Music in the New Testament Church

Content Author: 
Reagan, David

Someone asked me about the use of stringed instruments in church services and I want to give some of my thoughts on music in the church today. I am very much a believer in using musical instruments as aids to worship. Even in the perfect worship of heaven they use harps to aid their praise to God (Revelation 14:2-3). And, "the anointed cherub that covereth" (Ezekiel 28:13-14) was created with the music-making aids of tabrets and pipes in him (v.13) to be used for the praise of God.

Unfortunately, when Satan (the anointed cherub) fell, he brought his musical ability with him. Since that time, music has been a powerful force in man whether used by God or by the devil. This forces us to use all of our spiritual discernment and God-given judgment to determine what is and what is not proper worship music.

Old Testament Practice the Standard?

We could just go back to the Old Testament standards for music for the Jewish people. Certainly these standards were quite liberal. Psalm 150 encourages the use of the trumpet, the psaltery, the harp, the timbrel, stringed instruments, organs and various kinds of cymbals--something that sounds to me a bit like Alexander's Ragtime Band. Many declare this as the standard for church worship today. However, if you carefully read this passage, you will see that it also encourages us to praise God with the dance. (Many churches are also beginning to do this.) Perhaps there is a reason that the churches of Jesus Christ have for 2,000 years rejected the national music of Israel as the standard for the New Testament church.

Music in the New Testament

Instead of listing instruments (the NT passages on the church never mention any musical instruments), God gives His churches a statement of purpose for music in this dispensation. It is found in Ephesians 5:19 and again in Colossians 3:16.

  • Ephesians 5:19 "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord"
  • Colossians 3:16 "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."

Three Kinds of Church Music

In these verses, God establishes three kinds of music proper for New Testament worship.

  1. Psalms are God's words (usually from the Psalms but not always) put to music.
  2. Hymns are formal expressions of praise or declarations of God's truth.
  3. Spiritual songs are songs that deal with the spiritual life and are the most personal of the songs.

English hymnody has emphasized these forms one at a time instead of balancing the three as God planned. The English reformers of the 16th and 17th centuries followed the lead of John Calvin and allowed only Psalms to be sung in the churches. The 18th century saw the introduction of hymns into the churches through the powerful poetry of Isaac Watts, John Newton and John and Charles Wesley. In the the last half of the 19th century, spiritual songs were made popular by people like Ira Sankey, Philip Bliss and Fanny Crosby. However, by this time, the singing of psalms had become a thing of the past. The 20th century witnessed the ascendancy and adulteration of the spiritual song and the decline of the hymn. Today, hymns are quickly becoming a relic of history. There needs to be a movement to bring godly, scriptural balance back to our music.

The Purposes of Church Music

These two verses (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16) also give the purposes of Christian music.

First, our songs should teach us since we are to be “teaching…one another” with them. In order to do this, they should be doctrinally sound and should teach the basics of biblical doctrine. We use songs to teach the alphabet to our children and God used the song of Moses to teach Israel of their relationship with God (Deuteronomy 31:19-21). We should use music to teach as well. As such, they should be speakable; that is, of sufficient quality that they can be spoken (Ephesians 5:19). They should be good poetry with good content so that the words without the music still have a great message.

Second, our songs should "admonish" us. This means they should warn of sin or danger and urge to proper action in our Christian lives. I see very little of this in our music today. As a rule, modern church music neither teaches nor admonishes--a direct affront to the command of God in Colossians 3:16.

Third, our songs should praise and exalt God. We sing them to the Lord and they are an integral part of our worship of Him. With them, we make melody to the Lord and sing to Him.

Fourth, our songs should speak to our hearts.  We sing them with grace. That is, they help us. We make melody with them. They stick with us because they are a pleasure to sing. We sing them as we go about our business of the day. Modern music has emphasized (and perverted) praise and popularity while ignoring the teaching and admonishing ministries of proper church music.

Instruments in Church Music

With this as a backdrop, I want to make some comments about instruments in church music.

  • Musical instruments are superfluous to proper New Testament church music. By that, I mean that church music can be just as pleasing to God without any musical instruments (other than the human voice) as it can be with a hundred-instrument orchestra.  There is no inherent spiritual value in any musical instrument--including the piano.
  • Neither are musical instruments prohibited (as the Church of Christ and Mennonites teach). And, since they were used in the Old Testament, there is obviously nothing inherently evil in them. 
  • However, the New Testament commands us to sing, not play. By the way, it also commands us to sing, not listen to others sing. The only required part is the singing (well, for some people God does allow "speaking" – Ephesians 5:19). God designed New Testament singing for all believers. It is not to be relegated to a few professionals. 
  • Therefore, musical instruments should be used only inasmuch as they enhance the biblical purposes of music in the church.

Musical Instruments Not Spiritually Neutral

However, this is not to say that musical instruments are spiritually neutral in a total sense. Those who are deeply involved in music know the powers of specific instruments more than I. The drums can easily create a dance mood. This is much more difficult to do with a flute (though not impossible). The banjo has little capacity for sadness or meditative moods. The saxophone tends towards the sensual.

Yet, much of the power of the instruments is found in how they are played by the musicians themselves. I have seen all three of the above instruments used in godly music--though not often. I think the banjo may be limited to happy, upbeat songs, but there is a place for that in the "spiritual songs" of the church. Some instruments have a wider range of moods than others. The piano can match any mood. Perhaps the banjo cannot. But that does not necessarily keep it out of the church.

Some Dangers of Instrumental Music

Let me mention some of the dangers concerning instrumental music in the church as I see it:

  1. Music has the ability to speak to every part of man: his spirit, his mind, his emotions, his will, his body and his flesh. I distinguish the body from the flesh in the biblical sense. My physical body is not evil in and of itself but my fleshly nature is. Music is fleshly when it makes me more open to sinful temptations and when it actually encourages me to partake of my lusts. It is possible for my body to react favorably to music without my flesh being incited to sin. However, the distance from the one to the other is dangerously small.   Many churches defend the physical appeal of their music by making this distinction. The body likes it but that is not the same as the flesh so it is all right. But where in the New Testament does the church have a call to entertain the body? Perhaps the tapping of the foot is not sin but do we know how to keep the music from going on to the flesh? With spiritual insight, perhaps we can. But there are no scriptural grounds for reaching out specifically to the physical in our music. It should never be targeted in the music of the church.  If music glorifies God and teaches good doctrine and incidentally, is a joy to listen to, perhaps this is fine. But we should always be wary of the danger of fun music becoming fleshly music.
  2. A second danger comes in the exaltation of talent. How many secular musicians got their start in the church? Modern church music tends to exalt the talented and not the godly. I fear that the average church and pastor is not strong enough to take a stand against a talented but unfaithful musician.
  3. Another danger I see is a longtime pet peeve of mine. Church music is more and more becoming a division between the spectators and the performers. As I said earlier, the New Testament emphasizes the singing of the believer, not the performance of an artist. We must get back to an emphasis on congregational music if we are to be biblical. Special music may have a place as a change in pace, but God wants to hear all His children sing praises to Him. Use instruments, but make sure that the message of the song and the singing of it by the congregation is king.

The use of music in the church is very dear to my heart. This is one area in which I wish I had enough influence to start a movement--a movement back to the Biblical pattern of church music. Perhaps God will send a man.

David Reagan
Daily Proverb

Proverbs 31:14

She is like the merchants' ships; she bringeth her food from afar.