Instrumental Music in Worship (I)

By Earl E. Robertson

(TRUTH MAGAZINE is delighted to present this series of four articles on instrumental music in worship by one of our associate editors, Earl E. Robertson. These articles are currently being printed into a tract available through the Truth Magazine Book Store. I am sure that you will appreciate the work which Brother Robertson has done and will be delighted to use his tract in teaching others the truth about instrumental music in worship. Editor.)

Instrumental music in worship to God has occasioned the gathering of soldiers, both to champion its existence and use in the churches, and to oppose its use in praise to God as lacking New Testament authority. Such battles have not always been. It is our conviction that apostolic authority was preached and respected by the early church and that such authority granted only the right to “sing” which, being respected, limited the worshipers to vocal music. There is no evidence that any early church of the New Testament ever used instrumental music in its worship. No apostle of Christ ever taught any church to use it in worship. Yet, all the discord over this question does not mean that God did not clearly express His will in this matter. The problem is not over what God says, but the difficulties are occasioned over what God has not said (authorized).

What The New Testament Says

The church of Christ is a New Testament institution and, being such, must be circumscribed by New Testament authority (Col. 3:16). The church was built by Christ (Matt. 16:18); He is its foundation (1 Cor. 3:10-11), head (Eph. 1:22, 23; Col. 1:18), and Savior (Eph. 5:23-24). Being “of” Christ, it must move or act only by his direction. This is the real issue involved in this study. While many do not believe that whatever the church may do in worship and work to God it must do so because it is divinely authorized, we must confess that our service is under divine revelation. After all, is authority not necessary? Jesus says, “All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18). “And it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these words, the multitudes were astonished at his teaching: for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matt. 7:28, 29). The Father had said, ” . . . This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him” (Matt. 17:5). All who do not hear Jesus shall be utterly destroyed from among the people (Acts 3:23). Jesus said, “But in vain do they worship me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men” (Matt. 15:9). We must learn from the apostles “not to go beyond the things which are written” (1 Cor. 4:6). The apostles now sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (spiritual Israel-the church); all churches of Christ must subscribe to and act wholly within the revealed authority of Christ as they expressed it (Matt. 19:28; Acts 2:42).

“And that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name” (Rom. 15:9). This is a quotation and application of Psa. 18:49. Christ did not come in person and do this; rather, it finds fulfillment in congregational singing. Eph. 5:19 reads, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” A parallel passage to this reads, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16). Heb. 2:12 reads, “I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.” There are additional passages, like 1 Cor. 14:15, “What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.” These tell what kind of music the early churches offered as worship to God. Additional passages tell us: “And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives” (Matt. 26:30), when the Lord instituted His supper. Paul and Silas “rayed, and sang praises unto God” in the inner prison at Philippi one midnight (Acts 16:25). Heb. 13:15 and James 5:13 instruct in the matter of one feeling disposed to praise the Lord, saying, “By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name.” “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? Let him sing psalms.”

Now, this is the sum of what the New Testament says about the kind of music both commanded and offered by the people of God both in a collective capacity and on an individual basis. The scriptures authorized vocal music and record that the early Christians only sang. Their practice agreed with the Lord’s word.


It is obvious that language cannot be understood if the words conveying it are not understood. Misunderstanding and acceptance of false positions taken on the word of God leads to disobedience. The word of God must be read with discernment to cause acceptable service (cf. Acts 8:30, 31; Eph. 5:17). Sometimes we are told that we do not understand the verb “make melody” which translates the Greek psallo. Some tell us this verb commands mechanical instrumental music as worship.

This verb is defined: “a. to pluck off, pull out: b. to cause to vibrate by touching, to twang: to touch or strike the chord, to twang the strings of a musical instrument so that they gently vibrate . . . in the New Testament to sing a hymn, to celebrate the praises of God in song” (Thayer, p. 675). Please observe this lexicographer states that the basic meaning of this word is to pluck off or vibrate by touching. Then he said, “In the New Testament . . . ” We must keep in mind what “in the New Testament” means. He means the language of the New Testament-the Greek language used in the giving of the New Testament. Pre-classical Greek was spoken from 2000 to 1000 B.C., and Classical Greek from Homer (1000 B.C.) to the death of Aristotle in 322 B.C. Then followed the Koine period beginning in 322 B.C. and ending in 529 A.D., at the closing of Plato’s Academy by the Emperor Justinian. This language, being used for some 850 years, is the language of the New Testament. This is the time with which we are concerned in this material. What did psallo mean, how did the apostles of Christ use this word, and what action did the early church make of this, is our concern now. This period was followed by the Byzantine (529 A.D. to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 A.D.), then the Modern period which continues to the present.

The eminent scholar, Charles H. Roberson, said, “It is obvious from the evidence that the basic meaning of the verb and noun does not involve music as such. Rather, the general significance of `touch’ or `strike’ stands out as the root or proper meaning irrespective of the particular object” (Restoration Quarterly, Vol. 6, p. 31). Few men have made as much study on this word as M. C. Kurfees. He wrote: “Again let it be noted that no particular object inheres in the original meaning of the term to the exclusion of other objects, the word merely meaning `to pluck off, pull out, to cause to vibrate by touching, to twang,’ regardless of the object that one might pluck off, pull out, cause to vibrate by touching, or twang” (Review of O. E. Payne’s Book on Psallo, p. 13).

We cannot assume that Classical distinctions were still valid in the New Testament period. Everyone should be very concerned as to what the apostles of Christ meant when they commanded “singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord,” and whether the early church correctly understood them. The apathy too often seen in religious folks prevent a diligent search for proper understanding and appreciation for truth. “In the New Testament” has significance.

The basic idea of psallo was, therefore, to “pluck off, pull out, to touch or strike the chord” causing a vibration. This idea prevails “in the New Testament” as Christians sing and make melody in their heart. The instrument to be “touched” or “vibrated” is named in the New Testament-the human heart! The chords of a cold, inanimate, mechanical machine, made by the hands of man cannot offer the warm, vibrant, spiritual devotion that God demands; only the human heart is capable of rendering such. Yes, some instrument must be touched and caused to vibrate! “With the heart” is dative in case being the object of the verb making melody; so, the heart is the instrument touched in the giving of praise to Almighty God. It is a metaphorical usage of the word. Peter tells us our service to God is spiritual (1 Pet. 2:5). Whether we pray or sing it is an outpouring of the feelings of the human heart. The “fruit of our lips” as we sing “What a Friend We Have In Jesus” is indeed spiritual and a vibration of our heart strings! How can one possibly contend for the same with a piano? Oh yes, the song is played, but is it a spiritual service made “with the heart” as the word of God commands?

Truth Magazine XXI: 7, pp. 105-106
February 17, 1977