Instrumental Music Controversy

Edited from Bob L. Ross' book
Campbelites, Cow Bells, Rosary Beads and Snake Handling- A Refutation of Anti-Instrumental Music In Worship.
Used by permission.

What kinds of music are in the Bible?

The words "music," "musical," and "musician(s)" are used in the Bible 75 times, and 55 of these are "captions" to the Psalms.

The word "music" is used 15 times in the Old Testament and refers to instrumental music: 13 times literally, once allegorically (Ecc. 12:4), and once metaphorically (Lam. 3:63).

"Music" is used ONE time in the New Testament (Luke 15:25) where it translates the Greek word "sumphonia," which means the same as our word "symphony."

Thus, in the Bible, "music" is used of instrumental music only. There are, however, two classes of instruments: (1) wind instruments, (2) hand-played instruments. These have been here since the days of Adam (Gen. 4:21, harp and organ).

These classes of instruments are also said to be in God's own heavenly presence (Ex. 20:18; I Cor. 15:52; Rev. 8:2; 5:8; 14:2; 15:2). It appears that the Lord has his own "musical staff" in the heavenlies (and the instruments are stamped "made in Heaven" if stamped at all!).

Is not singing a kind of music in the Bible?

In the Bible, "music" is not used of vocal singing. Singing has been so closely associated with instrumental music, we usually use the word "music" to cover singing, as well as other related items such as lyrics, musical notes, performances, etc.

However, in scriptural nomenclature, there is only one "kind" of music, and that is with instruments. While the words, "vocal music," are sometimes used by some, there is no direct statement, account of action, or implication that "vocal music" is a Bible expression.

(Please note the contrast being made between the vocalists and musicians in Psalms 68:25, "The singers went before, the players on instruments after".)

If the use of musical instruments were under the Old Testament Law, didn't the Law end with the New Testament?

The anti's (non-instrumentalist) are all in "one accord" in call for New Testament authority for the use of instrumental music. Here they would have us believe that the Old Testament, wherein various instruments were commonly used in the praise and worship of the Lord, has no bearing upon the matter.

The fact is, the only scriptures used during the ministry of Jesus and the early church were the Old Testament Scriptures, and they are often quoted and referred to. Look up the word "scriptures" or "as it is written" in a Bible concordance and you will see it used many times by the New Testament writers.

Thus, it is a gross error to assert that everything in the Old Testament is somehow "abrogated," or has no application to us now (See 2 Timothy 3:15; Romans 15:4; 1 Cor. 9:9,10; Acts 24:14).

Since instrumental music has the Old Testament precedent of being approved of God ("musical instruments of God" 1 Chronicles 16:42), and there is no evidence that there was a time when this approval ceased, we have biblical authority for its validity.

What is the Church of Christ "silence" argument about the non-use of instrumental music?

The "silence" argument alleges that silence excludes musical instruments. For example, 'if God said sing, it therefore excludes singing with mechanical instruments.'

However, the New Testament is not silent about instrumental music.

To answer to the objection that 'God only authorizes singing and what is included in the New Testament' is found in Eph. 5:19 where God authorizes the use of psalms without any modification as to the use, or non-use, of musical accompaniment. Therefore whatever was encompassed by Psalms in the Old Testament is still encompassed in the New Testament, modified only as revealed in the New Testament.

Secondly, if the New Testament is silent, that means it says NOTHING either for or against music. If this (silence) is the case, then the Old Testament Law on instrumental music has not been annulled. Silence does not annul; rather it perpetuates. If instrumental music was included in the Law which was "nailed to the cross," then the New Testament is not (or could not be) silent; but if the New Testament is silent, then music was not a part of the Law "nailed to the cross."

Why do some churches reject instrumental music?

Church groups, such as Churches of Christ and Primitive Baptists, here in Texas, reject instrumental music. One reason for this is a particular theory about the relation of the Old Testament to the New Testament. It is thought by some that we are "not under the Old Testament."

But while there are indeed a number of things which changed with the coming of Jesus Christ, these are carefully delineated in New Testament writings and we must not go "above that which is written" (I Cor. 4:6).

The scriptures of both testaments are to be studied and "rightly divided" (2 Tim. 2:15). Jesus, the Apostles, and the early church had the Old Testament; the Gospels and the Epistles came along as the apostolic days transpired.

The Old Testament is "for our learning" and is "scripture" (Romans 15:4; John 5:39; 2 Tim. 3:15). Paul admonishes us to use "psalms" in our singing, and these are admittedly the Psalms of the Old Testament (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).

If we take instrumental music from the Old Testament, would we not also have to take animal sacrifices and everything else?

We are authorized to use "psalms" (Eph. 5:19), not to offer animal sacrifices. Many things taught in the Old Testament are still lawful; many things which are called "patterns, figures, and shadows" were fulfilled. The Law is still "good, if a man use it lawfully" (I Timothy 1:8).

But there is perhaps nothing about which there is as much confusion as the Law and its relation to New Testament teachings. This was also the case in apostolic times, and the apostles often had to address the problem.

And today, we are not authorized to subtract anything from God's Law without authority for so doing (Deut. 4:2; Matt. 5:19; Mark 7:5-13). Neither are we to add to His Law.

Also, wouldn't we likewise be authorized to bring in many other questionable religious practices?

To hear some critics of instrumental music present the case, instrumental music "opens the floodgates" to a regular "Vanity Fair" in church worship! This is the old ploy of the sophist who seeks accreditation for his point of view by the discreditation of another view, and to do this he uses what is called the "slippery slope" or "domino" fallacy.

This approach fails to recall that psalms were used with instrumental music in the worship of God for thousands of years before anyone ever thought of the "floodgate" idea! Isn't it rather "strange" that instrumental music did not have that effect in Israel?

If we are instructed to use psalms, this does not carry with it the "blanket approval" of anything and everything that happens to pop-up.

If we are authorized to use instruments, would not every member have to play an instrument?

The church "body" is a unit with individual "members" with differing "gifts" as it "hath pleased Him" (I Cor. 12:18). Paul discusses the "parts" such as the foot, hand, ear, eye, and nose and explains that they have their respective roles in the one "body" (I Cor. 12:11-31).

He is discussing the same matter in Ephesians and says "unto every one is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ" (4:7). Not every member in the one body is gifted to preach, or teach, or lead public prayer, or lead singing, or do mission work, or some other work in which the body as a church unit is engaged. See the "unit" principle in 1 Corinthians 12:26.

The "account of approved action" which we have in Scripture is that those who were "cunning" with instruments, "willing skillful men," "all that could skill of instruments,"-these served in the "ministry" playing instruments (I Chron. 25:7; 28:21; 2 Chron. 34:12; 29:25; 7:6; 8:14; 23:18; 1 Chron. 16:4-9).

It was not every Israelite who played, neither does every member of the "body" play today. We learn this from these Scriptures as we are authorized to do (see Romans 15:4).

How does one 'make melody,' according to Scripture?

The words "making melody" are used in Ephesians 5:19, but "how" this is done is found in Isaiah 23:16, and it is with a musical instrument: "Take an harp, go about the city, thou harlot that hast been forgotten; make sweet melody, sing many songs, that thou mayest be remembered."

Also, Amos 5:23 speaks of "the melody of thy viols," which is also reference to a musical instrument. So if "the Bible interprets itself," these passages show "how" to make melody – with musical instruments.

Does Ephesians 5:19 mean that the heart is the 'instrument'?

Some who reject musical instruments in worship contend that Eph. 5:19 is "figurative," or "metaphorical;" however, this idea goes "begging" for any support in the Scriptures. James D. Bales, an anti-instrument writer, even acknowledges that there is "no passage" which says "the instrument typified the melody of the heart," yet this is the theory of those who oppose music.

"Strings of the heart" is not a Bible phrase. "Singing and making melody in your heart" simply means the same thing as in other passages where something is done "in" or "with" the heart. All obedience and worship are to be "in the heart," for this is what God's Law requires (Deut. 6:4; Mark 12:30).

We are to worship "in spirit" and "in truth" (John 4:23, 24), but this does not mean that acts of worship are eliminated. There is no example of "making melody" in the heart in the "hidden" sense, if we go by Scripture.

How do we know that Jesus participated in the use of instrumental music in worship?

The practice of Jesus and his parents was to worship in accordance with the Law of God at the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2:40-43). Included in that worship was the use of instrumental music (II Chronicles 5:1-14; 30:21).

Also, since Jesus was "made under the Law" (Gal. 4:4, 5) and came to fulfill the Law (Matt. 5:17, 18), it was of necessity that He obey in all respects (Heb. 5:7-10). The Lord had incorporated musical instruments in the approved worship, so we must conclude that Jesus worshipped accordingly, otherwise He did not do all that the Law required.

If musical instruments were under the Law, did not the Law end with the New Testament?

Many things under the Law have been "fulfilled" such as the patterns, figures, and shadows, and we are told about this in Hebrews and in other epistles. However, the use of Psalms in worship has been re-promulgated (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), and instruments were used with Psalms.

What Bible prophet used musical instruments for inspiration?

A: Elisha. Read II Kings 3:15. This demonstrates that music has a "spiritual" usefulness and is consistent with the spiritual character of those who love and worship God. The right use of music effects good results, as the case of Elisha demonstrates.

It is often helpful to promote the right "frame of mind," and this may be one of the reasons it was popular with the Old Testament prophets (I Sam. 10:5; 16:14-23; II Chronicles 29:25; Isa. 38:20, 21; Habakkuk 3:19).

Music which promotes the spiritual, the honorable, the pure, the lovely, and things of "praise" (Phil. 3:8) is pleasing to the Lord. Music which promotes vanity, the carnal, the impure, and the sinful is not pleasing to the Lord.

Like words, music can be used for both good and evil. Christians are to use both for the glory of God (Col. 3:17).

Musical instruments were not part of the Ten Commandments, nor the Law for the Tabernacle services. Where is it commanded?

Actually, both singing and instrumental music became a part of the more "spiritual" elements of Israel's worship after the Ten Commandments and the laws pertaining to sacrifices, etc.

The Ten Commandments define the type of moral behavior that is pleasing to God, and the Levitical laws on sacrifices were designed as "typology" of the work and attributes of Jesus Christ who would eventually come into the world.

Singing and musical instruments were not a part of these, but were spiritual "by-products" of an obedient and worshipful people who praised the Lord. Singing and music were not done because they were "commanded," but because they are legitimate means of praising the Lord.

However, there was certainly authority for the use of both singing and playing instruments (II Chron. 7:6; 29:25; I Chron. 25:5-7; 28:19-21).

Also, using a Concordance, the reader may see how trumpets were used in worship (for example, Psalms 98:5, 6).

Where did the idea come from that David did wrong in using musical instruments in worship?

So far as I can find, the chief source of this idea is the Methodist commentator, Adam Clarke (1762-1832). He was very antagonistic to the use of instruments, contrary to the founder of Methodism, John Wesley.

I recently went thru Wesley's 8-volume JOURNAL to check on his views and I found numerous entries where Wesley used and commended musical instruments. He himself played a flute.

Clarke misappropriates a remark of Wesley's which was actually against poor organ music, but otherwise Wesley had high praise for good organ music and said he would like to have an organ in all the Methodist chapels.

David Lipscomb (1831-1917), the "god-father" of the Church of Christ, followed Clarke's idea about David and he wrote a series of articles against music in THE GOSPEL ADVOCATE magazine in 1895.

His ideas were accepted by many, but his associate, James Harding (1848-1922), did not agree with Lipscomb, and many other Church of Christ writers also differ with him.

If you read or hear someone who condemns David on musical instruments, the person probably picked it up from Clarke, Lipscomb, or another person who followed their ideas.

What is meant by the 'law of exclusion' in relation to the use of musical instruments in worship?

Those who oppose music in worship used to say that "the expression of one thing in God's Word excludes all else," then they would proceed to the erroneous claim that the New Testament specifies "singing only." They then would claim that this therefore "excludes" instruments.

However, they have generally seen the error of this assertion, for as Roy Deaver has put it, "A command does not exclude," and "The 'sing' did not exclude the 'play.'" He also says, "Sing does not exclude play. It authorizes singing" (ASCERTAINING BIBLE AUTHORITY, pp. 84, 85).

THE SPIRITUAL SWORD magazine (July '90) also says that "sing" does not "preclude or interdict" musical instruments.

Thus, for the so-called "law of exclusion" to be of any validity one would have to find some basis for excluding musical instruments besides the fact that "singing" is specified.

What relationship does the 'strange fire' in Lev. 10:1, 2 have to the use of instrumental music?

None whatsoever. Nadab and Abihu, Aaron's sons, violated specific instructions in Exodus 30:9. The use of "strange fire" would create the strange offering of a "strange incense," which was forbidden. Furthermore, since the use of Psalms (Eph. 5:19) carries with it the authority for instruments, we are not using any "strange" item in worship.

What does the 'gopher wood' of Noah's Ark have to do with the use of instruments?


This is one of many similar "arguments" used in vain by those who oppose music. The idea is that God told Noah what kind of wood to use to build the Ark, thus excluding all other kinds of wood. They then try to parallel this to the idea that "singing only" is for church worship, excluding instruments.

But the use of Psalms, with the instruments thereby authorized, clearly refutes this objection. Furthermore, instruments do not "change" the command to sing, but simply accompany singing.

If psalms in Ephesians 5:19 incorporates the use of instruments, would it not also require that instruments would always have to be used?

Not at all. Psalms may be used in several ways, such as (1) read silently, (2) read aloud, (3) sung privately, (4) sung in a group, and sung with instrumental accompaniment, privately or publicly by an individual or a group.

The Scripture presents no modification of the use of Psalms from what we find in the Old Testament.

Gus Nichols, late minister of the Church of Christ, is quoted in the February 1994 FIRM FOUNDATION magazine as follows:

One may read prayers of praise from the psalms without singing or praying the psalm read (p. 21).

So the command to "sing" Psalms does not exclude reading Psalms. The verse is comprehensive of all uses of Psalms, including the use of Psalms with music, as there is no modification of such use in the New Testament such as the modification of many other Old Testament items mentioned in Hebrews.

What about solos, choirs, choral groups, and quartets in church services?

Procedures for a "church service" are not specified in the Scripture; in fact, it does not teach anything about places and times of a "service" or "services." Everything that is "in Spirit and in truth" is acceptable in worship (John 4:23, 24).

Since singing is authorized, without any specified procedures, it may be done in all possible forms which contribute to worship. Preaching, teaching, praying, singing – all are to done in ways that contribute to "order" (I Corinthians 14:40).

The "rule" or "measure" of singing is summed-up in Psalms 150:6: "Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord."

Some who ask for a "verse" for every particular thing generally will "pick-and-choose" what they approve and disapprove as being "lawful." They are consistently inconsistent, for they have scores of things in their own sect for which they cannot give a specific verse.

Bill Jackson wrote in CHRISTIAN WORKER magazine:

"We think brethren are seeking in vain if they expect to find, in the New Testament, a step-by-step worship service laid out for us, giving detailed information on Sunday morning, Sunday evening meetings, and exactly how all worship matters were held. We are indeed told what constitutes the avenues of worship, and we know that these are to be done, but we have no 'complete' service laid out for us" (Oct. '90, p. 2).

In another article on similar matters, Mr. Jackson says that some men "have been busy manufacturing patterns for us!" and that "what some believe or practice is not the standard of right!" He goes on to mention such things as "rules on food and buildings, rules on weddings and funerals, and a dozen side issues" that tend to cause division (CHRISTIAN WORKER, Feb. '89, p. 4).

We agree with Mr. Jackson on this, and he could have named the items mentioned in this question.

David Lipscomb once wrote in THE GOSPEL ADVOCATE magazine that the organ was introduced into the worship of the Romish church in the year 1290.

“We have no account of it having been used in worship by professed Christians previous to that time” (1878, p. 567).

The organ is first mentioned in Genesis 4:21 and was also as far back as the time of Job who evidently played the harp and organ (Job 30:31).

To condemn the organ because it was put to use in a Roman Catholic Church at any given time would be like condemning church buildings because a Roman Catholic church built a building.

To reject music because "we find no account" of its use by professed Christians "before" any given time in history is to make recorded history the measure of what is scriptural in what we are to believe and practice.

One might ask Mr. Lipscomb if his GOSPEL ADVOCATE magazine or anything similar was published before "1290?" If not, was it an "innovation?"

Regardless of what one "finds" or does "not find" in incomplete historical records, the fact is musical instruments are revealed in the Bible, they were used in worship, and they are not excluded from Christian worship by any New Testament teaching.

Added note from the ministry of Church of Christ dilemma:

Since there may be those who are unfamiliar with the objections the Churches of Christ raise against the use of instrumental music, we must understand that it is a matter of biblical authority.

Here the question that must be answered is if the scripture allows for its use.

And two of the most often sighted and quoted scriptures used by the Churches of Christ are Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, which taken together says 'Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord.'

It is from these passages of scripture that the Churches of Christ draw the conclusion that, although (vocal) singing is authorized in worship, the use of musical (mechanical) instruments is not.

And if you missed the phrase, 'sing and make music in your heart'-it is here that the Churches of Christ are often very insistent that it is only with our hearts that we can make "acceptable music" unto the Lord.

And never mind all the examples given to us from the book of Psalms. That precedent (they believe) was given only under the Old Testament law system.

Therefore, any “musical instruments” outside of our own hearts, must be avoided and excluded because of a perceived lack of scriptural authority.

Explaining biblical idioms

It is at this point of the instrumental music debate that I would like to introduce the subject of idiomatic expressions.

And for those who may not be familiar with this term, you will certainly recognize them immediately as those phrases used in any given language which cannot be understood by an individual unless the intended meaning is known or can be discerned by the listener.

For example, some very common American idioms are "he put his foot in his mouth" and "I want to put a bug in your ear." Obviously these kinds of expressions are not intended to be taken literally (thank goodness), for what is actually being said here is that "he said something foolish" and "I have an idea I want you to think about."

Now it should be of no surprise then that idioms are used in the scripture as well.

For example the Hebrew phrase "he rested with his fathers" and "they will become like women" actually means that "he died" and that "they will be afraid or terrified."

And don't miss the fact that if we were to take these verses (idioms) literally, we will actually miss the real intent of the passage.

It is here, though, that I would like to ask if the phrase 'sing and make music in your heart' is to be taken literally, or should it be understood as a biblical idiom? For if this passage is intended to be taken word for word, then I must point out that God has given us a command we cannot possibly obey.

Why? Because in a literal sense, we do not have the ability or physical capability to sing or to make music inside our own hearts.

Not with our physical hearts.

Not with our minds.

Therefore, I think it should be apparent that we ought to view this verse as a biblical idiom. For if we take this passage literally, again by definition, we will miss the actual intent of the passage.

So what is the message?

Sometimes, when we come across an unclear or difficult section of scripture, we can gain additional insight by looking at similar passages to help us understand the spirit of what is being taught. For we know that scripture when viewed in its proper context it cannot contradict itself.

And certainly the last thing we want to do is build a theology based upon a single verse that has been misunderstood and taken out of its intended context.

With this in mind, please consider Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 in light of the following passages of scripture:

"I will sing and make music." Psalms 57:7

"I will sing and make music with all my soul." Psalms 108:1

"My servants will sing out of the joy of their hearts." Isaiah 65:14

"Sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord." Ephesians 5:19

"(Sing) psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your
hearts to God." Colossians 3:16
After viewing these passages (and given the fact that God had previously approved the use of musical instruments in worship in the Old Testament), there is nothing in the New Testament that indicates that God has now ”narrowed down” the use of musical instruments in psalms to vocal singing only, because both passages authorize the use of psalms without modifying the use, non-use, or precedent of using musical instruments in worship.

The context of Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 is simply telling believers to ‘admonish one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs’ and to praise and worship God both in singing and music, with our minds, will, and emotions.