What Form Should Music in Churches Take?

It is hard to imagine a classic cathedral without an organ (this is Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, England)

Many people believe that some of the most timeless and greatest music in the world is that which has been written to religious themes, and/or for performance in church services.

On the other hand, some Christian churches believe it to be inappropriate to have any musical accompaniment to the music in their services at all.  Adding a third dimension to this topic are ‘modern’ churches that variously either bring generic modern music into their churches to encourage new audiences to attend, or feature modern style music, with guitars, drums, synthesizers, and rock/pop style tunes.

What is the best approach?  Unaccompanied (ie “a capella”) singing?  Conservative/classical style hymns?  Modern style Christian music?  Any and all music to encourage new people to attend church and to keep the church relevant to a modern age?

And, for that matter, is this even an important issue?  Are there Biblical grounds to be concerned about allowing musical instruments in churches?  Should instruments be mandatory, optional, or forbidden?

Must the music played be only that with clear religious themes?  Is modern music automatically bad – and, if so, let’s not forget that, when first composed, all music was modern and new, and in some cases was considered innovative (in a bad way) and controversial at the time, even though now, with the passing of 100, 200, even 300 or more years, it has become traditional and conservative.  Does that mean that all music should have to wait some decades or centuries before it can be allowed?

Does God Like Music?

We should first understand if music in any form is something God approves of.  Even without looking to the Bible, it would intuitively seem this is something God approves of – why would he have given us the gift of composing, performing, and appreciating music if he didn’t approve of it?  We do agree that the devil can misuse the gift of music and twist music into a representation of and encouragement for evil, but ‘good’ music is, well, good.

Turning to the Bible, we see plenty of examples in both Testaments where music is spoken of approvingly.  Some Old Testament citations follow in the next section; and in the New Testament, we see for example James 5:13 advocating the singing of praise in general, and Hebrews 2:12 more specifically talks of singing praise in the midst of the congregation – ie, in church.  Back to the general again, Luke 15:25 indicates that music and dancing is generally a positive thing, and then another specific reference, Romans 15:9 talks of “singing to your name”.

Ephesians 5:19 seems to be a broad encouragement for psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, and is echoed in similar phrasing in Colossians 3:16.

Should Instruments be Allowed?

This question – unthought of by most of us, who are familiar with church organs, pianos, or musical groups of some form or another – is interesting because it represents the “sharp edge” of one of the differences in how church groups choose to interpret the Bible.  Please see our article “Is the Bible Permissive or Restrictive” for a discussion on this point.

But while some church groups claim no New Testament authority to support musical instruments, there is certainly plenty of Old Testament support for including instruments into worship ceremonies.  Psalm 150:3-6 couldn’t be clearer on this point :

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!

Keep in mind that the psalms (written over hundreds, probably thousands of years, and the most recent being dated to about 537 BC) were variously prayers, poems and songs, so there’s something delightfully self-referential about a song advocating music!

Other sources include 2 Samuel 6:5 and Nehemiah 12:27.

In a case where accompanied music and possibly even instrumental music alone is being encouraged in the Old Testament, and where it is not actively being discouraged in the New Testament, we think that the twin concepts of “that which isn’t prohibited is permitted” and also “The Old Testament is persuasive when not overruled by the New Testament” both suggest that instruments are allowed in church.

There is also an obscured reference in the New Testament.  Ephesians 5:19 is typically translated more or less as follows (NASB)

speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord

The key phrase is “making melody”, which is translated from the Greek word “psallontes” which can mean “to rub or touch”, or “to twitch or twang”.  It was commonly used in Greek to refer to playing a stringed instrument.

Most translations seem to have decided that the ‘instrument’ being referred to in the verse was one’s heart and so have not overtly added the extra literal meaning to the verse.  But the literal meaning is accurately shown in the AMPC translation :

Speak out to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, offering praise with voices [and instruments] and making melody with all your heart to the Lord,

So maybe, hidden away in the mists of translation, there is an underlying authority in the New Testament to use instruments.  There is also another oblique hint in that most mysterious of the New Testament books, Revelation.

Revelation 14:1-6 talks of a group of special saved people who sung, accompanied by harps.  This suggests that not only do we know in Old Testament times but also in the End Times that accompanied music pleases God.

That isn’t to say that during this particular phase of God’s Great Plan he wishes only unaccompanied music, but the silence on that point and the bookending of approved musical accompaniment before and after would reasonably suggest that musical accompaniment is fine now, too.

Church Tradition

For most of us with personal memories of church services stretching back no more than 50 – 60 years at the most, the presence of instruments has been an inseparable constant part of our church-going experiences, and one that few of us have even thought to question.

But of course, church tradition stretches very much further back than our own living memories, and some people use the concept of church tradition to validate their beliefs (we do not, but we are sensitive to people who do).

It seems clear that Jewish worship was encouraged to include instruments (at least until around 70 AD and the destruction of the Second Temple).  But a more important indicator for us as Christians is how the early church in the first century conducted its worship sessions.

We don’t really know if there were musical instruments in early church services or not.  Almost certainly, there was singing, because both the Old and New Testaments encourage singing, but we don’t know about what instruments may (or may not) have been present.  However, because the early Christians were Jews, it seems very likely that they simply carried over not only the tradition of singing but also the concept of accompanying the singing with instruments, same as they’d been doing in Jewish Temples.

Some people suggest that the lack of reference to instruments means there weren’t any instruments present.  We suggest that because instruments were so inseparably a part of singing, there was no need to mention them.  This is similar to how descriptions of church buildings seldom talk about their ceilings or windows, but we can be certain most churches had both.  Similarly, no mention of musical instruments might just mean that they were such an obvious part of the proceedings that the simple expression “singing” invariably meant, to the people saying and reading it, “with instrumental accompaniment”.

It is true that organs were first introduced into churches from about 670 AD.  But that doesn’t really mean there were no other instruments prior to then, it just means that organs became “a thing” and a developed working type of instrument from then onwards.

It is also true that at certain times over the last thousand years or so, certain notable church leaders spoke out against the use of instruments in church services.  But such expressions of dislike seem to be based only on personal opinion.  We don’t see a single church leader quoting a convincing Biblical text that specifically prohibits the use of instruments.

[As an aside, it is particularly amusing to see Protestant leaders, who split away from the Catholic church primarily because they wanted to bring the Christian church back to the Biblical essentials of worship; then turn around and express personal opinions, without Biblical backing, much the same as the Popes they broke away from!]

It is relevant to note that at times, churches also had no seating in them (seating was not just absent but banned), and certainly no heating, electric light, or free Wi-Fi for the congregation, and so on through a list of other semi-modern comforts and conveniences.  Few if any churches ban such things now, even though they were of course not present in Biblical times and are not specifically mentioned in the New Testament.  Indeed, that could be our gentle challenge for consistency to churches banning musical instruments now due to lack of New Testament authority – Do you have electricity and heating in your church, and, if so, where is the Biblical authority for that?

From a different perspective, many/most of the instruments commonly found in churches and usual western musical performances today are greatly changed from the instruments they evolved from over the centuries.  They are generally ‘better’, more versatile, more tuneful, and more conducive to simple appreciation and enjoyment.  Perhaps the paucity of musical accompaniment at some points in the past was due to the lack of good/nice musical instruments to use, and the shortage of skilled people to play them.

We Are Expected to Participate in the Music

Nowhere in the Bible are we told we should sit quietly and passively while listening to a formal church choir perform for us.  We emphasis those last two words because the concept of church music is that it is part of how we all worship God together.  If there is a formal group of musicians, surely their tasking is not to give us a free concert, but to play for the Lord.

There may also be occasions when having specialist musicians performing in our churches creates an atmosphere of contemplative worship, where their performance aids us in getting closer to, communing with, and worshiping God.

When we are all singing together, we feel that instruments help rather than hinder us in that effort.  They give us melody and harmony to follow.  Singing unaccompanied, without a clear guidance for pitch or speed is very difficult and usually ends up in more of a raucous babble than mellifluous music, and so the traditional concept of an instrument or instruments first playing a bar or two of the music so we can hear the pitch and speed, then leading us as we sing, can greatly help an untrained group of singers.

Reasons Against Allowing Instruments in Church

Although it is our conclusion that instruments are allowed, not everyone agrees with us.  This page seems to have a clear and thorough explanation of the reasoning against allowing instruments.

While we see some flaws in their logic, we have no wish to now make a series of snide comments about their sincere beliefs.

However, we do wish to correct the record about one of their statements.  They say “[using organs] caused such controversy that in ad 1054 it led to a split between Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.”

There were many major reasons for this long-evolving split between the two churches, but none of the commentaries we’ve read mention music as one of them.  It may have been a minor point of difference, but to claim it was the sole or major reason is just plain wrong.  See this, this, this and this.

But, even though we don’t agree with all their reasoning or the conclusion, we feel their path to Christ is a good and safe one, too, and offer up the other side of the story so you can decide for yourself how you wish to worship God.

Surely, the bottom line is this :  If having no instruments as part of your worship ceremonies assists you in your process of worship, that is a good thing.  But, equally, if including instruments brings you closer to God, surely that too is a good thing.  And the flipside of this – if demanding you must either eliminate or include instruments causes you to feel estranged, then equally surely, that is a bad thing.

Should Music be Solemn and Traditional?

For ourselves, we like solemnity in church services and church music.  We feel it is more respectful and more worshipful of the awesomeness of God. Solemnity and formality seem to be closely associated with respect and the type of behavior that is common when in the presence of someone very much greater than ourselves.

But, this is merely our personal preference.  We see no Biblical mandate to limit music to only certain forms.  And in particular, noting the changing styles and forms of music over the centuries, today’s “solemn” music was, once upon a time, considered new, original, and even unsettlingly/uncomfortably different to what went before.  Go all the way back to plainsong and chant, then contrast that with much of what has followed – clearly solemnity is a moving target.

Indeed, underscoring this, look back to the words from Psalm 150 quoted above, and you will see no call for solemnity at all.  “Raucous joy” seems to be more the invocation in that psalm!

Personal Opinion :  Great Music Brings Us Closer to God

As a personal note, may we observe that we feel closer to appreciating (but not understanding) the mysteries of the Almighty when experiencing a profound piece of music.  Beethoven’s last piano sonata, for example, is so layered in mystery and meaning as to be impossible for ordinary mortals to comprehend.  Anyone who seeks proof of the human soul could spend their life in the study of this half hour piece of transcendent glory and still be no closer to understanding what it is trying to express.

In terms of music specifically written for the church, who could fail to be moved by Verdi’s Requiem Mass and its bitter-sweet celebration of life alongside the horrors and sorrow of death, or not be inspired to more fervent worship by hearing the glorious words of the KJV set to the music of Handel’s oratorio, The Messiah.

It is hard to accept that accompanied music is automatically an unGodly thing, in or out of church.  And while perhaps over-played, are not Christmas carols an essential part of the wonderful build-up to Christmas every year?

We can never decide if the massive over-playing of Silent Night is deserved or not, but its stark simplicity (written in 1818, originally for voice(s) and a single guitar) and purity of soul can not be denied.

Would a wedding or funeral be as solemn, or as meaningful, or commemorate the event as well without music?

Certainly, there is too much modern music that comprises painful dissonances and auditory uglinesses, and lyrics that advocate the worst of unGodly behavior, all played at a volume level set to stupefy its audience and permanently damage their hearing.  Just as how the finest of music encapsulates the concept of goodness and Godliness, bad music seems to come direct from the devil.  It is clear that neither this music nor the lifestyles it celebrates and advocates has any place within earshot of any Godly church.

A judge once said that pornography was difficult to define in law, but easy to recognize when it was seen.  The same might be said of music, and surely none of us have any difficulty in discerning the difference between the far apart examples of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music.  The problem is, just as with the other matter, that there is a grey area in the middle, between “tasteful/artistic” and crass depictions of the worst form, made more difficult to agree upon due to the evolving social standards as to where the cut-off lies between the one and the other.

Continuing this slightly uncomfortable analogy, we have seen general and even family-focused entertainment, whether movies, television shows, or books and art, move inexorably to ever lower standards, with more and more gratuitous inclusions of what a generation or two back would be considered inappropriate images and behaviors.

The media do this so as to boost their appeal and to make the most money.  It seems there’s more money in sin than in salvation.

To be blunt, we feel some churches are also chasing the phantom of popular appeal, and rather than setting standards that people aspire to, have accepted baser standards in the hope that it will bring more people to their churches, and prove them to be “inclusionary”, “relevant”, “modern”, “exciting”, and all the other terms that have been used to justify a movement away from the core Biblical messages.

Here’s another personal opinion – we don’t 100% agree with it, but we thought it well-reasoned and well written.

Summary

One of the primary purposes of churches and of meeting in churches is to conduct worship.  God wishes us to be joyous and positive in our worship, and in several places singing is mentioned as a way to express this (James 5:13, Colossians 3:16).

Although there is no mention either for or against using instruments in the New Testament, the Old Testament has several passages telling us that instruments of all kinds should be used.  With Old Testament support, and no prohibition in the New Testament, instruments seem clearly allowed.

The Bible does not tell us in specific detail what style or form or length songs should be, but it seems that generally, they should be positive, uplifting, and worshipful in nature.

Philippians 4:8 gives guidance, in general, about good things, and clearly much music of many different styles can conform to these parameters.  Modern, classical, folk, and traditional music all can be good and appropriate.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.


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Bible verse of the day

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.