Instrumental Music in Congregational Worship

A Consideration of Ephesians 5:19, 20 and Colossians 3:16

The debate concerning the use of the instrument in public worship is certainly not a new debate.

Bible students have discussed this topic for decades. In my own library I have over 100 articles and studies devoted to the Instrumental Music question, as well as over 20 books which are devoted either entirely or in part to this issue. Arguments have been made and re-made with seemingly little movement on either side. Therefore it is no surprise that I present this study with a certain degree of skepticism. Minds have been made up. But then again there is always a glimmer of hope that the power of God’s word will prevail upon open minds. Before considering the two passages, some preliminary observations are in order: The Instrumental Music issue is not, in my view, just two differing viewpoints of Ephesians 5:19, 20 and Colossians 3:16. It has more to do with Biblical authority. There are those who support the instrument who do not feel Biblical authority is even necessary. When such is the case, what good does it do to discuss the Ephesian & Colossian passages? Colossians 3:17 says that we should do all in “the name of the Lord Jesus.” This means that we must do all with the authority of Jesus, the head of His church. One of the identifying marks of the church of Christ has been her continued appeal to the authority of Scriptures. However, those who have engaged in the debates and discussions with the Christian Church have long recognized that the instrument question is actually a Bible authority question.

The introduction of the instrument in worship has proven to lead its proponents to even further variations from the New Testament pattern for worship. Certainly Moses E. Lard was right when he said back in 1864: “The day on which a church sets up an organ in its house is the day on which it reaches the first station on the road to apostasy.” One does not have to deeply research the Disciples of Christ or the Christian Church to find verification of this truth. Why is this true? Because once one no longer needs to find New Testament support for his position, anything goes.

For those who still believe they must have New Testament authority, yet accept the instrument, do so because they believe that unless the Bible specifically forbids something it is not wrong. This view will not stand the test when considering passages such as Hebrews 7:14: “For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, a tribe with reference to which Moses spoke nothing concerning priests.” Since Moses did not specifically forbid priests from the tribe of Judah, would it then be acceptable to appoint such? I believe we deserve an answer to this question. If God is not automatically eliminating everything outside of his specific statement, then what is He doing? Why make a specific statement at all? It seems that those supporting the instrument have to address this question. One writer recently wrote:

“In general, we do not disagree with an approach to scripture which looks for authorization for specific acts. We believe, however, that authorization may be implicit as well as explicit. We also believe that silence may be incidental as well as intentional. We believe that the church does not need to have explicit mandate or permission for everything it wishes to do as long as no explicit command of God is violated and no theological significance is lost….”

This statement has a puzzling contradiction. On the one hand the church does not need to have an “explicit mandate” but that it can do what it wants “as long as no explicit command of God is violated.” It will be demonstrated later that what Paul says in these passages is both explicit and exclusive. The particulars of what Paul says requires a limited practice: that is, vocal, a capella singing only.

I agree with this writer when he said: “The context of these letters gives no indication that Paul’s intent was to provide an exhaustive, systematic coverage of the form and nature of church music.” I do not believe that Paul was combating an attempt to introduce the instrument into the worship assemblies, nor did he have in mind a desire to present a treatise on a capella music. The question should be asked, however, if God ever gives additional teachings through specific statements. For example, was God trying to show the inferiority of angels when He said concerning Jesus: “Thou art My Son, today I have begotten Thee” (Hebrews 1:5)? Yet the Hebrew writer uses this Old Testament passage (Psalm 2:7) to demonstrate such. Was God trying to teach a lesson concerning the resurrection when He said concerning the dead patriarchs, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Exodus 3:6)? Yet Jesus shows that this passage can be used to demonstrate the reality of the resurrection (Matthew 22:32). The point is this: we are left to examine the passages as they have been given. As we look to those passages, we are to determine what all they teach and not get to the point where we limit them and pigeon hole them to mean only one thing. When we consider all of what a passage is teaching, then we are not taking the place of God. We are letting Him speak to us in what He says, both specifically and generally. Therefore, while Paul may want the Christians to have a “truly spiritual experience to occur when Christians sing,” he nevertheless uses words that identify a specific kind of singing. It is not ours to ask why he did this, but to recognize that he did, through inspiration, give these specific instructions. And, while early Christian history is not an authoritative source, it clearly shows that the early Christians not only forsook the instrument in worship, but condemned its use. Everett Ferguson observed:

Where the early historical evidence is full–in this case virtually universal, uniform, and unanimous–about the church’s practice, there is a strong presumption about apostolic practice and the New Testament teaching.

This “presumption about apostolic practice” is that the apostles must have certainly instructed against the use of the instrument. And, while this instruction may have come through teaching not recorded in the New Testament, it is equally plausible (even probable) that Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 were the basis for their rejection of the instrument and the practice of vocal singing only. In addition, Ferguson has made established an interesting point: early church historians and writers were “virtually universal, uniform, and unanimous” in their discussions about the instrument. Many times records from church history are dismissed because one can see divergent opinions on a variety of topics. But, interestingly, not this one. The fact is, instruments were not accepted. And, they were not accepted for literally hundreds of years after the time of the New Testament.

Ephesians 5:19-20

The key to understanding this passage is found in verse 18. Here Paul gives a very important command: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.” The word translated “be filled” (plerousthe) is a second person plural present imperative. How were the Christians to obey this command? Paul explains with five masculine plural participles: speaking, singing, making melody, giving thanks and submitting yourselves, “all of which have imperative force agreeing with the verb ‘be filled.’” On this construction Lenski observes:

The present participles partake of the imperative character of the main verb, ‘be filled.’ But they modify the subject of the imperative and thus describe the condition of those who are filled with the spirit.

The first participle, “speaking” is lalountes, followed by heautois, “to one another.” Such an action requires at least two people. Our question is not whether this could be done outside the assembly, but would simply apply to any situation where at least two Christian people are engaging in worship. Therefore the assembly would be included, whether Paul was intending to limit his instructions to just that gathering or not. Besides, it is more than evident that songs were a part of early Christian assemblies. Paul then explains how they are speak to one another: “in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” Psalms are generally thought to be those based upon the Old Testament Psalms; hymns are songs of praise and adoration; spiritual songs are those which are uniquely spiritual as opposed to the secular or pagan songs.

The second participle, “singing” (aidontes) refers to making music with the voice. The third participle, “making melody” (psallontes) belongs with the participle “singing” because it is connected by the word “and” – e.g. “singing and making melody….” Scholarship is divided on whether the word psallo was reduced to meaning only singing by New Testament times. Scholarly sources, such as the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, indicates that by the first century the word had changed meaning. Others, such as Hugo McCord and Roy Deaver both maintain that the word kept the basic meaning “to pluck” but that the text clearly identifies what should be plucked – “the heart.” Therefore a unified conclusion is reached: the passage in Ephesians 5:19 can refer only to vocal music. It also should be noted that the entire Greek phrase, ta kardia, “in the heart” is the instrumental case, illustrating the instrument that should be “plucked” – the heart. This would require the Christian to do more than just sing with the mouth. The heart must also be engaged. It should also be noted that the “in the heart” phrase is found in both passages (compare with Matthew 15:8, 9 for true “heart” worship).

Colossians 3:16

As in Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16 has an imperative verb “let dwell” (enoikeito) followed by two participles, “teaching” (didaskontes) and “admonishing” (nouthetountes). Paul then instructs how one is to let the word of Christ dwell “in you” (plural, Greek en humin) – by teaching and admonishing “one another” with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Gerhard Delling notes that the phrase en humin is usually used by Paul to refer to the Christian assembly. And, as in Ephesians 5:19, this is to be done to “one another” (heautous). The import of this word is adequately expressed by Everett Ferguson: Colossians 3:16 does not refer simply to an “everyday” or private activity. The larger context may not be exclusively the assembly (as in 1 Corinthians 14), but Paul is talking about what Christians do in a group or corporate capacity. The presence of a group is required for the accomplishment of what is described here. Whenever Christians get together, these are the kind of things they do. Their corporate activities became the basis for what is said in a more general way about Christian activity.

The Colossian passage, unlike the Ephesian passage, does not include the word psallo, but only instructs that the Christian should “sing” (adontes), which, as pointed out earlier, means to make music with the voice.

It is important to realize that in both passages, imperatives (commands) were used, and then the inspired writer proceeded to explain how the command was to be realized (by a series of participles). For example, we have been given the command to “be filled with the Spirit.” How are we to fulfill that command? Paul explains how. We are filled with the spirit when we are “speaking, singing, making melody, giving thanks and submitting ourselves” (in the Ephesian passage), and we are fulfilling the command to “let the word of Christ dwell” when we “teach and admonish” each other (in the Colossian passage). But Paul does not quit there. He goes further, explaining how one is to teach and admonish: “in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). If we do not sing as directed, then we are not obeying the command to “let the word of Christ dwell” in us. If we do not practice those five participles of Ephesians 5, then we are disobeying the command to “be filled with the Spirit.”

In conclusion, it is clear the New Testament provides sufficient specific instruction concerning Christian singing. Paul, in these two passages, used words that are, in their very nature, limited and explicit. Just as Nadab and Abihu were not allowed to take liberties with God’s instructions concerning worship (Leviticus 10:1ff) then neither should we. These passages clearly authorize Christian singing. They command Christian singing, and are actually very specific in that command. Note: they provide specifics on what is to be sung (psalms, hymns and spiritual songs), how they are to be sung (singing, making melody in the heart), why they are being sung (speaking and teaching each other), and to whom they are being sung (to the Lord). Within all these specifics there is found no authority for the use of the instrument. Therefore it is logical and scriptural to abandon its use.

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