Over recent decades, some kind of musical experience has become a major component of evangelical worship — in the form of either a small classical ensemble or, more usually, a worship group or ‘band’.
Many welcome this change as a means of revitalising worship and attracting outsiders. As Iain Murray reminds us, however, ‘when the fundamental character of Christian worship is altered without any serious theological reflection, there ought to be concern’ (‘Some impressions of a visit to Australia’, The Banner of Truth, 584, 9).
There is undeniable evidence that numerous instruments were used in Old Testament worship. By contrast, in the New Testament, they are conspicuous by their absence. Instead, the emphasis is on singing (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).
The only NT references to an instrument are in Revelation 5:8; 14:2; and 15:2, where they provide a picture of worship in heaven.
This difference between the testaments signifies the replacing of the external and sensory aspects of Old Testament worship by the ready worship of a new heart, in spirit and truth (John 4:24).
In clinging to ecclesiastical vestments, altars, incense and various kinds of musical performance, Catholicism and Anglicanism have failed to distinguish clearly between the Old and New Testaments. This same failure is increasingly evident today among evangelicals with regard to worship.
It appears that there is a similar inability or unwillingness to recognise the spiritual significance of the prominence given to music.
The use of a variety of instruments inevitably requires some kind of performance, geared not so much to assisting the singing as to ensuring musical harmony. An accompanist playing just a piano or organ may become guilty of ‘performances’, of course, but this does not have to be the case.
By its very nature, ‘performance’ places the emphasis on external action. As such, it is usually a sign of a decline in true spirituality. In Catholicism and much of Anglicanism, for example, the prescribed performing of rites and ceremonies is regarded as an essential element in worship.
Increasingly popular today are other kinds of performance, e.g. the use of theatre in evangelism and the resurrection of the medieval mystery play in Easter dramas, including processions following donkeys or carrying crosses.
True worship, however, can never be any kind of performance. It is the expression of a worthless sinner’s relationship with a glorious God, in response to divine grace in Jesus Christ.
The idea of ‘performance’ — including musical performance — as a means of expressing this spiritual relationship is wholly inappropriate. Indeed, it suggests that the true nature of the relationship is not properly understood.
There is no record of musical instruments in the worship of the New Testament church. In fact, it was not until the eighth century that there is any reference to them in Christian worship; and not until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that they became common, as part of an increasingly complex Catholic liturgy (N. R. Needham, 2000 years of Christ’s power: The Middle Ages, pp. 169-71).
In returning to the New Testament pattern, Calvin, the Puritans and early Nonconformists encouraged unaccompanied congregational singing.
With the general doctrinal and spiritual downgrade in Great Britain after 1850, however, the emphasis was again placed on the externals of worship — with organs often symbolically dwarfing pulpits, elaborate choirs, etc. It is noteworthy that C. H. Spurgeon’s reaction was to refuse to allow any instrument at the Metropolitan Tabernacle.
More recently, many evangelicals have adopted aspects of the Charismatic approach to worship, not least its emphasis on music and musical instruments.
The popular argument here, of course, is that we are not bound by tradition. The truth of the matter though is that our spiritual forefathers thought through the issues regarding musical performance and rejected it as part of worship.
It is irresponsible simply to ignore or thoughtlessly dismiss the reasoning of those who were often more biblically informed than the present generation.
Firstly, what are the alleged purposes of musical instruments in worship?
To express worship
There is much worship in the New Testament church, but musical instruments have no part in it. It is often argued today that they are being played to the glory of God. However, this is no justification in itself. The fact that a person plays football to the glory of God does not legitimise football as part of congregational worship. At a concert, say, music may indeed be played to the glory of God, but worship should never be regarded in any way as a concert.
To create an atmosphere of worship
In accepting this answer, we should go the whole hog and bring in statues, stained-glass windows, candles, etc. In reality, however, the concept of an ‘atmosphere of worship’ has no New Testament foundation. Worship is a matter of the heart, not a response to external stimuli.
To improve the singing
In truth, congregational singing is usually at its best either unaccompanied or with the minimum of accompaniment, simply because this encourages people actually to use their voices. The use of numerous instruments diverts the focus from the singing to the accompaniment.
To attract outsiders by reflecting popular culture
With so few attending church, one can understand this argument’s appeal. However, there is something quite strange here: we have the greatest message in the world and yet seek to draw people in by offering them a musical experience. This was hardly the approach of the apostles!
To enable people to enjoy worship
There can be no justification for the lifeless worship of such a glorious God. But enjoying a musical experience through its effect on one’s natural feelings is not equivalent to a delight in God himself. Seeking to provide such an experience smacks of man-centred worship, geared to human emotions. Our aim should be not to enjoy ourselves or ‘enjoy worship’, but to enjoy God — and enjoying God is not dependent on musical instruments.
The natural conclusion is that musical instruments are not necessary for true worship. In going beyond what is necessary, those who promote their use, while no doubt sincere in their motives, are in reality providing a form of entertainment.
Second, because of the nature of musical performance there is an inevitable tendency for musicians to draw attention to themselves. This is perhaps most evident with a band, but it is also a temptation for organists, because the organ is such a powerful instrument.
Third, for every member of a band, there is one less singing God’s praise. The New Testament calls on us to sing. In encouraging people to play instruments, we prevent them from responding to that call.
Some final considerations
Should we then reject all musical instruments in worship? In too many cases, perhaps, this might be a real hindrance to congregations. 1 Corinthians 14:40 — ‘all things should be done decently and in order’ — provides a plausible argument for simple and unobtrusive accompaniment by a single instrument, played sensitively to assist the congregation and keep it in tune. Anything more is musically unnecessary and spiritually unprofitable.
In one sense, music is not a primary issue; it does not raise questions concerning biblical orthodoxy or the wonderful truths of the gospel. Having said that, the proper worship of God can hardly be considered a secondary matter.
Indeed, the very zeal with which many promote the group/band as an indispensable part of worship indicates that they, at least, regard them as anything but secondary.
The worship of God is the most sacred and glorious activity in which we can engage. To focus so much of the congregation’s attention on the musical accompaniment is therefore a matter of deep concern.
Scripture highlights the danger of ‘unauthorised fire’ in worship (Leviticus 10:1-3, ESV; cf. 2 Chronicles 26:16-21). We should take its warnings seriously. To offer God inappropriate worship is to dishonour him and bring shame on ourselves.