To Play Or Not To Play?
Written by Joe Puckett Jr.
Sunday, 30 June 2013 20:49


To Play Or Not To Play?

A Study in Instrumental Music in Worship

By Joe Puckett Jr.


     For almost 100 years the Churches of Christ and Christian Churches have sadly been a divided house. While instrumental music was at the front stage of the split it was only a symptom of the more fundamental difference concerning Hermeneutics (Biblical interpretation). At the heart of the debate was the question related to the oft quoted statement of Thomas Campbell, “Where the Scriptures speak we speak, where the Scriptures are silent we are silent.” The first part of the phrase was simply enough. If the Bible said it, that settled it. But what about the issues not talked about in Scripture? How are we to understand Campbell’s statement concerning silence? How are we to take the silence of the Scriptures? Does the Bible say anything about its own silence? We will examine in this paper the subject of instrumental music, but more fundamentally we are going to have to deal with the Hermeneutical principle governing our understanding of the subject of silence.


     I think all Bible believers, who desire to please God, would have to agree that in order for instruments to be used in worship to God they must be met with God’s approval, John 4:26. In order to say that instrumental music is sinful one must also have the evidence to show God’s intent that He disapproves of it. The approval or disapproval may be shown explicitly or implicitly (i.e. that which is necessarily inferred by the explicit statements in the Bible). If silence is intended by God to be prohibitive then we should expect to find evidence in Scripture teaching the prohibitive nature of that silence. However, in order to say that instrumental music is right we also bear the burden of proof. Either we should be able to find some explicit or implicit teaching to show that it is right for us to use instruments in worship or we need to find some evidence to show that it is wrong. In other words, we should expect to find some principle in Scripture to show us either that God intends absolute silence to be permissive or if God intends it to be prohibitive. If the above is true, then we need to ask ourselves some important questions. Namely, does God intend for us to understand the use of mechanical instruments in worship to be prohibited (sinful) or permitted (accepted)? Does it have His approval or disapproval? I want to first examine whether the New Testament is actually silent in regard to the use of instrumental music in worship or not. If we can find that the N.T. Scripture is not at all silent about it, then it would be pointless to even ask (with regard to instrumental music) how we should understand the nature of silence. If there was a single clear Scripture that showed God’s approval of the instrument then the case would be settle for good. Let’s look at some of the issues and common arguments that have typically been made to suggest that the N.T. is not silent at all with regard to instrumental music in Christian worship. But even if we find that the N.T. is silent with regard to instrumental music in Christian worship, then we must still ask how we should understand the intent of that silence.


Points to Ponder

Argument #1:

     “Why just look at the New Testament? They used instruments all the time in worship in the Old. We know that instrumental music was right for them so it must be ok for us. I mean, if the Israelites were allowed to use them, then why can’t we?” On the surface, this argument sounds very reasonable. But with no further explanation it is too simple and really proves nothing by itself. The response to this statement could simply be the fact that Israel did a lot of things that are not allowed in worship today. For example, they were told to offer animal sacrifices for atonement for sin, Leviticus 4. The Hebrews writer now condemns the practice of animal sacrifice for atonement purposes in worship, Heb. 10. Another example of what they did and what we do not do is that they worshipped through the Levitical priesthood. In the Law, the tribe of Levi was to be the priestly tribe. We have no specified group of people called Levites today designed to be the priesthood for us, Hebrews 7:12-14. This proves, at least, that just because people in the Old Testament did something does not necessarily mean that the action is approved of God today. There have been a lot of changes in covenant worship, John 4:20-26. In fact, one could well argue that mechanical instruments were included in the “fleshly ordinances” of the Law that were bound to pass away with the animal sacrifices, Hebrews 9:10. If so, then the Hebrews writer is, in fact, telling us to leave this type of worship because these were “shadows” and “types” which were to be stopped for the sake of the superior “realities” to which the shadows pointed, Hebrews 9:23-24, 10:1, 8-9, 13:9-15. The truth is, with the change of the covenant came a change in the law, and better sacrifices in worship, Hebrews 7:12-14, 9:23. The physical temple is now a spiritual temple, Heb. 9:1, 23-24. The physical priesthood is now a spiritual priesthood, 1 Peter 2:5. The physical Israel is now a spiritual one, Romans 2:28-29. The physical alter is now a spiritual one. Are the physical instruments of the Old Testament now to be spiritual in Christ, Ephesians 5:19? We will come back to this question later.


     Nevertheless, it is also true that just because they did something back then, does not necessarily mean that the action is wrong today. It may be argued that there are other things that were binding on them at that time but are now optional today, i.e. circumcision, observing days, dietary laws, etc., Acts 16:1-3, Romans 14:1-6. It may be replied, however, that these areas do not violate any New Testament principle and in fact are under the umbrella of general authority. First, there is Scripture for these things, Acts 16:1-3, Romans 14:1-6. Second, the truth is, whether a person eats meat or not, or whether someone wants to privately observe a day of devotion (on Saturday or otherwise) or not, or whether one wishes to circumcise their child is of no consequence to one’s salvation. These actions fall under “general authority”. In other words, God obviously wants us to eat food and He gives us no express or implied limitations with regard to the foods we are to eat. God also wants us to worship Him and gives us no limitations with regard to which days we can do so. If this was not so, we could not even meet to worship on Wednesdays as we traditionally do. Additionally, there are many things that they did in the Old Testament that God, in fact, wants us to do today, i.e. singing, praying, etc.. But these are all stated expressly in the New Testament. This being so, we must find some other way to determine the approval or disapproval of instruments today. It is not enough just to say they did it in the Old Testament. To justify it by using the O.T. we would have to say that it is commanded, 2 Chronicles 29:25. It was not merely optional for them. If this is so, then and church who does not use instrumental music is sinning. I know of no one today who actually believes this. The truth is, this was an Old Testament command that was removed in place of the New, Hebrews 10:9, Ephesians 2:14-15.


     We need to consider at this point, however, that the origin of instrumental music did not come from Moses and the Law. Its first regular recorded practice came from David 400 years after the Law, 1 Chronicles 23:5, 2 Chronicles 29:25, Amos 6:5. However, there were some exceptions to this, Exodus 15:20-21. Maybe they did it a lot more than we know before David. Nevertheless, David did not bring it in without God’s approval and instruction as seen in 2 Chronicles 29:25. It was “according to the commandment of David…for thus was the commandment of the Lord”. Some have argued that David introduced instruments without the authority of God. This I deny, otherwise Psalm 150 was written without God’s approval. The truth is that God was honored by the use of Instruments all throughout the Old Testament period. How did they know that? He told them.


     One more word of note should be made before leaving this point. Many have come back to this argument to say that God only aloud the Levitical priests to worship with instruments. It may be that only the priests were commanded to worship with instruments, 2 Chronicles 29:25. In fact, only the priests were told to serve in the temple at all. But it is simply not true that God aloud only the priests to worship with instruments in every other setting. He not only aloud the use of mechanical instruments, but was pleased when others worshipped Him in this regard, Exodus 15:20-21, Psalms  149:1-5, 150:1-6. David is one case in point. He was not part of the Levitical priesthood but worshipped with instruments to accompany the Psalms. In fact, he told everyone to do so, Psalms 150:6. But again, this does not prove God desires us to do it for there are many things in the Psalms that we as a church would not do today, i.e. animal sacrifices, Psalms  20:3, the militant destruction of enemies, Psalms 18:37,40.


     With this in mind, we also should remember that whether God wants us to worship with or without instruments today has nothing to do with whether or not He “likes” the sound of them. Too often we hear people say “I like the sound of instruments therefore I know God does too”. If it is the sound God “likes” then my singing won’t make it past the clouds. But this misses the point of the kind of worship that God honors. God enjoys our worship when we OBEY Him from the heart, John 4:24-26. But this still begs the question: “Is using instrumental music in worship an obedient expression of worship today? This we are trying to find out.


     So just by saying that the people in the Old Testament used them is not sufficient evidence by itself to prove either side’s case in the matter. By itself, it neither affirms nor denies God’s approval or disapproval of instrumental music in worship today. We really do need to consider the principles in the New Testament.


Argument #2:

     One point that some people believe shows that the New Testament is not silent with regard to the instrument is the fact that they are found in the book of Revelation. This argument says that “since the book of Revelation describes instruments in worship to God, then doesn’t this show God’s approval of it?” Certainly this sounds reasonable. But when we consider the highly symbolic nature of Revelation the case does not appear to be as persuasive. One may well argue that Revelation was not written to tell us how God wants to be worshipped literally on earth by His church today. Also, it is argued, the worship in the book of Revelation was taking place in Heaven not on earth. Additionally, the symbols found in Revelation have an Old Testament background and are representative of other realities, i.e. the incense which represented “the prayers of the saints”, Revelation 5:9. Nevertheless, this argument does not deny the possible approval of instruments in worship either. Some have suggested that it does seem on the surface that if God intended the church not to use it, He would avoid giving the impression that it was ok in Heaven. However, this does not prove that God wants it either. One could just as easily say that God never intended the church to take these visions literally. The apocalyptic genre of Revelation does not allow us to use this argument to prove the acceptability of real mechanical instruments in worship. Again, we need to consider yet more evidence to get our answer.


Argument #3:

     One argument considers instrumental music to be a mere expediency to worship. One who takes this approach must say that they are not really worshipping God with the instrument but that the instrument is really only an aid to the singing. We can hardly deny that instruments can aid singing. But one wonders if this is all the instrument does. Those who make this argument cannot appeal to the O.T. because they clearly worshipped WITH the instrument back then and did not think of them as a mere aid. Nevertheless, this argument still begs the question, “Is it an approved aid?” Is it something God wants? It does seem that if mechanical instruments fall into the same category as a pitch pipe or tuning fork then the “instrumentalist” has a point here. If the only thing the instrument does is aid the singer then the case should closed. Mere aids neither violate nor add to anything God instructed and it would be perfectly permissible to bring instruments in to worship. However, if the case were this simple I would think there would be no debate on either side of the issue. I do not think one can make the case that mechanical instruments are mere aids to singing. From an examination of the Old Testament we can find many places where instruments were actually offered up to God as an expression of worship not just an aid to worship, 2 Chronicles 5:13. Tuning forks are not “offered” up to God as worship but only help start the singing which in turn is alone offered up. Song books are not “offered” up to God but only contain the notes and words to help the singing which alone is offered up. When mechanical instruments are played as a vehicle of praise then this becomes more than just an aid. It might aid in the singing to be sure. But my point is, however, that it is something much more than an aid. It is a separate music form which is being done in addition to singing. When the singing is stopped the instrumental music may still continue showing that they are two separate forms of music. We cannot determine the issue with this objection alone. The “aid” argument does not settle the matter on either side. Again, we must turn to other arguments to determine the answer to our question as to whether the N.T. is silent with regard to instruments in worship.


Argument #4:

     Another argument used to show that the N. T. is not silent with regard to the instrument says that “The Greek word “Psallo” means to “pluck, or play on an instrument”. Therefore, Ephesians 5:19, 1 Corinthians 14:15 (twice in this verse), and James 5:13 authorizes us to worship with instruments.”


     This argument seems to be the most challenging of the others on this subject. In my own study I have found many popular sources which affirm that “Psallo” means to sing to the accompaniment of instruments in the New Testament. I have also found many popular sources which say that it came to mean simply “to sing”. In my own study of all the major translations (i.e. KJV, NKJV, ASV 1901, NASV, NIV, RSV, ESV, etc.) none of them translate this word as necessarily including instrument music, but simply “sing” or “make melody”. While the word originally meant simply to pluck and twang to something (whether musical or not), I have come to think that the word has been used mostly simply to “sing praises” whether with or without the instrument. Just as water is not inherent in the word “baptizo” neither is “mechanical instrument” inherent in the word “psallo”. And because the word was sometimes associated with instruments and sometimes not, we need to find out whether the word was ever associated with instruments in the New Testament. I am convinced that four out of the five times the word is used in the NT it simply means “to sing” and says nothing of an instrument. The word is simply translated as “sing” or “sing praises” twice the 1 Corinthians 15:14, once in Romans 15:9, and once in James 5:13. The debates and lexicons aside, if we just go with our common translations there is no mechanical instrument inherent in the word. The one occasion where music is used in a general sense which might be thought to include the instrument is in Ephesians 5:19. One could very well understand the passage to say that the “singing” and “making melody” are both to be done with (in) the heart. If this is true then we have a passage giving general authority to use whatever instrument can make melody as long as it is done with a sincere heart. If the singing can be done with the vocal cords and yet “with the heart” at the same time, then “making melody” can be done with a piano and “with the heart” at the same time too.


     This argument sounds compelling. However, there are two reasons why I am reluctant to say that this is instructing the use of mechanical instruments in worship to God. #1) The verse can be understood to say that the instrument being used is a spiritual one, namely, “the heart”. Certainly, one could present the case where the “Singing” is one act and then separating “making melody with the heart” as the other act. The big question is whether the phrase “with your heart” modifies the “singing” and “making melody” or just “making melody” alone. If it modifies “making melody” alone then one can make the case that this is not talking about mechanical instruments at all, but rather the heart being the instrument which accompanies singing. In other words, if the verse read “singing and making melody with the piano” we would all know that the singing is one act done with the voice and that the “piano” is the instrument by which the “melody” is being made. However, Paul did not say “piano”, he said the “heart”. #2) The parallel passage where Paul gives the same instruction and in the same type of context is found in Colossians 3:16. If the two passages are placed side by side then the correlations seem convincing. The “singing” of Ephesians 5:19 is equivalent to the “singing” of Colossians 3:16. If so, then the “making melody with the heart” (Ephesians 5:19) is equivalent to “with grace in your hearts” (Colossians 3:16). In other words, Paul is saying in Ephesians what he is saying in Colossians, i.e. that our singing is to be done sincerely, passionately, and with thankfulness. If this be the case, then Ephesians would be implying nothing about instrumental music either for or against. In other words, neither Ephesians 5:19 nor Colossians 3:16 have anything at all to say about the instruments. These texts do not imply that it is wrong to use them and they do not imply that it is right to use them. They neither include nor exclude instrumental music in worship. From where I stand, neither side can use these verses to support their case. Paul did not have this debate in mind when he wrote the context of Ephesians and Colossians. So, if Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 do not include musical instruments then the NT is truly and completely silent with regard to them. This then brings us to our original question with regard to the nature of that silence.


Argument #5:

     “The Bible is silent with regard to the use of instrumental music, therefore God must not be concerned whether we use them or not.”


     This to me appears to be at center of the debate and division between A Cappella Churches of Christ and Independent Christian Churches. The big difference between the Churches of Christ and Christian Churches is not instrumental music. The difference is how we view the silence of God on the issue. At the heart of this debate is a famous statement made by Thomas Campbell in the Declaration and Address:


     “Where the Bible speaks we speak. Where the Bible is silent we are silent.” Churches of Christ have commonly said that this means that when the scriptures are silent about a matter (i.e. what God does not authorize) we must be silent (i.e. we have no authority to act). In other words, if God is silent on a subject, we must be silent too. To say that instrumental music is right is to go beyond what God has said. If God has not said we can use instruments in worship we cannot say we can. Again, to say it is ok to use them is to say something God has not said. Therefore we have no authority to use them. One text that is used to illustrate this principle of silence is Hebrews 7:14. The Hebrews writer says that Jesus could not be a priest while on earth because “Moses spoke nothing” concerning the priesthood of “Judah” but only said that one from the tribe of Levi was to be a priest. Therefore, since God was silent on this (i.e. “Moses spoke nothing”) then not even Jesus had the authority to act in this regard while on earth.


     On the other hand, Independent Christian Churches have viewed silence as permissive. They have argued that the statement by Thomas Campbell should be understood differently. They take it to mean that “when the scriptures are silent (i.e. where God has not explicitly addressed the issue) then we are to be silent (i.e. we have a right to have our own opinion and, thus, cannot legislate)”. Therefore, if the New Testament is silent in regard to the use of mechanical instruments in worship then we are at liberty to use them if we choose. In this view God has not said that instrumental music in worship is wrong. Therefore to say it is wrong is to say something the Bible does not say. In other words, to say that instrumental music in worship is wrong is to speak where the Bible (New Testament) is silent. A text that is commonly used to support this position is found in Romans 7:7 which says, “I would not have known what covetousness was unless the law had said ‘You shall not covet’.” In other words, if the Bible was silent with regard to coveting then we could never know that it was sin. The only way we know it is sin is because God speaks about it.


     So it does appear that there are times when silence is prohibitive (Hebrews 7:14) and there are times when the silence is permissive (Romans 7:7). So how are we to know the difference?


     The argument from prohibitive silence is understood by this writer to be in the category of inference and not by silence alone. In other words, if the Bible is silent on an issue and it was intended by God to be prohibitive then there must be some principle that is expressly given to show God’s disapproval of the act. For instance, the Bible is silent with regard to “Hail Mary’s”. But there is an express principle that says we are to only worship God, Matthew 4:10. Since prayer is an expression of worship, then offering a prayer to Mary is, in fact, sinful, although the Bible says nothing about it specifically.


     Permissive silence is when the Bible is completely silent on an issue and yet to do what it is silent about would not violate any principle of Scripture and is, in fact, supported by general principles (i.e. generic authority). For example, there is nothing in Scripture about church buildings. Yet to build a church building so that the church can meet together violates neither explicit nor implicit principles in Scripture and is supported by the general rule to meet together, Hebrews 10:25. There are no specific instructions as to where we must meet.


     But with regard to how we are to understand silence, think of it this way. If a man has to use the restroom in a public restaurant, which restroom does he go into? One door has a sign of a female. The other has a sign of a male. It is obvious that he should choose the room with the male on the door, right? But what if he was to walk into the room with the door that had a female sign on it? The restaurant would probably kick him out, right? But what if the man simply said to the owners “But the door on the sign never said males could NOT go in”? First, the owners would think he was crazy. Then they would tell him that the sign only authorized females to go in. Based on what it did say it should have been understood that males were not permitted to go in. Or think of this. Say you go to the doctor for high blood pressure and he gave you a specific prescription for your it. When you went to pick up the prescription at the pharmacy the pharmacist gave you a different kind medicine for high blood pressure. Not knowing if this medicine will do the same thing as the other one, you proceed to ask the pharmacist why he did this and explain that he should do only what the doctor said. What if he told you that he had a right to do this because your doctor didn’t say he couldn’t? You would think he was crazy. We understand this line of reasoning when it comes to typical every day examples of authority, so why would we think Biblical authority can’t function the same way?


The Bottom Line and Our Main Goal 

     Ultimately our purpose in life must be to please the Lord. 2 Corinthians 5:9 says, “Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him.” God has not left it up to us to define what pleases Him. I cannot read His mind and cannot know what He wants unless He reveals it to me, 1 Corinthians 2:11-12. Paul would say in 1 Corinthians 2:11 that, “no one knows the things of God unless the Spirit of God reveals it.”The only revelation we have of God’s mind today is the Bible. The way I approach this is that unless I can find something explicitly or implicitly that tells me God wants instrumental music in New Testament worship, then I will not take it upon myself to use it. To say this another way. The Spirit has revealed God’s will in the Scriptures so that “we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.” 1 Corinthians 2:12. If the Word of God does not tell me what God’s will is on a matter then I cannot “know” He wills it. In the first century, Jesus and His apostles and prophets have revealed to us everything that pleases God, Hebrews 1:3. 2 Peter 1:3 says that they have given us “all things that pertain to life and godliness”. 1 Thessalonians 4:1 says “Finally then, brethren, we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more, just as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please Him.” So we should follow only that which we know will please Him. Since everything that pleases God in worship today is revealed to us in the New Testament, and since the New Testament is completely silent with regard to instrumental music, then I cannot know they please Him. If I cannot know they please Him, and pleasing Him is my ultimate goal, then I will not use instrumental music in worship.


The Hebrews Principle


     Because the New Testament is silent with regard to instrumental music in worship to God, and because I cannot read God’s mind to know what He wants outside of what He tells me, it is, at least, the safe position to take not to use them. However, there is more to the subject than this. The book of Hebrews was written to convince Christians of the superiority of the New Covenant over the Old. In chapter 9 the writer contrasts the Old Testament form of worship with that of the New. The Old was earthly (vs. 1) and was filled with “fleshly ordinances” (vs. 10). The physical, external nature of the Old Testament was “symbolic” of the spiritual nature of the New Testament (vs. 9). Some of the “fleshly ordinances” found in the Law were things such as the Levitical priesthood, the temple, the table of showbread, the animal sacrifices, priestly garments, mechanical instruments just to name a few. The fact that instruments are external/”fleshly” in nature is illustrated by Paul when he calls them “lifeless instruments”, 1 Corinthians 14:7.


     By the way, speaking of 1 Corinthians 14, I think it’s interesting that Paul list a lot of the gifts that God equipped the early church with in order to worship Him, 1 Corinthians 12-14. He even includes “singing hymns” as a gift that the Spirit gave some of them. But have you ever noticed that the gift of “playing” is completely absent from the whole text of 1 Corinthians 12-14? I wonder why. It’s not that Paul does not mention instruments, because he does in 1 Corinthians 14:7-8. But it’s not in the church that he talks about them. He only uses them as an illustration of an instrument during battle. If instruments were used in the worship of the church at Corinth, Paul could have simply referred to them in his illustration. But the fact that he doesn’t say anything about them makes me again, wonder why.


     But getting back to my point in Hebrews. In Hebrews 8:7-13, 9:16-17 and 10:9 the writer makes the point that the Old Covenant was removed and no longer in force. He instructs them not to go back to these “fleshly” things and to follow Christ in the “new” and fulfilled way. He later makes very clear his desire for his readers to leave the Old Testament and stay only with the New in Christ, 13:11-13. As I apply the principle, it seems reasonable to conclude that instruments are to be left in the Old and to follow the new spiritual way of things in Christ.


     In conclusion, I realize these arguments will not satisfy everyone. I myself have struggled over this issue. You may see it as a case that is built upon circumstantial evidence. But then again, even prosecutors of a murder trial can get a conviction with a strong circumstantial case. Whether the case against instrumental music is strong enough you’ll have to study out for yourself. But until I clearly see where God wants me to use instrumental music in worship to Him in the New Testament, I am personally going to leave them alone.