Responding to Critics on the “Instrumental Music” Issue

By Wayne Jackson

In several previously-published articles, we have discussed the issue of whether or not the use of mechanical instruments of music is divinely sanctioned for Christian worship. A foundational point that we have sought to emphasize is this: There is no New Testament authority for the use of instrumental accompaniment in Christian worship. We are not at liberty, therefore, to improvise in the absence of authority. Such an action would be characterized as “will-worship,” which is condemned (Col. 2:23).

For additional articles dealing with this matter, please see “Do the Psalms Authorize Instrumental Music in Worship?” and “What about Mechanical Instruments of Music in Christian Worship?” located in our “Questions and Answers” segment. Also, see "The “Music-Authority” Issue Again" in our “Penpoints” segment.

We received an exceptionally large response to these essays. Some were in respectful disagreement, and we were grateful for the kindly disposition of these communications. Others (not a few) were hostile in the extreme. They revealed an explosive frustration. Some people do not understand that vitriolic language is no substitute for reasonable argument.

A number of these rejoinders readily conceded that there is no New Testament authority for the use of the instrument in Christian worship. They even acknowledged that the innovation appeared centuries after the conclusion of the apostolic age. But this fact bothered our detractors not at all. The issue of “authority” was not a matter of concern to them — and that is significant. Tragically so! In an age when authority per se is shamelessly flaunted, the rejection of divine authority has become common — even among those who profess an identification with Christ, at least in a superficial fashion.

The various objections that have been proffered can be assembled rather neatly into several categories. We are pleased to offer our response to them. We urge our readers to set aside personal preferences, and examine the evidence with careful discernment. We do not intend, however, to carry on a protracted, tit-for-tat discussion with those who seem obsessed with making the same error-ridden arguments, over and over again.

Responses

“Instruments for the worship of God are mentioned in the Scriptures; by your failure to use instruments, you have ‘taken away’ from the teaching of the Bible (see Psa. 150:3-5). By your forbidding of instruments, you have ‘added’ to the Scriptures. Therefore, you fall under the condemnation of Revelation 22:19.”

This response is fallacious indeed. In the first place, it was God who took away the Old Testament law as an authoritative standard for religious worship. Regarding that system, Paul wrote, “he has taken it out of the way, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). Moreover the verbal tense (perfect) suggests that the law has been removed permanently. The Mosaic law is not the standard for Christian worship. This means that if valid authority for the use of instrumental Christian worship is to be found, it will have to be found in the New Testament — not the Old Testament.

Additionally, if a “failure to use instruments” places one under the condemnation of Revelation 22:19, then one cannot worship God without them. Is our respondent ready to take that position? One needs to consider the logical consequence of his argument before he makes it.

Moreover, if one appeals to the Mosaic code for the justification of a religious practice, he may not selectively choose only those items that are objects of his affection. Paul clearly contended that if a man contends for one element of the law, as a binding obligation, he is required to accept all of that law. “Yes, I testify again to every man that receives circumcision, that he is a debtor to do the whole law” (Gal. 5:3). This does not mean, of course, that the Old Testament is irrelevant for the child of God today. There are many principles from which we may learn and profit (cf. Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:6,11). The Mosaic law, however, is not the pattern for the format of Christian worship. (See our article, “The Value of the Old Testament for Today”.)

“The book of Revelation sanctions the use of instruments in the worship of God (Rev. 5:8; 14:2)”

It is a tragic circumstance when a Bible student does not comprehend the symbolic nature of the book of Revelation, as indeed the very first verse of the document suggests (see “signified”). The “harps” of the Apocalypse are no more to be viewed as literal than are the images of a seven-horned lamb (5:6), or golden bowls of incense (5:8). This type of crass literalism is the very flaw that is fatal in the “Watchtower Witness” argument that only 144,000 people will be in heaven (7:4ff; 14:1ff).

Moreover, if the status of heaven is the norm for today, why do Christians continue to enter the relationship of marriage? The marital union will not exist in the spiritual environment of the future (see Mt. 22:30; Lk. 20:35).

“David praised God by the use of instruments. Was he an evil man? The New Testament does not cancel Old Testament practices that were pleasing to God.”

Yes, David praised God with instruments; but David did not live under the New Covenant. He lived under a regime that was characterized by numerous “carnal” features (Heb. 9:10) — material elements that were to be replaced by a more spiritual system of worship, as the Testament of Christ became operative.

If David is the Christian’s pattern for acceptable worship in this age, why not worship God by the offering of animal sacrifices — as Israel’s illustrious king did (Psa. 66:13-15)? Or perhaps a Christian worship assembly could be transformed into a “dance” festival, reminiscent of the shepherd’s activities (2 Sam. 6:14; Psa. 149:3).

And if the “David-was-a-good-man” argument justifies doing anything the king did, would polygamy be justified today? David had many wives (2 Sam. 5:13), from whom he was never commanded to separate. Some Mormon sects would applaud the “David-was-a-good-man” argument!

To suggest that every practice that was “pleasing to God” under the Mosaic rule is obligatory and/or allowed today is an amazing statement. It was pleasing to the Lord, under the former regime, that every male Jew visit the temple three times each year (Ex. 23:14,17; Dt. 16:16-17). Does this fact therefore mean that this responsibility abides today?

“If you contend that one must have authority for what he does in worship, where is the authority for song books, speaker systems, etc.? Why do you oppose instruments, and yet not these items?”

This question reveals that this sincere novice does not understand the nature of how “authority” is established. The authority for a practice may be provided in either a generic or a specific fashion. If the authorization is framed in generic terminology, the person under that authority may use his own judgment (expressed in expedients) in the implementation of the obligation. If the authority is expressed in specific terms, the subject may not exceed what is specified.

For example, if a traffic sign reads, “Drive With Caution,” the driver is at liberty to use his judgment within reason. If, however, the sign indicates, “Speed Limit — 25 m.p.h,” the motorist may not exceed the limit specified.

Further, a generic authorization implies some method of implementing the duty. For instance, a command obliging Christians to meet for worship (e.g., Acts 20:7; Heb. 10:25), implies some sort of facility — whether such should be a rented hall, or a building owned by the church. A command to evangelize (Mk. 16:15) necessitates some mode of travel. The permission for any expedient is implicit in the authority itself.

When Christians are commanded to praise God by “singing,” which is a specifically authorized form of melody (Eph. 5:18-19; Col. 3:16), they are restricted to that mode of melody. “Playing” on a mechanical instrument is another kind of music.

But in the passages authorizing singing, there is no specificity as to whether the authorized songs are to be sung from memory, or from a written copy. And so, whereas one is free to exercise his choice in the matter of a printed copy, he is not granted the liberty of adding another type of music.

The case is similar with reference to “speaker systems,” etc. These “aids” do not change the nature of what has been specified. With an amplifier, or without one, the teacher is still merely teaching the gospel. If, however, one should add human dogma to the gospel, he has altered the nature of the message, and has transgressed.

When one adds mechanical playing to simple singing, he has not merely facilitated the singing, he has added an element that does not inhere in the originally authorized action. See ""Aid" or “Addition” — What Is the Difference?".

“God has given men wonderful abilities to invent and make music on instruments. Why should it not be permissible to use these gifts in worship to the God who gave them?”

The fact that men have certain abilities does not endow them with the authority to use those abilities in an unauthorized act of worship to God. Isaiah described the skill of those in his time, who went to great pains to design and craft an image “after the beauty of a man,” the purpose of which was to create an object of worship (Isa. 44:12-17). The prophet rebuked this exercise as the epitome of foolishness, wholly void of “understanding” (vv. 18ff). One can almost hear the protestation of the pro-idol crowd as they appealed to their “God-given talents” in defense of their wicked practice.

Nebuchadnezzar erected a magnificent golden image approximately ten stories tall. He then issued a command that, at a certain time, his subjects were to fall before the structure and worship. Three Hebrew lads refused to do so (see Dan. 3:1ff). Had Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego been tutored in the school of logic under review, they might well have admired the “God-given” talent of the Mesopotamian artisans, and gone “belly down” before the image!

Conclusion

We appreciate the responses received from zealous readers, even though the fervor of some of our critics exceeded what was necessary to gain our attention.

We would remind our sincere readers that altering God’s plan for worship is not an insignificant offence. Read the record of Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, in 1 Kings 12:25ff. He recklessly “taught Israel to sin” by changing Heaven’s plan of worship for the Hebrew people, to that which he “devised with his own heart” (1 Kgs. 12:33). Devastating tragedy followed in the wake of that rebellion (1 Kgs. 14:1-20). Read and be warned!

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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.