January 24, 2017

Instrumental Music in Churches

By J.W. McGarvey

In the earlier years of the present Reformation there was entire unanimity in the rejection of instrumental music from our public worship. It was declared unscriptural, inharmonious with the Christian institution, and a source of corruption. In the course of time, individuals here and there called in question the correctness of this decision, and an attempt was occasionally made to introduce instruments in some churches. It was at first a sufficient objection to such attempts that they offended a large portion of the congregation, and that the Scriptures forbid giving offense to the brethren. But more recently, congregations have been found who are almost, if not altogether, unanimous in favor of instruments, and upon the principle of church independence they have assumed the right to make use of them without regard to the wishes of other congregations. If the practice is in itself innocent, then these congregations act upon a correct principle and others have no right to interfere or complain. Moreover, in that case the taste and judgment of the majority in every congregation ought to rule, and the minority should cheerfully acquiesce. This state of things changes somewhat the practical character of the issue, and places it before us as an original question. As such, we must discuss it upon its merits; we must call in, for the time, our former decision, renew the original investigation, lay aside all feeling pro and con, and start anew the inquiry: Ought we to make use of musical instruments in public worship?

By what standard shall we judge this question? If there is any Scripture authority upon the subject, then of course we must hear that first; if not, then expedience must supply the test. If the Scriptures leave us at liberty, we must decide whether to exercise the liberty of using the instruments or the liberty of disusing them, according as experience and sound judgment may dictate. But if the Scriptures do not leave us at liberty, then we have no right to appeal to expediency, except for the purpose of vindicating the decision of the Scriptures. If these observations are correct, our first, and maybe our final, appeal is to the word of God. To this we confine the present article.

The advocates of instrumental music sometimes assume that the Scriptures do furnish authority in its favor. They find this authority in the fact that instruments were used in the temple worship of the Jews, and that they are also represented as being used by the angels in heaven. In view of these two facts, two questions are propounded — first: Can that be wrong in the Christian congregation, which was acceptable to God in the Jewish congregation? I answer: It may be. The offering of victims, the sprinkling of blood, the burning of incense, and the perpetual light of burning lamps was acceptable to God in Jewish worship; but they are not in Christian worship; and so may instrumental music not be. But in view of the second fact, it is asked: Can that be wrong among saints on earth which is right among saints and angels in heaven? I answer again: It may be. Angels and saints in glory may be granted privileges which ought not to be granted to men in the flesh, for that may be harmless there which would be dangerous here, as children must be denied privileges which older persons may enjoy with impunity. If, then, the inhabitants of heaven do literally use harps of gold, which may well be doubted, it may still be unsafe and improper that harps or any other musical instruments should be used in Christian congregations.

How, then, are we to decide whether a certain element in Jewish worship, or in the worship of heaven, is acceptable in the Christian church? Undoubtedly we are to decide it by the teaching of the New Testament, which is the only rule of practice for Christians. Whatever is authorized by this teaching is right, and whatever it condemns is wrong in us, whether it belongs to the service of the Jews or the service of the angels.

But it is argued that the New Testament is silent upon the subject of instrumental music, and we are, therefore, left to judge of what would be acceptable to God by what he did accept in Jewish worship. Now, it must be admitted that the New Testament is silent upon this subject, and that this argument is at least plausible. But is it conclusive? Before we affirm it is we should first look ahead and see whether the affirmation will not involve some unwelcome consequences.

There is nothing said in the New Testament about burning incense in connection with Christian worship. It was authorized in Jewish worship, and it is represented in John’s vision as accompanying the worship of the angels. Shall we thence argue that in the silence of the New Testament, these facts should be taken as an indication of the divine will, and, like the Catholics, shall we burn incense in our public worship? Shall we, for the same reason keep lamps or candles burning in our churches and array our preachers in gorgeous robes? For all these the argument is valid, if it is valid for instrumental music. If, therefore, we adopt the latter, we dare not pronounce any man or any church unscriptural in practice that adopts the other three. In whatever light this conclusion might appeal to a Catholic or an Episcopalian, it must certainly convince every disciple that the argument from which it springs is unsound. When we come to discover the exact fallacy that it involves, we may get hold of a thread of thought that will completely reverse the conclusion.

This argument is based upon the assumption that whatever was practiced in the Jewish worship may be in Christian worship, provided the New Testament does not condemn it. This assumption forms the major premise of the argument, and we see, from the examples just adduced that it is inadmissible.

The true method of arguing in reference to Jewish acts of worship must place the subject in an entirely different light. We may lay it down as an indisputable proposition — at least, one not to be disputed among us — that we cannot know what acts of worship are acceptable to God, except by express statements of revelation. Furthermore, seeing that in different dispensations there are some differences in the acts of acceptable worship, we cannot know what is acceptable under a particular dispensation, except by express statements of revelation with reference thereto. We cannot, therefore, by any possibility, know that a certain element of worship is acceptable to God in the Christian dispensation, when the Scriptures that speak of that dispensation are silent in reference to it. To introduce any such element is unscriptural and presumptuous. It is will-worship, if any such thing as will-worship can exist. On this ground we condemn the burning of incense, the lighting of candles, the wearing of priestly robes, and the reading of printed prayers. On the same ground we condemn instrumental music. Let it be observed that we here confine ourselves to acts of worship. . . . We might be excusable for adopting means not mentioned in the Scriptures for spreading knowledge of the gospel, and still inexcusable for introducing in our worship of God an element which he has not authorized.

Some writers, more sharp than logical, have endeavored to reduce this argument to absurdity by insisting that if we must avoid the use of instruments because they are unauthorized, we must also lay aside the notebook, the tuning fork, and even the hymn book. But the hymns and spiritual songs authorized by the New Testament were human compositions, and the right to sing implies propriety of everything necessary to singing. The notes of the scale, and some standard of sound, being necessary to the art of singing are, therefore, innocent and scriptural. But the same cannot be said of an instrument designed to control the singing and to constitute the chief element in the joyful sound which fills the house of worship. It cannot, therefore, be justified on this ground.

If, now, any man can mention an act or an element of worship known to be acceptable to God, but not authorized by the New Testament, he will prove this argument against instrumental music in the church to be invalid. I know not how it can be done in any other way.

But I have another argument based upon this same silence of the New Testament, to which I invite special attention. Whether silence in reference to a practice implies approbation or disapprobation, sometimes depends upon the circumstances of the case. In the present case we will see that it implies most emphatic disapprobation.

The Christian worship was instituted by inspired men who had every one been reared under the Jewish economy, and who in more than one instance exhibited a strong disposition to perpetuate its usages in the Christian church. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they did perpetuate some of those usages, but discontinued others. Seeing, now, that all the acts of Jewish worship had been appointed by divine authority, the only conceivable reason why any of them were discontinued must have been that they were unsuited to the Christian worship. The very fact, therefore, that any part of the Jewish worship was discontinued by those who organized the Christian church is a direct condemnation of it by the Spirit of God as unsuited to the new institution. But the use of instrumental music is an element of Jewish worship which was thus discontinued, and, therefore, it is condemned by the infallible authority of the Spirit.

I wish this argument to be examined carefully and candidly. It is briefly stated, but I trust it will be understood. If it is valid, nothing more need be said against instrumental music among lovers of the truth; and certainly nothing more should be said in their favor unless it can be set aside. On it and its predecessor I now rest the case so far as Scripture authority is concerned and I would be glad to hear from any brother who thinks he can reply successfully to either. The brethren who have adopted or advocated instrumental music in the church, owe it to themselves, to their brethren who differ from them, and to the good name of our common cause to meet the issue in candid, fraternal discussion. Let us, then, have the question fully discussed and finally settled. 

Millennial Harbinger, 1864 
Firm Foundation, December 1999

Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 7 p7  April 6, 2000