Instrumental Music: The Patristic Evidence and the Regulative Principle, Part 2

Angel with harpHow, then, do we explain the absence of instruments in the early church? And it is highly likely that the early church did not use instruments.

My own view is that the early church took its form of worship from the synagogue. They often met in synagogues. The earliest Christians were Jews, and Jewish influence remained strong for centuries. And the synagogues were a cappella.

The use of musical instruments in the synagogue service was prohibited (except for the sound of the SHOFAR), leaving music a strictly vocal art. PSALMODY, melodic reading of Bible texts, and prayer chants were made to fulfill a function in collective Jewish worship.

The Jews refused to use instruments because (a) the temple used instruments and they wanted to avoid any hint that the synagogues replaced the temple and (b) it’s probable that the Jews were concerned that instrumental music involved work in violation of Sabbath regulations. The reasoning would be that an implicit exception was recognized for the temple service, but the synagogue is not of divine origin and so there’s no exception.

The early Christians surely found the use of a cappella music an attractive practice. After all, during times of persecution, the use of an instrument could be dangerous. And the instruments were highly associated with many dissolute pagan practices. Doing without the instrument surely helped teach new members to distinguish Christian practice from pagan. And for a religion that met in groups of 20 and 30 in private homes, it would have been difficult to have a capable instrumentalist at each gathering.

I should add that Platonic/Gnostic thought began creeping into Christian thought from the surrounding Hellenistic culture early on. And it would be easy for a Platonic thinker to see instruments as associated with the fleshly creation and far removed from the purity of the spiritual, whereas the human voice, being of divine origin, would be seen as spiritual.

After the Fall of Jerusalem, good Roman citizens came to think of the Jews as rebels against the Empire. Christians found themselves needing to distinguish themselves from the Jews. And they were in competition with Judaism for converts — and had been persecuted by Jewish authorities in some places. Moreover, once Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, the Jews’ refusal to convert made them outcasts. Thus, it’s hardly surprising to see substantial prejudice among the Christian authorities against the Jews.

The rationale of being non-Jewish that many Patristic authors gave for their a cappella practices is obviously false, and so the real reason must have been forgotten. The early church inherited its worship practices from the synagogue but refused to remember its Jewish origins. Rather, the early church convinced itself that it was a cappella to be unlike the Jews because being like the Jews was unthinkable! And the more they used the absence of instruments to distinguish themselves from Jews and pagans, the more certain they became of their practice.

It wasn’t until Medieval times that the Western church introduced instruments, but by this time, paganism had been nearly destroyed and Judaism was severely marginalized (ghetto-ized, actually) in Western Europe.

When the Reformation came, many of the Reformers sought doctrinal standards to purify the church against the errors of Medieval Catholicism. The Reformed Churches adopted the Regulative Principle, thanks to Zwingli, Calvin, and others. The Lutherans refused to go so far, allowing them to produce such musical greats as J. S. Bach. Just so, the Church of England rejected the Regulative Principle, and so allowed George Frideric Handel to compose The Messiah during his time in England.

Now, I mention Bach and Handel to make this point: Had they lived in Reformed/Calvinist parts of the world, they never would have composed the greatest worship music ever written, because they dared compose instrumental worship to God.

Consider this from Bach’s Matthaeus Passion (Passion According to St. Matthew), lyrics in German and English

and this from Handel’s “For Unto Us a Child is Born” from The Messiah (lyrics by God’s Holy Spirit) —

You see, under our theology, those works of praise to God are sin — which is sufficient, I think, to utterly disprove our theology. Go back and read the explanations the Patristics give for condemning instrumental music and decide for yourself whether these uninspired men got it right. Do Bach and Handel take us back to the childlike state of Judaism? Do they incite animalistic, pagan passions? Are they dreadfully fleshly? Do they lack spirituality?

Obviously, it’s possible for instrumental music to be just as wicked as can be. The same is true of a cappella music. But either can be done in a way that edifies, encourages, strengthens, and comforts (1 Cor 14), and therefore, when done in such a way, both are authorized.

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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22 Responses to Instrumental Music: The Patristic Evidence and the Regulative Principle, Part 2

  1. Jason says:

    >>You see, under our theology, those works of praise to God are sin — which is sufficient, I think, to utterly disprove our theology.<<

    I'd find your post more persuasive and more likely to promote unity if you didn't caricature the opposing viewpoint like that. Hyperbole is one thing and has its place, but I get the sense that you actually think people who support acappella-only worship view the works of Bach and Handel as immoral.

    Many simply see a cappella music as the most appropriate and clearly sanctioned form of corporate worship music. They cannot in good conscience worship otherwise. Listening to a performance of Bach's or Handel's music is inspiring and can bring people closer to God. Any great work of art can do that. It's a great and wonderful thing, but that doesn't mean that a worship assembly is the place for reading the novels of Dostoevsky or displaying the paintings of Da Vinci.

    These worthwhile and under-appreciated pursuits are fundamentally different from corporate worship as practiced by the first Christians. We can be a people that seeks to restore the latter without rejecting the former.

    Perhaps small, strange minority does see the work of Bach and Handel as "sinful," but it certainly isn't necessary to take that position in order to hold the view that corporate worship ought to be a cappella. Thus, refuting that position isn't sufficient to disprove anything of significance.

  2. Jay Guin says:


    I'll grant that not all conservatives feel this way, but because of the GraceConversation discussion, I've been reading a lot of conservative writings lately. And many argue that the prohibition on instrumental music is not limited to the formal assembly. If we take Bach and Handel to have written music as worship — not mere entertainment — which is precisely what they intended, then The Messiah and Matthew's Passion are worship. They may not be in the assembly, but they are worship. And many conservative thought leaders say instrumental music in worship is wrong, period.

    Consider this from Forthright magazine,

    Well should he have been. We see all around us disciples straying from God's commands today. From the very concept of the necessity of obeying his commands.

    It is a gradual process. The instrument of music is played with religious music in the home. Then in twos and threes. From there to small groups, devotional times, camp sessions. Then it makes its entrance somewhere into a church's building among the youth or young couples. Eventually, it is introduced into the worship of the church.…. It's hard to see how this writer could approve of singing along to Handel's and Bach's instrumental worship.

    Or this from the Loop 287 Church of Christ,

    it is wrong to add [instrumental music] to our worship when God has not told us to use it, no matter if we worship in the home or at the building (cf. Romans 16:5). It is the worship that counts, not the place of worship.

    Dan Goddard Jr. writes,

    If one is worshiping, it is just as wrong for him to use the instrument at home in private as it is in the assembly. Anything that is morally right is permissible for the home, but only that which is commanded by God can be used in worship.

    Now, as I've studied the Regulative Principle, I've learned that it began with Zwingli and Calvin as the Regulative Principle of Worship. We've expanded it to relate to church organization, to the funding of missions and orphanages, to methods of fundraising — there's really no limit. Therefore, I'm not surprised that many in the Churches of Christ apply the principle to private worship as well as corporate worship.

    And the verses on which we rely in Eph and Col don't speak specifically to the assembly. Thus, the argument would seem to apply equally to any gathering of believers where God is worshiped, private or public. And plenty of our members argue precisely that.

    My own training (I'm a third generation member of the Churches) left me opposed to instrumental worship in the home. We could play hymns on the piano — provided we weren't worshiping!

    So my experience is that Bach and Handel are only acceptable if listened to as pure entertainment, with no glory given to God, which is not what the pieces were written for — and destroys the glory of the music so far as I'm concerned.

    But I don't doubt that there are those in the Churches of Christ who would have no problem singing along with The Messiah or Matthew's Passion, but I'd bet you the majority among the conservatives would, at most, just listen.

    Around here, at Christmas, many cities conduct a performance of The Messiah where the audience is invited to sing along with the chorus. Would your church advertise this in its bulletin? Could you sing the Hallelujah Chorus with the instruments in good conscience? It wasn't that long ago that I could not.

  3. Jason says:

    Jay, you say "not all conservatives feel this way" and then quote some examples of those who do, as if to establish that the majority of a cappella-worshiping Christians do feel that way. The empirical question could be settled with a survey, I suppose, but I'm not sure it is relevant or advances the discussion. Nevertheless, if the question were pursued, I'd take a much broader perspective than the sources you quote and examine other traditions as well.

    For example, there is an unbroken 2,000-year tradition in the Eastern Orthodox church of a cappella worship. I don't believe that tradition (or the other a cappella traditions outside the Restoration Movement) necessarily view deviation from their practice as a question of morality.

    My point was that the two issues are independent of each other, i.e. proving that instrumental music outside of corporate worship is not sinful (very easy in my view) does not establish that it is appropriate in corporate worship. The question should stand or fall on its own merit, not whether people on one side or the other took the issue further than they should have. That's why I didn't think you were persuasive by trying to paint the a cappella position into an anti-Bach, anti-Handel corner. That was almost an ad hominem sort of distraction from the real issue.

    To answer your question, I'd probably just listen, but that's only because I'd prefer to hear technically challenging material unmarred by my attempts to keep up. 🙂 Seriously, at a civic event like that, I'd see no reason not to participate. Yet, I couldn't in good conscience take communion on Sunday morning amid the thumping beats of a praise band playing contemporary Christian music.

    And for what it's worth, I'm a first-generation, young-adult-convert to our tradition from an unchurched background. So there's no issues related to how my parents and grandparents worshiped to cloud the issue for me.

  4. Jay Guin says:

    All right. I'm interested. If it's very easy to show that instrumental music outside corporate worship is not sinful, I'd be very interested in hearing the argument.

    And if people in the community got together to sing The Messiah with the community chorus and orchestra — as an act of worship — why isn't that "corporate worship"?

  5. Jason says:

    Your first question seems like just another way of doing what a portion of your original post did. It assumes that one who takes the a cappella-only worship position *must* believe that inspirational music in any context is "sinful" and then shifts the burden to others to prove otherwise. My response is simply that it does not follow. One can take position A without taking position B. It seems to me the burden is on you to show why A requires B. I'm clueless as to how it might, notwithstanding the quotes you offered.

    If one holds the first position but not the second (as many, in many Christian traditions do) then how are they being inconsistent? Are they any more inconsistent than one who rejects the regulative principle on the issue of instrumental music but accepts it with regard to matters such as infant baptism or female elders?

    Your second question seems simple. It's a civic gathering, not a gathering of the church for the purpose of worshiping together as a congregation. In the U.S., such a gathering (if not shut down by the ACLU) could only be defended on the grounds of its civic/educational/cultural significance–certainly not as a government-sponsored worship service.

    I'd participate happily as a matter of pluralism. We can recognize, tolerate, and even celebrate our differences in civic society without surrendering our unique perspective (be it Restorationist Christianity or something else).

  6. (1) "Do Bach and Handel take us back to the childlike state of Judaism? Do they incite animalistic, pagan passions? Are they dreadfully fleshly? Do they lack spirituality?"

    I find a lot of adjectives in these statements. Adjectives flow from opinions. When I was a teen I described Bach and Handel as "yuck." Today I describe them as "magnificent."

    (2) Throughout the last 2,000 years it has been possible to find instrumental music associated with sex, drugs, and …well, you know…It has also been possible to find Bach and Handel. I am disappointed to report that people can take one example and extend it everywhere.

    My wife and I were walking last night and discussing this subject. For several years we worshipped at a Navy chapel that had a piano. Neither of us could describe those services as a "rock concert."

    It is possible to pollute worship with instruments, art, clothing, buildings, furniture, and all sorts of other things. It is also possible to enhance worship with the same things.

  7. JdB says:

    I'm glad to see you guys discussing this. This was something that caused me great confusing in the beginning years of my ministry…and also much debate among my own family. (As if we didn't have better things to do.)

    I'm an old timer. I grew up with a piano in my home and a mother who loved to try to play. In the piano bench were all the church songbooks. So, we would sing acapella in our assembly and then come home and sing the very same songs with a piano. The argument was that the assembly was worship and the living room was "entertainment". I have morphed into the conclusion that it's either one or the other. The fact that it is done in a building doesn't mean that it suddenly turns entertainment into worship. (I'm in the minority in my family).

    So, I am an acapella brother who stays that way for the sake of unity. I may not know precisely what God feels about I.M. BUT I know exactly how he feels about the unity of the body. So, I use my Rom. 14-15 definition and don't pursue what I believe may be my right for the sake of the consciences of my brethren.

    Again, good discussion!

  8. Alan says:

    Very interesting points, Jay. It is apparent that the early church writers could not provide a biblical basis for their a cappella worship. Instead, the arguments they offered were cultural and circumstantial, and based on human judgment as to what is appropriate. If they had discovered (invented) the concept of the regulative principle, they would have used that — but they didn't. As far as I can tell, the regulative principle was not applied to instrumental music until the reformation.

  9. Jay Guin says:

    Dwayne wrote, "Adjectives flow from opinions."

    Exactly. My adjectives paraphrase the arguments of the Patristics — which are mere opinions.

  10. Jay Guin says:

    I just learned that a nearby congregation just fired its very effective campus minister. You see, he allowed playing of Christian rock music in the student center. No, it wasn't "a gathering of the church for the purpose of worshiping together as a congregation." They just listened to the music while engaged in Christian fellowship, played Rook with friends, etc. You see, I don't make this stuff up. Around here, it's quite real — life altering, career-ending, congregation-killing real.

    The logic is simple. Wrong, but simple. None of the passages on which we rely to insist on a cappella singing are limited by their terms to corporate worship. Worship is worship, whether with friends or in the assembly. The requirement for authority in worship is not limited to corporate worship. Was Uzzah engaged in corporate worship when God struck him dead? Were Ananias and Saphira engaged in corporate worship when God struck them dead?

    I could go on. You get the gist. I'm glad you're more moderate in your beliefs, but this is not an unusual or rare position. Indeed, it would be hard to find published writing to the contrary (they exist, but those with the audacity to say such things plainly get written up. The wise moderate preacher just argues against instruments in the assembly and leaves it at that).

  11. Alan says:

    I just learned that a nearby congregation just fired its very effective campus minister. You see, he allowed playing of Christian rock music in the student center.

    Yikes. Words fail me.

    These extreme beliefs are not just benign differences of opinion. Here we have a clear example of harm being done — to a minister, to a ministry, to a church, to the surrounding community…

  12. From a post on my blog, 2007:

    All scripture aside … all hermeneutics aside … all logic aside … all passion aside.

    With all that put aside, let me tell you why at the core I cannot agree with the proposition that God would condemn to eternal hell a soul who praised Him with a musical instrument.

    Because I would not want for God to take me into a private closet at judgment and ask me: "Keith, I gave you a beautiful little daughter, didn't I? A joy to your life and the delight of your eye? With a sweet voice that goes straight to your heart?

    "Keith, If she had ever bounced into the room where you were sitting and said, 'Daddy, I'm so happy I just don't know what to do!' and you answered, 'Well, I'd love it if you sang me a song,' and she ran and got her little blue electronic keyboard that you bought her for Christmas and sang to you with it … Keith, would you have flown into a rage and cursed her and screamed, 'I said SING! I never said ANYTHING about PLAYING A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT!' and bound her up and threw her into a burning city dump to die?

    "Is that the kind of Father you think I AM?"

  13. And if people in the community got together to sing The Messiah with the community chorus and orchestra — as an act of worship — why isn’t that “corporate worship”? – Jay

    Your second question seems simple. It’s a civic gathering, not a gathering of the church for the purpose of worshiping together as a congregation. – Jason

    I think Jay meant to say what if people in the church got together with the community orchestra. Regardless:

    Christians are not in the business of separating their lives into "civic" and "religious". Everything we do is because of, to, and for the Lord. Our submission to certain civic authorities is worship.

    And also, why would a follower of God ever want to "turn off" his or her worship mode in any circumstance? God deserves a worship lifestyle 24/7. To say, "I'm not worshipping now, this is a civic moment" is another way to say, "God, you don't deserve all of my life."

    If worshiping "correctly" is something we're doing to make sure we stay out of Hell, then we seriously misunderstand the heart and story of God.

  14. Alan says:

    If worshiping “correctly” is something we’re doing to make sure we stay out of Hell, then we seriously misunderstand the heart and story of God.

    Exactly. That notion reminds me of the kind of pagan gods that expect their subjects bring gifts and to make blood sacrifices in order to appease their anger. As if the true God needs anything from us!

  15. Jason says:

    If you beat a straw man long enough, does he turn into a dead horse? Y'all keep tearing that poor scare crow to pieces, and I keep trying to kick him out of the way so we can get to the real issue. I'll try one more time.

    I hope you see this as an honest effort at a clearer dialogue on my part, because it is. As the saying goes, I prefer clarity to agreement. 🙂

    The two claims that I see as separate and distinct are:

    A = "Instrumental music in corporate worship should be avoided because we have no evidence it was authorized by any apostolic authority."

    B = "Enjoying/endorsing instrumental Christian music is a sin."

    The form of your argument, as I percieve it, is:

    1. Most people who believe A also believe B.
    2. B is wrong.
    3. Therefore A is wrong.

    Surely, you see the fault in that logic.

    Even if statement #1 were true (which I doubt, despite the anecdotal evidence you cite) and even if statement #2 is also true (which I believe it is), statement #3 still does not follow.

    I believe in being rigid in principle, but flexible in practice. Listening to Christian rock radio or CDs while playing Rook with friends is not worship, it's fellowship. We use two different words because they are two different things. To insist that *everything* we do is worship simply drains all meaning out of the word.

    Should we strive to honor God in everything we do? Yes.

    Does that mean driving my car to work in the morning is an act of worship? No.

    Not even if I enjoy Gillian Welch's "By the Mark" or "Red Clay Halo" on the commute (as I often do)? No. Not even if you have DC Talk on your iPod.

    But, what would the apostles have thought of Gillian Welch and DC Talk and iPods? I don't know and no one can, which is why the question is irrelevant. In looking for authoritative principles in scripture and early church practice, we should be careful to focus on questions that could have made sense at the time. The use of instruments in a gathering of Christians could at least have conceivably have been an issue. Listening to a CD could not have been. Just because it is possible to ask too much of the text and its context is no reason to avoid drawing reasonable inferences from first century writings and practice where they can be drawn.

    Pointing to the obvious wrong done to the campus minister may be emotionally persuasive, but it isn't logically persuasive. I share your frustration. "Yikes" seems a pretty appropriate reaction to me too.

    However, that story doesn't demonstrate that there is apostolic authority for instrumental worship nor does it explain why we should adopt it in the absence of such authority.

    Thanks for the dialogue. Sorry to take so much of your comment space as a new reader (pointed here by an elder at our congregation).

  16. Alan says:

    The form of your argument, as I percieve it, is:

    1. Most people who believe A also believe B.
    2. B is wrong.
    3. Therefore A is wrong.

    I haven't heard Jay say anything about A. The conversation has been about B. If your position is A, then you don't really have a horse in this race, so to speak. OTOH if you refuse fellowship to people who practice IM, then your position is B, not A.

  17. Jay Guin says:


    The congregation where I'm an elder is an a cappella church, and I'm quite okay with that. My argument is neither for nor against the practice. My arguments are —

    * Instrumental music (and like issues) are not salvation issues.

    * The scriptures grant freedom as to worship, so long as we remain within God's purposes for the assembly.

    * The Patristics aren't authority for anything because they aren't scripture. Therefore, using them to build a case that instrumental music is sin is illegitimate. Indeed, the argument denies the sufficiency of the scriptures.

    * Because the Patristics are uninspired and utterly without authority, relying on them as authority leads to host of contradictions and quandaries.

    * Using the Patristics to damn your brother is particularly wrong, because to do so is to take human authority and apply it as though coming from God. Worse yet, the Patristics don't damn over the issue nor do they even claim to be arguing from scripture. Therefore, it's a particularly egregious practice — using the Patristics beyond even their own claims.

    * The Regulative Principle is manmade and not validly found in or derived from scripture. It's in fact built on a series of false dichotomies.

    * Because the Regulative Principle is a falsehood, relying on it leads to all sorts of contradictions and quandaries. I offer as Exhibit A the history of the Churches of Christ beginning with Daniel Sommer's Address and Declaration. Among the quandaries is the disagreement over whether contemporary Christian music is "worship" outside the assembly and our unwllingness to damn over that disagreement and our readiness to damn over similar disagreements.

    * Damning based on the Regulative Principle is therefore a serious mistake, dividing brother from brother and working against the purposes of God Himself.

    * There are much better ways to interpret and find praxis in the scriptures.

  18. Alan Scott says:


    I refer you to two scriptures which define the purpose for our assembling together:

    1 Corinthians 14 – Paul gives many reasons for the Christians gathering together – "speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort," "the church may be edified," "build up the church," "praising God," "instruct others ," "be done for the strengthening of the church." Nearly ALL of these scriptural definitions are descriptive of what we today call "fellowship." Only one (and may be a second) fall under what we call "worship". So Paul is saying that the purpose of us assembling together includes, and the primary purpose likely is, fellowship.

    Hebrews 10:24-25, "let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching. " Here the writer of Hebrews describes meetin gtigether as a time to spur one another on to love and good deeds, and encourage one another. Like this Paul, this describes fellowship.

    So if you say IM is OK in fellowship, and scriptures decsribe fellowshipas the primary purpose of us gathering together, why is IM suddenly a sin when the assembly is merely doing what the scriptures say it should be doing – "Fellowship"?

    God bless

  19. Alan Scott says:

    I see the "straw man" accusation often when there is a weak or absent argument against the point being made.

    IM and the Regulative Principle is NOT a straw man situaiton – these are real events with real people making real, albeit misguided, judgements.

  20. Alan says:

    I refer you to two scriptures which define the purpose for our assembling together:

    The two Alan's are in complete agreement on this! How we came to call the assembly a "worship service" is puzzling to me. Our lives are to be living sacrifices, acceptable to God as spiritual worship. The assembly is for building one another up and spurring one another on. Its purpose is to meet our needs, not to meet God's "needs". Of course we do worship in the assembly, just as we do everywhere else we go. So as far as authorized worship is concerned, whatever is permissible when I worship at home, or at the grocery store, or at work, is also permissible at the assembly, as long as it doesn't hinder the purpose of the assembly.

  21. Leanne says:

    Call me simple-minded, but then what's the point of this discussion if no behavior (a capella to instrumental music or vice versa) is the issue?

  22. Jay Guin says:


    There are behaviors that are the issue, as you say.

    First, we damn one another over our differing applications of the Regulative Principle. Well, it can't be uniformly interpreted and applied because it is, from the start, invalid logic and very bad scriptural interpretation.

    Second, even those who've seen the error in drawing lines of fellowship over RP inferences still often feel unnecessarily constrained in their service to God. Some think it's sin (not damning, but still sin) to use church funds to support orphanages or for a church to have a campus ministry rather than doing campus work through a nonprofit (or vice versa).

    Some feel obligated to spend millions on a new, bigger building rather than having a Saturday night service and using the money for the needy and missions.

    Some refuse to have Sunday school classes, insisting that all classes be for the entire congregation. Some see sin in building fellowship halls or buying school buses.

    The list goes on. If your church can grow and be salt and light to your community with a cappella music, by all means, do that. But when our fear of violating the silences of the scriptures gets in the way of honoring very clear commands to care for orphans, seek and save the lost, care for the needy, to be unified, etc., then it's time to step back and re-examine our theology.

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