(I’ve somewhat rewrote this so if it looks different than what you originally read, that’s why.)
I read a lot of church/Christianity-related articles. Lately worship has been a big topic, particularly the whole “contemporary” vs. “traditional” debate. Yet there’s another side, less known in most church circles: The instrumental vs. a cappella issue.
I grew up in a sect of Christianity that says God only authorizes a cappella worship, those that used instruments were sinning, and were risking losing their salvation. They reasoned that other churches used instruments just because they selfishly and rebelliously wanted to. This sect thought other churches were simply ignoring what the Bible said. While I no longer am of that belief, I used to be. I used to be a lot. I used to argue with my Baptist grandmother, trying to convince her that using a piano and organ in church was a sin. It’s safe to say I’ve heard (and I one time wholeheartedly believed) every argument I heard on the issue of a cappella vs. instrumental worship. Let’s look at what worship is and why some reason it should only be a cappella.
What does worship mean, anyway? If someone is going to be concerned with what worship is or isn’t I’d recommend taking a close look at these verses.
- “sebo” (Mt. 15:9, Mk. 7:7) = “properly, personally esteem; to hold something in high respect.”
This is more of an attitude and motive than an external action.
- “proskuneo” (Jn. 4:24, Rev. 19:10) = “properly, to kiss the ground when prostrating before a superior; to worship, ready to fall down/prostrate oneself to adore on one’s knees”
Are you standing and worshipping? Or sitting in a pew? Or falling on your face before the Lord?
- “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (Jn 4:22-24). This is the ultimate command for Christian worship. If our spirits aren’t engaged then it’s not worship.
- God doesn’t change. “Because I, Yahweh, have not changed,…” (Mal. 3:6). If He didn’t change then, He hasn’t changed now. He hasn’t changed between the OT and NT either. From His own mouth, He hasn’t changed. This is important because in Psalm 150 (and numerous other places) worship with instruments is commanded.
- Worship is giving ourselves up for Christ; not limited to singing songs. “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” (Rom. 12:1)
Worship is much more than just going to church and singing along. The best book I’ve read on Biblical worship is “How to Worship a King,” by Zach Neese. Here’s some great excerpts regarding worship from his book:
“We have largely been content to let our denominations and our culture define worship for us. That is why there are so many different opinions about what is worship and how it should be done, but so little power in worship itself.”
“…we can build a beautiful facility, fill it with beautiful people, beautiful music, and wonderful programs, but if it is devoid of the presence of God it means absolutely nothing.”
“If worship is for man, then man is the object of worship. If man is the object of worship, then we are gods unto ourselves.
“Our worship communicates more to the world than you know! Our worship shows the world how valuable our God is.”
When we’re more concerned with obeying a rule about worship, for fear of our own salvation, is worship then about Him? Or ourselves?
The arguments saying instruments are not authorized are few and often repeated. Here are some of the more common ones:
“Jesus did away with the ‘old law’ and now we’re under a ‘new law.'” (Col.2:14, Eph. 2:15). First of all, the “law” is the Torah. Technically, Psalms (and 33 other books of the OT) are not “the Law.” Also, Jesus didn’t give us a new list of rules (laws) to follow, but a new covenant – one focused on grace, not law (Rom. 6:14, Gal 3-5). This is a whole other discussion though so I’ll move on…
“It specifically says ‘sing!'” Some cite passages in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 as definitively saying we are only to “sing” in worship. These passages are not discussing the subject matter of worship as a rule. They, nor the subject matter around them, use the words for “worship” we identified above. Using these passages to make a law about the use of instruments is “eisegesis” – interpreting a verse to fit a preconceived bias. (Read more about eisegesis at this link). In other words, these verses have been contorted to support a cappella-only doctrine.
“‘Psalm/psallo’ means heart-strings.” Find the English or Greek word for “heart-string” in the text for me, please. Some have tried to argue that “psallo” no longer meant plucked instrument by the time the church was established. Keep in mind Paul was well educated in the scripture. He was too well versed in *all* of the Scripture to have picked that word lightly. The fact is the New Testament, in the Greek, uses a word that means worshiping with a plucked instrument (1Cor 14:15, Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16).
“Instruments are a distraction” Actually, what we’re not used to is a distraction. The first time I took my wife (who grew up Baptist) to an a cappella service she was distracted by the lack of instruments. Not to mention the very high soprano singing above the congregation. This is a personally subjective issue that can’t be used to discredit the use of instruments.
The following are other arguments against the use of instrumental worship, that are based on a misunderstanding of what the Bible as a whole is saying. I’m not going to into depth with these individually. These ideas are rooted in reading the Bible through filtered glasses, which is an issue on its own. When you step back and read the Bible as a whole, realizing that the NT isn’t a law book, that we’re under grace not law, and the original language, these issues fall flat on their own.
“The NT church didn’t use instruments.” – There’s a lot of things they didn’t do. There’s a lot they did that some churches don’t do now. The inconsistencies with this are so many, it would warrant it’s own post.
“I’m not going to take a chance just in case.” In case of what? Salvation isn’t dependent on one’s accidentally keeping or breaking a perceived rule. This is a fear response. Perfect Love (God) drives out fear.
“The NT only says sing. By exclusion we can rule out all else.” The law of exclusion is a man-made interpretive device. I can “sing” in the car accompanied by radio. I can tell someone I was “singing” but still have a guitar in my hands. The church probably didn’t use four-part harmony either. The Bible is silent on the use of harmony. Why is that not excluded?
“It’s simply not authorized.” This can lead to a whole other post about legalism. I can think of quite a few things that are specifically authorized that this sect does and doesn’t do. But that’s legalism – and legalism is unscriptural.
What it boils down to is this: How do we understand what the scripture is saying? We have to look at the whole Bible, the whole book, the whole chapter, the surrounding passages, and most of all, the original language.
Hear me on this: I’m not saying it’s wrong or sinful to worship a cappella. Nor is it a sin to use instruments. What is a sin is to mis-teach Scripture and therefore make a burden of new rules that God never intended. It’s also unscriptural to continue obeying this perceived rule out of fear that if you break out the guitar you might (might) lose your eternal reward.
Now that we’ve defined worship, and dispelled some of the reasons why some think it’s wrong, we’ll examine some modern “fruit” of why instrumental worship is authorized by God. “You will know them by their fruits.” (Mt 7:15-18).