Church Music in the Bible No. 2


By Wayne S. Walker

     Some people get upset when a gospel preacher presents a sermon or writes an article on instrumental music in worship.  I once knew a person, a member of the Lord’s church no less, who was all put out because a fellow used a whole sermon to oppose using the instrument in worship.  Certainly we should not become hobby-riders on this or any other subject, but even though the division between the Christian Church and churches of Christ is past, there is still a need to teach on instrumental music in worship.  First of all, denominational friends who visit our services frequently ask why we have no piano, and every child of God should be ready and able to give an answer.  Secondly, there are some brethren (and I’m not talking about new converts but a growing number of preachers) who no longer believe that instrumental music in worship is wrong.  They may say that it is unwise, inexpedient, or against our tradition, but they will not affirm that it is sinful.  And third, we need to teach our children what the Bible has to say about church music lest they grow up and fail to recognize the truth.

References to music in the Bible

     The first reference in the Bible to music is in Genesis 4:21 where Moses wrote that Jubal was the father of all that handle the harp and the organ (flute).  This would seem to indicate that he was the inventor of many of the instruments used before the flood.  The first reference to music in regards to the Hebrew people is in Exodus 15:1 and 20.  Following their deliverance from their Egyptian pursuers, the Israelites under Moses’s leadership sang a song of praise to God.  After this, Miriam and the women praised God with timbrels (a type of musical instrument) and dances.  We know from various passages (e.g., 1 Chronicles 23:1-5, Psalm 150:3-5) that instrumental music was used in temple worship from David’s time, but historians tell us that it was not used in synagogue worship.  This answers the quibble of some that the Jews on Pentecost when the church was established grew up using instruments in worship and would not have known how to praise God otherwise.

So we see that the majority of references in the Old Testament to music are to instrumental.  Under the law of Moses, God apparently did permit it in worship.  But all New Testament musical references for worship by Christians are to singing.  Read Matthew 26:30, Mark 14:26, Acts 16:25, Romans 15:9, 1 Corinthians 14:15, Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, Hebrews 2:12, and James 5:13 (a previous article dealt with Revelation 14:1-3 and 15:1-3).  Notice that all these passages mention only singing or vocal music, and none of them says anything about playing on a mechanical instrument of music.  This silence alone is very significant and should cause us to tread very carefully.

Music in the early church

       The period from about A.D. 33 to 100 is referred to as the “Apostolic Period.”  “We have seen that at the very beginning of the Christian period the Church eschewed all use of instruments in its services” (Theodore M. Finney, A History of Music, 1947).   “Since no instruments were allowed in the church the art of choral music had the monopoly for fifteen hundred years after the beginning of Christianity” (Ruth Pushee, Music in the Religious Service, 1938).  “The music of the early Christian churches was entirely vocal, with little regard for instruments of any kind.  In fact, the early church fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria, St. Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, strongly denounced the use of instruments with sacred singing” (Kenneth W. Osbeck, The Ministry of Music, 1961).   “Although Josephus tells of the wonderful effects produced in the temple by the use of instruments, the first Christians were of too spiritual fibre to substitute lifeless instruments for or to use them to accompany the human voice.  Clement of Alexandria severely condemns the use of instruments” (The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 10, p. 651).

The period from about A.D. 100 to 250 is often called the “Post-Apostolic Period.”  “Here we have the first mention of musical instruments in the Psalms.  It is to be observed that the early fathers almost with one accord protest against their use in churches; as they are forbidden in the Eastern church to this day, where yet, by the consent of all, the singing is infinitely superior to anything that can be heard in the West” (John Mason Neale, 1818-1866).  “The use of singing with instrumental music was not received in the Christian churches as it was among the Jews in their infant state, but only the use of plain song” (Justin Martyr, A.D. 100-167).  “Only one instrument do we use, namely, the word of peace wherewith we honor God, no longer the old psaltery, trumpet, drum, and flute” (Clement of Alexandria, A.D. 170-220).

Even of a little later period, say from A. D. 250 to 400, the German Lutheran church historian Johann Lorenz von Mosheim (1693-1755) informs us, “The Christian worship consisted in hymns, prayers, the reading of the Scriptures, a discourse addressed to the people, and concluded with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.”  He makes no mention of anyone playing on a mechanical instrument of music.  “All early Christian music was vocal” (Nich Rossi and Sadie Rafferty in Music Through the Centuries, 1963).  “The Christians in early Rome sang their hymns entirely unaccompanied.  They possessed no instruments, in fact musical instruments were in bad repute with them….The  custom of singing without accompaniment, or a capella, was retained for centuries in the Catholic Church” (Grace G. Wiln, A History of Music, 1930).

If instrumental music was not part of the early church, when was it introduced?

     “In the Greek Church the organ never came into use.  But after the eighth century it became more and more common in the Latin Church; not, however, without opposition from the side of the monks.  Its misuse, however, raised so great an opposition to it, that, but for Emperor Ferdinand, it would probably have been abolished by the Council of Trent.  The Reformed Church discarded it; and though the Church of Basel very early reintroduced it, it was in other places admitted only sparingly, and after long hesitation” (Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, p. 1702).  This plainly shows that it was not used in the first few centuries of the church but was added later and, therefore, was not of apostolic authority.

“Pope Vitalian is related to have first introduced organs into some of the churches of Western Europe, about 670; but the earliest trustworthy account is that of the one sent as a present by the Greek emperor, Constantine Copronymus, to Pepin, king of the Franks, in 755” (The American Encyclopedia, Vol. 12, p.  688).  “The organ is said to have been first introduced into church music by Pope Vitalian  I in 666.  In 757, a great organ was sent as a present to Pepin by the Byzantine emperor, Constantine Copronymus, and placed in the church of St. Corneille at Compeigne.  Soon after Charlemagne’s time, organs became common” (Chamber’s Encyclopedia, Vol. 7, p. 112).

Why, then, was instrumental music introduced into worship?  The answer to this is not precisely known, but there are several possible reasons.  One may have been to keep the pagan-minded converts happy by incorporating elements of their heathen religion into the church.  The Catholics have been doing this for ages.  Another may have been to spruce up the music of the church and make it more pleasing to entertainment-seeking worshippers.  Or it could have been done to draw bigger crowds and perhaps thereby to get more members.  But you can rest assured that instrumental music never found its way into the worship of the church because someone read about it in God’s pattern for the worship of His church as revealed in the New Testament and decided that it was right.

Testimony of church leaders

     Most religious denominations today use instruments of music in their worship.  But what most members of these organizations do not know is that many of the founders, early leaders, and scholars of their churches were opposed to the instrument in worship, or at least admitted that it is not of divine authority.  Take, for example, the Catholic Church.  “Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize….Instrumental music as well as singing is mentioned in the Old Testament, but the church has accepted only singing on account of its ethical value; instruments were rejected” (Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274).  “What does the apostle mean by ‘in your hearts’?  He means that no one should think to please God by bellowing, or by modulated neighing, or by the organs which now blast in our churches….Let us sing as Christ did with His disciples and as Paul and Silas did in prison….Chants…mass…the primitive church had none of this, nor organs” (Desiderius Erasmus, 1466-1536, commenting on Ephesians 5:19).

As mentioned in quotations previously, the Eastern Orthodox Church (Greek, Russian, etc.) does not use musical instruments in worship.  “The execution of Byzantine church music by instruments, or even the accompaniment of sacred chanting by instruments, was ruled out by the Eastern Fathers as being incompatible with the pure, solemn, spiritual character of the religion of Christ.  The Fathers of the church, in accordance with the example of psalmodizing of our Savior and the holy Apostles, established that only vocal music be used in the churches and forbade instrumental music as being secular and hedonic, and in general as evoking pleasure without spiritual value” (G. I. Papadopoulos, A Historical Survey of Byzantine Ecclesiastical Music, 1904).  There are also some Protestant denominations, such as the Reformed Presbyterian, most Primitive Baptists, Conservative Mennonites, Amish, and Plymouth Brethren, which believe that instrumental music in worship is wrong.

Did you know that while Martin Luther apparently made allowances for the instrument he was not an advocate of it?  “Luther considers organs among the ensigns of Baal” (Heinrich Eckard, a German theologian who argued in favor of instrumental music against Calvin).  “There is no reason to suppose that Luther had any interest in the organ.  His voluminous writings scarcely mention the instrument, and when he does, he treats it almost with scorn” (Dr. Edwin Liemohn, who in 1937 founded the choir of Wartburg College, Waverly, IA, and was its first music director).  “The organ too had made its way into the service despite opposition….Even Luther was less than sure about its use” (Conrad J, Bergendoff, 1895–1997, a Lutheran theologian and historian who was the fifth president of Augustana College in Rock Island, IL).  As for the Episcopalian Church (originally the Church of England), two of the best Anglican scholars wrote concerning Ephesians 5:19, “When you meet, let your enjoyment consist not in fullness of wine, but fullness of spirit; let your songs be, not the drinking songs of heathen feasts, but psalms and hymns; and their accompaniment, not the music of the lyre, but the melody of the heart; while you sing them to the praise, not of Bacchus or Venus, but of the Lord Jesus Christ” (W. J. Coneybeare and J. S. Howson, The Life and Epistles of St. Paul).

The Presbyterian-Reformed tradition’s best known champion was John Calvin, who wrote, “Musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting of lamps, and the restoration of the other shadows of the law.  The Papists, therefore, have foolishly borrowed this, as well as many other things from the Jews.  Men who are fond of outward pomp may delight in that noise; but the simplicity which God recommends to us by the apostles is far more pleasing to Him.”  John Gireardeau, a Presbyterian scholar and professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, said, “The church, although lapsing more and more into deflection from the truth and into a corruption of apostolic practice, had not instrumental music for 1,200 years (that is, it was not in general use before this time)….The Calvinist Reformed church ejected it from its services as an element of Popery, even the Church of England having come very nigh to its extrusion from her worship….It is heresy in the sphere of worship.”  And one other famous Presbyterian, the commentator Albert Barnes, noted, “Psallo…is used in the New Testament only in Rom. 15:9 and 1 Cor. 14:15, where it is translated sing; in James 5:13, where it is rendered sing psalms; and in the place before us.  The idea here is that of singing in the heart, or praising God from the heart” (comments on Ephesians 5:19).

So far as the Baptists are concerned, A. T. Robertson, a Southern Baptist Greek scholar, wrote, “The word (psalleto) originally meant to play on a stringed instrument…but it comes to be used also for singing with the voice and heart (Eph. 5:19, 1 Cor. 14:15), making melody with the heart also to the Lord” (Word Pictures in the New Testament).  One of the most outstanding Baptists of all time, Charles Haddon Spurgeon of the Metropolitan Tabernacle of London, England, said, “Men need all the help they can get to stir them up to praise.  This is the lesson to be gathered from the use of musical instruments under the old dispensation.  Israel was at school, and used childish things to help her learn, but in these days, when Jesus gives us spiritual manhood, we can make melody without strings and pipes….We do not need them; they would hinder than help our praise….What a degradation to supplant the intelligent song of the whole congregation by the theatrical prettiness of a quartet, the refined niceties of a choir, or the blowing off of wind from inanimate bellows and pipes!  We might as well pray by machinery as praise by it” (Treasury of David).

Even during what some refer to as “the restoration of the church” in this country, many of those to whom our Christian Church friends look with pride were opposed to instrumental music in worship.  “So to those who have no real devotion or spirituality in them, and whose animal nature flags under the oppression of church service, I think that instrumental music would be not only a desideratum, but an essential pre-requisite to fire up their souls even to animal devotion.  But I presume to all spiritually minded Christians, such aids would be as a cow-bell in a concert” (Alexander Campbell, Millennial Harbinger; Fourth Series, Vol. I., No. 10; October, 1851; pp. 581-582).  “And if any man who is a preacher believes that the apostle teaches the use of instrumental music in the church by enjoining the singing of psalms, he is one of those smatterers in Greek who can believe anything that he wishes to believe.  When the wish is father of the thought, correct exegesis is like water on a duck’s back” (J. W. McGarvey; Biblical Criticism, p. 116).


     I do not use these historical quotations as authority, nor as conclusive proof of my contention that instrumental music in worship is unscriptural.  I merely cite them as corroborating evidence.  The New Testament specifies singing in worship and is absolutely silent about instruments in the church.  History shows us that they were not used in the apostolic church and that great religious men of all ages have opposed them.  With all this information against them, why would anyone want to place his soul in jeopardy by using mechanical instruments in worship to God?

Due to the fact that many of my sources were secondary, I was not able to document fully each of the quotations, although I did my best to verify their accuracy.  Also space did not allow me to give complete credit for every single source.  However, I am much indebted for information to the following:  Roland Worth, “Instrumental Music in Religious History,” The Preceptor magazine, Sept. and Oct., 1976, Vol. 25, Nos. 11-12; Earl E. Robertson, “Instrumental Music in Worship,” Truth Magazine, Feb. 7, 14, Mar. 3, 10, 1077, Vol. 21, Nos. 7-10; M. C. Kurfees, Walking by Faith: Origin of Instrumental Music in Christian Worship; William S. Irvine, “Instrumental Music” (tract); and bulletin articles by John Gerrard and Irvin Himmel.

—taken from The Gospel Guardian; Vol. XXIX, No. 12; June 15, 1977; pp. 14-17


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