As Reformed, gospel-believing Christians, we believe that church worship ought to be regulated by the Bible, just as everything in our lives ought to be subject to God’s Word. Yet even within our circles, among those who accept this principle, there is a surprising diversity of views on worship, growing out of differing ways of interpreting the Scriptures. This has led to “worship wars” — or at least worship disagreements — even among those who are explicitly and avowedly committed to the core evangelical emphases of the gospel.
While we all note that the New Testament is relatively silent on the issue of music in church worship, we interpret that silence differently. Some take it as an approval of the use of musical instruments in the New Testament church. They argue that since music was such an important element in Old Testament worship, the silence of the New Testament offers no prohibition against its continuing use and development. If we believe that our rule in worship is the whole Bible, and not just the New Testament, then — it is argued — “temple practice provides all the warrant that is needed” for music in the church (Derek W.H. Thomas, Give Praise to God, p. 92). This is not to say that everything that was done in the temple may be done in Christian churches today, and it is worth pondering whether a strict use of this Old Testament warrant would also require us to use only those percussion, wind, and stringed instruments explicitly mentioned in the Bible.
For others, the silence of the New Testament is a deafening trumpet blast indicating that something better than the Old Testament form of worship has been ushered in with the advent of Jesus Christ. For some, this requires that the songs of the covenant ought to be unaccompanied by musical instrumentation. That has been the traditional position of my own denomination, the Free Church of Scotland, although the matter of our conservative liturgy is receiving a great deal of studied attention at present, and it is due to be discussed later this year. The argument is that the musical instrumentation of Israel’s worship was a scaffold, like much else in the Old Testament, which was done away with at the coming of Christ, whose death and resurrection now make the inward, spiritual aspect of worship more explicit than at an earlier stage of redemptive history.
It is certainly the case that Colossians 3:16 emphasizes the music of the heart over any other kind of music. In our “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Are these three different types of composition or different types of biblical songs, descriptions drawn from the headings of the psalms?), we are to make “melody with [literally, “to pluck the strings of”] our hearts to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19, NASB). We are to sing with both our spirits and our minds (1 Cor. 14:15) because the best music arises out of the heart. Our praise is nothing, as John Calvin comments on Colossians 3:16, unless “the heart goes before the tongue.”
For too many people, the music program becomes the deciding factor of their involvement with a given congregation. What matters is not whether the Word is faithfully preached and the sacraments administered; what is of greater importance is whether the music is rousing, uplifting, and emotionally satisfying. But worship is not about us — it is about glorifying God and exalting His name. The true test of Spirit-led worship is whether it pleases our Creator-Redeemer, not about whether it gives us an emotional “high.”
Restricting the use of musical instruments in the worship of the church is not to deny the beauty or the wonder of music. We cannot sing without music, although we can sing without musical instruments. God is surely glorified more by the music of broken hearts (Ps. 51:17).
To be sure, it is possible that a judicious, careful and subtle use of music can often be a help in raising the music of the heart in our worship to God. But if it is, the New Testament does not say so. It is also possible, of course, that a capella (unaccompanied — literally, “in the style of the church”) singing can be done without any real spiritual depth or passion. If so, the New Testament does not warrant this either. As a manual regulating our worship, the Bible is far more interested in the spiritual music of our praises than in the instrumental excellence of our praise bands. Unless churches emphasize this, they cannot be seen to be taking seriously the call of the New Testament to make melody in our hearts.
No doubt the worship wars will continue. Christians will continue to interpret differently these parts of the Bible that govern the way we are to worship God and the means we may employ to that end. Having worshiped with Christians in different styles of service all over the world, I know that forms matter to people, and they vary from culture to culture. But I also know that transcending both culture and tradition is the living Spirit of the living God, whose presence in the assembly of His saints makes all the difference to their experience of worship, and who can put a new song in our mouths and in our hearts, whether an organ is playing or not.