Over the last twenty-eight years we have seen a resurgence of an old issue in the churches of Christ. The trend of moving away from basic non-instrumental worship services has accelerated. Now—more than ever—we need to speak out against blatant doctrinal error. Our focus needs to be on Christ and his teachings and not the ways of man. We must be willing declare that this is not a biblical doctrine. Instrumental music in worship to God, in every form, is doctrinally unscriptural. A cappella music is the only form of music we can use in worship.
Most of us understand certain aspects of our faith and practices. We know that we have to be baptized for the remission of our sins (Acts 2:38), pray to God for all we do (1 Thess. 5:17), and love God and our neighbor (Matt. 22:36-39). Yet the fundamentals to the ways we sing are still hard to sort out among some. The questions that arise are about the authoritative nature of Ephesians 5:19-21, 1 Corinthians 14:15 and Colossians 3:16-17 and where does instrumental music fit, if at all? If a cappella music is the only form of singing that is prescribed in the New Testament, then instrumental music in worship is unauthorized by God and does irreparable harm to the unity of the church.
In the texts listed above, the Greek word that is used is psallo, defined by most reliable Greek lexicons as literally meaning “to pluck or play.” Eric Lyons writes, “By studying reliable Greek lexicons (dictionaries) and various historical documents, one soon comes to understand that the term psallo has had a variety of meanings in different periods of its history” (Lyons, The Meaning of Psallo in the New Testament). We understand meanings of words change meanings over time, as Lyons mentions, and we also must understand context as well. Ephesians 5:19 and 1 Corinthians 14:15 each “singing and making melody with your heart” and “I will sing praise with my mind.” In both of these texts we see that through context the instrument is the heart and the mind.
Ephesians 5:19 states that Christians must be “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” The heart is the instrument that is being played. The Greek of this text is αδοντεσ και ψαλλοντεσ τη καρδια ὑμῶν. Literally this clause means, “singing and making melody with your heart.” For those that believe that instrumental music is authorized, they must contend with the fact that the only instrument authorized is the heart.
Instrumental music is not an old issue in religious history. John Price states, “The first recorded example of a musical instrument in Christian worship was an organ introduced in about 670 in a Roman Catholic Church in Rome by Pope Vitalianus” (Price, 79). However, it was not generally accepted by the populous. “By the 9th century, only two organs had been used in Christian Worship” (Price, 80). Though this was the case and fact that the organ was used at this time, “the general acceptance of it did not come until late 1200” (Price, 80). Although the instrument was introduced at this time, opposition arose from many learned men and religious leaders. We must also state that for many religious groups the instrument was a strange innovation and that many did not even add the instrument until well into the 18th and 19th centuries.
During the restoration movement Alexander Campbell and the other restoration preachers dealt with an assortment of issues and doctrines. They wanted to get back to the Bible for every practice, including the way to worship God in song. Although Campbell dealt with the “issue” of musical notes early in the movement, “From 1850 on, the ‘organ in church’ question kept cropping up” (Choate & Woodson, 20). However, it would not be until twenty years later that the issue became a major source of division in the church.
Woodson and Choate assess the significance of the issue at hand and quote from Benjamin Franklin, a well-known preacher and restorer, saying, “The early Christians had no instruments of music. I will not dishonor the Bible by resorting to the instrument” (Choate & Woodson, 22). James S. Lamar, however, states almost the polar opposite of what Franklin does by saying, “I do not wish to thrust an instrument upon anyone…[A]nd I am perfectly willing for every church to worship God with or without such an accompaniment” (Choate & Woodson, 32). Why are we quoting these two men? Are their statements anymore appeasable than others? Not necessarily, but they do start to scratch the surface of both sides of the issue.
The issue came to a head by 1870 and “the differences of opinion over instrumental music widened, while more and more pianos and organs were finding their way from the parlor and Sunday school into the worship service upstairs in the church (Choate & Woodson, 37). The issue was decisively separated into those for and those against. For the next thirty-five years the issue would start severing the ties between the Christian Church and the churches of Christ. By 1906, the issues between the two were finally put to rest. “This was the year that the United States religious census identified the churches of Christ as a separate and unique religious movement” (Choate & Woodson, 107).
In 2006, the one hundred year anniversary of the split between the churches of Christ and Christian churches, a preacher in Texas decided to come out with a stance on the issue that perplexed many people in the church. Rick Atchley, the preacher for the former Richland Hills congregation in North Richland Hills, TX, “delivered three sermons (all entitled “The Both/And Church”) in December 2006 from the Richland Hills pulpit in an effort to explain the rationale behind the change” (Miller, Preface). He tried to explain why the largest church in the brotherhood was about to make the most drastic decision one church could make.
Why did Atchley and the Richland Hills congregation make this decision? Was it to be the first in what they thought would be a wave of change in the church? In the minds of most, the decision was made on “full study.” Brother Atchley even states, “I spent three days in Abilene in the library, reading everything I could on this subject. I let every side have their best shot at me. I read debates that were 100 years old. I read everything the anti-instrument position has produced” (Miller, 1). The most troubling aspect of this quote is not that he spent his time in Abilene, but it is what is really not said. The fact that he “studied” these documents and yet still came to the conclusion he did is baffling, to say the least.
What should be stressed is that, “Historically, people who have argued for instrumental music in church worship have made considerable use of material from the Old Testament. Brother Atchley is no exception” (Alexander, 19). As with all of his arguments, he takes a slanted view of scripture to suit the issue that he is defending. “Atchley’s first attempt to push the Old Testament perspective on instrumental music into the New Testament comes in a passing comment on Psalms 33, 92 and 150, all of which mention instruments” (Alexander, 22). Atchley’s assessment and thoughts on these passages being for instrumental music in Christian worship are weak, at best. However, this is not the end of his argument. He states, “No where in the New Testament is congregational singing specifically authorized” (Miller, 36). The statement is very bold and has major implications in this issue. Miller states, “If God has not indicated His desire that our worship of Him include singing, such singing would be mere human invention. And if God accepts mere human invention/inclination for worship, then a person can worship God any way he chooses, no matter how bizarre or outlandish, as long as he/she is sincere” (Miller, 36). He could not have stated it any clearer than that.
While Richland Hills and Rick Atchley were taking these drastic steps there were other congregations that followed suit. One such congregation, the Quail Springs Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, added an instrumental music service. Their preacher “praised Atchley and recommended that the Quail Springs members listen to Atchley’s lessons. He said the Quail Springs church ‘will join the Richland Hills and others in becoming a both/and church’” (Alexander, 12). One decision made by one church shaped the course of events in churches of Christ for years to come.
The train of introducing instrumental music into worship does not stop with Quail Springs and Richland Hills. In 2015, the eldership at Greenville Oaks church of Christ in Allen, Texas, made the decision to introduce an instrumental service on Sundays. In a document found on their website entitled, “FAQ-Greenville Oaks Worship Journey,” they explain what lead them to this decision. They stated that they want to be “culturally relevant,” that they want to meet “a growing need and desire,” and that they want to “provide the younger and future generations with worship experiences that engage and enable their hearts to worship.” These three statements are extremely dangerous in the context they are being used. The “culturally relevant” statement is dangerous because of the conformity to the worldview of what “worship” looks like. Romans 12:2 states, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Notice the first part of the verse. When we decide to be “culturally relevant” and change the nature of worship, then we are in clear violation of Romans 12:2.
They also stated, “Nearly all churches that are really connecting with and reaching the lost have contemporary instrumental worship.” That is a grave assumption. This statement, if taken at face value, assumes that any church that does not have instrumental worship is not effectively reaching the lost. There is no evidence to support this claim. I concede that many people attend instrumental churches; however, to make the claim that they are reaching the lost and teaching the right way of worship is not in corroboration with Scripture.
What can be done to combat this issue? Are there ways that we can speak out against this doctrinal error and help those who have fallen away to see the truth? The answers may come from an unlikely source. In 1987, Rubel Shelly produced a small book entitled, Sing His Praise: A Case for A Cappella Music as Worship Today. He states, “It would be a shallow protest to inveigh against corrupting the action (i.e., adding instruments to the musical praise of the church) without warning against neglecting its very essence (i.e., adoration from a devoted heart)” (Shelly, 53). Yes, even Shelly believed that instrumental music was not the proper way of praising God in song. He further stated, “…Instrumental music should be abandoned” (Shelly, 56).
How should one interpret what has just been said? Is there sufficient data to support the case for either side? I believe there is enough data to support the case for a cappella music. Scripture tells us that our heart and mind are both affected and that we play our hearts — ψάλλω — through our words. Shelly has a statement near the end of his book that, if made today, one wonders if he would still affirm. “If an effort were to be made to introduce the instrument into a local church where I held membership or into our larger fellowship of believers, I would oppose it strenuously” (Shelly, 108). I could not agree more with brother Shelly’s statement as made in 1987.
Price states, “In the first place, this is a misunderstanding of the regulative principle of worship, which has been cherished by the Reformed churches throughout the centuries. The Bible affirms that worship is always a matter of what God commands, never a matter of what He has not forbidden.” He goes on, “In the second place, we may compare this to the Lord’s supper. In the same way that He has not forbidden the use of musical instruments in the New Testament, He has not forbidden the eating of meat at His supper. All would agree that to eat meat at the Lord’s Supper would be presumptuous addition to His will. But if we use the rule that what is not forbidden is acceptable, then to eat meat at the Lord’s Supper must be admissible. Why should the addition of musical instruments in His worship be viewed any differently than the addition of eating of meat at His Supper? The argument that because musical instruments are not forbidden in the New Testament and, therefore, their use is acceptable must be dismissed” (Price). Jividen expands on this idea: “The answer that Jesus gave showed that he used prohibitive silence in His interpretation of Scriptures” (Jividen). He then states, “His Disciples should have the same lofty view of the Scriptures” (Jividen, 140)
Is singing worship? When we worship, do we believe in the words of the songs? According to Jividen, “Singing is for edification. Singing is heartfelt praise to the Lord” (Jividen, 92). He mentions the passages we have discussed and says, “Two points stand out in the passages—both spirit and mind are involved in worship in song, and everyone should understand and benefit from the songs in the assembly” (Jividen, 92). Jividen is correct on these points because worship includes singing. He continues, “James combines singing and praying in describing how worship arises from hearts filled with joy or sorrow [James 5:13]” (Jividen, 91).
What can be taken away from this study, if anything? One of the key points to be made is that the scripture is our guiding principle. Instrumental music, as we have seen, has no place in the worship setting. John Price goes a step further: “To bring them into the church is to transgress the authority of Christ in His Worship” (Price, 228). I agree with him wholeheartedly.
As we conclude, Ecclesiastes 12:13 comes to mind: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” Our duty as Christians is to worship in the way set forth in the Bible. Instrumental music in worship is unauthorized by God and does irreparable harm to the unity of the church. We must guard against doctrinal error such as instrumental music and speak out against it. Now more than ever we need sound teaching and it is my firm conviction that we must start at the heart of worship. If we lose the battle for sound worship, then we have lost our way and we may never get it back.
Will is married to Sarah and is the minister of the Pleasant View congregation in Skullbone, TN.
Alexander, Thomas C. Music In Worship: A New Examination of an Old Issue. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 2010.
Choate, J.E., and William Woodson. Sounding Brass and Clanging Cymbals. Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman University, 1991.
Elders of Greenville Oaks. “FAQ-Greenville Oaks Worship Journey.” Allen, TX: Greenville Oaks church of Christ, 2015.
Hester, David. Among the Scholars. Tuscumbia, AL: David W. Hester, 1994.
Jividen, Jimmy. More Than A Feeling. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1999.
Lyons, Eric. The Meaning of “Psallo” in the New Testament. Apologetics Press, 2002. Web. 2002.
Miller, Dave. Richland Hills and Instrumental Music: A Plea to Reconsider. Pulaski, TN: Sain Publications, 2007.
Price, John. Old Light on New Worship. Avinger, Texas: Simpson Publishing Company, 2005.
Shelley, Rubel. Sing His Praise: A Case for A Cappella Music as Worship Today. Nashville, TN: 20th Century Christian, 1987.