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Instruments of praise – an alternative view

August 2013 | by Barry Tone

I would like — in response to Phil Harmonia (June ET) — to offer a defence of those preferring musical accompaniment on more than one instrument in congregational worship.

My own favourite musical style for worship is, in fact, strong congregational singing supported by minimal instrumentation!

The New Testament doesn’t mention musical instruments accompanying the gathered church’s singing. This certainly shows that, while singing is central, instruments are no longer definitely required in worship. Singing should have the dominant role, while instruments (if used) a supporting role.

However, I’m not sure the Bible supports Phil’s assertion that the absence of New Testament references to instruments ‘signifies the replacing of the external and sensory aspects of Old Testament worship by the ready worship of a new heart’. Surely God was no less concerned in the Old Testament that worship should be from the heart rather than merely external (Isaiah 29:13)?

Phil says there is ‘undeniable evidence’ that the use of multiple instruments was only in the Old Testament. However, references to multiple instruments in the Psalms give the impression of heartfelt praise rather than mere ceremonial ritual, and that need not be confined to the Old Testament.

In addition, with pictures in Revelation of the multiple use of instruments in heaven, the New Testament’s relative quietness on this subject doesn’t convince me there is a prohibition on them for Christian churches today.

Given the above biblical data, it would seem strange that God hasn’t given more substantive evidence in his Word that using more than one instrument in churches is the equivalent of using ‘unauthorised fire’ of Leviticus 10:1.

Spirituality

Phil Harmonia seems to say that the external action of ‘performing’ betrays a lack of true spirituality, but attempting to classify the part played by a musician as either ‘a performance’ or ‘not a performance’ is unhelpful.

If true spirituality and external action are really incompatible with each other, then no one truly spiritual would ever express their praise outwardly. And, by this argument, since singing is an outward action, it would apparently be more spiritual not to sing at all!

I don’t think Phil’s intention was to suggest that if we were truly spiritual we would not express it outwardly (which would be contrary to James 2:17), but surely his argument shows it is important to clarify what is meant by ‘performance’.

I don’t agree that the outward action of playing musical instruments prevents musicians from worshipping God. In fact, texts like Psalm 150 encourage worshippers to use musical instruments in their praise. Neither is the performance of external actions incompatible with the worship of God for those who see or hear the performance (e.g. Matthew 5:16).

Hence the issue is surely not whether musicians perform, but what kind of performance they give. We could define a ‘bad performance’ as one that draws attention to the musician, while a ‘good performance’ is one that glorifies God.

I am not aware of any biblical evidence that singing glorifies the Lord any more than playing to his glory on an instrument, but there are biblical instructions that each is to use the gifts God has given to serve one another, in order that he may be glorified (1 Peter 4:10-11).

Traditions

It is of course correct that we shouldn’t thoughtlessly dismiss the reasoning of generations more biblically informed than ours, but neither should we thoughtlessly accept their traditions.

Like the Bereans in Acts 17, we should examine the Scriptures ourselves to see if what those generations teach us is correct.

Unfortunately, Phil didn’t explain his own historical reasoning for why instruments shouldn’t be used (unless you count the implied reasoning that instruments must be bad because Catholics and Charismatics use them), so I’m not sure whether the historical reasoning he had in mind is in line with Scripture or not.

I agree that playing football to the glory of God is not a legitimate part of a congregational worship service. But, while there is no biblical precedent for playing football to the glory of God as part of congregational worship, there are biblical precedents for playing musical instruments to the glory of God.

Practicalities

I agree that ‘creating an atmosphere of worship’ and ‘attracting outsiders by reflecting popular culture’ are not good reasons for the use of multiple instruments in worship. However, many concerned to welcome outsiders would say they are not trying to attract people by a concert-like experience, but trying to remove a potential obstacle to the gospel for those who dislike organ music. I definitely sympathise with this!

I agree with Phil that congregations tend to sing better with minimal accompaniment, but I’m not sure we can rule out the possibility that some congregations sing better when led by a band.

The question of worship being an enjoyable experience is complicated. I agree we should come to church to enjoy God himself rather than to be entertained by musicians, so I reiterate that the musical performance (however many instruments are involved) should be done in such a way that attention is directed towards God rather than the musician(s).

However, I don’t think that seeking to make the music enjoyable necessarily conflicts with true worship. If enjoying the performance of music is contrary to worship, then I, for one, would have to rule out many psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, even if sung a cappella, because I enjoy hearing other people singing them.

Should we therefore only sing the items that no one actually enjoys?

Being noticed

Regarding the ‘inevitable tendency for musicians to draw attention to themselves’, while surely a danger, it is simply not true that all musicians are inevitably tempted in this way.

I played in my school’s brass band, which competed at a national level. Feeling very shy, I can confirm that, while on the stage of the Royal Festival Hall, I was not at all tempted to draw attention to myself. As far as I was concerned, the less the adjudicators noticed me, the better!

Secondly, such a temptation is at least as much of a danger for preachers. While certainly a reason for both preachers and musicians to be wary of pride, it is no more a reason for a blanket prohibition on musicians than one to forbid preaching.

Also, the suggestion that ‘for every member of a band, there is one less singing God’s praise’ is not necessarily true, because many can play an instrument and sing at the same time.

So I hope we can all appreciate that those with different musical preferences can still glorify God in their worship, and we will all be prepared to put the interests of others ahead of our own.

Barry Tone