McGarvey on Fellowship

by Johnny Elmore

That J.W. McGarvey, the little giant of the Restoration Movement, was opposed to instrumental music in worship, is a fact too well known to be disputed. While in Lexington, KY some years ago, my wife and I visited the Broadway Christian Church, where McGarvey preached and held membership for many years. We were met by Marshall Leggett, who was then the personable minister of that church. He proudly pointed to a large picture of McGarvey hanging on the wall and remarked. "He left when they put in the instrument." Leroy Garrett, writing in One Body, recently acknowledged that McGarvey "objected to the instrument as much as anyone in our history." Garrett then quoted McGarvey as saying, "I have never proposed to withdraw fellowship from brethren simply because of their use of instrumental music in worship."

However, I have read a quote several times in different papers which was attributed to McGarvey which indicates that he felt that he had made a mistake in his approach to fellowship and the use of the instrument in worship. The latest version appears in Firm Foundation, April 8, 1986. It is an account of an exchange between McGarvey and Jesse P. Sewell in which McGarvey reportedly said, "Brother Sewell, I want to say something to you, if you'll accept it in the spirit in which I mean it." Sewell told him he'd appreciate anything he had to say to him, and Sewell gave this account of his statement: "You are on the right road, and whatever you do, don't let anybody persuade you that you can successfully combat error by fellowshipping it and going along with it. I have tried. I believed at the start that was the only way to do it. I've never held membership in a congregation that uses instrumental music. I have, however, accepted invitations to preach without distinction between churches that used it and churches that didn't. I've gone along with their papers and magazines and things of that sort. During all these years I have taught the truth as the New Testament teaches it to every young preacher who has passed through the College of the Bible. Yet, I do not know of more than six of those men who are preaching the truth today. It won't work." This was about ten years before McGarvey's death in 1912.

I would like to point out to my brethren that McGarvey was also opposed to individual communion cups. Can we learn a lesson from McGarvey as he viewed the scene at the twilight of his illustrious career? Does his statement tell us anything about the folly of lending influence and encouragement to something that is wrong? No doubt, McGarvey thought he was doing the right thing, but if this quote is accurate, he came to see the inconsistency of his course. McGarvey believed the instrument in worship and individual cups were fads that would pass away with the passing of the years, but perhaps he came to see that "Ephraim is joined to idols: let him alone" (Hos 4:19).

If I know my own heart, I can say that I have nothing but the kindliest feelings for brethren who have embraced Sunday School, individual cups in the communion, and instrumental music in worship. I am concerned about them and I pray that they may come to a knowledge of the truth. I sincerely and fervently hope that the day may come when we can lock arms and fight the evils of sin and division together, but I am convinced that I will never bring them to a knowledge of the truth by joining in with them in their error.

Some years ago a man said to me. "If I were to ever begin preaching, I would start in the beer joints and taverns." At the time, I thought there might be some validity in his statement. But in the light of clearer thinking, I realize that many of those who are in those places are there by choice and may even be there because they know they are in a place which is void of anything resembling gospel preaching. What influence would I have if I walked in and made myself comfortable in their midst?

I say that McGarvey gave good advice. In the quest for that unity which the psalmist David declared to be both good and pleasant, (Psalm 133:1), let us never be tempted to stray into the paths of error. Remember, our light may be the only one those in error will ever see.