Why the Use of Instrumental Music In Worship Should Not Be Made a Test of Fellowship
David L. Eubanks, President
(Editor's Note: Shortly after the following article appeared in the 10 November 1991 issue of Christian Standard, I contacted Editor Sam Stone and obtained permission to reprint this article. Having obtained permission, I prepared a reply to the article and sent it to brother Eubanks requesting permission to reprint his article and extending to him an opportunity to answer my reply in the same issue of Guardian of Truth. He wrote giving me permission to publish his article but declining the offer to answer my reply.
Eubanks has written a good explanation and defense of the unity-in-diversity approach to the issue of mechanical instruments of music in worship. This is the popular approach to the instrumental music question which is having a great impact among our institutional brethren. Too, a similar appeal for unity-in-diversity has been made among us for fellowshipping those who are teaching and practicing loose doctrinal positions on divorce and remarriage. For these reasons, this material deserves a rebuttal. Please consider this article carefully and my reply to it which begins on p. 18.)
I have the greatest respect for many of our brothers and sisters who prefer to worship without the instrument, particularly those who do not believe that it should be made a test of fellowship. I even respect the zeal and commitment of many of those who believe that it is a matter of faith, although I do not agree with them.
At the same time, I am forced to the conclusion that the devil has used this controversy to sow the seed of discord among the brethren and hinder the growth of the church of Jesus Christ.
In this article I wish to explain my reasons for believing that the use of instrumental music in corporate worship should not be made a test of fellowship. I would sincerely hope that this paper would be the source of healing and harmony rather than productive of more discord over this troublesome question.
The use of instrumental music in corporate worship should be considered a matter of preference and forbearance. There is some indication that singing with instrumental accompaniment was prophesied and commanded of Christians. Psalm 87:5-7 reads, "As of Zion it shall be said . . . 'the singers as the players on instruments shall be there: all my springs are in thee."'
Many Bible scholars agree that these words were a prophecy of the church of Jesus Christ and are fulfilled in the church. If so, then the psalmist prophesied that there would be the players on instruments as well as the singers in the church.
In Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 Paul commands us to admonish one another with psalms. In James 5:13 we are commanded to sing psalms when we are merry. The words psalmos (noun) used in Ephesians and Colossians and psallo (verb) in James - in their root meaning - refer to striking, twitching, or twanging on a musical instrument. There is little doubt that in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament they refer to singing with a stringed instrument, generally a harp.
Some people consider the above Scriptures alone to constitute a positive command that instrumental music be a part of the worship of the New Testament church. Why then would it be a matter of forbearance?
First, because an understanding of these Scriptures requires a measure of interpretation. Some Bible scholars do not feel that Psalm 87 refers to the church. If they are honest in their questioning, then their consciences must be considered. Some scholars suggest that, although psallo and psalmos referred to singing a sacred song with the accompaniment of a stringed instrument in the Old Testament, they refer merely to the singing of a song of praise in the New Testament.
From my study, I would say that the arguments on both sides are inconclusive.
Perhaps my major reason for treating it as a matter of forbearance is that we have no New Testament precedent for the complete list of complements to a corporate worship service.
Acts 2:42 indicates that the Jerusalem church continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers. From this text and others, we conclude that these elements should be included in the Lord's Day gathering of the church.
However, if this text is considered to provide complete instruction for corporate worship activities, then singing itself would be excluded. Such is not the case. Paul recognizes that one or more people in the Corinthian church had presented a psalm in the assembly and seems to approve the practice if it were done decently and in order.
In the absence of any inclusive list of expedients for corporate worship in the New Testament, we must be forbearing in the use or non-use of musical instruments to accompany singing. It is not facetious to suggest that church buildings, hymn books, Bible-school literature, tuning forks, and other expedients for corporate worship that have been commonly accepted fall into a category that also includes musical instruments to accompany singing. An expedient is not a necessity but an aid to those who use it wisely.
It is argued that musical instruments have been misused n the corporate worship of the church. Indeed, sometimes they have. So have church buildings, but they are not rejected as sinful simply because of that fact.
Making instrumental music in worship a test of fellowship is inconsistent with one of the most precious principles of the New Testament and the restoration movement. The issue over instrumental music is not a subject on which there is a clear "thus saith the Lord." To make the use or non-use of it a test of fellowship is to reject the founding principle of our movement: "Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent."
Speaking where the Scriptures are silent can be almost as dangerous and divisive as failing to speak where they speak. Those who follow such a course have difficulty stopping with instrumental music. Many of them have also divided with brothers over Bible-school literature, orphans' homes, the use of multiple cups for the Lord's Supper, and so forth.
The clearest answer to the controversy over instrumental music in the restoration movement is the solution Paul gave to the church at Rome over the issue of eating unclean meat. The great apostle contended that there is room in the church for both those who eat meat and those who do not. There is room in the church for those who prefer to sing with an instrument in corporate worship and those who do not.
The redeeming principle is that no person judge his brother (or sister) in these matters. That position belongs to Christ alone (Rom. 14:4,10).
Thomas Campbell made this same point in his Declaration and Address of 1809. He wrote in proposition three: "Nothing ought to be inculcated upon Christians as articles of faith; nor required of them as terms of communion; but what is expressly taught and enjoined upon them, in the Word of God."
Again in proposition six he affirmed: "Although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God's holy word: yet they are not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they perceive the connection, and evidently see that they are so."
What do these propositions say to the controversy over instrumental music? They say the same thing that Paul said in Romans 14. One may infer from the New Testament 'that instrumental music should or should not be used in worship. He may even consider his deductions to be the teaching of Scripture. He cannot, however, judge the conscience of a congregation in this matter.
J.W. McGarvey, who was strongly opposed to instrumental music in worship and belonged to a non-instrument church, did not believe that it should be made a test of salvation. In fact, he was a contributing editor to the Christian Standard, which took a different position than he did on the subject. He stated his personal views with force and conviction, but he refused to judge his brother's conscience on this nonessential issue.
Most of the passages of Scripture that are used to condemn instrumental music in corporate worship are used out of context. One such text is Ephesians 5:18,19 (similar to Col. 3:16), which reads, "And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." It is certainly doubtful that the plucking implied by the word is on the strings of the heart. Besides, the fact remains that the text is neither describing nor prescribing a corporate worship service.
The context deals with the daily Christian walk, the lifestyle of believers. If instrumental music is excluded when Christians gather for their assemblies, it should also be excluded at all other times, just as husbands are to love their wives at all times, not just when the church gathers.
Many other texts (such as Matt. 26:30; Acts 16:25; Rom. 15:9; 1 Cor. 14:15; Heb. 2:12; and Jas. 5:13) are cited to condemn instrumental music in worship. Each of them enjoins singing, but none of them prohibits musical accompaniment per se. Not one of them refers specifically in context to congregational singing in what we would call a corporate worship service, with the possible exception of the texts in Matthew and Acts, both involving extraordinary circumstances. If the Scriptures that are generally used to condemn instrumental accompaniment to singing in corporate worship are being accurately treated as such, they also would condemn the use of instrumental music of all kinds at all times - a position few would hold.
If I do not believe that instrumental music in worship should be made a test of fellowship, and I know that others are offended by its use, why do I not get rid of it for the sake of unity? If the issue were that simple, I would be glad to do so. If the controversy were simply over offending or not offending a brother's conscience, I would be glad to follow Paul's admonition in Romans 14:20,21.
But the situation is more complicated than that. Some years ago we had a married family come to Johnson Bible College months before the husband was to enroll in classes. They lived in Knoxville much nearer to a church that did not use the instrument than to one that did, so they began worshipping at the former. They agreed with what was taught, were warmly treated, liked the people, were faithful to all services, and soon walked forward on a Sunday evening to place membership with the congregation.
Their action had apparently taken the minister and leaders of the church by surprise. A hurried conference with the couple revealed that, before they could be extended the right hand of fellowship, they would have to declare publicly before the congregation that they considered the use of instrumental music in worship to be a sin. They, of course, could not declare something which they did not believe, so their relationship with the congregation ended on a sad note with the family deeply hurt by the whole affair.
Granted, this situation does not repesent the sentiments of all those who prefer to worship without the instrument. It does represent the sentiments of a large number, however. Some of these people would even require someone who came from a congregation that used an instrument in worship to be immersed again before that person could be accepted into fellowship.
Perhaps such experiences help us to understand what Paul meant in Colossians 2:16 when he wrote, "Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days." We must resist legalistic attitudes in which some Christians try to bind the consciences of other believers over matters that are not essentials, for which there is not a clear "thus saith the Lord."
At the same time, we must exercise a loving spirit of forbearance among brothers over this extremely sensitive matter. I am convinced that we could resolve the issue if we were willing to follow the important principle of maintaining unity in essentials, allowing liberty in non-essentials, and demonstrating love in all things. We must practice this vital message which we have preached so long.
The end of the whole matter is Paul's assertion that "the kingdom of God is not meat and drink" (Rom. 14:17). Neither is it singing with or without the instrument. Let us hear the great apostle's admonition and "follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another" (Rom. 14:19).
Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 5, pp. 144-146