Church Music in the Bible No. 1


By Wayne S. Walker

     One of the most noticeable differences between the Lord’s church, commonly referred to as the church of Christ, and the majority of denominational churches is the lack of mechanical instruments of music in worship.  I have heard people call us the “no music church.”  I have even heard some of our own members try to tell others why “we don’t have music.”  Statements like these are misleading because we do have music; however, it is vocal, not instrumental.  That music was a part of the worship of the apostolic church may be seen from passages such as 1 Corinthians 14:15.  In that verse, Paul includes singing, along with prayer, as he attempts to regulate how the Corinthians were to conduct their assemblies.  Let’s examine what the Bible has to say about church music.

I. Charges Made Against Us:

Reasons why others think that we do not use a piano, but which are wrong

     I read a newspaper column some years ago in which Billy Graham said that those who do not use instruments in worship have no joy in their religion.  This is false.  Through faith and obedience (Ephesians 2:8, 1 Peter 1:22) we have all spiritual blessings including forgiveness of sins (Ephesians 1:3, 7).  Therefore, Christians should be a happy people (Acts 8:39, Philippians 4:4).  One way in which this happiness is to find expression is in singing (James 5:13).  The question is not a matter of joy but of what God has said about how we are to express our joy in our worship.

Someone says, “It is only your tradition.”  In psychology this would be known as “sociological environmental determinism.”  The idea is that since instrumental music was used in pubs and brothels, and since it is found in false religious groups which we oppose, we have established the custom of not using it.  But if this were the only reason we object to it, we would stand condemned because Jesus taught that to preach mere human tradition as truth is wrong (Matthew 15:3-9).

Someone else may reason, “They must believe that all instrumental music itself is wrong; or they dislike it; or they personally prefer vocal.”  No, many Christians play instruments at home, in school, and even professionally.  And if I were in the business of establishing a church of my own, I would most certainly include them because I like that kind of music.  But Jesus built His church, and He has all authority in it as its Head (Matthew 16:18, 28:18; Ephesians 1:22-23).  In our worship, we must do what He says and not what we happen to prefer.

Another replies, “You probably cannot afford it.”  I can remember once as a child when one of my friends in school found out that we didn’t have instrumental music in worship of the church where we attended, he told me that he would pray for us that we could raise the money to buy a piano.  But if instrumental music in worship were right, and if we really wanted it badly enough, we would find a way to get it.

When all else fails, it is a common reaction to attack the person rather than the issue.  “Oh, you’re just a bunch of narrow-minded, prejudiced cranks and fanatics who want to be different from everybody else and revel in being unpopular.”  Not so.  From Acts 2:47 we learn that the early church had “favor with all the people.”  We would like that too, but there is something more important.  Peter said, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).  And when it comes to being “narrow-minded,” Jesus said that the way to heaven is narrow (Matthew 7:13-14).  I want to be just as narrow as the Bible is.

II. The Real Reason:

Well, then, why do we not use instrumental music in our worship?

     The basic, primary, fundamental reason is that there is no divine authority for it.  The New Testament authorizes us to sing (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16).  It says nothing about playing.  Acts 20:27 tells us to preach the whole counsel of God, meaning that we cannot do anything less than what God says.  On the other hand, 1 Corinthians 2:2 says that we are to preach nothing save Christ and Him crucified, indicating that we cannot do anything more.  In fact, we cannot change the word of God in any way (Galatians 1:6-9).  Adding to, subtracting from, or otherwise tampering with God’s will is wrong (Revelation 22:18-19).  Thus we try to do exactly what the Bible directs.  Those who would add playing to God’s commands to sing and so change the divine pattern for church music stand under the condemnation of these passages.

We need to understand the Biblical principle of silence.  In Hebrews 7:13-14, the writer points out God’s demand that the Jewish priests come from the tribe of Levi.  God was silent about priests from any other tribe.  The necessary conclusion which followed was that God did not want priests from the other tribes, or He would have said so.  He did not have to say, “Thou shalt not have a priest from Judah, etc.”  When God specified Levi, that automatically prohibited all the others.  Another example is Noah and the ark in Genesis 6:14.  God told Noah to build the ark out of gopher wood.  He said nothing about pine, oak, maple, or cedar.  He did not have to say, “Thou shalt not use ash, elm, birch, or beech.”  By specifying gopher, He necessarily excluded everything else.

In the New Testament we can examine the communion service.  In 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, Paul wrote that Jesus authorized the unleavened bread and the fruit of the vine used in the Passover for the Lord’s supper.  Christ didn’t say anything about other foods or drinks on the table.  He did not have to say, “Thou shalt not use cake, doughnuts, or biscuits and coffee, tea, or milk.”  He specified unleavened bread and the cup (grape juice), thus revealing that such was His will and nothing else.

In 2 Corinthians 5:7 we are told to walk by faith and not by sight.  Romans 10:17 tells us that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.  Therefore, to walk by faith, we must walk according to God’s word and not go beyond what it teaches.  “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God.  He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son” (2 John v. 9).  Since God tells us to sing, and since the New Testament is silent about playing on an instrument, we cannot use instrumental music in worship and walk by faith.  Such is a transgression of God’s will.

III. Objections Raised:

Answering arguments which are used to defend instrumental music

     “David used it.”  Yes, he did (2 Chronicles 29:25-28).  But remember that the Old Testament has been removed as a source of authority (Hebrews 8:6-13, 10:9).  Besides, David also had concubines (1 Chronicles 3:1-9), danced before the Lord (2 Samuel 6:14-16)—both evidently with God’s permission, and participated in the Passover observance, animal sacrifices, and other Old Testament requirements.  The fact that David did something proves nothing.  But if someone today returns to the old law for even one practice, he must take it all, and in so doing he has fallen from grace (Galatians 5:3-4).

“There will be instrumental music at the second coming and in heaven (I Thessalonians 4:16, Revelation 14:1-3).”  First of all, remember that the book of Revelation is figurative in nature, written in signs and symbols (Revelation 1:1).  Just read Revelation 14:1-3 carefully.  Verse 3 says that they sang a new song.  The “sound of harpists playing their harps” simply symbolizes the beautiful nature of this heavenly music.  John also heard a voice as many waters and great thunder.  If there will be real instruments in heaven, will there also be real waterfalls and thunderstorms?  And even if these were literal instruments of music, what will occur at the second coming and in heave is not necessarily what Christ has authorized for the worship of the church here on earth.

The Greek word psallo and its related forms are supposed to include using an instrument when they are found in New Testament passages concerning church music.  It is true that at one time the term meant to pluck something—like a hair, a bow, or a string.  But all New Testament scholars agree that by the first century it had come to mean “sing a hymn; celebrate praise to God in song”—without regard to any instrumental accompaniment.  Furthermore, in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, the object of the action of psallo is not a harp string but the human heart.  Whatever the word means, it is done in the heart and not on a mechanical instrument.  In addition, every reputable translator has always rendered it “sing” or “make melody” with no indication about playing on an instrument.  Also, if psallo did mean play an instrument, then everyone would have to play since it is a collective verb that we do “to one another” in these passages.  And it would be a necessity; we could not obey the passages and do without it, yet I know of no one who will admit that.  Finally, since psallo originally meant to pluck, it is doubtful that a piano could be used since we do not actually pluck its strings, and an organ would be totally unsuitable since no plucking is involved whatsoever.

Is instrumental music an aid or an expedient to singing, like songbooks and pitch pipes?  To be expedient, a thing must first be proved to be lawful, and it cannot change the command or add to it in any way (1 Corinthians 6:12).  We do not prove something lawful merely because we claim that it is “expedient.”  Even though we may use songbooks and pitch pipes, we are still only doing exactly what God said—singing.  We are not singing AND songbooking or singing AND pitchpiping.  But to bring in an instrument changes the music from purely vocal to instrumental accompaniment, and thus adds playing, a different kind of music, to singing.  And after all, it really isn’t an aid anyway.  One purpose of singing is to teach and admonish one another, and a mechanical instrument can do neither.

When all other arguments have been answered, the proponents of instrumental music in worship will often ask, “But God didn’t say, ‘Thou shalt not use instrumental music in worship;’ where does the Bible say that it is wrong?”  We have already discussed this point, but let me re-emphasize it with a story.  A mother sent her boy to the store with a $5.00 bill, asked him to get a $2.50 jar of peanut butter for some cookies that she was going to bake, and told him to bring back the change.  He arrived at the market and bought the peanut butter.  But he saw some chocolate drops that looked really good for $2.50, and he said to himself, “Mother likes chocolate drops as well as peanut butter cookies, so I’ll get some of them too.”  When he returned home, his mother asked for the peanut butter and the change.  He proudly handed her the chocolate drops, but she said, “Son, I didn’t tell you to get chocolate drops.”  The boy replied, “Yes, but you didn’t say not to.”  He received a whipping anyway.

Where did God say, “Thou shalt not use hamburger and cola in the Lord’s supper”?  Where does the Bible say that fried chicken and lemonade on the Lord’s table are wrong?  Or where is the passage which specifically teaches that it is sinful to dance in the assembly or to burn incense in worship?  In order to please God, we must learn to act only as the Father has commanded (Matthew 7:21-23), to speak only as the oracles of God (1 Peter 4:11), and not to presume to go where God has not spoken.  “Now these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes; that in us ye might learn not to go beyond the things which are written; that no one of you be puffed up for the one against the other” (1 Corinthians 4:6, ASV).

There are other reasons given for having instrumental music in worship.  “Since we have liberty in Christ, we ought to be free to use it.”  But we cannot use our liberty as a cloak for disobedience (1 Peter 2:16).  “To object to it is to bind where God has not bound.”  But God has bound singing or vocal music, and we must also be careful not to loose where God has not loosed (Matthew 18:18).  “We use it because it pleases the worshippers; it’s entertaining, and we like the sound of it.  Paul asked if we are trying to please men or God (Galatians 1:10).  “I think it is all right; I don’t see anything wrong with it.”  Solomon wrote, “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Proverbs 14:12).

Those of us who oppose instrumental music in worship are sometimes accused of judging.  “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1).  It is not our desire to judge the motives of people, but we are exhorted to “judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24).  “You preach too much on instrumental music and not enough on real soul-damning sins like atheism, drunkenness, and adultery.”  I doubt that this charge is true; it just seems that way to some.  We do preach on these other things, and maybe we need to teach some more than we do.  But even if the charge were true, it would not mean that we should quit preaching on instrumental music, nor would it give license for anyone to use it for worship in the absence of God’s authorization.  “Whosoever shall keep the whole law, yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10).  If one is right about atheism, drunkenness, and adultery, yet is wrong about music in worship, he is still wrong.

“If we have a piano at home, why not in the church?”  In 1 Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5, Paul tells husbands and wives what they may do at home, but it would not be proper for them to do some of those things in church!  In fact, Paul makes a very plain distinction between what may be done in the home and in the church (1 Corinthians 11:22).  “But some people have a God-given talent to play the piano, and we should use that talent in the worship.”  Some men have a great talent to grill hamburgers, and some women have a great talent to bake cherry pies; should we not use that talent in the Lord’s supper?  And what about the stripper who used her “God-given talent” in a Dallas, Texas, Unitarian Church?  The use of whatever talents we may have must be governed by the authority of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  There are many other arguments we could cite, but like those above, none of them are based on Scripture.

I am not saying that everyone who believes that instrumental music in worship might be permissible under certain circumstances, or is not completely convinced that it is wrong, is necessarily lost.  There is a difference between what one may believe as a personal opinion and what he practices.  There are probably a lot of Christians—especially new converts—who worship regularly and are in fellowship with faithful New Testament churches of Christ but who have not made up their minds yet concerning instrumental music in worship.  If they are willing to remain part of a congregation without the instrument, work with those who oppose it, and not be contentious about it, I see no problem in accepting them as brethren.  But those who actively teach and practice the use of instrumental music in worship are in error and need to repent, correct their lives, and start following God’s way.  If a person truly loves Christ, he will want to do what the Lord says without quibbling, arguing, making excuses, or trying to get around God’s laws.  We must do exactly what Jesus wants—no more and no less—to please Him.  This is certainly true with regard to church music.

—taken from The Gospel Guardian; Vol. XXIX, No. 11; June 1, 1977; pp. 12-16

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