Instrumental Music in Worship 
By Paul Robison
 

This sermon is going to be different.  The groundwork to introduce this lesson may seem somewhat confusing to you.  If you are tempted to tune out or to change your channel, please don't!  Just keep listening carefully, and you will discover in a few minutes that there is something that will tie all the pieces of the puzzle together.

First, let's start off with a story.  The other day I took my car to a local mechanic here for an oil change (this is true, but the rest is fiction).   

When I got there, he handed me a bill $545, with $45 for the oil change and $500 for the four new tires.  "Wait!" I exclaimed, "I didn't ask for any new tires; I only wanted an oil change!"  "Well now," replies the mechanic, "You didn't say that I could NOT add those new tires.  I interpreted your silence as permission to go ahead and add them" (Lewis).  Question: Do you think that mechanic's logic would win in a court of law? 

Here's an interesting history regarding some words that we have in English.  Did you know that the term "lyric" comes from a Grecian musical instrument called the lyre?  Now in music, we can have "a lyric tenor," and this fellow has a high voice with a tone that is light and flexible. 

Now here's something unusual; the original meaning of this word changed over the centuries.  If someone says today, "Oscar Hammerstein was a great American lyricist," what do we mean?  "Lyricist" here means that he wrote the words to a song, and not its music.  "So," the writer of an article concludes, "if one says that a certain person is a lyricist, the presumption must be ... that person writes ONLY the words of songs" (Hadwin).

Now here's an interesting observation someone made: "I occasionally hear the statement that [giving each Lord's day] is a 'non-issue.'  I have not been able to determine exactly what any given individual means by this.


It may mean, 'Nobody around here advocates [giving any longer], and there is no need to talk about it.'  Or, it may mean, 'I do not consider [putting money in the plate] to be of any value; it is optional; either [to give or not to give] is all right.'  Either meaning has its problems.  If the former is the meaning, the person must not know what is going on.  If the latter, the person is wrong.  [Giving of our means] does matter" (Furgeson).  

You all are doing a great job of following!  Keep at it!  Now another question: "How could we discover if the Lord Supper was being observed in churches after the first century?"  "Well, we could try to find writings from subsequent centuries that describe what was going on."  That's exactly right!  Three sources that could be quoted are a work called the "The Didache" or "The Teaching of the Twelve," which was written around 100 A.D., a Christian named Justin who wrote in 150 A.D, and an elder named Iraneus who wrote in 180 A.D.  From these three witnesses, we learn that the churches in the second century partook of the Lord's Supper in the same manner as it began (Ferguson, ECS).  Congratulations on being good history detectives!

Here's an interesting passage.  Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 4:6: "Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other."  One commentator states: "This was a catch-cry familiar to Paul and his readers directing attention to the need for conformity to scripture. ... And, of course, it was precisely in this matter of going beyond the word of God that the factions in Corinth had developed.  They were evaluating the word and authority of men ... thinking of men more highly than they should, and spurning the meekness and humility taught throughout the Bible" (Coffman).  We must not go beyond what is written in the New Testament as well.

Another Question: “How could we determine if baptism by immersion was practiced in churches after the first century?”  "Well, we might see if any ancient baptisteries have been discovered.  Maybe their structure could help us to see what happened."  Excellent answer, and it just so happens that in Italy, there are 30 churches with such ancient baptisteries.  Guess what?  From their size, their shape, their depth, and their inputs for water, there is an interesting conclusion: they were all designed so that people could be immersed (Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009, 836ff).

Now to a problem.  This is a fictitious problem, but listen carefully anyway!  Have you noticed that we really have a problem in our worship services?  There is no incense being used here!  Can you imagine that? 

It was used "regularly in worship in the Old Testament.  [Why it] was offered on the altar of incense both morning and evening in the tabernacle, and later in the temple.  Incense is mentioned in Psalm 141:2 and Malachi 1:11.  Incense is also mentioned in Revelation 8:4: "And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel's hand."  Doesn't Paul teach that we are to be "the aroma of Christ" in 2 Corinthians 2:16, and wouldn't using incense be a wonderful aid in reminding us of that truth?  Yes, we've worshiped far too long without any incense, and it's high time that we better start using it!

Here's another interesting observation: "Who could successfully deny that current culture is characterized by disrespect for authority?  The 'do your own thing' mentality that has been so pervasive since the 1960s has led those of subsequent generations to view themselves as autonomous (self-governing), with no higher authority than themselves.  Authority is seen to reside inherently within the individual.  The circumstance is reminiscent of the dark ages of Jewish history (the period of the Judges) when 'everyone did what was right in his own eyes' (Judges 21:25). ... We are living in a culture that pays lip service to religion, while fashioning that religion in accordance with human desire" (Miller).  

Alright, thank you for your patience with this lengthy introduction.  There is a common bond that ties all of these puzzle pieces together, and that is the topic of the usage of musical instruments in the worship service! 

That may be a bit shocking to you, so let's start over and try to show how all that we've said before in this lesson has a bearing on this topic. 

The first illustration involved a mechanic who interpreted silence as permissive.  You probably thought that his answer wouldn't stand up in a court.  But did you know that this is one of primary arguments that instrumentalists use to try to make their case?  They say, "Well, the New Testament does NOT say that we can't use them!  The silence then is permissive, and allows us to do it."  The question is really one of authorization isn't it?  I only authorized the mechanic to change my oil, and I did not authorize him to put on new tires.  My silence did NOT give him permission; in fact, it prohibited him from doing anything further. 

Likewise, the New Testament commands us to sing, and that in itself prohibits us from doing anything further.  1 Corinthians 14:15 states: "I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding.  I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding" (1 Corinthians 14:15).

The next example showed how the word "lyricist", which was once associated with an instrument, is now interpreted differently to mean one who wrote only the words of a song.  Instrumentalists will tell you that the term for "make melody" in Ephesians 5:19, the term psallo, means "to pluck or to play," so Paul is saying that Christians should sing and play in worship.  There's just one problem with this idea: words CAN change their meaning over time, just like we saw with the words "lyric" and "lyricist."  One person makes this correct observation about the same thing happening with the term for “play” in the New Testament: "It is the conclusion of this chapter that this is precisely the way in which psallo ... [was] used in the New Testament.  This is evidenced by the way those who heard it and at the earliest period of time responded to it and used it themselves.  Psallo meant to 'sing only' (that is without instrumental accompaniment) unless additional information was given to the contrary. 

... In the first century and beyond, the word psallo among pagans continued at times to be used in its classical sense of 'play' on an instrument. ... But when the word was used alone in contexts with application to Christian worship, the word was used clearly and consistently in the sense of 'sing without instrumental accompaniment'" (Hadwin).  Since we are looking at terms, do you know what a capella means.  It means "according to the chapel or according to the church." 

And what was the music "according to the church"?  It was vocal music only, and the term still means to sing something without accompaniment. 


You see, we are to sing using our hearts or our minds so that we are understanding and learning when we sing: Ephesians 5:18-19 commands: "... but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord."

In the third example, we saw how some think giving is a non-issue.  The same thing can be said about using musical instruments in worship.  In fact, a teacher at a Christian university shared this observation: "It may come as a rude shock to some people that a sizable portion of those enrolled in our Christian colleges consider the question of instrumental music in the worship of church simply a matter of no consequence. ... I speak of Bible majors, of students who are regarded as spiritual leaders on campus, and of those who are preparing to grace our pulpits within the next few years" (McKinney, HU Lectures 1986).  Now that statement was made almost 25 years ago, so those students are now in pulpits and maybe even in elderships today.  You see, this is NOT a non-issue.  Why?  Listen, to this wise assessment: "The grounds on which someone accepts an instrument into the assembly will make possible opening the door to many other things.  ... [The] basis on which [instrumental music] is accepted or rejected represents an important principle of biblical interpretation.  Something unimportant in itself may become [very] important if it is tied to an important principle or if it becomes an occasion of division.  On both grounds, instrumental music has become important" (Ferguson).  Romans 15:5-6 exhorts: "Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." 

So how can we know that vocal music alone was used in the churches after the first century?  Right, the writings of church leaders.  Here are three.  First of all, Clement of Alexandria, a Christian teacher in 190 A.D., wrote: "We, however, make use of but one instrument, the word of peace alone by which we honor God, and no longer the ancient psaltery [or harp], nor the trumpet, the tympanum, and the aulos [or pipes], as was the custom among those expert in war and those scornful of the fear of God who employed string instruments in their festive gatherings, as if to arouse their remissness of spirit[s] through such rhythms (Pedagogus, Book 2, Chapter 4; quoted in Hadwin).  A preacher, named John Chrysostom (347-407), said in a sermon: 'Where aulus players are [those who play the pipes], Christ is not.'  He then referred to cymbals, auloi (a style a of dancing), and obscene songs as 'the Devil's great heap ... of garbage" (Hom. On 1 Cor. 12:11; quoted in Lewis).  An early church historian who wrote around 325 A.D. named Eusebius made this comment: "The unison of voices of Christians would be more acceptable to God than any musical instrument.  Accordingly, in all the churches of God, united in soul and attitude, with one mind and in agreement of faith and piety, we send up a unison melody in the words of the Psalms" (commentary on Psalm 91; quoted by Hadwin).  So, we see that the church leaders condemned musical instruments in worship and exalted the voice or the unison of voices as the most pleasing instrument to praise God!  This is just three examples, and more could be added.  A scholar, who is not a Protestant, wrote a dissertation in 1965 about early church leaders and music, and said in a summary statement that there were two outstanding facts: "There is the fact that early Christian music was vocal, and there is the patristic [or early church leaders] polemic [or argumentation] against instruments" (James McKinnon, Columbia University, 1965).  [You might read that last statement again.]  Another source dealing with church matters made this assessment:  “... it is generally believed that the primitive Christians failed to adopt the use of instrumental music in their religious worship. ... The general introduction of instrumental music can certainly not be assigned to a date earlier than the 5
th and 6th centuries [the 400s-500s]. ... The first organ is believed to have been used in Church service in the 13th century [the 1200s]” (McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, NY: Harper and Brothers: 1876, 6:759, as quoted in Miller).  History verifies that musical instruments never were used and did not continue to be used in worship services.  And here's another interesting lesson from history: "So what reason is powerful enough to account for the dramatic and immediate change in Jewish and pagan practice regarding instrumental music on their becoming Christians?  Only a belief that the use of instrumental music in Christian worship was sinful could have abruptly changed such a deeply ingrained and centuries-long practice.  Only a command of God could have produced such a belief" (Hadwin).  Hebrews 13:15 admonishes: "Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.” 

The passage in 1 Corinthians 4:6 about not going beyond what is written shows us that the use of instrumental music in worship is a salvation issue.  "Salvation not only includes what Jesus required to be saved, but also includes refraining from sin when one is a Christian.  Sin is lawlessness or acting outside the scope of what is written by the inspired writers of Scripture.  "So then faith come by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God" (Romans 10:17).  Since the use of musical instruments in worship services cannot be found in New Testament teaching, those who use them are exceeding what is written and practicing something that is not of faith! ... And obeying God is crucial to our salvation" (Olbricht).


Question: How could we determine if instrumental music was practiced in churches after the first century?  "Well, we might see if any ancient music has been discovered.  Maybe something there could help us."  Yes, indeed, ancient discoveries do help us.  There is a fragment of a hymn that dates back to the 200s which was discovered in Egypt.  Interestingly, "... it contains notations for vocal rendition, but none for instrumental accompaniment" (Ferguson, ACM).  Ephraem Syrus was a church leader in the 300s and wrote at least 15 hymns.  According to a hymn historian: "We might have supposed them to be poems intended to be simply read, but from notes found on manuscripts giving directions as to the singing, it appears as though, at least in some cases, they were actually sung or chanted in connection with religious services" (John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1892, 1109).  Note again, there was no notation with regards to accompaniment!  What little evidence we have does not sustain the use of musical instruments in worship services.  

Hebrews 2:11-12 says this of Jesus: "He is not ashamed to call them brethren: saying, 'I will declare Your name to My brethren; in the midst of the assembly, I will sing praises to You'." 

Just change the arguments for using incense to using musical instruments, and you'll clearly understand the issue.  "Well, weren't instruments used in the Old Testament?"  The answer to that is: "Yes and No!"  God approved their usage in the worship of temple (2 Chronicles 29:25).  After the exile, however, musical instruments were not found in the worship of the synagogue!  Nonetheless, all systems under the Old Testament have been nailed to the cross, and we now live under the New Testament (Colossians 2:14)!  The instrumentalist will probably come back, "Yes, but there are harps in Revelation, and that's New Testament."  Let's look at two passages there very quickly.  Revelation 5:8-9: "Now when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the 24 elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.  And they sang a new song." 

"Although they hold harps, one could point out that they are not said to play [them], but only to sing.  This may not be just a quibble, for the bowls of incense are said [explicitly] to be the prayers of the saints.   

The harps would seem to symbolize singing in the same way that incense symbolizes prayers. ... Such an interpretation is strengthened by Revelation 14:2-3: 'And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters, and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they sing a new song before the throne.'  What is heard is a 'voice'.  It is compared to the sound of rushing water, the sound of thunder, and to the sound of harpists.  There is no literal water, thunder, or harp; only a voice.  And the voice is the singing, [a loud and beautiful singing] of the redeemed. ... [So], these passages do not offer as much support as is often claimed.  By the way, if we can argue that Revelation upholds using musical instruments, then we can rightfully argue that thrones, altars, bowls of incense, a sea of glass, and robes dipped in blood should be in worship services too because all those things are found in Revelation as well!  "It will aid us," instrumentalists say.  Perhaps a parallel idea will refute this argument.  When Christ told us to use bread and fruit of the vine for the elements of the Lord Supper, He did not specify the containers that could be used (the ways to serve aren't specified, so we may choose what to use).  Would it be an aid if we were to have lemonade and hamburgers instead of bread and fruit of the vine?  No, of course not, these things would be an unauthorized replacement and not an aid!  Likewise, when the apostles gave the command to sing vocally, they did not specify the style, the type of harmony, and the way to remember the music and the words (these ways aren't specified, so we many choose what to use).  Would it be an aid, however, to have guitars, pianos, and drums instead of vocal music?  No, of course not, these things would be an unauthorized replacement and not an aid.   "The general experience of religious bodies is that the presence of an instrument works against congregational participation in the music.  The emphasis shifts from active involvement to passive listening, from accompanied singing to playing only" (Ferguson).  We don't have or need incense because there is no command or example in the New Testament that it was ever used in the early church; in the same way, there is no command or example in the New Testament that musical instruments were ever used in the early church. 

W
hat are the purposes of worship in the New Testament?  Romans 15:6 says that it is to glorify God, 1 Corinthians 14:26 says that all things must be done to edify one another, and 2 Timothy 2:2 says that it involves teaching.  Note how singing fits so beautifully with all these purposes. 

Singing shares in heaven's praise to God (Luke 2:13-14).  Singing confesses faith (Hebrews 13:15).  Singing gives thanks to God (Colossians 3:16-17). 

Singing builds us up as members (1 Corinthians 14:15).  Singing exemplifies the unity of the church through one voice (Rom. 15:5-6).

Now how can musical instruments do any of those things?  They can't praise, nor give thanks, nor confess faith, nor build up members, nor exemplify unity through one voice!  They can't utter a single word, and it is words that glorify, edify, and teach!  In fact, musical instruments through their melody, volume, and amperage can often detract greatly from the vocal content, from the understanding and learning that should take place.  The voice is the only instrument God created, and it is peculiarly suited for accomplishing the purposes of the Christian assembly!  "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord" (Colossians 3:16-17). 

So what does it boil down too?  It boils down to one's preference, and letting each call the shots about worship, instead of letting God call the shots about it.  As we saw, in a culture where each individual no longer wants to hear any authority, everyone does what is right in his own eyes. 

One preacher has sadly noted: "The great tragedy of our own period of American history, for both the nation and the church, will surely be shown in the light of eternity to be the stampede to the left, the encroachment of secularism, the dulling of spiritual appetites in exchange for enshrining fleshly allurements, the shift from the rational to the emotional, in short—the betrayal of God" (Miller).  We have let our emotions, our feelings, and our personal preferences take first place in religious matters.  Another preacher has rightly noted: "God requires that those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24).  One must wonder how an unscriptural practice, began centuries later by men, can be from heaven or according to the truth. 

Men have no right to change God's plan or His teaching on any matter. 

When they do so, they act on their own authority—not the authority of God" (Phil Sanders quoted by Ron Williams).  As we have seen, there is no biblical, no historical, and no doctrinal support for the usage of musical instruments in worship services of the Lord's church!

Obeying God is crucial to our salvation.  Jesus challenges us to become His disciples.  Won't you become His disciple through repentance and immersion?  Won't you return to your first love if you've drifted away!  Then, let's continue to worship together in spirit and in truth!