Even though I’m going to take this blog in a new direction, I can’t help posting something I wrote back when I was a believing Christian. I was always afraid to post it here because I knew so many people in the church of Christ (the church I belonged to) would have problems with it. It was cowardly of me, but I didn’t want to go through that much drama, especially considering how things went when I did a post on drinking alcohol. But I figure I don’t have anything to lose at this point, so here are the thoughts I had on instrumental music in worship. Again, these were thoughts I held for many years as a faithful Christian in the church of Christ. I hope some of you will find these thoughts helpful.
I am a conservative Christian. I have always attended churches of Christ, and our aim is to try to practice things as close to the New Testament instructions as possible. Therefore, when it comes to our worship services, you will find no pianos, organs, orchestras, etc. You will only find a capella congregational singing. The reason for this is found in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, where Christians are encouraged to sing. And since “sing” is all that’s instructed, that’s all we do. Furthermore, since that’s the only instruction, we condemn anything more than simply singing.
For most of my life, I had no problem with this logic. But over the last several years, I have come to think of it as incorrect.
For me, the first chink in the armor appeared when I found out the word psalm (if you check the link, be sure to read the whole entry) essentially means “songs sung to musical accompaniment.” That was a huge revelation for me. Because if we’re told to sing those kinds of songs, then doesn’t that allow for musical instruments to be used?
Some would say no. Some people think that the meaning of “psalm” is irrelevant, since we’re still only told to sing. Others would say, “well if ‘psalm’ indicates the use of instruments, then you must use instruments!” In my opinion, both positions are extremes and make the subject much too complicated.
Part of the problem comes from viewing Eph 5:19 and Col 3:16 as strict commands. They don’t read like commands to me; they seem more like appeals or exhortations. The context of Colossians 3 is a plea for the Colossians to pull together and support one another. And singing is one of the things Paul says they can do to achieve that goal. Singing is referenced in Ephesians 5 because Paul is drawing a contrast: don’t be filled with wine, be filled with the Spirit! These simply aren’t written in the same way that most other Biblical commands are (10 Commandments, etc), though I realize that’s a fine line and difficult to prove.
Adding to the Command
But regardless of what kind of command it is, it’s true that those passages still only tell us to sing. And many Christians I know will say that if you add instrumental music to it, then you are no longer fulfilling the command to sing, you are doing something else. In their mind, singing along with instruments would be an addition to God’s word, which makes it wrong. But I’m not so sure that’s a good argument either.
Typically, in teaching about addition, the example of Nadab and Abihu is used. In Leviticus 10:1-2 we see that Nadab and Abihu are sons of Aaron and priests to God. While making sacrifices one day, they offered “strange fire” before the Lord and were struck dead because of it. I don’t know whether this strange fire was made a different way, or gotten from a different place, etc. All I know is that it wasn’t what God prescribed and they were punished.
This is often used as an example of addition. But if you really think about it, it’s not addition at all. It’s substitution. Nadab and Abihu weren’t left to figure out how to make this fire, God had told them (Lev 6:12-13 seems the likely place). They did something entirely different. That’s not adding to a command, that’s ignoring it and doing something else instead.
Another example that is commonly used is that of Noah building the ark (Genesis 6). God gave exact instructions on what type of wood to use, how many levels it should be, how many doors, windows, what dimmensions, etc. And I certainly agree that if Noah had done anything different, it would have been wrong. But that’s still not addition.
It is interesting to note that while God gave Noah many specific instructions, he also left some things out. For instance, God didn’t tell Noah how to build or arrange the living quarters for his family. That was apparently left up to Noah. Noah had freedom to choose how he wanted to do those things just as long as he built the ark with the specs God provided. Adding to those commands was okay.
If someone sings a song of worship while accompanied by a guitar, piano, etc, they are still singing a song of worship.
The Purpose of Singing
So why were we told to sing anyway? What’s important about it? Most Christians I know will rightly say that the words are the most important part. That’s absolutely true — after all, that’s where the meaning resides. But they will also use that to argue against instruments by saying that they distract from the words. In some cases, that’s probably true, and in those cases I would agree that the music has gone too far. But most of the time, music does not distract from the meaning of the words. Just think of your favorite secular music. You can enjoy the music and still understand the lyrics in most cases.
I’ve also heard people condemn instrumental music in worship because it can incite emotions. There’s some truth to that, obviously. But isn’t that part of the reason that God told us to sing? If we weren’t supposed to get our emotions riled, then the Bible probably would have told us to simply speak or chant to one another. But instead, we’re also told to sing — and one of the main reasons used is that it exhorts one another. Well if you exhort someone, you build them up emotionally! In my mind, the emotional aspect of music is actually one of the benefits we get from our worship.
And don’t forget that the Old Testament is full of references to instrumental music being used in worship. If it were wrong today because of its distracting nature, then it would have been wrong back then as well.
Some Closing Thoughts
As I said at the beginning, I first started questioning this issue when I discovered the meaning of the word psalm. But the next thing that caused me to challenge it was human nature. When my oldest daughter was a toddler, she loved to sing. And one day, she was going around the house with her toy guitar singing songs and strumming along. After a few minutes she broke into “Jesus Loves Me” or something similar, all while playing that guitar. Now this was a child who had never heard religious songs set to music. Never. Yet it was natural for her to assume that nothing would be wrong with doing it.
So when 1st Century Christians worshipped God, how did they do it? The earliest converts were Jews, who used instruments to worship God in the temple. In fact, in Acts 2:46-47 we see that the first Christians continued to meet daily in the temple where music with worship would have been practiced. But we see no mention of how that was disapproved of, or not engaged in, or taught against etc. The early Greek Christians would have been used to the same kinds of worship because of paganism. Yet there are still no teachings in the New Testament that condemn the practice of using instruments in worship.
God is not out to trick us. He gave us a message so that we could understand him. But how could people be expected to follow a command that is never actually given? Especially when use of the word psalm makes it seem ambiguous, at best? And when the Old Testament is filled with references of instruments used in worship, and when imagery of heaven involves harps and trumpets, and when their own human nature causes them to assume that it’s okay, how are people supposed to unanimously come to the conclusion that its use in the church is wrong?
Colossians 3:20-23 says the following:
20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
As this passage says, why should we submit ourselves to strict physical regulations that have no inherent spiritual value when we’ve been set free from the physical mandates of the Old Law? Wouldn’t this condemnation of instrumental music in worship apply? There’s no inherent value in using or not using musical instruments.
And that brings me to my final point. I can understand someone who doesn’t feel comfortable with instrumental music in worship because it is not expressly commanded. But among conservative Christians, you often hear the phrase “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent.” If you think about it, that’s an admirable position to take.
But on the subject of instrumental music, they have changed it to “speak where the Bible speaks and condemn where the Bible is silent.” In my mind, those are two vastly different things. We are completely justified to abstain from a certain practice if it affects our conscience (Romans 14). But that does not give us the right to condemn others for doing it when the Bible itself doesn’t condemn them. When we do that, we are becoming Pharisees — we are setting bounds for people that God never set.
When you see it from that perspective, it becomes obvious that true “addition” to the word of God doesn’t come from the use of instrumental music in worship, but in condemning others for practicing it.
I hope these thoughts make sense. I’ve been thinking about it for a very long time, but have never written about it till now. If you have any further thoughts, questions, disagreements, complaints, etc about this article, feel free to leave a comment below. And thanks for stopping by.