By Don Hooton
When people worship with most churches of Christ today, the absence of instrumental music nearly always causes a brief quizzing like, “Why don’t you use a piano or an organ or all the other instruments that other churches use?” Frankly, that’s a great question! And as Christians, we are, and should be, always willing to “give an answer for the hope” and the faith that we have (1 Pet. 3:15) whether it is asked by a believer or an unbeliever. So let me try to answer why you hear no pianos when you worship with us.
There are three lines of reasoning or evidence that make us believe that the use of mechanical instruments of music in worship is unacceptable to God. The evidence that supports such a conclusion are: (1) The Historical Argument (the historical fact that vocal music was the only music used by Christians for centuries); (2) The Hermeneutic Argument (the absence of any New Testament passage authorizing its use); (3) The Scriptural Argument (the clear scriptural proof that in the New Testament age, singing was the form of musical worship practiced and thereby was and is the worship God accepts in every generation).
Of course, we are using the term “argument” in its classic dictionary usage of “a course of reasoning to demonstrate the truth or falsehood of something” (Webster’s II). After we present these three “arguments” regarding why we believe instrumental music in worship to God is not acceptable to him, we will also evaluate Bible passages and/or reasons people have used and continue to use to justify the use of musical instruments in worship to God.
First, let’s begin with the fact that history and scholarship alike agree that early Christians did not employ instrumental music and in some circles, emphatically opposed it. For emphasis, we will italicize and embolden significant statements in these quotes.
In the History of Western Music, a standard music history textbook, Donald Grout writes, “Hymn singing is the earliest recorded musical activity of the Christian Church” (13). He says further that the early church “excluded instrumental music from public worship” (26). And then Mr. Grout observes that, “The organ does not seem to have been used regularly with the choir in Mass much before the thirteenth century” (64).
The Encyclopedia Judaica says, “jingling, banging, and rattling accompanied heathen cults . . .The voices of nonconformists were emerging from places of Jewish and early Christian worship. Early synagogue song intentionally foregoes artistic perfection, renounces the playing of instruments, and attaches itself entirely to ‘the word’ — the text of the Bible” (“Music,” XII:566).
In the Catholic Encyclopedia, these Catholic historians say, “For almost a thousand years, Gregorian chant without any instrumental or harmonic addition, was the only music used in connection with the liturgy” (X:657).
And also in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, “The rejection of all musical instruments for Christian worship is consistent among the (Church, dph) Fathers. They were associated with pagan, orgiastic rites” (“History of Sacred Music,” X:106).
In the New Oxford History of Music, the writers say, “The primitive Christian community held the same view, as we know from the apostolic and post-apostolic literature: instrumental music was thought unfit for religious services; the Christian sources are quite outspoken in their condemnation of instrumental performances. Originally, only song was considered worthy of direct approach to Divinity” (“The Music of Post-Biblical Judaism,” I:135).
The Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia says, “There is no record in the NT of the use of instruments in the music worship of the church. In this regard, early believers followed the practice of the Hebrew synagogue music” (“Music,” 1163).
Historian Lars Qualben writes, “Singing formed an essential part of the Christian Worship, but it was in unison and without musical accompaniment” (A History of the Christian Church, 112).
And finally from John Girardeau, professor at Columbia Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church USA, we read, “The church, although lapsing more and more into defection from the truth and into a corruption of apostolic practice had no instrumental music for 1200 years; and the Calvinistic Reformed Church ejected it from its services as an element of Popery (i.e. Catholicism, dph), even the Church of England having come very nigh to its extrusion from her worship. The historical argument, therefore, combines with the Scriptural and the Confessional to raise a solemn and powerful protest against its employment” (John Girardeau, professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, Presbyterian USA, quoted in the American Encyclopedia).
Hence, history uniformly agrees that instrumental music was not only absent from the worship services of first century Christians but was altogether and universally rejected for twelve centuries of Christian practice.
There are historical writings also that show religious leaders opposed the use of instrumental music. What this means is that the prohibition of instrumental music is not new. Instead, it is the practice of instrumental music that is the new innovation. Consider these well-known church leaders from the last twenty centuries:
Tertullian (c. AD 160-230) wrote, “Musical concerts with viol and lute belong to Apollo, to the Muses, to Minerva and Mercury who invented them; ye who are Christians, hate and abhor these things whose very authors themselves must be the object of loathing and aversion.”
Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), a monk and celebrated Catholic theologian, “Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize” (Bingham’s Antiquities, III:137).
John Calvin (1509-64), founder of present day Presbyterianism, “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 the other shadows of the Law (of Moses, dph)” (Commentary of the Psalms, 33).
Joseph Bingham, a writer from the Anglican Church, said, “Music in churches is as ancient as the apostles, but instrumental music not so” (Works, III:137).
Charles Spurgeon (1834-92), a renown Baptist preacher, wrote, “We do not need them (i.e., instruments of music, dph). They would hinder rather than help our praise. Sing unto Him. This is the sweetest and best music. No instrument like the human voice . . . What a degradation to supplant the intelligent song of the whole congregation by the theatrical prettiness of a quartet, bellows and pipes! We might as well pray by machinery as praise by it” (Commentary on Psalms, 42:4).
Adam Clark, a Methodist commented, “I declare I never knew (instrumental music) to be productive of any good in the worship of God and have reason to believe that they are productive of much evil. Music as a science I esteem and admire, but instrumental music in the house of God I abominate and abhor. This is the abuse of music, and I here register my protest against all such corruption of the worship of the author of Christianity” (Commentary, IV:686, on Amos 6:5).
John Wesley (1703-91), another Methodist, wrote, “I have no objection to the instruments in our chapels, provided they are neither seen nor heard” (ibid).
Then Adam Clark responded with, “I say the same, though I think the expense of purchase had better be spared” (ibid).
So clearly, historical scholarship says instrumental music practiced among Christians did not become an accepted practice until thirteen centuries after the church began. And still, historical church leaders opposed its use even when others wanted to use instruments or were already using them.
The historical truth is that singing was “for almost a thousand years . . . the only music connected with the liturgy” (Catholic Encyclopedia, X:657) because early church fathers “rejected all musical instruments for Christian worship” (New Catholic Encyclopedia, X:106).
However, it would be absurd to say that the practice of instrumental music was wrong for the simple reason that others have thought it was wrong historically. Anyone, including you and me, can be wrong on any subject. So to conclude that something is wrong because others have rejected it places the reason of our faith in people — a very dangerous, as well as prohibited, practice (cf. Prov. 14:12).
Still, the historical argument is compelling by itself. Using again the words of John Girardeau, a Presbyterian, who said, “The historical argument, therefore, raises a solemn and powerful protest against the employment.” Yet it is the reasons why these people opposed instrumental music that should be of greater consideration and imitation. And that