Advanced Bible Studies

Advanced Bible Studies

21. What About Music in the Church?

What About Music in the Church?

One of the things that is most obvious about the differences between the Lord’s Church and the churches of men is that the body of Christ does not use the instrument of music in the worship of God. The very simple fact is that one cannot find legitimate justification and authority for the instrument of music in the New Testament. There are only a handful of passages that even touch on the music of the church. Here are just two of them to consider:

Ephesians 5:15-20 – “Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is. ... Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Colossians 3:15-17 – “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

These two passages are basically the main verses that deal with music in the worship of God. (The only other verses that mention anything relating to music in the church are I Corinthians 14:15,26 and James 5:13. There are also a couple of Old Testament quotations that mention singing in Romans 15:9,11 and Hebrews 12:13. Reference is also made to Jesus and his disciples singing hymns in Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26 and Acts 16:25.) You will notice that instrumental music is not at all mentioned, neither is it a part of the teaching or practice of the early church in the worship of God. This is both Biblically and historically true. But, the questions still come, “Yes, but is it really wrong? Does it really matter?”

First Things First

The very first thing the honest seeker needs to do is consider the subject of Bible authority and what authority means in the Church belonging to Christ. Please read and study “It Is All About Authority” before considering the subject of instrumental music in worship! Without a proper respect for Christ and the authority of his Word one cannot even approach the subject of music in the Church with a spiritually intelligent mind. You must read this special study on authority!

One of the most basic questions the believer needs to ask when it comes to the subject of authority and music in the church is, “What has God said?” Along with this it is also important to ask two other questions, “What does God want? and “What has God shown us?” Answering these three basic questions will take us into the heart and context of all Scripture principles. But, for the moment, let’s keep it simple. Answer this basic question: What kind of music has God specifically mentioned and thus authorized in worship in the New Testament? If you read the two passages in Ephesians and Colossians, the only answer you can honestly give is, “Singing.” God has specifically authorized singing and the only “instrument” he has told us to use is the heart! God has not at all specifically mentioned or authorized the use of the instrument of music in the worship of his Church. If he has, where is that verse?

Remember, Jesus tells us, “a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23-24) If we are going to be the true worshipers that God wants, we are going to have to worship the Lord “in spirit and in truth.” What is the “spirit and truth” of the kind of music God wants in his Church? What is the “truth” that God has revealed in his New Covenant about the music God has authorized? Answer these questions and you have your answer about music in the Church!

The Rest of the Matter

But, there is something else ... something more that you need to know. Many who give serious consideration to the nature of music in the church will quickly realize that instrumental music was a part of Old Testament worship. The incontrovertible fact is that instrumental music was actually commanded by the Lord and authorized by Hebrew Scripture. There are two key and central places in the Old Covenant where instrumental music was specifically authorized in the context of worship. Study them carefully!

Numbers 10:10 – “Also at your times of rejoicing – your appointed feasts and New Moon festivals – you are to sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, and they will be a memorial for you before your God. I am the Lord your God.”

II Chronicles 29:25-30 – “Hezekiah stationed the Levites in the temple of the Lord with cymbals, harps and lyres in the way prescribed by David and Gad the king's seer and Nathan the prophet; this was commanded by the Lord through his prophets. So the Levites stood ready with David's instruments, and the priests with their trumpets. Hezekiah gave the order to sacrifice the burnt offering on the altar. As the offering began, singing to the Lord began also, accompanied by trumpets and the instruments of David king of Israel. The whole assembly bowed in worship, while the singers sang and the trumpeters played. All this continued until the sacrifice of the burnt offering was completed. When the offerings were finished, the king and everyone present with him knelt down and worshiped. King Hezekiah and his officials ordered the Levites to praise the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. So they sang praises with gladness and bowed their heads and worshiped.”

It must be noted that when instrumental music was specifically commanded and authorized in the Old Testament in the worship of the Lord it was specifically connected with the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant! All of those who think that instrumental music is justified because it was practiced in the Old Testament need to come to grips with the difference between Old Testament worship and New Covenant faith. The book of Hebrews specifically teaches us that the entire Old Testament sacrificial system was but a shadow and copy of the true worship that is to be realized in Christ. See Hebrews 10:1-10 cf. Colossians 2:16-17. What is more, the entire sacrificial system of the Law of Moses has been fulfilled in the perfect sacrifice of Christ. Why would anyone want to go back to those Old Testament forms of worship in all of their manifestations and seek to resurrect and bind them on the New Covenant Church? Such goes against all of the principles of not only the book of Hebrews, but also the books of Romans and Galatians. Consider Galatians 2:16,21; 5:1-6 cf. Romans 3:21-31 and Romans 7:1-6.

It should be especially noticed that the writer of Hebrews, at the end of his incredible book, shows us the very spirit of true faith and worship as he even confirms the very nature of music that is now to be a part of the Kingdom of God. In Christ all of the sacrificial system of the Old Testament is fulfilled once and for all. Now in the Church we realize the most spiritual of all forms of worship even in the music we make to the Lord. Listen carefully to what is said about the nature of our spiritual worship and music:

“Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat. The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” (Hebrews 13:8-16)

As the book of Hebrews concludes, the writer shows us the kinds of “sacrifices” that are now to be a part of our worship and faith. There is absolutely no place for any more animal sacrifices and there is absolutely no place for any of the rituals that went along with it ... like instrumental music. What is left is the worship of the heart. What is left is spiritual worship. What is left is exactly what Paul emphasizes in Ephesians and Colossians. We are to “sing and make music in our hearts to the Lord with thanksgiving.” This is the “sacrifice of praise” that God wants. Once again, there is no place for the instrument of music in the worship of God in the New Covenant. In fact, it would appear that to bring the mechanical instrument of music into the worship of the Church of the Lord goes against all that is “spiritual worship” according to all that is Truth!

Consider the following pivotal verse: "You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." (I Peter 2:5) Thus, as God's people the kind of worship and service we offer up to the Lord is spiritual. This is the only kind of sacrifice that is acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. As we see everywhere in the teaching of the New Testament, the kind of music we make in the worship of God is to be the spiritual music of the heart. The only "instrument" is the voice that sings his praise.

Ask yourself a simple question. Is instrumental music more appropriate to the worship of the Old Testament or the New Testament? Which does it really fit into – the physical nature of the Old Covenant rituals or the spiritual nature of the New Covenant worship? Remember, the use of the instrument was specifically commanded and authorized in the Old Covenant. It was never commanded or authorized in the New Testament for the Church. Think about it!

There is only one more place that those who seek to find authority for instrumental music in the worship of the Church can go – the book of Revelation. It is true that the book of Revelation mentions “harps” in Revelation 5:8; 14:2; 15:2; 18:22; etc. But, it is also true that this is a book of signs and symbols and it is not to be taken literally! Consider Revelation 1:1-3. This book also mentions incense, bowls, candles, and an actual altar of sacrifice and incense! These visions were symbolic visions of what was taking place in the heavenly, spiritual world. They are not describing or proscribing the worship of the church on earth. It is a shameful misunderstanding and perversion of Scripture to seek to “justify” instrumental music in the worship of the church because Revelation mentions that, “angels played on harps.” (Do we really think that pure spiritual beings “play” on literal, physical harps?) If we can justify instrumental music in the Church because Revelation mentions “harps”, why can’t we “justify” bringing in a literal altar of sacrifice because Revelation mentions an altar?

Are there other arguments that some use to try and justify the use of instrumental music in the church? Of course there are! (Some of them are pretty fancy. Others are very contrived and convoluted. Some even attempt to resort to the Greek language. None of them succeed. See below!) But, most all of them simply fall into the realm of, “Well, we don’t really need authority for the music we make in the Church. Besides, I like it and I want it and I’m going to use it no matter what.” You see, most people are not really that concerned about matters of authority when it comes to their faith and worship. Tragically, much of what many do in the name of Religion is done more by human authority than Divine authority. It really is all about authority. (Go here to read it again!) True believers will never seek to go beyond the teaching of Christ. See II John 1:7-11. True believers will only want to do what God says. See John 14:15. True believers will only desire to worship God in spirit and in truth. See John 4:23-24. Which kind of believer are you?

Addendum on the Greek Term ψαλλω:

In the religious world when all debate is seemingly exhausted, in the efforts to prove that instrumental music is justified in the worship of the church, sooner or later the argument for many comes down to the Greek term ψαλλω (psallo). And, more often than not, appeal will be made to Strong’s Concordance and his definition (G5567):

“to twitch or twang, that is, to play on a stringed instrument (celebrate the divine worship with music and accompanying odes): - make melody, sing (psalms).”

To the undiscerning, this appears convincing. After all, doesn’t Strong’s say that psallo means, “to play on a stringed instrument”? Well, yes … and no! You see, Strong’s is an excellent tool for a quick study of Greek and Hebrew definitions. But, the sad truth is, most students have absolutely no idea how to use Strong’s – or for that matter any! – Greek-English Lexicon. With Strong’s you should notice that he tells you what the term means and then how it is actually translated in the New Testament as, “make melody, sing (psalms)” He is not telling you that the New Testament usage of psallo means “play on an instrument” or “use the instrument to the accompaniment of songs.” (And if Strong's is saying that psallo means "play or use and instrument in the worship of God" then he is blatantly wrong as we shall see!) But, that is what most people think he is saying and that is what most want to believe.

How do we know any of this? Well, first you must realize that Strong’s is not a complete Greek-English Dictionary of New Testament words. It is highly abbreviated and it leaves out very important information. Next you must realize that to get the full and complete meaning of any New Testament Greek word you must go to the more thorough Greek-English lexicons. Now let’s consider fuller, more complete lexicons.

Abbott-Smith’s Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament (p. 487):

“1. to pull, twitch, twang (as a bowstring, etc; Aesch. Eur., al.), hence, 2. absol., (a) to play a stringed instrument with the fingers (Hdt., Plat., al.); (b) later, to sing to a harp, sing psalms (LXX – Septuagint); in NT, to sing a hymn, sing praise: Jas 5:13, Rom 15:9, Eph 5:19, I Cor 14:15.”

Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (p. 675):

“a. to pluck off, pull out … the hair, Aeschyl. … b. to cause to vibrate by touching, to twang: Eur. … ; spec. … to touch or strike the chord, to twang the strings of a musical instrument so that they vibrate … and absol. to play on a stringed instrument, to play the harp, etc.: Aristot. … Plut. … ; Sept. (Septuagint for two Hebrew terms) … to sing to the music of a harp; in the N. T. to sing a hymn, to celebrate the praises of God in song, Jas. 5:13 … Eph. 5:19 … Rom. 15:9 … I Cor. 14:15.”

Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words:

“primarily to twitch, twang, then, to play a stringed instrument with the fingers, and hence, in the Sept. (Septuagint), to sing with a harp, sing psalms, denotes, in the N. T., to sing a hymn, sing praise; in Eph. 5:19, ‘making melody’ … Rom. 15:9; I Cor. 14:15; Jas. 5:13 …”

The Analytical Greek Lexicon (p. 441)

“to move by a touch, to twitch; to touch, strike the strings or chords of an instrument; absol. to play on a stringed instrument; to sing to music; in N. T. to sing praises, Rom. 15:9; I Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:19; Jas. 5:13.”

It should be noted that while the above lexical works are good, they are all severely out-of-date and are now superceded by Arndt & Gingrich’s “A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature.” This work (considered the definitive lexicon of the New Testament) has appeared in three editions. In the First Edition (1957) you find the following entry (p. 899):

“in our lit., in accordance w. OT usage, sing (to the accompaniment of a harp), sing praise. … Eph 5:19 …”

The Second Edition was done in 1979 and the article on psallo was significantly updated (p. 891):

“in our lit., in accordance w. OT usage, sing, sing praise … The original mng. of ψ. was ‘pluck’, ‘play’ (a stringed instrument); this persisted at least to the time of Lucian … In the LXX ψ. freq. Means ‘sing’, whether to the accompaniment of a harp or (as usually) not. … This process continued until ψ. in Mod. Gk. Means ‘sing’ exclusively … with no ref. To instrumental accompaniment. Although the NT does not voice opposition to instrumental music, in view of Christian resistance to mystery cults, as well as Pharisaic aversion to musical instruments in worship … it is likely that some sense as make melody is best here. Those who favor ‘play’ … may be relying too much on the earliest mng. of ψαλλω. …”

The Third Edition appeared in 2000. (Both the Second and the Third editions were revised and edited by F. W. Danker.) The Third Edition reads (p. 1096):

“… in our lit,. in accordance w. OT usage, to sing songs of praise, with or without instrumental accompaniment, sing, sing praise … Ephesians 5:19 … The original mng. of ψ. was ‘pluck’, ‘play’ (a stringed instrument); this persisted at least to the time of Lucian. In the LXX ψ. freq. means ‘sing’, whether to the accompaniment of an instrument or not, as is usually the case. This focus on singing continued until ψ. in Mod. Gk. means ‘sing’ exclusively … w. no ref. to instrumental accompaniment. Although the NT does not voice opposition to instrumental music, in view of Christian resistance to mystery cults, as well as Pharisaic aversion to musical instruments in worship, it is likely that some sense as make melody is best in this Eph passage. Those who favor ‘play’ (e.g. L-S-J-M; ASouter, Pocket Lexicon, 1920; JMoffatt, transl. 1913) may be relying too much on the earliest mng. of ψαλλω. …”

From a more careful study of the lexical data there is one fact that almost everyone seems to conveniently overlook. What is that fact? Simply this: Words have a history and most all words change meaning over time! If you properly use any of the mainstream Greek-English lexicons they will all tell you that in the Old Testament by way of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) the term psallo did at one time mean “to play” or “to sing with the accompaniment of the musical instrument.” There is absolutely no doubt about that. But, most every one of the full lexicons of New Testament words will then say, “In the New Testament” the term psallo means, “to sing.”

Just because a word means one thing at one point in its historical development does not at all mean that it means that at all points for all times! This is why it is critical to pay close attention to the way that most of the major Greek-English lexicons present the definition of words. Most lexicons carefully lay out their definitions in a highly compressed format. These lexicons will frequently give you the definition of a term in its Classical sense; its Old Testament usage; and its New Testament sense. Some will even give you the further development of a word through later history. What is more, most lexicons will give you several definitions and categories and even subdivide the definition of a word into further nuances (i.e., 1. 2. 3. a. b. c; etc.). It is critical that you pay attention to the exact definition that the lexicons gives and the lexical context in which that definition is given. It is important that you not conclude that just because a term means something during one historical period that it means that same thing in all historical periods. And just because a term means something in one context, does not mean that it means that in all contexts. If we are going to use the Greek or the Hebrew to “prove” some doctrine we are going to have to learn to handle the lexicons very carefully.

To put it as simply as possible, while the term psallo did mean, “to play on an instrument” at some points in its historical development, it did not mean this in the times of the New Testament! By the time of this word’s usage in New Testament literature, the term psallo only means, “to sing.” There is no lexical basis for understanding psallo to mean “to play or to sing with the instrument” anywhere in the New Testament. What is more, the truth is every mainstream translation of the New Testament translates psallo as “sing” or “make melody.” No mainstream translation of the New Testament translates psallo as “to sing and/or play.” And, the context of the term psallo in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 makes it very clear that the only “instrument” specified is “the heart”! After all, the spiritual worship of the New Covenant better fits with the heart being the instrument that we use in the worship of God, than with the physical instruments of music which were much more appropriate to the types and shadows (i.e., forms and fashions) of the Old Testament and its ritual and ceremonial worship.

But, there is more. Did you know that in the Jewish synagogue the instrument of music was never used until modern times? Did you know that there is absolutely no evidence that the church in the first three or four centuries ever used the instrument of music in the worship of the church? (In fact instrumental music was introduced at a much later time – probably around the Sixth or Seventh Century at the very earliest. However, some authorities are now saying that instrumental music was not introduced into the church until the Tenth Century! This would make instrumental music one of the late medieval innovations of the Roman Catholic Church.) Did you know that the early, so-called, “church-fathers” like Augustine, Chrysostom, Clement, Eusebius, Aquinas and others actually condemned the use of the instrument in the worship of the church? Did you know that most older works of church history clearly state that the early church did not use instrumental music in the worship of God? Did you also know that in the Reformation men the likes of Martin Luther, John Calvin and later John Wesley would also condemn the use of the instrument in the worship of the church? And did you know that even as late as the Nineteenth Century men like Spurgeon were still condemning the use of instrumental music in the worship of the church? Do you know that the Greek Orthodox Church still does not use instrumental music in the worship of the church? And, did you realize that (finally!) there are those in the modern denominational world who are honest enough to admit all of this. Go here to see just one current book on the subject; and here to see an older one.

Dear friend, the instrumental music issue is not a matter of anything other than respect for the authority of the Word of Christ as we seek to worship in spirit and truth! Those who oppose the instrument of music in the worship of God are not legalists. It is not about legalism, it is about loving God's truth. Those who have introduced the instrument of music into worship have gone beyond the authority of Christ and have added to the Word of God. We are clearly told in Scripture to prove all things and hold to that which is good. And we are told to never go beyond the teaching of Christ. See II John 1:9-11; I Thessalonians 5:21. Which will it be for you?