by William J. Stewart
Music has been labeled the international language. Rhythm and rhyme are so tangled within the fabric of humanity that George Jellinek, host of the syndicated radio series The Vocal Scene, has commented, “The history of a people is found in its songs.”1 As this is true of nations and tribes throughout the ages, it is equally true of God’s people. After crossing the Red Sea, Moses and Miriam led the Israelites in song (Exodus 15). The unfaithfulness of Israel was revealed generations before it would happen in a song of Moses, and served as a witness against the people (Deuteronomy 31:19-32:44). Deborah and Barak’s victory in battle gave occasion for a song (Judges 5:1-31). David, the sweet psalmist of Israel, wrote many songs, addressing a variety of topics. Songs have always been of great importance to God’s people.
Songs must play a significant role in our worship. Singing is not just something we do to pass the time before the preacher gets up. It is an activity of equal value to any other commandment of God. We cannot fulfill the command to be “…teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs…” unless we are actively engaged in the song service (Colossians 3:16). However, other Christians are not the only audience to consider; in addition, we sing to bring glory to the name of God (Ephesians 5:19-20). Both responsibilities demand, not only that we sing, but that we sing songs that speak the truth. It is a sober duty, even in song, to be a teacher of God’s way.
If our worship is going to be acceptable, we must have authority for what we do. Immediately after commanding Christians to sing to the Lord, Paul said, “…whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus…” (Colossians 3:17). That is not an invitation for us to affix the Lord’s name on whatever we want to do, but a charge to do and say what the Lord has authorized. What then has the Lord said about our worship in song? Ought we to use instruments or should we simply use our voices? Does it matter?
Christian worship in song is addressed seven times in the New Testament (Acts 16:25; Romans 15:9; 1 Corinthians 14:15; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; Hebrews 2:12; James 5:13). In each case, singing is specifically mentioned. The only New Testament mention of musical instruments being used in worship is in Revelation—a “signified” (1:1) book revealing heavenly things. If we seek to do what the Lord desires of us, we will worship with our voices, not with instruments.
Shall we use instruments in our worship based upon their use in the Old Testament? Paul reasoned with the Galatians, “…I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law” (5:3). If we borrow one practice from the Old Testament, we are under compulsion to keep the whole. The Old Testament, both the law and the prophets, governed the conduct and worship of the Jews. Christians must seek the words of Christ, and do as He has commanded (Hebrews 1:1-2; 2:1-4). The New Testament continually obliges us to sing.
The comments of prominent men in history are not a source of authority, but it is worth noting what these men, some credited as denominational founders, have said. Martin Luther (Lutheran church) declared, “The organ in the worship is an insignia of Baal.”2 John Wesley (Methodist church) bluntly stated, “I have no objection to the organs in our chapels, as long as they are neither seen nor heard.”3 Eighteenth century historian and preacher, Joseph Bingham, commented, “Music in churches is as ancient as the apostles, but instrumental music is not so.”4 John Calvin staunchly affirmed, “Musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting of lamps and the restoration of other shadows of the Law … Men who are fond of outright pomp may delight in the noise, but the simplicity which God commands to us by the apostles is far more pleasing to Him.”5 Fourth century church historian, Eusebius, recorded, “Of old at the time those of the circumcision were worshiping with symbols and types it was not inappropriate to send up hymns to God with the psalterion and cithera … We render our hymn with a living psalterion and a living cithera with spiritual sons. The unison of voices of Christians would be more acceptable to God than any musical instrument. Accordingly in all the churches of God, united in soul and attitude, with one mind and in agreement of faith and piety we send up a unison melody in the words of the Psalms.”6
Countless historical quotes attest to the fact that instrumental music has no place in the church. An honest study of the Bible will reveal that God desires us to worship in song with the use of our voices—an instrument not made by the hands of man, but by God Himself. When we have the occasion to sing together as God’s people, let us do so with joyfulness and sobriety. May our worship neither be like the drone of monotone monks nor in the semblance of a capering circus. Let us sing from the heart, seeking to edify the children of God and to praise the name of God.