Why The Bible Doesn’t Legislate Song

A few possible reasons, anyway.

Of course, you need to understand that I don’t believe that singing praise is necessarily commanded in the New Testament. Nor is accompanying it when one does sing. Nor is singing / accompaniment forbidden. Singing is encouraged; singing is exemplified; that’s all. So you may need to visit some of my other posts first, before you object to the current one.

First of all, if God commanded everyone to sing with heart and voice, it would be impossible for people who have no vocal cords to obey, and there are all kinds of reasons why people don’t have vocal cords, from birth defect to injury to surgical removal due to cancer. It would also be impossible for a mute person to obey; someone whose neural network doesn’t connect like most folks’ do in the speech and communication area. God doesn’t seem to be in the business of excluding people in the kingdom described in the New Testament. He once excluded eunuchs from His tabernacle, but not from His kingdom. (It was even prophesied in Isaiah 56, a chapter which writes in the formerly exiled.) Surely there a but a few people who cannot sing in either heart or voice – and fewer still who cannot be uplifted by hearing or seeing it (as would be the case of many deaf people who still seem to thoroughly enjoy the rhythmic interpretation of ASL, for instance).

Secondly, if New Testament scripture legislated singing, that sort of law would have to get into all the details about how to sing; whether to sing with accompaniment; what kind of accompaniment is permissible … and so on and on and on. Instead, we have instructions that encourage us to sing together, praise together, build up each other. We have an example where that happened in a dark jail cell in Philippi, where required accompaniment on an instrument would have been likely impossible to obey. Christians being hunted down for lion fodder in the late part of the first century (and later) would have given away their location in the tombs had they worshiped in celebratory song accompaned by loud instruments. On the other end of the spectrum, we have an example or two in a vision of heaven where God gives each saint a harp and voice and where a cappella singing probably would not be required. Heaven is free from threat; enough harps are played that it’s as loud as an ocean or thunder. It doesn’t make sense to require instruments where they are not needed nor forbid them where they are useful.

Thirdly, there are times when people don’t feel like singing – at least, not like singing songs of joy and adulation and exuberance. Captive Israel didn’t feel like singing when dragged away from their homes to Babylon, and there on the poplars they hung their harps (Psalm 137). You can’t wring blood from a turnip. And you can’t wring songs of joy from a depressed heart. Scripture recognizes that. The Holy Spirit of God recognizes that, when inspiring such lamentations. In fact, there’s even a short book of them right there in the Bible. Paul even instructs us: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). Maybe our worship, its planning and expectations of others during it should recognize this as well.

Fourth, if we take the Lord at His Word to Mary through the angel or through Jesus to His disciples – that with God, nothing is impossible – then He could just as easily tune out the sound of instruments He might not want to hear today as easily as He could refuse to listen to them in the disobedient days of Amos 5:23. In fact, if there is anything that this chapter makes clear, it is that God is concerned about the hearts and lives of those who worship Him in song; if those are not right, those songs are just “noise.”

If there is anything that approaches legislation in scripture about singing, that’s it:

So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. ~ 1 Corinthians 14:15

… speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, ~ Ephesians 5:19

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. ~ Colossians 3:16

Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. ~ James 5:13

I think perhaps there has been so much emphasis on the imperative nature of the word “sing” (and on the interpretation of it as a command) that we have virtually ignored the modifiers which address the spirit, the mind, and the heart. Singing is not something done with just the body; the larynx, tongue, lips and lungs … the fingers, hands, arms, and feet. As worship, it is something that pleases God and expresses love and builds us up – like everything else – when it is done with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30). This isn’t so much command as common sense.

What is the point of worship if it is not felt within as well as expressed without? What meaning is there in it if it is done solely as an obedient response; an obligation; a requirement to be carried out out of fear or duty or both — or just habit?

What would it look like if the spectators at a sporting event or the audience at a rock concert expressed their appreciation because they were told they had to; it was expected of them; it was customary? That it didn’t matter how well it went or how they felt about it or whether they felt anything about it – just respond or else? And they are to respond only by nodding quietly or repeating a soft-spoken approval while seated in a very restrained fashion; no applause; no standing; no variation; no innovation permitted?

Who would go to an event like that? Who would pay to go to an event like that?

(Yet we hope people will flood into our churches in droves, with generous hands doling cash into the collection coffers!)

Fifth: Maybe song isn’t legislated because song isn’t always given. In scripture, songs are given and called forth by God (Psalm 40:3, Psalm 42:8, Psalm 65:8; Job 35:10, etc.). Can God expect in return from us what He has not first given us? Perhaps the time is not appropriate for song; a time to weep rather than laugh; a time to mourn rather than dance (Ecclesiastes 3). Still, there is a time for song, and surely God knows when to give it. The fact that songs are often given by inspiration may help account for the fact that the phrase “new song” occurs so many times in scripture.

Sixth – and then I’ll step down from my soapbox and prepare to be pelted with all of the objections that can be gathered and slung – perhaps the Bible doesn’t legislate song because song has so many purposes and uses:

If the legislation required loud volume and jaunty pace, the songs of mourning would not sound right. If a song-law demanded softness and deliberation, then the exuberant songs that should burst forth from man, beast and nature itself would be defeated. If instruments were commanded for all, how could the song of a single soul walking in the woods or hanging out wet laundry be worship; if accompaniment were forbidden for all sorts of song, how could the “Hallelujah Chorus” achieve its full glory?

Like the Sabbath, song was made for man rather than the reverse. It is a gift of God to help us express what we feel toward Him and to the uplifting of others.

All right. That’s pretty much the extent of my wisdom on the matter. God’s wisdom exceeds it considerably. And that keeps leading me to the conclusion that songs of worship and praise and edification are encouraged by scripture – rather than regulated, codified, decreed, systematized, criminalized, enforced, prosecuted, sentenced and convicted.

The Instrumental Music Issue

The Instrumental Music IssueToday, the latest edition of New Wineskins goes live with an introductory article by Guest Editor Jay Guin outlining the contents and direction of The Instrumental Music Issue.

We debated the merits of inviting advocates from both sides of this contentious issue to add their thoughts, and in the end agreed that one side has already had, perhaps, more exposure than the issue deserves. And there are always the comment boxes available below each article for registering one’s view. (I only remove entries there which are spam, abusive or slanderous, duplicated by software/user glitch, or with which I disagree. Just kidding on that last one.)

As WebServant for New Wineskins, my own views on the matter are pretty much represented on this blog and also available for public scrutiny – most of them at the worship or unauthorized worship category links at the far right.

What I Can Say About A Cappella Music

  • It can be beautiful. It can also be cacaphonic (in terms of sound, the equivalent of “catastrophic”), which is also true of accompanied vocal music and solely-instrumental music. (Think sixth-grade band.) We don’t forbid tone-deaf people from singing, since God hears the heart as well as the voice.
  • It has a quality of purity and emotion. Vocal music comes from the heart. I don’t play an instrument, but I have heard instrumental music performed by virtuosos from Van Cliburn to Louis Armstrong to Yo Yo Ma that convinces me the same thing can be said of it.
  • It can put praise into words. This is the advantage a cappella music has had for generations. However, it is no longer a unique advantage. With the development of electronic synthesizers – both instrumental and vocal – it is possible for an artificial instrument to “sing” as a proxy for those who have no voice. Wouldn’t it be a crime to deny that blessing to those folks, just because their voice is not generated by vocal cords, tongues and lips?
  • It has always been at the heart of the word “sing.” At the same time, it has not been exclusively the concept behind singing since Adam’s eighth-generation descendant Jubal, “the father of all who play the harp and flute” (Genesis 4:21). Some music is written to be sung a cappella. Some music is written to be sung accompanied. Some music is written to be performed on instruments. Sometimes, these kinds of music can be arranged for a different kind of presentation. Sometimes that works well; sometimes it doesn’t.
  • It is not forbidden in scripture. It is also not authorized or commanded in scripture. Many Old Testament passages encourage singing praise with instruments. And God chose to share a Revelation with John of a panorama of heaven where praise takes place with harps in hand (15:2-3) and cosmic events are heralded by trumpets (8:1ff).
  • It is probably exemplified in scripture. (By implication. It’s pretty hard to sneak instruments into a jail and play them when your hands are in shackles. This account – Acts 16:25 – also exemplifies worship outside of the normal gathered worship, and says nothing about what day of the week Paul and Silas were imprisoned.)
  • It is natural. Children sing when they are happy. They don’t have to be told to do so. They also make rhythm instruments out of whatever is available. (Teenaged males are especially fond of imitating drums.) And God creates praise through His own creativity. He hears song in the mountains and hills; the clapping of hands in the trees (Isaiah 55:12) and the rivers (Psalm 98:8). He accepts praise from all creation: sun, moon, stars, heavens, clouds, sea creatures, wild and domestic animals, birds, kings, princes, young people and old (Psalm 148). He speaks in thunder (Job 37:4; Psalm 18:13; John 12:29; Revelation 10:4). All of these sources of praise are natural – but not all of them come from vocal cords, tongues and lips.
  • Some church fathers preferred it. Several of them – one or two of them, fairly early on in church history. They had their expressed reasons: to many of them, instrumental worship smacked too much of pagan worship. The Jewish-ness of the early church was giving way to the Gentile-ness of its growing base. While Jewish Christians might have associated instrumental praise with King David, psalms and temple worship, Gentile Christians were more likely to have connected it with raucous and raunchy pagan ceremonies. I understand their preference. I respect it. It still doesn’t carry the weight of inspired scripture to me. Their teachings are teachings of men, whatever their motivation or reasoning. To be valid preferences today, the same conditions would have to exist, producing the same reasons. Contemporary Christian Music gives ample evidence that praise can still be performed instrumentally as well as vocally in the culture I’m in, and probably many others as well.
  • I like it. I really do. I worship and work at a church which performs a cappella worship before the Lord, exclusively. I can queue up almost a whole day’s worth of ZOE Group on the iTunes of the G5 Mac in my office and be blessed with no need of any other kind of music. (There are days when I do!) It’s not the only kind of music I like. And it’s not the only kind of worship music that I like, and believe to have always been acceptable before God.

    A cappella-only worship or instrumentally-accompanied worship are matters of opinion, often based on personal preference and certainly based on interpretation of scripture rather than scripture itself. And where matters of opinion regarding worship and Christian living come into play, the guiding principles are found in Romans 14. These are disputable matters; matters of conscience. It would be just as wrong for an a cappella-only advocate to worship with instrumental accompaniment as it would be for me to condemn that person for calling unclean what I believe God has never called unclean. Both of us would be violating our consciences. We can disagree on this matter. We can still serve and worship God within our consciences intact and please Him. But we cannot please Him by going beyond what His word says, turning our preferences into doctrines attributed to Him, or judging and condemning others for violating our own doctrines-of-conscience.

These are all the things I can say about a cappella music and worship. There are a lot of things I can’t say, because they aren’t in scripture, rooted in scripture, or rooted in the unchanging nature of God. So it’s just best not to say them, isn’t it?

I write this while listening to my iPhone app “Ambiance,” specifically the “Large Wind Chime” (possibly recorded at the world’s largest tuned windchime in Eureka Springs, AR?). It is beautiful and haunting and awe-inspiring music, and if you think about it, powered by the wind at God’s whim. It’s the sound of God playing a musical instrument made by man.

Our Singing Idol

On another blog recently, a friend adjured me to keep breaking down idols.

It hadn’t occurred to me until then that my fellowship’s obsession with a cappella-only worship is an idol.

It is.

We of the churches of Christ worship it above the unity Christ prayed for on the night He was betrayed. We worship it above the teaching of Paul to Galatia that adding any law to the atonement of Christ is a fruitless attempt to weaken the power of His blood. We worship it above dozens of more life-shaping, world-saving instructions Jesus explicitly left, which we ignore at our own leisure – and peril.

And by “worship,” I mean that we elevate a cappella-only worship above all of these things. We preach it. We argue it. We condemn others who do not accept it.

Yet a cappella-only worship is a teaching of man which – though it may go back to a human preference expressed very early in church history – has no firm or inarguable basis in scripture. There is certainly no command for it. There is no example of it. There is no unimpeachable inference of it, for those who require such things.

It is a doctrine which pends solely – not on love for God and for others – but on a singular way of looking at scripture as law, the silence of which on any given practice expresses God’s disapproval and condemnation.

That “law of silence” is called the “regulative principle of worship,” and has its origins in the teachings of John Calvin, many of whose other teachings my fellowship (Churches of Christ) would immediately repudiate.

And the view of scripture as law persists in spite of verses like:

“But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” ~ Romans 7:6 

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.” ~ Romans 8:1-4

“So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.” ~ Galatians 5:16-18

The clear implication of these passages – and many, many more – is that we didn’t need more law. We needed grace. We needed Christ. We needed the guidance of His Spirit within us.

No matter what anyone tells you, scripture doesn’t tell you that Christ came to bring more law. His singular commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you,” expresses all the law and the prophets; for love that acts for the benefit of others mirrors God’s love, and expresses love for God as well. This is the “law of Christ,” spoken of in Galatians 6:2, because it expresses love by carrying others’ burdens. This is “Christ’s law” spoken of in 1 Corinthians 9:21, because it wins those not having the law, rather than binding its restrictions on them.

Law does not express love. Law expresses guilt and failure and judgment. It does not unite; it separates. It sees everything as intrinsically right or wrong, where common sense reveals that some things are neither. Because law must be interpreted, authority is required to clarify. Judgment must take place. Violators must be punished.

This is the case with the law of silence, specifically reformulated within the Restoration Movement to exclude everyone who didn’t agree with what the excluders believed, especially about a cappella-only worship. I am sorry to have to speak so plainly; it is a shameful fact of our history.

We can choose to perpetuate this error by continuing to condemn those who do not bow down to our idol of a cappella-only worship.

Or we can

  • repent of our guilt,
  • stop condemning what God commanded and approved in the Old Testament (and never repealed, if we can only see scripture as a matter of law)
  • stop consigning to hell those who practice vocal and instrumental worship,
  • admit that a cappella-only worship is a matter of personal preference – and has been since just after the first century –
  • and that New Testament scripture says virtually nothing about it.

(Except, of course, that it does not seem to be practiced in the eternal heaven revealed to John in Revelation 15:2-3.)

If we refuse and say, “I’d sooner die first,” then God can certainly arrange that. He has done so before for idolators. And we just might end up somewhere that a cappella-only worship does not take place.

But it might not be the place we’d prefer.

Instruments of His Peace, Part II

Wow. That Part I sure was a long time ago. Wonder why I didn’t mark it “Part I”?

Maybe because, as I confessed last year, I am a world-class conflict avoider, and I said only as much as I could stand to say.

And because I continue to encounter people of good faith and firm conviction within the fellowship of Churches of Christ who simply believe with all of their hearts that the Bible (or at least most of the New Testament) inarguably forbids worshiping God through Christ today with instruments of music other than the voice … well, because of that, I can’t just let the subject drop.

A dwindling few of them have gone beyond the pale in making personal attack, judgment and condemnation on the question (which, for them, is no question at all). Yet many more have not. They simply teach that it is sin, that it displeases God and – some would say – will eventually lead to eternity in hell.

The teaching is based on presumption of the authority of the Bible as an end-to-end book of law, its complete sufficiency in all matters and questions of right and wrong, and therefore, righteousness and damnation.

That’s the first problem I have with this teaching. Where does the Bible claim to be – or even imply that it is – only law and wholly sufficient in every possible question or practice?

The answer might go, Well, 2 Timothy 3:16, for one.

Is that what it says, though? Does it say “all-sufficient”? Or just “useful”?

How about 2 Peter 1:3?

Where does that say “scripture” or “God’s Word”? Doesn’t it say “divine power” and “knowledge through him who called us”? And if that somehow necessarily implies scripture and only scripture (and somehow I doubt that the revelation of God’s divine power and the one who called us is limited to scripture, since I see Him living through His Spirit in other Christians all the time) let’s just go there. Let’s go to scripture. What does scripture say about worship with music?

Let’s start with the examples: Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 and Acts 16:25.

Great example. If Jesus could sing with His followers on the way out to the garden and His imminent arrest, I should be able to do the same, even weighed down with my own sorrows. Same for Paul and Silas in jail. I don’t see any instruments there. I’ll grant that they probably didn’t lug any out to the garden or into the jail. (Though neither of those examples is in a church/synagogue setting.)

But Matthew 18:20!

It’s a great comfort to know that Jesus is with us when two or three of us are gathered to pray and ask God for something … but does He say that makes it a church in musical worship together?

The commands, then: Ephesians 5:18-20.

I’m not sure I’d call them “commands,” since Jesus only gave us one that enveloped the two most important ones in the law. Why not call them “principles”? I completely agree with the principle that we should be filled with the Spirit, rather that with alcoholic spirits – and that thanksgiving for everthing through Christ should characterize our songs to each other. The setting seems to be, not so much gathered worship, as it is everyday living.

Colossians 3:16: more thanksgiving.

Absolutely. Plus the opportunity to teach and admonish each other through song. Same surround: daily living, rather than just gathered worship.

And James 5:13.

Okay, I’m not convinced that this is talking exclusively about worship in a gathered setting, since the subject and verb are singular – but it’s a wonderful principle for any of us to sing songs of praise when happy. Just as Jesus did and Paul could when suffering – Jesus before leaving for the garden; Paul while in prison after being beaten.

All right then! Finally, the rest of the commands: Romans 15:9, 1 Corinthians 14:15.

Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Neither of those is a command. Both say “I shall,” or “I will.” They’re expressing more of that gratitude from the heart. Are they examples? Maybe. Let’s take ’em one at a time. Romans 15:9 is quoting Psalm 69:9, perhaps as prophecy that the Lord’s name will be sung to the nations. It was a prophecy that included Gentiles – an important point in Paul’s letter to Rome.

1 Corinthians 14:15 is attempting to set straight some problems with some people speaking – even praying – in tongues during gathered worship, but without anyone translating, interpreting.

The point is that none of these passages has, as its primary tenor, the question of worship with or without musical instruments in an assembly.

Other issues are at hand, and are significantly more important. They are issues of the heart: being sober but joyful, teaching and admonishing, communicating clearly.

The question of the presence or absence of instruments just isn’t there.

If they must be authorized specifically, must not also a song leader, song books or sheet music, pitch pipes, amplification devices, slide or graphic projections also be authorized specifically in order to be scripturally acceptable to God? Does that not take these scriptures and make them say what they do not say?

Who gets to decide which of those supplements are expedient – a term not used with regard to worship in scripture – and which are not?

Does that not make the argument for authorization either man’s teaching binding on no one or God’s teaching binding in every instance in which a question of authorization might arise?

And if, as many from Eusebius until this day have argued, instruments cannot and do not praise God … do the instruments play themselves? Or are they played as the expression of human beings – plucked, stroked, even breathed into by human beings into whom God has breathed the breath of life? Can anyone watch and hear a virtuoso like Yo Yo Ma and still say that only the cello played; that the music did not come from the artist’s very heart and soul as well?

Can you do that with a pitch pipe?

When God breathes His Spirit into us, we become the instruments of His peace. He plays us as His instruments to make His music in this world. It is no longer we who live, but Christ living in us.

Finally, if the argument is made from Romans 14 (which irretrievably puts the question of instrumental/a cappella worship into the category of disputable matters and items of conscience – rather than God’s clear command), neither side can presume to say, “Then why don’t you just see it and do it my way in order to have my fellowship!”

Bottom line, then. Fellowship cannot be extended or denied based upon man’s teaching or preference or interpretation of that which is not specifically and clearly spelled out in scripture. Turning such matters into issues of salvation is arrogant judgmentalism in the extreme. If someone worships differently in such matters; in a way that offends your conscience or mine, we don’t have to worship in that way. But in order to be instruments of His peace, we absolutely must

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. ~ Romans 15:7

Good folks – whether we like instrumental worship or not; whether we agree with a cappella-only worship or not as a practice – if we have any heart at all for maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, we must stop preaching Christian brothers and sisters into hell over an issue that our fellowship has raised as some sort of misguided mark of holy distinction from God.

Being “right” about a cappella worship is not one of what we have called five acts of salvation (or any of the other opportunities we have to accept, proclaim and be like Jesus Christ). Nor is instrumental worship “sin” – or it would it not have been in the Old Testament and would be in Revelation 5‘s kingdom-to-come, too?

No one is compelled by scripture to observe the practice they don’t like. No one has to give up the one they prefer.

But we must give up hatefulness and judgment and divisiveness and promoting man’s teachings as if they were God’s.

Lessons from History

Go back in time with me, a little over a century and a half, when the Restoration Movement was still aborning and unrest was brewing in the United States of America regarding the ownership of human beings as slaves.

That’s when the disagreement over instruments of music used in worship began in earnest. Before that, you can find very little in the way of history or commentary about it, beyond a meager number of disgruntled writers who did not like it and variously composed a few lofty poetic metaphors or pithy comments about it, but did not count the matter worthy to number among 95 theses nailed to a door. (The Greek Orthodox Church has long practiced a cappella-only worship for many of the same reasons cited by those in the Restoration Movement who require it – but rarely makes an issue of it when parishes in America adopt instruments.)

The issue pretty much came to a head at Midway, Kentucky in the early 1860s when a melodeon (small organ-like instrument) was brought into a church building to aid in the singing. If he did not have the consensus of the other elders, then one of them and his slave engaged in the acts of breaking and entering the building, stealing the instrument, and chopping it to bits with an axe. When it was replaced, they were satisfied simply to break in and steal the second one and store it in that elder’s barn.

Those who dislike instrumental praise are apt to cite a related incident at a Christian college in Texas in 1894, where their point of view protested more civilly and democratically – but still disrupted worship and caused an awkward confrontation as an organ was about to play – long after both sides should have come to the table of discussion and ironed it out.

There is plenty of blame and plenty of unChristian behavior to be assigned to both points of view over the issue and over the years.

So in weighing the issue on its own merits and demerits, may I ask that we consider these questions together:

Is Christian worship with or without instruments a scriptural matter, which one side or the other or both can definitively resolve by pointing to scripture and saying, “This what God says about it, and this is inarguably all He says about it”?

Or is it a disputable matter, about which God expresses no preference in scripture?

If it is, at its essence, a disputable matter – and people have been disputing it within the Restoration Movement for 150+ years and in Christendom at least to some extent for centuries before it – what does scripture say about handling disputable matters?

Can both points of view practice what they believe without calling it God’s law, enforcing it upon others and judging them as wanting in the balances if they disagree and practice differently?

Did Christ live, teach, bless, die and live again in order to bring more law, unspoken law – or freedom from law?

Does the ongoing disagreement over Christian worship with or without instruments unite or divide people in the body of Christ?

Does God stand to gain from men insisting on either side of the disagreement as the law for all and perpetuating it?

Does Satan stand to gain from it?

Where Do You Draw The Line?

If you’re persuaded that instrumental praise (or mixed singing-and-instrumental praise) is not acceptable to God under the new covenant through Christ, at what points do you determine the praise to be unacceptable?

If the song/worship leader uses a pitch pipe or tuning fork before it begins?

If the song/worship leader taps a foot audibly during singing, does that constitute the use of a percussion instrument?

If an electronic recording of an a cappella performance is used at some point during worship to teach a song while the congregation sings with it?

If a recording of an a cappella performance is used without the congregation singing along?

If a child’s toy falls off a pew and a bell on it rings during a song?

If the child keeps time with the bell?

If the child is so filled with joy that he/she begins clapping in rhythm to the song?

If an adult is so filled with joy that he/she begins clapping in rhythm to the song?

If a musical ringtone begins to play on a cell phone that someone forgot to turn off during worship?

If the song/worship leader happens to fall into rhythm with the sound of an off-balance ceiling fan thrum-thrum-thrumming away above?

If a worshiper has had throat cancer, has no voicebox, and uses a an electronic voice synthesizer to sing, like the one that theoretical scientist Stephen Hawking is famed for using? Even if it “sang” in a monotone, like a Gregorian chant? Is a Gregorian chant unacceptable because it does not aspire to four-part harmony or tuneful gymnastics? If a voice synthesizer is acceptable, what about a talking guitar (like Peter Frampton’s TalkBox) that could add tune to the lyric just like a voicebox?

If a song/worship leader uses a megaphone as an instrument of amplification?

If a song/worship leader uses a microphone as an instrument of amplification?

If a praise team uses microphones as instruments of amplification while the congregation is singing?

If a praise team uses microphones as instruments of amplification while the congregation is not singing?

If any of these occurrences took place in a surrounding that was not a church building?

If any of these occurrences took place in a church building, but not on a Sunday?

If any of these occurrences took place in a church building, but not on a Sunday or a Wednesday night (or other period of gathered worship normally observed by the church in question)?

If any of these occurrences made someone feel a little uncomfortable?

If any of these made someone feel very uncomfortable?

If any of these prompted someone to stop worshiping?

If any of these triggered someone walking out of the assembly?

If any of these possibilities made someone feel that their elders should meet and legislate unanimous policy on all of them – and any others that could be thought of – before public gathered worship was permitted to take place again?

What if you’re not in a worship assembly, and you’re listening to a worship song on the radio or your CD player or the P.A. system at Hobby Lobby that is accompanied by instruments?

If you’re not worshiping but being entertained by it, is that permissible?

If you start singing along with it but are just being enertained by it?

If you start singing along with it but begin to mean it and stop being entertained by it and start worshiping along with it?

If you continue to be entertained by it and also worship with it?

If you sing along with it and don’t mean it as worship but God hears it and is entertained by it, does that become sin?

Is it okay if it’s not Sunday (although Hobby Lobby would be closed, so it would have to be a radio or your CD player)?

If any of these possibilities made someone feel that their elders should meet and legislate unanimous policy on all of them – and any others that could be thought of – before fellowship with you could continue to be extended?

I ask the questions because I have heard it said (and have read it written) that the simple answer to the question of worshiping with an instrument is essentially “just don’t do it, and you know that you’re safe.”

I don’t find it simple at all.

In fact, I find that if you’re inclined to make rules where no rules have been made, you invariably end up having to make more rules to clarify the rules that you made where no rules were in place before. That’s how Congress and the legislatures stay in business – not to mention all kinds of courts, judges and attorneys.

But do we really need all those rules if God didn’t explicitly go into them Himself, through His Word? (He didn’t seem to have any reservations about being too detailed in the old covenant. And He seems to have nothing against instrumental praise there, nor in heaven as metaphorically described in the Revelation to John. So why would anyone want to call “unclean” what God has called “clean”?)

Wouldn’t Jesus’ favorite top two rules pretty much suffice in worship as well as in the rest of our lives? You, know:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
Love your neighbor as yourself ~ Mark 12:30-31

That, I think, is where He would draw the line.

Truth is, I don’t find it “safe” at all to make rules God hasn’t made and then bind them on other folks and judge them when you deem there’s been an infraction and then condemn them. Isn’t that what Jesus lit into the Pharisees about doing, time and time again? Didn’t He say things like “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:2) and “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37 and “Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” (Luke 12:57)

Was He ever recorded as saying “Why don’t you judge what is right for others?”

As nearly as I can tell, there is nothing wrong with having a harmless, uplifting tradition and observing it and enjoying it and even sharing the joy of it with God. Things like holidays come to mind. Or carving a good roast turkey. Or dining vegetarian. You don’t have to impose them on everyone else. And if one tradition makes others edgy, you don’t have to make it a part of your worship together. In fact, if it is a matter of conscience with them, you shouldn’t. Observe that tradition between yourself and God privately. If you’re aware of others observing a tradition that makes you edgy, don’t let it cause you to stumble – especially to stumble into being judgmental of them.

That’s where Paul draws the line of love.

It’s enough to say that a cappella praise can be beautiful and pure and that it is a cherished tradition in your religious heritage; to observe it and thrill to it and worship God with it. To go beyond that is to go beyond what God says in His Word; into the realm where teachings become rules taught by men. (If you are seeking condemnation for instrumental praise, that’s where you have to go – because you can’t find it in scripture.)

In addition, going beyond scripture in this direction limits the concept of worship only to what is done in the assembly of the saints. What we practice in our lives, outside of our gathered worship, affects our worship to God. In fact, what we obediently do every day can also be worship. (Romans 12:1) Worship through day-to-day obedience is the very context (in Matthew 15) of Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 29:13: the Corban tradition set aside God’s instruction to care for parents, and it nullified both the word of God and their worship:

“They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.”

Tradition can be good – and blessed by God – but not when it supercedes His Word.

And I can’t help but believe that’s where the Spirit of God draws the line, too.

A Cappella and the Ancient of Days

All scripture aside … all hermeneutics aside … all logic aside … all passion aside.

With all that put aside, let me tell you why at the core I cannot agree with the proposition that God would condemn to eternal hell a soul who praised Him with a musical instrument.

Because I would not want for God to take me into a private closet at judgment and ask me: “Keith, I gave you a beautiful little daughter, didn’t I? A joy to your life and the delight of your eye? With a sweet voice that goes straight to your heart?

“Keith, If she had ever bounced into the room where you were sitting and said, ‘Daddy, I’m so happy I just don’t know what to do!’ and you answered, ‘Well, I’d love it if you sang me a song,’ and she ran and got her little blue electronic keyboard that you bought her for Christmas and sang to you with it … Keith, would you have flown into a rage and cursed her and screamed, ‘I said SING! I never said ANYTHING about PLAYING A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT!’ and bound her up and threw her into a burning city dump to die?

“Is that the kind of Father you think I AM?”

A Cappella and the Ancients

Have you ever written something in vehement and vociferous opposition to something you like?

If you really enjoy watching a particular television program, do you spend a lot of words taking it apart piece by piece, critiquing the acting, the script, the cinematography, the score, the special effects and the editing?

If you feel it has a place in the world of entertainment, do you mention it at all in your writing? Or just enjoy it?

The reason I ask is that one of the claims made by those who seek to condemn instrumental praise is that “The early church didn’t use it.”

That, simply put, is a conclusion drawn from a handful of non-biblical historic critiques of the practice from people who obviously did not like it.

The source which makes that implication is none other than Eusebius of Caesarea (A.D. 275-339) in his commentary on Psalm 91:2-3:

Of old, at the time those of the circumcision were worshipping with symbols and types, it was not inappropriate to send up hymns to God with the psalterion and cithara and to do this on Sabbath days … We render our hymn with a living psalterion and a living cithara with spiritual songs. The unison voices of Christians would be more acceptable to God than any musical instrument. Accordingly in all the churches of God, united in soul and attitude, with one mind and in agreement of faith and piety we send up a unison melody in the words of the Psalms.

He makes this statement at a time in church history when Christians could not agree on the relationship among God and Christ and the Holy Spirit. So it is possible that he writes of the way he feels the church should be, though not necessarily as it was. His remarks are, after all, commentary. (Though it’s also possible he polled all of his fellow bishops at the Council of Nicea [A.D. 325] and states an accurate summary. It’s one of those writings that you can easily accept as indisputable fact if you’re inclined to do so, seeing no other possibility.)

And his contemporary, Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), gives a clue why he might have felt that way when describing the singing at Alexandria:

… musical instruments were not used. The pipe, tabret, and harp here associate so intimately with the sensual heathen cults, as well as with the wild revelries and shameless performances of the degenerate theater and circus, it is easy to understand the prejudices against their use in the worship.

Now obviously their predecessor by a century, Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 190), didn’t like instruments either – and wrote that each of the instruments of the scriptures he knew actually meant the human voice:

Leave the pipe to the shepherd, the flute to the men who are in fear of gods and intent on their idol worshipping. Such musical instruments must be excluded from our wingless feasts, for they are more suited for beasts and for the class of men that is least capable of reason than for men. The Spirit, to purify the divine liturgy from any such unrestrained revelry chants: ‘Praise Him with sound of trumpet,” for, in fact, at the sound of the trumpet the dead will rise again; praise Him with harp,’ for the tongue is a harp of the Lord; ‘and with the lute. praise Him.’ understanding the mouth as a lute moved by the Spirit as the lute is by the plectrum; ‘praise Him with timbal and choir,’ that is, the Church awaiting the resurrection of the body in the flesh which is its echo; ‘praise Him with strings and organ,’ calling our bodies an organ and its sinews strings, for from them the body derives its Coordinated movement, and when touched by the Spirit, gives forth human sounds; ‘praise Him on high-sounding cymbals,’ which mean the tongue of the mouth which with the movement of the lips, produces words. Then to all mankind He calls out, ‘Let every spirit praise the Lord,’ because He rules over every spirit He has made. In reality, man is an instrument arc for peace, but these other things, if anyone concerns himself overmuch with them, become instruments of conflict, for inflame the passions. The Etruscans, for example, use the trumpet for war; the Arcadians, the horn; the Sicels, the flute; the Cretans, the lyre; the Lacedemonians, the pipe; the Thracians, the bugle; the Egyptians, the drum; and the Arabs, the cymbal. But as for us, we make use of one instrument alone: only the Word of peace by whom we pay homage to God, no longer with ancient harp or trumpet or drum or flute which those trained for war employ.

(Evidently Clement would have no difficulty with the singing group called A Cappella, which imitates instrumental sounds by using tongue and palate and lips.) Yet, in a work dated five years earlier, he weakens the argument by lauding the power of David’s harp to send “daemons” fleeing from Saul:

Moreover, King David the harpist, whom we mentioned just above, urged us toward the truth and away from idols. So far was he from singing the praises of daemons that they were put to flight by him with the true music; and when Saul was Possessed, David healed him merely by playing the harp. The Lord fashioned man a beautiful, breathing instrument, after His own imaged and assuredly He Himself is an all-harmonious instrument of God, melodious and holy, the wisdom that is above this world, the heavenly Word.” … “He who sprang from David and yet was before him, the Word of God, scorned those lifeless instruments of lyre and cithara. By the power of the Holy Spirit He arranged in harmonious order this great world, yes, and the little world of man too, body and soul together; and on this many-voiced instruments of the universe He makes music to God, and sings to the human instrument. “For thou art my harp and my pipe and my temple.”

… and he makes an interesting claim that “He who sprang from David and yet was before him, the Word of God, scorned those lifeless instruments of lyre and cithara.” One is led to presume he means Jesus, the only One who could have sprang from David yet preceded him. Yet the claim is unsubstantiated by scripture – unless the phrase that follows, “Thou art my harp and my pipe and my temple,” is a snippet of scripture lost to us yet known to Clement.

John Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407) seems to echo Clement’s interpretation, yet it is not immediately clear that he is expressing any disdain for instrumental praise; he may simply be building a metaphor for the unity and full harmony of mind and body:

David formerly sang songs, also today we sing hymns. He had a lyre with lifeless strings, the church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre with a different tone indeed but much more in accordance with piety. Here there is no need for the cithara, or for stretched strings, or for the plectrum, or for art, or for any instrument; but, if you like, you may yourself become a cithara, mortifying the members of the flesh and making a full harmony of mind and body. For when the flesh no longer lusts against the Spirit, but has submitted to its orders and has been led at length into the best and most admirable path, then will you create a spiritual melody.

Now, these are the most ancient of the sources I usually see quoted by folks who don’t like instrumental praise and are convinced that God hates it too.

The oldest is still nearly a century past century one, and far more than a hundred years past the cross and Pentecost. If the New Testament does imply an early church beset by difficulties without and within – pagan and Jewish persecution, Judaizing teachers, pre-Gnostic and/or Gnostic teachers; Roman emperors ordering them hunted down, tortured and slaughtered – and if those difficulties continued and worsened for the next couple of centuries, it would be perfectly understandable that cell churches would have worshiped as quietly as possible to avoid detection … followed by torture and protracted death, in many cases. Instrumental praise might not have been their first choice.

Expedience becomes practice; practice becomes precedent; precedent becomes tradition; and if we’re not careful, tradition becomes law – whether two thousand years ago, or less than two hundred.

Nevertheless, nearly two hundred years have passed within the span of century one to century three about which these writings tell us only one point of view. And it’s important to note that it is a point of view. It is commentary. It is not scripture. No one claims that these writers were inspired. They themselves do not claim it. Nor do these writings appeal to scriptures which directly support their point of view.

They are mere mentions among the volumes of works generated by some of these authors, which implies to me that their opinion on the matter was of distinctly less importance than many others they discussed.

So when those who dislike vocal and instrumental praise maintain it is incontrovertible fact that the early church absolutely did not worship with musical instruments and none of the apostolic or successive leaders approved of it … well, is it?

Really? When those who appreciated vocal and instrumental praise as they had known it in their previous worship – Jewish or pagan – would have felt no compunction to write against a cappella worship because they liked it, too?

Do these quotes prove anything other than the depth of history through which this difference of opinion extends?

And all those who followed – from Barclay to Clark to Knox to Luther to Spurgeon to Wesley; from Campbell to Franklin to Lipscomb to McGarvey to Stone to West, and all in between and beyond – surely had their opinions, too. Many of them are quoted by those who dislike instrumental praise. Do they not in those quotes state their own opinions, traditions, and interpretations on the matters of instrumental praise and a cappella worship, however well-researched and clever?

Would we agree with all of their opinions on other religious issues? With most of them? Would time change some of them? Might C.H. Spurgeon’s nineteenth-century declaration “I would as soon pray to God with machinery as to sing to God with machinery” be altered were he alive today and he realized that electronic machinery could help him lead prayer to millions?

I believe that the conclusion we can draw from these quotes is just this: It has long been true some folks like vocal and instrumental praise, and some folks prefer their a cappella worship unaccompanied.

And God, in His new covenant with man, mentions them together not at all. But scripture is not silent. He approved of both in the old covenant, whether together or separately. His revelation to John of Patmos paints a vision of both throughout eternity – whether literal or metaphorical.

Does it really make sense that His silence blesses and affirms one and condemns the other to eternal hell, but only during this span between the dawn of church and the end of days?

Or that He expects us to connect the dots between the eras and worship with the gifts and preferences He has given us, with all our hearts?

Footnote: I just received my copy of the eleventh ZOE Group album, Overflow two days ago. It is a cappella worship at its best, to my ears and heart. It is like being able to hear the songs as God must hear the rest of us singing: a blended, liquid, near-perfect praise. It is as refreshing as water, purifying to the spirit, expressive as the face of an uninhibited child. There are other a cappella groups who lead worship through their singing, and I love to listen to them and sing with them, too. I like some better than others, and some groups speak to the hearts of other listeners more keenly than to mine.

I love to sing in the gathered worship of my church family, multi-part harmony, completely without accompaniment. It is nowhere near perfection, but it is for the most part the honest expression of the hearts and voices of those I love, declaring their adoration of God and affection for each other. If someone were to try to introduce instrumental praise among them, it would violate the conscience of many and destroy that beautiful harmony. I would not ever wish that among my family. Causing such disunity would violate my conscience.

I also love to worship – though I have not availed myself of the opportunity very much – with voices accompanied by those whose expressions come through musical instruments. As with unaccompanied singing, this worship is not mere entertainment for those gathered, but I do believe it is entertainment for God. He hears His chlldren perform selflessly for His pleasure, together, for at least those brief moments. Sometimes this worship is quiet, reverent, meditative. Other times it is loud, thrilling, exhiliarating. And often it is somewhere in-between, because it is the collective expression of many, among whom are broken hearts and eager thanksgivings and givers and sharers and keepers and losers. There are thoughtful ones, achieving ones, social ones, private ones, analytical ones, experiential ones – and He made them and gifted them each to be unique.

And I believe His heart is touched by expression of praise of all these, His children, together. If He had intended for the expression of instrumental praise to be punishable by eternal hell-fire, I would think that at least a footnote to that effect would appear in His holy scriptures. If a cappella praise were to be required as a precondition to salvation, I should think that Jesus would have at least mentioned to God that His followers might always sing unaccompanied along with His petition that they might all be one.

So you must understand that I consider it very wrong for me to try to speak for God where God does not speak … to add to or subtract from what He has said … to judge when God has commanded not to judge … to condemn when I am clearly not qualified to do so … to rely solely on merely human knowledge and logic where divine matters are concerned. I want to hope that others share those convictions.

My personal preferences are not the same as God’s law. But God’s law is definitely my preference.

Jesus and Instrumental Praise

I’ll bet you’re thinking, “Well, this ought to be a short post!”

You may well be right.

Bear with me, though. Let’s take a walk together back to 2 Chronicles 30. Yes, yes; I know. That was before Jesus was born. But not before He was pre-existent with the Father, right? First chapter of John?


This chapter describes a time of great joy; the rediscovery of the Passover meal after a long period of Israel’s have forgotten to all about it and what it meant. King Hezekiah sent invitations to far-flung and nearly-estranged tribes to join in this celebration of God’s deliverance. Let’s take up the story in verse 18:

Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the LORD, who is good, pardon everyone who sets his heart on seeking God—the LORD, the God of his fathers—even if he is not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.” And the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people.

You read that right. God let people get by with doing something that was not in accord with “the rules of the sanctuary.” (Does that kinda remind you of what Jesus said about David and the consecrated bread?) Not only that, He healed them.

Let’s keep going to the next verse, verse 21:

The Israelites who were present in Jerusalem celebrated the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days with great rejoicing, while the Levites and priests sang to the LORD every day, accompanied by the LORD’s instruments of praise.

Whoa! Whoa! Back up!

Whose instruments of praise? That’s got to be a mistake, right? Let’s check out the KJV.

“Loud instruments unto the Lord”? That can’t be right. Well, Young’s Literal Translation doesn’t always make grammatical sense, but we non-Biblical-language-majors have got to get to the bottom of this:

And the sons of Israel, those found in Jerusalem, make the feast of unleavened things seven days with great joy; and giving praise to Jehovah day by day are the Levites and the priests, with instruments of praise before Jehovah.

All right; those were different times. God surely commanded all those instruments back when the tabernacle was prescribed, right?

Well, uh, no. Not that I could find. Maybe you can. (Though it’s possible God commanded them at the time of David or before, I get the sense that2 Chronicles 29:25 is telling us He commanded them through His prophets then, at the time of Hezekiah. I could be wrong. However, to me …)

It all seems to have been an innovation of David, back when he rejoiced with instrumental music (and dancing!) at the return of the covenantal ark to Jerusalem – then he added those instruments to the cache of things to be used when the temple would be built (beginning in I Chronicles 6, and continuing throughout the work). Four thousand instruments, as I recall.

A few of those instruments may have been among those who returned with Nehemiah and Ezra from Babylonian captivity.

And continued for the next several hundred years, through at least two more major versions of the temple. Now we’re up to the time of Jesus, and the temple where He worshiped … and the synagogues where He also taught … and the upper room where He sang a hymn with His closest friends before going out to the Mount of Olives.

Did He sing with instruments, according to the traditions of David the temple architect, and Solomon the temple builder, and Hezekiah the re-celebrant of Passover, and Nehemiah and Ezra the temple restorers?

Or did He stand there while others did so, frowning, silent, teeth grinding, arms folded in disgust, wondering if He should make a whip of cords and drive the whole lot of them out?

Or is there absolute evidence that no Jew celebrated in song with instruments at temple or synagogue worship in century one?

Bear with me a few more moments, while I pursue three metaphors.

  1. If you read my blog, would it occur to you to e-mail me: “I found this great Star Trek thing really cheap on eBay, and I wanted to get it for you, but I know you hate Star Trek now, so I didn’t.”? Because my response would be, “What? What gave you the idea that I hate Star Trek?” Would you respond, “Well, you’ve haven’t blogged anything about it since May, 2006 and you said you used to watch too much of it, so I know you must hate it now.”?
  2. If you were putting together a kit and among the instructions was a stapled slip of paper over step 3 that said: “This design has been changed and improved. In step 3, you should attach part A to part B, rather than part C as previously stated,” would you immediately think, “Oh! Well, then steps 1 and 2 are completely irrelevant now, and part C is completely extraneous and even dangerous to the structural integrity. I’ll just start with step 3 and leave out part C.”?
  3. If you were an attorney presenting a case about suffrage before the Supreme Court, would you argue: “Since the 21st amendment to the Constitution repealed Prohibition, all previously-enacted clauses are invalid. Women are absolutely not permitted to vote in open elections in the United States.”?

Then why – whether we view the Old Testament as 1.) God’s expressed preference for us, 2.) His instruction for our benefit, or 3.) His law for the satisfaction of His own righteousness – would we do essentially the same thing with regard to instrumental praise?

Especially if His Son and His Son’s followers in century one (saying nothing about the matter in scripture) in all likelihood participated in instrumental worship with joyous singing, heartfelt thanksgiving, deepest respect, and highest praise?