Instrumental Music

PianoThose outside the Churches of Christ may not know a great deal about us, but the one thing they know for sure is that we forbid the use of musical instruments in the assembly. There are few other issues that have divided and polarized the churches of the Restoration Movement as much as the controversy over instrumental music.

In the mid 1800’s, the debate over the use of instruments was raging both within the Restoration Movement as well as in other Protestant denominations. Many argued that the use of instruments had no scriptural authority while others supported instruments on the basis of Christian liberty and claimed them to be an expedient to worship.  According to the Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement (page 414), churches such as the Sixth Street Church in Cincinnati, Ohio had introduced instruments into worship as early as 1855.

By around 1860 the church in Midway, Kentucky had also introduced an instrument (a melodeon) into their congregational meetings which resulted in what is probably the most well known dispute over instrumental music in Restoration Movement history.  The use of the melodeon was encouraged by Lewis L. Pinkerton who was preaching for the congregation at the time.  The melodeon was referred to as an “instrument of Satan” by dissenting church members in Midway.

On August 27th, 1931, the Woodford Sun newspaper printed an article entitled “Melodeon With a History” which briefly described the turmoil at the Midway congregation.  According to the story, a prominent farmer and elder in the Midway congregation named Adam Hibler quietly removed the “instrument of Satan” one winter night.  Under cover of darkness, Hibler’s servant passed the melodeon to him through a window.  The whereabouts of the melodeon were uncertain for several decades until it later surfaced in the possession of descendants of a friend of Hibler’s.  The melodeon that is believed to be the same one that Hibler removed is currently on display in the library of Midway College.

By the end of the 19th century, the Restoration Movement was sharply divided over the matter of instrumental music.  Those adopting instruments identified themselves as Disciples of Christ or Christian Churches.  Those refraining from using instruments called their congregations Churches of Christ.  The instrument (or lack of one) had become a test of fellowship. The Churches of Christ have long maintained that there is no scriptural authority for instruments in worship.  We have based our conclusion on our traditional CENI-S hermeneutic along with scrutinizing the definition of the Greek word “Psallo” and by appealing to secular history.  In this article, I will not re-hash all the old arguments.  They are well known and well documented elsewhere.  I would like to consider a few thoughts that are not generally considered when studying this issue.

To Play or Not to Play?

Are our objections to instruments based on a logical and consistent interpretation of the Scriptures?  Can we object to the use of an instrument based on a direct command?  No, because there are no direct commands which command us to use instruments or refrain from using them.  The same is true regarding necessary inferences.  Should we object to the use of instruments because there are no approved examples of their use?  No, because approved examples are not a valid means determining what is and is not authorized by God (please refer to the articles “Are Approved Examples Binding? (Part 1)“,  “Are Approved Examples Binding? (Part 2)” and “Pattern Theology“).  Since the Bible is silent regarding instruments, may we conclude they are therefore forbidden?  No, because when God has given no instruction we are free to choose our course of action.

Additional objections are made based on specific authority,  the definition of the words “psallo” & “psalmos” and secular history.

Psallo & Psalmos

The Greek word “psallo” (Strong’s number G5567) is used only four times in the New Testament and it is translated into English as “sing(ing)” and “making melody”.  “Psalmos” (Strong’s G5568) has essentially the same definition since both share the same root word in Greek. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines “psallo” it in this way:

1) to pluck off, pull out

2) to cause to vibrate by touching, to twang

a) to touch or strike the chord, to twang the strings of a musical instrument so that they gently vibrate

b) to play on a stringed instrument, to play, the harp, etc.

c) to sing to the music of the harp

d) in the NT to sing a hymn, to celebrate the praises of God in song

Those who oppose instrumental music say that the word’s definitions do not necessarily require the use of an instrument to accompany singing.  They have some very convincing arguments which I believe are valid. Those who are in favor of using instrumental music argue that inherent in the very definition of the words is the idea of playing an instrument. Therefore, since the Holy Spirit guided the New Testament writers to use the word “psallo” and “psalmos” the use of instruments are authorized by God. Those not in favor also have some very convincing arguments which I believe are valid.

How can both sides have valid arguments?  Am I advocating that both sides are correct about the definition of the word? I am indeed! I am no Greek scholar by any means. However, as I have examined how the words are used both in the New Testament and in ancient Greek secular writings it seems that the words can indicate either singing alone, playing alone, or singing and playing combined depending on the context!

When the word “psallo” is used in connection with an instrument, it is translated “play”. When the word “Psallo” appears in the text alone, it is translated sing. For example:

speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody <psallo> in your heart to the Lord    Ephesians 5:19

and that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy, as it is written: “For this reason I will confess to You among the Gentiles, And sing <psallo> to Your name.”   Romans 15:9

In Ephesians 5:19, psallo is used in connection with the heart (the heart in this passage is the “instrument”). Therefore, the playing (making melody) is done upon the heart. In Romans 15:9 psallo appears “alone” and no mention is made of what instrument the playing is to be done upon; therefore it is rendered “sing”.   Based purely upon observation, the words can mean either sing or play depending on whether an instrument is mentioned or not.  When an instrument is mentioned (lyre, harp, heart, etc.) psallo is translated “play”.  When no instrument is mentioned in the context psallo is translated “sing”.  This observation appears to be valid regardless of whether the subject matter is from the Scriptures or from ancient Greek secular writings.

So what is the point?  The point is that the definition of the words “psallo” and “psalmos” do not help us very much in determining whether musical instruments are authorized or not.  Since the words can mean both sing and play, we have to look elsewhere for convincing evidence.

Specific Authority

Specific authority demands that when a passage specifies one kind of action, it excludes all other actions of the same or similar kind. Generally speaking I believe this is a valid method of Biblical interpretation, as long as it is correctly applied.  For example, when God specified gopher wood in the construction of the ark, it excluded all other kinds of wood.  God didn’t have to list every other kind of wood that could possibly be used and tell Noah not to use it.  Noah understood that when God specified gopher wood, all other kinds of wood were excluded automatically.  Since Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 specify that Christians are to sing does this exclude other kinds of music such as “playing”?  Is this a valid conclusion and do we consistently apply the same principle to similarly constructed New Testament passages?

What we are really talking about here is a New Testament passage of Scripture which exclude similar “kinds” by specifying one “kind”.  It is asserted by those who oppose instrumental music that the following passages are an example of excluding a similar kind; music in this case.

What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding.  1 Cor 14:15

…speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord…  Eph 5:19

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.   Col 3:16

We traditionally apply these passages in this way: There are many kinds of music, but singing is specified as the kind of music Christians are to engage in.  Therefore, all other kinds of music are excluded and thus unauthorized.  If this is true, then we should apply this logic to all similarly constructed passages.  Let’s consider a few.

Rom 16:16, 1 Cor 16:20, 2 Cor 13:12, 1 Thes 5:26, 1 Pet 5:14

Greet one another with a holy kiss.

Kisses are a kind of greeting and are specified as the kind of greeting Christians are to use.  Therefore, all other kinds of greetings are excluded and thus unauthorized.  Handshakes, hugs, waving, etc. are all unauthorized forms of greetings.

1 Tim 5:23

No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach’s sake and your frequent infirmities.

Wine is a kind of medicine and is specified as the kind of medicine Christians are to use for their infirmities.  Therefore, all other kinds of medicines are excluded and thus unauthorized. Penicillin, Pepto-Bismol, Tylenol and all other forms of medicine are unauthorized.

Heb 10:24-25

And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.

There can be many kinds of assemblies (social, entertainment, educational, etc), but the kind of assemblies Christians are specified to gather in are for the purpose of spiritual edification. Therefore, all other reasons why Christians might assemble are excluded and thus unauthorized.

James 5:14

Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.

There are many kinds of “healers” (doctors, nurses, 911, etc.) who can alleviate illnesses, but the kinds of “healers” specified for Christians are elders of the church.  Therefore, all other “healers” (doctors, nurses, 911, etc.) are excluded and thus unauthorized.

Now obviously, we don’t interpret these other passages in the same way we interpret the ones about singing.  If we are going to remain consistent, we are going to have to admit that we can’t apply the concept of specific authority to the “singing” passages in an attempt to forbid musical instruments.  Otherwise we had better start greeting one another only with kisses,  using wine as our only medicine, and so forth.  Every reasonable person knows that the main point of Romans 16:16 (and the other passages that mention kissing) is that we are to warmly greet one another.  The main point isn’t about what form that greeting is to take.  Likewise, the other passages listed above all have some point that is being emphasized and shouldn’t be construed to be a case of the inspired writers excluding some activity by appealing to specific authority.  Similarly, the emphasis in Eph 5:19 and Col 3:16 isn’t on the form of music we are to employ as Christians, but rather the main point is that we are to be filled with the Spirit and singing spiritual songs is one way to help facilitate this goal!  This is fairly obvious if we take the time to read the full context and dispense with our proof texting.

The Writings of the Early Christians & Secular History

Often, those who oppose instrumental music will refer to the writings of the Christians who lived in the first few hundred years after Christ.  There are numerous extra Biblical writings from the early church which clearly state that the earliest Christians did not use instruments to accompany their singing. It is an undeniable fact of history that Christians did not use instrumental music until the 7th century.  However, quotes from the “church fathers” simply say that they didn’t use instruments. They never once refer to some Scriptural prohibition and state that their music was purely vocal due to lack of Biblical authority for instruments!  The quotes never say that they believed that using instrumental music was sinful or unauthorized! The reasons given indicate that they avoided instruments so that they won’t appear to be like Jews or pagans who did use instruments in their worship.

Far from proving that the early church viewed instruments as sinful, it would seem that these extra Biblical documents actually demonstrate that acapella music was a preference which became tradition.  If this is so, then it would parallel the tradition of using only one cup during communion until modern times.


Taken as a whole, our traditional hermeneutic (CENI-S) is a flawed means of deriving Bible authority. It cannot be relied upon to answer this (or any other) question.  Defining the Greek words involved, while an interesting study, is inconclusive in resolving this issue.  Our attempts at excluding instruments based upon our application of specific authority are grossly inconsistent when viewed in the greater context of the New Testament.  Finally, the extra Biblical writings do not uphold the non-instrumental argument.  If we are to be consistent, we must conclude that the Scriptures do not state that instruments are unauthorized nor sinful.

Should we use instruments in our church assemblies?  The Bible says that the primary purpose of our assembling together is for edification. If the use of instruments builds us up spiritually, then by all means yes.  If they do not edify, then they are a waste of effort.  If they cause division amongst brethren whose conscience would be violated by their use, then instruments should be avoided.  Each congregation of God’s people will have to make this decision on their own in order for all to be edified. We must not allow a matter of liberty or indifference to cause discord and division among the people of God.  Let us follow Paul’s advice, “let all things be done for edification” 1 Cor 14:26.