One of the most distinctive characteristics of the Churches of Christ is the absence of musical instruments in their worship service. Since the New Testament nowhere explicitly condemns the use of musical instruments in the worship assembly then why do these congregations refrain from using them?
The issue of whether or not musical instruments should be used in the worship assembly of the church ultimately is an authority issue. In other words, we must ask, “Did God authorize the use of musical instruments in the worship assembly?” If the answer is yes then they are clearly acceptable but if the answer is no then we must be willing to acknowledge that the use of musical instruments in worship did not originate with God.
Musical Instruments in the Old Testament:
In the Old Testament, musical instruments were utilized in the worship activities of Israel at the tabernacle and temple.
In regards to worship at the tabernacle, God provided specific details regarding the use of musical instruments. He identified the exact instrument he wanted played, when he wanted that instrument played, and by whom He wanted it played. So, in Numbers 10:1-10 God instructed Moses to “make two silver trumpets” that “the sons of Aaron, the priests, shall blow.” The primary function of these trumpets was for summoning the people to assemble and to initiate military advancements, but they also served a purpose in worship. According to Numbers 10:10, God said, “On the day of your gladness also, and at your appointed feasts and at the beginnings of your months, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings.” What is of particular interest is when God instructed for these trumpets to be blown. These instruments were sounded when the sacrifices were being made. That means that the trumpets were blown at the exact time that an animal would be slaughtered on the altar. Could it be that God utilized this musical instrument to drown out the noise made by a dying animal? Regardless of whether or not such was God’s intent, the one thing we must acknowledge is that the use of trumpets in the tabernacle worship was commanded by God, which means He authorized using them.
When the worship of God transitioned from the mobile tabernacle to the fixed temple new instruments were added to the worship activities. According to 1 Chronicles 16:4-6, David “appointed some of the Levites as ministers before the ark of the Lord, to invoke, to thank, and to praise the Lord, the God of Israel.” In particular, men were appointed “to play harps and lyres…to sound the cymbals…[and] to blow trumpets regularly before the ark of the covenant of God.” Then in 1 Chronicles 23:1-5, we’re told that David set apart 4000 Levites to “offer praises to the Lord with the instruments that [he had] made for praise.” At first glance, it appears as though David ordered these musical changes that resulted in increasing 1) the number of instruments used in the temple worship from two trumpets to multiple instruments including lyres, harps, and cymbals and 2) the number of musicians from a few individuals to 4000 people. But 2 Chronicles 29:25 clears the air regarding who authorized these changes. It states that Hezekiah, an heir of David who reigned as king more than two centuries later, “stationed the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David…for the commandment was from the Lord through his prophets.” In other words, the reason David made the musical changes to the worship activities at the temple was because God commanded him to do so. Thus, the use of thousands of musicians playing multiple instruments in the temple worship, was commanded by God, which means He authorized it.
Musical instruments in the New Testament:
There is no passage in the New Testament in which God commands the use of musical instruments in the worship assembly of the church like He did in the Old Testament. Yet, God continued to provide detailed instructions regarding His expectations for activities associated with the worship assembly. For example, detailed instructions regarding who can speak and who cannot speak during the worship assembly are provided in 1 Corinthians 14, and detailed instructions regarding acceptable and unacceptable practices associated with the Lord’s Supper are provided in 1 Corinthians 11. As a result, it seems reasonable that if God intended for musical instruments to be utilized in the worship assembly of the church then He would have provided instructions regarding their use as He did in the Old Testament and as He did with other elements of New Testament worship such as speaking and partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Thus the Churches of Christ abstain from the use of musical instruments in their worship assemblies because the New Testament contains no instructions commanding the church to use musical instruments in such a setting.
However, the New Testament does present a pattern of a cappella worship or worship without instrumental accompaniment.For example, at the conclusion of the Last Supper, Jesus and His disciples “sung a hymn” (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26), the imprisoned missionaries, Paul and Silas, “were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25), and Paul instructed the church in Ephesus to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Ephesians 5:18b-19), as well as the church in Colossae to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). Interestingly, the term a cappella is a Latin phrase meaning “in the manner of the chapel” or “as is done in the chapel.” It refers to vocal music without instrumental accompaniment, and received this designation because it was the standard practice of the church for centuries. In fact, “the testimony of early Christian literature is expressly to the absence of instruments from the church for approximately the first thousand years of Christian history” (1). Thus, the first century church established a precedent of non-instrumental worship that was adhered to for several hundred years.
(1) Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 272.