Jeff Smith

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Solid Food

Worshiping With an Instrument

God knows how to describe the use of mechanical instruments in musical worship. A cursory review of the Old Testament will show David's devotion to various instruments, including the trumpet, harp, flute and cymbals (Psalm 150). Indeed, God knows how to talk about instrumental music in such explicit terms that no one could miss the point.

The question then must be raised, why has he failed to permit or command us to use instrumental music in worship of the New Testament economy? For whatever reason, God knows, he has chosen to remain silent on the subject of using such instruments, but has been more than explicit about the use of one's heart and voice to sing his praises.

The Holy Spirit inspired the apostle Paul to dissuade us from being filled with wine, but to "be filled with the spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord" (Ephesians 5:18-19). Perhaps Peter Frampton came close to making a guitar talk 25 years ago, but in the end, the instrument still had no heart.

A God who could speak life and light into existence and who could describe the beauty of musical worship when rendered in the heart and expressed with the tongue could surely find acceptable language to enable likewise the use of inanimate instruments in worship. But he did not.

This very passage begins by commanding us to understand what the will of the Lord is. The only way we have to understand God's will is to read, for "when you read, you may understand" (Ephesians 3:4). One can read the New Testament cover to cover and never find the church of Jesus Christ or a single worshiping saint on Earth obscuring the melody of his heart and harmony of his voice with the clanging of cymbals or pounding of piano keys. God knows how to command such a thing but he just did not do it.

In Colossians 3:16, our apostle writes, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." Once again, the emphasis rests on the word and the ability of the heart to produce emotion that willfully couples with one's voice. And once again, no artificial instrument is inserted to duel with the human voice for supremacy in the worship of God. If God wanted it so, he could have made it so with explicit commands or approved examples. Yet he did not.

The very next verse is an admonition that "whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus." It is absolutely impossible to play the piano in worship in the name of Jesus, for where Bible authority lacks, divine sanction is impossible.

Both scripture and history prove that neither Christ and his apostles nor the early church employed anything more complex than their voices in praise to God. It was 670 years later that Pope Vitilian I introduced the organ into Roman Catholic worship. This uninspired innovation threatened to split the Catholic church in two and so it was removed to preserve unity. More than a century later, however, it was brought out again with some opposition, but eventually won incremental approval and finally, widespread acceptance. Another victory for the devil's strategy of incrementalism.

Most religious groups that trace their history to the Protestant reformation began with an ardent desire to reject all things inherently Catholic and obviously unscriptural. Instrumental music was generally one of these items. But like their corrupted mother, the Protestant churches gradually readopted this practice, while maintaining other Catholic inventions like Christmas and Easter.

Still, many noteworthy Protestant preachers and scholars spoke eloquently, though unconvincingly, about the evil of instrumental music in the worship of God. Consider a few:

  • John Calvin (1509-1564): "Musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting of lamps, and the restoration of other shadows of the Law" (Calvin's Commentary on 33rd Psalm).

  • Charles Spurgeon (Baptist, 1834-1892): "Praise the Lord with the harp. Israel was at school, and used childish things to help her to learn; but in these days when Jesus gives us spiritual food, one can make melody without strings and pipes. We do not need them. They would hinder rather than help our praise. Sing unto him. This is the sweetest and best music. No instrument like the human voice. What a degradation to supplant the intelligent song of the whole congregation by the theatrical prettiness of a quartet, bellows, and pipes! We might as well pray by machinery as praise by it" (Commentary on Psalm 42:4).

  • John Wesley (Methodist; 1703-1791): "I have no objection to instruments of music in our chapels, provided they are neither heard nor seen" (Clarke's Commentary, Vol. IV, page 686).

  • Andrew Fuller (Baptist scholar) finding no example in the Bible or in the first three centuries A.D. of Christians using instruments in religion, said "It is heresy in the sphere of worship" (Works of Andrew Fuller, vol. III, page 520).

  • Martin Luther (Catholic; 1483-1546): "An organ in the worship of God is an ensign of Baal" (McClintock and Strong's Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, Vol. 8, page 739).

  • Adam Clarke (Methodist): "I am an old man and a minister; and I declare that I never knew them (mechanical instruments) productive of any good in the worship of God; and I have reason to believe that they were productive of much evil. Music, as a science, I esteem and admire; but instruments of music in the house of God I abominate and abhor. This is the abuse of music and I here register my protest against all such corruption in the worship of the Infinite Spirit who requires his followers to worship him in spirit and in truth" (Clarke's Commentary, Vol. IV, page 686).

  • Thomas Aquinas (Catholic theologian, c. 1225-74): "Our church does not use mechanical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize" (McClintock and Strong's Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, Vol. 8, page 739).

Apostasy is always gradual and it has taken some time for adherents of these various belief systems to eradicate any memory of an age in which their greatest scholars contended for an abolition or continued dismissal of instrumental music in worship. It is amazing to think that the church of Christ has more in common with Charles Spurgeon in this matter than any Baptist church in town. More importantly, she has it in common with King Jesus.

When confronted with these arguments, many will defend their instruments, but not their hearts, by claiming that since the piano sounds so good, God must accept it. The same argument, though, could be made for any number of things not found in the Bible. Coke tastes so much better than grape juice and pizza tastes so much better than unleavened bread that God must accept them on Christ's table.

Some who are a little old-fashioned are upset that churches seem to be using more popular instruments like the electric guitar and drum set today. They long for the good old days of the piano and organ, but the same authority that gives you the piano allows for the guitar — human innovation and sin's tendency to expand incrementally once the door is cracked an inch.

Why must the will of God be made subject to the popular approval of the church? Should not her opinions on worship be subject to the object? Or does she intend to offer God strange fire, in the doomed fashion of Nadab and Abihu, which he did not command?