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.
34 thoughts on “Instrumental Music in Worship”
I think your issue goes far beyond instermental use. I really do not think that my answer will satisfy you. However I choose Not using instermentatiom because the New Testament does not give referance or give example of its use. Sence I do believe in god, I want to obay him as closely as possible and keep my personal views out of it. I do not see where it prohibits use of it but that is however a judgement call and once again subject to gods judgement. I have attended churches that use instermentatiom and frankly i was not that impressed. Sence you do not believe in the existence of god, I find it puzzling, that this issue bothers you. I am simply saying, sence god does not command or give example of it in the New Testament, I am quite comfortable without its use. There are many churches that use it and that is totally up to them and in time, god will Make that call, not me. At least I know that I am not adding or taking anything away from the word of god. Christ instructs his disciples to sing, not play and sing and that is good enough for me.
Thanks for the candid reply. It may surprise you to hear that I agree with you. I think you have the correct outlook on it. The reason this is interesting to me is that I was a Christian for many years and attended churches that prohibited the use of instruments. That in itself is not a bad thing, but they went a step further and condemned those who did use them. I came to realize that they had no authority to do that.
The reasons I finally left Christianity were completely unrelated to this. But when I was growing up, thinking through the instrumental music thing was the first time I broke away from the doctrines my parents held to.
Thanks again for discussing the issue with me. 🙂
You are very welcome. I hope you find the answers you seek.
This is late in the game but here goes. God is not Vague. Meaning that if God wants us to do something He tells us, if God doesn’t want us to do something he tells us. When God is silent, then God has no opinion…it is not a condemnation until God condemns it. Growing up in the CoC we have problems with understanding past that which we have come to understand. And this causes a lot of hypocrisy.
Let’s look at Eph. 5:19 “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord,”
Psalms per the meaning is to “pluck strings” and this was done to singing in the OT. It should be noted that the word psalms in the OT and the psalmos in the NT are basically transliterations, much like baptizo and baptism, and mean exactly the same thing. This is proved by the Septuigent, which uses the term psalmos in place of psalms in the OT version. The Jews in that century wouldn’t have understood the OT and the NT as separate, but rather a continuing story of God’s mercy. And the Jewish words would have carried the Jewish understandings.
But let’s be technical shall we:
1.) “speaking to one another”, which Col.3:16 also says, argues that there must always be another within in range of the singing and that that other person also must e singing. In other words, singing alone is unscriptural. Add to this that there are no examples of them singing alone. In I Cor.12-14 those who gathered together would have sung with the Spirit. In the case of Paul and Silas, they sang to each other. In the case of the Passover/Lord’s Supper, they sang afterwards. To follow this strictly, we must always sing in the presence of others, other wise it is sinful.
2.) the melody must be a construct of the heart, meaning that a pre-written melody is sinful. Ironically the only proof of a pre-written melody goes back to the Psalms, where of course instruments were used.
3.) Eph. and Col. applies to “making melody” and thus should apply to all instances of melody. The Jews didn’t have any concept of secular singing or music, as all was directed to God. But due to these verses “making melody” should be God directed, so to sing, even without an instrument, to another person is sinful. The early saints would have directed all singing to God. Technically secular singing is wrong, with or without IM.
The argument of condemning something that accompanies something fails, because of this….common understanding and application.
If a man is approached by his daughter and she says, “Daddy, I want to sing you a song”, then he says, “OK”, then she pulls out a guitar and starts singing, will the father condemn his daughter or not. After all she said “sing” and here she is not only singing, but playing. Did she lie or not?
This is not rocket science.
In the OT, IM was commanded in the Temple, but outside of the Temple, it was not and the people sang and used IM freely. Singing and playing was a part of the festivals and by people like David.
To say we shouldn’t do things that weren’t done in the NT also must apply to things like church buildings and everything that goes into them. They either worshipped in homes or in open places, but one thing is true, they never had church buildings. Never.
The Jews when giving, never prayed before the giving. There are also no examples of a contribution following the Lord’s Supper, but rather a song. See the gospels. There were also no examples of preachers settling in one congregation, which would have been hard due to there being many congregations in many homes.
The Lord’s Supper was done in the evening, per the Passover and I Cor.11 and it being called a “supper” and was done around a table. If there was serving it was done by the women, which now is sinful in the “church building”.
And then there is the blatant disregard for I Cor.11 where the women are supposed to have a sign of headship, either in a covering or by long hair, per command applying to “every man” and “every woman”.
The list goes on.
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Dwight, although I no longer believe the bible is from God at all, I agree with your comment. Thanks
Glad you stumbled upon the blog! I think you make a whole bunch of excellent points, and I’m glad to see someone else from the CoC who feels this way about instrumental music. Do you know any other Christians in the CoC that are starting to see it this way?
Interesting interaction, to say the least. I’m a Christian, and I love Bible study above anything. You may be able to guess my background by my comments, but my point I’d like to make is that I simply cannot believe God would expect me to conform my beliefs to what another person told me to think. I appreciate the previous post that suggests a similar idea. When I taught reading, I was daily amazed by the wide span of interpretations that my students brought to the discussion, and yes, I was tutored by them, as well as them being taught be me. In addition, I had students who would never possess the ability to read and comprehend on a complex scale. They convinced me that God would never complicate His Word as dramatically as we try to make it. I am not posting for response or interaction, although I anticipate reaction, but what I find intriguing is that Jesus had every opportunity to dwell on issues of this nature and did not. He talked at length about how we should treat one another and how our hearts were our essence. As I restudied I Corinthians 13 recently, I couldn’t help but be taken aback all over again by what Paul wrote in verse 13 when he concluded, “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” Is that not the most basic revelation — that love trumps the other two! Nate, this is the first time I’ve ever seen your posts, and it was in my seeking others’ ideas on instrumental music. I teach children about Jesus, and their spontaneity of love and worship overwhelms me. I never plan to sit in another adult class if I don’t have to, and controversy of opinion has a lot to do with my reason. Jesus wants us to trust Him, and I am trusting that love and devotion, accompanied by study, obedience, practice, and lots of prayer will be enough. I have a brother I love with all my heart who I believe was discouraged in his faith by religionists’ radical and condemning words and ways. I would be interested to know what your views of creation and eternity are now that you no longer believe there is a God. Thank you for being so hospitable on this site.
Jan, I’m not nate, and cant speak for him, but your post intrigued me and I wanted to reply anyway, if that’s alright.
Although I no longer believe either, I can relate to a lot what you said. Before the faith completely left me, I had long realized that the Churches of Christ had several, real issues, and seemed to generally fall into what appeared to me as Pharisee-ism, making and binding rules that weren’t really in the bible at all – which, ironically, would be addition, which the bible explicitly condemns…
So indeed, the CoC’s position on singing and instrumental music is flawed and can’t even be sustained under scrutiny – especially when it comes to instruments, choirs and solos.
But if I could answer what i think in regard to creation and eternity, I’d say that I expect death to be like how it was before I was born – as in nothing – but that fate of black, nothingness does not automatically imply that I should lead a hedonistic life now – far from it, instead it means that i should focus more now on pursuing goodness and living the best I can with my loved ones with the life I have now.
Eternity, I can’t say for sure, but If an invisible God can be eternal, without need of creation, then perhaps energy and matter (information) can be eternal, without the need for creation.
But the bible’s “answer” to eternity and creation is just a claim that is made by men. There’s no proof, and if looked at carefully, you will find problems. Gen 1 says birds came from water while Gen 2 says that they came from dry land. Carefully read Gen 1 and how God placed the sun, moon, stars and BIRDS in the same sky, beneath the “water from above”…. as if the blue sky was blue because it’s water and that’s where we get rain, and as if the sun and moon are on this side of that sky water because we can see them, and it looks as if the blue is behind them… like an ancient person, without knowledge of the solar system, was trying to explain what they saw… and that’s just the first 2 chapters of the book…
And then consider the actions of ISIS, how terrible we find them – yet it’s the exact same thing that God supposedly ordered the Israelites to do – to slaughter man woman and child, except the virgin girls, who they were take for themselves… righteous.
so, a claim, by random men, within a book containing such things, doesnt really count as proof – or even good evidence, really.
But goodness is real – it’s as real as we make, if nothing else.
anyhow, that’s my quick take.
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I’m really sorry I didn’t get a chance to reply to you until now — just been staying busy. But I appreciate your comment, and I’m glad you decided to weigh in on this.
First of all, I really admire what you said about learning from your students. I think it’s so important to have that kind of humility, and it’s unfortunate that some people seem incapable of that kind of openness. I also largely agree with your observation about Jesus’s statements not being so concerned with these kinds of petty rules and regulations — Paul tends to reject that kind of minutiae as well. Yet groups like the Church of Christ can’t help themselves in getting mired in all of it.
But to your question, I’m not sure that I’ll be able to completely answer you on creation and eternity, because I’m not really sure what ultimate point these two things lead you to. So I’ll just do the best I can.
When I was a Christian, I had major doubts about Big Bang cosmology and evolution. But after deconverting, I realized that my objections to those theories were solely based on my religious beliefs and not due to any specific scientific reasons. So out of curiosity, I decided to learn a bit more about the science behind the theories. Long story short, I found out that the evidence for both is quite overwhelming. If you’re interested in knowing specifics, I’d be happy to share some with you, as well as recommend some resources — but since I’m not sure that this is really what you were asking about anyway, I’ll hold off for now.
I don’t believe that our Universe required any kind of creator. I can’t know that for sure, of course, but I don’t have any reason to think it’s the case. The assumption that there was “nothing” before the Big Bang is just that — an assumption. We don’t know that true nothingness is the default state of things. We don’t even know that true nothingness can exist! After all, even empty space has certain properties. Perhaps the current iteration of our Universe is just one in a long chain of expansion-collapse cycles. Or maybe it’s just one Universe in a multi-verse. Or maybe it’s something that no one’s thought of yet. But this not-knowing is not a reason to grab onto belief in any old explanation. We should believe things only when there’s evidence for them.
As to eternity, I’m not sure if you mean the concept or the idea of an afterlife. In the case of the former, I don’t have any major thoughts about it, so I’ll address the latter.
It would be great to live forever, especially if it meant spending time with loved ones, doing the things we enjoy, having adventures, etc. But it seems to me that all of the available science so far points toward consciousness and personality being inextricably linked to the physical brain. And we know what happens to the brain upon death.
Furthermore, just to focus on Christianity, the concepts of Heaven and Hell in the Bible seem very problematic to me (which we could dig into if you’re interested), and the doctrines surrounding them show signs of development as you follow them through the Bible chronologically. In other words, I just don’t see any evidence to make me think I’ll survive my own death. So I try to focus on making this life the best one I can, and I try to do things that help make other people’s lives better as well.
Anyway, I know that was a long comment, but those are big topics! Thanks again for stopping by, and I hope you’ll reply when you can. Take care!