(updated and expanded Nov 2017)
In the book, Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank, a question is raised regarding instrumental worship: “The instrumental music issue may or may not be a big deal in a person’s mind and heart. Ultimately, it boils down to a simple question. Am I willing to do what God said to do?”
I was raised in this tradition so I know this argument. And my answer to the question posed by Shank is a clear and resounding, “YES.” I am more than willing. But probably not in the way Shank is suggesting. And so, as one who has recently planted a church that worships God in many ways, including with the musical instrument, I present the question back to Shank.
The church tradition from which Shank argues his perspective is the same one in which I grew up and have served in a full time ministry career. Some within this tradition have strongly argued that worshipping God with an instrument is sinfully wrong. It is a bold and condemning claim. The argument is based upon two passages in the New Testament. Ephesians 5:19 and Col. 3:16.
Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
The rationale for this argument is largely based upon what is not believed to be in both passages, namely the lack of mention of instruments in worship. This is the silence argument championed by some Restorationists that arises out of Thomas Campbell’s, “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where it is silent.” (I would argue Campbell’s statement has been misinterpreted and misapplied more times than not but that is another matter all together).
A good number of people within the Restoration tradition in which I was raised have concluded then that it is not okay or acceptable to God to worship Him with musical instruments. I would argue the exact opposite. And I would use the same two passages as one of many arguments that could be made FOR instrumental worship. I believe these two passages show that instrumental worship is a very acceptable way of worshipping God and is encouraged as a way in which we get to participate in His Story then, His Story now, and His Story in the future.
Eph. 5:19 begins with being “filled with the Spirit.” Paul then tells the different ways those who are filled with the Sprit are empowered to speak to one another. The ways mentioned are “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.” The same is true in Col. 3:16 as Paul says “Christ dwells among us” through psalms, hymns, and songs. The Greek word for psalms here is the same word Jesus used in Luke 24:44 which is psalmois.
Why did Paul not simply use one of these words to describe worship rather than all 3: psalms, hymns, and songs? It is because they are each unique. A hymn (hymnos) implies a well known song passed along through tradition. A song (odais) implies a spontaneous song that one may sing improptu. So what are psalmois? They are songs from the Psalms. I’m not suggesting the psalmois here must always refer to the book of Psalms in the Old Testament but I am saying this is what Paul is inferring by offering 3 expressions of worship.
It has been argued correctly that psalmos or psallo refer to the plucking of a string. It has also been argued what Paul is saying is that we are plucking the strings of the heart. This is why it has been insisted upon by some that we only make music “from the heart” and not the instrument. It would make perfect sense for worshipful songs to originate from the heartstrings. I would hope all songs of worship originate from the strings of the heart. But is Paul really saying here that instrumental strings are somehow inappropriate? No. That would be a weak argument even if he’d only used the words “songs” and “hymns.” But it becomes even weaker in that he also says psalmois. We can compare the usage of psalmois to how Jesus used it.
Before his ascension in Luke 24:44 Jesus says: “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms (psalmois).”
Jesus is referring to the words of the psalms (psalmois), as an assembled book of songs. In the Old Testament that collection is called Psalms. Jesus is saying those songs are fulfilled in Him. But Jesus is doing more than saying that He is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. In fact, many don’t realize that as He hangs from the cross in His final moments He is “singing” or “speaking” the words of Psalm 22 which begin with, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) and end with “He has done it!” (Psalm 22:31). Jesus dies reciting a psalm that begins with the expression of rejection and crescendos in hope.
And He passes that hope on to His future followers. We see that as He shares with His disciples how the Old Testament will continue to be fulfilled in them as they become His “witnesses” to the world. The promise He gives them is the Spirit. “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49)
Paul begins with the Spirit in his words about worship. This is the same Spirit that Jesus promises. He writes these words to the church at Ephesus and Colossae about speaking these psalmois to one another empowered by the Spirit.
So why is this problematic for the “a cappella-only” argument? Because the very Scriptures used to make a case against instrumental worship are actually saying the opposite. How? Because Paul says that, being filled with the Spirit, we should speak psalmois to one another. He is saying that along with the traditional hymnos (hymns), and the impromptu odais (songs), we should sing the songs of the Psalms.
Paul seems to feel very comfortable encouraging Christians to utilize the Psalms for worship. And why not? Jesus interpreted His present reality using the Psalms. The early church interpreted their present using the Psalms as seen in Acts (for example Acts 4:25-26). You can even infer that Jesus died with Psalm 22 on his heart and his lips.
The psalms are multi-faceted expressions. Sometimes they express honest and raw doubt (Ps. 13:1-4) Other times they demand justice (Ps.79:6). Other times they express lament (Ps. 142:1-2). In some places there is a reflection on sacrifice. And then there are many psalms that are psalms of praise or doxology (Psalm 150).
In encouraging the use of Psalms to worship God, Paul is essentially saying: “Dear Christians who are deeply rooted in the story of Israel: as you sing to one another let the words of the Psalms be on your lips whatever your context may be!”
Context here would be crucial. When Jesus is dying on the cross, he doesn’t go to what you might call a song of absolute praise but a psalm of lament. Psalm 22 is the perfect place for him to go to lament His present condition (“My God my God why have you forsaken me?”) and yet that same psalm ends in a tremendous crescendo of hope as it declares “for he has done it.” In this crescendo we hear Jesus say aloud “It is finished!”
But some would argue that the Psalms are problematic for worship because they reference things like animal sacrifices. Do those Psalms then become “off limits?” No. But they would absolutely require a level of context. So if a group of Christians in distress turned to Psalm 20 to sing or speak, “May the Lord answer you when you are in distress” and then a few verses later get to “May he remember all your sacrifices and accept your burnt offerings” it wouldn’t be wrong for them to still sing/speak the whole psalm but it seems to be obvious at that point that they are singing those words with their spiritual ancestors, Israel, in a time looking ahead to hope when a Messiah would come as the once and for all sacrifice.
As Christians who placed their hope in Jesus as their sacrificial lamb, it seems logical to assume that they wouldn’t suddenly think they are being commanded to sacrifice an animal to achieve that hope. The point here it that the Psalms aren’t commands so much as they are expressions. If they were commands we’d have a pretty tough time with psalms like Psalm 137:8-9, for example, where the psalmist laments against Babylon, “happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” Those reading this Psalm today don’t see this as a command to take vengeance on enemies but as an honest and raw expression of lament and cry for justice.
Amongst the beautiful expressions in the psalms are psalms that paint a portrait of praise. Some of those include instruments. These are psalms of hymnal doxology. And the psalmist declares them as a specific expression of praise in the very “sanctuary” of God (Psalm 150). Not that Paul is limiting Christians to these Psalms, but it seems likely that he might have these Psalms in mind in his words in Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 since they both are about “song.”
So if a group of Christians in Ephesus or Colossae heard/read Paul’s letter and turned to Psalm 150 to express this type of psalm I don’t think they would say, “we absolutely must use an instrument here” to achieve the worship pronounced by the psalmist but there would be no reason whatsoever that they would think they couldn’t. Again, the key here is context. Why on earth would they assume instruments would be wrong? There has been nothing even close to suggesting this for them from the story of God. While it’s clear that Jesus became the atoning “lamb of God,” and therefore there’s no need to sacrifice an animal (as described in Psalm 20), there would be nothing to them that would have made them think that they couldn’t participate in the psalms that had instruments. Writers of the New Testament clearly address the sacrifice issue to remind us that “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:4) But if this whole instrumental debate (that is so prevalent today) were such a controversy it seems that Paul would at least feel the need to say, “Sing the Psalms, but make sure you don’t practice the ones that suggest instrumental worship because those Psalms now offend God.”
The Psalms are expressions, and Paul gives permission to participate from those expressions. He’s not commanding the use of an instrument in psalms like Psalm 150 but he certainly isn’t editing them either. In fact he says, “teach and admonish” (Col. 3:16) one another with them. He’s assuming that anyone who has let the “message of Christ dwell in [them]” would be able participate in those Psalms accordingly.
So what does it all mean? Context and participation. Jesus lived out of the Psalms. The early church lived out of the Psalms. And I believe we too, today, have been empowered to choose to express the Psalms, whether that be in standing in solidarity with our spiritual ancestors who cried out for hope (in the form of sacrifice), or in the specific participation with the psalmists who praised God with various kinds of musical instruments.
What does this mean for today? Let’s say the person leading others in the “speaking of psalmois” decide to DO what Paul says in Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 and we say to ourselves, “I’ll turn to some psalmois in the Psalms and sing with my brothers and sisters in Christ in worship.” Any of the psalmois in the book of Psalms would now be readily available to be sung (or spoken). So let’s say we, or the one leading, turn to Psalm 150 which would make perfect sense because this is clearly a psalm about praising God “in his sanctuary.” So it can’t be argued that somehow this psalm doesn’t apply to gathered worship. Here are the words of the psalm:
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
praise him for his surpassing greatness.
Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
praise him with the harp and lyre,
praise him with timbrel and dancing,
praise him with the strings and pipe,
praise him with the clash of cymbals,
praise him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord.
Or let’s say the one leading the song today decided to turn to a psalm that was originally to be sung on the Sabbath day and turned to Psalm 92. This would also make sense as a psalm chosen to be used to worship the Lord on a specific day of the week.
It is good to praise the Lord
and make music to your name, O Most High,
proclaiming your love in the morning
and your faithfulness at night,
to the music of the ten-stringed lyre
and the melody of the harp.
The natural assumption in reading Psalm 150 would be, “Let’s participate just as it says!” How would one participate? This psalm, as do a number of others, calls for the use the trumpet, the harp, the lyre, the timbrel, the strings, the pipe, and the cymbals. That’s 7 instruments along with another way of praising the Lord through the expression of the body in “dancing.” The same can be said of Psalm 92 about the ten-stringled lyre and the harp.
But using the logic of “a cappella only” one would simply be left to say, “But I can’t. I can’t participate in what Paul and this psalm are suggesting I do in Ephesians and Colossians. I’m not allowed because my tradition has said it was ‘unauthorized.’”
When Paul suggests that believers be filled with the Spirit and speak the psalmois, this is a participation in the Old Testament story being lived out today. We cannot simply say that the Old Testament was “nailed to the cross” as anti-instrumental worship proponents like to say. It was sin that was nailed to the cross as “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21)
How then, did the trumpet, the harp, the lyre, the timbrel, the strings, the pipe, and the cymbals get nailed to the cross? The Old Testament is filled with worship of God that is accompanied by instruments. Volumes could be written here on how often instruments accompany worship in a way that pleases the Lord.
More technical arguments about old covenant and new covenant theology do not change the logic presented here by Paul. Did the same God who was not offended by instrumental worship in the Old Testament suddenly change His mind, declare those instruments sinful, and attach them to the cross of Jesus so that they will never be used again in worship?
As ridiculous as that sounds, this is the argument being made by those who say instrumental worship in the church today is unauthorized and sinful. These same folks argue that those using instruments in worship are “adding to the Word.” But wouldn’t adding a condemnation of instrumental worship, which is not in the New Testament, actually be an “addition” to the Word of God? Instead, Paul actually encourages the churches at Ephesus and Colossae to practice the Psalms. And those Psalms are filled with worshipping God with musical instruments. “Am I willing to do what God said to do?” Yes, I am. Because I choose to participate in His Story.
I choose to participate in the historical Story, the Story today, and the Story as it unfolds in the future when one day I will join the song of Moses (Rev. 15:3). This was a song of celebration and deliverance from bondage using the joyous tambourine (Exodus 15). Remarkably the Israelites chose to pack their tambourines as they left Egypt for a wilderness where only the essentials could be carried on their backs. The Israelites participated then. I choose to participate today. And I choose to participate in the future. “Am I willing to do what God said to do?” Yes, then. Yes, now. And yes, forevermore.