by Matthew W. Bassford
I think the use of musical instruments in our assemblies is a worthwhile subject for a couple of different reasons. First, it’s something that stands out about our services as compared to church services elsewhere. Visitors to our assemblies are nearly guaranteed to notice that we only sing together, that a praise band or a piano is nowhere in sight. It’s useful to offer them an explanation of why we do things this way.
Second, if we want to continue our tradition of a-cappella singing, we have to continue to teach on that tradition, to explain why it’s an important aspect of our obedience to God. It’s easy to assume that everybody here gets it, but too often, that assumption is unjustified. With these things in mind, let’s examine instrumental music in worship.
From a Biblical perspective, I see four main problems with the practice. The first is that it doesn't follow the pattern. For evidence of why this is important, look at II Timothy 1:13. Here, Paul tells us that his instructions to Christians aren’t random and unique to each individual. Instead, when we put them all together, they constitute a pattern, a coherent system of worship and service that Timothy, and indeed all Christians, are supposed to follow.
Because this is so, whenever we want to know if something is acceptable to God or not, all we have to do is look at the pattern. If it’s part of what we see in the New Testament, we should do it. If it isn’t part of what we see in the New Testament, we shouldn’t do it.
Within the New Testament, there are about half a dozen passages that talk about singing praise to God as part of worship. Some of them we’ll look at this morning; some we won’t. However, they’re there, and they make it clear that a-cappella worship is part of the divinely ordained pattern.
By contrast, when we search through the New Testament, we never find anything said about Christians using musical instruments in worship. The instrument isn’t part of God’s pattern for us. Of course, there are plenty of churches that pay no heed to this and use instruments in worship anyway, but that isn’t for us. In this congregation, we don’t want to follow ourselves. We want to follow God. We want to be Christians simply, and to be simply Christians. That means that we leave the instrument to others.
Second, instrumental worship is problematic because it doesn't teach and admonish. Here, consider Colossians 3:16. According to this text, one of the main reasons that we are to sing to one another is because we learn from our song worship. It builds us up in the faith. In fact, it’s possible for someone to be taught the gospel merely by listening to our singing. On the other hand, no one ever learned the gospel from an instrument.
Let me give you an example. Back when I was in law school, I was leaving my apartment one day when I heard somebody playing a flute. I listened for a moment, and I recognized the melody as the tune for the hymn “Something for Jesus”. The flutist was very good. They did a beautiful job. However, if somebody who didn’t know Jesus had heard them playing, that beautiful melody would have taught them nothing.
When we sing, we’re supposed to listen to the words. We’re supposed to take the meaning to heart. A-cappella singing is perfectly suited to accomplishing this goal. By contrast, no instrument ever created can add to the meaning of a hymn. It can only be a distraction from it.
The third problem with using instruments in worship is that it undermines "one another". Let’s spend some time reflecting on the words of Ephesians 5:18-19. Notice that as described here, the biblical model of worship isn’t a bunch of Christians passively listening to a performance. It’s ordinary Christians singing to one another.
In many ways, this resembles the Bible’s teaching on ordinary Christians studying the word and figuring out God’s will for themselves. This teaching is so important because most of the religious world believe that ordinary Christians can’t do it themselves. They say that we can’t figure the Bible for ourselves, so we need a priest or a pastor to tell us what it says. Similarly, the practice of instrumental worship implies that the singing of ordinary Christians isn’t good enough, that we need an organist or a praise band to do it right.
Brethren, I don’t believe either one of those things! When I’m in one of our Bible classes, what I hear is ordinary Christians figuring out the word for themselves. Maybe we aren’t great Bible students by ourselves, but when we come together, the class’s comments reveal great wisdom and insight into the Scriptures. We don’t have clergy here because we don’t need clergy. God’s word is our birthright.
In the same way, during our song worship, I hear God’s people doing a great job of praising and glorifying Him. Maybe by ourselves, we aren’t great singers. I’m sure not! However, when we come together, our combined singing is beautiful and edifying.
That’s God’s plan for us. He wants us to be a people of song. His worship is our birthright too. Whether they realize it or not, people who want to bring in the instrument want to take that birthright away. They want us to sit quietly and let the professionals do it for us because the professionals do a better job. I think that would be a terrible shame.
Finally, instrumental worship doesn't help the church grow. I want to explore this topic by way of analogy, using Psalm 33:16-17. This passage highlights another way in which the Israelites wanted to be like the nations around them. Those nations won their wars with warhorses and chariots, so the Israelites wanted warhorses too.
The psalmist warns, though, that warhorses were false hope for victory. The Israelites couldn’t succeed by imitating their neighbors. They needed to succeed by being different and trusting in God.
Sadly, there are many Christians today who look at things like the ancient Israelites did. They look at these big denominational churches that use the instrument, and they argue that if we start using instrumental music, we’ll grow and become big like them.
However, that way of thinking is false hope. If you’ve got horses, that doesn’t mean you’re going to win the war. After all, the other guy has horses too! In the same way, if we were to adopt the instrument, that doesn’t mean that our church would get super-big. After all, many other churches in town have the instrument too. It only would put us on the same footing as them.
In fact, it would put us on a worse footing. Those other congregations are bigger, so they can afford a better band and a more impressive show. They have decades of experience in the spectacle of instrumental worship that we don’t have. How in the world are we going to grow by doing the same thing they’re doing, only worse?
Like the Israelites, we don’t succeed by becoming like those around us. We succeed by continuing to be different and trusting in God. We show that trust by obeying His word, by worshiping Him with our voices and nothing else.