“Could Instruments Be Idols?”

Instruments in WorshipDr. 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).


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15 thoughts on ““Could Instruments Be Idols?””

  1. “But the Bible is clear: anything that man does in the worship of God that is not according to His Word is idolatry. And this is what many churches are doing today in its man-centered, entertaining “worship.””

    i absolutely agree.  but we’re talking about instruments per se, not what churches is doing with them.

    stick to the topic, please.  thank you.

  2. Jumper, for man, whose mind is a factory of idols, the issue is not settled. But the Bible is clear: anything that man does in the worship of God that is not according to His Word is idolatry. And this is what many churches are doing today in its man-centered, entertaining “worship.”

  3. “The use of musical instruments is a very important topic throughout church history, and this is why we still debate this subject today.”

    you’re absolutely right…the subject is still under debate. so as long as nothing is settled, can you now please stop trying to cram your interpretations down other’s throats?

    thank you.

  4. Sadly, adding worship team of singers and a band with all kinds of instruments usually become a hindrance rather than aid to a meaningful worship. This we, my husband and I, learned first hand from our former church here in CA. The music and performance of the band became the main activity of the service. It took the place of the Preaching of the Word of God as the central focus of the worship, thus, it became man-centered instead of God-centered. Liturgy was treated as something obsolete that belongs to the past. Less and less time was devoted to the study of the Word. Spiritual nurture became shallow and at the end, that local church folded because people who got tired of the same singers and the same songs Sunday after Sunday, left for another church with better singers, with better instruments, and better facilities.

  5. Pingback: keyboard praise and worship

  6. I have a question, if in the Old Testament, instruments are used whenever they sacrifice animals for their worship, aren’t we supposed to play instruments because when we worship we celebrate the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ (wherein we also celebrate victory, feast, and celebration of God’s mercy).

    And when you referred to David dancing naked, should we take that literary that we should also dance naked? I believe David stressed the point why he danced that way, it is because he is not ashamed and willing to be called “crazy” for God’s praise.

    I am no expert in doctrine like you guys. But do we need such expertise in order to interpret what the Bible says? Romans 12:1 “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your reasonable act of worship.” This verse never said about singing, so singing is not part of worship… is that it? My point is, it’s not what we’re using while worshiping or what we’re singing during worship, it is all about the life that we offer (everyday, every breathe that we have) to our God (by the mercies of our God).

    (I know you might say my reasoning is incorrect or will not satisfy the idea, as I’ve said, I’m no expert with doctrines.)

    Peace, Soli Deo Gloria.

  7. Most of the comments so far prove Scott Clark’s post right – that instruments have become idols among worshipers. This is what he says:

    People react to the mere suggestion of the removal of instruments as they do because instruments and music are affective. Worship has become so identified with the affect produced by the instruments (or our favorite scripture song) that to take them away seems almost blasphemous… If we can’t change them or if they have become sacred, well, maybe they have become idols?

    I have heard that in some of the more popular churches in Manila, there are some services that consist only of singing, a few token prayers, and maybe a testimony or two, and they’re filled with people. No preaching. What if someone suggested the reverse? No singing, no testimony, but only expository preaching, long prayers, and the Lord’s Supper (with explanations and warnings)? It will be the ultimate in shrinking a church to a handful (if anyone shows up). But then, that will be the more desirable effect, because there will surely be total war in the church!

  8. I hope we stop referring to “church fathers, holy fathers of old” because such labels are Roman Catholic and  to their EX CATHEDRA pronouncements which the Catholic church used to add traditions and beliefs that are not in the Bible.  The Holy Fathers of the Catholic Church, which include St. Agustine & Chrysostom, did not agree on so many things and yet they want their parishioners to follow them.  Even the catholic priests, past and present, have not read fully on their 7 Holy Fathers, simply because there are no books about them and if any they are forbidden to read it.

    Take note that when the Pope declared EX CATHEDRA  in the 16th century that their 7 Holy Fathers believed that Mary is the Mother of God and that she was IMMACULATELY CONCEIVED, the whole catholic world believed it and added this belief to their religion.  All these without examining whether those 7 Holy Fathers agreed with each other about it. They all just swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.

    The Protestant Reformers were good men of God but they too did not agree on so many things, except on one basic thing – “There is only one God, there is only one Lord, there is only one Name given by which men shall be saved – JESUS!”    We view them according to the circumstance and equipments of their time and what they did with them for God.  We must view ourselves also according to the circumstance and equipments of our time and what we will do about them to lift up the name of God in a definitely MORE COMPLEX WORLD that I know will befuddle those early Christians if they are with us now.  They’ve had their time  but it is now our time and we have no one else to look up to but JESUS. 
         Those early Christians grew up in a world that believed that the world is one whole FLAT area.  We live in a world that can view the earth from outside space and see it as a spinning round globe.  We cannot let their limited view rule our lives because we know better and we know God.
        They worshipped God in their limited way but we must now worship God in an almost limitless world that we must LIMIT for God.  And this is the challenge that only us can face together with the one who promised us  “and lo, I will be with you till the end of the ages!”

  9. The Center of Worship is God.  It is all about Him. Not the worshipper.

    But the worshipper must give all that he has and the best that he has.  Our times is blessed with the “best of so  much”, nay, not only the best but the fastest way of doing things that the first Christians and reformers did not have nor even dreamed could ever be possible.
    Could they ever have imagined an instrument that can play like a Hammond organ at the flick of a finger, or be a violin, a trumpet, a piano, etc at the musicians whim?  Or a stringed instrument like a guitar whose volume can be controlled from a whisper to the loudest sound.  Or could they ever have imagined a MINUS ONE?
    These are musical instruments that God has given our generation to use and CONTROL for the good of the church.  Satan is using them to take hold of the world.  We should not let IT win BY DEFAULT.  By all means, let us use them.  But let us be DISCRIMINATING AND HOLY when doing it.  Let  us always remember that worship is about God. Not about you performing but you PRAISING AND WORSHIPPING GOD.

  10. I think there’s a line of demarcation between being Biblical and being Dogmatic.  Just because the Old Testament mentions only stringed instruments, harps and cymbals for worship, means that all other instruments are forbidden! Should all the churches only use harp, lyre, cymbals and trumpets?  If they had keyboards before, do you think that would have been forbidden?  I believe that a Baptist church with a complete live band can be as pleasing to God as a UNIDA Church with only the Piano organ.  I think it is safe to say that “The Regulative Principle of Worship” should not depend on what instruments to be used, but on Christ-centered directives.                                        

  11. I think the issue is just what is happening in many young churches here in the Philippines if it is alright to use a full band with drums, bass guitar, lead guitar, a keyboard, etc. – just like the band in a rock concert. I feel sometimes watching a rock concert and get distracted during singing of praise music by the drummer’s enthusiasm in playing the drums; just like the Deep Purple drummer; this is one of my favorite bands when I was a teenager. I am not an old-fashioned guy since I still go to music bars but I refrain from getting drunk (6 years already not getting drunk). At least last week the youth group who led the praise and music for the GCF youth fellowship got a reminder from the deacons not to turn it into an R&B concert.

  12. Thanks for your comment, Alexa. A discussion about the true worship of God is not silly. Biblical stories of those who falsely worshiped God show us that God does not take for granted the worship he requires of man. He is so “deadly” serious about worship, that He judged many of His people in the OT and NT for false worship (Cain, Nadab and Abihu, Israelites, Uzzah, King Saul, King Uzziah, etc.). And he will judge many at the end of this age for the same reason.

    The use of musical instruments is a very important topic throughout church history, and this is why we still debate this subject today. When Calvin discussed the two things that make up “the principal place… and the whole substance of Christianity,” he put worship ahead of salvation.

    As for the use of computers, this belongs to a different category, since this is not part of worship.

    I have another post related to your comment:

  13. I am not sure what the point of this discourse is. Are we to discuss complete removal of musical instruments from our worship services? Does that lead us to reconsider all the things that we have as we move from age to age, the computer for example? This is silly.

  14. Leo, thanks for the comment. Yes, I agree that anything other than God could become an idol. Man has a way of doing that, so much so that Calvin himself said that the human mind is an “idol factory.”

    I also agree that the Bible is the final authority in doctrine, worship and practice, not human opinion. But we must not discount the testimonies of our church fathers, especially from the early church and Reformation, which are valuable resources for us. This is what’s sorely lacking in modern evangelicalism.

    Psalm 150 and other psalms, which seem to tell us that Israel used all kinds of instruments in worship, are not a warrant for the unbridled use of musical instruments today. On the contrary, the Old Testament tells us that only four instruments were to be used in public worship: harp, lyre, cymbals and trumpet (1 Chron 16.4-6; 25:1). And these were played only when the sacrifices were being offered.

    Because Psalm 150 also mentions lute, tambourine, and strings in addition to trumpet, harp, and cymbals, it means that this psalm is not only about public worship, but includes Israel’s civic life of feasts, victory parades, and other celebrations. This is especially true with tambourine and dance (Exod 15:20; 1 Sam 18:6; Psa 68:25). Shall we all dance “naked” in our public worship because David did so?

    How about Psalm 149? Is it saying that we should use dancing women with tambourine and lyre (v. 3), lie down on our beds (v. 5), and brandish swords (v. 6) in public worship? No, Psalm 149 is about the worship of God as we go about our daily lives, not public worship.

    All these mean that (1) we are to be careful not to just pluck verses out of the Bible and use them out of context; (2) we are to interpret Scripture with Scripture, not with opinions and speculations of others; and (3) we are to use “prudence” and “good and necessary consequence” in our understanding of Scripture.

  15. Interesting article. But the bottom line is: Anything (other than God) COULD become an idol….Even THEOLOGY and DOCTRINE and Dogmatism COULD become idols.

    I think that it is not right to restrict the use of musical instruments in the church just because the early church fathers were not comfortable with the use of them. Scripture encourages the church to praise Jehovah with instruments (Psalm 150).

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