APOSTOLIC PRECEDENT AND MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Saturday, November 6, 2010 at 12:06pm
QUESTION: Regarding NT teaching on church worship, I have a question about how apostolic precedent relates to singing praises as an act of public worship. Regarding apostolic precedent, you have said, “Since the apostles were the primary authoritative teachers in the early church, we accept the practice of these acts of worship [‘musical praise, prayer, the Lord’s Supper, and giving’], as perpetually binding upon the church by the authority of apostolic precedent” (Cottrell, The Faith Once for All, pp. 449-450). Now, most church music scholars grant that the apostles and the early church sang a cappella in a world where instruments abounded. So, if you agree that the apostolic church sang a cappella, why do you believe a cappella singing is NOT
perpetually binding upon the church by the authority of apostolic precedent?
ANSWER: This is a very perceptive question. I see apostolic precedent as inherent in the essence of the apostolic task and apostolic authority. Jesus appointed the apostles to carry out the task of establishing the church. The church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20, ESV). The prophets in this case are the NT prophets (Eph. 3:5), who along with the apostles were recipients of new revelation for this NT era. Jesus specifically promised the apostles that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth necessary for their tasks (John 16:12-13). The gift of apostles is of first importance in the church (1 Cor. 12:28). In addition to being able to give authoritative teaching from God, they exercised a general authoritative leadership in all matters regarding the church.
This general authoritative leadership applies not only to the apostles’ specific teachings as recorded in the Bible. It also applies to early church practices that are recorded in the Bible (especially Acts) that obviously have the approval of the apostles, and which would appear to have been the result of apostolic teachings given orally to the early church but not specifically recorded in Scripture. Such practices are regarded as authoritative, on the basis on this concept of “apostolic precedent.” I.e., the precedent set by the early church, under the guidance of the apostles, is authoritative for our current way of “being the church.”
One aspect of apostolic precedence that must be emphasized, however, is its connection with Biblical authority. I.e., if the apostles instructed the early church regarding a practice that was intended to be perpetual in the church, we must conclude that the Bible will have recorded that precedent. If nothing is mentioned in the Bible one way or the other about a particular activity, then we have no basis for assuming that the rule of apostolic precedent applies to it. If something is specifically mentioned, though, I take that as “precedential” (to coin a word). This would apply, e.g., to the specification of the first day of the week as the time for gathering to take the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7). But if nothing at all is mentioned about an activity, either as practiced or as omitted, there is no precedent either way. This is the essence of silence. “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” I.e., we cannot insert a rule where the Bible has none.
This would apply to a host of things, including the use of a musical instrument in worship, plus just about everything I am aware of that is used in the a cappella world as a basis of division. In my judgment, on the one hand, since the NT is silent about whether the early church used instruments in their musical worship, we cannot say one way or the other if they did or not. It is a fallacy to declare that they did not, in view of the fact that it is not mentioned specifically either way. But on the other hand, even if we assume that the early church did NOT use instruments in their musical worship, we still cannot apply the rule of apostolic precedent in this case since such omission is not specifically mentioned in the Biblical records. I.e., there is no text that says or implies, “The Christians in Antioch [or wherever] sang worship songs without using an instrument.” As an analogy, there is no text that says or implies, “The Christians in Antioch did not sit down- while singing worship songs.” If nothing is said about a practice one way or the other, it is wrong (in more ways than one) to try to apply apostolic precedent to it.
I have pointed out elsewhere that there is actually no clear NT reference to a Christian assembly engaged in congregational singing, either by command or by example. Most texts that mention singing, e.g., Eph. 5:19; Heb. 13:15; Acts 16:25, do not clearly refer to an assembly. The only text that clearly connects musical praise with an assembly is 1 Cor. 14:26, but this does not seem to refer to congregational singing. This probably includes 1 Cor. 14:15 also.