An Exercise in Getting it Wrong: It’s about Justice, not Worship
July 5, 2012 3 Comments
In my last post, I wrote some reflections on the ways in which the traditional hermeneutical method of the Churches of Christ is unconvincing to many young adults today. I focused in that post on the case of women in ministry, and made passing reference to the case of the use of instruments in worship, and I will now use that second case to further the point. In that first post I labeled that method as “command-example-direct inference.” The general argument of Churches of Christ for choosing principled, acappella worship on Sunday mornings is that there is no example in the New Testament of Christians using instruments in their worship. (Not a bad reason, in my opinion.) So, in a desire to be like the first-century church, the vast majority of Churches of Christ do not use any instruments in worship. However, it is not uncommon for churches to go beyond this. Some deem the introduction of instruments in worship to be so unfaithful to the witness of scripture that its practice puts the salvation of such a church’s members in danger. (Now, that’s where we run into trouble.) Others believe that instruments are not just banned from Sunday worship services, but should also be excluded from anything else that occurs in a Church of Christ building (i.e., youth events, weddings, funerals, etc.). To make these kinds of arguments, that all use of instruments by the gathered community of believers is sinful, those churches often have to reach beyond the “there is no NT example” argument to discredit the overwhelming use of instruments to worship God in the Old Testament. The verse most often employed to this end is Amos 6:5-7. It reads:
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; … Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile …
The argument, it goes, is that, based on this verse, we see that God never really liked all that instrumental music in the first place. In fact, we see that the use of instruments is one of the reasons that Israel went into exile. This type of logic is what is meant by “direct inference.” We can infer this from the biblical text.
However, this is not the message of the passage AT ALL. This is an example of the weakness of the command-example-direct inference model of interpretation, and also points to the limits of all interpretations that begin by quoting various verses from across the Bible rather than the close exegesis of large portions of scripture to understand its message. Proof-texting, they call it.
Rather than being a condemnation of worship with instruments, this is a condemnation of social injustice. God is saying, through the prophet Amos, that Israel will experience exile because of its treatment of the poor and extravagant lifestyle (a message churches in the US would do well to hear!). However, by focusing on piety/worship/church structure this message is missed by the majority of American Christians (especially those in Churches of Christ). An examination of the broader context of this passage will make the point clear.
Beginning in 5:4 and 5:6 there are two admonitions to “seek the Lord and live.” Who is the prophet speaking this message to? “The house of Israel” (5:4) who “turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground!” (5:7) It becomes clearer that the sin being addressed here is the sin of social injustice in vv. 10-12. They read
10 They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and the abhor the one who speaks the truth. 11 Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. 12 For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins – you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.
Then, in vv. 14 and 15 the prophet says “Seek good and not evil, that you may live … Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate …” It is in this context that we get the first condemnation of the people’s worship due to their injustice. The prophet warns those who pray for the “day of the Lord” while “worshiping” to be careful what they ask for. The “day of the Lord” is a dreadful day for those who practice injustice, he warns. Starting in v. 18 Amos reads
18 Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light; 19 as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. 20 Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? 21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Quickly moving into chapter six, then, we pick up in 6:4:
4 Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; 5 who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; 6 who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! 7 Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.
Reading this passage in context, then, makes it clear that the passage is unconcerned with the use of instruments. Rather, God through the prophet is condemning those who live a luxurious lifestyle built upon the backs of the poor through their unjust practices. It is for that reason that God rejects their worship, not for the form of their worship with instruments. However, approaching scripture through the lens of command-example-inference for “right worship” quickly misses this point (as do many other popular strategies of interpretation).
And, read against the narrative of all of scripture (as suggested in this post), this theme becomes even clearer. Isaiah 58 says that true fasting is to seek justice, not abstain from food. Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 on two occasions (Matthew 9:13, 12:7), declaring that God desires mercy (i.e., just/loving treatment of others) over sacrifice (i.e., following ritual). In addition, Jesus calls justice one of the “weightier matters of the law” over tithing (Matthew 23:23). Finally, Jesus teaches that seeking reconciliation with others comes before offering sacrifices (i.e., worship). More could be said along these lines but the point has been made.
By approaching all of scripture with the question of “how to do church” many in the Churches of Christ have missed one of scripture’s central messages: the doing of social justice is at the heart of God’s work in the world. God is, relatively speaking, unconcerned with the form of people’s worship. Rather, God cares about the treatment of the neighbor. Another way of saying this might be, God cares more about doing the neighbor wrong (or right) than about doing God wrong (or right). However, the command-example-inference approach to scripture, focusing solely on the question of how to do/organize church, continues to miss this biblical message. I submit that any method of interpretation that has proven historically to miss this message of the Bible as robustly as Churches of Christ in the latter half of the twentieth century did is a method that needs to be abandoned.