A cappella singing in Mennonite worship services:
a good way, but not the only way

This essay is primarily a response to the article "A Cappella Singing" by Leland M. Haines. That article is part of the "Bible Views" web site, which is an attempt to rationalize Mennonite/Anabaptist practices with biblical support.

I believe the reasoning in Haines' article to be severely flawed. The article seems to be grasping for support of a merely traditional preference in practice; the logic of the argument is faulty, and the biblical evidence cited is selective. Therefore, the article is unconvincing, and not as biblical as it claims to be.

Here is my attempt to demonstrate what is wrong with this apparent attitude that "a cappella singing is the only truly biblical way":

Note: beginning in July 2000 Mr. Haines has been revising his article in response to my essay here. The link here is to the version that was available when I wrote mine; that copy in turn has a link to his newest version.


Introduction

Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament!
Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his exceeding greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with timbrel and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the LORD! Praise the LORD!
- Psalm 150, RSV

The psalm quoted here makes it clear that (at least at the time when the psalm was written) God's people are to praise God with whatever they've got, including instruments. The instruments can enhance the experience of praising God.

My background, preferences, and practical experience

My own personal preference as a musician is for a cappella (i.e. unaccompanied) singing where it's feasible, i.e. where it can be done with appropriate congregational involvement and expression of the meaning of the song, and in songs that are written to be complete enough without accompaniment. From my more than 30 years of experience with it, I believe there is something special and spiritual that takes place when a group of believers sings together, and a cappella singing is one good way to do that.

On the other hand, there are plenty of occasions when an instrument can help the congregation participate more spiritedly in the singing, rather than sticking to an arbitrarily restrictive demand that everything be a cappella. It depends on the occasion, the resources, the room, and of course the music itself.

I have led congregational singing in Mennonite and non-Mennonite churches for almost 20 years. At the time when I began to lead the music, as one among several volunteer leaders, the singing of that congregation was almost exclusively a cappella. This practice was pretty much "the way it's always been done" and not open for much debate. That is, it was a (mostly unspoken) congregational preference.

At several times in my career I have served as a professional organist for non-Mennonite congregations (and I have a doctorate in keyboard performance). As part of that employment, I also led hymns with piano or harpsichord, and brought occasional a cappella practice where it had not been before. Bringing this experience back to a Mennonite congregation, I can see the value in leading some of the music with instruments and some without, trying to find a healthy balance that encourages good participatory singing by the congregation. I believe that it is not necessary to have an organ or piano on every hymn, just as it is not necessary to sing only unaccompanied.

Today I am a member of a Mennonite congregation that uses a mixture of unaccompanied and accompanied singing1. In this congregation no one is paid for musical leadership2. Some of the volunteer songleaders use instruments occasionally; others never do. The decision seems to be tied to the preferences and abilities of the songleaders.

The songs are always of course chosen for their appropriateness to the focus of the church service. That is, the pastors and other worship leaders for the particular day confer with the songleader to select the resources for that particular occasion. Then after each particular song is chosen, the best way to lead it is determined and arranged. For each individual song, I choose to lead it a cappella or accompanied depending on an assessment of the resources present, and experience in knowing which songs the congregation will sing with better commitment and involvement either way. It can be different from one occasion to the next.

Each song has to be re-examined every time to determine the best way of leading it for the group present: speed, emphasis, a spoken or musical introduction, whether or not to stand, whether or not to use instruments, etc. It depends on the orderly flow of the worship service, fitting into (and sometimes changing) the mood that is appropriate at the time, and moving the service forward as a meaningful experience.

I see an effective worship service as a dramatic participatory event: every element is there for some compelling reason in the congregation's worship of God and focus on a theme. Good leadership encourages active participation, not a passive "entertain me" attitude.

What's wrong with Haines' "a cappella only" reasoning?

Let us now look more closely at the Haines article (click to bring it up in a second window). As I mentioned above, I believe his logic is flawed and his biblical evidence is too selective.

Haines cites more than a dozen Old Testament references showing that instruments were used. (He omits mention of Psalm 150, but I can't offer any conjecture why he does so; I don't consider it valid to draw too many conclusions from anything a person did not say.)

He then goes on to point out, "we have no record of their use in the New Testament church. If instruments were to be used in the church, they surely would have been mentioned in the New Testament."

This line of reasoning is unconvincing because it is based on faulty logic. Here is a simple example to show why:

We have no record from the New Testament to tell us whether Jesus and the early church trimmed their toenails or not. The New Testament doesn't say anything about toenails. We can't say one way or the other that based on the New Testament's silence, trimming them (or NOT trimming them) is either right or wrong. We can certainly develop a preference about it, whether it's the preference of Menno Simons or any other person, and somebody can even make this issue into a necessary part of a religion if they would want to. But it can't be claimed that such a preference is biblically based on anything the New Testament neglected to say.

(Anyone could just as easily assert, using Haines' argument, "If toenails were to be allowed to grow as long as possible in the church, they surely would have been mentioned in the New Testament." Since that is obviously an unsound conclusion, this argument against instruments is equally unsound because it uses the same logic.)

Just to be clear, let's restate this as a principle: if the New Testament is silent about prescribing or forbidding practice on some issue, no conclusions about that issue can be drawn one way or the other based only on that silence. Haines' argument here is not valid because no one can reasonably claim a biblical position based on silence. Silence is neutral.

The only thing we can reasonably conclude from the silence is that use of instruments (or not) likely wasn't important enough an issue to have warranted explicit attention or mention, one way or the other. It doesn't divide the faithful from the unfaithful, in the recorded views of either Jesus or the early Christian church. There were and are more important priorities than quibbling whether instruments may be used or must not be used.

If we agree that it's crucial to refer to the Bible in developing our practices of faith and worship, let's refer to it honestly and not ascribe to it things it doesn't say.

Since the New Testament says nothing about it, what next?

It seems to me quite obvious that, since the New Testament neither recommends nor forbids use of instruments, we should turn most naturally to the next best source, i.e. the Old Testament, for guidance. Jesus considered this material as holy scripture, worthy of consultation and use. The Old Testament clearly demonstrates the use of instruments in praising God. Therefore, I see no problem with the use of instruments today when they enhance the congregation's praise of God.

This biblical evidence from the Old Testament (Haines' citations, plus Psalm 150) is clearly more in favor of instruments than against instruments! This cannot be explained away by the New Testament's silence.

Machines?

In another weak point of his argument, Haines asserts that "Mechanical machines are not of the Spirit" but he doesn't offer any scriptural basis for this assertion. Is there any? Do Mennonites ride in "mechanical machines" (sic) for practical transportation? Certainly, whether the choice is a horse-drawn buggy or a van or a car or a train.

Why should there be any distinction between the use of machines during the worship service and the use of machines outside the worship service? Machines are neutral, merely tools. The relevant issue is: what are the machines used to accomplish? Do they help us in our experience of God, or don't they? As Psalm 150 and the other Old Testament passages illustrate, instruments can be effective aids in the worship of God. There is no biblical reason to ban them just because they are mechanical!

Again, Haines seems to be arguing here simply a preference against certain mechanical devices (tools), not a biblically-based point of doctrine. His argument is essentially as convincing as an argument against a ball-point pen would be. A ball-point pen is an innovative mechanical device. Some people prefer to use them, some don't. Some Mennonites use electricity, some don't. Some Mennonites use automobiles, some don't. Some Mennonites use musical instruments, some don't. All these are preferences that can't be argued from biblical evidence, since all these things (except a few of the specific instruments mentioned in the Old Testament) were invented long after biblical times. The Bible obviously doesn't say anything about a piano, or a tuning fork, or a pitch pipe.

Conclusion: practicality

Are musical instruments recommended or forbidden in the New Testament? No. Are they sometimes used today for practical reasons? Yes.

Is toenail trimming recommended or forbidden in the New Testament? No. Is it sometimes done today for practical reasons? Yes.

Is use of a reflective triangle on a buggy recommended or forbidden in the New Testament? No. Is it sometimes done today for practical reasons? Yes. (And in some places it's law.)

Are any of these issues dividing points of faith, separating the faithful from the unfaithful? Not for any type of faith that claims to be based only on the New Testament!

Unaccompanied singing can be good, but so can accompanied singing. I consider that both ways are valid in Christian churches, including Mennonite churches.

There might of course be plenty of valid reasons why a congregation would prefer not to have any instruments (and some of these are mentioned by Haines):

I am merely saying here that it cannot be claimed these are directly biblical reasons to avoid instruments (as Haines' article attempts to provide). It is a preference or a tradition.

How should instruments be used?

I believe that the instrument(s) should be used with the congregational singing only to enhance the singing and help the congregation to praise God more intensely than they would do without it. An instrument should help to give a clearer spiritual focus, and more committed participation, in the song being sung. If instead it starts to replace the singing or distract from the singing, it's going too far. (The instrument should of course be played by someone who has the gift and skill to be able to do so, competently and in a spirit of serving God in the congregation's need.)

So, if done well, I believe it's perfectly fine to worship God in singing either unaccompanied or accompanied: whichever way the congregation can best spiritually participate in a particular song on a particular occasion, given the resources available, that's the way to do it. The words should be sung expressively, with attention to meaning and spirit.

God deserves our best and most sincere efforts in the participatory music, not any lackluster unmusical drudgery, and not a slavish adherence to restrictive rules that somebody made up from the New Testament's silence on an issue.

- Bradley Lehman, June 2000

See also my hymns....

hits since June 2000


1 Most of our music is from the current Hymnal: A Worship Book (1992) and its supplementary subscription series, plus The Mennonite Hymnal (1969). These are the books in (relatively) standard use by the Mennonite Church (MC) and General Conference Mennonite Church (GC). They include a mixture of older American and European hymns, a considerable number of 20th century selections, and some "cross-cultural" material. I am very well acquainted with both these books, having grown up with the MH and having compiled a complete concordance of the texts in HWB. HWB includes six of my compositions.

I am aware that some more conservative and plain groups regard the above hymnals as too "liberal" or controversial (mostly for reasons of language). They choose instead to stick to older hymnals such as Life Songs #2, the Church Hymnal (1927), Songs of the Church (1953), or The Christian Hymnary (1972). And other books currently in use by some Mennonite-related groups include The Philharmonia (1875), Mennonite Hymns (1990 - words only), and The Harmonia Sacra (many editions; current). In all these more conservative books, the hymnody tends to be based heavily on 18th-19th century mainstream fundamentalist theology and language.

A group's songs of course both reflect and directly influence the way the people experience their faith. Songs used in worship services become an active part of people's thought processes and reasoning habits, just as memorized Bible passages do. If church members grow up with 19th century fundamentalist songs and fundamentalist methods of interpreting the Bible, they will build their faith on those principles. If instead they grow up with more modern language, interpretive styles, and hymnody, the 19th century attitudes of the conservative groups will seem by comparison quite foreign, antiquated, and restrictive (as they do to me).

2 Yes, it is difficult to be a professionally-trained musician in a church that is not willing to pay for musical contributions. A running question of ironic humor in Mennonite colleges is: "Why do we offer an organ major when there is not much place for paid organists within the Mennonite church? They have to leave the Mennonite church to get a job!" Some Mennonites are also reluctant to pay the pastoral staff for the professional levels of the requires duties. That is not a main point of this essay, however.

3 Personally I find this "avoid modernity" system of attitudes and lifestyle to be an odd mixture theologically, though it is still quite common among some Mennonite branches. It appears to be an example of American fundamentalism applied on top of a set of 16th-century Reformation practices. The result is apparently a prohibitive set of strict doctrines, based on 450-year-old issues. The Bible is held in high regard, which is fine, but it is interpreted through cultural biases and attitudes of several centuries ago.

As noted above in footnote 1, the hymnody also avoids 20th century language, ideas, and styles. This too affects the members' theological attitudes, preserving a fundamentalist bias. People learn to sing what they believe, and learn to believe what they sing.

Particularly extreme examples of this radically fundamentalist and conservative lifestyle are at several web sites: "Mennonitica" (which is especially intolerant), Anabaptists.org, and of course Bibleviews.com itself. On the evidence of these materials, faithful Christians are apparently to live as if we are not yet in the 20th or 21st century, but the 16th to 19th. Emphasis is on separatism and distinctiveness from the world, to avoid its evil influences. These small groups tend to view the Mennonite Church (MC) and the General Conference Mennonite Church (GC) with suspicion, and as "too worldly." (I have neighbors and relatives who still hold some of these attitudes and lifestyles, or who are gradually emerging from them.)

I cannot understand the theological appeal of this system, unless perhaps it offers a comforting sense of self-assurance (proud confidence in "being right" and in being supposedly biblical) and traditional organization (a self-perpetuating power structure where everyone has a predefined role). The emphasis seems to be on preservation of doctrinal "truth" (i.e., favored traditions, whether biblical or not) rather than encouragement of questions, skepticism, or scholarship. The lack of feminine equality is also especially dismaying: here too the attitudes seem deeply mired in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Overall I respect the strength of the demonstrated "plain" convictions, as it appears to be an orderly system and the faith is evidently genuine. But I personally believe that Christians should live in the present, engaging it rather than avoiding it. It is possible to be a Christian and a Mennonite without a plain lifestyle or a fundamentalist view. However, the present essay about music is not the place to debate conservative fundamentalism among Mennonites.


After writing my above essay, I have found another interesting perspective on another web site. It too is a position paper examining the biblical basis of musical preferences and practices, but it is much more thorough and convincing than the Haines article. In this case, the author (Samuele Bacchiocchi) is arguing against the use of rock music in church, and from a perspective of Seventh-Day Adventist theology. Like me, this author recommends that any instruments should support the congregational singing without drowning it out (even though in his denomination, a cappella is not much of an option). His web site includes a newsletter version and a book version from The Christian and Rock Music: A Study on Biblical Principles of Music.