Acceptable Music in Worship

Raymond Elliott

There are many individuals who think that the churches of Christ do not have music in our periods of worship to God. However, that is a misconception. We do in fact have music always in our homage to the Heavenly Father. In fact, this writer has never attended a worship period wherein there was no music. But, you must understand that the word ‘music’ is generic in usage. The specifics of music are ‘instrumental’ and ‘vocal.’ Vocal music is an integrated part of acceptable worship. In Hebrews 13:15, we read, “Through him then let us offer up a sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of lips which make confession to his name.”

Also, the general populace would be greatly surprised to learn that the churches of Christ use an instrument in their worship to God. This, of course, will be rather difficult to believe since those individuals who have visited our assemblies have never seen an instrument with the visible eye. The New Testament clearly demands that an instrument be used in the praising of God in our songs. If this is not done, such will not be acceptable to God. Christians who desire to please God have no choice in this matter. They must use an instrument in church music. In short, the New Testament requires the usage of the instrument, and, the specific instrument is mentioned in the Word of God.

But, let us observe that the word “sing” in the New Testament comes from the Greek word “psallo,” which basically means to “twang,” “twitch” and “touch the strings.” In the Old Testament, David would “psallo” on the harp. However, when we come to the New Testament, a different instrument is required and even specified. Please turn to the book of Ephesians, chapter 5, verses 18 and 19 and let us read together: “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody [psallein, i.e., to twang, twitch, touch the string, metaphorically speaking] in your heart to the Lord.”

The requirement to baptize a person can be used as an illustration in this matter. The word “baptize” is not a translation but rather a transliteration. That is, the word “baptize” is from a Greek word “baptizo,” which means to dip, plunge or submerge. Thus, the actual translation of “baptizo” would be “immerse.” But into what substance should one be baptized? Through a study of the Scriptures, we learn that it is water (See Matthew 3:16; John 3:23; Acts 8:36). In a parallel situation, we are required to sing (psallo) and make melody (psallein), but, upon what instrument? Paul, guided by the Holy Spirit, answers that question when he wrote: “…singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19). There is no uncertainty about it; the heart is the God-made and God-given instrument to be used in praising him in our songs.

Christians who follow this teaching relative to acceptable music in worship are not on the defensive. Rather, those churches that use mechanical instruments of music in their worship must prove by the Holy Scriptures the authority to do so. They must defend their usage of the instrument in their assemblies. The burden of proof is on their shoulders.

Have you ever wondered why, when you come to the New Testament, that you never read about the first century church using mechanical instruments in singing praises to God? It is interesting to note of the nine (9) times music is mentioned in the books of the New Testament, Matthew through Jude, that it is always in the specific, that is, to sing. Let us now read the passages of Scriptures in the New Testament wherein this is the case.

1.      Matthew 26:30: “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out into the Mount of Olives.”

2.      Acts 16:25: “And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed and sang praises…”

3.      Romans 15:9: “…I will praise unto thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name.”

4.      Hebrews 2:12: “I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the congregation will I sing praise.”

5.      1 Corinthians 14:15: “I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the understanding also.”

6.      Ephesians 5:18, 19: “Be not drunken with wine, wherein is riot, but be ye filled with the Spirit, speaking one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.”

7.      Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts unto God.”

8.      Hebrews 13:15: “Through Him then let us offer up a sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of lips, which make confession to His name.”

9.      James 5:13: “Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise.”

When the King James Version was translated (1611) and the American Standard Version some years later (1901), one hundred forty-eight Hebrew and Greek scholars were used in these works. Each time that these scholars came to the word “psallo” and its derivatives, they translated it into the English word “sing.” Therefore, when one reads the New Testament, he can have full confidence in knowing that when he sings in worship to God, he is doing exactly what the Holy Scriptures authorize.

You might also be interested in knowing that the early church did not in fact use an instrument such as an organ in their song service, at least for the first six hundred years. “Pope Vitalian is related to have first introduce organs into some of the churches in Western Europe about 670; but the earliest trustworthy account is that of one sent as a present by the Greek Emperor Constantine Copronymus to Pepin, king of Franks in 755” (American Encyclopedia 12: 688). “The organ is said to have been introduced into church music by Pope Vitalian in 666 A.D” (Chambers Encyclopedia 7: 112). Either way, one can readily see that the use of instrumental music did not originate with the first century church. The introduction of such caused division among members of the Roman Catholic Church and was discarded until about the first part of the fourteenth century. Along with other digressive practices, the use of instrumental music caused a major schism between the Roman Catholic and the Greek Catholic churches (1311). The Greek Catholic Church rejected the use of the instrument, along with the selling of indulgences, the authority of the pope, etc.

Later, the great reformer, Martin Luther, rejected the use of the organ. He said, “The organ in the worship of God is an ensign of Baal.” John Calvin said of the organ in worship, “It is no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting of tapers or revival of the other shadows of the Law. The Roman Catholics borrowed it from the Jews.” When John Wesley was asked about the use of the organ, he replied, “I have no objection to the organ in our chapels provided it is neither heard or seen” Charles H. Spurgeon, when asked why he did not use the organ in worship, gave 1 Corinthians 14:15 as his answer: “I would as soon pray to God with machinery as to sing to God with machinery.” Adam Clark said, “…And I further believe that the use of such instruments of music, in the Christian Church, is without the sanction and against the will of God; that they are subversive of the spirit of true devotion, and that they are sinful…Music, as a science, I esteem and admire: but instruments of music in the house of God I abominate and abhor. This is the abuse of music; and here I register my protest against all such corruptions in the worship of the Author of Christianity” (“Amos 6:5.” Clarke’s Commentary).

Here are some arguments that many use to justify the using of mechanical instruments of music in their worship.

Some will say that God did not say, “Thou shalt not use instrumental music in worship.” Probably this argument is presented more than any other. But let us notice the final conclusion of this reasoning if it is permissible. God did not say, “Thou shalt not use cornbread and buttermilk in the Lord’s Supper.” But we do use unleavened bread and the fruit of the vine (Matthew 26:26-28). Why? Simply because that is what Jesus used. Neither did the Lord say, “Thou shalt not use images and burn incense in worship.” But in our understanding of the teaching of the New Testament, such would be wrong. We must understand that when God gives a positive command, such would exclude all else. For example, God commanded Noah to use gopher wood in the building of the ark (Genesis 6:14). That requirement excluded the use of any other kinds of woods like pine, maple, cedar, etc. It is like when you send a child to the store with the instructions to purchase a loaf of white bread. You need not tell him not to buy beans, milk, etc. We understand the principle of a positive command. It excluded all else when given to do a specific thing. And, the New Testament informs us in a positive manner what the Lord requires of us in worship regarding the type of music he desires. This should be sufficient. We could not carry the book around in a train boxcar with all the “thou shalt nots” if God had given us one. In the Old Testament, we learn that the priests were to be taken from the tribe of Levi. However, when we come to Jesus Christ, we learn that he was from the tribe of Judah. Please note what is written in Hebrew 7:14, “For it is evident that our Lord hath sprung out of Judah; as to which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priests.”In other words, Jesus could not be a priest even if he came back to earth because he was not from the tribe of Levi. Also, it is worthy to observe that while a positive directive was given regarding from which tribe (Levi) the priests should come, it is not found in the writings of Moses where God said, “thou shalt not select priests from the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, Dan, etc.” When God said that the priest should come from the tribe of Levi, that excluded men who belonged to the other tribes in Israel.

Another argument is: “You have mechanical instruments in your home.” That is true. Much enjoyment can come from good music played upon such instruments. We must understand that a moral law governs the home while a scriptural law governs the worship. There are some things that are morally right in the home that would be unscriptural in the worship of the church. For instance, the eating of a common meal is peculiar to the home life but would be out of place as an avenue of worship to God. Also, one could enjoy singing wholesome secular songs in the homes but singing the same in the worship would be wrong.

There will be harps in heaven” another contends, “so why not in the worship?” Here are some passages normally used to support this argument: Revelation 5:8: “And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints.” Let us make the observation that the book of Revelation is a highly symbolic book. Notice that the “golden vials full of odours” were not literal bowls but were symbolic of the prayers of the saints. By the same token, could we not understand that the harps were not literal but symbolic of something else? Revelation 14:2: “And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpers playing on their harps” (RSV). The Revised Standard was used to show clearly the meaning of the verse. John did not hear the sound of water nor thunder but he heard a voice like water and thunder. Neither did he hear harpers playing on their harps but a voice that sounded like harpers playing on their harps. There is a difference as you can readily see. It is as useless to try to prove literal harps in heaven, as it would be to prove that there are literal beasts in heaven. Even if there were literal harps in heaven, that would not justify such in our worship. The will of God in heaven is not necessarily and always the same as here on earth. Here we marry, but in heaven, there will be no marriages (Matthew 22:30).

“You use song books, lights, pitch-pipes in your song service.” This is true. However, one should learn the difference between an aid and an addition. The difference may be seen in the following example. Suppose that an individual was offered one hundred thousand dollars to walk from Montgomery to the city of Dothan, and that all modes of transportation had to be excluded. And let’s suppose that this person does walk to the city of Troy; but at that point, he buys a ticket to ride a bus the rest of the way to Dothan. Of course, we understand that by doing such, the one hundred thousand dollars will have to be forfeited. The reason being is that something more and different than walking was done by this individual. On the other hand, suppose that this person grows weary on the trip and stops and cuts a limb from a tree for a walking stick. Has he violated the terms of the agreement? Of course not. We understand that he was not doing anything but walking. The stick simply aided him. Similarly, the use of songbooks, pitch pipes etc. are aids in assisting us to fulfill the scriptural obligation to sing (Ephesians 5:19). Whenever we sing, none of these things is heard. Christians are required to assemble to worship (Hebrews 10:25). A building, whether rented or purchased, is an aid in assisting Christians to meet such a directive from God. But the use of mechanical instruments is something more and different from singing. Playing an instrument would be parallel to riding the bus in the aforementioned example. The instrument becomes an addition to the requirement of the Lord to sing and make melody in our hearts to God.

Others will state “David used the instrument in his worship to God.” It is also true that David practiced polygamy. He furthermore offered animal sacrifices and burnt incense in his worship to God. If a person endeavors to justify the use of instrumental music in worship today by appealing to the Law of Moses, he must understand “that he is a debtor to do the whole law” (Galatians 5:3). One should also consider the words of Paul in this matter when he said, “Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:4). The Old Law was given to govern the children of Israel (Deuteronomy 5:1-3). And, it did for about fifteen hundred years, from Moses until Christ died on Calvary (Galatians 3:19, 16). Christ fulfilled that Law (Matthew 5:17-18; Luke 24:44). The Lord “hath taken it out of the way, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). In this age, we are to hear Christ (Matthew 17:5; Hebrews 1:1-2). While the Old Testament is as much the inspired Word of God as is the New Testament, our relation to that Law is different in this Christian dispensation. Jesus Christ is the Testator of his Will and New Testament. While the Lord lived, he kept the Law of Moses perfect; however, when Jesus died on the cross, his new Will came into force (Hebrews 9:15-17). Therefore, we are to follow his teachings as found in the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. In matters pertaining to the worship of Christians unto God today, we must find a “thus saith the Lord” for all that we do in his Last Will and Testament (Colossians 3:17).

In discussing the matter of whether or not to include the use of mechanical instruments of music in worship, one will inevitably have to come to grips with this very important question, “What is the authority in religion?” There are some things that can be easily excluded from being the authority, namely the following:

Traditions and customs of men. Often one assumes that something should be included in worship simply because it has always been done that way. But such is not the proper criterion in establishing religious authority. Traditions or customs are begun by men and not bound by God as authoritative. Such may vary from generation to generation and from country to country, but the Word of God does not vary from generation to generation and from country to country.

Doctrines of men. Since the completion of the New Testament before the end of the first century, multitudes of creeds written by men have been produced and bound upon people, the first one being written in A.D. 325 at the Council of Nicea. Jesus spoke of the traditions and doctrines of men in Matthew 15:7-9 when he said, “Ye hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy of you saying, This people honoreth me with their lips; but in vain do they worship me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men.”

Personal likes and/or dislikes. If a person is not careful, he will include in worship to God what is pleasing to the sensual, that is, the physical and emotional appeal of men. And certainly, most of the music being rendered today consists of the various instruments that will stir the sensational senses of a person. But is this pleasing to God? The author of true worship must be consulted in what constitutes acceptable worship. Jesus declared, “God is Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth“(John 4:24). God is the object of our worship and such must be from the heart and according to truth, that is, God’s revealed Word.

Most of the religious world has followed the philosophies of two great reformers of the 16century, Martin Luther and his counter part, Ulrich Zwingli. Luther possessed the desire to retain in the church all that was not expressly condemned by the Word of God. Zwingli, on the other hand, was intent on abolishing all that could not be proven by the Holy Scriptures. There is a vast difference in these two attitudes toward the Bible. The former exclaims that all can be included in our worship if it is not expressly forbidden. The latter emphatically declares that only those things that are taught in the Word of God can be practiced in religious matters. Zwingli had the right concept and attitude toward biblical authority. Peter declared, “If any man speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God…” (1 Peter 4:11). Paul wrote, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). What we exclude in our worship today is a direct result of our attitude toward biblical authority. In short, one must find authority by direct command or a binding example in the New Testament for the avenues of worship. Only that which can be found therein should be retained; all else should be excluded.