A defence of the practice of avoiding the use of musical instruments in Christian worship
One of the questions sometimes asked about our church is why there are no musical instruments used in worship. To some people it seems strange to find a congregation singing without the accompaniment of a piano, organ or praise band, and led only by a precentor. The purpose of this article is to provide an answer to that question from the pages of Scripture. It is true that a very good case could be made for our practice from church history, since it is widely acknowledged that the early church did not use musical instruments in its worship. An equally good case could be made on the basis of our reformation heritage, since the universal practice of the reformed Church of Scotland was to avoid the use of musical instruments in worship and we have continued the practice now for over 450 years. The truth, however, is that, for us, this practice is more than just a quaint historic relic and more than a mere tradition, we sincerely believe it to be a matter of biblical principle.
When it comes to divine worship we believe God has not left his people without clear guidelines. In Jesus words ‘true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:23). Not merely in spirit, but ‘in spirit and truth’. By ‘truth’ it is evident that proper worship will be in accordance with God’s own revelation of what pleases him. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it succinctly when it says ‘…the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will…’ (WCoF 21.1). The alternative is what is referred to in Colossians 2:23 as ‘will-worship’, or ‘self-made religion’, and occurs when fallible people, using their own earthly wisdom, decide what is best for themselves or most likely to please God. We believe that if musical instrumentation, or anything else for that matter, is to be introduced into worship there must be a biblical warrant, either by explicit command or by an approved example.
It is often argued by those looking for a justification for the use of instruments in Christian worship that the Old Testament, especially the Psalms, gives numerous examples of the use of musical instruments in praise of God. This is true, but it is also true that there are numerous references to animal sacrifice in the Old Testament, yet no self respecting Christian would argue for these to be introduced into the practice of the New Testament church. The fact is that these examples must be read and understood in context.
There are, undoubtedly, numerous references in the Old Testament, and particularly in the Psalms to the use of instruments by the Levitical orders of musicians. If we set these aside for a moment we are left with a surprisingly small number of other examples where instruments are used legitimately in the context of worship – there appears to be only three. The first instance is found in Exodus 15:20 where it says, ‘Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.’ A second instance is found in 1 Samuel 10:5 where Saul is told that he would meet ‘a group of prophets coming down from the high place with a stringed instrument, a tambourine, a flute, and a harp before them; and they will be prophesying.’ In both instances, however, the playing of musical instruments is clearly associated with prophecy. There is no evidence that it was an ordinary or widespread part of worship. On the contrary the pattern that emerges is of a practice that occurred only under the direct inspiration of the Spirit of God. A possible third example, also associated with prophecy, is that of the young David playing the harp for Saul while he ‘prophesied inside the house’ so that the distressing spirit from the LORD would leave him (1 Samuel 18:10 and 16:23).
There are also clear instances in the Old Testament where the use of instrumental music in worship by unauthorised groups is shown to be illegitimate and unacceptable. One such example is found in 2 Samuel 6:5 and also 1 Chronicles 13:8 where “David and all the house of Israel played music before the LORD on all kinds of instruments…” as they brought the ark of the covenant on a new cart to Jerusalem. The venture ended in disaster when Uzzah was struck down by the LORD for touching the sacred ark. David understood that the disaster had occurred because he and his advisors had failed to consult the LORD as to the correct order (1 Chronicles 15:12-13). The second time they determined to bring up the ark things were done differently and there were two notable changes. First, the ark was carried by the Levites using its poles as the law required. Secondly, the musical instruments were played only by certain Levite musicians and not by all the people as previously (1 Chronicles 15:16-24). This was a new revelation from the LORD of his divine will. From this time onwards the use of musical instruments in Israelite worship was formalised and highly regulated. It was to be carried out only by the tribe of Levi and, more specifically, only by three particular families within that tribe – the sons of Asaph, the sons of Jeduthun, and the sons of Heman who were set apart to ‘prophesy with harps, stringed instruments, and cymbals.’ (1 Chronicles 25:1). It is notable that the activity of playing music in worship is described here as a prophetic act. From this time onwards no ordinary worshipper, not even a prophet, was permitted to use musical instruments in his own worship practices. This is noted in the case of Elisha in 2 Kings 13:13-15. Though he was a great prophet, Elisha was not moved by the Spirit of God to play musical instruments himself but had to call for an official musician to play for him in order to stir up the spirit of prophecy.
Another instance of the illegitimate use of instrumental music in worship is highlighted by the prophet Amos through whom God warned, ‘Take away from Me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments’ and ‘Woe to you…who sing idly to the sound of stringed instruments, and invent for yourselves musical instruments like David.’ (Amos 5:23 & 6:5, see also 1Chronicles 23:5). There is nothing wrong per se with inventing and playing musical instruments. The problem was that they were inventing musical instuments and songs for the purpose of worship. That’s why the LORD said “take away from Me the noise of your songs…”. It was something they were claiming to offer to God as worship but it was really “will-worship”; a people preferring to please themselves in their practice rather than to please God. It is acknowledged, of course, that David had introduced new instruments and songs many centuries before, but David’s “invention” of musical instruments for worship was legitimate because he was prophetically inspired by the Spirit to do it. What is clear from Amos 6:5 is that this cannot be considered a warrant for others to do the same. In light of these things it is certain that the commands in the Psalms, such as Psalm 150, to praise God with trumpets, psaltery, harp, dance, organs and cymbals, must therefore be understood as commands for the Levite musicians only and not a blueprint for New Testament worship any more than is the command to ‘bind the sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar’ (Psalm 118:27).
Turning to the New Testament we then find almost a complete silence on the matter of instrumental music in worship. Some interpret this silence as a New Testament indifference on the subject. As if it meant, “do it if you want to but you don’t have to”. But the significance of this silence cannot be overlooked. It must be remembered that the church began with believing Jews, the vast majority of whom were not descendents of the musician families of the Levites and were therefore forbidden by the Old Testament Scriptures from using instruments in worship. They would not have dared to pick up an instrument to worship God. If instrumental music was to become a legitimate part of Christian worship then these Jewish believers would have required a clear divine command. Even with a specific command it would have been difficult for them to break with what they were used to. Far from leaving the matter as an open question, the fact that the apostles are silent on the subject proves that there is no New Testament mandate for instrumental music in worship. The only New Testament references are to be found in Revelation 14:2 and 15:2 where mention is made of harps being played in heaven. The context is so altogether different from earthly worship that no warrant can be taken even for the use of harps, far less organs, pianos, rock bands or orchestras in New Testament churches.
So in answer to the question, ‘Why do you not use musical instruments in worship?’, we respond with all sincerity that we have carefully examined the whole Word of God and have found that there is no biblical justification for their use.
Rev J C A Forbes
(Revised 15 May 2015)