Category Archives: worship

J. M. Barnes on singing and unity

Justus McDuffie Barnes (1836–1913)

Justus McDuffie Barnes (1836–1913)

In July 1896, J. M. Barnes embarked on a month-long preaching tour through the State of Texas, documenting his travels in a series of articles in the Firm Foundation. Barnes was, without question, the leading conservative in Alabama during the years between the close of the Civil War and his own death in the spring of 1913. But he also travelled extensively, and was a regular writer for, among others, the Gospel Advocate and Benjamin Franklin’s American Christian Review.

This is an illuminating series for, among other things, its insights into congregational life in the 1890s. Beginning on the first Sunday in August, Barnes recounts that he preached a ten-days’ meeting at the Pearl and Bryan Streets church in Dallas, “in some respects the most remarkable body in my whole knowledge.”

Barnes is blunt over the course of several articles as he describes the state of Pearl and Bryan’s eldership. These men, he says, are elders, but not bishops in the New Testament sense of the word—and he goes on to say why. Then he comes to the singing. Here is what he says:

After the first discourse I asked, as a special favor, to allow me to lead the singing during my stay. This was granted. I insisted that no people should offer to God a sorry thing. God had shown that he was choice in His sacrifices by refusing to accept of those with blemishes or those deficient in any way. Man had to take trouble in the days of the Aaronic priesthood to find an offering to please God; so they do now. He requires the fruits of our lips. Heb. 13:15. He demands singing, or what is the same, commands it. 1 Cor. 14:26, Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16. He wants the very best you can give. I told the brethren at Dallas I would not have their singing, and I was satisfied God would not. I am satisfied that the devil laughs heartily at most of the singing offered to the Lord. God is not going to take your old singing unless it is the best that you can give and the best that you can prepare to give. Theatre people may sing to the devil, but they do it so as to like it themselves and make others do so, too. Not many churches sing, so they like it themselves. It is upon a failure here that organ lovers find their first excuse for the instrument. Dallas had a woman leader. This is common. Why? Because the men are too lazy or too indifferent to study music and learn to lead. This is not always the reason. Sometimes the women just will lead. God has distributed singing talent nearly as promiscuously among the human family as He has the eating talent.

(Excerpted from “In Texas,” Firm Foundation 12.44 [November 3, 1896]: 1.)

Barnes continues in the following week’s issue:

The essentials to good singing in God’s ekklesia are, first, all sing; second, all sit or stand as closely together as possible; third, that there be not the least contrariness among any of the members; fourth, a leader whom all can hear; fifth, a leader who will keep first rate tune; sixth, a leader who will stand where all can see him and the movements of his time hand; seventh, distinct articulation of every word, so they can heard as if read, and well understood … I wish every one could understand that contrariness comes from the devil, and that this old fellow has about as much influence among so-called members of the church as Jesus Christ has. “I can sing here as well as anywhere else.” I have heard this from the “saints” in all times and metres. The user of this expression thinks it original, but he is quoting from many, many forerunners in contrariness and stubbornness. “I can sing here as well as anywhere else,” and he or she fastens self to the back seat in the house. Such a one would rebel against a choir and justly do it, but choirs, like organs, are the fungus growth that springs luxuriantly from sorry congregational singing … Why do the members of a choir sit or stand closely together? Why do concert, theatre, or minstrel singers sit and stand closely together? In order to have good music. Why do members of the church sit or stand as far apart as each can get from the other? In order to show that each individual is an integral whole entirely independent of every other whole, and dependent upon nothing upon the face of the green earth except on ungodly contrariness that is generated in the bad place.

(Excerpted from “In Texas,” Firm Foundation 12.45 [November 10, 1896]: 1.)

We might smile at some of this; Barnes was nothing if not colorful in his writing and speaking. But in his sarcasm in that final line, Barnes makes a very serious point, one that anticipates the insights of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Sanctorum Communio and hearkens back over fifteen centuries to similar ideas found in the writings of the Fathers. Calvin Stapert, in A New Song for an Old World, argues that we can see this point as far back as Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Toward the end of his letter, the apostle pronounces this blessing upon the Christians in the imperial capital:

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another in accord with Jesus Christ, that together with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 15:5-6)

It is impossible to say whether we have a direct reference to singing in this text. Nevertheless, Stapert observes, “no one can doubt that [Paul’s statement] articulates a principle that the church took very seriously for her singing. The importance of singing ‘with one voice’ was a constant refrain among the early Christian writers” (pg. 25). Here’s St Ambrose, fourth-century bishop of Milan, from his Commentary on Psalm 1:

[A psalm is] a pledge of peace and harmony, which

St Ambrose (ca. 337–397)

St Ambrose (ca. 337–397)

produces one song from various and sundry voices in the manner of a cithara….

A psalm joins those with differences, unites those at odds and reconciles those who have been offended, for who will not concede to him with whom one sings to God in one voice? It is after all a great bond of unity for the full number of people to join in one chorus. The strings of the cithara differ, but create one harmony.

There is nothing in our worship assemblies, apart from the Lord’s Supper, that so effectively demonstrates our unity one with another as the act of singing. Already, though, in the late nineteenth century, the tendency to individualism showed itself in congregational life, as indicated by Barnes’ words.

On “getting the young people” (UPDATED)

I’ve spent the last few evenings browsing through J. M. McCaleb’s Once Traveled Roads (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Co., 1934).

McCaleb during his student days

McCaleb during his student days

John Moody McCaleb (1862–1953), from Hickman County, Tenn., entered College of the Bible in Lexington, Ky., in 1888. Among tales of how he met his wife and reminiscences of the faculty, which in those days included J. W. McGarvey, I. B. Grubbs, and others, Once Traveled Roads includes the following account of church life during McCaleb’s student days in Lexington:

When I entered school in 1888, there were two large congregations in Lexington—Main Street, and Broadway. They each contained about a thousand members. Robert T. Mathews was preaching for the Main Street church, and John S. Shouse for Broadway. There was no organ in either church. During my stay, however, Brother Mathews installed a small organ at Main Street, putting it near the center of the house, and on a level with the seats. Professor White called for a letter and put in his membership at Broadway. When Main Street built a new house and called it “Central,” they put in a great pipe organ that almost filled the end of the building. Not so long after I had left school in 1891, I heard that Broadway had also introduced the instrument [1902]. Main Street was getting the young people from Broadway. Something must be done. It was left to a vote, and the young people put the organ in. This time, Brother McGarvey and Brother Grubbs called for letters and put in their membership at Chestnut Street, a mission church that we students had established. But it was not many years till Chestnut Street also had the organ. Seeing the trend of things prompted me to write the five articles [in the Gospel Advocate] on “Pride, a Growing Evil.” Its growth was very manifest when I was there and became all the more so as time went on till both the churches and the school went to the world and minded earthly things. And is it not true that all our churches and schools are today in danger of the same fate? Will another generation or two find our schools and churches where Lexington now is? Let us hope not. (pp. 38-39)

I was thinking about that as I did some googling the other day when this turned up:

“I do not want to give the rest of the fellowship the idea that I am trying to promote instrumental praise anywhere else,” Atchley told the Chronicle. “What we are doing is a missional decision for our congregation, and while we are not trying to hide our decision, neither do we wish to flaunt it.”
In the Dec. 3 [2006] Bible study, Atchley told Richland Hills members that “there has never been a moment’s discussion of changing the name of this church or our affiliation with Churches of Christ.”
But he said Richland Hills must put the kingdom of God and Christ’s mission above concerns that the change might hurt the congregation’s standing or influence among Churches of Christ.
At the same time, he suggested to members that Richland Hills’ decision might “inspire many other Churches of Christ to be courageous in their kingdom efforts, and it could help stem the tide of gifted young leaders who are leaving.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

ADDENDUM (3/7/2015):

“A cappella is like Latin,” Graves said. “It is beautiful, it speaks to people at a certain level, but the problem is that a lot of people don’t speak Latin.

“What people in the Churches of Christ call instrumental music, other people just call music. It’s English.”

And in Music City, its appeal is undeniable. Graves said there’s no intention of alienating other congregations — only of better connecting to Nashville and Brentwood communities.

Otter Creek, where the congregation’s average age is 27, already has experimented with instrumental music with a Wednesday Vespers service; young adult, children’s ministry, and student ministry gatherings; and special worship for Good Friday, Christmas and other holidays.

A Good Friday Sermon

This is a brief reflection I delivered in chapel at work today. The text for today was Luke 22.39–23.49.

Today is Good Friday. In services taking place all around the world today, Christians will gather to remember the events described in the passage we just read.  This morning we take a few moments out from our workday to join in those remembrances.

Let’s focus in on one single statement in this passage. It is found in Luke 23.34: “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’” (NRSV).

Now, there are two ways we could take these words spoken by Jesus from the cross. On the one hand, we could understand them in a limited sense to mean that the people involved in Jesus’ death – the temple police who arrested him, the government officials before whom he sat on trial, the soldiers who mocked him, beat him, and placed him on the cross, the mob who called for his crucifixion – none of them understood exactly who he was. Some in the crowd had undoubtedly been present when Jesus preached and performed miracles of healing. But they did not believe Jesus’ claims. Or, in some cases, they were confused by them and could not see what Jesus was saying. If they had they wouldn’t have done this … right?

But what if we understood Jesus’ words in another way? We can readily see how these words apply to the people described in these Scriptures. What if we took this as more of an existential statement about who we are as human beings, instead of simply a limited statement about these people in this situation?

But that’s offensive, right? I pride myself on knowing things. I hold down a job here, in part at least, and I have responsibilities in many other areas of life, because of what I claim to know. I don’t like having what I know called into question. I get touchy about that sort of thing. I like the way A. K. M. Adam puts this. He writes, “I know a whole lot. I know the sweet kiss of a drowsy child, the scintillating misty hush of a summer sunrise. I know uses of the Greek participle. I know the forlorn plaints from the trampled heart of a student, a friend, a lonely visitor to my office. I know the psalms, I know the working of a well-practiced basketball team, I know [the] contents of the heaps of paper on my desktop. I know fear and doubt, I know pain and desperation, I know joy and pride and satisfaction. In the age of expertise, I am an expert; in the age of “just do it,” I’ve been there and I’ve done that. I know what I am doing.”[1]

But what if, as Jesus says, I don’t really know what I’m doing? In my seeking after knowledge, in my pride, in my lack of self-control, in my selfishness, in my daily failures to love as I ought, I demonstrate that I don’t know what I’m doing, that I haven’t truly learned how to live my life in conformity with the image of Christ that is shown to us in these Scriptures. If we’re honest with ourselves, every single one of us could say the same thing.

Good Friday brings us to the cross. We see Jesus there. But, in the words of one ancient Jewish writer who spoke better than he knew, the Jesus we see there “is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training … He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange” (Wisd. Sol. 2.12, 14, RSV). The Jesus we meet at the cross tells us the truth about who we are, the truth that we do not know what we are doing.


But notice this too. If we stop there we will have seen only half the truth. Having faced the truth about ourselves, we are prepared to see another truth that is just as important: Jesus forgives. The glory of the cross lies in the fact that it does not leave us stranded in our sins, in our false claims to “know what we are doing.” It calls to us to take up our own crosses. To follow Jesus, and in so doing to find forgiveness, and hope, and life.


[1] “Good Friday,” in Flesh and Bones: Sermons (Wipf and Stock, 2001), 82. Available online at (Accessed 28 March 2013).

An Observation

In preparation for some recent writing, I worked through the Cogdill-Woods Debate (1957). (Actually, I used the Gospel Advocate edition of the debate, so it would be more accurate, I suppose, to say that I worked through the Woods-Cogdill Debate.)

What good, you might ask, can come out of such an exercise? You would be in good company were you to ask that question. In our day, there are few topics in the history of the Churches of Christ that get people more exercised than debates. The conventional wisdom, of course, is that debates are one of those things best left in the past, a rebarbative pursuit of our forefathers that we have rightly left behind.

So, if that’s the case, why waste my time on this stuff? Better yet, why treat a debate as a serious piece of theology? Maybe I can answer those questions later.

For now, something that caught my eye. I’ve read through a few debates during all of this writing and one seemingly negligible feature of the debates has consistently stood out to me. Many of the major debates — e.g. the Neal-Wallace Discussion (Winchester, Ky., 1933) and the Porter-Tingley Debate (Birmingham, 1947) — invariably include a notation at the beginning of each night’s speeches listing who led prayer and who led singing. In other words, the speeches for each night have a kind of “liturgical frame.” Usually the assignments — song leader and pray-er — were split between supporters of each debater. (I don’t know if this is universally true or not; I haven’t yet looked at every single debate book in my own library, much less others that I don’t own.) The event of the debate, in other words, was thought of, at least to some extent, as a worship service.

Curiously, by the time we get to Cogdill-Woods, neither the Advocate or Guardian editions list these pieces of information separately. That said, the debaters occasionally make reference to the prayers in their speeches, so at least each night’s speeches were preceded by prayer, if not by singing. Why does Cogdill-Woods no longer list this these details?

Moreover, with Cogdill-Woods we are no longer in a church building. (Not that every earlier debate was held in a meetinghouse.) Wallace-Neal began in the sanctuary of First Christian Church in Winchester (before it was moved); Porter-Tingley split the time between Central Church of Christ and Tingley’s Birmingham Gospel Tabernacle. With Cogdill-Woods, we are now convening in a public high school. How does that affect how the debate is viewed? Does it? Does it affect the decision about listing the prayer and singing information? Am I reading too much into this?

Your thoughts are welcome.

Clippings from Recent Research

F. W. Smith (1858-1930)

“If the congregations striving to worship after the New Testament order could magnify more the importance of the Lord’s-day service, the breaking of bread, by discontinuing all other services, it would be a good thing. If by so doing Christians could be induced to come on Lord’s day solely to commemorate the sufferings of Christ, we could have more evangelists in the fields of destitution. I am not sure but the churches of Canada are right in their practice. They have no Sunday-morning sermon, but exalt and magnify the Supper. People who want to hear preaching have to attend the evening service, and this demonstrates those who are hungering for the preached gospel, instead of simply an ‘outing’ to display finery when there is no other place in which to do it.”

— F. W. Smith, “Falling Off in Church Attendance.” Gospel Advocate 52.16 (April 21, 1910): 484.

In 1910, F. W. Smith was living in Nashville and writing regularly for the Gospel Advocate. Apart from his work with the church in Franklin, he busied himself with gospel meeting work that took him throughout Tennessee and most of the neighboring states, as well as further north into Canada. (One of his stops in 1910 was in Birmingham, Alabama, where he held a protracted meeting for John T. Lewis’ fledgling West End church, while Lewis himself lay sick in a hospital bed in Nashville.)

Smith’s argument for the centrality of the Table assumes an arrangement that was beginning to die out among Churches of Christ in 1910. The advent of the located minister pushed the mutual edification practices of the 19th century to the side and replaced the emphasis on the Supper (present as early as Campbell’s writings) with an emphasis on revival-style preaching. Smith cites the Canadian churches as a model, but he could just as easily have mentioned the British churches, which also privileged the Supper in their Lord’s Day assemblies and who also avoided the more deleterious effects of American revivalism in their worship practices.

We’ve come along way since Smith’s day, obviously, and not always for the better.

Books and Pews

I’ll be back soon with another hermeneutics post.

In the meantime, those of you who are interested should go check out the Bargains page at They’ve got 70-80% discounts on individual volumes in a number of commentary sets (Interpretation, Continental Commentary, Old Testament Library, New Testament Library, and so forth). I took the opportunity to beef up my Old Testament holdings.


Now for something completely different. File this under “liturgical/spatial discussions we’ll never have but probably should.” I follow Macrina Walker’s “A vow of conversation” blog. It’s predominantly made up of substantive comment on her readings from the Fathers, as well as contemporary Orthodox theology (check out her series on John Zizoulas’ Being as Communion).

From a recent post comes this snippet:

A couple of months ago I thought of posting something that asked: What is it about Protestants and pews? By strange coincidence, in a fairly short course of time as I had been investigating some South African Christian blogs, I had come across three rather negative references to pews from Protestant Christians. And what struck me was that although they all used pews as a symbol for something negative, none of them seemed to question the inevitability of pews. From an evangelical-cum-conservative perspective pews seemed to symbolise routine and lack of commitment (those attending church were seen as simply “pew warmers”) while from a more liberal-cum-engaged in the world perspective, pews seemed to symbolise a “churchiness” that was separated from the world. And yet nobody seemed to see what to me would have been the obvious solution: if pews are such a problem, then why not get rid of them?

Indeed. Why not get rid of them? She goes on to link a couple of further discussions of this issue.  One comes from a Russian Orthodox periodical. There the writer draws a connection between worship and the body that’s really helpful, I think.

The other is an 1841 essay by John Mason Neale (you’ll recognize Neale from your hymnals; he’s responsible for “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” an English translation of the Latin “O Antiphons”) on the history of pews. Neale writes, “For what is the HISTORY OF PUES, but the history of the intrusion of human pride, and selfishness, and indolence, into the worship of GOD?”

This is interesting to me because it’s one of the implications of a certain view of the body. The body, that is, is involved in worship, not just the mouth or the mind. Worship, in other words, does not take place solely “in my heart.” Bringing this back around to a research interest of mine, I think this is what John T. Lewis is getting at (even if he doesn’t go to these lengths) with his concern about prayer posture and reverence in worship.


On prayer posture

From a co-worker:

“Why is posture so important, then? Because it expresses the emotion tied to prayer. For example, the early Church Father Tertullian said that kneeling reflects humility and repentance, while standing expresses joy and confidence (as in confidence in the resurrection or in God’s love and mercy). Origen describes early Christians praying, whether kneeling or standing, with their arms out to their side, slightly elevated (known as the orans position). To these early Christians, prayer was a bodily act. Posture was necessarily connected to one’s ability to pray in a spirit of humility and reverence. They believed the Apostle Paul was serious when he said in his letter to the Corinthian Christians, “Honor God with your body” (1 Cor. 6:20, NIV). Now, some might say ‘God knows what is in my heart so my outward actions shouldn’t matter.’ This argument is only half true. God does know what is in our hearts, but what is in our hearts should be manifested in our actions.”

I’m stealing the argument in the last two sentences. It’s brilliant.