Music in Worship

 The Music We Offer in Worship to God
(by  Bob Pulliam)

Here is a topic charged with emotion. Many people allow their tastes and preferences to dictate the position they take on it. God has spoken on this subject and we can either listen to His word, or blow it all off as unimportant. Let's begin by making it clear what we are not talking about here:

We are not talking about secular music (e.g. the National Anthem).
We are not saying that instruments are sinful (my favorite piece of music is a piano concerto).

The question before us is this: Is it lawful (authorized in scripture) for Christians to worship God with the use of mechanical instruments of music? To answer this question, we must go to the word of God and allow it alone to be our guide.

Specific Authority...

I was sitting by a concession stand the other day, and overheard a father reprimanding his son. He had told this child to go and get something. When the child came back, he had it, and several other items of interest. The father reminded the boy of what he had ordered; and the boy said, "But you didn't say not to..." The father quickly pointed out that he had told his son what he wanted, and that such should have been enough. I immediately thought of God's word, and how we plead with the world to understand this same principle about the scriptures. This father understood that he did not have to tell his son all of the things he did not want. All he needed to do was specify what he did want. Why should we treat God any differently? Why should we make God tell us everything He does not want, when He has specified what He does want?

The question before us is answered so often by saying, "But God didn't tell us not to!" Now that is a simple case of trying to reason our whims into the will of God. Such does not change what the scriptures tell us.

Another common response is that "the instrument is just an expedient (aid) to help us worship".  There is nothing wrong with expedients.  They are a valid aspect of doing what needs to be done.  But it is important to understand the difference between an aid and an addition.  To illustrate, we might consider God's command to Noah.  He was to build an ark out of Gopher wood.  He could certainly use aids in accomplishing God's will.  Hammers, saws, augers, hired help, etc...  What if  he decided Pine was a much easier wood to work with?  Could he build the ark out of Pine?  We know he couldn't.  God specified what He wanted.  Why is the hammer alright, but the Pine isn't?  Because the hammer is not in the same class as the Gopher wood which was specified.  Pine is another kind of wood put in place of the Gopher wood.  There are many kinds of wood, but God specified only one.  The Gopher wood is the building material and the hammer is a tool to put the material in place.  Tools are necessary to make the ark out of Gopher wood, but the ark is not made out of the tools.  Is a mechanical instrument a tool?  I know many consider it to be such, but it is another kind of music.  There are two kinds of music:  Vocal and Instrumental.  If God tells Noah to "use wood", he can choose.  If God tells us to "make music", we can choose.  God told Noah Gopher wood, and He told us to sing.  "But we still sing with the instrument, so we're obeying God."  Could Noah build the ark of half Gopher wood and half Pine?  No, because God specified what He wanted.  God told us to "sing and make melody in our hearts".  Can we play and sing?  No, because God specified what He wanted.  If we refuse to obey God in this matter, we can justify most anything in religion.  We could serve hot dogs with the bread and fruit of the vine on the Lord's table.  We could allow the church to engage in all kinds of business ventures, "because God didn't say not to".  We could meet only once a month instead of every first day of the week.  All kinds of digression could be justified once the door has been opened.  And isn't it already at work in the churches you can see across the land?

Then we reason, "But instruments make the music sound so much better!" A well tuned orchestra or resonating pipe organ does sound mighty fine, but what makes you think the sound is what God wants? A deplorable attitude has developed in religion with regard to worship in song. It is the notion that a person who does not sing well has no business lifting up his voice in worship. Such is a revolting offshoot of worship services which have become an offering of elite performance rather than joint fellowship. The New Testament command to sing is given to all, not the ones who have passed audition (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16).

Now what is it that pleases God. This is what our worship ("to adore") of God, should be about. If we base our worship on what pleases us, then who do we adore? If God had not specified His will in this matter, it certainly would not merit this attention. But God did tell us specifically what he wants with regard to rendering music in worship (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19). A piano sounds wonderful to me, when it is played by an accomplished pianist. But should I decide what God does and does not like? Who am I to insert my likes into this subject as some kind of authority?  I must allow God's word to be the final word in this matter. (See Specifics)

But then there are those who try to find scripture for this practice. And these we will now concentrate on.  Is this practice authorized in scripture?  Let us examine the most common arguments on this topic.

David Played the Harp...

David was the man after God's own heart. He has also been called "the sweet singer of Israel". He wrote many of the Psalms which were, no doubt, sung to the accompaniment of mechanical instruments of music. So if it was acceptable for David to do it, shouldn't it be for us as well?

This argument sounds good until you realize that David was not under the same law we are under today. David was a Jew under the law of Moses. We are Christians under the law of Christ. Does that make much difference? We can be exceedingly thankful that it does! It makes the difference between having a savior and waiting for one.

Consider for a moment what David was commanded under his law, which we do not have to do today. First we have the sacrifices. Blood sacrifices of animals. An incessant line of sacrifices from the day one is born until death. Sacrifices that illustrated the inability of that law to actually remove sin (Heb 10:1-4). Second we have a distance between God and the people which has been closed in Jesus. The people could not approach God, but instead had a priest entering the temple. But now, every Christian is a priest unto God (I Pt 2:4f; Rev 1:6).

If we are to be governed by David's playing the harp, then shouldn't we be governed by the other aspects of the law of Moses? When was the last time you went to Jerusalem for a required feast? When did you last violate the Sabbath (Saturday) by traveling too far, or going grocery shopping? You see, David seems like the perfect answer for our desire to insert instruments into worship today, but with it comes other commands we would not want to be bound by.

"But God never commanded instrumental music in the Old Testament. People just did it because it was the natural thing to do." This argument is not very common, but we need to consider it at this point. The truth is, we do not always know what was commanded of those people, and when it was commanded. In II Chronicles 29:25 we find that God had given command about the use of instruments in the temple service. This had been done in David's days; but where do we read of it being commanded. It is not until Hezekiah's reign that we learn of it! The bottom line?... God did give commands concerning the use of instruments in Old Testament worship.

The Word Psallo...

The Greek word for "making melody" in Ephesians 5:19 is often pointed out to justify Instrumental music. The word is psallo defined "primarily ‘to twitch, twang,' then, ‘to play a stringed instrument with the fingers,' and hence, in the Sept., ‘to sing with a harp, sing psalms," denotes in the NT, ‘to sing a hymn, sing praise'; in Eph 5:19, ‘making melody'" (Vines, p402). Many people will quote the first part of that definition as evidence that we can use instruments in worship. Notice, however, that the New Testament definition is "to sing a hymn, sing praise". Vine is noting the transition of this word in Greek from its original use to the New Testament use. Before New Testament times, this word was used widely for playing a stringed instrument. When it was used in this way, the instrument to be played was named. As time passed, this word evolved, as we have seen many English words do over the last fifty years. When Paul used it, the use was of singing, rather than playing. If that is not clear enough, Paul names the instrument to be used, creating a play on words. He speaks of "making melody (psallo) with the heart". The plucking or twanging in this text specifically involves the attitudes and intentions of the worshiper.

What would the result be if psallo did mean to play an instrument? Wouldn't it mean that everyone is to play an instrument? That is the clear indication when we understand it to mean "sing". Should it mean something different if it means play? Not only would everyone have to play, but also have to be able to sing while playing! It would be a singing orchestra! But clearly Paul does not have playing and singing in mind when he wrote this passage. He is telling the brethren to sing songs of praise and edification in worship to God.

Can it Be Done?...

The word for singing without instrumental accompaniment is acappella. This is an interesting word in that it means "in chapel style". It's meaning hails to a time when worship always involved singing alone. Many have been around instrumental accompaniment so much that they can't imagine acappella music being worthwhile. It's done all the time, and is very moving when one emphasizes the words rather than the mood set by an instrumental background. At the same time, it is hard for many people to let go of their instruments. There are several reasons for this. Sometimes it is because they want to be entertained. Sometimes people want to be the ones playing the instrument, and be in the limelight. At times people are afraid of ridicule because they do not sing well. And then there is the problem of being used to something and not wanting to change.

The bottom line is, God has commanded singing in worship to Him. If He had simply said, "make music in worship", then the method would be up to us. God commanded something within the capabilities of nearly everyone, and expects our obedience. Are mechanical instruments of music really so important that we must have them to worship God? They obviously didn't need them in the apostles' day. Why now?