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Instrumental Music in Worship vs. The Songs of Centuries

Hi-story, or Just-a-story?

            Estranged from scripture, history is just a story, an account of the good and the bad. Engaged with scripture, however, supported by and supporting Bible books, chapters and verses, history is another powerful testimony about the proper doctrines and practices of Christianity. The New Testament gives us the “sing-sing” passages (Eph, 5:19, Col. 3:16, I Cor. 14:15, and etc.), the utterly consistent a capella doctrine of church music. What does history add to our understanding of the kind of music we are to offer in praise of God?

The “Sing-Sing” Passages of the New Testament and an Old Testament Question

            The passages listed above are not alone, but are typical.

  • “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25).
  • “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name” (Rom. 15:9).
  • “I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also” (I Cor. 14:15).
  • “Address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:19).
  • Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Col. 3:16).
  • “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Heb. 13:15).
  • “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise” (Jas. 5:13).
  • “Musical organs pertain to the Jewish ceremonies and agree no more to us than circumcision” (Justin Martyr, 100-165).

            As pointed as these passages are individually and as powerfully as they are as a group, they are even more emphatic when contrasted with Old Testament practice. Instrumental music in worship (hereafter IM) was allowed in Temple worship. Question: why did the Jews “Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!” (Ps. 150)? Answer: because they were commanded to (II Chron. 29:25). In contrast with the consistent pattern of New Testament passages that command us to sing, there is no New Testament passage similar to II Chronicles 29:25 that allow IM.

The First Few Hundred Years

            In the centuries following the writing of the New Testament, Christian doctrine and practice was the subject of intense study. The leading students were writers known as the Church Fathers. “The antagonism which the Fathers of the early Church displayed toward instruments has two outstanding characteristics: vehemence and uniformity” (CatholicCulture.org). These quotes are typical.

  • If people spend their time with…psalteria (an instrument), dancing and leaping, clapping hands like Egyptians, and in other similar dissolute activities, they become altogether immodest and unrestrained, senselessly beating on cymbals and drums, and making noise on all the instruments of deception. Obviously, it seems to me, such…has become a theater of drunkenness” (Clement of Alexandria, 150-215).
  • “The musical instruments of the Old Testament are not unsuitable for us if understood spiritually” (Origen, 184-254).
  • "Of old at the time those of the circumcision were worshipping with symbols and types it was not inappropriate to send up hymns to God with the psalterion... We render our hymn with a living psalterion…with spiritual songs. The unison voices of Christians are more acceptable to God than any musical instrument. Accordingly in all the churches of God, united in soul and attitude, with one mind and in agreement of faith and piety we send up a unison melody" (Eusebius, 263-339 AD).
  • "David formerly sang songs, also today we sing hymns. 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 much more in accordance with piety…making a full harmony of mind and body. For when the flesh no longer lusts against the Spirit, but has submitted to its orders and has been led at length into the best and most admirable path, then will you create a spiritual melody" (Chrysostome, 347-407).
  • Only what is material [from the Old Testament] has been rejected, such as circumcision, the Sabbath, sacrifices, discrimination in foods; and also trumpets, kitharas, cymbals, and tympana…along with anything else which was temporarily necessary for the immature are past and over with” (Niceta of Remesiana, 335-414).
  • "Musical instruments are not used. The pipe, tabret, and harp are associate so intimately with the sensual heathen cults, as well as with the wild revelries and shameless performances of the degenerate theater and circus, it is easy to understand the prejudices against their use in the worship." (Augustine, 354-430 A.D.).

Emphasizing the historicity of these quotes and the unavoidable conclusion to which they lead is this quote from the thoroughly Protestant ChristianHistory.net.

Though we know that early Christians sang during worship, they used no instruments. Nearly all of the backgrounds from which early Christians came-Jewish, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and more-had instrumental traditions, but these traditions carried negative associations…Unaccompanied vocal music continued to be the norm in Christian worship for centuries.

So When Did It Begin?

            Not found in the New Testament or in the centuries following the New Testament, instrumental music was added across several centuries. First introduced sparingly in about 600 A.D., IM was near universal in the Catholic West during the period 1,000-1,300. Although universal in the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Churches rejected IM. Instrumental music was, in fact, a cause of “The Great Schism” between the Roman West and the Orthodox East in 1054. As Presbyterian scholar John Girardeau observed in his book, Music in the Church, "The church, although lapsing more and more into defection from the truth and into a corruption of apostolic practice, had no instrumental music for 1200 years."

The Protestants Protest

            A truism of Church History is that reform and restoration movements generally begin a capella (without instrumental accompaniment, or, “in the manner of the church”). This was true of the Protestant reformation. Again quoting from ChristianHistory.net,

The Reformation kicked off large-scale worship wars. When the major western traditions picked their positions, they looked broadly like this: Catholics retained instrumental and organ music performed only by musicians (the congregation was not invited to sing along, and members couldn't have followed the complex music anyway), Calvinists opted for unaccompanied congregational psalm-singing, and Lutherans adopted a mix of instrumental and vocal music, some of which was performed by musicians and some of which was sung by the congregation (note: most of today’s Protests groups have roots in Calvinism).

  • "Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize” (Aquinas, 1225-1274; Thomas Aquinas was a free-thinking Catholic, perhaps even a pre-Reformer).
  • "The organ in the worship Is the insignia of Baal… The Roman Catholic borrowed it from the Jews” (Martin Luther, 1482-1546; Luther was the original Protestant)
  • "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 the other shadows of the law. The Papists therefore, have foolishly borrowed, this, as well as many other things, from the Jews. Men who are fond of outward pomp may delight in that noise; but the simplicity which God recommends to us by the apostles is far more pleasing to him. Paul allows us to bless God in the public assembly of the saints, only in a known tongue (I Cor. 14:16) What shall we then say of chanting, which fills the ears with nothing but an empty sound?" (John Calvin, 1509-1564; Calvin was among the original Protestants; his legacy remains strongest in Presbyterian and Reformed Churches).
  • “I have no objection to instruments of music in our worship, provided they are neither seen nor heard" (John Wesley, 1703-1791, founder of Methodism).
  • "Instruments of music…ought (they) to be used in Christian worship? No; the whole spirit, soul, and genius of the Christian religion are against this; and those who know the Church of God best, and what constitutes its genuine spiritual state, know that these things have been introduced as a substitute for the life and power of religion; and that where they prevail most, there is least of the power of Christianity. Away with such portentous baubles from the worship of that infinite Spirit who requires His followers to worship Him in spirit and truth, for to no such worship are these instruments friendly" (Adam Clarke, 1760-1832, Methodist).
  • "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 hinder rather than help our praise. Sing unto him. This is the sweetest and best music. There is no instrument like the human voice” (Charles Spurgeon, 1834-1892, Baptist).
  • "I would as soon pray to God with machinery as to sing to God with machinery” (Spurgeon).

The quotes above illustrate that opposition to IM remained general in much of Protestantism until very recently. How recently? Baptist Historian David Benedict (1779-1874) explains in Fifty Years Among the Baptists,

"In my earliest intercourse among this people, congregational singing generally prevailed among them... This instrument, [the organ] which from time immemorial has been associated with cathedral pomp and (Papal) power, and has always been the peculiar favorite of great national churches, at length found its way into Baptist sanctuaries, and the first one ever employed by the denomination in this country, and probably in any other, might have been standing in the singing gallery of the Old Baptist meeting house in Pawtucket, about forty years ago, when I then officiated as pastor (1840)... Staunch old Baptists in former times would as soon tolerated the Pope of Rome in their pulpits as an organ in their galleries, and yet the instrument has gradually found its way among them... How far this modern organ fever will extend among our peoples and whether it will on the whole work a RE-formation or DE-formation in their singing service, time will more fully develop."

            (Please note that, along with the Bible, only Protestant and Catholic authorities have been quoted in this piece. No scholars of the Churches of Christ have been referenced. )

Conclusion

            Three reasons make IM important, (i) evangelism, (ii) confirmation and comfort, and (iii) Bible authority. As our members are emboldened to teach the Bible and discuss religion with their friends, IM inevitably comes up. Our friends ask us why our worship consists only of singing. Biblically, we need to be prepared to answer (I Pet. 3:15). Practically, our evangelistic Bible studies will crumble if we stumble, fumble and bumble about a matter so apparent and unusual.

            Just like potential members needing answers, present members find confirmation and comfort in the testimony of scripture and history. Practically alone in the narrow view of today, the churches of Christ are not alone in the broader view of 2,000 years of Church History. Opposing IM on the grounds of the New Testament, we are supported by the absence of IM from the first 600 years following the establishment of the church and by voices of opposition from the beginning until the 19th Century. We are, in other words, in good company.

            Of all the reason mentioned as to why IM continues to deserve our attention, the matter of Bible authority is the greatest. Only in a secondary sense are Churches of Christ unique in their emphasis on baptism for remission of sins, weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, and a capella praise in worship. These doctrines are technicalities based on a conservative view of the authority and inspiration of scripture. Preaching and teaching about singing gives us another opportunity to affirm that, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (II Tm. 3:16-17).