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One of the first things that many people notice about our worship services is the beauty of the singing and the absence of a piano or organ. No, it's not because we can't afford them; it's because of God's command.

"What command?" you may ask.

I'm glad you asked.

Many people are surprised to learn that instrumental music is Christian worship is generally less than 200 years old in the Protestant movement and less than 1000 years old even in the Catholic Church. Compare this with almost 2000 years of church history, and this worship innovation becomes a clear departure from long standing church tradition and doctrine--although most people can barely imagine church music without musical instruments.

And this historical bias toward a cappella singing (singing without musical instruments) wasn't merely because musical instruments didn't exist or no one knew how to play them. It was a stand taken by the church from the first century through the first 1000 years because of Biblical teaching.

In both Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 where some specific words for singing in worship were chosen by the inspired apostle Paul, the Greek (the New Testament of the Bible was originally written in Greek) word ado, which excludes the use of instruments, was used. And, in fact, in other New Testament passages there are no statements or commands that would allow musical instruments to be included in Christian worship. Proof of this is how the Greek Orthodox Church, which still reads from the Greek text, has historically interpreted the word ado as "a cappella" and continues to understand the Bible to prohibit musical instruments in its worship services.

Additional proof of the historical nature of singing in Christian worship is the literal meaning of the Latin phrase "a capella" which we use today in English to mean "singing without instrumental accompaniment". The Latin phrase actually means "to sing in the manner of the church", reflecting the manner of over ten centuries of church music tradition (in contrast to the rest of the musical world which all used instruments).

Moreover, ancient church authorities and great protestant theologians were strongly opposed to suggestions that instruments be brought into their churches for worship.

Church Authorities and Church Music

John Wesley (founder of the Methodist Church)
"I have no objections to instruments of music in our chapels provided they are neither heard nor seen."

Chrysostom (a Catholic authority)
"David formerly sang in Psalms, also we sing today with him; he had a lyre with lifeless strings, the church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre, with a different tone, indeed, but with a more accordant piety."

Clement (an early Christian writer)
"Only one instrument do we use, the word of peace wherewith we honor God, no longer the old psaltery, trumpet, drum, and flute."

John Calvin (theologian behind much Baptist and Presbyterian doctrine)
"Musical instruments, in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting up of lamps, the restoration of the other shadows of the Law."

Luther (founder of the Lutheran Church)
Called instrumental music "an ensign of Baal."

Defenders of instrumental music in Christian worship today are, of course, many. But their arguments in favor of it can be distilled to about six, none of which are persuasive against the Biblical command....

The Bible doesn't specifically forbid it.

Specific prohibitions for everything that would be sinful aren't needed for us to know that something isn't right. If it were necessary for God to specifically list everything in the Bible that mankind could EVER do wrong, the Bible would certainly be many, many volumes (not unlike the libraries found in lawyers' libraries). Instead, God has provided principles and good sense. When He specifies a particular kind of singing (ado), He doesn't need to list all the kinds of music that He doesn't want. Think of it this way, if you send a child to the store with a list, you don't need to include a list of what you don't want the child to buy; it is naturally assumed that the rest of the store's inventory is excluded. Therefore, when God has specified a particular kind of singing, the other variants (instrumentally accompanied singing, for example) are excluded.

What of the harps in the book of Revelation?

First of all, Revelation is a book full of symbols; and the passages that speak of harps are all parts of highly symbolic sections that mustn't be taken literally but understood as the apocalyptic literature that it is. When reading poetry, for example, one mustn't attempt to understand it literally, but understand it as poetry. Likewise, we read history books differently from editorials.

So, apocalyptic literature must be understood in its own way.

Consider Rev. 5:8 -- "And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints;" (Revelation 5:8, RSV). Few would insist that we should begin using golden bowls of incense in worship, because they are clearly intended to be taken symbolically, as the prayers of Christians. Likewise, the harps are symbolic of praise to God.

Consider Rev. 14:2 -- "And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpers playing on their harps, and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who had been redeemed from the earth." (Revelation 14:2,3, RSV). Note here, that the VOICE was LIKE harpers playing their harps; in literature this is known as a simile. And something that the English reader would not be able to see is that "they sing (ado, sing a cappella) a new song". There is no reason found here to justify musical instruments; in fact, the scripture seems to go out of its way to clarify a cappella singing.

Finally, consider Rev. 15:2,3 -- "And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire, and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, "Great and wonderful are thy deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are thy ways, O King of the ages! (Revelation 15:2,3, RSV). Again, the English reader would not notice, but those who had conquered are here singing (ado) the song of Moses and the Lamb. Once again, there is no reason found here to justify musical instruments; in fact, the scripture has gone out of its way to clarify a cappella singing.

What of the instruments mentioned in the Old Testament, particularly the Psalms?

Without a doubt the worship of God in the Old Testament included musical instruments. They are named many, many times throughout the Psalms and appear to even have been commanded by God Himself in some verses. But the question must be asked, "Does authorization in the Old Testament authorize in the New?" What of animal sacrifice?

What of the building of the Temple as a central place of worship for all believers?

What of the Table of the Presence, the Menorah, the Altar of Incense, and the Ark of the Covenant?

What of the Day of Atonement, Passover, the Feast of Tabernacles?

All of these are part of the Old Covenant, but few would advocate from the scriptures that these are authorized and commanded parts of Christian worship. Indeed, if they are part of Christian worship, they should be authorized by the New Testament by command or example like the Lord's Supper, the collection, prayer, and preaching. The only sort of singing authorized in the New Testament is a cappella, without instrumental accompaniment, singing.

What about the word psallo?

The Greek word "psallo" found in the New Testament has been cited as a word which might allow instrumental music in Christian worship. The meaning of the word several centuries before the New Testament era was to pluck (like a bow string, a hair, or a harp string). Over time, to "psallo" a harp came to mean "to play a harp", and with more time it came to mean "to sing". By the time the New Testament was written (and we must define words in their time frame -- for example the word "gay" in the 1920's meant one thing while "gay" in the 1990's has come to mean something quite different in most minds) the word had the generic meaning of singing with or without instruments, much like the 20th century meaning of the English word "sing". It included instruments in its definition only if the instrument is mentioned in the context. One place in the New Testament where it is used is Ephesisans 5:19 -- "Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music (psallo) in your heart to the Lord," (Ephesians 5:19, NIV). Please notice what the instrument mentioned here is, the heart of the believer who is singing (ado-ing). In other contexts in the New Testament, no instruments are mentioned at all in connection with psallo. The bottom line: psallo doesn't authorize instrumental music, either.

Does God really care about such details?

Here is one of the most often used arguments today. Many believe, erroneously, that God is not as interested in obedience as in sincerity. But the Bible is "shot through" with examples of the importance of obedience to such "details". Leviticus 10 tells the story of two priests who ignored a detail in burning incense to God, the source of the fire that ignited the incense. Human logic says, "Fire is fire. What difference does it make where it comes from?" But it clearly made a difference to God, since He answered this disobedience to a "detail" with fire from heaven to kill the disobedient priests. The book of 1 Kings tells the story of Jereboam and the relatively small changes he made to the worship of God -- place, priesthood, and image. The northern kingdom of Israel worshipped the same God as before with sacrifices, incense, song, etc., but the "details" offended God so that He destroyed the northern kingdom with an exile, courtesy of the cruel Assyrian empire. Other such examples can be cited from both the Old and New Testaments, but their outcomes remain constant: God cares about obedience, even to those commands that we might consider unimportant details. Yes, He cares about the details.

Without instruments the church's music would just sound awful.

Many religious groups are convinced that their singing without instruments would sound terrible; and many of them might be right (although you never know unless you try for a while). But in saying this, they miss a very important point: God doesn't care about the aesthetic appeal of the music offered; He cares about the faith, the loyalty, and the praise of the heart of believers. The Bible doesn't command that we sing well; just that we sing -- a good thing for most of us.

Now, it so happens that the congregational singing done at the Manchester church of Christ is generally so good that most visitors from the community are very impressed. But even if the singing were absolutely horrible, the command would remain the same.

Additionally, human observation seems to reinforce the truth that God knows what He's doing. Without instruments people tend to sing better, pay attention to the words better, and generally get more internally from the singing portion of the worship service. With instruments people tend to listen to the instrument rather than sing, ignore the words of the song, and come away mostly with only an appreciation of pretty music. But whether humans can make good sense of God's command really isn't the point; God has commanded, can we refuse?

This may have been way more than you ever thought there was to say about music in worship services; but we hope that you will give serious thought to the Biblical model, submit to the Lord's desires on this issue, and come worship with us this Sunday in spirit and in truth.

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