The Impact Of Instrumental Music On The Church

By Marshall E. Patton

Lest We Forget – Instrumental music in worship unto God pierced with excruciating pain the precious spiritual body of our Lord and left in its wake a body cut asunder, life-long friends, relatives, and brethren alienated, a church impeded in its progress influentially and numerically, and many who were made the object of God’s wrath for all eternity. Furthermore, it left many confused, multiplied unbelievers, and militated against perhaps the most fervent prayer our Lord ever prayed: “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (Jn. 17:20,21).

Anything so catastrophic in the history of God’s people merits careful, honest, objective study. There are other reasons – three primarily: (1) That God’s will might be fulfilled in the life of the individual; (2) That one might stand out of conviction and not because of tradition, emotions, friendship, or other worldly influences; (3) That one might do his part in preventing the same basic issue, in whatever form it may appear, rising up again and history repeating itself.

Its Early Use

Instrumental music worked its way into churches gradually and over the protest of many. The church at Midway’ Kentucky with L.L. Pinkerton as preacher, is credited by many as being the first to introduce the instrument into the worship of the church. This was done when a melodeon was used in its worship in 1859. At first its use was short lived, because of the discord it occasioned. Other churches, one by one, mostly large city churches, introduced the organ *into its worship. Serious eruption and finally division attended nearly every instance of its use.

How instrumental music gradually came to be firmly established in some churches may be accounted for in the following words:

Our brethren are freely introducing melodeons into their Sunday Schools. This is but the first step to the act, I fear. As soon as the children of these schools go into the church, in goes the instrument with them (Moses E. Lard, Lard’s Quarterly, 1867, p. 368).

The Controversy

There were some who simply could not worship with a clear conscience where the instrument was used. In order to maintain a clear conscience (1 Tim. 1:5), these were forced to leave such a congregation and seek out one that did not use it, or establish a new church. Whenever an issue arises involving joint participation in the thing questioned, clarity of conscience always becomes an issue. If it is forced upon the congregation, division is inevitable. Upon this basis Moses E. Lard wrote the following:

(1) Let every preacher in our ranks resolve at once that he will never under any circumstances, or on any account, enter a meetinghouse belonging to our brethren in which an organ stands. (2) Let no brother who takes a letter from one church ever unite with another using an organ. Rather let him live out of a church than go into such a den. (3) Let those brethren who oppose the introduction of an organ first remonstrate in gentle, kind, but decided terms. If their remonstrance is unheeded, and the organ is brought in, then let them at once, and without even the formality of asking for a letter, abandon the church so acting, and let all such members unite elsewhere (Lard’s Quarterly, 1864, pp. 330-336).

The first arguments in favor of the instrument in worship were made on the ground of expediency. The literature of that day reveals many exchange articles on this subject. Many who favored its use spoke out against it because they did not want it at the price of division. Such, however, insisted that its use was not a transgression. Isaac Errett and the Christian Standard, of which he was editor, occupied this position. Errett and the Standard had formerly occupied this position on the missionary society issue. Concerning instrumental music Errett said:

It is a difference of opinion. It is wrong to make this difference a test of fellowship or an occasion of stumbling (“Instrumental Music in Our Churches,” Christian Standard, Vol. V, No. 19 [May 7, 18701, p. 148).

Again H.T. Anderson in reply to Robert Richardson said:

I am no advocate for instrumental music in churches. But the Doctor with his legalism cannot legislate it out of the churches. I might easily say to him, where there is no law, there is no transgression. There is no law against instrumental music in churches; therefore, those who use it are not transgressors (“Law and Expediency,” Christian Standard, Vol. IV, No. 24 [June 12, 1869], p. 186).

The words of Robert Richardson clearly set forth the opposing view. He emphasized that expediency is not without law, but within law; that there can be no expediency until first there is law:

. . . no question of expediency can rightfully arise until it is first proved that the things themselves are lawful and proper to be done. . . it can have no place at all until law has first authorized something to be done, and that, therefore, its exercise must be restricted within the limits of some law, or rule of life and action (“Expediency Once More,” Christian Standard, Vol. IV, No. 10 [March 6, 1869], p. 73).

Ben Franklin wrote:

We put it on no ground of opinion or expediency. The acts of worship are all prescribed in the law of God. . . . If it is not an act of worship, or an element in the worship, it is most wicked and sinful to impose it on the worshipers. It is useless to tell us, It is not to be made a test. If you impose it on the conscience of brethren and, by a majority vote, force it into the worship, are they bound to stifle their conscience? Have you a right to compel them to submit and worship with the instrument? (“Two Standards,” American Christian Review, Vol. XII, No. 24 [June 14, 1870], p. 188).

Franklin said further in the same article concerning those who thus impose the instrument upon worshipers: “You cause division – You are the aggressor – the innovator. “

The use of instrumental music in worship is only symptomatic. The real issue was and is: Must one remain within the confines of law, having either generic or specific authority for the thing in question, or is he free to use as a matter of expediency whatever is not specifically forbidden in the Scriptures? Basically, the issue is one of an attitude toward the Scriptures. It is one of respect for authority.

The apostle Paul taught that before anything could be expedient, it must first be lawful (1 Cor. 10:23). Until someone can show that there is law (authority) for the kind of music in question, any kind of mechanical instrument is out of the question as an expediency. This fundamental rule or principle must be kept in mind, regardless of what the issue may be.

With the passing of time and as more churches came to use the instrument, the controversy became more heated. Other arguments were made, coercion was brought to bear, ugly epithets were hurled, bitter feelings were manifested, and a tragic division occurred. In the year 1906 the United States Census of Religious Bodies listed a once united brotherhood separately. Those favoring the missionary society and instrumental music in worship have generally been known as the “Christian Church” or as the “Disciples of Christ.” Those opposing these innovations have been identified as “churches of Christ” and simply as “Christians” individually.

Controversy Continued

Early in the controversy those favoring the instrument sought to justify its use on the ground of expediency which in their mind was without law not within law. Little appeal was made for scriptural authority. Later, however, especially when numerous debates followed in the wake of division, rather desperate and intensified efforts were made to justify its use by an appeal to scriptural authority. Here we find deceptive arguments, sophistry, and perversion of Scripture in evidence. Examples of this type of argumentation follows:

Instruments were used in Old Testament worship. True, while instruments of music were used by both Greeks and Jews in their worship during the Old Testament period and at the time the church was established, the hard, cold, historical fact is, New Testament churches did not. The Greek Catholic Church has never endorsed its use. It finally, over much protest, gained acceptance in the Roman Catholic Church sometime in the eighth century.

There are nine and only nine verses in the New Testament that relate to music in worship and every one of them involves singing – vocal music (Matt. 26:30; Mk. 14:26; Acts 16:25; Rom. 15:9; 1 Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; Heb. 2:12; Jas. 5:13). Since New Testament worshipers must do all things “in the name of the Lord” (Col. 3:17), there is no way instruments of music in worship can be used by His authority. Also, remember, Paul said that those who seek justification today by the law of Moses “are fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4).

The Greek word psallo in Ephesians 5:19 means to sing with mechanical instruments of music. If so, then it is strange indeed that the early church never so understood it. It is strange, too, that none of the standard translations so translate it. Furthermore, if this be so, then every one must use the mechanical instruments (have his own instrument) in order to obey God. For a further study of this argument in detail, I suggest Instrumental Music in the Worship by M.C. Kurfees.

The mechanical instrument of music is an aid to our worship, like song books, seats, and lights. Here the issue is one of expediency. If the instrument is an aid, the kind of music it produces must first be lawful. Since there is no authority for such, it follows that its use is an addition – not an aid. Song books, seats, and lights do not inject a new kind of music or element into the worship, but rather aids that kind already authorized.


While these examples do not exhaust the field of argumentation, they suffice to show something of the sophistry involved in the efforts to justify mechanical instruments of music in worship. The sincere individual will be content to “abide in the doctrine of Christ” (2 Jn. 9). Whatever the issue may be, he will not look for a prohibition against it, but rather look for the authority for it. God has not made a full list of the former, but He had made clear the latter in language too plain to be misunderstood by honest souls. “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11).

Guardian of Truth XXX: 1, pp. 5-6
January 2, 1986