Recently after our evening meeting a few of us got onto the subject of praise and the use of instruments. It was an interesting discussion and I was pleased to see balanced and thoughtful views on the subject. Since this is a contentious issue among many local churches I want to make it clear that the views expressed in this article are not to stir the pot or create controversy but merely to discuss the topic.
Some background – In my early years I was brought up in meetings where no instruments were ever used inside the local church. Growing up I always found it strange that after the meetings we would often go back to someone’s home where lively singing was done with sometimes numerous instruments. I found this disconnect odd. In my later childhood (and since) I have fellowshipped at assemblies where there has been at least a piano, usually an organ and most recently piano, guitar and flutes. These last 2 instruments have only been in regular use for about 7 years. One of my elders mentioned how he would never like to go back to just the piano and I thought that was a telling statement.
Let me state right here that I am in no way suggesting that every local church follow a specific structure in praise and worship. If an assembly (the whole assembly) decides before the Lord to sing without instruments then they are 100% free to do so and no one should condemn it. What I do find disturbing is when the opposite occurs and there is condemnation poured out on those churches that do use instruments.
Music in the Old Testament
Let’s take a closer look at the topic at hand. It would be very hard to pose an argument that the children of God in the Old Testament did not use instruments in worship. Even the very simplest overview of OT scripture would leave the reader to understand that the Israelites used many instruments in their worship. Here are but a few references: 2 Sam 6:5; Neh 12:27; Ps 33:1-3; Ps 150; Is 38:20; Hab 3:17. The first mention of instruments is all the way back in Genesis 4:21, “His brother’s name was Jubal. He was the father of all those who play the harp and flute.” It’s clear then that God not only allowed the use of instruments but actually commanded it.
Is there a change in the New Testament?
Now let’s come to the Gospels. The Messiah is born and for about 30 years the nation of Israel is unaware of His coming (apart from the short scurry of activity around His birth). Then comes John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord. The nation is starting to stir as the Lamb of God is proclaimed. Because we have no other scriptural reason to believe differently, it is logical to conclude that during the time leading up to John’s announcement the nation of Israel carried on in worship as they had always done. Instruments would have continued to be a major part of that worship. Luke 15:25 is an example of celebration with music. There is absolutely no mention of instruments or music in the NT beyond this verse.
New Testament teaching on singing
As we come into Acts and the rest of the New Testament, we see the church established and tremendous growth take place. We have some basic and clear directions for the church in the areas of leadership and practice, but we have no guidance on the subject of music and instruments. The Lord is silent as to their use.
Let’s consider the verses we do have in connection with singing. Ephesians 5:19 says, “Singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts”. Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”
Here we are given instruction as to the type of songs to sing and the purpose. It is very significant to notice the inclusion of the Psalms here. In a general sense this means any Scripture, but think for a moment of what Paul is saying by including Psalms. For any Jew reading this it would automatically imply the use of instruments because the nation would have always sung Psalms using them. They would have had no instruction to stop using them from this verse or any other passage we read of in the NT so it would not have been an issue to the readers. Unfortunately singing Scripture has faded away from our meetings. While there are a few hymns that include Scripture, we have lost this practice which needs to find a new place in our praise and worship again.
The purpose of singing
We are also taught to use hymns and spiritual songs. While we can’t give an exact definition of these two types, it is clear that there is to be a variety of songs sung that lead us to the purpose of singing which has 4 main goals.
- Teaching should be a part of our singing. This is instruction to the believer by the believer. We can certainly use Scripture (Psalms) to do this, as well as hymns and spiritual songs.
- Admonishing one another is not something that we find too often in our collection of hymns and songs and should be considered again.
- Thanksgiving is a key component of Biblical singing. This is when we pour out our hearts in praise for what the Lord has done and give him thanks for his blessings to us.
- Worship is simply the expression of our hearts to God. This is the fundamental purpose of singing. It is a moving and very uplifting practice to sing to the Lord from our hearts and make melody to Him.
Is Paul saying no to instruments?
Some have used these verses to suggest that because Paul refers to the hearts it is a stand against using instruments and that he is stating we should only use our voices. This view has a couple of problems with it. Firstly, if Paul was addressing an error in the church he would not have used such vague language without directly addressing the error. It’s very difficult to believe that he would be stopping the use of a practice that had been carried out for centuries by this statement and nowhere else address the issue.
Secondly, Ephesians and Colossians were written near the end of Paul’s life and it would not make sense that after all his journeys and letters to other churches that he would start now to correct a practice without mentioning it before. Finally the language used here does not relate to instruments at all. We have to add that to the context to come to that conclusion and that is a dangerous practice. The connection with the heart is clearly spiritual (thanksgiving, melody to the Lord) and not practical.
What should we sing?
Another related question to this topic is what Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs we ought to be singing? Some have suggested that we do not find any modern songs worth singing and that we should stick to the good old hymns we have been using for decades. Before I go any further let me say right here that I LOVE some of the hymns we sing and would never want to get rid of them. They are uplifting and exalting. Many were written out of very real and close experiences with the Lord and we identify with those experiences in our own lives.
However, to suggest that the Holy Spirit no longer uses people to write new songs is absurd. The Spirit still speaks to men and women through the experiences of life and music has always been a way in which they can be expressed. When Paul wrote those words all the hymns we sing today had not been written, yet he was encouraging the saints to sing songs unto the Lord.
So much more could be said on this topic. I have heard arguments against the use of instruments and new songs but none have been applied satisfactorily with Scripture. I pray these few thoughts will challenge our hearts to consider the truth of scripture concerning this important subject.