In Response to an Email re Instrumental Music

bach.jpgI reader emailed me some questions on my thoughts re instrumental music. And I’m at home fending off a kidney stone attack — doped up on Oxycodone — and it seems like a good idea to respond via post as I’m sure others have the same questions. But then, maybe it’s the opiates talking.

I … wanted to let you know I appreciate your comments, sincerity, and call to unity for Christ’s church. I found your web site while studying on marriage/divorce/remarriage and found you answered a number of questions I had concerning the more traditional church of Christ beliefs.

I have read your information for elders and found it to be beneficial to me.

Recently I have been reading your blog and comments on the matter of instrumental music (I also serve as a song leader and we too are a cappella). I have 3 questions/comments.

1) In a plea for unity, why can we not all agree to sing? I have discussed this with no one who argues it is wrong for us just to sing. Could this be one reason the early church sang only? On the other hand the instrument is what opens the door of division. If this is dividing(a stumbling block) why would we not cut in out?

The same question was asked by Ralph Gilmore in his debate with Christian Church minister David Faust at Freed Hardeman University a few months ago. I thought the point Br. Faust made in response was compelling. He asked Br. Gilmore why his church didn’t use just one cup and eliminate its Sunday school program to be united with those churches that consider this wrong? It’s a good question.

But this is not the pot calling the kettle black. Rather, it’s a way to point out that unity cannot be achieved by yielding to the scruples of those among us who impose the most rules. I mean, around here, such a strategy would require my church (an a cappella congregation) to give up its —

* Fellowship hall

* Kitchen

* Sunday school

* Support for missionaries who believe in the literal indwelling of the Spirit

* Campus ministry

* Children’s worship

* Female co-teen minister (with her husband)

* Multiple cups

* Multiple loaves

* Serving communion from behind the congregation

* Clapping

* Overhead projection of songs

We’d have to cooperate as the non-institutional churches insist. We’d have to give up support for Christian colleges. We’d have to saw the cross off the top of our building. And on and on the list goes.

You see, Paul’s instructions for how to get along despite disagreement don’t urge anything like this. Rather, in Romans 14 he taught both sides to accept the other, both those seeking to impose a rule and those wanting not to impose it.

Now, he also told us not to tempt our brothers into sin. But when my church claps, we aren’t tempting the non-clapping churches in town to do the same. Trust me, they feel no peer pressure from us!

I addressed this aspect of the question in more detail in these posts from the Amazing Grace lesson series —

Scruples, Part 1

Scruples, Part 2

At a deeper level, if we yield to the scruples of all who impose more rules than we do, we encourage the notion that the only way we can get along is to be the same, which violates the teaching of Galatians, as I’ve explained in these lessons from the Amazing Grace lesson series —

The Scary Lesson of Galatians, Part 0.5

The Scary Lesson of Galatians, Part 1

The Scary Lesson of Galatians, Part 1.5

The Scary Lesson of Galatians, Part 2

The Scary Lesson of Galatians, Part 2.5 (Further on Marks of the Church)

At a very practical level, the fact is that the other churches in town will treat us as pariahs even though we yield to their scruples, just because they know we disagree and because we teach contrary to their views.

The church I grew up in was the product of a split over the anti-institutional issue in the 1950s. To preserve fellowship with the non-institutional churches in the area (we were the only pro-institution church), we supported the local orphans home by separate contribution. And yet we were treated as damned, not because we practiced error, but because we had the wrong “position” on the issue. Such is the peversity of our legalism.

On other hand, if we were to adopt an instrumental worship service (which we’ve not done nor made plans to do), we’d also provide a non-instrumental service so that, as commanded in Rom 14, we’d not compel our members who find the instrument a sin to worship contrary to their consciences. But we’d expect them to treat the instrumental worshipers as brothers in Christ, and we’d expect our instrumental worshipers to treat the a cappella worshipers as brothers in Christ.

You see, the solution to unity is not church politics or conflict avoidance but the gospel — the fact that Jesus died so that sinners could go heaven.

2) As I read the account of the conversion of the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:24 scripture states Paul and Silas were placed in stocks. Later in vs 25 it states they were praying and singing hymns to God. I assume this to be a cappella singing since they were in stocks and playing an instrument would have been unlikely. Even though not involved in a worship service, they were worshipping.

I agree that they were surely worshiping a cappella. I doubt the prisoners had lyres in a Roman prison cell! And I’d even agree that it’s likely all the First Century churches worshiped a cappella. That’s certainly what history teaches.

But I don’t believe that such examples are in any sense binding. Here’s the mistake we sometimes make.

Without a doubt, approved examples tell us what is permissible. Is it permissible to send a missionary? Yes, the church in Antioch did this with the Holy Spirit’s approval. It’s okay.

But examples are not commands. Only commands are commands. Therefore, even though Jesus washed the feet of his apostles, we don’t have to do this. Would it be permissible? Yes, the example plainly so proves. Is it mandatory? No. Examples don’t create commands.

Therefore, we are not compelled by examples to (for example) —

* Wear sandals

* Maintain an order of widows

* Appoint seven deacons over a food distribution program

* Participate in love feasts

* Require our preachers to support themselves

* Ordain missionaries by the laying on of hands

* Have elders ordained by an evangelist

* Preach only in the evening

* Hold communion in an upper room

And yet there are those who insist on nearly each of this examples. Well, no one insists on sandals.

The fundamental problem with the notion of “binding examples” is that no one can tell you what the rule is for which examples are binding and which are not. And therein lie the seeds of division and legalism.

3) As I read the passages on music in Galatians and Ephesians, there seems to be an emphasis on the heart. The music we sing is to have an individual effect on the heart of the one singing. Some even refer to this as strumming the chords of the heart.

Thanks again for your efforts

I agree. But nothing keeps instrumental music from touching the heart. I mean, I’ve heard Handel’s “Messiah.”

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I’ve heard Bach’s “Passacaglia and Fugue.” If Bach doesn’t move you, well, you may be beyond moving! YouTube Preview Image

Bach, a devout Lutheran, always wrote his music to glorify God. The manuscript for this piece has several devotional annotations, as pointed out here.

Or Mozart’s Kyrie in his Great Mass in C Minor —

YouTube Preview Image

Or more recently, MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine” —

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And, of course, in congregational worship, the instruments are played with the singing, not in lieu of singing. Therefore, the heart is moved by both the words and the music.

Despite all the rhetoric, the fact is that instrumental music or — better yet — vocal music accompanied by instruments can certainly attune the heart to God.

Brother, I appreciate your heart and your willingness to discuss these important issues. I hope I’ve fairly answered your questions.

I certainly don’t believe that anyone has to use an instrument to acceptably worship God. I just think the arguments that seek to require a cappella singing are not only wrong, but they lead to a legalism that forces us to divide and divide again over every petty issue some preacher or editor gets excited about.

It’s way past time to get past all that and get busy serving Jesus as a truly united body.

PS — Readers, I’m done with instrumental music for a while. We’re moving on to other subjects. (But then, maybe it’s the opiates talking.)

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to In Response to an Email re Instrumental Music

  1. Nick Gill says:

    Dear Jay,

    I respect your desire to stop having to beat the IM drum. I must ask, though: Have you read "Let All the Earth Keep Silence" by Phil Sanders? It is his treatment of the "authority of silence" issue, and he asserts that it "has been out nearly 20 years (and frankly remains unanswered)."

    Have you written anything in response to his assertions about silence? I've read it, and it troubles me greatly because I don't know how to tell when silence is prohibitive and when silence may be "hushed" by an expedient.

    Thanks in advance…
    Nick Gill
    Frankfort, KY

  2. Kent says:


    Thanks for your work again. I appreciate this post as well as all of the others I have read.

    The thing that gets me is in how some view unity. Unity does not mean that we all have to believe the same thing about every single item or that we all have to have the exact same practices. I preached at a church for a couple years in Louisville, KY and I was unified with the people of that church. However, my beliefs on certain points of doctrine were vastly different than the views of most of the other people in the church. We were in agreement, though, about the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord, though, and so we were able to function together. It just pains me that there are those who place tests of fellowship where God himself has not placed them. You are exactly right that this is the Galatian heresy. The conservatives do not see it, though, and I fear that there is no persuading them.


  3. Chris C says:

    You have my deepest sympathy. I'm on the six year plan with kidney stone attacks and it is sure no fun. I pray you heal soon. By the way, you make more sense stoned than most do sober.

  4. Alan says:

    I hope you feel better soon!

  5. Zack says:

    I had to have my wife hide the left over hydrocodone from my last trip to the doctor. Those pills breathed new life into the Pink Floyd song that goes "I've become, comfortably numb."

    Anyhoo, your plan for unity seems like it might work if everybody who disagrees on some unparticipatable issue attends a church acceptable to him/her, thereby sharing in the blessed Christian union from afar… but this in no way allows a Christian whose conscience will not allow him/her to participate in instrumental singing to meet on Sunday with the banjo camp church down the road (and scripture says a bad conscience is condemnation Rom. 14:23). [Note to self: if the church I attend ever insists on using instruments, I'll insist they be banjos] While Christian union from afar seems like it would be better than no Christian union, this still appears to fall short of the union described in scripture -"that they all may be one" (Jn. 17), or "Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1 Cor. 1:10). One answer to this falling short of the unity in diversity (on the level of churches) method would be to say that all of the objectors need to suck it up despite their opinions and participate even though it may damage their consciences, or all need to stop demanding anything for unity beyond trust that a real Jesus died, was buried, and was raised (The Mormons believe that a real Jesus died, was buried, and raised). It seems to me that any Christian who takes the Bible seriously draws some line beyond which they cannot partake with a certain group in fellowship.

    It seems to me that the unity vision of Rom. 14-15 is not only about interchurch unity but also about intrachurch unity. There is some point at which the "strong" must refrain from imposing their stuff on the "weak," in a corporate worship setting.

  6. Zack says:

    What I really meant to say was that everybody is an anti, including you, brother. So what do we do?

  7. Jay Guin says:

    Unity in diversity isn't as hard as many would contend.

    First, it's hardly essential that we all be able to worship together. We tend to think of "church" as the assembly and so, to be united, we have to worship at the same time and place.

    But if we recognize that the NT focus is more on service, then it's easy to see a path to a very practical, realized unity — we work together in God's mission.

    Differing views on worship have no impact on how to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

    Moreover, we can even be members of the same congregation and have differing views on worship. Many a church has multiple services in multiple styles.

    I admit it would be best if we could worship as one. And there's a path that leads in that direction —

    1. We learn grace and so learn to accept as brothers those who worship differently from us.

    2. We learn God's mission, and so work together in God's mission at every opportunity. And understanding God's mission helps us to understand God's heart and hence his priorities.

    3. We learn humility and so study together, with genuinely open hearts and minds.

    We'll still disagree over all sorts of things, but we'll disagree a whole lot less.

  8. Thomas Adams says:

    Could not all subjects be settled with Gods word. Col 3:16 and Eph 5:19 tell us to sing Psalms. What is Psalms? The etymology of the word Psalms is to sing with the harp, to play with stringed instruments. We as members of the Lords church understand baptism to mean immersion due to the fact we studied the original language and applied it properly. There is reference in the N.T. to singing with or without instruments. So in order to a part of an answer to Jesus prayer in John 17, we should learn to study Gods word better. Then we will be able to serve our Jesus. Thank You!

  9. Jay Guin says:


    Actually, I'm persuaded that by the First Century psallo just meant to sing without any implications as to instruments yes or no.

    On the other hand, I entirely agree that the scriptures are quite enough to give us the guidance we need to know that God doesn't care about instruments either way.

    However, he does care quite a lot about our persistence in dividing over such things, and there will be a high price to pay for it.

  10. Pat says:

    Could it be that the reason God didn't specify instruments in NT times was because He figured He got the issue settled during the OT days?

  11. Jay Guin says:


    That's not a bad theory. After all, the early church met in the temple courts — which included instrumental music and choirs. Even Paul prepared to participate in the temple service late in his career.

    We often impose a far-too-strict line between Old and New Testament theologies. As I've been trying to show in the Surprised by Hope series of posts, many of the lessons taught by the Old Testament are very much still wth us.

    Ultimately, though, I think the answer is found in the fact that instrumental music is just not the sort of thing Jesus died to deal with. He had far more important concerns in mind. We trivialize his sacrifice when we declare that he died so we could worship according to a set of rules hidden amongst the silences and inferences.

  12. Nick Gill says:

    Patrick Mead and Josh Graves did a really good sermon series called The Heart of Worship that discusses a cappella music.

    We like to pretend that there were no sociological motives driving our division, division that was doctrinally papered over by the Authority of Silence and the Mission Society and the Instrument arguments.

    I want to ask everyone that brings up church history on the music issue to examine the historical documents with the following question in mind: How do the Church Fathers support their decisions about the instrument? How do Calvin and Luther support their decisions?

    They don't use Scripture.

    Jesus died to save the world. IM is not a problem that the world needs to be saved from.

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  14. Ryan says:

    I find the 3rd item interesting—that somehow the focus on the heart (which is certainly biblical) disqualifies instruments. The way this is often expressed is in a dichotomy between “mechanical instruments” and a “spiritual voice”. This, to me, sounds quasi-Gnostic/platonic; where anything material is considered evil or less than. But I find this line of reasoning funny because no one claims a mechanical instrument can worship—I have stared at my piano for days wondering when it would start worshipping—alas, to no avail. What possibly could the source of an instruments song be?—the heart of the one who depresses the keys?—no!

  15. Jay Guin says:


    That's very insightful. It's is kind of Gnostic/Platonic. And I really like your thought that the instrument itself cannot worship. Therefore, whoever is playing is certainly making melody in his heart.

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