Dr. R. Scott Clark, Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, has quite a challenging post about musical instruments in worship: “Could Instruments Be Idols?”
He points out two major problems with the use of musical instruments in worship. The first is that since “instruments and music are affective” in our worship “experience,” they should not really be considered as a “circumstance” but an “element” of worship. These terms are related to the Regulative Principle of Worship, and you can read what they mean in Dr. Clark’s article.
The second is that “the only biblical ground for instruments also entails the sacrifice of animals.” Most of us do not realize that in Scriptures, instruments were played in worship only when the Old Testament Temple sacrifices were being offered.
Over the last several years of working with pastors in the Philippines, I have seen the transformation of a couple of churches with fully-equipped bands (keyboard, guitars, and drums) – one to a keyboard-only worship (they can’t afford a piano), and the other to an acapella-singing congregation.
Against the current evangelical thinking, much of early, medieval, and Reformation church history bears much evidence against musical instruments in worship because they saw musical instruments in connection with Old Testament Temple worship. According to church historian Philip Schaff, organs were not introduced to the church until the 8th century, and they did not become generally used in the churches until the 18th century. Church leaders throughout history were against the use of instruments in worship. Here’s a sampling of what they said:
Clement of Alexandria: “Leave the pipe to the shepherd, the flute to the men who are in fear of gods and intent on their idol worshiping. Such musical instruments must be excluded from our wingless feasts, for they are more suited for beasts and for the class of men that is least capable of reason than for men… But as for us, we make use of one instrument alone: only the Word of peace by whom we a homage to God, no longer with ancient harp or trumpet or drum or flute which those trained for war employ” (190 A. D., The Instructor, p. 130).
Eusebius of Caesarea: “Of old at the time those of the circumcision were worshipping with symbols and types it was not inappropriate to send up hymns to God with the psalterion and cithara and to do this on Sabbath days… We render our hymn with a living psalterion and a living cithara with spiritual songs. The unison voices of Christians would be more acceptable to God than any musical instrument. Accordingly in all the churches of God, united in soul and attitude, with one mind and in agreement of faith and piety we send up a unison melody in the words of the Psalms” (3rd-4th century, Commentary on Psalms 91:2-3).
Augustine: “Musical instruments were not used. The pipe, tabret, and harp here associate so intimately with the sensual heathen cults, as well as with the wild revelries and shameless performances of the degenerate theater and circus, it is easy to understand the prejudices against their use in the worship” (354 A. D.).
Chrysosthom: “David formerly sang songs, also today we sing hymns. He had a lyre with lifeless strings, the church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre with a different tone indeed but much more in accordance with piety. Here there is no need for the cithara, or for stretched strings, or for the plectrum, or for art, or for any instrument; but, if you like, you may yourself become a cithara, mortifying the members of the flesh and making a full harmony of mind and body” (Exposition of Psalms 41, 381-398 A. D.).
Thomas Aquinas: “Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize” (Bingham’s Antiquities, Vol. 3, page 137, 13th century).
Martin Luther: “The organ in the worship Is the insignia of Baal… The Roman Catholic borrowed it from the Jews” (Mcclintock & Strong’s Encyclopedia, Volume VI, page 762, 16th century).
John Calvin: “Musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting of lamps, and the restoration of the other shadows of the law. The Papists therefore, have foolishly borrowed, this, as well as many other things, from the Jews. Men who are fond of outward pomp may delight in that noise; but the simplicity which God recommends to us by the apostles is far more pleasing to him (16th century, Commentary on Psalm 33).
John Girardeau: “The church, although lapsing more and more into deflection from the truth and into a corrupting of apostolic practice, had not instrumental music for 1200 years (that is, it was not in general use before this time); The Calvinistic Reform Church ejected it from its service as an element of popery, even the church of England having come very nigh its extrusion from her worship. It is heresy in the sphere of worship” (Instrumental Music, p. 179, 19th century).
Charles Spurgeon: “‘Praise the Lord with harp.’ Israel was at school, and used childish things to help her to learn; but in these days when Jesus gives us spiritual food, one can make melody without strings and pipes… We do not need them. That would hinder rather than help our praise. Sing unto him. This is the sweetest and best music. No instrument is like the human voice” (19th century, Commentary on Psalm 42).