The New Testament Pattern

Where is your piano? Why doesn’t your church believe in music? Why do you people have this obsession with a capella music?

If you have been a member of the Lord’s church for very long, you have probably heard these and many more questions raised regarding what you believe about music in worship to God. While some may ask the questions to arouse anger and/or deflect questions from us about salvation, we must assume that most people are legitimately asking why our practices do not mirror what they see in the rest of the religious world. How then do we respond?

As in most things, it is best to respond simply, for the New Testament pattern for worship is very simple indeed. First, there are certain things one should avoid. Avoid the Old Testament in this discussion, because what we are interested in is becoming New Testament Christians. Just as we would not argue forgiveness of sins on the basis of animal sacrifices (for we have the better sacrifice of Christ, once for all time), we should not argue music based on the practices of David or any other Old Testament figure. This does not mean we flatly refuse to discuss those practices, but we make it clear that those have no more bearing on our discussion than do animal sacrifices.

Second, popular culture is no argument for the use instrumental music. To argue against that point by saying “our” music sounds better is subjective and, in many cases, wrong (that some beautiful instrumental music has been written cannot be denied). The only way to prove what sounds best to God is to examine His instructions for us. What we are concerned with is, “What does the New Testament say?”

There are a total of nine passages in the New Testament which involve singing (other than angelic singing, also avoided as we are not angels). Two (Matt. 26:30 and Mk. 14:26) involve Jesus and His disciples after they had eaten the Passover, “And after singing a hymn …” One is a direct quote from Psalms 22, “In the midst of the congregation I will sing Thy praise” (Heb. 2:12). One discusses God’s plan for the Gentiles (Rom. 15:9). One is an account from the jail of Philippi of Paul and Silas “… singing hymns of praise to God” (Acts 16:25). One concerns Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts, but makes an important point about understanding what we are singing (1 Cor. 14:15). And one is an admonition to happy Christians that they should sing (Jas. 5:13). It should be pointed out that in none of these passages are instruments mentioned.

That leaves two passages which discuss everything we are given in the way of instructions for our musical worship to God. That may not seem like much, but Paul said, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “… be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord” (5:18-19). He also wrote to the Colossians, “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” (3:16). It is here, in these two passages, that we find our instruction for what God would have us do when we sing (incidentally, we are talking about any worshipful singing, as the text does not necessarily connote a “worship service,” thus any song-filled praise to God must conform to these passages).

First, notice that both require that the Spirit/Word dwell in us. To try to worship God without an understanding of His will for us is much like working in the dark. Better to let the light shine on us so we can see. Better to understand His will so we can know. Second, one of the benefits of singing to God is teaching and helping each other. That is why the words of many songs sound like mini-sermons, so that some teaching may take place as we sing. That is also why we should pay careful attention to the words and avoid songs which are not grounded in scripture.

Some have appealed to the Greek word psallo as an argument for the instrument, but all of the translators agree that New Testament usage of the word is “sing.” In addition, if it did mean to play, all those involved in worship would have to play in order to fulfill the command, i.e. you could not psallo without an instrument.

Finally, we make our plea for Bible authority. There is no New Testament passage authorizing the use of instrumental music. We cannot condone what is not authorized, no matter how it sounds, no matter what other religious people do, no matter what some may desire, no matter what. We must stand on the Bible, and New Testament practice is clearly that of singing and singing alone.