teach the Bible (meaning how much of the Bible they teach and not just how well and how carefully they teach it). Even that isn't up there with whether they preach the gospel. Yet Seth holds preaching the gospel in parallel with whether secular instruments are used, as if to suggest that one of the biggest failings of the church today, on the level of those that don't preach the gospel, is the proliferation of secular instruments.

Now I can't figure out what the term 'secular instruments' is even supposed to mean in the Christian era. It seems to me to assume that some things in creation are secular and other things sacred. The problem with that is that he sacred is no longer located since Christ. The sacred has expanded to all things and all places, wherever Christ is in his people. There isn't one place or set of implements that could count as holy, as there was with the tabernacle and temple in ancient Israel. [Again, I refer you to another post of mine for the detailed support for this premise, in this case Scripture and Worship from a little over a year and a half ago.] God's people are sacred, and our work for the Lord is sacred, including the tools we use.

But even if the notion made sense, this would not be a reason to consider the issue of secular instruments on par with the issue of preaching the gospel. Seth makes the point that even banal music with secular instruments has the sacred present in it, which I assume is just shorthand for saying that someone can worship God by using boring music and rock instruments. But he's already undermined that point by acting as if this sort of thing is on the level of the gospel and above most of the items on the list I just gave. I'm sure he didn't intend to give that impression, but the way the post says it gives that impression, even if it wasn't intentional, and that detracts from the very point of the post.

I wonder if this kind of incredible pickiness really assumes the same premises of the church hoppers he's complaining about. Seth does resist their conclusion. That's what I really liked about what he was saying. But what about the assumptions that undergird that conclusion? I don't think what makes church hopping is bad is the effect that people hop around. That's not a good effect, but what really seems counterproductive about the church hopping mentality is just the bickering, complaining attitude that fosters it. I really like my current congregation, but I have to keep reminding myself that other congregations that don't do what we do are equally the church and deserve the same respect and love that I would extend to my own congregation. You can refrain from hopping around from church to church and be officially committed to one congregation that you constantly complain about. You can refrain from hopping around from church to church and be committed to one that you love, all the while complaining about the others.

Now I don't know Seth, so I don't know if he does this. It's not easy not to do it, and if he avoids it maybe I need to ask him some advice. It's something I do way too often. I'm not commenting on him but on what the post says. It says something I think is excellent, and it also contains an offhand comment whose motivation structure involves something that undermines the basis of what I like in the post. That gives the post the appearance of inconsistency at the foundations. I think that undermines his main point, and that disappoints me enough to offer this response from someone who really likes what Seth was wanting to say.

10 Comments

I agree, Jeremy. Perhaps you could expand on other rational reasons for changing a local church membership. Are there more than "heresy" or "immorality"? I'm thinking of doctrinal diffences that are significant, but not heretical. Any thoughts?

I'm actually a hardliner even on most doctrinal issues. If I moved into an area where there were only a few churches, one with serious doctrinal differences (e.g. Roman Catholic) and the other with much more minor ones (e.g. Presbyterian on baptism or Pentecostal to the point of thinking all real believers will speak in tongues), then I would favor ones closer to what I think is correct. But then what if another church got started that was much closer to what I believe? Should I think that I should just move around whenever I see a church that better fits my views?

I suppose it partly depends on how important those views are. If they relate closely enough to the gospel, that's one thing. If it's just a matter of philosophy of ministry, I'd have a great deal of difficulty thinking of it as a justification to leave.

I think it would be wrong to leave a church over their views on women preaching or leading a Bible study, for instance. That's an important question about how a congregation's ministry will look, and I have a fairly well-defined view on what I think the answer should look like. But I will submit to the authority of my congregation's leadership if they end up with a different view than I have, even if my initial commitment to the congregation was when they had a view closer to mine.

I'm sort of an optimist about being able to have congregations where people will represent different positions on eschatology (dispensationalism, amillenialism, historic premillenialism, etc.), women's roles in ministry (complementarianism and egalitarianism), charismatic issues (e.g. cessationism, various views on the practice of various gifts), the extent of God's sovereignty in human salvation (i.e. Calvinism, Arminianism, etc.), baptism (paedobaptism, credobaptism), and so on. I see no obstacle to having a leadership with well-defined views on how the congregation will work but in which members disagree on how to intepret some of what they're doing, and sometimes options are allowable (baptism or baby dedication according to the parents' convictions).

We can't shoot for such a representation of the diversity in the church if our manifestations of the church are divided according to non-central issues that need not divide. That makes it hard for me to think it's ok to leave a congregation on grounds that I don't think need to cause division.

I believe it IS possible to draw some other pictures of "sacred and secular" within the NT age (e.g. sacred being things which are set apart for use in worship), but I can't make any sense out his use of those terms either. Wouldn't "secular instruments" then also include plumbing, artificial lighting, concrete floors, carpet, or just about anything else contained in a church building?

Even if we take "instruments" in the restricted musical sense, does he propose using instruments named in the Bible? Ram's horns? Isn't a guitar in principle about the same as the ten-stringed lyre?

Puzzling indeed.

He says he didn't mean it the way anyone who criticized him took it. Look at his comment on Jollyblogger's post. I'm nowhere closer to understanding what he did mean after reading that, though.

Thanks for the response, Jeremy. As a Seventh-day Adventist pastor I frequently have to address such issues. I can't say I share your optimism across such a diverse range, but I fully agree with unity in diversity as a bedrock principle of fellowship and have enjoyed a close fellowship with Christians who do not share all of my own beliefs.

I'm wondering how a pastor would lead his church in missions, i.e. Matt.28.19-20? How much diverstiy will the "great commision" stand? Certainly, there must be some, but there must come a point when the definition of discipleship becomes strained?

The optimism comes from two sources: (1) I've seen it happen, and (2) it's the correct approach, as witnessed by the diversity within the NT church in any given location.

As I said, preaching the gospel is central. Any church not preaching the gospel has a leadership who is in gross sin. That goes in the other category. You can have people who all consider the gospel central who differ on side issues who are all willing to work together. I've experienced this in several different settings, so I know it can happen. It depends entirely on the willingness of the people involved.

I agree that the gospel is central. It is the gospel itself that creates offense within fellowships, as well as peace. The word of the cross crucifies cheap grace in the very act of proclaiming free grace, for faith establishes the law, excluding all grounds for boasting in human achievement. The gospel, like Jesus whom it proclaims, is the most severe of all dividers between belief and unbelief.

When you say serious heresy are you saying something that's been judged as such in councils or something that you perceive as against the very fundamentals of our belief ie: Jesus is God; Jesus literally died and rose again, etc.?

I mean the basic fundamentals that the scriptural authors themselves showed concern for.

I don't mean nitpicky little things that depend on which of several dozen things you could mean by the word 'nature'. Most of the credal formulations that people have debated depend on things like that, and I have no concern at all for the fine details of philosophical positions that take so long to formulate that it's hard to tell what the person is even saying.

It’s funny: the Plymouth Brethren (who don’t call ourselves that) don’t really listen to the creeds and argue about them but we sure have our own unwritten creeds on things to the point that we go off and divide over minutiae of practice. It’s said that God is in the details but division is in our choice of color.

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