Distinct from other groups in the Restoration Movement, mainline Churches of Christ have been known for years for their stand against the use of instruments in accompaniment to spiritual songs. Historically, this position has not been held as a matter of preference or judgment. It has been a stated doctrinal position, and most of the leaders for nearly a century who stated it made it a test of fellowship −a matter of heaven and hell! However, this century-old position is fading fast in this group of churches, but it is not yielding easily. There can be no question that the younger generations in the Mainline Church of Christ are rejecting the prohibitions of using instrumental music in worship. Many in the older generation claim that the younger ones are becoming liberal and are little concerned with the authority of Scripture. Although some among their younger generation likely are becoming less concerned with biblical authority, the reasons for change are not that simplistic.
For example, when I changed my position on this issue, I had not become less concerned with the place of biblical authority and I was definitely not a member of the younger generation. Yet, I became unconvinced by the doctrinal arguments made against the use of instrumental music in worship, although I had made them myself for many years when a part of that group. It is not a matter of indifference when declaring such issues to be matters of absolute faith rather than personal opinions and preferences. Understanding the religion of the Pharisees should help us grasp the sobering fact that binding what God did not bind is just a great a sin as loosing what God did not loose. Legalism and liberalism are both very dangerous ends of the spectrum of using the Bible in wrong ways. Christian freedom extends into many practical areas of the spiritual life, and music in worship is one such area in my studied opinion and subsequent conviction.
Having said that, it is only right to share why my past views of the subject changed. Providing some background of the interpretive viewpoints of the non-instrumental folks is the logical starting place. The key argument against the use of instruments has been the argument on the basis of “silence” in the NT. Only the word “sing” is found there, and no reference is made to “playing.” Therefore, say those using this interpretation, instrumental music is strictly forbidden, and to use it is to go beyond the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 4:6).
Another way to describe the reasoning behind forbidding instrumental music involves the alleged principle that a general command or example allows the choice of any specific, while a specific command or example rules out other specifics. One of the oldest and most simple illustrations is one drawn from God’s command to Noah about building the ark prior to the great flood. According to Genesis 6:14, God commanded that the ark be built from gopher wood (cypress in the NIV). Thus, to use any other type of wood in the construction instead of, or in addition to, this type would be going beyond what God said and thus would constitute disobedience. Had he said simply to build the ark from wood, any type or types of wood could have been chosen by Noah, but once a specific was given, that ruled out anything but the type specified.
So goes the argument regarding music in worship. Had God simply said to “make music,” any type of music could be chosen, but since God specified singing (vocal music), this rules out other types of music instead of, or along with, vocal music. If the argument is valid, the use of instrumental music is divinely forbidden. But is this simplistic argument the end of the matter? Does the Bible shed more light on the subject, light that would allow more latitude in the worship of God? Important questions, those.
Although we are not under the Mosaic covenant, the OT setting can teach us some valuable lessons. Read the following passages to get a feel for the approved use of the instruments in that period of time:
David told the leaders of the Levites to appoint their brothers as singers to sing joyful songs, accompanied by musical instruments: lyres, harps and cymbals (1 Chronicles 15:16).
When David was old and full of years, he made his son Solomon king over Israel. He also gathered together all the leaders of Israel, as well as the priests and Levites. The Levites thirty years old or more were counted, and the total number of men was thirty-eight thousand. David said, ‘Of these, twenty-four thousand are to supervise the work of the temple of the LORD and six thousand are to be officials and judges. Four thousand are to be gatekeepers and four thousand are to praise the LORD with the musical instruments I have provided for that purpose’” (1 Chronicles 23:1-5).
At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres (Nehemiah 12:27).
The most notable thing to realize from these settings is that the use of instruments was not a part of the Law of Moses (the original Law given at Mount Sinai). They were actually introduced by David, as the non-instrumentalists correctly affirm. Yet, 2 Chronicles 29:25 states that God commanded their use! “He stationed the Levites in the temple of the LORD with cymbals, harps and lyres in the way prescribed by David and Gad the king’s seer and Nathan the prophet; this was commanded by the LORD through his prophets.” To say the least, God allowed the OT people a fair amount of latitude in deciding how to worship (even under a system which tended much more in the direction of a legal exactness).
As previously stated, the traditional Church of Christ interpretation asserts that the mention of “sing” rules out “play.” But in the OT setting, this distinction is not proved but rather contradicted. The use of the word “sing” did not preclude the use of instruments. 1 Samuel 21:11 says, “But the servants of Achish said to him, ‘Isn’t this David, the king of the land? Isn’t he the one they sing about in their dances: Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands’?” Note that only “sing” is mentioned in this context. However, in 1 Samuel 18:6-7, a parallel passage, we read: “When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with tambourines and lutes. As they danced, they sang: ‘Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands’.”
Another very important consideration concerns the original church described in Acts, which was totally Jewish for a number of years. From the establishment of the church in Acts 2 until Ephesians 5:19 (with its specific command to “sing”), over 20 years had passed. How did those Jews, who were quite accustomed to worshipping with an instrument, know that “sing” ruled out the use of instruments? Other Jewish practices continued for quite some time, with at least God’s tacit approval. For example, Paul took a vow and shaved his head as a part of that vow (Acts 18:18). At James’s insistence, Paul entered the temple with four brothers who had taken vows and were observing the rites of purification (Acts 21:20-24). For a fairly lengthy period (at least up to AD 70 at the destruction of the temple), Jewish Christians practiced many aspects of Judaism as a matter of custom. Are we to conclude that these early disciples with Jewish backgrounds could, for at least this period of time, observe these Jewish ordinances as a matter of custom, and yet be guilty of sin if they continued to use instrumental music in worship? To me, that seems like a huge hermeneutical leap.
What are the key principles of hermeneutics (interpretation) which can help to determine the truth on this subject? Although the OT was much more a code of specific commands than is the NT, even then men added some far reaching practices which were never disapproved of by God. The entire synagogue system was introduced by men during the captivity period. Yet, Jesus went into the synagogue every Sabbath as was his custom (Luke 4:16). The Feast of Purim was added during the time of Esther, and became a regular feast of the Jews. Yet, neither of these practices was mentioned in the Law itself.
In most discussions of the subject of instrumental music, pro or con, much is made of the exact words in the NT words for singing. Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 are the focal point of such discussions. They read as follows: “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19). “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16).
The Greek word for sing, “Psalmos” (from “Psallo”), is the word which is often discussed most in this connection. The evolution of the meaning of this word is a matter on importance. In ancient Greek, the word meant “to pluck” or something similar. It did not originally imply plucking a stringed instrument, but with the passage of time and the development of the Greek language, it did come to imply the use of a musical instrument. As the language further evolved, the idea of plucking an instrument was no longer inherent in the word itself. In modern Greek, “psallo” means “to sing” and carries no idea of playing an instrument.
The question at hand is just where this evolution of the term was at the time when the NT was written (during the Koine Greek period). Actually, different writers come out on both sides of the coin in their study of authorities on this matter. In reading the writings of these men, and the sources which they quote as their authorities, I am not convinced either way. I do not believe that the Greek either demands an instrument or excludes it. The focus in the NT passages is that we are to sing thankfully and sincerely from the heart. Whether we do this type of singing with instrumental accompaniment or without it seems not to be the focus of God. If he intended to make the use of instrumental music an incidental issue, as I think he did, how could he have done it any better than the way he had the NT actually worded?
The whole issue likely is a very simple one. Singing is the vital aspect of worship that God wanted us to employ and enjoy, but instrumental music is a matter of expediency — it is a choice. If God had commanded the use of instrumental music, worship would have been much less flexible as far as the physical setting was concerned. Jesus said that the place of worship was to be unimportant in the church (John 4:21-24). In other words, worshipping in the outdoors or in a cave during a time of persecution would be a simple, convenient matter. If instrumental music had been bound, then the place of assembling would have been more important and more difficult to arrange.
God evidently did not have the NT writers mention the use of instruments in worship in order to make sure that we did not bind their use. To say that the lack of mention forbids their use is another thing entirely. It would seem that the use of instruments is simply a matter of expediency or choice. God is far more concerned about our hearts in worship than about the physical trappings one way or another. As one who worshipped without the use of instruments for the first 45 years of his life, and who has worshipped with the use of instruments since that time, I can say without hesitation that my heart has been affected spiritually in a positive way more with than without instrumental music. My personal experience cannot be used to displace the authority of Scripture, to be sure, but the truth of God tends to become rather self-evident with the passage of time. Biblically and practically, I would put instrumental music in worship in the realm of Christian freedom and preferences. In time, it will be left there by virtually everyone in the mainstream membership of restoration churches, just as many other similar issues of opinion have been.