The Authorized Elements of Church Music

By Wayne Jackson

Jesus Christ declared there are three elements to appropriate Christian worship. It must be directed to deity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit); worship must be rendered in “spirit” (sincerely), and it must be offered consistent with revealed “truth” (John 4:24; 17:17).

Paul declared worship must be “in the name of Christ”; the phrase signifies by his authority (Colossians 3:17; cf. Matthew 10:1; Mark 16:17), not a rote recitation of certain words. The apostle condemned “will-worship,” which is any form of worship explicitly “forbidden,” or “unbidden” (Thayer, 1968, 168). There are three components of proper music in corporate Christian worship:

  • The form of music;
  • The nature of the melody;
  • The manner of presentation.

Singing

The two major categories of “music” are mechanical and vocal. Which is authorized by the New Testament? Clearly only vocal music. All passages mentioned in the New Testament having to do with Christian worship authorize singing (Acts 16:25; Romans 15:9, 1 Corinthians 14:15, Ephesians 5:18-19; Colossians 3:16-17; Hebrews 2:12; James 5:13) — nothing more. Mechanical accompaniment was an innovation that came centuries later.

The renowned McClintock & Strong Cyclopedia notes that while the Jews used instruments in their worship, the early Christians did not. “The general introduction of instrumental music can certainly not be assigned to a date earlier than the 5th or 6th centuries” (1968, VI.759). Even leading Protestant scholars have opposed the use of instrumental music in Christian worship, e.g., Calvin (Presbyterian), Clarke (Methodist), and Spurgeon (Baptist). These men acknowledged that the early church did not employ instruments and that such were human additions unauthorized by the Lord. The Wycliffe Bible Dictionary states: “There is no record in the [New Testament] of the use of instruments in the musical worship of the Christian church” (Pfeiffer, et al. 2003, 1163).

The arguments commonly introduced in defense of mechanical instruments are shallow and forced.

  1. “Instruments were used in the Old Testament era.” The Jews also sacrificed animals in their worship. The early Christians knew that instruments were employed under the Mosaic system; why then did they not embrace them?
  2. “The New Testament doesn’t explicitly condemn them.” Neither does it explicitly condemn praying to Mary, or baptizing infants. Why didn’t the early church incorporate the use of instruments, rationalizing that Jesus never specifically condemned them, nor did Paul?
  3. “There will be harps in heaven.” Will there be the burning of incense as well (Revelation 5:8)? Will Jesus be a Lamb (5:6)? The language is symbolic. There will be neither literal harps nor incense.
  4. “If a church can have an air conditioning unit, why can’t it have an organ?” Air conditioning does not alter the nature of one’s worship. Cooling a building is an expedient; incorporating an instrument changes the nature of the worship action and is an addition.

Arguments employed in defense of instrumental accompaniment in worship are trite and bereft of New Testament support.

Spiritual Songs

Paul’s instruction in his Ephesian letter (5:18) reveals that the style of vocal music authorized for Christian worship stood in vivid contrast to the crass secular music of the ancient culture. Note:

“Throughout the whole passage there is a contrast implied between the Heathen and the Christian practice, q.d. When you meet, let your enjoyment consist not in fulness of wine, but fulness of the Spirit; let your songs be not the drinking-songs of heathen feasts, but psalms and hymns; and their accompaniment, not the music of the lyre, but the melody of the heart; while you sing them to the praise, not of Bacchus or Venus, but of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Conybeare & Howson, 1889, 714-15, emp. original; this volume by two British scholars was the most widely regarded work on Paul of the 19th century).

The three categories may be difficult to distinguish. “Psalms” may refer to those compositions in the Hebrew Bible, while “hymns” and “spiritual songs” could denote songs directed to the members of the Godhead, or else melodies in which Christians “teach” and “admonish” one another with spiritual truths (Colossians 3:16). Some suggest “hymns” indicate “community singing” (Brown, 1976, 2.874). These certainly are a universe distanced from the religious jazz, hip-hop, and rap, so commonly making inroads in some churches today.

Reciprocal Edification Vs. Performance

In both Ephesians and Colossians Paul revealed that the type of music to be employed was congregational singing, not the performance fad that has become increasingly prominent in sectarian churches, and is finding a place among some in the Lord’s family. Note the phrases “one to another” or “one another” (Ephesians 5:18; Colossians 3:16). These are classified as “reciprocal pronouns” which involve “an interchange of the action signified in the verb.” In their highly acclaimed Greek Grammar, Dana & Mantey list both Ephesians 5:18 and Colossians 3:16 under this category (1968, 131-132). Another scholar, J. B. Lightfoot, noted that these reciprocal pronouns emphasized “the idea of corporate unity” characteristic of congregational worship (1892, 219). There is no reciprocity of action when one (or a few) sing, while the remainder merely listen.

To my recollection the only passage used in an attempt to justify performance worship (e.g., solos) is 1 Corinthians 14:26, where Paul mentions “each of you has a psalm.” The text is so ambiguous that it scarcely can be employed as a sole prooftext.

  1. The context has to do with a miraculous gift, with the psalm most likely being delivered phrase by phrase, with the whole church joining in (Macknight, 1954, 195; cf. Acts 4:24). It could have been merely “recited” as an alternate to singing (Thayer, 1968, 675).
  2. Some contend that the text may be an admonition addressing some who were insisting that “the time and worship [be] spent chiefly in singing psalms” (Lightfoot, John, 1979, 4.266). H. K. Moulton characterized the text as a reflection of “selfish individualism,” a disposition Paul was rebuking (1977, 37). If so, it hardly is a precedent for today.
  3. If this text authorizes “solos” in worship, it is strange indeed the ancient church seemed unaware of it. In fact, special singers came into vogue only in the 4th century A.D., and such involved what McClintock & Strong called a “decay” of the apostolic practice (1968, 9.776). In his celebrated work on church history, Joseph Bingham wrote: “[F]rom the first and apostolical age singing was always a part of Divine service, in which the whole body of the church joined together… (emp. WJ).” He goes on to point out that the separate “order of singers” was a departure from the primitive pattern (1865, I.III.VII).

For additional information see my tract, Is The Use Of Solos & Choirs In The Church Assembly Authorized In The New Testament? (1990).

Surely those who have made a serious study of Jesus’ rebuke of “performance” worship in Matthew 6:1-18 should be aware that solos, choirs, etc. do not partake of the spirit of the corporate worship reflected in the New Testament.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Bingham, Joseph. 1865. The Antiquities of the Christian Church. London, England: Henry G. Bohn. 2 Vols.
  • Brown, Colin, ed. 1976. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
  • Conybeare, W. J., J. S. Howson. 1889. The Life and Epistles of St. Paul. London, England: Longmans, Green, & Co.
  • Dana, H. E. & J. R. Mantey, 1968. A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament. New York, NY: Macmillan.
  • Jackson, Wayne. 1990. Solos & Choirs in the Church Assembly. Pasadena, TX: Haun Publishing.
  • Lightfoot, J. B. 1892. The Epistles of Paul – Colossians & Philemon. New York, NY: Macmillan.
  • Lightfoot, John. 1979. New Testament Commentary from the Talmud & Hebraica. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker. 4 Vols.
  • Macknight, James. 1954. Apostolic Epistles. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate.
  • McClintock, John & James Strong, 1968. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, Ecclesiastical Literature. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker. 12 Vols.
  • Moulton, Harold K. 1977. The Challenge of the Concordance – New Testament Words Studied in Depth. London, England: Samuel Bagster & Sons.
  • Pfeiffer, C. F., Howard Vos, John Rea. 2003. Wycliffe Bible Dictionary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
  • Thayer, J. H. 1968. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.