Saturday, June 9, 2012

What About Musical Instruments?

A few days ago I wrote a post entitled Hymns and Simple Church: Not a Simple Fit. Scott left an interesting comment to that post, asking, "I was curious do you know of any NT passages that prescribe or describe instruments being used to accompany singing in Christian worship gatherings?"

It's a great question because it's one that most of us never think about. We automatically assume that the use of musical instruments in church gatherings is fine. I grew up going to worship services that had beautiful organ music. Questioning that never came to mind.

Let's ask the question. What about musical instruments?

When we look at NT church gatherings we see singing. The most well-known passage describing this is Ephesians 5:18-20. Paul writes, "And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."

What about instrumental accompaniment? We don't see it anywhere in the NT that I know of (please correct me if I'm wrong on this one.)

What about the Old Testament? Interestingly, we find plenty of examples of musical instruments when we look there. The book of Psalms in particular is full of references to the use of instruments. For example, the final Psalm (150) says, "Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!"

This is an interesting situation. We see instruments in the OT but not the NT.

Let's ask a related question. What is the purpose of the church gathering? The NT's answer is clear: body edification. In light of that, we should ask whether or not musical instruments help or hinder edification. There is no easy answer to this question. On the one hand, many Christians truly enjoy listening to instruments as part of the gathering. However, these same instruments can be loud and dominating. They also have a tendency to create passivity on the part of the people. The active gathering can slip into a passive show of sorts. When church families sing with no musical accompaniment, more people tend to actually sing. Also, more folks feel free to bring songs to sing because no one has to know how to play the music that goes along with them.

What then is a good answer to all this?

It seems that musical instruments could be used some of the time when the church sings together. However, the biblical evidence suggests that this should be the exception rather than the rule. For example, during a gathering the body might sing four songs. Maybe one of those could be accompanied by an instrument. If a musically gifted person desired to share that gift, he or she could always sing a solo along with playing. The key is that the instrument(s) not take over the gathering.

Of course, there are all types of church gatherings. Some may be much more appropriate for instrumental usage than others. In the end, we should be careful to avoid the usual default of using instruments all the time in gatherings without even asking whether or not it is beneficial.

It's a question worth asking.

What do you think?


David Rogers said...

Rev. 5:8; 14:2; 15:2.

Also, check out the etymology of the term ψάλλοντες in Eph. 5:19.

Eric said...


You are correct to point out the use of musical instruments in those passages. However, I do not know about the direct application of those passages to today's church gatherings. The context is significantly different.

David Rogers said...


I agree it is not a slam-dunk, but in my understanding of ecclesiology, I see the eschatological Church as the prototype of which today's local assemblies are representations in microcosm. Heb. 12:22-23 play an important role here as well. I believe we are presently being built up (Eph. 2:19-22), on the way to achieving what is portrayed ideally in the heavenly images in Revelation. I do agree, in the meantime, though, we must always take into account, in our meetings, what contributes best to mutual edification.

Did you check out ψάλλοντες? (here is a good link: My Greek isn't very good, but from what I've been able to pick up, the phrase "singing and making melody in your heart" in Eph. 5:19 could potentially (along with other possibilities) be translated something like "heartfelt singing and stringed instrument playing."

Eric said...


Thanks so much for your response.

I agree with you about the eschatological church being the prototype. What glories we have to look forward to one day! My struggle, as I mentioned, is the application of what we read in Revelation for today's church bodies.

Keeping in mind both Revelation and passages from the OT, it seems that God enjoys beautiful music not just in voice but also by instruments. It is certainly possible that passages such as Ephesians 5 imply the use of instruments. The Greek you've pointed out gives this possibility a great deal of credibility.

As I think on church gatherings of today, it strikes me that we would all benefit from some songs with instruments and some without. The tendency is to go to extremes in one direction or another. We must avoid the instruments taking center stage and gatherings turning into a show of sorts. Instruments ought to foster edification as opposed to getting in the way of it.

The key may actually be how we go about using instruments as opposed to a strict yes/no approach.

On a different topic, are you still blogging anywhere?

David Rogers said...


That sounds like a good, balanced perspective to me.

I am currently on the list of regular contributors at SBC Voices, but I haven't written a post in a while. I do check in and comment there fairly often, though.

When I get through some of the assignments I am working on for my PhD studies I hope to find more time for blogging.

Eric said...


Thanks. I can understand how your doctoral studies are keeping you busy. God bless as you put in the hard work.