We must preach what we practice! What others often notice and question first about us has to do with our “music” that is purely vocal, without instrumental accompaniment. What does the New Testament teach about the why, the what, and the how of our congregational praise? And what does it not teach?
People often ask regarding a cappella worship, “Why don’t you have an organ … or a band?” Is such simple, unaccompanied singing in worship optional, traditional, or eccentric … or is it biblical?
The WHY Precedes the WHAT and the HOW.
The WHY: Because we are first …
Chosen, Holy, and Beloved
Compassionate, Kind, and Humble
Forbearing and Forgiving
Bound by and Clothed with Love
Ruled by Christ’s Peace and Thankful
The WHAT and the HOW: Therefore, this is what we do!
Col 3:16 Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.
“Psalms:” songs of praise, confidence in God, lament and/or petition, celebration, doctrinal truth, exhortation, and personal inventory.
“Hymns:” typically songs of praise, offered up vertically to God.
“Spiritual songs:” songs about anything related to a spiritual life. Biblical content that “teaches and admonishes.”
Possible songs in the New Testament:
Phil 2:5-11; Eph 5:14; 1 Tim 3:16; 2 Tim 2:11-13
Note the arrangement of songs and categories in your own hymnal.
The WHY: Because we are first …
Filled with the Spirit
Eph 5:18-21 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, …
The WHAT and the HOW: Therefore, this is what we do! Therefore, this is what we do (Four evidences that we are Spirit-filled)!
 speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
 singing and making melody* with your heart to the Lord;
 always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father;
 being subject to one another in the fear of Christ.
*The Greek term psallo, even before New Testament times, did not mean, “sing and play instruments,” but simply, “make melody.”
In the past, some who have advocated the instrument have tried to claim biblical authority for it in the use of the Greek term psallo (> psalm) in Ephesians 5:19. They have said that the term meant to “pluck” a stringed instrument. If so, each Christian is required to pluck a stringed instrument in worship!
In fact, the word psallo appears also in 1 Cor 14:15 and Jas 5:13, where only vocal expression is in view. The Septuagint (Greek OT) also sometimes uses psallo in this purely vocal sense (Ps 135:3; 138:1; 146:2). If psallo in Eph 5:19 does allow or call for the use of an instrument, that instrument is specified: it is the heart.
Jesus re: New Covenant Worship: John 4:21-24
Jn 4:21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. 24 “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Jesus Himself taught that worship in the New Covenant would be different from that of the Old. Instead of a physical temple in Jerusalem, with all the outward, physical elements connected to it, He said, “… the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father … the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
NT worship would not be defined by Jerusalem and the temple. The worship of God (who is Spirit) would be “in spirit and in truth.” The temple and its external elements would be eliminated.
What were those elements?
Elements of Old Covenant Worship
The Old Covenant had stipulated a specific place (the temple in Jerusalem) and all the related externals: Levites, priests, vestments, the laver, the menorah, the altar of incense, the altar of burnt offering, animal sacrifices, tablets of stone, and musical instruments.
These were required, not optional. They all belonged together as parts of the Levitical / priestly / temple system under the Mosaic Law.
The OT specified the who (could play), what (instruments), when (with sacrifices) and where (in temple worship) of each of these items, including the musical instruments. 2 Chron 29:25-30
The Jews did not choose the performers or the instruments. Rather, the Lord clearly defined both.
Absence of Temple Elements in the Synagogues
Synagogues: formed after the first (Solomon’s) temple’s destruction:
- No sacred priesthood • No incense • No vestments
- No sacrifices • No altar • No instruments of music
Why? These external elements were tied exclusively to the temple.
Without the temple, these elements of worship could not continue.
In the synagogues the Jews sang psalms, but without instruments.
When the Jews translated the OT from Hebrew into Greek, they used the word psallo to describe this singing without instruments. Therefore, psallo by that time did not mean, “sing with instruments,” but rather, “make melody.”
Singing the Psalms Without Instruments
The synagogues sang the truths in the psalms, but they did not use any of these elements in synagogue worship. Though the psalms mention these temple elements, including instruments, Jews could not use them in the synagogue, apart from the temple.
Likewise, the first-century church of Christ sang the truths in the psalms but without instruments or any of these temple-related elements.
The OT psalms, rooted in the temple system context, noted:
Ps 20:3 Burnt offerings: rams, bulls, and goats.
Ps 107:22 Levitical thank offerings.
Ps 50:8; 51:19; 66:13 Burnt offerings.
Ps 118:27 Waving of palm branches (Feast of Tabernacles).
Ps 26:6 Levitical altar.
Ps 122:1; 27:4 Temple in which God was worshiped.
Ps 5:7 Prayers offered at or toward the temple.
Therefore, one cannot simply take authority for instruments, say from Psalm 150, without also considering the other items in the Psalms that were part of the Temple worship system.
New Covenant Change
Lk 16:16 “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since then, the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached …”
Heb 8:5 They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things …
Heb 8:13 … “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete …
Heb 10:1 For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities …
Col 2:17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
Gal 3:24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian …
The New Testament has all authority regarding Christian worship. Heb 8:13-10:18 While Christians learn from the Old Testament’s unchanging principles, they do not follow its specific means of worship. Incense, dancing, animal sacrifice, a separate priesthood, the Sabbath, three annual holy feasts, and instrumental music in the Temple worship were all part of the Old Testament administration. They never were part of the New.
Music in NT Worship: Strictly Vocal
Matt 26:30 Jesus and the apostles sang a hymn. Gk. hymneo.
After Jesus Christ shared the bread and the cup with His disciples at the Last Supper, the Scripture says, “When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:30).” They proceeded to Gethsemane, where Judas and the crowd came to arrest the Savior. Their singing serves as a powerful example of worship. It was from the heart, it was full of faith, and it was without mechanical accompaniment.
Acts 16:25 Paul and Silas were singing hymns. Gk. hymneo.
When Paul and Silas were in prison in Philippi, though they had been harshly mistreated and severely beaten, about midnight they were singing hymns of praise to God. The prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:25). Their singing, directed toward God, had a tremendous impact on the lost people around them. They did not use or need any instrumental assistance.
Rom 15:9 “I will sing hymns to Your name.” Gk. psallo.
1 Cor 14:15 “I will sing with my spirit and my mind.” Gk. psallo.
1 Cor 14:26 Everyone has a hymn or word of instruction. Gk. psalmos. (We would expect instruments here if they had been used.)
Eph 5:19 Sing and make melody in your heart. Gk. aido, psallo.
Col 3:16 Sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Gk. aido.
Jas 5:13 Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises. Gk. psallo.
Heb 13:15 Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name.
What About the Harps in Revelation?
In Revelation – The harps, golden lampstands, bowls of incense, altar of burnt offering, and the ark of the covenant, all reflecting Old Testament externals, were never part of NT church worship. These elements from the Levitical temple system appear as pictures of heavenly realities. They stand or fall together.
Rev 1:12 Golden Lampstands
Rev 3:12 The Temple
Rev 5:8-9 Harps and golden bowls of incense
Rev 8:4 Incense
Rev 6:9 Altar of Burnt Offering
Rev 11:19 The Ark of the Covenant
Rev 15:2 Harps
The Nature of Biblical Authority
When God specifies what He wants, He excludes all other options.
Biblical commands authorize whatever is necessary to obey them. “Make disciples.” “Assemble.” “Partake of the bread and cup.” Where God did not specify, we choose expedient, godly, practical means. The Bible’s silence regarding the tools we choose is permissive.
However, Bible commands do not authorize additions or substitutes. When God specifies the bread and cup … on the first day of the week … baptism by immersion … He excludes other options.
Likewise, God specified vocal music in worship. There is no biblical warrant for anything else.
The New Testament does not explicitly say, “You shall not use instruments of music.” Neither does it in such a direct way prohibit sprinkling for baptism, baptizing babies, praying to Mary, adding elements to the Lord’s Supper, or installing and honoring a Pope. However, it implicitly forbids all of these things by specifying certain other things. Thus, it excludes all substitutes or changes. This principle is sometimes called “the law of exclusion” or “the regulative principle.”
When we put together a shopping list, we do not list the items that we are not buying. Other items are excluded. If they are added, we will not pay for them! In the same way, since God has specified the kind of music He wants in worship, He does not have to list all the kinds of music that He does not want.
The New Testament specifies that the music of the church is to be vocal music. The “instrument” or “organ” is the human heart, giving praise to God through the lips. The New Testament’s silence on the instrument is a thundering silence, especially in light of the prominence of instruments in Old Testament temple worship. Instruments were available for use; Christians from a Jewish background were accustomed to them; but the early church did not use them.
Read and consider Ephesians 5:18-21. Following the command to “be filled with the Spirit,” in the Greek text there are several participles that describe what Christians do who are filled with the Spirit. They are speaking …, singing …, making melody in the heart …, giving thanks …, and submitting to one another. Mechanical instruments are not necessary or expedient in the carrying out of this teaching, nor are they capable of speaking, singing, etc. Also consider Colossians 3:15-17.
Early Church Confirmation
Clement of Alexandria, (AD 150-210): “The one instrument of peace, the word alone by which we honor God, is what we employ. We no longer employ the ancient psaltery and trumpet, and timbrel, and flute.” Quoted in Restoration Quarterly, Vol. I, No. 1, 1957, p. 3
Origen, (AD 325): “For the unison song of the people of Christ is more pleasing to God than any musical instrument. Thereby in all the churches of God with one mind and heart, with unity and agreement in faith and worship, we offer to God a unison melody in our singing of Psalms.” Quoted in Restoration Quarterly, p. 4
John Chrysostom, (AD 345-407): “David formerly sang songs, also today we sing hymns. He had a lyre with lifeless strings, the church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre …There is no need of lyre there, nor stretched strings nor plectrum, nor of musical skill, nor of any instruments. But if you choose, you will make yourself the lyre, putting to death the members of the flesh, and making a great harmony of the body with the soul.” Exposition of Psalm 41
“But I would say this, that in olden times they were thus led by these instruments because of the dullness of their understanding and their recent deliverance from idols. Just as God allowed animal sacrifices, so also He let them have these instruments, condescending to help their weakness.” Exposition of Psalm 49
Theodoret (AD 423-457), a bishop in Syria, in Questions And Answers to the Orthodox: “It is not simple singing that belongs to the childish state, but singing with lifeless instruments, with dancing, and with clappers. Hence, the use of such instruments and the others that belong to the childish state is excluded from the singing in the churches, and simple singing is left.” Restoration Quarterly, p. 5
Jerome (c. AD 400): “A Christian should not know what a lyre or flute is, nor what their use is.” Quoted on p. 144 in Instrumental Music in Worship, by M.C. Kurfees.
Augustine (c. AD 400): “Has not a rule been established in the name of Christ with reference to those ‘vigils’ of yours, that harps (citharae, that is, lyres) should be excluded from this place?”
These indisputable facts are evident from a study of church history. Churches did not use musical instruments in worship for 600-plus years after Christ. Virtually all church history music scholars, even outside the Restoration Movement, acknowledge the fact that the early church abstained from the use of such instruments. The music of the early church was exclusively vocal.
“A cappella,” which now means “without accompaniment,” is Latin for, “in the manner of the church.” The very existence of this phrase further confirms the fact that singing “in the manner of the church” is singing without instrumental accompaniment.
Curt Sachs of Columbia University, an eminent musicologist: “All ancient Christian music was vocal.”
Lyman Coleman, an outstanding Presbyterian scholar: “Both the Jews in their temple service and the Greeks in their idol worship were accustomed to sing with the accompaniment of instrumental music. The converts to Christianity must have been familiar with this model of singing, but it is generally admitted that the primitive Christians employed no instrumental music in their religious worship.” The Primitive Church, pp. 370-371
Joseph Bingham, of the Church of England, in his book, Antiquities of the Church: “Music in the Church is as ancient as the apostles; but instrumental music is not.”
Hugo Leichtentritt, in Music, History and Ideas, p. 34: “Only singing, however, and no playing of instruments, was permitted in the early Christian Church.”
Frank Landon Humphreys, Evolution of Church Music, p. 42: “The early Christians discouraged all outward signs of excitement, and from the very beginning, in the music they used, reproduced the spirit of their religion — an outward quietude. All the music employed in their early services was vocal.”
Organs were first introduced in AD 670 in a few churches; they were not used while singing hymns but as a prelude to worship. They were not used broadly until the 1300s.
Note the words of Thomas Aquinas, a leading Catholic Scholar who wrote the following in 1250 AD: “Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize.” Quoted in McClintock and Strong’s Encyclopedia, Vol. VII, p. 739
Until about 250 years ago, almost all Protestant denominations refused the instrument, for the same reasons we have described. Some still do. Eastern Orthodox. Mennonites. Reformed Baptists.
Instruments strongly opposed by every Protestant Reformer: Martin Luther. Huldrych Zwingli. John Knox. John Wesley. Charles Spurgeon.
Martin Luther called the organ “an ensign of Baal”. McClintock & Strong’s Encyclopedia of Music, Vol. VII, p. 762
John Calvin, primary influence in Presbyterian and Reformed churches: “Musical instruments in celebrating the praise of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting of lamps, the restoration of the other shadows of the law. The Papists, therefore, have foolishly borrowed this, as well as many other things, from the Jews.” John Calvin’s Commentary, Thirty-third Psalm.
John Wesley, reputed founder of the Methodist Church: “I have no objection to instruments of music in our chapels, provided they are neither heard nor seen.” Quoted in Clarke’s Commentary, Vol IV, p. 686
Adam Clarke, the greatest commentator of all times among the Methodists: “Music as a science, I esteem and admire; but instruments of music in the house of God I abominate and abhor. This is the abuse of music; and here I register my protest against all such corruptions in the worship of the Author of Christianity.” Clarke’s Commentary, Vol. IV, p. 686
Charles H. Spurgeon, a very influential Baptist preacher in London years ago, said: “Israel was a school, and used childish things to help her to learn, but in these days, when Jesus gives us spiritual food, one can make melody without strings and pipes … We do not need them. They would hinder rather than help our praise. Sing unto Him. This is the sweetest and best music. No instrument like human voice … We might as well pray by machinery as praise by it.” Spurgeon would not preach in a congregation where the instrument was present.
So the burden of proof is not upon those who sing “a cappella,” as if we must prove why we do not use instruments. We need not feel defensive. The burden of proof is on those who would introduce and defend the instrument, without biblical warrant or historical precedent.
The introduction of instruments, without biblical warrant, continues to create division. Churches that use instruments have divided further over the question of what kind of instruments they prefer. The “traditional” service will have an organ, while the “contemporary” service will have a rock band. Singing without instruments promotes unity, since everyone agrees that vocal singing is Scriptural by itself.
The suggestion that instruments are necessary to attract lost people, or young people, is very troubling. The purpose of worship is to glorify God. The question is, “What pleases Him?” The question is not, “What kind of worship do we, or the lost, or the young, or the old, prefer?”
The use of instruments has taken various church assemblies from edification to entertainment … from worship service to concert performance … from participation to passivity … and from the spiritual to the mechanical.
Instead, we choose to follow the simple, clear, New Testament teaching. The writer of Hebrews put it this way: “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” Heb 13:15