Current Questions — Musical Worship

Last week I began a bulletin series on contemporary questions. We began with the authority of Scripture. This was foundational to all the rest that we will discuss. These topics tend to be controversial in some places and they will remain controversial until we all commit ourselves to submit to the authority of God found in the Scriptures. I will confess that 650 words is way too brief an article to fully discuss this crucially important anchor of Christian truth, but I hope that we can all nevertheless agree that the Bible is God’s inspired word and the “last word” on all things pertaining to life and godliness.

That being said, let’s address a topic of considerable controversy these days, instrumental music in the worship of the Lord. Historically speaking, from the first days of the church (Pentecost) through about AD 1000 churches DID NOT use musical instruments in worship. This is why the phrase a cappella means to sing unaccompanied; it is really Latin for “in the manner of the church”.

The early church used NO instruments in their worship, not because of fear of persecution, not because no one knew how to play a harp, and not because instruments were too hard to carry from house to house. They chose to sing a cappella, because the teachings of the apostles was to do so. So when Paul instructs the Ephesians (5:19) and the Colossians (3:16) to sing, he used a specific Greek word that is never used with instruments (ado). In other places (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:15) where he teaches them to sing, he uses a Greek word that only means to use instruments, if the instrument is mentioned (psallo). Greek reading Christians from the first through the tenth centuries understood the words this way and obediently practiced them that way until church leaders decided they liked the sound of organs. Even so, the Greek speaking eastern churches continued to worship a cappella down the present day.

Instruments were used by the Roman church from about AD 1000 to the present, but the Reformers like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, the Wesleys, and others all rejected the instrument — being readers of the Greek language. My favor quotes from these protestant reformers include…

John Wesley (founder of the Methodist Church) said, “I have no objections to instruments of music in our chapels provided they are neither heard nor seen.” 

John Calvin (theologian behind much Baptist and Presbyterian doctrine) said, “Musical instruments, in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting up of lamps, the restoration of the other shadows of the Law.” 

It wasn’t until the early 1800s that Protestant churches began to use pianos and organs. 

But someone may ask, “What about the instruments in the Old Testament? Don’t they show that God accepts them?” The answer in a nutshell is this, instruments were part of the old covenant, the Mosaic covenant and (like Calvin said above) are no more suitable for worshipping God than animal sacrifice and the rest of tabernacle worship.

Someone else might say, “But what about harps in Heaven in the book of Revelation?” These are mere symbols of musical praise; the context shows that even here the Greek word for singing is ado, the Greek version of a cappella.

Others might object by pointing out that God didn’t specifically forbid it. Actually, however, He did; by commanding a specific form of singing, ado, a cappella, He automatically eliminated other forms of musical worship. 

Still another might point out that singing in worship without instruments sounds simply awful. But this misses the point of worship. Our worship is offered to the Lord, who doesn’t care about the quality of singing from a human standpoint; He cares about the heart of the worshipper (John 4:24). It is not for human audiences

The question of whether or not to use instruments in worship isn’t really new; it is actually an old one that was decisively answered long ago. Unfortunately, many have never been taught the answer and others have forgotten it. The Biblical answer is that God desires the voices of His worshippers accompanied only by the love of their hearts (Ephesians 5:19). Let’s worship God God’s way.

About parklinscomb

I'm a minister for the church of Christ in Manchester NH where I've worked since the 1970's. I'm a big fan of my family, archaeology, the Bible, the Lord's church, and Gander Brook Christian Camp.
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