Instrumental Music and Nadab and Abihu: The covenant of the Law vs. the Covenant of the Heart

The hard line Churches of Christ, a cappella, believe that the Sunday morning worship service is the most important part of being a Christian. They believe they have found Christianity and all others have lost it. They base this idea on the fact that they can find biblical authority for each act of worship they do on a Sunday morning, and other worshippers do not have such authority. “We speak where the Bible speaks, and are silent where the Bible is silent,” is one of their battle cries.

nadabThey scare their constituents, and those they evangelize, with the stories from the Hebrew Bible: Nadab and Abihu struck dead for offering strange fire in worship to God at the beginning of the tabernacle worship (Numbers 10). At the inauguration of the tabernacle of worship, instituted by Moses and Aaron in the wilderness as the journeyed out of Egypt toward the land of Canaan, instead of taking coals of fire from the altar of sacrifice, Nadab and Abihu took coals of fire from their own campfires in front of their own tents, and offered incense to God with that fire. Fire from God struck them dead, because they had used unauthorized fire.

This story, and a few similar to it, are used to scare believers into making sure they have authority for all the worship practices they use on a Sunday morning in church.

So this blog addresses these two questions:

  1. Do we need specific authority in the New Testament for each act of worship in our worship assembly?
  2. Is the Sunday morning worship assembly format the mark of the true Christian?

burntofferingNadab and Abihu were the oldest sons of Aaron, the top two priests after the high priest, Aaron. In this story God is portrayed as feeling it was very important to use the fire that God had provided in the altar of sacrifice. The story indicates that the people prayed and God lit the altar of sacrifice, then the people kept the fire going, a metaphor for how God initiates the power of our relationship. Fire is a symbol of the Holy Spirit throughout the wilderness story, from the burning bush through which God spoke to Moses to go free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, to the burning pillar of cloud that led the people through the desert and rested upon the tabernacle. pillar of fire by nightIn the new covenant, Jesus’ body and blood is the sacrifice, and all our power as believers, comes from that sacrifice and forgiveness.

Nadab and Abihu, in taking fire from their own fire pits in front of their own tents, were saying, metaphorically, that they didn’t need God’s Holy Spirit, or God’s sacrifice to forgive them, truly a strike at the essence of the message of Jahweh.

In the first weeks after the resurrection of Christ, there is a parallel story. (The books of Luke and Acts consciously parallel the story of the Exodus of Israel.) In the book of Acts the story that parallels the Nadab and Abihu story is the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Just as in the Nadab and Abihu story, two worshippers are struck dead, two worshippers are struck dead in the early church. This time, instead of breaking a command, they are guilty of hiding and lying to the Holy Spirit. The people were living communally, selling their property and laying the proceeds at the apostles’ feet.

The death of Ananias by Raphael

The death of Ananias by Raphael

Ananias and Sapphira sold some property and laid a portion of the property’s proceeds at the apostles’ feet. Peter confronts both Ananias and Sapphira, on separate occasions, asking each if they were lying to God about the price they had obtained for their property. “It’s the whole thing,” they both replied. Peter said they had a right to keep their property, they had a right to devote a portion of it to the church, if they wished, but they did not have a right to lie to the Holy Spirit in their hearts. Notice the big difference between the first story in the wilderness and the second story in the early church: Nadab and Abihu broke a rule that had a big symbolic meaning; Ananias and Sapphira demonstrated that God could not read their hearts. Wow! What a difference between the two covenants: the first was a set of symbolic rules, the second was a covenant of the heart.

The writer of the book of Hebrews (ch. 8) confirms this picture by quoting from the old prophet Jeremiah:

They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is a mediator superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.

For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:

“The days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant…
10 I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.”

So instead of worrying about getting the worship service right lest we be struck dead, Luke, the writer of Acts, believes we should be worrying about getting our hearts right lest we be worthy of death.

This is the reason there is no instruction in the early church writings about how to conduct a worship service in the church. Yes, there are a few passages, especially I Cor. 11-14 and James 2, which mainly emphasize principles:

“Let everything be done for edification,”

“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”

“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love…”

“But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.”

“Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.”

26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”

All of these passages point to one principle: encouraging one another to believe that God has moved in our lives through the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

None of the these passages point to rules that we need to stick to in order to show we are the true believers in Jesus. None of these passages indicates that God is remotely interested in the format of our worship services, beyond the principle of what builds up or tears down our faith in the forgiveness of Christ for our wrongs.

What is the mark of the Christian? Is it the worship format, as the hard line Churches of Christ believe? Is it the organization of the local congregation?

Jesus washes the feetAfter Jesus took off his robe and washed the disciples’ feet John records him as saying:

34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

James said that if we treat a rich visitor at church differently from a poor visitor, then we are guilty of denying the good news that converted us to Christ: we are freed from all our wrongs as a gift.

So, the format of singing, and worshipping, was of no consequence, per se, to the early church. What was of consequence was the purpose of each act, and the rules that have been written in our hearts by the sacrifice and mercy of Christ.

This concept terrifies people who need an easy touchstone. If we are left to rely on the sacrifice of Jesus, rather than a “Thus saith the Lord…” for our authority in our worship formats, then what will happen? People will run amok? Anything goes? Or not. Maybe we will have to focus on our hearts. Our worship service on Sunday morning, or whatever time or day, will have to focus on encouraging each other to live out the sacrifice and gift of Jesus toward other people. What a concept!

Does instrumental music qualify as strange fire before the Lord? It does not for three reasons:

  1. There was no clear transition from the worship with Psalms and early church worship.
  2. There was no worship format outlined for the synagogue in the Hebrew Bible.
  3. There was no worship format outlined for the early church.

1. The early church was instructed by the apostle Paul to worship by singing the Psalms. The Psalms of David are replete with references to worshipping God with cymbals, trumpets, lutes and lyres (guitars). There are also references to worshiping God with sacrifices. Sacrifices are specifically mentioned in the early church writings as having ceased, stopped and fulfilled in Christ’s sacrifice. No such pronouncement is made about instruments of music.

2. There was no worship format outlined for the synagogue, in fact there is no authority for the synagogue at all. It was a tradition of humans that grew out of the exile in Babylon. The purpose, interestingly enough, was to build up and encourage the Israelites to keep the Law of Moses and to believe in Jahweh.

3. The early church did not have a set worship format. They just followed what they were familiar with, especially the synagogue organization and format. Their format was governed by the apostle Paul’s rule that all things be done to build up the church, specifically to trust in the sacrifice and mercy of Christ.


About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
This entry was posted in Command, Example and Necessary Inference, Faith and Works, Grace, Holy Spirit, Instrumental Music, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Instrumental Music and Nadab and Abihu: The covenant of the Law vs. the Covenant of the Heart

  1. garycummings says:

    The saying of the COC “We speak where the Bible speaks,and we are silent where the Bible is silent,” really means “We will tell you where the Bible speaks and where it is silent.”
    We are the Lord’s Church, we know these things. You do as we say or go to Hell. We know the Bible loudly speaks about not having instrumental music and about not having real wine for communion. We know the Bible tells us to keep women in their place. No way may a woman lead worship or prayer, or serve communion. We know these things are so because we say so. We are the Lord’s Church. We know the Bible is really silent about race, social justice, economic justice, and torture. Do it our way because it is the Lord’s way. It is our way or HELL because we are THE LORD’S CHURCH.

  2. Oh, wow! I never made the connection between the fire of Nadab and Abihu and the fire of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Your analysis is spot on, as always. I love how the church of Christ goes on and on about how the “Old Law” no longer applies to us, but they can’t get enough of imposing their own laws on everyone, and they miss the point of Jesus’ sacrifice entirely.

  3. Gary Cummings says:

    It is curious that the COC uses OT examples (something they deny are authoritative now) to prove
    their erroneous teaching of acapella only, grape juice and crackers, one cup, bread pinchers or non bread pinchers, and all the rest of their nonsense. The point is that God will strike us dead if we worship wrongly. To worship wrongly is to bow to their golden calf of restorationism. Funny thing, I have never seen God kill a person for singing praise to God with an instrument.

  4. Gary Cummings says:

    I am sure the Palestinian Jewish Church was a lot different in its format of worship than the Gentile churches that Paul started. How about the Ethiopian Eunuch who was converted? The African Church developed from his testimony and reading of Scripture. It must have had an African worship flavor to it, kinda like going to an African-American church now. Us white folks don’t quite know what to do with all the joy and music and gyrating and enthusiastic preaching found in the Black churches.

    The Greek speaking and Latin speaking churches may well have had some cultural practices brought into the Christian worship, which were neutral to the Christian Faith. When the original Jewish Church of Jerusalem Church was dispersed finally in 70 AD, Jewish Christianity ceased except for a small sect of the Ebionites, who claimed to follow both the Law and Jesus. They were scattered and eventually died out. The Way of Jesus was for all nations and cultures and languages, and each was free to worship Jesus in their own way.

    It is time to quit playing “New Testament Church”, as if we can recover the depth and the richness of first century Christian faith. This is an impossible task as we are not of that culture, and I am sure that if first century Christians got in a time machine and traveled to visit us they would be shocked. They practiced communal socialism, the COC does not. They practiced the Agape Meal, communion with real bread and wine, and footwashing, the COC does not. They baptized people (usually in the nude) because they had been saved, the COC does not. So much more: speaking in tongues, miracles, prophecies. All of these are gone in the current Churches of Christ. The think the biggest [problem] faced by the COC is choking on gnats when they strain the Scripture for proof texts.

  5. Gary Cummings says:

    Probably it would be a good thing to make the Communion once a year in the context of an an agape meal and footwashing. That is my two cents. I am not saying this is a salvation issue. This is something the Mennonite Church does at least once a year. Some have the Memorial Meal more often absent the love feast and footwashing.

    I think we need to get rid of the professional paid clergy, and rely on bivocational ministers, preferably a team of male and female ministers. Since leaving the paid ministry in 1983, I have worked as a bi-vocational minster in houses churches, the Mennonite Church and a community church. My livelihood did not depend on “safe sermons”. I was given a small stipend, but that was mostly for gas expenses and study material. I remember using the first $30.00 check from the Mennonite Church to buy the NIV Study Bible back in 1996. That is still my favorite Bible to study from. It has a lot of meaning for me.

    There were times when we anointed the sick and prayed for them. They did not allow a woman to preach in that church, but at least women could teach a mixed Sunday School class.

  6. Gary Cummings says:

    This blog is for support for people who have left the COC. I have two questions:
    1. Why do all these COC trolls hang out here.
    2. Why does Mark, the founder of this blog, allow it?
    Just asking!
    Thanks, Gary

    • mp says:

      Some Type A’s don’t like to be challenged. They take it as a threat. I find it odd that the hard core Church of Christ tends to attract all of the same personality types. Just a thought.
      Be Free –

      • garycummings says:

        I do not mind being challenged. Personally I think it defeats the purpose to offer a blog for those who have left the CIC, and then to allow the COC spiritual abusers to show up to continue their abuse. My posts are fairly strong and to the point, as I do not allow the legalists wiggle room to think they represent the way of Jesus.
        Thanks and God bless, Gary

  7. Gary Cummings says:

    Has anyone here read the portion of the BROTHERS KARAMOZOV called THE GRAND INQUISITOR. It is about a meeting of the Grand Inquisitor of the Church with Jesus Christ.
    It is a masterpiece of literature and theology. It showed how tradition and church power can crush the soul and even challenge God. The COC is Like the Inquistor in this section attacking Jesus Christ. If Jesus came back today, he would laugh at CENI, New Testament Christianity Restored and He would hang His head over the 100+ years of COC racism and war-loving, His only reponse to their claims would be “I never knew you.”. Then they would look for the nearest cross to re-crucify Him.

  8. mp says:

    Love the article. Very insightful and much appreciated. I run a ministry Church of Christ Recovery ( ) I will place a link from my site to your blog. I am looking forward to spending more time on your site. Thank you for your work.

  9. BH says:

    In my opinion many in the Church of Christ have become so hardened in their doctrine and beliefs they have become like the pharisees of old who blasphemed the holy ghost. No, the Church of Christ members I speak of did not say Jesus performed his miracles by Satan’s power. What I am saying is when their error and inconsistencies are exposed they react the same way and show the same heart as the pharisees who did.

    My experience in the CoC was pretty good as far as how people treated me personally. But it does anger me, the same way Jesus was angered by the dishonest religious leaders of his day, when I hear things like “We never teach only the COC is saved. Must have been your lone congregation”. This is something blatantly untrue and I question the integrity of any poster who claims to be CoC and says otherwise. I have had dealings firsthand with many CoC congregations of all kinds of flavors (one cup, nonclass, mainline, noninstitutional) and know they all taught it was the CoC highway or no way.

    Another big lie I have problems with is “the Church of Christ was founded in AD 33, the church the gates of hell would not prevail against”, only to find in CoC libraries histories written about the struggle to “restore” it in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Where did it go? If it was always around there was no need to “restore” it. And you can’t say they were restoring the Presbyterian, Baptists, and Methodists to the truth like I heard one say because the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists never had the truth to begin with. You cannot restore something or someone to a state they were never in to begin with. If you dispute this give me an example of any church that put Methodist, Baptist, or Presbyterian on its sign that taught what they CoC teaches in its entirety that a typical CoC of today would be willing to fellowship with.

    • Gary Cummings says:

      There is a church born in the 1800’s called the Church of God. It was founded by D.S. Warner. He believed in “holiness and restoration”. This has more appeal to me than “unity and restoration”, as not everyone agrees (as is evident in COC schisms) which pattern to unify around. The COG is very interesting, and in many ways not a bad church. The main group is now COG, Anderson, Indiana. There are subgroups and schisms as well. There are about 48 of them. I had a chart once with all the schisms listed. I think the “restoration” part is divisive as well. What to restore?

  10. Gary Cummings says:

    It is true that the COC teaches they are the only church going to heaven, except for a few progressive folks, and a few progressive churches. They usually will not tell people what they really believe, to avoid turning them off. They want you to visit their church and get bedazzled by their display of “scriptural knowledge” mixed with a little Koine Greek. Once you get hooked and reeled in and baptized per Acts 2:38, then they let you in on the big secret: WE ARE THE LORD’S CHURCH!
    Once you believe they are the Lord’s Church, then it is automatically rational to believe and proclaim that they are the only church going to heaven.

  11. Pingback: Instrumental Music and Nadab and Abihu: The covenant of the Law vs. the Covenant of the Heart | What Does The Bible Say

  12. Which is the most important?
    Jesus was asked twice, by two different men, the same basic question about which is the most important or greatest commandment in the Law. Here is how Jesus answered that question:

    “One of the teachers of the law… asked him [Jesus],
    ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’

    “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “ is this: ‘Hear, of Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than THESE.” [Mark 12:28-31, Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Leviticus 19:18]

    …an expert in the law, tested him [Jesus] with this question: ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’”

    Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these TWO commandments.” [Matthew 22:36-40, Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18]

    But in contrast with Jesus, Paul the Pharisee didn’t know the greatest, most important, first commandment according to Jesus. Paul made up his own rule. Paul wrote:
    “The entire law is summed up in a SINGLE command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” [Galatians 5:14, Leviticus 19:18]

    And again, Paul wrote:
    “He who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not covet, and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this ONE RULE: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” [Romans 13:8-10, Leviticus 19:18]

    Jesus said it’s TWO commandments, with the greatest, most important, first command to
    .1) first, love God with everything you’ve got, and
    .2) second, love people.
    Paul said no, it ONE commandment- to love people.

    This is very similar to The Beatles- “All you need is love. Love is all you need. Love, Love, Love.” (In other words, the second commandment, the love of man, without the love of God. Love as me, myself and I define love to be, and continuously redefined by sinful men.)

    In essence, it is also the same principle as what Eve did in the Garden of Eden, forgetting about the Tree of Life, which is the first tree in the middle of the Garden, and instead referring to the second tree as “the tree that is in the middle of the garden.” [Genesis 3:3 & 2:9 2:17, 3:24]

    Kind of like the Pharisees with Jesus, who were pushing the false idea that we can consider ONE commandment in the Law, alone in isolation, to be “the greatest commandment in the Law.”

    Or like today, false teachers in the Chrislam – Purpose Driven – Seeker Sensitive – Emergent – Liberal – Ecumenical – New Age – world church movement pushing the false idea that the ONE RULE is “Loving God and Neighbor together.”

    The Lord God Jesus the Jewish Messiah, Son of Yahweh the Most High God of Israel, said:
    “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these TWO commandments.”
    Not one. TWO.

    Sometimes, Paul was wrong. Jesus is always right. I’m following Jesus.

    Here are answers to 2 common objections:
    .a) What about the so-called “Golden Rule”?
    Jesus spoke the 3 chapters of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7, including 7:12. Jesus didn’t make PART of this one verse out of context into “The Golden Rule” or “one rule.” Jesus did not use the term “Golden Rule,” it’s simply a tradition of men. The sentence begins with “So” in the NIV and Amplified Bibles, and “Therefore’ in the NASB and King James Bibles, which ties 7:12 to the previous sentences. So 7:12 cannot stand alone as One Commandment.

    .b) What about the so-called “Great Commission”?
    Jesus spoke the words recorded in Matthew 28:18-20, including “make disciples of all nations.” Jesus never used the term “Great Commission,” it’s simply a tradition of men. Yes I agree it’s a commandment given by Jesus, it’s not optional, and it applies to us today. We need to carry this out, with our own God-given abilities and talents, using the skills, and circumstances we have. But we don’t need to put words in the mouth of Jesus, we can let Jesus speak for himself, and we can listen to Him – and obey Him.

    Evangelism is part of the Second Commandment given by Jesus, to Love people. Evangelism is not the most important commandment, and it isn’t the entire Second Commandment. So if our priorities are “The Great Commission and the Great Commandment,” we have our priorities upside down and confused, and we are not listening to the voice of Jesus. Never mind what Paul said. Let’s listen to the voice of Jesus first, and get our priorities straight.

    The people who will protest most loudly against this truth are the modern “Pauls:” traveling evangelists, speakers, writers, abusive absentee mega-church pastors, Crusaders, and self-appointed “apostles” like Paul, who find it “profitable” to “be like Paul” rather than follow Jesus the Jewish Messiah.

    • Indeed, we believers who call ourselves “the church of Christ” are not infallible. Error is everywhere and tares and wheat grow side by side within the Kingdom. In my passionate attempt to find truth, I have been shocked. My study is based on “What does it say?” and “What is the definition of this/these particular Greek or Hebrew word/words.” I was first shaken because we do not even call God by the correct name. Over 6000 times the personal name of God-YHWH- has been replaced with “LORD” by translators who felt Yahweh “did not have devotional quality for English-speaking believers.” Please look at the “principles for translation” in the front of your Bible. I found these incredulous words in my NAS. If we are afraid to mispronounce YHWH, then we should call Him -not by the made-up hybrid word “Jehovah,” or by “His position,” but by the ENGLISH…”I AM.” There were no vowels in ANY Hebrew word…only vowel markings…and because the Jews went beyond what God said and quit saying His name…the exact pronunciation is forever lost.
      When we KNOW and LOVE someone, we call that person the name by which that person tells us to. The translators were “respecting a Jewish TRADITION.” They have also used italics which can slant concepts and have not translated many words to English. -Like “Christ” (Greek) and “Messiah” (Hebrew) which should have been TRANSLATED into ENGLISH as “the Anointed.” Even the very “name by which we are saved” has been changed. There is no “J” in Hebrew. All words beginning with “J” are really “Y.” Please look it up.
      The name given by the angel, Gabriel, is “Yeshua”- which means, “I Am is salvation.” Yeshua, the God-man who is the Anointed(Christ) Master(Lord) and Head of the immersed (baptized) assembly(church) IS God in the flesh– Immanu-El–“God with us.” And please look at Isaiah 9:6 CLOSELY.
      Words are IMPORTANT. Words have MEANINGS. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” “My people are destroyed by their lack of knowledge.” “Study to show yourself approved to God.” Our God in three persons knew the lie of Ananias and Sapphira. (Acts 5) Yes, the mystery of– “God is One”– is astounding! But, it should never be wrangled to make it “easy.” God is Three yet God is One. We must become like little children and BELIEVE this. Unless we believe that Yeshua is GOD we will die in our sins. I am afraid we have esteemed the plan– over the Man– who was truly “God With Us.” He is our SHEPHERD, our BRIDEGROOM, our SAVIOR.
      Yeshua says, “Who are you to judge another man’s servant?– I am able to make him stand.” What did He mean here? Perhaps we should each work out our own salvation with fear and trembling and do our very best to show the love of our God who touched the lepers and lifted up the lame. The Master of the Assembly said, “If you love Me you will keep my commandments.” So, if the Bible says something is a sin, we do not do it. We can not “make up” sins—that is the trait of a Pharisee. THAT is going “beyond what is written.” Just like Yeshua said…To love Him is to obey Him. He is the WORD– not the words between the lines. If God said do something…do it. Let’s not be like the disciples in Lk. 9:51-56… for the Anointed One said to them, ” You do not know of what spirit you are of.” I want to hear… “Well done My good and faithful servant.” Sadly, there is no “Perfect Church”… because there are no “Perfect People.”

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