Colossians: The Instrumental Music Question, Part 2

Colossae mound

The text

Now, I guess it’s time for Colossians —

(Col 3:12-16 ESV) 12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,  13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.  16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

This passage doesn’t read at all like a rulebook on how to conduct the assembly. In fact, there’s no express mention of the assembly, and the context is about how to live as Christians. It’s about relationship.

V. 16 has but one command: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” Commentators dispute over the meaning of the phrase, but it seems clearly a reference back to —

(Col 1:5b-7a ESV) Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel,  6 which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing–as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth,  7 just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant.

(Col 1:24-26 ESV)  24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,  25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known,  26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.

In both cases, “word” refers to the gospel. Paul’s command in 3:16 is to let the gospel dwell in your richly. This command has three participles attached to it: teaching, admonishing, and singing. These are, of course, characteristic of the typical Christian assembly, but they are hardly specific to the assembly. I’m sure that the early church engaged in all three (not five!) at times other than the assembly. It would seem fairer to say, with Paul, I am convinced, that these are to characterize the church — not just during the time of assembly. Indeed, as admonishment often includes correction and rebuke, it’s often inappropriate for the assembly and is best done in private.

“Singing” is ado, a Greek word for “sing.” It’s often used in the context of instrumental music, as in Isa 23:16 and Rev 5:8-9, but it doesn’t mean “sing with an instrument.” It just means “sing.” In fairness, there’s very little here about singing with or without an instrument. In fact, the closest we get to explicit instructions is the reference to “psalms,” which often urge the use of instruments, many of which were written to be sung to an instrument and even include instrumental instructions. I mean, what do we do with psalms such as —

(Psa 76:1 ESV) ESV  Psalm 76:1 To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. A Psalm of Asaph. A Song. In Judah God is known; his name is great in Israel.

(Psa 150:1 ESV) ESV  Psalm 150:1 Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens!  2 Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness!  3 Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!  4 Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!  5 Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!  6 Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD!

Now, I’m not inclined to argue that Paul intends to command the use of instruments, because it would no more fit the context than a command not to use instruments. But taken out of context, a command to sing the Psalms sure seems to approve of instruments!

But the context argues to the contrary. Paul began in chapter 1 laying out the important elements of Christianity: the sacrifice of Jesus, the gospel, the kingdom, our mission with God. He says not a word about the assembly or “acts of worship.”

In chapter 2, Paul condemns the false teaching in Colosse. He says,

(Col 2:8 ESV)  8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.

We must avoid “human tradition,” even though some of the traditions he condemns have roots in the scriptures. There is no safety in inventing rules, and when a rule is uncertain to us, it’s no safer to insist on it than not to insist on it, because it’s sin to violate God’s rules but also sin to impose a rule that God does not. There is no bias in favor of doubtful rules.

(Col 2:20-22 ESV) 20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations–  21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”  22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)–according to human precepts and teachings?

(Col 3:2 ESV)  2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.

What’s wrong with commands against handling, tasting, and touching? According to Paul, these commands are about things that cannot be inherently evil because they “perish with using.” They have no eternal significance. The things that matter — that define God’s people — are things of eternal significance —

(Col 3:11-15 ESV)  11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.  12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,  13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.

Unity across ethnic lines, loving, compassionate hearts, tolerance, forgiveness, peace, and gratitude don’t wear out and last forever. They matter.

It’s hard to imagine that Paul would consider the choice of a cappella vs. instrumental music to be about “things that are above” or things that don’t “perish with using.” Harps do indeed wear out.

Now, to be clear, while harps wear out, and so aren’t of eternal significance, they can be used for purposes that are sinful —

(Col 3:5 ESV)  5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.

If a harp were to be used in a house of prostitution, it would be used for a wicked purpose. It’s just that it’s not inherently wicked. Use it for a holy purpose, and it won’t be sinful.

Now, be fair to Paul and the Spirit. Does this passage read like it was written to grant authority for acts of worship in the assembly? Is this how someone would write authorization?

And where is the emphasis? Not on the participles but on the command: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” For this to happen, we need to teach and admonish each other! And we need to sing words of instruction and encouragement, such as the Psalms! You see, the participles are telling us how to let the word richly dwell — not how to conduct the assembly. That is simply not the subject under consideration. Rather, we must encourage each other to bring the gospel alive in our hearts and action, so that we can flee seeking salvation through rules and “thou shalt nots” and instead focus on eternal things: love, unity, and mission. That’s what Paul was talking about.

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.
This entry was posted in Colossians, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Colossians: The Instrumental Music Question, Part 2

  1. Ray says:

    Thumbs up. Good Article. Context does matter.

  2. Tim Archer says:

    I was once criticized for reading one of the "instrumental" Psalms in the assembly. I'm afraid that's how far some people take this question.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  3. Rich W says:


    Help me understand what you are saying here. You say Paul isn't talking about worship (not in context). So that means that singing praises to God is not worship? What is it then?

  4. Rich W says:

    I just saw this video and couldn't help but post it.

  5. o says:

    Rich W,

    Although I don't want to speak for Jay, I think you'll see from the context of Jay's words above, he's not saying that singing praises to God is not worship. Indeed, he's said consistently in other places that it is.

    Rather, it's that Paul isn't talking about the assembly in this passage. We tend to infer that he is, but that inference is far from necessary and has a lot of evidence against it (Paul seems to be talking about things you do in your whole life, whether in the assembly or otherwise).

    It's very hard to make rules from Col. 3 about authorized acts of worship in the assembly when Paul isn't even talking about the assembly here.


  6. o says:

    Rich W,

    Btw, funny video. =)

    I remember that earlier this year when Jay blogged about instrumental music in the assembly, his critics demanded he reveal his views on the authority of pet blessings in the assembly.


  7. Rich W says:


    Thanks for the feedback. I understand Col. 3:16 applies anytime we sing praises to God, not just the corporate assembly. Whether the context is corporate assembly or not is not relevant.

  8. nick gill says:

    Rich W,

    Many others share your understanding, that Col 3:16 applies anytime. That's why people have been publicly rebuked and/or disfellowshipped for singing along to instrumental music in their homes.

  9. abasnar says:

    I would never call it sinful to use intruments in worship.
    But I call it inconsistent with the idea of Restoration.

    If we strive for unity through going back to the "Ancient Order of Things", a-capella worship (to be sure) is one of the "minors". But it always becomes an issue, when people want to depart from "the old paths".

    I would most likeley disagree with the standard reasoning or the attitude among many conservative churches – because they make this bigger than it is, even a salvation issue (if they are quoted correctly in this Blog).

    But I also disagree with the progressive approach, because it does not fit the idea of restoration, but is – concerning instrumental worship – indeed based on wishful thinking. The church of christ in their oldest records we have unanimously rejected instruments in worship. You cannot deny this fact, nor easily argue, that a-capella worship was an innovation in the 2nd century. This is they way it was from the beginning, and it did not change until the middle ages.

    Why? Pray, why do progressives always start a fight on this issus? Why don't they comply with the tradition and focus on the spiritual quality of faith and church life? Changing such externals as instrumental versus a-capella might stir up a few more emotions in worship – but that's not to be confused with spirituality. On the other hand it does cause division among the churches of Christ, and it causes many to fall into the sins of resentment and ugly talk about others. And this indeed can become a salvation issue!

    Is what you gain worth the price, Jay (et. al.)?


  10. Jay Guin says:


    I'll be posting a reply, at least in part, tomorrow.

  11. Royce Ogle says:

    Sometimes we forget that God has never called us to be Restorationists. He called us to follow Christ and be transformed day by day to be more like him.

    And, our message is not the merits of the Restoration Movement, but the good news about Jesus.


  12. Bruce Morton says:

    I appreciate your giving attention to the context and noting that Paul is indeed talking about singing.

    Let me also chime in to suggest that we revise how we see and talk about an "assembly" (versus "not assembly"). Is Paul talking about an assembly of Christians worshipping? Certainly he is; he tells them to teach and admonish one another — similar to Ephesians 5.

    "Assemblies" of worship permeated society far more in Roman Asia than they do in our time. If a question, let me point to Philip Harland's Associations, Synagogues and Congregations. His archaeological foundation for better understanding the background to Paul's words is indeed eye opening. He chastises the "West" for imposing our concepts and thoughts on Roman Asia (and the Mediterranean broadly). He argues convincingly that Roman Asians saw assemblies and religion much differently than does the West. They assembled often — even daily — and even as part of labor/craft guilds. Assembling to give honor to a supposed deity was as common in ancient Asian society as it is uncommon during a Super Bowl in our day.

    We need to recognize that the Asians assembled together frequently to do exactly what they commonly did: play instruments as they practiced Asian cult initiations and other rituals — often to seek a supposed deity's protection over a family or group. The general disappearance of belief in supernatural "evil forces" has broadly transformed our society to be one quite different in that respect from first century Roman Asia. In that respect they had a much clearer view of supernatural reality than do many/most in the West in our day.

    Paul's teaching and his focus on speech and song in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 represented a decided departure from the common worship practices of the region. I hope all of us give some time and prayer to considering why and what the applications are for today — in the setting of a spiritual war that is real, despite the conclusion of much of the West.

    In Christ,
    Bruce Morton
    Katy, Texas

  13. Al P. says:

    I have often wondered why Paul mentions psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. If psalms does not include plucking (and not of one's heartstrings) then why mention it along with other types of singing? What is the distinction between these three?

  14. abasnar says:

    The Psalms were already a category in the Hebrew Bible (or the LXX as well, from where the name "Psalm" comes). So it is quite natural to understand it this way: Sing the Psalms, and also sing (other) Hymns and spiritual songs.

    "Psalm" was already a term, that referred to these songs, so the etymological level of this word (psallo coming from plucking an instrument) is actually irrelevant for the use of this term in NT and Early-Christian times.

    None of the Early Church Fathers (who argued all for a-capella singing), made a big deal out this origin of psallo. They all used it as a reference to a certain group of songs. And I believe, this is the way the NT-writers used Psalm, too. No one had in the back of his head this voice asking for a guitar in order to be able to sing a Psalm.

    Our Lord and the Apostles finished the Passover meal with singing. Here the Bible mentions "Hymn" (Mat 26:30), but some point out that the traditional ending of a Passover-Meal had been certain Psalms. So maybe, Hymn and Psalm were sometimes also used interchangeably. And this adds to my opinion, that arguing for IM from the word "psallo" is insufficient, because the NT writers did not think of the root-meaning of this word, but used it the way it was generally used in the 1st century AD.


  15. Jay Guin says:


    Amen (regarding your 9:05 comment).

  16. Jay Guin says:

    Al P,

    "Psalms" refers to the Psalms in the OT and "hymns" refers more broadly to a song sung in praise of God. "Spiritual songs" is, for all we know, a coinage by Paul.

    The terms seem to clearly overlap, and so the gist of the list seems to be to encourage (a) the composition of new hymns (not just the OT Psalms) and (b) a broad range of styles.

  17. Darin says:

    Why does it matter?

    Because people are being lost and if they can't get past something that confuses or takes the focus from Jesus Christ and it is a minor issue that is about preference and tradition wouldn't it at least give us pause? ( Though I know of many "progressive" believers who are perfectly content to continue the tradition.)

    Add to that when unity with the larger universal church is hindered by staying a small subset of the church, well which is truly a unity movement?

    But again I think many are content with not using instruments, they just want the truth to be understood and the focus to be on Jesus.

  18. nick gill says:

    Darin, you've described my situation perfectly. It is as if someone is drowning, and they've been thrown several different-colored ropes, and someone on board is screaming, "No! Only the blue rope will really save you! All the other ropes are coated with poison!"

    Which is truly a unity movement, indeed.

    But again I think many are content with not using instruments, they just want the truth to be understood and the focus to be on Jesus.

    That's where I am right now – but I honestly don't know how long I can stay there when the focus seems to be on Jesus and [insert hot-button issue here].

  19. Darin says:

    I totally understand Nick.

  20. Scott Walton says:

    It seems as though we can't let the pendulum center up. On the one hand the a cappella churches who generally have great teaching and resources are either way too "anti" everything or way too "pro" everything, on the other hand the instrumental churches have often lousy teaching, but love and freedom.

    I see the point of this book, I saw it when I first became a believer in an a cappella church. I didn't agree then with the argument that it was the proof text for a cappella. I still see it in the independent Christian Church that I'm felllowshiping with now. They have all the instruments, but they aren't following this command, they are making music to feel warm fuzzies. It's not bad, with the group I'm with now, but it was horrible with the big "concert and a pep talk" church I was at before.

    Honestly, if there was an a cappella church that was loving and freedom oriented and not "we're right and everyone else is wrong", in my community, that's where I would be. Not because instruments are evil, it's because it's much simpler and as I'm getting older, all that noise just perturbs me. Also, the CoC's do have a very good teaching on the rest of the Bible. She's not perfect, but she does run good.

    I would like to ask those of you who argueing for instruments, why are you at an a cappella church? Why not find or start an instrumental church that has a good foundation in teaching and learning, and loving? Why change the traditon that so many people really love? The CoC has done a marvelous job in evangelism, and at one time was the fasting growing church in the world. I believe that all of the argueing has been a good reason that she has stopped growing. Wanting to "do it my way" is another good reason, both for those in the CoC and those who are leaving it.

    (any chance of getting a spell check on this thing? I'm sure I martered a few good words).
    Scott Walton
    Versailles, KY

  21. Jay Guin says:


    The largest problem with a cappella (AC) music as practiced in the Churches of Christ is the attitude of many that the use of instrumental music (IM) is sin — even damning. That attitude is very anti-scriptural and divides the body of Christ. (I realize that you don't participate in this sin.)

    The second problem with AC music is the argumentation that is used in support of it. The same argument (silence is a prohibition) is used to damn those who build church fellowship halls, have kitchens in church buildings, use church money to buy athletic equipment, support orphans homes, fund missionaries the "wrong" way, use too many or too few cups, … you know the list.

    Again, the way we argue for AC leads to fighting and dividing and damning over an endlessly long list of do's and don't's. It's wicked and very harmful to the cause of Christ.

    And therefore I will not leave the Churches of Christ, because I will not leave unopposed the legalists who so divide Christ's body. Moreover, I know there are many, many good, righteous people who would flee these sins if only they could find a better way.

Comments are closed.