I was still reflecting on that Christian Chronicle ad as this dream came to me. Two men were debating the issue, a supporter of instrumental music (Mr. IM) and a supporter of exclusively a cappella music (Mr. AC). The two men seem to have been friends, so this debate was more pleasant than most.
IM seemed intent on coming up with a book, chapter, and verse argument for instrumental music for some reason.
AC: I appreciate your inviting me to lunch to discuss your views on instrumental music. As you know, this is a subject that’s been very close to my heart for a long time, and I’m sure I can answer any questions you might have.
IM: Thanks. I know you’re busy. I just wanted to run a few ideas past you and see where I might be in error.
AC: Sure. I love a good Bible discussion! Fire away!
IM: OK. Let’s start with Ephesians 5:18-21. That’s the passage used in the ad, right?
AC: You remember well, my friend. It’s a central proof passage.
IM: And it’s about congregation worship, right?
AC: I think so. That’s what the ad said. Clearly, Paul was writing to people singing to each other–not in the shower!
IM: Well, I’m not so sure myself, but for purposes of this discussion, I’ll agree with your interpretation. OK?
IM: Verses 19-20 say, “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Now, I think we both agree that “psalms” is a reference to the Psalms in the Old Testament written by David and others, right?
AC: Right. I think I know where you’re headed …
IM: Let me make my point and then you can jump all over me.
In classical Greek, “psallo” meant to play an instrument or to sing to the accompaniment of an instrument, right?
AC: Again, you know I’ve heard this all before …
IM: Please be patient with me. Just let me get the words out.
Now, I think you a cappella guys have pretty convincingly shown that by the First Century, psallo meant to sing. It’s neutral as to whether an instrument is involved. So the command “to sing” or to psallo says nothing about the instrument.
AC: You must have read one of my tracts!
IM: But the Old Testament books got their names from the Septuagint, right? I mean the names go back centuries before Christ. In fact, the names may well predate the Septuagint, going back to when Greek became the international language following Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Middle East, including Palestine.
IM: Well, “psalmos” or “psalm” as applied to the Psalms is much, much older than the First Century. In fact, it goes back to a time when psallo referred to singing with an instrument. Psalmos is just the noun form. As used as a name for the poetry of David, it actually refers to verse written to be sung to instrumental accompaniment. That’s the meaning of “psalm” as applied to the Psalms.
Therefore, when Paul implores the Ephesians to sing “psalms” he means the word in the Old Testament sense. He quite literally was saying “sing songs written to be played to instrumental accompaniment”!
Or we could the definition from Strong’s Dictionary: sing “a sacred ode accompanied with the voice, harp or other instrument”!
AC: Well, the Psalms were originally written for the temple service, and God commanded that instruments be used there. But that no more applies to New Testament worship than the commands to sacrifice bulls and goats found in the Psalms. You really are comparing apples and oranges.
IM: No, I’m just doing a word study to see what Paul told the Ephesian church to do. He told them to sing psalms, and psalms were written to be sung to an instrument. The very word carries that meaning!
AC: It’s just such a contrived theory. He said “sing” not “rock out”!
IM: I never suggested such a thing, but there’s more.
He also said they should “speak to one another” using psalms. We often ignore the impact of this phrase. We assume that the singing is unto God only, but the songs are in fact instruction given by one Christian to another. Isn’t that right?
AC: Well, it’s both. Some songs are purely vertical, that is, directed to God, but some have a horizontal component, where we speak to each other.
IM: I think you’re right, but in this passage, Paul was emphasizing the horizontal nature of Christian hymnody. It’s not just sing to please God. It’s sing in order to instruct your brother. Right?
IM: Well, let’s look at what instructions the Psalms give.
The last psalm, Psalm 150, says,
(Psa. 150) Praise the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. 2 Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. 3 Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, 4 praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute, 5 praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. 6 Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. Praise the LORD.
These are the words Christians are commanded to speak to one another. These are instructions from God!
Now, it would be easy to argue that these psalms died with the temple worship, except that Paul commanded the church to speak to one another in these very words.
And I know you know that there are dozens of Psalms like this that urge the listeners to use instruments to bring glory to God!
AC: This is just too much! There are Psalms that command us to sacrifice animals! Are you suggesting that we have to do that? For example,
(Psa. 66:13-15) I will come to your temple with burnt offerings and fulfill my vows to you– 14 vows my lips promised and my mouth spoke when I was in trouble. 15 I will sacrifice fat animals to you and an offering of rams; I will offer bulls and goats. Selah
IM: No. You make a good point. But we have to be disciplined about which parts of the Psalms we keep and which we treat as abrogated by the New Testament.
The New Testament tells us that the sacrificial system has been replaced by the sacrifice of Jesus–and by our sacrifices of good works and praise to Jesus. Therefore, we’ve been specifically told that the sacrificial system is over.
But we’ve not been told that the use of instruments is over. And we can’t just assume that to be true. Rather, if God tells me to teach my brother by commanding him to worship with instruments, that seems to be what I’m to do–unless something else proves otherwise.
But I’m arguing from the very passage on which you’ve built your case for a cappella music. And I’ve shown an argument–a persuasive one, I think–showing authority for instruments, indeed, a command. And your whole argument hinges on the absence of authority.
AC: But you can’t be right! I mean, the history of the Christian Ch …
AC: But according to histo …
AC: Don’t you shush me! I’ve politely listened to your arguments. Now you need to listen to mine!
IM: No, I don’t. We came to study the Bible. You’re not talking about the Bible. If you want to argue from history, then I’ll tell you what Luther said on the subject, or countless church councils, or what great evangelists said. I mean, I’ve got history, too.
But history is completely beside the point, isn’t it. Aren’t you all the people who claim to be silent where the Bible is silent?
AC: Yes, but …
IM: Shush! Be silent. Be true to your principles, if you really believe in them. I’m willing to play by your rules, which I think is more than fair. My church has no such tradition. But I think there’s great wisdom in what you all teach. I’m just asking you to be true to who you say you are.
I mean, until you start binding Justin Martyr and Tertullian into the back of your Bibles as the Church of Christ apocrypha and declare these men inspired and mistakenly left out of the canon, you just can’t make that argument.
AC: [Lost in thought.]
You’re right. But doesn’t it bother you. I mean, I know you. You’ve read the arguments. You know that for 1,000 years the Western churches were a cappella and the Orthodox Churches remain a cappella even today. Doesn’t that concern you at all?
IM: No, it just doesn’t. There are two reasons.
First, I just don’t think we can pick our principles depending on the arguments we want to make. If it’s the Bible only, then it’s the Bible only. I’ve seen the many heresies taught by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches relying on those same uninspired authors, and don’t want to make the same mistakes!
I don’t think I’m wise enough to decide which uninspired teachings are apostolic and which are not. I think true humility is trusting God to tell us all we need to know in the pages of his Bible.
Second, it’s entirely possible that the a cappella tradition of the early church was based on reasons that no longer apply–and thus weren’t preserved in scripture.
We know from pre-New Testament history that the Jewish synagogues were a cappella, because the rabbis wanted to carefully distinguish synagogue worship from temple worship–to make clear that the worship in the synagogue in no way replaced the temple services.
We also know that the early church designed their early assemblies around the synagogue pattern. But this was a man-made pattern. It was designed to serve a time and place. God had no say in the pattern of synagogue worship.
The earliest Christian churches were made up entirely of Jews. It’s hardly surprising they were a cappella. Why change a practice with deep cultural roots?
As Gentiles were added to the church, Jews were also part of the assemblies. Again, why change practice?
And we know that some early Christian writers explained the rationale for a cappella music as an effort to distinguish their worship from the animalistic, sensual worship common in the pagan religions.
But both of these rationales were based on the local culture. We no longer need to yield to the scruples of a Jewish element in our churches. In fact, even Jews we convert usually come from an instrumental tradition.
In modern culture, instrumental music can certainly be animalistic! But it can also be ethereal and Godly. Some of my deepest moments of worship and reflection have been while listening to Ormandy’s orchestral transcriptions of Bach’s Christian music or Handel’s Messiah. For that matter, I love DC Talk and Jars of Clay (most of it! I hate the rap.)
I have no idea what First Century music was like, but I know that modern instrumental music can be the furthest thing from animalistic! Some is deeply spiritual–much more spiritual than some that Stamps-Baxter quartet music you made me listen to the other week!
AC: I love Stamps-Baxter, but that’s because I grew up with it. I’ll admit, it’s out of step with modern styles. But it reminds me of visiting my grandparents’ old church, dinner on the grounds …
IM: Well, that’s my point. We can’t tell someone that their taste in music is wrong. I mean, if Stamps-Baxter [visibly shudders] brings you closer to God, then it just does. It’s like fingernails on chalkboard to me.
But if I tell you that my church’s instrumental music helps be feel closer to God, helps me worship better, you can’t deny that–regardless of what some uninspired Christian writer said.
I mean, I know how the music affects people in my congregation. I’ve been there, felt it, seen it–seen the impact on the lives of my friends. It’s just presumptuous beyond words to say that our music is evil or creates animalistic thoughts. It doesn’t! And you’re welcome to visit sometime to see for yourself.
AC: Okay. Like I said, I have to concede the historical argument. But your interpretation of Ephesians still seems forced to me. What else have you got?
IM: I agree. I mean, I think it’s right, but there’s a better way to present the case. It’s always better to reason from larger principles and to try to avoid getting caught up in Greek definitions and such. Not that that’s wrong, but you keep yourself from making mistakes if you consider the big picture first and foremost.
AC: We are in agreement.
IM: OK. I was reading N. T. Wright’s Simply Christian the other day …
AC: One of my favorite authors, by the way.
IM: I’m glad we agree.
Wright speaks of the role of Christians and the church being to bring heaven closer to earth. The two won’t be fully joined until the End, but until then, we are to work with God to bring them closer.
The Bible begins with the Garden of Eden and ends with the Revelation. In several passages, the Revelation speaks of heaven as the new Eden.
For example, in 22:2, 4, and 14, we are told the “tree of life” is in heaven. Well, if it’s there, it was transplanted from Eden (Gen. 2:7, 3:22,24).
After the Fall of Man in Genesis 3, man was separated from God. Jesus came to undo the curse and begin restoring the world to Eden.
(Rom. 8:20-22) For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
(1 Cor. 15:21-26) For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
You know all this. It’s not controversial in most contexts. But here’s the point.
Heaven is the new Eden, the culmination of the work of Christ in redeeming not only mankind, but the creation itself.
Therefore, when we read about heaven, we are seeing the end to which all Christians are to be working–not to be saved (we’ve already been saved), but to work as Christ’s body on earth to help redeem a fallen creation.
And when we read John’s description of heaven in the Revelation, we read of God being worshiped with instruments.
AC: I know. This is just such an old, tired argument. It’s true, but it’s symbolic. It’s language borrowed from the Kingdom of Israel. It no more means that we should worship with instruments than that we should use incense or other emblems of the old order.
IM: Maybe. Let’s read the actual passages and see if your argument holds–
(Rev. 5:8) And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
Here, incense is said to be symbolic, but no such thing is said regarding the use of harps to worship God. Why one and not the other?
(Rev. 14:2-5) And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps. 3 And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. 4 These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they kept themselves pure. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among men and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb. 5 No lie was found in their mouths; they are blameless.
In this description of instrumental music, it’s a characteristic of the totally “pure” and “blameless.” And this doesn’t sound like a reference back to temple worship.
(Rev. 15:2-5) And I saw what looked like a sea of glass mixed with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and over the number of his name. They held harps given them by God 3 and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb: “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the ages. 4 Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.” 5 After this I looked and in heaven the temple, that is, the tabernacle of the Testimony, was opened.
Here, the harps were given by God to those worshiping him. Clearly, the harps were approved by God!
And while they sang the song of Moses, they also sang the song of the Lamb, so this is speaking of worship after Jesus’ sacrifice.
Verse 5 refers to the temple, but this is very Christian. Hebrews teaches that the true temple is in heaven. Because the temple is pictured as being in heaven, this is referring to Christian worship, not worship under the Law of Moses.
(Rev. 18:21-23) Then a mighty angel picked up a boulder the size of a large millstone and threw it into the sea, and said: “With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again. 22 The music of harpists and musicians, flute players and trumpeters, will never be heard in you again. No workman of any trade will ever be found in you again. The sound of a millstone will never be heard in you again. 23 The light of a lamp will never shine in you again. The voice of bridegroom and bride will never be heard in you again. Your merchants were the world’s great men. By your magic spell all the nations were led astray.
This passage is not speaking of worship at all. Rather, it’s a curse on Babylon (generally thought of as symbolizing Rome). The curse announced for Babylon’s sins is to never again hear instrumental music! The absence of instrumental music is a curse!
Now, let’s imagine that God truly wishes to never be worshiped with instruments following Jesus’ death. Why on earth (or in heaven!) would God inspire John to picture heaven this way?
The heaven we are promised is a heaven where it’s a curse to never hear instrumental music and where God is worshiped with harps–harps he himself made.
This is the heaven that replaces our lost Eden. It’s where man’s relationship with God is perfect and sinless.
There are certainly references back to Israel, as these were God’s chosen people, too, but the worship pictured in Revelation is not temple worship. There are no animal sacrifices in Revelation. Only the Lamb’s one sacrifice (5:6, etc.).
Indeed, we are told that the purest and most blameless worship of God is with an instrument.
AC: But this is all about a different time and place. Maybe we will all have harps in heaven. But that hardly means we are to use harps today!
IM: But recall the beginning of the argument. Heaven is Eden reborn. It’s the Kingdom fully realized.
Sometimes, the New Testament writers speak of the Kingdom as having already come (Col. 1:13), or as coming (Heb. 12:28), or as not yet come (2 Tim. 4:18). And it’s all true. The Kingdom was founded on Pentecost but is not fully realized. Those in the Kingdom are not yet fully yielded to their King. And most of the earth has yet to bow their knees to God at all. It’s still coming! And won’t be fully be here until the End.
But it’s all the Kingdom. We have the “first fruits” of heaven as part of our new lives as Christians (Rom. 8:23) but not the fully realized Kingdom.
The Revelation teaches us what that reality will be like. And it pictures the saved as worshiping with instruments. In a fully realized, perfect, Eden-restored Kingdom.
Heaven is not the fourth dispensation, with new rules and laws. Heaven is already beginning to appear on earth and is coming. The Church is already a part of this same Kingdom! The Kingdom is but a foretaste, but a foretaste it is. We live today in the beginnings of heaven.
Therefore, it would hardly make sense for God to picture his blameless saints as engaging in sinful activities! Do God’s saints in heaven worship in vain? I think not. If they do the same thing here, do they worship in vain? No, they’re just getting a head start on heaven.
AC: It’s nicely worded. Clever, even. But I think you’re still confusing symbolic language with literal language. It’s really an elementary mistake in hermeneutics.
IM: I’ll grant the symbolism. But notice that God approves instrumental music under the Law of Moses–even honors it in the Psalms that command its use!–and calls on Christians to speak to one another in these very same Psalms.
He then shows us that the blameless before him will worship him in heaven with instruments. Perfect, blameless worship is conducted with instruments!
Our present age has roots in the Law of Moses and branches that reach into heaven. How could it possibly make sense for God to deny the use of instruments in an imperfect, only partly realized Kingdom and yet to command instruments in David’s kingdom and in the Kingdom of heaven fully realized?
Surely this gives you some pause. Isn’t this the same God?
AC: Pause? Yes, I suppose. But if God really wants instruments in his worship, why not just say so? Why the silence?
IM: I would challenge your characterization of the message of the scriptures as “silence.” It seems pretty loud to me.
But let’s take this conversation in a different direction. Is it possible, do you think, that I’m right? Even if the odds are only 1 in a 100 or 1 in a 1000, might I be right?
AC: I really just don’t see it, you know. But, yes, you might be right.
IM: And if I’m right, then instrumental music might actually be commanded, right?
AC: No. It might be authorized, but hardly required. I think you are pressing too hard.
IM: Well, the Psalms command it. And the ad we’ve been discussing–it cites a passage (2 Chr. 29:25) saying God commanded instruments in the temple. And in Revelation, God actually gave the saints harps to worship with. Surely, they’d have sinned had they refused to play!
AC: Ok. It’s possible. Not likely. Remote, even. But possible. I’ll give you that.
IM: And so, what does the principle of safety say? According to this ad, when there any doubt, we need to err on the side of obedience. If God just might maybe be commanding the use of instruments, then surely the safe thing would be to use them!
AC: I think you’ve seriously misunderstood the argument. The argument is that we shouldn’t use things where the authority for them is doubtful. And there’s certainly some doubt as to your arguments!
IM: But the logic works both ways, doesn’t it? I mean, if it’s a question of what might be authorized but not commanded, then err on the side of caution. Don’t do it. There’s no sin in not doing it.
But if it just might be commanded, then there’s no safety in refusing the command! I mean, it’s a command, for crying out loud! The safe course is to obey.
AC: [looks decidedly puzzled] But both are true, aren’t they? I mean, the authority for the instrument is unclear. Whether God actually desires instrumental music is unclear. The argument cuts both ways!
IM: You’re right there. It does cut both ways. Which means we have to toss the argument in the waste heap. Safety is simply beside the point.
AC: Agreed, but I’m not sure where this leaves us. My head hurts. Let’s meet again, but next time, I’m taking aspirin first!
[At this point, IM and AC began debating who should pick up the check–and I woke up with my own headache. Maybe I got off the pain meds too soon!]