Apostasies In Music

By O. C. Birdwell

The music authorized by the New Testament is clearly identified by such passages as Ephesians 5:19, and Colossians 3:16. In these verses, the writer speaks of “singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.” The kind of songs to be used in our worship is also plainly revealed. Paul said, “speaking one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”

Innovations in authorized music constitute apostasy in music. Such innovations take many different forms. There can be additions, such as adding an instrument, which is a kind of music other than that authorized, to the singing. There can also be a subtraction from that authorized. For example, singing may be engaged in, but not “with the spirit,” as commanded (I Cor. 14:15). Then, there could be substitution. Songs other than psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs could be used. Or, another kind of music could be substituted for singing. All of these kinds of innovations have been made at one time or another. Our task is to discuss some of these innovations which have brought about apostasy in music which is used in worship unto the God of Heaven.

“Responsive Singing”

McClintock and Strong, in their exhaustive Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature, lists the first innovation in church music as “responsive singing.” This kind of singing is dated from the 4th century. There is some doubt, however, as to whether responsive singing was truly an innovation. It was singing and it was done without an instrument. This type singing was practiced by .the Jews in the temple. Because of this, some believe it was often used by early Christians. They refer to the epistle of Pliny where he speaks of Christians who sang “alternately in responses.” It is difficult to determine exactly what was involved in “responsive singing.” It seems, however, to have been much more than our “part” singing where we may have a bass, alto, or tenor lead. Their “responsive singing” is described as a type common in the temples of the Gentiles and in the theater, and therefore, was generally rejected by early Christians. Such singing is not believed to have been commonly used for the first 300 years. While there may be doubt , as to whether “responsive singing” involved apostasy, there is little doubt but that it played a large part in the bringing in of special singers and choirs which did constitute apostasy.

Choirs, Theatrical Music, etc.

Singers as a distinct class, along with choirs, and theatrical music, were introduced as early as the 4th century. This apostasy gradually developed, as is the case with most apostasies. One innovation was added to another until it is said that the Council of Laodicea found it necessary to forbid congregational singing. Singing became a form of religious entertainment. The music became so complicated that it could only be sung by the skilled and the well-trained. This called for the choirs and special singers. As one might expect, this kind of music and singing did not go unchallenged. Many objected. The complaint was made that “heathen melodies” were introduced into their “church psalmody.” “Isidore of Pelusium (near 400 A.D.) also complained of the theatrical singing, especially that of the women, which, instead of inducing penitence for sin, tended much more to awaken sinful desires.” Jerome (342-419?) said, “Not like the comedians should they raise their sweet and liquid notes to entertain the assembly with theatrical songs and melodies in the church, but the fire of godly piety and the knowledge of the Scriptures should inspire our songs.” (Quotations and historical references are from McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature and the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge.)

Similar Practices Today

From these brief notes of events which transpired in the 4th century, and shortly thereafter, we can see that some present-day practices have been around a long time. Regularly advertised on radio stations and in newspapers are religious singings with special singers, quartets and choirs. The religious entertainers are equipped with popular instruments of music and are often dressed as one might expect from a professional entertainer in a concert or nightclub date. To accompany their “show” are ample jokes and fun to keep the folks laughing. As described, this action, in times past, may have been expected only in assemblies of just some of our religious neighbors. Yet, it is presently happening more and more and even among some churches of Christ. Several years ago, I attended a Sunday afternoon singing where there was quartet singing, many jokes told, much laughter, and one of the leading men constantly wanting to “smell the pitch.” My wife and I walked out on the show. Events like this, in conjunction with speeches from a few preachers I know, would make for an evening of entertainment for those who have the stomach for such. To others it is no less than apostasy in worship.

Reformation Efforts

Reformation efforts of the 16th century and the 19th century Restoration Movement did much to restore singing as taught in the New Testament. Many hymns of a scriptural nature, designed for congregational singing, were penned during this period of time. Many leaders of the Reformation and practically all the early Restoration leaders rejected the use of the instrument in their worship. There are quotations from such influential Reformation religious leaders as Luther, Calvin and Knox that show their attitude toward instruments in music in worship. (For some of these quotations see another article in this series on music called, What have Religious Leaders Said About The Instrument?)

About fifty years ago the secretary of the Tennessee Christian Missionary Society wrote that the literature of the 19th century “Reformers” affirms that they believed in the use of a missionary society in the work of the church and instrumental music in the worship of the church. Brother John T. Lewis, in a series of articles in the Gospel Advocate (printed later in a book called The Voice of the Pioneers on Instrumental Music and Societies) denied the statement and, using the printed words of the pioneers, ably presented the truth about the matter. Lewis said, “I `challenge’ the editor of the Tennessee Christian to show, `from the literature of that period,’- where a single voice was heard, among the Reformers, `in favor of instrumental music in churches’ prior to 1859.” This “challenge” shows the confidence brother Lewis had in the evidence of the opposition by early 19th century reformers to the use of the instrument and the accompanying special songs, special singers, and choirs.

Apostasy in Spite of Objections

As before given quotations show, there was early objection to innovations in music. Such objections did not, however, stop the progress into apostasy. “By the seventh century the priests had monopolized the singing and they sang only in Latin.” The musical instrument, which was gradually being more and more accepted, added to the choir and special music problem. With an instrument, or in some cases, a plurality of instruments, the tendency was to move farther away from congregational singing and unto special singers and special songs.

Just as innovations and apostasy developed in the early centuries and corrupted the music of the early churches, we find a similar development in the latter 19th century. Following the Reformation period, the instrument gained greater favor in denominationalism. With this greater favor and dating from 1859, the instrument was used in increasing numbers of churches that had previously made an effort to go back to the New Testament pattern in all worship and work. Again, with this movement to the instrument, the choir and special songs problem occurred to a greater degree. Even the Christian Standard admitted that “there was a tendency on the part of choirs or organists to drift into a style of music that is not only destructive of congregational singing but `deadening to all devotional feeling’ ” (Eckstein, History of the Churches of Christ in Texas, p. 244). This condition seems to have pretty well engulfed many denominational churches during the 20th

century and, since the middle of the century, has made inroads in churches of Christ. Choirs, special singers and songs, and, in some instances, the use of instruments of music, have been reported.

The Instrument Innovation

The innovation of instruments of music into the worship unto God also constituted an apostasy in music.,We have already discussed the use of the instrument as it related to choirs, special singers, and songs. Let us now consider the introduction of the instrument as an apostasy in music.

There is no inspired record, or secular historical account that shows the early churches using instruments of music in their worship. On the contrary, the New Testament shows that they sang psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Historians generally agree with Mosheim when he wrote, “The Christian worship consisted in hymns, prayers, the reading of the Scriptures, a discourse addressed to the people, and concluded with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper” ( Ecclesiastical History).

Concerning early attitudes toward the instrument in worship, Edward Dickinson in Music in the History of the Western Church, made the following observation:

Many of the fathers, speaking of religious songs, made no mention of instruments; others, like Clement of Alexandria and St. Chrysostom, refer to them only to denounce them. Clement says: “Only one instrument do we use, viz. the cord of peace wherewith we honor God, no longer the old psaltery, trumpet, drum, and flute.” Chrysostom exclaims: “David formerly sang in psalms, also we sing today with him; he had a lyre with lifeless strings, the church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre, with a different tone, indeed, but with a more accordant piety.” St. Ambrose expresses his scorn for those who would play the lyre and psaltery instead of singing hymns and psalms; and St. Augustine adjures believers not to turn their hearts to theatrical instruments. The religious guides of the early Christian felt that there would be an incongruity, and even profanity, in the use of the sensuous nerve-exciting effects of instrumental sound in their mystical, spiritual worship. Their high religious and moral enthusiasm needed no aid from external strings; the pure vocal utterance was the more proper expression of their faith (pp. 54, 55).

The following quotation from McClintock and Strong shows that general acceptance of the instrument in worship was late in coming.

The general introduction of instrumental music can certainly not be assigned to a date earlier than the 5th and 6th centuries; yea, even Gregory the Great, who towards the end of the 6th century added greatly to the existing Church music, absolutely prohibited the use of instruments. Several centuries later the introduction of the organ in sacred service gave the place to instruments as accompaniments for Christian song, and from that time to this they have been freely used with few exceptions. The first organ is believed to have been used in Church service in the 13th century. Organs were however, in use before this in the theater. They were never regarded with favor in the Eastern Church, and were vehemently opposed in some of the Western churches (Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature, Vol. Vl, p. 759).

19th Century Apostasy

Apostasy in music among 19th century churches that had endeavored to restore New Testament authority in worship and work began, in the main, following the Civil War. In 1868, Ben Franklin guessed that there were ten thousand congregations and not over fifty had used an instrument in worship (Earl West, Search for the Ancient Order, Vol. 2, pp. 80, 81). In 1860, L.L. Pinkerton stated, “So far as known to me, or I presume to you, I am the only `preacher’ in Kentucky of our brotherhood who has publicly advocated the propriety of employing instrumental music in some churches, and that the church of God in Midway is the only church that has yet made a decided effort to introduce it” (From American Christian Review, as quoted by Cecil Willis in W. W. Otey: Contender for the Faith).

From these statements we can see that after the early 19th century restoration efforts, the decade of the sixties pinpoints the beginning of the main apostasy in music and by the end of the century there was a clear-cut division over the use of mechanical instruments in worship and missionary societies in the work of the church. Human organizations to do the work of the church and innovations in worship have always gone hand in hand. They both are introduced because of a lack of respect for the authority of the scriptures.


  1. How do we identify the music to be used in worship, in order that we might know what is apostasy in music?
  2. List three forms of innovations in music and give examples of each.
  3. Would you regard “responsive singing” to be apostasy in music?
  4. What were some of the early objections to choirs and special singers and songs in worship?
  5. Give examples from your experience, or from what you have read or heard, of innovations similar to the early special songs and music for entertainment.
  6. Give quotations you can find from Reformation and Restoration leaders that reflect their attitudes toward instrumental music in worship.
  7. Why do scriptural objections often not stop apostasy?
  8. When early writers spoke about instruments in worship, what was their attitudes toward it?
  9. Discuss the beginning date and progress into apostasy in music made by the 19th century churches.
  10. Why are apostasies in worship and apostasies in organization and work often related?

Truth Magazine XXIV: 19, pp. 311-313
May 8, 1980