We can’t read many psalms without seeing God’s worshipers encouraged to play upon instruments like cymbals and harps. When Solomon brings the ark to the temple, the people play upon instruments in praise of God. Why, then, do we not use instruments in our own worship? It seems contradictory with what we see in the history of God’s people and their worship of Him.
A Short History of Instruments in Worship
A cappella singing is often considered a modern Church of Christ tradition or doctrine. The term a capella literally means “in chapel style.” The use of a capella singing worship is nothing new. Even the New Catholic Encyclopedia recognizes that the New Testament church worshiped without instruments for nearly a thousand years, and the rejections of instrumental worship was universal among early influential theologians. Organs were introduced into worship around 950 CE. They did not become universally accepted until the 1300s.
Martin Luther equated instrumental worship with idolatry. John Calvin called it a foolish carryover from the Old Testament. John Wesley said instruments should be neither seen nor heard in a place of worship. A cappella singing is not the younger trend. Saints blending their voices predates the tradition of bringing instruments into worship.
The New Testament on Worship
The history is intriguing and informative, but it does not provide scriptural authority one way of the other. Ephesians 5:19 tells us to speak to one another in psalms and hymns, making melody in our hearts. Colossians 3:16 tells us to teach and admonish one another in song, singing in thankfulness to God.
The structure of these verses directly parallels wording we find in the psalms. Look at Psalm 33:2, Psalm 144:9, Psalm 98:5, and Psalm 147:7. These verses and more contain a specific structure of function, object, and means. For example:
“(Function) Sing praises (Object) to the Lord (Means) with the ten-stringed harp.” – Psalm 33:2
Contrast this with:
“(Function) Singing (Object) to the Lord (Means) with your heart.” – Ephesians 5:19
Remember that Paul is educated as a Pharisee. He has an intimate knowledge of God’s word, and he is very intentional with his wording when instructing Christians in New Testament worship. Man-made instruments are replaced with those made by God.
Types and Shadows
Hebrews 8:5 refers to the Old Testament as a shadow of heavenly things, going so far as having physical representations for spiritual realities. Hebrews 9:11 calls the old law a law made with human hands and contrasts that with Christ’s spiritual covenant. Hebrews 9:9 calls those things symbolic, and chapter 10:1 refers to the Old Testament as a shadow of things to come. The Levitical code served as a precursor for a spiritual kingdom as illustrated in Jeremiah 31:31-34. Everything would change, including the way God’s people would worship Him.
Colossians 2:14 says Jesus has removed this old covenant to the cross, and Galatians 3:25 bluntly says we are no longer under that law. Hebrews 10:9 simply states that Jesus has removed the first covenant to provide a second that gives sanctification. We cannot use the Old Testament as a source of authority for our worship and practices. The outward forms of the Old Testament have been removed. Again, those things made by man are replaced by those made by God.
Remember the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4:20-24 regarding the proper place of worship. Jesus states that the place of worship will no longer matter, just that God’s followers come to Him with true hearts. Hebrews 12:18 says our mountain of worship cannot be touched by hands. It is spiritual and heavenly. These concepts are also related to Romans 2:29, I Corinthians 10:1-4, I Peter 2:5, and Hebrews 13:15. The focus is no longer on the physical. Rather it is on the spiritual and the heart.
When David wants to build God a temple, God, in I Kings 8:18, recognizes David’s intentions are good. II Samuel 7:6-7, however, records that God forbids David from going through with the construction of that temple despite those intentions. We can no more supersede God’s will in our worship that David could in constructing the temple. Setting all intentions aside, it comes down to what God has asked for.
We should no more want to use the Old Testament to justify instruments in our worship than we should want to include sacrificing lambs, burning incense, or requiring circumcision. The few verses that address worshiping God in congregational music specifically instruct us to sing from our hearts, making melody with the voices God made for us. According to Psalm 22:3, God has historically been enthroned upon the praises of His people. Do we enthrone Him with praises on our terms or His – worshiping Him with the melodies of our heart?
lesson by Tim Smelser