Why We Don't Use Instrumental Music in Public Worship

Bruce Terry

Sometimes people do not understand why most churches of Christ do not use instrumental music. They may wonder why OVU follows this same practice. It may seem to them like merely a tradition; however, it is a matter of biblical teaching. It is true that the Bible does not explicitly say, "Don't use instruments in worship." However, there are many modern situations that the Bible speaks to only on principle, not explicitly. The Bible does not say not to have an abortion, not to commit suicide, not to smoke marijuana, not to shoot heroin, not to go skinny dipping with the opposite sex. Again, the New Testament does not explicitly forbid polygamy except in the case of elders and deacons. To say any of these practices are not in God's will, one must resort to principles taught in the Bible. It is not merely a question of the Bible being silent on them, so they are wrong (or as some would say, they are OK). Silence in and of itself neither allows nor forbids. When Nadab and Abihu offered fire on the altar that God had not commanded, they suffered the awful consequence of presuming that silence allows (Lev. 10:1-3). However, Moses said that if the father of a daughter or the husband of a wife hears a vow that the woman has made and says nothing about it, his silence not only allows but confirms her vow (Num. 30:3-4, 6-7). So silence in and of itself may disallow or allow, depending upon the circumstance. That is why we must resort to principles and not to silence alone.

In mathematics, if a teacher gives a principle, he or she may illustrate it with several examples on the board. Then the teacher may ask students to do homework illustrating the principle. One does not have to do every possible case in order to know that the principle is true. For example, take the principle: The sum of two positive non-zero numbers in a linear system is greater than either of the numbers. Thus, in 2+3=5, 5>2 and 5>3. One doesn't have to work every possible example for someone to know that this is true.

So it is in understanding the Bible. Once a principle is given and illustrated with several (or maybe even one) examples, the principle applies to all similar situations.

The principle in question here is that the old law, the Law of Moses, has been done away with and replaced by the Law of Christ. This caused the first great controversy in the early church. In response, the books of Galatians and Hebrews were written to show that the old was gone and replaced by a new and better way (Gal. 3:24-25; Heb. 7:12, 18-19, 22; 8:6-7, 13; 9:9-10, 15). Other books refer to this as well, such as in Eph. 2:14-16. The confusion perhaps comes from the fact that many moral commands are the same in both the old and new covenants. The teachings that relate to holiness and righteousness are rightly repeated in the New Testament. But a number of the old commands, especially those that deal with the external trappings of worship, are not repeated. While they were good in and of themselves, they have no part in the new Way of Jesus. When God first told the Israelites in the wilderness to attack the land of Canaan, they were afraid and wanted to return to Egypt. Then he changed the command and told them to turn back into the wilderness. They decided that they liked the first command best and proceeded to obey it with disastrous results (Num. 14, especially verses 40-42). We cannot go back to the old law and chose to obey those commands that we like and be pleasing to God.

The commands (mostly of outward things) of the old law that are not repeated in the New Testament are not to be done as part of Christianity. These commands include things such as circumcision of males (Lev. 12:3), offering animal sacrifices (Lev. 1:5), not eating unclean animals (Deut. 14:3-20), not working on the Sabbath (Ex. 20:8-10), celebrating the Israelite holidays (Deut. 16:1-17), a separate priesthood (Num. 18:1-7), the wearing of special robes (Ex. 28:4), sprinkling holy water (Num. 19:9, 13, 17-18, 20-21), burning incense (Lev. 16:12-13), lighting lamps and candles (Lev. 24:4), and praising God with musical instruments (2 Chron. 29:25). Understand that the question of using instrumental music is not isolated like we sometimes approach it, but is part of a larger question. Now, not only is the general principle given above, but when questions about specifics came up in the early church, the answer was that Christians, especially those from among the Gentiles, do not keep the old law. This was the case with circumcision (Gal. 5:2-4), clean versus unclean animals (Mark 7:18-19; cf. Acts 10:15), and Sabbath and feast day observance (Gal. 4:10-11; Col. 2:16-17).

Now this is not to say that these items which were commanded are wrong within themselves. The law was good (Rom. 7:16) and its commandments were good (Rom. 7:12). There is nothing wrong in and of itself with circumcising male babies, lighting a candle, burning incense, playing a harp, not eating pork, or resting on Saturday. The problem comes when we make these old law things a part of our worship to God.

So a general principle is given and when individual specific illustrations of it are brought up, the answer is always the same as the general principle. The question is: are these specifics the only things forbidden as a part of the Christian religion or does the principle apply to other specifics not listed as well? Is it OK for the Catholics to add a separate priesthood, the wearing of robes, sprinkling holy water, burning incense, lighting candles, etc.? Is it right for Seventh Day Adventists to insist on Saturday assembly and forbid the eating of pork? All these things are found in Old Testament worship. What about sacrificing a lamb in worship? That's commanded in the Bible and not forbidden in the New Testament. The real problem with saying that instrumental music is OK in worship today is that it is in the same class as animal sacrifice: things commanded in the Old Testament but the command not repeated in the New Testament. Paul says that if one is going to keep one commandment in the law, he must keep them all, the whole law (Gal. 5:3).

Sometimes those of us who do not use instrumental music in worship appeal to the lack of usage in early history. But the important thing is not whether or not the early church in the first few centuries used instrumental music, but why they did not. It was because they understood the general principle given above. Consider the fourth century teaching of Niceta, bishop of Remesiana, in his treatise "On the Utility of Hymn Singing" as translated by Gerald Walsh: "It is time to turn to the new Testament to confirm what is said in the Old, and, particularly, to point out that the office of psalmondy is not to be considered abolished merely because many other observances of the Old Law have fallen into desuetude. Only the corporal institutions have been rejected, like circumcision, the sabbath, sacrifices, discrimination in foods. So, too, the trumpets, harps, cymbals, and timbrels. For the sound of these we now have a better substitute in the music from the mouths of men. The daily ablutions, the new-moon observances, the careful inspection of leprosy are completely past and gone, along with whatever else was necessary only for a time--as it were, for children. Of course, what was spiritual in the Old Testament, for example, faith, piety, prayer, fasting, patience, chastity, psalm-singing--all this has been increased in the New Testament rather than diminished" (cited from Everett Ferguson, A cappella Music in the Public Worship of the Church, 1972, p. 54). This principle has long been understood. And even today, most protestant churches understand it, except when it comes to instrumental music.

Now someone may object that the command in 2 Chron. 29:25 to use instrumental music in worship in the Old Testament was given by David and other prophets and not by Moses and thus was not a part of the law; it is recorded in the third division of the Hebrew Bible, called the Writings or the Psalms (because Psalms is the first book of the Writings: Luke 24:44), and not in the first division, called the "Law" or Torah. But Jesus refers to a passage in the Psalms, which is in the third division, as being in the law (John 10:34). The old law is not found only in the first five books of the Old Testament that are called the "Law". Besides, the command to use trumpets in worship is found in Numbers 10:10, which is in the "Law". Also, it is interesting to note that even when people in the Old Testament used instrumental music in public worship, they only used the instruments that God had specified, the trumpets and the instruments of David (I Chron. 15:16; 29:26-27; Neh. 12:36), even though other instruments were available in the ancient world (Dan. 3:5, 7, 15).

Again, someone may object that outward observances in the old law were only rejected when they were being required and that instrumental music in worship today is not required. It is true that in the circumcision controversy of the early church, one side was saying that Gentiles had to be circumcised to be saved. On the other hand, other times when old law practices were rejected, it was not in a salvation context (Mark 7:18-19; Col. 2:16-17). Furthermore, when instrumental music in worship is used, there are only four possibilities that a worshiper is faced with: 1) he or she may sing along with the instrument; 2) he or she may sing a different song than the one being played on the instrument; 3) he or she may not sing and remain silent; or 4) he or she may leave and worship somewhere else. Number two is disruptive, number three violates the command to sing, and number four is divisive. The result is that when instrumental music is used in worship, it is required (in practice if not in doctrine) of the worshipers.

Perhaps number four requires more comment. In the spirit of American independence, someone may say to each his own-if someone doesn't like instrumental music, he or she can just go off and worship with others who feel the same way, but not with us. But this creates division within the body of Christ. In Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8, Paul teaches that the person who thinks that something is all right (he calls this the strong position) must welcome without disputing the one who thinks it is wrong (he calls this the weak position), not scorn that person, and not lead him to do something that the one holding the weak position thinks is wrong. If someone has doubts that an activity is right but is influenced to do it, for that person it is sin (Rom. 14:23). Moreover, Paul says that the person who influenced him or her to do it has sinned against Christ (I Cor. 8:12). Everyone agrees that it is OK to sing without an instrument accompanying the worship. It is the one who insists on adding instrumental music to the worship who is causing the division. And Paul says that we should live in harmony with one another and glorify God "with one voice" (Rom. 15:6).

As Paul writes on the same theme of unity to the Corinthians, he explains that unity is possible by adhering to the principle which he wants them to learn: "not beyond what is written" (I Cor. 4:6). If I sing praises to God, I do so because he asks me to do so (Rom. 15:9; I Cor. 14:15; Jam. 5:13); moreover, singing is something that accompanies being filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18-19). If I also play an instrument, I do so because I want to, because I like the sound. So if I worship God in song using an instrument to accompany my singing, who am I really trying to please? God or myself? And how am I contributing to the harmony and the "one voice" glorification of the Father?

It is true that Romans 14 also teaches that the one who holds the weak position must not judge the one who holds the strong. Jesus is the Savior, not us. And as James says in James 4:12, there is only One Lawgiver and Judge. But to point out the principle described above is not judging. It is a serious matter. Paul wrote that those who violated it by accepting circumcision as a religious act were severed or alienated from Christ (Gal. 5:4). That is enough reason to say this is important. Furthermore, just as it is true that people do not have the right to condemn, so also it is true that people do not have the right to condone. Our saying a practice is fine with God does not make it so. Only God has the right to condemn or to condone.

Now someone else may object that he or she does not use musical instruments in worship assemblies because the old law says to but because that person likes the sound. There are three possibilities of deciding how to worship God. We may do the things God commanded in the New Testament, we may do the things that God commanded in the Old Testament, or we may make up our own ways of worshiping God. The Old Testament contains a number of examples of people adding their own ways to God's commands, sometimes doing what He said not to do (Ex. 20:4 cf. Ex. 32:1-4), sometimes doing what He did not say to do (Lev. 10:1-3), and sometimes doing something that never even entered God's mind (Jer. 32:35). Under the old law, God asked the Israelites to wear tassels on their robes to remind them to follow God's commandments and not their own heart and their own eyes (Num. 15:39). He calls the latter a kind of spiritual prostitution. Shall we say under the greater way of Christ that God no longer cares if we make up our own way to worship Him? Jesus himself quotes Isaiah, "in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Matt. 15:9; Mark 7:7).

The final question is: when we praise God in song, do we use the instrument that He made (Heb. 13:15), or instruments made by man? Do we worship Him in a way that pleases his people (Jer. 5:31), or in accordance with a principle taught in His word?

Don't just take my word for it. Read the scriptures cited. The Spirit of God speaks through them.

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