Musical Instruments in Praise and Worship
It may be odd to pen a piece like this, but a few reasons can be offered for doing so. Most people would find nothing amiss about the use of musical instruments in Christian worship, but a small percentage of believers do. Here we have something which most believers would not give a second’s thought to that has become – for some at least – a matter of controversy.
Some Christians, some churches, and even some entire denominations, have it as a cardinal rule that no musical instruments will be allowed in the churches for worship. Now, if that is their thing, I suppose they can do what they want. But when a minor issue is elevated to that of a major issue, then we have some problems.
Of course majoring in minors has long been something Christians have been guilty of – often to the detriment of Christian unity and the church’s witness. We let inconsequential things and secondary matters become big deals, and get into wars over them. No wonder we keep losing the more important battles.
So let me first look at what Scripture has to say about this. We have a number of passages to appeal to. Since I happen to be in Chronicles in my daily reading, let me begin there. Some of the key passages would be these:
1 Chronicles 15:16 David told the leaders of the Levites to appoint their fellow Levites as musicians to make a joyful sound with musical instruments: lyres, harps and cymbals.
1 Chronicles 15:19-24 The musicians Heman, Asaph and Ethan were to sound the bronze cymbals; Zechariah, Jaaziel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Unni, Eliab, Maaseiah and Benaiah were to play the lyres according to alamoth, and Mattithiah, Eliphelehu, Mikneiah, Obed-Edom, Jeiel and Azaziah were to play the harps, directing according to sheminith. Kenaniah the head Levite was in charge of the singing; that was his responsibility because he was skillful at it. Berekiah and Elkanah were to be doorkeepers for the ark. Shebaniah, Joshaphat, Nethanel, Amasai, Zechariah, Benaiah and Eliezer the priests were to blow trumpets before the ark of God.
1 Chronicles 15:28 So all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the Lord with shouts, with the sounding of rams’ horns and trumpets, and of cymbals, and the playing of lyres and harps.
1 Chronicles 16:4-6 He appointed some of the Levites to minister before the ark of the Lord, to extol, thank, and praise the Lord, the God of Israel: Asaph was the chief, and next to him in rank were Zechariah, then Jaaziel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Mattithiah, Eliab, Benaiah, Obed-Edom and Jeiel. They were to play the lyres and harps, Asaph was to sound the cymbals, and Benaiah and Jahaziel the priests were to blow the trumpets regularly before the ark of the covenant of God.
1 Chronicles 16:42 Heman and Jeduthun were responsible for the sounding of the trumpets and cymbals and for the playing of the other instruments for sacred song. The sons of Jeduthun were stationed at the gate.
1 Chronicles 25:1 David, together with the commanders of the army, set apart some of the sons of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun for the ministry of prophesying,accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals.
2 Chronicles 5:11-14 The priests then withdrew from the Holy Place. All the priests who were there had consecrated themselves, regardless of their divisions. All the Levites who were musicians—Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun and their sons and relatives—stood on the east side of the altar, dressed in fine linen and playing cymbals, harps and lyres. They were accompanied by 120 priests sounding trumpets. The trumpeters and musicians joined in unison to give praise and thanks to the Lord. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, the singers raised their voices in praise to the Lord and sang: “He is good; his love endures forever.” Then the temple of the Lord was filled with the cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God.
Other passages – including numerous psalms – which could be mentioned include:
2 Samuel 6:5 David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals.
Nehemiah 12:27 At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres.
The introduction to Psalm 6 For the director of music. With stringed instruments. According to sheminith. A psalm of David.
Psalm 33:1-3 Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous;
it is fitting for the upright to praise him.
Praise the Lord with the harp;
make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.
Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully, and shout for joy.
Psalm 71:22 I will praise you with the harp
for your faithfulness, my God;
I will sing praise to you with the lyre,
Holy One of Israel.
Psalm 81:1-3 Sing for joy to God our strength;
shout aloud to the God of Jacob!
Begin the music, strike the timbrel,
play the melodious harp and lyre.
Sound the ram’s horn at the New Moon,
and when the moon is full, on the day of our festival;
Psalm 92:1-3 It is good to praise the Lord
and make music to your name, O Most High,
proclaiming your love in the morning
and your faithfulness at night,
to the music of the ten-stringed lyre
and the melody of the harp.
Psalm 98:4-6 Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
burst into jubilant song with music;
make music to the Lord with the harp,
with the harp and the sound of singing,
with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—
shout for joy before the Lord, the King.
Psalm 150:1-6: Praise the LORD! Praise God in His sanctuary; praise Him in His mighty firmament! Praise Him for His mighty acts; praise Him according to His excellent greatness! Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet; praise Him with the lute and harp! Praise Him with the timbrel and dance; praise Him with stringed instruments and flutes! Praise Him with loud cymbals; praise Him with clashing cymbals! Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. Praise the LORD!”
And recall how Saul, who was afflicted by a distressing spirit, had David play the harp to give him relief (1 Samuel 16:14-23). So plenty of Old Testament texts can be produced here. But some of these folks will claim that we find none in the New Testament.
There are a few problems with this. One, it is usually never helpful to argue from silence. As but one example, Paul nowhere directly and clearly refers to the virgin birth of Christ in his writings. Are we to assume therefore that he did not believe in it?
And the use of microphones, sound systems, overhead projectors, data projectors, parking lots, direct debit collection systems, church buses, and other aids to contemporary church life are also nowhere mentioned in the NT. Does that mean they are all sinful to use?
And the truth is, we have at least one NT passage which does seem to tell us that God is worshipped with the aid of musical instruments:
Revelation 14:2-3 And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps. And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth.
Clearly something used to worship God at that point, as well as in the past, cannot be intrinsically evil, or God would never have allowed it to be used at all. Furthermore, some passages such as Ephesians 5:19 might include the use of musical instruments. As Matt Slick – relying on Strong’s Concordance – explains:
The phrase, “making melody,” is the Greek word, psallo, which means, “1) to pluck off, pull out, 2) to cause to vibrate by touching, to twang, 2a) to touch or strike the chord, to twang the strings of a musical instrument so that they gently vibrate, 2b) to play on a stringed instrument, to play, the harp, etc. 2c) to sing to the music of the harp 2d) in the NT to sing a hymn, to celebrate the praises of God in song.” We can see that the making melody to the Lord involves the use of musical instruments. Therefore, we are free to use musical instruments in the church in our worship to the Lord.
In his commentary on Ephesians Harold Hoehner says this about the verse:
Originally psalmos meant “plucking” the string of a bow, or the sound of a stringed instrument. . . . Although one cannot be dogmatic, the NT church may have followed the OT and Judaistic practice, as it had in other instances, by singing the psalms with a stringed instrument. . . . Although it is difficult to say that psalms were definitely accompanied with stringed instruments, this is the most natural interpretation.
Let me conclude by saying a few words about adiaphora, or ‘things indifferent’. This is a theological term which refers to those things which are neither sanctioned by Scripture nor prohibited by Scripture. There would be many such things of course, and it seems the use of musical instruments in worship is one of them.
Plenty of things, from driving a car, using a computer, or utilising a smartphone, all for Christian work, would be included here. If you believe we may only do what Scripture explicitly commands or permits, you will have to get rid of all these things – at least in your Christian ministry.
John Piper said this about such matters:
There’s a view of church life that says we should only do what the Bible commands us to do in worship: the regulative principle. Another view says we are free to do whatever the Bible doesn’t forbid us to do.
Now neither of those is completely clear, because virtually nobody only does what the Bible commands them to do. The Bible doesn’t tell them what kind of shirt to wear. It doesn’t tell them whether to stand at the front or the back when they preach. I mean, you could think of a hundred things we do in our worship that the Bible doesn’t make clear that we should do.
And the people who say that we are free to do whatever the Bible doesn’t prohibit have to come to terms with the reality that you have to work with principles. For example, preaching with a bathing suit on: the Bible doesn’t forbid it, but if John Piper walked out with a bathing suit on then I couldn’t help anybody! And so you’ve got principles of helpfulness that you use.
He goes on to discuss the use of musical instruments in worship. And for those who are interested, I speak to this in much greater detail here; https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/11/15/on-adiaphora/
To wrap this up, I find no biblical text or principle against the use of such instruments. Most churches therefore make use of them. Of course one can ask whether all music, all forms and styles of music, and all types of musical instruments, are conducive to godly and holy worship. But that is the stuff of another debate.
14 Replies to “Musical Instruments in Praise and Worship”
Some years ago I was pastor of a church where we celebrated the insallation of a pipe organ, 100 years before.
And I found a quote of the sermon preached on the occasion.
Then, the minister said: ”We ought to praise the Lord with the very best that is in our power and consecrate to His service the best that we possess, the best means at our command, the best instruments in our power to employ. Everything that is done with our whole heart is acceptable to God for His praise. May we realise more and more that this is done for the glory of God and not for us. The aim really is that it may lead us more fervently and more heartily to join together in the praise of God, but you will defeat that aim if your voice is silent and your interest only in listening to the organ. The aim is to lead you, and not to entertain and mislead you, from giving to Him the best music of your own heart and soul. May such music as that be never made here.’
I couldn’t have said it better. Pipe organ or rock band, ‘Christian’ music may be mere religious entertainment, and not praise and worship at all.
Hi Bill, I would argue that while, yes, music is adiaphra, it is a barometer for a congregation as to its attitude to worship and the heart condition of the congregation itself. A church that is more concerned about the style of music probably indicates a church intent on entertainment rather than worship.
At my own church there has been a shift to significant extras (including electric guitars and drums) from primarily piano and occasional violin or flute, I find the shift quite distracting. For example, quite often drums and bass guitar are added to hymns.
My argument has been that there is more doctrinal value in hymns than contemporary songs of worship. With hymns we should be able to focus on those words, rather than be distracted by excessive bass and beating of drums. In my opinion, they do not improve hymns, so why add them? How difficult is it to satisfy the oldies with unaccompanied hymns (except piano), and the youth with contemporary songs? Easy to keep both demographics appeased.
While a demographic shift has happened at my church, there are still a number of over 40s, and there is the presumption that no one will mind this more modern approach. This presumption alone I find disdainful, for the simple fact not every one likes the contemporary style. Surely the way to keep the peace is to leave the hymns alone (piano only) and leave the contemporary sound with the modern songs.
That would be an easy compromise I would have thought.
Yet my concerns are always recast as criticisms and thus ignored. Why major on minors, I am told. Well, yes, instruments is a minor issue of worship, but I would argue when the preferences of some of us are blatantly cast aside, that does expose a heart condition and arrogance in my church.
Why should the hymn preferring members be ignored? We’re just asking for a bit of consideration our way, but get cast as trouble-makers by deacons and elders That to me highlights an underlying greater issue. Surely a pastoral team is meant to love all the sheep, not just some.
This is why I say our approach to songs of worship is like a barometer.
Thanks Matt. All I wanted to do in this piece was dispel the faulty notion that musical instruments can never be used in church worship. The last sentence of my article said there were plenty of other related matters that still need to be thrashed out. And of course anyone who knows me and my work knows that I have little good to say about the entertainment and celebrity culture that passes for worship in so many churches today. I may have to write some more articles!
As an organist in a congregation where we sing almost exclusively traditional hymns I am no doubt biased. The people sing with gusto and most of the hymns are doctrinally good and tell a story. Who can beat the words of Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts and the other great hymn writers of the past? Having said that, I am not opposed to good “contemporary” church music, but I must say that it sometimes seems that the best melodies were composed quite a while ago. Many of today’s tunes go in strange directions, and some music groups have even taken old tunes and done funny things with them.
Spurgeon, sometimes called the last of the Puritans, refused to have instrumental accompaniments. Dr Lloyd-Jones, also sometimes called the last of the Puritans, had an organist playing a great Wills pipe organ accompanying hymns in his chapel.
Off-topic but bemusing:
ACL has a video of those ever-tolerant people….apparently turning on each other….
Most of us will experience having our preferences “blatantly cast aside” at some point in church life. And the older one is, the more likely it is to have had it happen to one. Music unless one is like David Morrison and in a church that matches our personal tastes is indeed an area where people can feel ignored. Can I suggest this is a challenge we MAY need to rise to? Sometimes we need to be gracious losers.
Yes, John, I think you are right, but I think I have a reasonable cause of complaint when I go to a more “contemporary” service (whatever that actually means) and have to go outside before the service starts because the pre-service music is so loud. Fellowship is impossible under those circumstances.
There is much room for discussion about words, tunes, volume, the best instrument for accompanying singing (the organ, of course!) and so on and on. But this is all a bit off Bill’s topic.
The use of rock or folk style “Christian” music is the thing that really turned my children off Christian youth groups.I believe that God is only to be worshipped with reverence and awe and not as if he is a “cool” friend etc.
I have to smile a little when I see the comments from the traditionalists here. Of course I believe the music director needs to be very mindful of not upsetting the sensibilities of the congregation and some of the problems with music are really that it is simply bad music but some seem to have the idea that drums and bass are evil of themselves, which of course is not Biblical. It is just a matter for what is appropriate and what you are trying to express with the music. In fact, if you look at the instruments used in the OT, the pipes, which were a forerunner of the pipe organ and the zither, a forerunner for the piano, were used to worship Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 3:5) but God was worshiped with harp and psaltery (a forerunner for the guitar), trumpets, timbrels (a type of hand held drum) etc. Eg 1 Chr 13:8, Psa 81.
It is also worth noting that in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, when the son returned they not only had music but also dancing. (Luk 15:25)
I’m glad I make you smile, Michael. Some happiness in a bleak world.
I don’t think God hears the noise we make in song with our instruments…but what God really listens to is our inner thoughts, words, feelings, harmonies, words, phrasing in our minds and our hearts while we are making noise unto the Lord.
What I mean, musicians so concentrating on the playing of music, that the praising part disappears, and the singer concentrating so much on remembering the words, and harmonizing, staying on pitch, that the praising with the song, never happens.
To me, the best praise is heartfelt, simple, and emotionally felt…not practiced, or rehearsed….God doesn’t care about the
sound, only the soulful delivery of the praise.
I am running a few days behind in reading posts.
I find this very interesting. We have frequent teaching and preaching on music and musical styles at my church.
As a young man, I attended a church with friends a few times that had no instrumental music, but never heard their justification of that behavior.
Maybe you can address that? Do you know why they shun instrumental music? What justification do they offer?
The beautiful thing about God is that He loves us all whether we believe in using musical instruments in praise and worship or not. He created us all for His pleasure.
Our Father simply enjoys the music that our hearts make to Him. I have an adopted son who is very skilled in playing the saxophone and all kinds of musical instruments. Should I ask him to stop praising God with his gift?
I am a minstrel and I worship God with my voice in music but I cannot play any musical instrument. Any way wherever I find myself, if I have to sing, I do it with or without instrument and I believe God hears.
We as Christians must learn to unite our hearts in praise and worship to God whether with instruments or not.
I grew up in a religion that does not allow any instruments whatsoever in church…Everything was acappella…And it became such a ritual that a person could fall asleep during the singing and nobody ever got saved that I’m aware of in 28 years. The second song was always the same one every week very boring….So whether you use instruments or not…if your heart isn’t in the right place neither matters…