INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC AND THE NEW TESTAMENT —David Sain—
THE REAL ISSUE The real issue of instrumental music in worship is not a question of the beauty of either vocal or instrumental music, nor of our likes or dislikes. There are people who seem to think we do not have instrumental music in worship because we do not like instrumental music–period! That is not true. Most of us have stereos in our houses and in our cars so that we might enjoy good music at home and away from home. It is not a question of not liking music. The issue is not a question of whether we think we can sing better with or without instrumental music. How we sound should not determine if it is right or wrong. The issue is not popularity, i.e., how many people use or reject instrumental music in worship. The fact that our peers do or do not use it should not be a factor in our acceptance or rejection of it. Neither is the issue the sincerity or goodness of those who use or reject instrumental music in worship. Sincerity and goodness within themselves do not make one right (Prov. 14:12; Matt. 7:21-23). The real issue in the matter before us is: What is God’s will on the subject? That, and that alone, is the issue.
FURTHER CLARIFICATION OF THE REAL ISSUE Our concern in considering Instrumental Music and the New Testament is not that of finding the use of instrumental music mentioned in the Bible. That is easy. Neither is it a question of finding a scripture that speaks of instrumental music being used in worship. That is easy also. Finding circumcision, the burning of incense and an animal sacrifice is an easy matter also. But finding these things mentioned in the Bible does not authorize them for Christian worship. Likewise, finding instrumental music in the Bible does not authorize it for Christian worship. Our concern in the matter before us is to find the scripture in the New Testament that authorizes the use of instrumental music in Christian worship. That is not so easy. In fact, it cannot be done! The real issue is: What is God’s will on the subject? Again, I say, that, and that alone, is the issue. In a study of this and any other doctrinal matter, we must be guided solely by that principle.
HOW GOD REVEALS HIS WILL TO US God speaks to us today through Christ (Heb. 1:1-2). God, the Father, has declared that we are to hear Christ (Matt. 17:5). Christ commissioned his apostles to teach all things that he had commanded them (Matt. 28:20). To aid them in carrying out that charge, he sent the Holy Spirit to guide them (John 14:26, 15:26, 16:13). Paul said that the words that they spoke were the words given by the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 2:12-13; II Tim. 3:16-17), and that meant that their words were not the words of man, but the word of God (I Thes. 2:13). With the old covenant no longer in effect (Col. 2:14; Eph. 2:15; Heb. 9:15-17), Christians must come to Christ and to his will revealed in the New Testament to learn what God desires in worship today.
What the New Testament teaches “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). To worship God in truth means to be guided by truth, which is God’s word (John 17:17). To worship God acceptably we must do what the Lord has instructed us to do. The New Testament clearly instructs Christians to sing. Paul instructed, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19). And he commanded, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16). Paul wrote the Corinthians, “What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also (I Cor. 14:15). James wrote, “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms (Jas. 5:13). These scriptures clearly teach that Christians are to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. When people do this in worship, they are doing exactly that which God has authorized. Where is the scripture that commands instrumental music in Christian worship? It does not exist! Where is the scripture that provides an example of instrumental music in Christian worship? It does not exist! Where is the scripture that authorizes instrumental music in Christian worship by inference? It does not exist! When people use instrumental music in worship, they do so without authority from God. There are only two kinds of music known to man: vocal and instrumental. Each is a definite action and can be done independently of the other. Had the Lord instructed us generically to “make music,” we would be free to have vocal or instrumental music, or both vocal and instrumental music in worship. But the Lord’s instruction is not generic. He has specified the kind of music by which he wants us to worship him. He has told us to sing. Therefore, we have authority from God for vocal music in worship, and we have no authority from God for instrumental music in worship. Let it be understood that this is our simple and deeply- felt reason (and it is reason enough) for rejecting instrumental music in Christian worship. Vocal music is the only kind of music divinely authorized for Christian worship!
DEFENSES OF INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC Through the years various arguments have been made to justify the use of instrumental music in Christian worship. Here is an examination of and response to five of those arguments. 1. Instrumental music was used in the Old Testament with God’s approval. Therefore, it must be all right for us. While we are to study the Old Testament for the very practical lessons which are there for us (Rom. 15:4), we are in no sense bound to the Old Testament. So whether God approved or allowed instrumental music in worship in the Old Testament period has absolutely nothing to do with what God approves in Christian worship. 2. Instrumental music is only an aid; it serves only to assist the worshipper. It is argued that instrumental music is similar to a crippled man using a walking cane. But the two are not similar. When using a walking cane, a crippled man is still just walking. But when people add instrumental music to their singing, they no longer have only vocal music. They have added instrumental music, which is another kind of music. We must not confuse an aid with an addition. An example of a true aid to singing would be a pitch pipe. We cannot sing without a pitch, and a pitch pipe aids the song director to pitch the song correctly. But, when the pitch is set and the song is begun, that which is done is only that which is commanded, viz., singing. The sounding of one tone by a mechanical instrument does not constitute music. The hymnbook is another example of a true aid in carrying out the Biblical command to sing. The printed words and notes enable the worshippers to sing in an orderly and harmonious manner. When they use the hymnbook to sing, the only kind of music being made is vocal music, which is the kind that the Lord has authorized. To further distinguish between an aid and going beyond that which is authorized, consider the Lord’s Supper. The grape juice (fruit of the vine) reminds us of the blood of Jesus. The cup used to hold the grape juice is a true aid in keeping this memorial feast. But suppose that in addition to the grape juice, we also serve apple juice for those who like the taste of apple juice. That would not be an aid, but the addition of another kind of juice. Now apply that same line of thought to the addition of instrumental music for those who like the sound of such. 3. The New Testament is silent on instrumental music so how can we say that instrumental music is unscriptural? This question implies that the only way that instrumental music could be unscriptural is to find a scripture that plainly declares, “Thou shalt not use instrumental music in worship.” And there is no such scripture. Neither is there a scripture that says, “Thou shalt not burn incense in worship,” but those who argue the first in an attempt to justify instrumental music do not argue the latter in an attempt to justify incense in worship. The absence of a “thou shalt not” does not constitute authority to do a thing in worship. What if I were to argue that we can use some popular country song or rock song in worship? I think you would object, but I might argue, “Why not? The Bible does not say, ‘Do not use country songs or rock songs in worship.’ ” To which you would surely respond, “But the Bible specifically authorizes hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19), and there is no authority for using secular songs.” And, of course, you would be right. Now, dear reader, follow that same line of reasoning regarding the use of vocal music (the kind of music which is specifically authorized), and the use of instrumental music (the kind of music for which we have no divine authority). The silence of scriptures must be noted and respected. “Let us speak where the Bible speaks and stay silent where the Bible is silent” is still a valid plea! The Hebrew writer made an argument from the silence of the scriptures. “For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law. For he of whom these things are spoken pertaineth to another tribe, of which no man gave attendance at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Juda; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood” (Heb. 7:12-14). Moses had specifically said that the tribe of Levi was the priestly tribe. Since the tribe of Levi, and no other tribe, including Judah, was specified, that meant that no person from Judah or any tribe other than Levi would serve or be a priest under the Mosaic priesthood. That which Moses specified made the matter clear and unmistakable. Likewise that which God has specified (vocal music in worship) makes the matter of music in worship equally clear and unmistakable. 4. The book of Revelation says there will be instrumental music in heaven, so why is it wrong to have it in the church? It is true that the scriptures do speak of instruments of music in heaven (Rev. 5:8, 14:2ff). However, the references to instruments of music in worship in heaven have absolutely nothing to do with what God approves in Christian worship. Remember, the real issue is: Where is the scripture in the New Testament that authorizes us to use instrumental music in Christian worship? 5. The Greek word “psallo” authorizes the use of instrumental music in worship. The word “psallo,” in various forms, occurs five times in the New Testament. “Singing and making melody (psallontes) with your heart” (Eph. 5:19). “Sing (psallo) unto thy name” (Rom. 15:9). “Sing (psallo) with the spirit and sing (psallo) with the understanding” (I Cor. 14:15). And in James 5:16, “sing praises (psallein). First, note from the scriptures above that the one hundred and forty-eight scholars who translated the American Standard Version and King James Version have said with one voice that “psallo” in the New Testament means “sing.” That alone should settle the matter. Second, note the meaning of the word. The word psallo means to pluck, to touch, to cause to vibrate. That is what the carpenter does when he pulls the chalk line and lets it go to make the chalk mark. That is what the archer does when he stretches the bow-string and lets the arrow fly. In like manner it is what a musician does when he plucks the strings of a guitar or harp. But, note that it is not the instrument that is psalloing. The person performing the act is psalloing and the instrument is the object of the psalloing. So, when the action of psallo is commanded in Ephesians 5:19, what is the object of that action? Clearly, the heart is the “instrument” that is to be psalloed in worship. Indeed, an instrument inheres in the word psallo and the apostle Paul defined that instrument (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). It is the worshipper’s heart, not a mechanical instrument. When a Christian sings, his heart responds to the melody of the song and he psalloes with his heart. That is the New Testament use of the word. Third, note that if psallo authorizes the use of mechanical instruments of music in worship, it does more than grant liberty for such. It would require such, and no one could obey Ephesians 5:19 without doing what the word means. Therefore we would all have to equip ourselves with a mechanical instrument, bring it to church and play it, or we would fail to obey the command to psallo. Fourth, if the contention is correct that the mechanical instrument is in the definition of the word psallo, then it would follow that no one can personally and fully learn the will of God on the subject of music in worship without learning to read the Greek New Testament. No one could know the truth just by reading the English New Testament, because the English translations of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 do not even hint at the use of a mechanical instrument. (Brethren, beware of intellectual elitism that would cause the average English-reading student of the Bible to believe that he cannot know the will of God by himself and that he must have a Greek and Hebrew scholar to reveal it to him.)
FINAL THOUGHT If God had authorized only instrumental music in Christian worship, we would be bound to have only instrumental music in worship to God. If God had authorized both instrumental and vocal music for Christian worship, we could obey God only by doing both. However, since God authorized only vocal music for Christian worship, the only correct conclusion is: vocal music is the only kind of music divinely authorized for Christian worship, and that is the only kind of music we can have in worship if we are to be pleasing to him who is the object of our worship!