Wednesday, 3 June 2015

“Proof” that Instrumental Music in Worship is Acceptable to God?

     I came across a couple of articles the other day, wherein the author boldly affirms: “I have concrete biblical evidence that the use of instrumental music in worship is authorized and not sinful. I would argue that there is more than enough evidence to show that instrumental music is approved by God in worship and believe I have sufficiently proved that.”1 Though he formally believed “that vocal music was the only type of music authorized in New Testament worship,” he now acknowledges, “I have since changed my position.” Following are his main arguments to which I have responded.2


     The assertion is made: “In order to know if God sanctions a practice, we need to first see if there is a law against it.” I find this statement rather curious and somewhat legalistic. A specific edict that is violated does not have to be identified to understand what the Lord positively endorses. God’s revealed will is ascertained simply by reading the Bible and therein learning what is divinely sanctioned (Deut. 29:29; Rom. 10:17; Eph. 3:1-5; 5:17; 2 Tim. 3:14-17).
     The author cites Romans 4:15 and 1 John 3:4 and concludes: “The Bible repeatedly teaches that there has to be a law violated in order for sin to occur. Since the Bible teaches that authority or approval for a practice is intrinsically granted in the absence of a law, those who believe that it is a sin to use instruments in worship are obligated to provide the New Testament law that they feel is being violated.” Is this really what the Bible teaches? These verses have been interpreted as requiring a specifically stated law for every conceivable sin, but contextually they simply affirm God’s provision of law (in general) to regulate human conduct, and departing from divine law constitutes sin.
     When the inspired apostle recorded the words of Rom. 4:15, “where there is no law, there is no sin,” he had already stated in the previous chapter, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). For both statements to be true, the logical conclusion is that no one has ever been without law toward God (cf. 1 Cor. 9:21). It is unnecessary to find explicit condemnation in scripture of every conceivable practice devised by man (infant sprinkling, polygamy, pianos in Christian worship, etc.). If we can identify what is acceptable and pleasing to the Lord as revealed in his word, then everything else can be discounted.


     I agree with the author’s comment, “The Old Testament is not our authority, the New Testament is.” But he makes a huge assumption when he says, “the example of Miriam shows us that instruments were an acceptable way to praise God before Tabernacle or Temple worship (Ex. 15:20). Instrumental praise pre-dated the Law of Moses and was acceptable to the Lord. First of all, the biblical text alluded to here simply describes what Miriam and other women were doing without saying anything about the Lord’s alleged acceptance of it. Whether or not God actually approved the timbrels and dancing, the author has merely submitted his subjective opinion as though it were a proven fact. Secondly, this was not corporate worship but personal celebration, which eventually became customary among the Jews (cf. Judg. 11:34; 1 Sam. 18:6; Luke 15:25). It was not until much later that instruments were introduced into Israel’s corporate tabernacle/temple worship (1 Chron. 15:16; 23:5; Ezra 3:10). Finally, there is the question of where this kind of celebrating originated from, seeing that instruments and dancing had a long history in secular and pagan festivities (Gen. 4:21; 31:19, 27; Ex. 32:19; Job 21:12; cf. Dan. 3:5, 15) and Miriam had spent her entire life under the influence of the pagan Egyptians (cf. Ex. 32:1, 19).3 The premise drawn from Exodus 15 is unfounded.


     Under the heading, “God Has Given No Direct Law Against the Use of Instruments in New Testament Worship,” the observation is made: “One can read their New Testament as many times as they would like and they will never find any type of proclamation against instruments in worship.” But couldn’t this also be said about gambling, praying to departed saints, infant baptism, sale of indulgences, smoking marijuana, ad infinitum? When the comment is made that “there is not even a hint of any kind of negative connotation to instruments in worship,” the author seems to be reading the NT through the distorted lens of his own modern-day religious environment. If mechanical instruments were not being used among the first-century churches, how can we expect biblical writers to give any connotation (negative or otherwise) to a non-existent practice?
     Mention is also made of the positive (though admittedly symbolic) allusions to harps in Rev. 5:8; 14:2; and 15:2. But where is the consistency with respect to the many other symbols in Revelation, such as golden bowls of incense, golden altar, virgins, crowns, temple, sea of glass mingled with fire, et al.? While one might reason that in the NT the burning of incense is “only spoken of positively and never negatively,” shouldn’t context and intended meaning be considered before using any biblical reference as a proof-text for unauthorized acts?4


     Since the word “faith” in the NT doesn’t necessarily mean “faith only,” the argument is made that the word “sing” in the NT doesn’t necessarily mean “sing only.” Is this a legitimate comparison? How do we know that biblical statements about faith (e.g. John 3:16) do not mean faith only? Because of the immediate context (vv. 5, 21), the remote context (John 7:17; 8:12, 51; 14:15, 21-24; 15:10, 14), and other passages where complementary requisites are clearly included (Acts 2:37-41; 17:30; Gal. 3:26-27; Heb. 5:9; etc.). Is this comparable to what the scriptures teach about musical praise? Every passage in the NT that relates to music in Christian worship specifies vocal and verbal praise (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26; Acts 16:25; Rom. 15:9; 1 Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; Heb. 2:12; 13:15; Jas. 5:13). While it is true that the word ‘sing’ doesn’t intrinsically exclude instruments,” nothing in the immediate or remote contexts of these passages or elsewhere in the NT adds or sanctions any other type of music. If “sing” (psallō, adō, humneō) in the NT does not mean to “sing only,” where is the scriptural confirmation of what is to be added?
     The old argument is then set forth: “the Greek word ‘psallo’ used in the New Testament is a word that permits instruments.” Actually the word psallō is a verb; it conveys an action but does not inherently supply its own object. With a rich etymology that includes even non-musical usage (e.g. “pluck” a hair or “twang” a carpenter’s line), when the Greek NT was written it meant “to sing a hymn, to celebrate the praises of God in song” (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon 675). In order for the word to convey the “striking” or “twanging” of the strings of an instrument, an object (e.g. harp or lyre) must be supplied. Every occurrence of the term in the LXX is listed, with allusion to its use among other Hellenistic writers, but the fact remains that the verb requires an object in order for its particular usage to be discerned. And what object is supplied in the NT texts that employ this verb? Not a man-made stringed instrument but the God-created human heart and vocal chords (Rom. 15:9, 1 Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:19; Jas. 5:13).5
     Because the word psallō apparently “didn’t exclude instruments,” we are asked to believe that the term itself somehow includes them?? I don’t see the logic behind this puzzling conclusion and the associated charge that all who don’t follow this line of reasoning and who reject instrumental music in Christian worship are the ones “adding to the Word of God,” going beyond what’s written, and “teaching as doctrine the commandments of men”???


     The directive to sing and make melody in your heart (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) is interpreted to mean worshiping and praising God sincerely, whether vocally or with an instrument or both. While no one disputes the requisite of sincerity, what about the positive affirmations regarding worship, i.e. what the NT actually teaches? The voice (singing) and the heart are the only instruments identified in these verses. In an attempt to strengthen the case against vocal-only advocates, it is argued that Eph. 5:19 “says that both the singing and the melody are to be done in the heart.” The claim is then made that consistency requires singing to be understood as “inward and silent,” thus excluding vocal praise. But this peculiar deduction just does not follow, because “singing” is by definition vocal, accompanying the heart melody.
     The author seems to accept the principle of exclusion, using the example of ordering a sandwich with itemized ingredients, implicitly excluding all other ingredients. But then he claims that those who employ this line of reasoning on the music question are inconsistent, because the specifics of James 5:13 would have to exclude things like going to the doctor and singing when you’re sad. Is this a fair representation of the use of this principle? Surely we understand that the totality of biblical teaching must be considered, not just a single verse.


     The author maintains that false information about the history of church music has been perpetuated. He says the notion that early Christians did not use mechanical instruments in their worship and the assertion that the practice wasn’t introduced until the 5th or 6th century “is a heavy, heavy claim that is absolutely false.” He then alleges “that many Churches of Christ have (unintentionally) misrepresented early church history on this matter,” so he attempts to set the record straight.
     The following quote from Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 74) is submitted: “As the Spirit urges those from all the earth who recognize this salutary mystery – i.e., the sufferings of Christ, through which he saved them – to sing (adontes) and play the harp (psallontes) continually.” The problem with this quotation is that it’s an English translation by Walter L. Straub, and Dr. Straub has incorrectly interpreted and rendered the word psallontes as “play the harp.” The word psallontes is the participial form of the verb psallō and is the exact same form that occurs in Eph. 5:19. No standard English translation of the Bible has included the word “harp” in this passage. As noted above, the verbal psallō requires an object in order for it to signify “to play.” Walter Straub, not Justin Martyr, has inserted an object into the text that is not in the original. A more accurate rendering is as follows: “sing and give praises to God the Father of all things.”6
     Having misrepresented Justin Martyr, the next assertion is that in his other writings he supposedly “understood that the Greek word ‘psallo’ did not exclude playing,” and comparisons are made with LXX renderings of 1 Sam. 16:23 and 19:9. But again, in these OT passages David played “a harp” and did so “with his hand,” qualifiers which are absent from Justin Martyr’s alleged positive use of psallō.
     Next an appeal is made to Clement of Alexandria, who supposedly “saw no problem with using instruments in worship to God.” Here is the quote that is offered to support this inference: For the apostle adds again, ‘Teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your heart to God.’ And again, ‘Whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and His Father.’ This is our thankful revelry. And even if you wish to sing and play to the harp or lyre, there is no blame.” The problem here is that the quote is isolated from its context. By reading the entire discourse (The Instructor 2.4), we see that Clement is addressing how Christians are to conduct themselves at feasts (not worship services), and he uses extensive symbolism and typology.
     Clement viewed literal instrumental music as characteristic of ungodly festivities: “For if people occupy their time with pipes, and psalteries, and choirs, and dances, and Egyptian clapping of hands, and such disorderly frivolities, they become quite immodest and intractable, beat on cymbals and drums, and make a noise on instruments of delusion; for plainly such a banquet, as seems to me, is a theatre of drunkenness …. For, in truth, such instruments are to be banished from the temperate banquet, being more suitable to beasts than men, and the more irrational portion of mankind.”
     In contrast, the types of “instruments” Clement enjoins at Christian banquets are vocal: “for the tongue is the psaltery of the Lord …. By the lyre is meant the mouth struck by the Spirit …. Our body He calls an organ, and its nerves are the strings, by which it has received harmonious tension, and when struck by the Spirit, it gives forth human voices …. He calls the tongue the cymbal of the mouth, which resounds with the pulsation of the lips …. For man is truly a pacific instrument …. We no longer employ the ancient psaltery, and trumpet, and timbrel, and flute.”7 Clement’s alleged sanction of stringed instruments, whether at a banquet or in a worship assembly, is not a fair representation of the entirety of his discourse.
     Tertullian is mentioned next, and the assertion is made that “he associates and includes instruments in ‘psalms and hymns’” and “believed that instruments could be included with singing to the Lord.” Yet for some curious reason no quotes or references are given from Tertullian’s writings to support these claims.8 On occasion Tertullian did allude to “psalms” and “hymns,” but he says nothing about mechanical instruments: Ad uxorem (To My Wife) 2.8, the husband and wife sing psalms and hymns to each other; De Oratione (On Prayer) 28, good works are accompanied by psalms and hymns; De anima (On the Soul) 9, psalms are chanted at religious services; De exhortation castitatis (Exhortation to Chastity) 10, sing psalms. 
     Next is the 4th-century Ephraim Syrus, and here is the quote that is given: “Let us praise that Voice whose glory is hymned with our lute, and His virtue with our harp. The Gentiles have assembled and have come to hear His strains.” Who was Ephraim Syrus (the Syrian)? He was not a church historian whose writings provide insight into the beliefs and practices of 4th-century Christians. He was a hymnologist, nicknamed “the Harp of the Spirit,” whose compositions are filled with word pictures and symbolism. It is interesting that of the thousands of lines of Ephraim’s extant hymns, this one brief poetic stanza is atomized and literalized to support a very weak presupposition. This particular line is part of Hymn 2 of the Nineteen Hymns on the Nativity of Christ in the Flesh, which A. S. Rodrigues Pereira notes is representative of “the rich and varied imagery of his poetry which is couched in his very personal symbolic language” (Studies in Aramaic Poetry 237 n. 1). The hymn is saturated with imagery from both the Old and New Testaments, and one must determine whether the “lute” and “harp” symbolize voices of praise or literally depict instrumental accompaniment.9 A definitive case for the latter has not been made.
     The final appeal is to Jerome, who apparently “speaks of a ‘sister’ who praises God with instruments.” Here is the full quote: “Oh! that you could see your sister and that it might be yours to hear the eloquence of her holy lips and to behold the mighty spirit which animates her diminutive frame. You might hear the whole contents of the old and new testaments come bubbling up out of her heart. Fasting is her sport, and prayer she makes her pastime. Like Miriam after the drowning Pharaoh she takes up her timbrel and sings to the virgin choir, ‘Let us sing to the Lord for He hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.’ She teaches her companions to be music girls but music girls for Christ, to be luteplayers but luteplayers for the Saviour.” This quote comes from Jerome’s Letter to Furia (54.13), a personal letter of guidance to a widow in Rome. It is not a theological treatise or ecclesiastical history or liturgical creed affirming church doctrine and convention. It is merely a poetic reflection on a Miriam-like woman in late-4th century Rome and is hardly indicative of the conventional practice of the churches.
     This section concludes with the following observation: “To my knowledge, there is absolutely no evidence of anyone, from the time of the early church through the first few centuries, that actually condemned instruments in worship.” But the same can be said about gay marriage, legalization of pot, stem cell research, and a host of other issues that we face today but were not part of the early church’s experience. If mechanical instruments were not used in the corporate worship assemblies during the first few centuries of the Christian movement, is it reasonable to expect a non-existent practice to have been condemned? That instruments were supposedly condoned and widely used by churches during this period is not substantiated by the testimonies provided. I concur with the author’s sentiment: “Biased study seldom produces unbiased conclusions. That is why it is so important to be honest with the evidence.”


     The author ends his study by ridiculing and rejecting the hermeneutical principle commonly known as “command, example, and necessary inference.” Yet he provides no alternative approach to how he thinks the Lord’s will ought to be ascertained from scripture. He says, “I don’t believe that I should assume a fixed way on how to read and study the Bible before I even read and study it.” Okay, so how is the Bible to be read and studied? If all other forms of communication effectively operate by way of direct statements, approved examples, and implication, why should the Bible be approached any differently? He then says, I should conform my thinking to the Bible, not the Bible to my thinking. I should allow the context to dictate the meaning of the text.” I wholeheartedly agree, and this is readily accomplished by employing basic principles of interpretation, though not as extreme and subjective as portrayed in this disparaging critique.


     We have been asked to believe that mechanical instruments in Christian worship are divinely sanctioned. We were promised “concrete biblical evidence” and “more than enough evidence,” with the assurance, I have sufficiently proved that.” Readers can decide for themselves whether or not this is the case.

--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Kevin Pendergrass, “A Response to Wes McAdams: How to Determine if an Issue is a Salvation Issue,” 25 May 2015, <Link>. While Pendergrass takes issue with an article McAdams posted on 12th May 2015 <Link>, and much could be said in response to that response, the basis of the above statement is a previous article Pendergrass had posted 4 February 2015 entitled, “A Study of Music in the Church: Why I No Longer Bind,” <Link>, wherein he explains why he changed his position on the question of instrumental music in worship.
     2 The author points out what he considers to be inconsistencies among churches of Christ regarding religious music outside the “corporate worship,” claiming that “God did not give different regulations and restrictions for worship songs when sung inside the assembly versus outside the assembly.” Suffice it to say that worship is intentional (Acts 24:11), and something that is often done as “worship” in a worship setting might be done in another setting where it does not necessarily constitute worship (Luke 11:1-4; Acts 27:35-36) or at least not congregational worship (Acts 16:25; James 5:13b).
 In a worship setting, i.e. an assembly of Christians who have gathered for the express purpose of worshiping, all should be participating in worship as a collective activity in accordance with biblical guidelines (1 Cor. 11:17-29; 14:12-19; 16:1-2; etc.).
     3 See “Music and the Bible: a Brief History,” <Link>.
     4 See “Questions About Music in Christian Worship Part 1,” <Link>.
     5 See “Questions about Music in Christian Worship Part 3,” <Link>.
     6Early Christian Writings: Justin Martyr,” Dialogue with Trypho <Link>.
     7 Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, <Link>. The footnote appended to the statement in question reads, “Here instrumental music is allowed, though he turns everything into a type.”
     8 The only citation given is Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4, p. 468, but I could find no supporting information for the claim that is made.
     9 Listen to how the hymn concludes: “Blessed be He Whom our mouth cannot adequately praise, because His Gift is too great for skill of orators [to tell]; neither can the faculties adequately praise His goodness. For praise Him as we may, it is too little. And since it is useless to be silent and to constrain ourselves, may our feebleness excuse such praise as we can sing …. Ocean of glory Who needest not to have Thy glory sung, take in Thy goodness this drop of praise; since by Thy Gift Thou hast supplied my tongue a sense for glorifying Thee” (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, <Link>).

Addendum: Here is the author’s response to my response <Link>. It is not my intention to engage in a never-ending tit-for-tat responding to responses of responses, but a few notes of clarification might be helpful. He says that multiple times his “views, reasoning and arguments are misrepresented,” so I want to rectify any misperceptions on my part (which are purely unintentional).
     He concludes from Rom. 4:15 and 1 John 3:4 that “if there is no law against a practice, then that practice is sanctioned.” But he also affirms “that there doesn’t have to be an explicit condemnation of a practice in order for it to be wrong.” I’m having trouble understanding the difference between a “law against a practice” (required) and an “explicit condemnation of a practice” (not required). What does “law” mean if it doesn’t refer to either a positive affirmation or a negative condemnation of a practice? Since all have sinned (Rom. 3:23), it follows that Rom. 4:15 and 1 John 3:4 simply show that everyone is amenable to divine law (cf. 1 Cor. 9:21). But what does this have to do with identifying what the Lord positively sanctions? Where does the NT positively sanction mechanical instruments in Christian worship? If the principle of Acts 15:24 is relevant, then God has given “no such commandment” for employing mechanical instruments in Christian worship. Any faulty hermeneutical principle that condemns multiple communion cups and kitchens does not discount sound hermeneutical principles.
     Using over-the-top and condescending expressions to dismiss my comments about Ex. 15:20-21 is no response. The author’s original contention that this passage proves divine sanction has still not been established.
     He further states: “Dr. Moore is saying that we can’t use instrumental music because we are told to sing.” Talk about misrepresenting someone’s views! What I actually said was, “nothing in the immediate or remote contexts of these passages or elsewhere in the NT adds or sanctions any other type of music.” With respect to the verb psallō, I observed that an object (e.g. harp or lyre) must be supplied in order for it to signify “to play.” The author claims that this “is false” and cites Psa. 33:3 as “a clear example” to the contrary. Since everything in the Bible is written in context, I invite you to read the previous verse where two objects are supplied.
     He then says, if the words for ‘sing’ have never excluded instrumental music before, then we cannot argue against instrumental music on the basis of the command to ‘sing’ since ‘sing’ doesn’t exclude or forbid instrumental music.” Instruments did in fact accompany the word “sing” in a number of OT passages, but such is not the case in the NT. One could argue that the word “sing” does not (and never has) excluded dancing and juggling. So what? The bottom line is, there is no NT authorization for adding mechanical instruments (or dancing or juggling) to Christian worship. He mentions that I did not address the argument, “Singing ‘in your heart’ does not nor has it ever excluded a mechanical instrument.” Okay, so does it inherently include a mechanical instrument? No. At times in the OT there was instrumental accompaniment, but not in the NT.
     He is quick to note that “Dr. Moore concedes the fact that the early church did not speak negatively against instrumental music.” What he fails to address is my repeated contention that there are a number of issues that arose later in church history that were not ‘spoken against’ earlier because they were not being practiced. I’m sorry he feels that he was deceived with misinformation as he was growing up, but he shouldn’t tar everyone with the same brush. He wonders why I didn’t comment on quotes from Justin Martyr and Tertullian he believes to be inaccurate. These quotes were not used to support the claims to which I’m responding, and it is not my purpose to try to defend them.
     He claims, “Dr. Moore does say some things that are just not true…” He disagrees with my contention that the verb psallō requires an object in order for it to signify “to play,” and he again appeals to Psa. 33:3 to show that this position “is incorrect.” Just read the previous verse. He says nothing about the fact that the participial form psallontes in Justin Martyr’s quote is the exact same form that occurs in Eph. 5:19, and no reputable translator has ever rendered this verse “play the harp.” Comparing Justin Martyr’s use of psallō with 1 Sam. 16:23 and 19:9 continues to miss the point about the presence or absence of an object that determines its usage. Having an object supplied in one text does not mean the same object is inherent in the verb in another text.
     The quote from Clement of Alexandria is from Book 2 of The Instructor under the chapter heading, “How to Conduct Ourselves at Feasts.” Tertullian’s quote (Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4, p. 468) is about OT priestly worship. Since the author says he will let the Ephraim Syrus quote speak for itself, I will let my comment about the quote speak for itself. Concerning Jerome’s quote, I’m accused of “demanding further criteria before we should consider historical evidence.” My point is that the various literary genres and subject matter do not carry equal weight with respect to historical evidence. Poetic imagery using OT types in a personal letter about individual activity is not the same as a historical affirmation about conventional church doctrine and practice.
     I am equally concerned about inconsistencies and strive to practice and teach the importance of being consistent. However, what some view as inconsistent might not be an actual inconsistency when all the information is considered, requiring extensive discussion that is beyond what can be accomplished here. Let me just say that the following deduction is not true: “Dr. Moore appears to be of the belief that you can use an instrument in a worship song as long as it is not in ‘corporate worship.’” All the argumentation against this alleged inconsistency is therefore not applicable (at least not to me) and requires further discussion and clarification. My reference to every passage in the NT that “relates to” musical praise in Christian worship is not oblivious to context. I’m a firm believer in gathering all pertinent information before a conclusion is drawn, and the passages listed in some way relate to the topic at hand.
     I concur that we should discuss, study, and pray about this issue and respect one another in the process. But we are already divided, and this issue has been causing division for centuries. For those of us who have very strong convictions about it, we can’t just blindly pretend that it doesn’t really matter. Perhaps discussions like this serve as a feeble attempt to make a difference.
--Kevin L. Moore

Related PostsMusical Praise & Biblical SilenceChoral Singing

Related articles: M. C. Kurfee's "Instrumental Music in Worship: Greek Psallo," <Link>; Steven Hunter's "Reformers on A Capella Praise," <Link>; Elesha Coffman's "When did churches start using instrumental music?" <Link>; Tyler Boyd's The Fascinating Story of Kevin Pendergrass (Part 1)

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  1. This is a great article, Brother Moore! It really got me thinking. Why is it that our brothers and sisters in the Church try to argue for activities that are "okay" with God? I'm really concerned for the future Church because so many people have this idea of things being okay simply because it isn't directly condemned in the Bible. I believe that instrumental music, among many other currently popular topics, is one of those things. Why should we settle for things that are just "okay" with God (I'm not saying that using instruments in worship is)? I think we're getting away from the Biblical purity that is meant to exist in the Church. We should be focusing on ways that will make our worship as pleasing to God as humanly possible, and stop focusing all of our attention on things that are just "okay."