Quick Links Quick Links

Instrumental Music

by John Mark Hicks


Highland Street Church of Christ
August 27, 1997

A. Hermeneutical Framework.
1. The literary genre by which worship is regulated in the OT is different from the NT. Ephesians is not Leviticus. We do not have a legal genre in the NT. We do not have a specific "directory of worship" which lays out the particulars of NT assemblies.
2. Silence is not always prohibitive; it may be permissive. Mere silence never prohibits, but silence plus something else may. Silence is significant if: (a) there is a literary presumption that silence is prohibitive (as in Leviticus, or God's blueprint directives to Noah), or (b) there is a theological principle which provides a reason for the silence (e.g., the NT is silent about infant baptism). But silence alone, in the context of an epistolary (like Ephesians) or narrative genre (like Acts), cannot have prohibitive value. The significance of biblical silence must be weighed in the light of biblical theology as a whole. We must raise the question, why is the Bible silent on this question?
3. Consequently, silence is not the issue. Rather, the questions are: What did the early church do (i.e., what does the text say they did), and why did they do it? What is the history of the church's worship, and what is the theology that grounded that worship? Question: if the early church sang a cappella, did they do so for a theological reason?
B. Broad Historical/Textual Considerations.
1. History: the historical reality of the first century is impressive as one contrasts Jewish and pagan temple worship with the music of the church in the first centuries. The church was bitterly opposed to instrumental music in the first centuries, and had a cappella ("according to the chapel") music till the 10th century. The NT is silent about instrumental music because the early church did not use them, but why did they not use them? Why was the early church' s worship a cappella when musical instruments were culturally appropriate (used in pagan and Jewish temples), inexpensive and portable? Reformed (as opposed to Lutheran and Anglican) Protestants (beginning with Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin in the 1520-40s through the Puritans and Presbyterians in the 1640-60s as well as the Brethren and Baptists) were non-instrumental until the nineteenth century (and some still are).
2. Redemptive-Historical Development: the shift in covenants reflected a spiritualization/universalization of OT elements of worship, or at least a redefinition of them, especially as they were tied to the temple cultus (e.g., holy place, holy times, the altar, sacrifices, priesthood, incense, etc.).
3. The Nature of NT Worship: we are the temple of God and worship arises out of the indwelling presence of God's Spirit. We worship by the Spirit of God (Phil. 3:3), and the melody of our praises arises out of our hearts (Eph. 5:19). Paul implicitly contrasts the making melody (psallontes) of our hearts with the making melody (psallontes) of the OT temple. When "sing" and "make melody" occur together in the Psalms, it is always "sing" and "make melody on a harp" (or other instrument; cf. 33:2-3; 97:4-5; 144:9; 147:7), but Paul changes the wording to "sing" and "make melody on your heart". This probably reflects the a cappella practice of the early church in the light of a covenantal shift from the temple to the church.
C. General Theological Principles.
1. A cappella music is participatory, communal and expresses the priesthood of all believers.
2. A cappella music is universal (it can be done anywhere, at any time, by anyone). Instrumental music, however, locks one into a specific cultural form, setting or skill.
3. A cappella music derives its emotional and spiritual vigor from the heart which sings rather than from the instrument which generates emotional response from external sources. This is the contrast between extrinsic and intrinsic generation of worship emotion.
4. The content of the words is what makes music Christian, not the style or quality of music. Christian music has a cognitive character rather than simply expressing worship emotions. Vocal music reflects both qualities. God values both the emotional and cognitive character of music, but instrumental music has no cognitive character.
D. Practical (Expedient) Principles.
1. Instrumental music is often disruptive, counter-productive and performance-oriented.
2. The function of the instrument in worship is often confused. Is it an aide? Does it set the mood? Is it the primary music? Is it worship itself? Is it a prelude, interlude or music for post-service mixing?

3. A cappella music ought to be preserved somewhere in the Christian tradition as a witness to earliest Christianity, much like weekly communion ought to be preserved as a historic/biblical practice.
4. Where instrumental music increases, congregational singing tends to decrease, and the congregation may even cease to sing or never learn to sing. The instrument tends to discourage or displace congregational singing.
5. Instrumental music may not enhance evangelistic outreach, nor would it necessarily make our worship more contemporary. Rather, it may put the focus in the wrong place and create dissension within the body. Churches do not grow because they do or do not have the instrument. Growth rooted in such principles is not discipleship but consumerism.
6. Worship is a context which demands submission, first to God (how he regulates worship and how we offer our gifts to him), and then to each other (so that it also includes mutual submission). To create strife by introducing something which many conscientiously feel is unbiblical (to the extent that large sections of the congregation would have a conscientious objection and would have to leave the congregation if it introduced instrumental music) and is historically divisive (we have a track record within the Stone-Campbell movement) would reorient the worship toward our interests rather than God's. Perhaps the question we should raise is: Why would we want to introduce the instrument? At the expense of division, what value will it bring to our worship assemblies that is not already potentially or actually present without the instrument? Is that value worth the division of the body of Christ?

See also an additional article on instrumental music by clicking here

One Response to “Instrumental Music”

  1. James Goodwin says:

    The significance of biblical silence? How can you assert that the Bible is silent on the kind of music we are to use when the following is true: “Hymns, psalms and odes: Ode is the generic term; psalm and hymn are specific, the former designating a song which took its general character from the O. T. Psalms . . . While the leading idea of psalm is a musical accompaniment and that of hymn, praise to God, ode is the general word for a song, whether accompanied or unaccompanied, whether of praise or on any other subject. Thus it was quite possible for the same song to be at once psalm, hymn, and ode.” (Quote from Thayer’s Greek Lexicon) Your argument is predicated on a false premise, that the Scriptures are silent. God wants psalms, hymns and odes (spiritual) to be sung by the Christian community. He likes instrumental and vocal music sung in His honor.

Leave a Reply

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.

2 corinthians 1:3-4