Instrumental Music: A Matter of Authority — Rick Lawson

When flawed and fragile man approaches a righteous and mighty God, he must be very careful to offer the kind of worship that God desires. This is especially critical when one understands what the Word of God teaches concerning the types of worship that exist.

For example, Jesus clearly taught that man can offer worship that is vain or worthless (Mt. 15:8, 9). Paul preached that the people of Athens were worshiping God ignorantly by having set up an altar to the “unknown god” (Ac. 17:22, 23). The same apostle, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, condemned some in the first century of offering “will worship” to the Almighty (Co. 2:20-23). In that context, the will worship seems to involve a form of asceticism, in which men denied themselves certain physical necessities in an attempt to become more spiritual. Rather than worship according to God’s will, they attempted to worship according to their own wills.

Of course God does not accept vain, ignorant, or will worship. The only worship that is accepted by God is true worship. True worship is that which is offered both with the right attitude and in the way that God has authorized (Jn. 4:23, 24). What kind of music does God authorize men to use in their worship today?

God plainly instructs that whatever men do in religion must be done in the name of Jesus (Co. 3:17). If a man knocks on the door and says, “Open in the name of the law,” then he means he has authority from the law to demand that the door be opened. Doing things in the name of Jesus means doing them by His authority. If we offer to God that which is unauthorized, God will not accept it, and we may even be punished. Look to the account of Nadab and Abihu. They offered fire before God that was unauthorized, and the result was fire from heaven that burned them up (Le. 10:1, 2). The kind of music authorized by God is very specific. “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” (Co. 3:16). It seems clear that the purpose of singing in worship is connected to the idea of teaching and admonishing one another. No mechanical instrument, however skillfully played, can teach or admonish as can the human voice. This is the reason that a more general term is not used by God. If, for example, God had authorized “vocal music,” then men could sing, hum, or even whistle in worship. However, neither whistling nor humming can teach the great spiritual lessons taught in our psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Learn the lesson from the sons of Aaron. Do not trifle with God by offering that which He has not commanded.

Consider this parallel passage, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ep. 5:19). This instruction precludes making melody on the keys of an organ, the strings of a guitar, or upon any instrument invented by man. The specific instrument authorized by God is the heart of the worshiper. Many believe that they can substitute some mechanical instrument in place of the heart and that God will accept it.  Perhaps those folks should ask Cain if substitutes in worship are fine with Jehovah (Ge. 4:5). Ask Jeroboam how it worked out when he placed golden calves in Dan and Bethel, rather than returning to Jerusalem to worship God faithfully (1 Ki. 12:28-30). Inquire of king Saul if substituting himself as a Levitical priest and burning a sacrifice to God was worth losing his kingdom (1 Sa. 13:12-14). God does not accept substitutes in worship.

When asked, many can easily understand that when God specified gopher wood for the ark that all other kinds of wood were ruled out. For some reason the logic becomes cloudier when God specifies singing to be used in worship today. Hear God’s instruction in James, “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms” (Ja. 5:13). The command to sing is very specific. If God had given the command “make music,” then men would have a choice in how to make the music. A piano would then be fine. So would an organ, or even a full orchestra. However, God said “sing.” If one single sentence in the New Testament authorized the use of mechanical instruments of music in worship today, churches of Christ would cease their pleading to avoid them. How easy it would have been for God to do so, yet He did not. That settles the matter for true disciples of Christ.

It is evident that the New Testament is not written in the format of a rule book. Because much of the Bible is historical in nature, it is important to recognize the power of approved example to authorize actions today. Examples of the early church, approved by the inspired apostles, are just as binding as direct commands of God. God expects us to recognize the pattern of the New Testament church and to follow that pattern. Are there any examples of how the early Christians worshiped? The answer is yes. When Paul and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi for their faith in Christ, they “prayed and sang praises unto God” (Ac. 16:25). Paul would later write to the church in Corinth that he would “sing with the spirit,” and “sing with the understanding also” (1 Co. 14:15). The Hebrews writer quoted Psalm 22, writing, “…I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praises unto thee” (He. 2:12). Another of the Psalms is quoted in Romans, “…I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name” (Ro. 15:9). Even Jesus, as our perfect example, sang hymns with His disciples the very night of His arrest (Mt. 26:30). What does each of these examples have in common? S-I-N-G! Not playing or plucking, strumming or humming—just the simple human voice offered as the fruit of our lips in praise to His name (He. 13:15). The example of the early church could not be any clearer.

As a thought exercise, imagine that God had commanded to sing and play mechanical instruments in worship. When Jesus said to believe and be baptized (Mk. 16:16), both are required; therefore both are equally important. When Peter preached repent and be baptized to be saved (Ac. 2:38), which of the two requirements may be ignored? Obviously if God said that we must sing and play instruments in worship then we would each have to sing and play. In denominational worship usually one person, or at most a few, are playing while the rest sing along. In order to justify common practice, a verse would have to be shown that states that singing or playing instruments in worship is authorized, and in that case either would be optional.

Consider some objections to using only singing in worship. Some might say, “I don’t think God really cares about the kind of music that is used in worship.” Elevating man’s thinking over God’s commands has gotten many people into trouble through the years. Naaman nearly thought his way into a future of leprous agony (2 Ki. 5:11). Moses thought that striking the rock was just as good as speaking to it (Nu. 20:8-12), and it cost him the opportunity to go into the land of Canaan and see it for himself. God’s thoughts are higher than man’s thoughts (Is. 55:9). Man can think a thing is right and it be the very thing that causes his destruction (Pr. 14:12). If the kind of music did not matter to God, why would he instruct over and over to sing? It is obvious that God does care about the kind of music that is used in worship today.

Some insist that the use of instruments in the Old Testament shows that God is pleased with their use today. Would that same line of reasoning apply to other avenues of worship from the Old Testament? They also offered animal sacrifices. Shall we? PETA would love that! They burned incense in worship, traveled to the city of Jerusalem several times a year for feasts, and married their dead brother’s wife to raise children in his name. The point is that just because God commanded a thing in the Old Law does not authorize it under the Christian age. The Old Testament is not to be treated like a restaurant menu, where one may pick what he likes and ignore the rest. Listen to the inspired apostle, Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law” (Ga. 5:2, 3). If one tries to follow any of the Old Law, he becomes subject to all of it. Indeed, in the very next verse Paul points out the folly of striving to use the Old Law as justification for today.  “Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace” (Ga. 5:4). Two brief points concerning musical instruments during the law of Moses: 1) They were only used in the outer courts of the temple (typifying the world) and never in the Holy Place (typifying the Church), and 2) God pronounced woe to those who “invent to themselves instruments of music, like David” (Am. 6:1, 5). Every jot and tittle of the Old Law has been fulfilled and replaced by the Law of Christ (Co. 2:14).

Sometimes the claim is made that mechanical instruments in worship are simply aids to the voice. This claim is false. Instruments used in worship are an addition rather than an aid. That distinction is a critical one. If worshipers need help to remember the words or notes to a song, the songbook aids in that area. If the song leader needs an aid to pitch a song, a tuning fork or a pitch pipe can aid him. Many things aid us in our worship to God. Electric lights, air conditioners, public address systems, even church buildings serve as aids to worship. Aids are simply expedients, and therefore acceptable to God. To introduce an unauthorized activity into worship is to abandon the authority of the Scripture and enthrone the doctrines of man. The use of a piano, organ, or any other mechanical instrument in worship is just such an addition. The music from such an instrument certainly may drown out the human voice, but it does not aid it in any way.

Often it is claimed, “I think the singing sounds better when accompanied by an instrument.” The better question is, “What does the singing sound like to God?” After all, God is the audience of our worship. We ought to strive to please Him and not fickle men (Ac. 5:29). In this age of human entertainment thinly veiled as worship to God, the instrument might be more exciting to men. Some denominational churches distribute free earplugs in the foyer to dull the deafening onslaught of the “house band!” No matter how much men may enjoy vain worship, only true worship is pleasing to holy God. God says sing, so His faithful people sing.

Perhaps more often than any other justification, we hear, “Well, the Bible doesn’t say we can’t use instruments in worship.” Thankfully, this reasoning is not used in other areas of life. “Chevrolet didn’t say not to fill my car’s fuel tank with orange juice.” “The doctor didn’t say not to drink drain cleaner for my nasal congestion.” How foolish men can be. When God authorizes a specific item to be used, it rules out everything else. When Jesus told the man whose sight was restored to go wash in the pool of Siloam (Jn. 9:7), He did not list off every other pool in Judea. He did not need to because He had specified the pool to wash in. So it is with the kind of music God desires. When He specifies singing it prohibits anything other than singing.

Many believe that the church of Christ is “that weird church without music.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Christians do have music in worship. It is the beautiful music called singing, and it is the very kind of music that God has authorized in His holy Word. A refusal to use mechanical instruments of music in worship is not some quirky doctrine that Christians use to make themselves distinctive. It is a matter of Bible authority, and it lies at the very heart of a proper interpretation and application of God’s will for man today.

Rick is a 1999 graduate of the Memphis School of Preaching, an instructor for the Georgia School of Preaching (Marietta and Adairsville campuses), and has served as the evangelist of the Adairsville, GA church of Christ since 2013.


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