googlef5df56a28f2e4c4f.html Harps and the Heart of God

Saturday, February 23, 2008


The Richland Hills church of Christ in Texas shocked our fellowship by announcing they were adding an instrumental service in the Spring of 2007. Even conservative strongholds like Freed-Hardeman University have held unity discussions with the instrumental Christian Church back in the Fall of 2006. It is time that all members of the churches of Christ reconsider the historical and biblical reasons for our position on a cappella music.

This site will provide you with a historical context and the biblical hermeneutics to understand the issues. Content was provided by Jack Bower (Elder) of the King of Prussia PA., church of Christ. We are a non-instrumental church of Christ. The study of this material has significantly increased our congregations desire to continue using exclusively a cappella music.

We suggest you read the sections in the order presented to the left. If you would like a full copy of the information presented on this site, please e-mail:

God bless.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Membership Survey

About two-thirds of the members of the King of Prussia church of Christ have a strong preference for an a cappella worship service. About one-third would leave the church if an instrument were added; but only 30% of those who object, do so for scriptural reasons. In other words, the doctrinal and theological arguments and counter arguments about the silence of the Scriptures, as presented in this study and many like it, don’t really matter to over 70% of the membership. The preference for a non-instrumental worship is an acquired taste, evidenced by a strong correlation to years of church attendance. As a fellowship we have learned to love harmony! There was no correlation to age or being raised in the North or South. Given the dangers of using instruments in worship, it is not a poor spiritual taste to acquire. We simply need to be scripturally honest in our explanation of the practice to both members and visitors so that we do not worship in vain and teach “but the rules of men,” if our goal is to worship in spirit and in truth.

One of the issues that received extensive coverage in this paper was using instrumental music as a test of fellowship. It would appear from the survey that the arguments in favor of using the instrument as a test of fellowship are not working. Among the church members surveyed only 18% said that it was an issue of fellowship. Dividing the movement over this issue may still get headlines in fellowship publications like the Harding Graduate Bulletin of January 1998, but the message is falling on deaf ears. As a people of the Spirit, we are shaped not by theories we carry in our minds but by the stirring of God’s Spirit in our hearts. Our hearts tell us that this is not a faith issue.

Our Musical Calling: “Sing to the Lord a new song for he has done marvelous things (Ps 98:1)

The admonition to sing a new song to the Lord has motivated both songwriter and instrument builder. God’s interest in new songs keeps music culturally dynamic, ever adapting and inspiring our creativity. The four-part harmony, for example, that we enjoy today was a 12th century addition. It is interesting to note how the vitality of music can be strongly correlated to a strong and active church. A musically dead church will also be spiritually dead. Conversely, a musically alive church will be spiritually alive. Gospel music has a purpose. It is an expressive voice proclaiming God’s word, a healing voice reconciling the sinner to the Savior, a community builder and a teacher that reminds us of God love.[1] We pray you have found our research beneficial.

[1] Corbitt, J. Nathan, The Sound of the Harvest...and the Beat of the Street: Music in the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998). (Page numbers are not available because this was taken from a pre-publication copy.) The book by Professor Corbitt of Eastern College is highly recommended reading for those interested in the power and scope of music in the kingdom of God.

The risks of using instruments in worship

Many of the great reformers like John Calvin and Alexander Campbell warned of the dangers of using instrumental music in worship.[1] “Yet we should be very careful that our ears be not more attentive to the melody than our minds to the spiritual meaning of the words.”[2] John Calvin’s concern is reflected in 1 Cor 14:15: I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind.” The spiritual dangers of using instruments can be summarized in three arguments covered briefly at the beginning of this paper:

#1 The objective of worship is dialogue with God; to have a spiritual time of communication between God the Father and his children. We are to approach him with sincere hearts (Heb 10:22). Unfortunately, entertainment has become the worship goal for many faith groups. Concertizing is one of the major dangers of using instruments of any type in worship.[3] A common measure of entertainment is the clap test. If you feel the need to clap after the presentation is over, it was entertainment. The performing group, One Time Blind, for example, will ask the audience not to clap after each skit.

It is very interesting that musicians and pastors from other faith groups are quick to affirm that the musicians are in fact not performing.[4] They argue that playing an instrument in church is an act of service. Most strongly agree with the clap principle. Paul S. Jones is the organist and music director at Tenth Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. He has written an entire chapter (#4) in his book defending the use of instruments in worship. His position is as follows: “On the basis of Scripture, it appears that instruments can be employed in worship so long as they contribute appropriately and do not detract from the service and its purposes.” He acknowledges the same risks churches of Christ have with concertizing but believes the risks of a service becoming a performance is minimal.

The churches of Christ also do not have a chorus or solo performances for this reason. We don’t build elaborate sanctuaries or hang ornate paintings on the walls. We try to keep the focus entirely on God. The question is how can a church keep the use of instruments that accompany human singing from becoming a performance? The performance aspect probably cannot be totally eliminated; therefore, for the sake of the musician, it can be argued that they should not be used in worship. This is a much different argument than saying that it is a sin to sing a godly song on a guitar.[5]

#2 We are to worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23ff; Phil 3:3; Heb 8:2).[6] Instruments have no spirit (1 Cor 14:7) and therefore cannot worship God. They can be extensions of ourselves but there is the ever-present danger that we think the instrument can do the praising for us. Alfred Edersheim, NT scholar and Messianic Jew, puts it, “Properly speaking, the real service of praise in the temple was only with the voice.”[7] It is so easy for a musician to get into the music and forget the purpose for which it is being played. The danger is that we sin by worshipping the music that God created instead of God himself (Rom 1:25). For the proper motives of the musician who loves to perform the song, instruments should be omitted from the service.

#3 We are a priesthood of believers (Heb 10:19). The churches of Christ do not have a clergy. We believe that we are all equal before God, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). God wants all of us to sing and be happy in our singing (Jas 5:13). Yet within the body there are special gifts and special callings. In the list of spiritual gifts in 1 Cor 12:8-11 or in the list of functions 1 Cor 12:28, musicians are not mentioned. Music, it seems, is to be everyone’s gift from God regardless of talent, and therefore, all of the voices should be heard. God is a wordy God and it is the fruit of our lips that God wants. There is the danger that the instrument will cover the voices and the words. This is historically the source of the strong opposition to the organ - it detracts from the human voices. Followers of John Calvin were so concerned that the organ would mask the human voices that they had the organs removed and burned. John Calvin was also opposed to having a choir for the same reason.[8] All the voices of the congregation are to be heard. Calvin believed that our songs are acts of prayer, something the entire congregation must do.

[1] F. LaGard Smith, The Cultural Church (Nashville: 20th Century Christian, 1992), 200-01. “Reformers like John Calvin, John Knox, Ulric Zwingle and Cotton Mather.” (Martin Luther was a notable exception.)

[2] Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. by Ford Lewis Battles, Westminster Press, 1975, page 895 (Book III, Chapter XX, #32, Church Singing).

[3] Andy T. Ritchie, Jr., Thou Shalt Worship the Lord Thy God (Austin, Tx.: Firm Foundation Publishing House, 1969), 113.

[4] Jones, Paul. Singing and make music, Issues in church music today, P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, N.J., 2006, page 18

[5] The performance aspect of worship cannot be totally eliminated. For example, this is precisely why churches hire interesting and exciting preachers – we do not want to be bored. We tend to seek those preachers who are most proficient at speaking, have good stage presence, and can use technology in creative ways. We are curious about such sure-fire rejection of this performance aspect in worship. It is best to humbly and honestly admit that it is a part of our worship. It is the degree to which it is present that becomes problematic.

[6] Fletcher has a narrative view of John 4:23 rather than a specific mode of worship interpretation. The passage in context is aimed at deconstructing worship wars not promoting them further.

[7] Edersheim, Temple, 50.

[8] Donald K. McKim, Major Themes in the Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 308-09. Calvin’s views on the place of music in worship are stated in the prefaces to the 1542 and 1545 Psalters.

Instruments that accompany singing and those that replace it

“Pagan sacrificial music typically featured the frenzy-inducing sound of the loud double-reed instruments and the rhythms of orgiastic dancing. Words were superfluous. Temple music was different from pagan music in all these respects: words were primary to it, and they governed the rhythms; instrumental accompaniment was by stringed instruments that supported the monophonic vocal line…….never covering or distracting attention away from the words.”[1] It is critical to understand exactly what instrument was the primary source of the controversy. It was not stringed instruments like the harp that accompany human singing. It clearly and unequivocally was the organ, an instrument designed in 204 BC, in Alexandria for pagan worship that caused the conflict.[2] Even later during Christian times, “the organ came to be a symbol of strife among Disciples.”[3] The introduction of the organ in the church in the sixth century was also extremely controversial because it replaced human singing. It clearly had a different purpose than stringed instruments which aid human singing. After its introduction many religious leaders argued strongly against “the” instrument. Reference to the organ by church leaders like John Calvin can usually be differentiated by the word “the” before the word “instrument.”

[1] Stapert, Calvin R., A New Song for an Old World, Musical thought in the early church, Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2007, page 153.

[2] Wellesz, New Oxford History of Music, 408.

[3] Lester B. McAllister and William E. Tucker, Journey in Faith: A history of the Christian Church (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1975), 244.

Worship in Heaven - Does God sing??

Does God sing? Zephaniah 3:17 says he does. There is only one NT passage that describes worship before the throne of God (Rev 5). In this one passage of a visual image of the kind of worship that obviously pleases God, the song leaders (elders) are holding harps: Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints, and they sang a new song” (Rev 5:8-9). Some of the description is symbolic and some of it is not. John explains the symbolism of the bowls of incense. He does not imply that the throne, the elders, or the harps are symbolic. In fact, what we have here on earth should only be a copy of the real worship in heaven (Heb 9:11ff). Some scholars argue that harps are authorized in heaven but not here on earth. One has to wonder about the supposed logic of God’s approval of harps in the OT, disapproval in the NT, but then approving of them again in heaven. Surely the God who is one (Deut 6:4; Heb 13:8; Jas 1:17) is consistent throughout Scripture regarding worship that is pleasing to him. Again, polemics have caused an unnecessary contrast between the OT and the NT.

Another way the “silence of the Scriptures” is presented as an argument against instruments is by asking for authority to use instruments: Show by the New Testament that the instrument is authorized in worship.[1] The above passages show authorization by both example in Rev 5 and by command in Eph 5 and Col 3. The point is that the use of instrumental music is not a sin and should not be thought of in that context. The critical issue is our attitude towards the music. Is it entertainment or authentic worship of God and his Son Jesus Christ?

[1] Lewis, Jack, A Cappella Worship in the Assembly, Harding Graduate School Bulletin, Jan. 1998. One could ask the very same question about the current four-part harmony in churches of Christ.

The use of the word "Psalm" in scripture

As previously mentioned, ado is the Greek word for singing without instruments and it is freely used with the verb form of the word psalm (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16) in the writings of Paul. Again, there is virtually no historical evidence to suggest that the meaning of the word “psalm” changed from including instruments to being exclusively vocal singing by the time of Christ.[1]

Certainly God did not change and what pleases him in song did not change as the plan of salvation was revealed. Accompanied singing was not commanded in the Law of Moses or exclusively linked to temple worship. The coming of Christ did not terminate accompanied singing. Commentators in the past have often sought to distinguish sharply between worship under the Old Covenant and worship under the New Covenant, deciphering rules appropriate to each.[2] James Bales is a good example. In his book, Instrumental Music and New Testament Worship (Searcy, Ark.: Resource Publications, 1987) he seeks to defeat all arguments that reference the NT use of the word psalms by linking it to the Law of Moses or to worship in the temple. He suggests that the word psalm does not mean the book of Psalms or specific psalms of David (p. 61). We reject this entirely. Given the high frequency of Psalms quotations in the NT, it is difficult to see how Bales comes to this conclusion except by a predisposed bias against the word psalm. No OT book is cited more often as a warrant for understanding the life of Jesus than the book of Psalms. Bales also argues that the meaning of the word psalm changed between the OT and the NT (p. 65) which we have previously critiqued and found lacking in substantive support.

There is a hint of the significance of music to the joy of the church in the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15:25: “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.” Christ himself and others like Luke and Paul, continually make reference to the Psalms, David’s book of accompanied singing, without the need for clarification of the word:

Jesus (Luke 20:42): “David himself declares in the Book of Psalms . . .”

Jesus (Luke 24:44): “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.”

Luke (Acts 13:33, 35): “As it is written in the second Psalm . . . . So it is stated elsewhere” [Ps 2:7].

Paul (Eph 5:19): “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.”[3]

Paul (Col 3:16): “. . . as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs . . . .”

[1] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, trans. by Arndt and Gingrich, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 891. Bauer quotes a non- Christian by the name of Lucian to prove that the meaning of psalms did not change by the time of Christ. Lucian says, “It is impossible to pipe without a pipe or to psallein without a lyre or to ride without a horse.” The translators of Bauer also mention Eric Werner as the leading writer on understanding the proper historical context for the church fathers’ opposition to instrumental music.

[2] This raises the thorny issue of the relationship of the OT to the NT. This is well beyond our current scope but suffice it to say that depending on one’s approach to Scripture (hermeneutic), one will either find continuity or discontinuity. We argue for more continuity on this music issue based on the nature of God which will be discussed below. There is nothing in the NT to suggest that every aspect of OT worship was canceled after the coming of Christ. The sacrificing of animals seems to be the main difference between OT and NT worship.

[3] Some scholars argue that Eph 5:19 is a Biblical mandate to sing the Psalms in worship. Jones, Paul S. Sing and Make Music, page 193. To Jones, singing the Psalms is “not an optional activity.”

The Problems of Trying to be a New Testament Church Musically

Members of churches of Christ sometimes use the expression “We are a new testament church” meaning we attempt to follow the doctrinal teachings at the time the church was formed in the first century. Some Christians would even like to worship the way the apostles worshipped, but most members do not speak or sing in Greek and Hebrew. We cannot duplicate the musical worship of the first century church, nor are we commanded to sing as they did.[1] They used an eight-note scale and we use a twelve-note scale. It is unrealistic to think that singing in the first century was the only singing acceptable to God. Music theory has advanced over time and so has our singing. The admonition to sing a “new song” in Psalm 149:1 would support the progressive nature of music in worship. To properly understand the doctrinal position of the early church, most scholars turn to the writings of the early church fathers. Several of them condemned the use of instruments in the same manner that Paul in 1 Corinthians Chapter 8 condemned the eating of food sacrificed to idols.[2]

Obviously Paul thought that food sacrificed to idols was enough of a problem that he addressed it in his letter to the Corinthians. To our knowledge Paul did not place the association of instruments with pagan worship in the same category as food sacrificed to idols. For example, Paul uses instruments as an illustration in 1 Corinthians 14:7 to make a point about speaking in tongues but does not make any negative association with the flute or harp: “Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there a distinction in the notes?” The church fathers had a problem of the close association with instruments and paganism but Paul clearly did not. Should this problem of association be of concern to us today? Possibly yes, given our culture’s musical preferences. But those wanting to be “New Testament” Christians should be more concerned to promote the observance of foot washing, head coverings, fasting, or eating meat than in the use of instruments. Paul repeatedly used the word psalm or accompanied singing to describe singing without any effort at clarification. To Paul’s readers, instrumental accompaniment was proper and acceptable to the extent that psalm was synonymous with singing. It simply was not an issue Paul needed to address.

One of the most complete and noteworthy studies on the use of the word psalm(s) in the NT was by Tom Burgess. His book entitled, Documents on Instrumental Music was printed in 1966. Mr. Burgess contacted the following sources to inquire about the meaning of the word “psalm.” Specifically, he asked “for any evidence to suggest that the word psalm(s) in English was ever intended to exclude the idea of instrumental accompaniment”:

#1. Eight English dictionaries said “no evidence.”

#2. Nine Greek lexicons said it was “to sing to musical accompaniment” or “to

sing with or without accompaniment.” None of the lexicons excluded the

instrument nor did any of the following:

#3. Thirty commentators, encyclopedists, grammarians agreed with the


#4. Ten professors of the Greek language.

#5. Nine translators.

#6. Eleven early ecclesiastical and contemporaneous writings.

The independent evidence is overwhelming. Seventy-seven independent sources confirm that the word “psalm” never excluded instrumental accompaniment to singing. The scholars who disagreed with all of the other sources regarding the meaning of the word “psalm” were mostly from the a cappella churches of Christ.[3] One has to wonder if their perspective is more polemical than not considering the evidence against them. In the last chapter of the book by Mr. Burgess, in the very last paragraph, he pleads with members of the churches of Christ to stop “raising unnecessary barriers” that divide the church.

[1] Here is a site that tries to duplicate the music used in scripture:

[2] James William McKinnon, “The Church Fathers and Musical Instruments” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1965). The entire dissertation is devoted to the condemnation of instruments by the church fathers.

[3] M. C. Kurfees, “Instrumental Music in the Worship or the Greek verb psallo, Philologically and historically examined.” The Gospel Advocate Co. 1922. also Firm Foundation, May 8, 1956.