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Does the Bible authorize Christian worship with musical instruments?

Excerpted from the Evangelism Handbook of New Testament Christianity by Phil Sanders

The Scriptures of Christian worship in Song:


Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26 after the Supper instituted


Acts 16:25 Paul and Silas in prison


Romans 15:9 confess to Thee, sing to Thy name


1 Corinthians 14:15 sing with spirit and understanding


1 Corinthians 14:26 individuals had psalms to share


Ephesians 5:18,19 speaking, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord


Colossians 3:16 teaching and admonishing with songs


Hebrews 2:12 proclaim, sing


James 5:13 Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praises.


Hebrews 13:15 sacrifice of praise = fruit of lips

We are living in a time in which the concepts of "worship" and "entertainment" have been blended. Our religious world has instituted the "gospel music" business; religious "stars" entertain. In some cases worship becomes a performance, so some churches get the best singers and the best instrumentalists. One must wonder where God is in all this. He is to be the focus of our worship and not us. The purpose of worship is to please God (John 8:28,29). We have sometimes left the true notion of worship. Worship is the expression of an individual's devotion. It comes from the inside. Through time this has changed to the idea of performing and attempting to make an impression on the individual by stimulating his emotions. Too often men have cheapened the music of the church by making it entertainment. We sometimes feel as if we have been cheated by having no performance and miss the excitement of an orchestra, while not realizing the beauty of a spiritual feast in our own hearts filled with praise.

The Basic Arguments for the Instrument

Over time psallo has gradually changed in meaning. It first meant "to touch, twang, strike strings." Next it meant "to touch or play strings of harp." Later it meant, "to sing with the harp." At last it meant, "to sing praises" (without any thought of any instrument of music). The only time in the LXX [Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures begun in the third century B.C. in Alexandria, Egypt and called the "Septuagint"] that psallo meant play was when the instrument was specified in the context; otherwise it meant to sing (LXX 150 B.C.). In the New Testament psallo is used four times. It meant

"sing" Romans 15:9; 1 Corinthians 14:15; James 5:13

"make melody or make music" in Ephesians 5:19. The maker of the music or melody is to be the heart (no instrument is even considered here).

Everett Ferguson said of psallo, "If the precise meaning of certain verses may be in doubt, what is clear is that an instrument did not inhere in the word psallo in the Septuagint. Psallo could translate a word meaning 'play' (nagan), or a general word (zamar). The meaning which would cover all occurrences is 'make melody'. This could include making melody on an instrument, but in the preponderance of occurrences it clearly refers to making melody with the voice."1 F.F. Bruce said of psallo in Ephesians 5:19, "Nor should the etymological force of the terms be pressed, as though psalmos inevitably meant a song sung to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument...while such plucking of the strings is the original sense of is used in the NT [New Testament] with the meaning 'to sing psalms.'"2 In confirmation of this view, the Greek Orthodox Church (who knows Greek better than anyone) has never used instruments of music in worship.

    B. The use of instruments in the Old Testament

Psalm 150 and 2 Chronicles 29:25-27 show that the use of instruments in Jewish worship is a command from God. However, Christians are not obligated to the Old Covenant that God made with the Jews. We are under a new covenant ratified by the blood of Christ and taught in the New Testament. For this reason, we don't offer incense, dance, or make animal sacrifices. The New Testament is a better covenant than the old and is spiritual (Hebrews 8:6-13; 10:1-10). The Old Testament had a temple building; in the New Testament we Christians are the temple of God. Our laws are written on our hearts, not on tablets of stone. Our worship is not outward and showy but inward and spiritual (John 4:21-23).

Each of these passages refers to a vision John had of the throne of God, not Christian worship. Each reflects Old Testament literature where the worship of the temple is considered ideal. But Christians do not worship in the Jerusalem temple; instead they are the temple of God. Incense is burned in heaven as well; are we to burn incense? Saints in heaven wear crowns and cast them toward God. Are we to do the same? Our task is not to imitate what is done in heaven but to be obedient to Jesus and His teachings for us. If Christians should play harps, why didn't the church do it in the New Testament? Why didn't they understand they were to imitate what is done in heaven? Heaven is heaven and earth is earth.

    D. The use of instruments is an aid to singing.

Some say, "Instrumental Music in worship is justified in Christian worship as an aid to worship in song in the same way a song book is an aid. What is the difference in having a song book aiding in following the words of the song and a piano aiding in following the music of the song?"
     Expedients or aids must first be lawful; expedients aid in doing that which is instructed. Nothing more than singing is done when a songbook is used, but a piano involves something more than singing, speaking, teaching, or admonishing. Song books aid in accomplishing the purpose of singing. Pianos make a different kind of music. Expedients must truly aid. Organs, bands often hinder the singing, which must compete to be heard. Expedients must edify. Pianos produce musical sounds that are meaningless to the mind. The songbook does not. Organs may stimulate the emotions, but they do not instruct the mind. Expedients must not divide, but the instrument has been a source of division everywhere it is used.

The Basic Arguments Against the Instrument

    A. The argument from history

     The history of the church conclusively shows that instrumental music was an innovation. For many centuries no church used instruments of music. The use of the instrument is of human origin and not of Divine instruction.
     "The general introduction of instrumental music can certainly not be assigned to a date earlier than the fifth or sixth centuries; yea, even Gregory the Great, who towards the end of the sixth century added greatly to the existing Church music, absolutely prohibited the use of instruments. Several centuries later the introduction of the organ in sacred service gave place to instruments as accompaniments for Christian song, and from that time to this they have been freely used with few exceptions. The first organ is believed to have been used in Church service in the 13th century. Organs were, however, in use before this in the theatre. They were never regarded with favor in the Eastern Church, and were vehemently opposed in some of the Western churches."3
     Everett Ferguson noted: "It is quite late before there is evidence of instrumental music, first the organ, employed in the public worship of the church. Recent studies put the introduction of instrumental music even later than the dates found in reference books. It was perhaps as late as the tenth century when the organ was played as part of the service. This makes instrumental music one of the late innovations of the medieval Catholic church. When introduced in the Middle Ages, the organ was still not part of the liturgy proper. That is, it did not initially accompany the hymn service, but was a separate item in the service. The type of chant employed left no place for instrumental accompaniment until new styles of music developed."4
     "Primitive Christians employed no instrumental music in their religious worship", says Lyman Coleman.5
"Only singing, however, and no playing of instruments, was permitted in the early Christian church."6
"There can be no doubt that originally the music of the divine service was everywhere entirely of vocal nature."7
     "Indeed, all evidence points to the chant and music of the primitive church as practically identical with the customs and traditions of the synagogue (vocal)."8
     James W. McKinnon, in his 1965 doctoral dissertation at Columbia University, shows that the early church music was wholly vocal, and that the opposition of the church fathers to instrumental music in worship was both monolithic and vehement.

Early Church Fathers opposed instruments of music in Christian worship.

Justin Martyr (ca. 150 A.D.) condemned any association with musical instruments as worldly.

Tertullian (150-222 A.D.) mentions only vocal music in worship.

Clement of Alexandria (200 A.D.) severely denounced the use of instruments among Christians even at banquets.

Augustine (354-430 A.D.) displays the general attitude of the early church against instruments of music for any purpose. "Let no one's heart revert to the instruments of the theatre."

Gregory of Nazianus (330-390 A.D.) mentions instruments but not in any way to approve them. He believed their only use was the arousement of sensuousness.

Jerome (347-420 A.D.) speaks only of vocal music and emphasizes that the heart is the source of songs.

Theodoret (ca. 400 A.D.) says the use of the instrument is a "childish" relic of the Old Testament and is excluded from the worship of the church.

Chrysostom (4th century A.D.) says the instruments of the Old Testament allegorically look forward to the pure worship of the lips.9

What Various Men Have Said through the Centuries

Thomas Aquinas (1250): "Our church does not use instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize."

Martin Luther: "The organ in the worship to God is an ensign of Baal."

John Calvin: "It is no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting of tapers, or revival of other shadows of the law. The Roman Catholics borrowed it from the Jews."

John Wesley: "I have no objection to the organ in our chapels provided it is neither seen nor heard."

Adam Clark: "I am an old man and an old minister, and I here declare that I have never known instrumental music to be productive of any good in the worship to God, and have reason to believe that it has been 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 corruptions in the worship of that infinite Spirit who requires his followers to worship Him in spirit and truth."

Charles Spurgeon: " I would as soon pray to God with machinery as to sing to God with machinery."

John Knox called the organ "a kist (chest) of whistles."

Alexander Campbell: "To the really spiritually minded, it (using instruments in worship) would be like a cowbell in a concert."

J.W. McGarvey:"And if any man who is a preacher believes that the apostle teaches the use of instrumental music in the church, by enjoining the singing of psalms, he is one of those smatterers in Greek who can believe anything he wishes to believe. When the wish is father to the thought, correct exegesis is like water on a duck's back."10

     Our purpose is to restore the New Testament church, which never used and greatly opposed the use of instruments of music in worship.

    B. The lack of authority, the absence of instruments in New Testament worship.

      Jesus never taught the disciples to use them. They were long in existence but ignored in the teaching and the practice of the entire New Testament. The New Testament contains God's complete will for our time, from Pentecost till the Second Coming. Had God wished that we use it, He would have said so. Where is the Bible authority for instrumental music? Where is the instruction? Approved Example?  Implication? Expedient?
     Some one says, "The Bible doesn't say we can't play the organ! Therefore, it must be all right." But neither does the Bible specifically condemn the following: burning incense, praying to Mary, roast lamb with communion, sprinkling for baptism, infant baptism, or a mourner's bench. How can we justify organs and reject these?

    C. Playing an instrument adds a new form of worship.

The instrument is not merely an aid but was itself a means of praising God in the Old Testament but is unauthorized in the New Testament. (2 Chronicles 5:13; 29:25) Playing lyres and psalteries were themselves forms of worship not merely aids. An expediency aids in the performance of an instruction, but an expediency does not change the instruction. An addition changes the instruction so that people do something different than the instructions required. Expedients are lawful, whereas additions are not lawful.

The Difference Between Expedients and Additions
Expedients Help Fulfill the Instruction, but Additions Change the Instruction.

Bible Example

Lawful and Authorized

Unlawful and Unauthorized

Noah's Ark
Genesis 6:13-22

Tools to cut, join, and to spread pitch

Larger size, additional windows, additional woods

Exodus 25:9,40; 26:30; 39:32,42,43

Tools to work silver, gold, and wood in making the tabernacle and its furniture

Making ark of covenant out of both acacia and pine wood

Lord' Supper
Bread and Fruit of the Vine

Trays and Cups

Roast Lamb

Baptize, Be Baptized

Baptistery, pool, river, lake, or bathtub

Sprinkling and pouring are different actions.

Ephesians 5:19
Colossians 3:16
Hebrews 13:15

Songbook, pitch pipe

Piano, Organ
Different kind of music
Different means of praise

    D. The Scriptures show that God condemns innovations:

Leviticus 10:1,2 Nadab and Abihu's strange fire

1 Samuel 10:8; 13:8-14 Saul's offering

2 Chronicles 26:4,16-21 Uzziah's offering

To perform any action without divine authority is sinful. Will God approve our offerings of praise if we act without authority in our singing?

    E. Instruments cannot speak, teach, admonish, give thanks, praise, proclaim, confess, or make melody on your heart.

      These are the things God wants us to accomplish in our singing. Instruments of music fail to do any one of them. This is what makes them additions; they do something different from the instruction.
     Jesus taught us in Matthew 7:24-27 that Christians are to do what He says in order to obey His will and enter heaven. The burden of proof for pianos and organs must be on the one who introduces it to show where Jesus has instructed this form of worship. There has never been any evidence from the Bible, language, or history to show that instrumental music in Christian worship has won God's approval.


1 Everett Ferguson, A Cappella Music in the Public Worship of the Church (Abilene, Tex.: Biblical Research Press, 1972), 6-7.
2F.F. Bruce, NICNT on Ephesians and Colossians, 284.
3"Christian Music," John McClintock and James Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1876, reprint, 1969), VI:759.
4Everett Ferguson, A Cappella Music in the Public Worship of the Church (Abilene, Tex.: Biblical Research Press, 1972), 81.
5Lyman Coleman, The Primitive Church, 276-77.
6Hugo Leichtenrtitt, Music, History, and Ideas, 34.
7Earl Nauman, The History of Music, 177.
8Eric Werner, Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, III: 466.
9For detailed accounts see Everett Ferguson, A Cappella Music, 47-84. See also James D. Bales, Instrumental Music and New Testament Worship, 259-80.
10John William McGarvey, Short Essays in Biblical Criticism (Nashville, Tenn.: Gospel Advocate, 1956), 116.

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