Is Instrumental Music Optional?

By Irvin Himmel

A young lady enrolls in college. She is informed that certain courses are required in her freshman year. Other courses of study are elective. In order to obtain a degree she must have a specified number of hours in certain basic subjects and additional hours in courses of her own preference. That which is left to her discretion is optional.

All automobiles are manufactured with certain essential equipment. When a salesman is showing cars to a prospective buyer, the customer is not asked, “Do you want a car with wheels?” He is not asked, “Are you interested in a car with a windshield?” It is understood that a car would be expected to have such equipment as a steering device, brakes, windshield, motor, wheels, and gears. But there are scores of accessories that might be available. These optional extras make for luxury and comfort while pushing the price skyward.

Anything that is optional is left to choice. It is discretionary or elective; a matter of preference. Whatever is optional is not compulsory but permissible; it involves the right of selection.

Ostensible Options

In religion there are many things which are considered popularly to be optional. Here are a few examples:

1. Church Membership. There are people who argue that one church is just as good as another, and think that it really does not matter whether one is a member of any church or not. They are under the erroneous impression that moral goodness will take one to heaven. The Bible teaches that we must be in the body of Christ, the church, in order to serve God acceptably. The church as depicted in the New Testament consists of the redeemed, the people who have accepted the gospel and are under the headship of Christ.

2. Baptism. Some religious people view baptism as an optional command. Very frequently denominational preachers label it as “non-essential.” Since it is considered elective rather than obligatory, a lot of people see no point in being baptized. However, the Bible makes baptism mandatory to the remission of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom. 6:3-5).

3. Virgin Birth And Resurrection. Amazingly, some attach no real importance to the virgin birth, the miracles, or the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are religious leaders who have been influenced by modernism to the extent that they suppose one can be a good Christian whether he believes in the virgin birth or not. To them it is optional. This illustrates just how far some carry this idea of offering a wide variety of options.

4. Instrumental Music. Many times the argument has been advanced that Christians may sing in worship, or sing and play. To those who make this assertion the accompaniment with mechanical instruments is placed in the realm of human judgment. J.B. Briney, in debate with W.W. Otey in 1908, insisted that instrumental music is authorized in the Bible, but he stoutly denied that it is necessary. Said Briney, “I worship with people where there is an instrument, and where there is none. I do not care whether an instrument is used or not” (Otey-Briney Debate, p. 39).

Open-ended Optionalism

If everything pertaining to religion is optional and therefore inconsequential to God, these conclusions would follow:

1. Every person is a law to himself. If we are free to choose whatever we please, and it makes no real difference to God, each individual makes up his own rules. This view is directly opposed to the Scriptures. God sees man as needing help from above. God therefore issues directives to man (Gen. 17:1; Ex. 19:5; Jer. 10:23; 1 Pet. 1:12).

2. One religion has as much authority as another. If everything is optional, it is irrelevant whether a person serves Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Zoroaster, or Baha’u’llah. If he wishes, he could exercise the option of serving himself. But the Bible from beginning to end contradicts such a position.

3. An irreligious individual has as much hope as anyone else. If everything pertaining to religion is optional, one could opt to ignore all religion. This would mean that infidels and believers have exercised differing preferences, but one has the same right to his choice as the other. If God cares not what selection we make, the irreligious person has as much right to his judgment as does the religionists.

Obligations vs. Options

If there are some things pertaining to religion that are compulsory (imperative, necessary), how are they to be determined? Here is the rule: Where God has spoken, we must believe and obey if we desire His approval. Of course, we always have the alternative of believing or disbelieving, obeying or ignoring, but not with impunity.

This principle is illustrated hundreds of times in the Bible. For instance, the Israelites were told to look on a serpent of brass to be healed when bitten by fiery serpents (Num. 21:4-9). They were not given the option of looking at a cloud, or looking in a brass mirror, or looking upon a clump of trees. They had to look on the serpent of brass if they expected to be healed.

God decreed that Noah should build an ark (Gen. 6). Noah was not granted the option of building several smaller boats to accompany the ark. Anyone who wanted to escape the destruction by the flood had to enter the ark.

When this fundamental rule is applied to the music question, the conclusion is inescapable that what Christians do in praise to God is not left to human discretion. Uniformly the New Testament teaches one kind of music for the saints on earth in praising God. That music is singing accompanied by the melody of the heart (Eph. 5:18, 19; Col. 3:16; Jas. 5:13; 1 Cor. 14:15; Rom. 15:9; Heb. 2:12).

We have no alternative if we would serve God acceptably but to be “filled with the Spirit” and to “speak” or “teach and admonish” in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” We are instructed to sing and make melody in our heart to the Lord. We do not have the option of using country and western songs, patriotic songs, or bluegrass songs in praise services. God instructs us to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

We are told in the New Testament to “sing.” That specifies vocal music as opposed to instrumental. If the Bible taught Christians to “make music” (a generic as to kind of music), we would have the liberty of choosing singing, playing, or both singing and playing. But the New Testament teaching is specific as to kind of music – it is singing accompanied by melody in the heart. That gives no freedom to substitute or to add the playing of mechanical instruments.

Note a parallel. Jesus in instituting the Lord’s Supper used two elements: bread and the fruit of the vine. If someone wants to spread cheese, or butter, or jelly on the bread to make it more palatable, he does not have that option. Such things might be considered aids, but they add another element. We are not given the liberty to add elements of our personal preference to those prescribed by the Lord for the Supper.

Some religious people maintain that we have options in how to be baptized. They speak of three “modes” sprinkling, pouring, and immersion. However, the Bible defines baptism as a burial followed by a resurrection (Col. 2:12; Rom. 6:3-5) and the word itself means to immerse or dip. Sprinkling and pouring are not modes of immersing.

Playing an instrument is not a mode of singing. Playing and singing are coordinate acts. God teaches Christians to sing in teaching and admonishing and in expressing praise. The option to play mechanical instruments (harps, pianos, organs, etc.) is not granted in the New Testament.

A Glaring Inconsistency

Some preachers and debaters who urge that instrumental music is permissible but not necessary find themselves in a predicament because of other arguments. This is the case in relation to the psallo argument in particular.

Ira M. Boswell and N. B. Hardeman debated the instrumental music question in the great Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn., in 1923. Boswell affirmed that “instrumental music in church worship is scriptural.” He maintained all through the discussion that we may sing “with or without instrumental music.” Yet he spent most of his time trying to show that the Greek word psallo means to play upon a musical instrument. Since the New Testament commands Christians to psallo, if the mechanical instrument inheres in the word we are obligated to use that instrument.

Hardeman exposed the inconsistency of Boswell’s position by saying, “He suggests at the first that the instrument can be left off, and that it is perfectly legitimate and in harmony with God’s will to worship him in all the demands of high heaven and leave the instrument out; and then before he closes the address, with force and vigor and power he says to you that the instrument inheres in the word `psallo,’ and it must be done” (Boswell-Hardeman Discussion on Instrumental Music in the Worship, p. 56).

If the mechanical instrument does in fact inhere in psallo, instrumental music is not optional whether Christians psallo (“sing” or “make ,melody”) or not. Paul taught the first-century Christians to do whatever psallo implies. He did not suggest that what he was urging them to do was purely a matter of personal preference.

To argue that psallo means mechanical accompaniment then to say that instrumental music is optional puts one in an awkward position. The truth is that the mechanical instrument does not inhere in psallo, just as a surgeon’s knife does not inhere in the verb circumcise, and water does not inhere in the verb baptize.

God teaches us through the New Testament to sing. We are not given the option of using instrumental music (playing) in the offering of praise to the Father.


  1. Define “optional” and give an illustration showing its meaning.
  2. Name some things popularly regarded as optional, although the Bible makes them essential.
  3. If everything pertaining to religion is optional, what conclusions would follow?
  4. By what rule do we determine that something is necessary?
  5. How do we know that Noah did not have the option of building smaller boats to accompany the ark?
  6. Is New Testament teaching generic or specific as to kind of music for worship?
  7. What passage teaches that singing is to be accompanied by melody in the heart?
  8. Do we have the option of using cheese in the Lord’s Supper?
  9. If psallo means to play instrumental music, can such music be regarded as optional?
  10. Does it make any difference what kinds of songs are used in worship?

Truth Magazine XXIV: 20, pp. 328-330
May 15, 1980