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Instrumental Music and the Early Church

Thursday, October 20th, 2005

When somebody asks why the churches of Christ do not use musical instruments in their worship services, two verses are usually cited: “Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Eph. 5:19). “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). It is then explained that nowhere in the New Testament does God authorize the use of musical instruments in worship. As the verses just cited demonstrate, only a capella (i.e., vocal) music is commanded.

A common objection to this argument is that Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 are too vague to leave the objective Bible student with the impression that the use of musical instruments in worship is sinful. One might ask, “Am I to believe that the early Christians refrained from the use of instruments in their worship because they interpreted these passages as you do?” The objection is understandable. Not much is said of the music used in the worship of the early saints, and some believe that we take the verses that mention singing a little too far.

Is there any historical evidence on record to corroborate the conclusions we have drawn from Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, and the other New Testament verses that support a capella singing in worship? Thankfully there is. Consider the following quotations.

In his commentary on the Psalms, Origen, an ancient church leader who lived in the second and third centuries, wrote,

Formerly when those of the circumcision worshipped God in ordinances which were symbols and figures of things to come, it was not out of place to sing hymns to God with the psaltery and lyre, and to do this on the sabbath day. . . We render our hymn with a living psaltery, a living lyre, in our spiritual songs. For the unison song of the people of Christ is more pleasing to God than any musical instrument.

Not only does the early writer object to the use of musical instruments in worship, but it is also significant that, later on in his comments, he refers to the apostolic command involving “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” which is found in both Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16.

Consider another voice from the past, this time a preacher named Chrysostom who lived in the third century. He, too, opposed the use of instruments in Christian worship and contrasted New Testament worship with Old Testament ceremonies. Commenting on Psalm 144 he writes,

Then there were instruments with which they offered up their songs, but now instead of instruments the body is to be used. For now we sing also with the eyes, not with the tongue alone, and with the hands, and the feet, and the ears. For when each one of these members does that which brings God glory and praise . . . the members of the body become a psaltery and lyre, and sing a new song, not with words, but with deeds.

These ancient sources raise an important question: Where did the early Christians get the idea that musical instruments were to be excluded from church services? Certainly the idea did not come from Judaism or paganism, for both religions included instrumental music in their worship. These Christians must have drawn their conclusions about the worship God desires from the same source available to us today—apostolic instruction in the New Testament.

If all the history of the church is to be taken into account, instrumental music appears to be a recent addition to worship. In fact, for the first one thousand years of its history, the church excluded lyres, harps, organs, etc. from its worship services. And even when western churches began to employ the use of organs, they still refrained from using them during the liturgy proper. Today the eastern orthodox churches still refuse to use anything beyond vocal music. In the words of Everett Ferguson, “Only in the present context of the western world does the a capella practice of churches of Christ seem unusual or out of step” (“Some Contemporary Issues Concerning Worship and the Christian Assembly,” unpublished paper).

Regardless of whether the early Christians employed musical instruments in their worship or not, we should refrain from their use today because God has not authorized them. As it has been said many times before, “Let’s speak where the Bible speaks, and remain silent where the Bible is silent.”