Instrumental Music was not used in the Early Church

“Instrumental music wasn’t used in the early church.” When this argument is used (almost exclusively by the churches of Christ, but occasionally by a few acapella groups, apart from one large group: the Greek Orthodox Church) they are arguing from spoken and unspoken assumptions:

a. The worship service of the New Testament church is bound by rules. These rules were given by Christ and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles who gave these rules to the church, but they failed to write the rules down. Therefore we have to search for the rules based on the history and exhortations we can read in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles to churches. The Old Testament was simple: all the rules were written down. But now we have to be more sophisticated and search for the principles and rules. And we even have to search for the principle that the church worship service format is of utmost importance, since that is not even stated in the New Testament. So what is most important in the New Testament church is not even stated in the New Testament, yet we must find all we need to establish these rules in the New Testament. This assumption leads to the second assumption:

b. The early church’s examples of how they worshiped are binding on us today. If they did something one way, we have to do it that way. If they left something out (instruments) we have to leave them out (to be safe). But not always, just sometimes. So we have to use wisdom and special principles (Necessary Inference) to figure out which examples are binding and exclusive and which examples are just examples of the freedom we have to do it however we think is appropriate. So when we teach we can have sermons illustrated with painted cloth charts (when I was a child), overhead transparencies (when I was in college), and now powerpoint presentations. In the children’s classes we could have picture books, felt boards, and puppets. But no instruments of music.
The early church always immersed believers when they baptized, whenever the mode was specified. Whenever the mode was not specified we assume it was immersion of believers, and insist on immersion only for the baptism of believers. The early church always immersed in running water whenever it was specified. Whenever it was not specified we assume it was running water. Early church fathers (after the New Testament was closed) spoke about the superiority of being baptized in running or “living” water. Yet we don’t used that as a binding example.
The early church always met in an upper room whenever the type of room was specified. Whenever the type of room is not specified we can assume it was in an upper room, and there are a few Churches of Christ who worship only in upper rooms, and this is completely understandable given our penchant for binding examples. Yet most hard line Churches of Christ insist we are free to worship in any kind of room.

c. There is a dichotomy between the religious and the secular:
Rules and principles applicable to the Sunday morning worship service are not applicable to everyday life. Examples: Women are not permitted to lead at church (because the hard line Churches of Christ believe that the Bible teaches women were created to be in submission to men, were to be taught by men, and women were to obey men. Women are not permitted in the business meetings of the church, and are not permitted to vote at church. But on Monday morning a good Christian woman from the hard line Churches of Christ is permitted to be the boss at work, and she may call one of the elders of her church who works for her into her office and fire him for insubordination. Another example: Instruments of music are not allowed to be used in church, but instruments of music are great at a football game, or a school concert.

None of the three assumptions above are true. Jesus and the Apostles did not attach special importance to the worship services of the church. Jesus and the apostles grew up going to synagogue. The emphasis of synagogue was to learn, to hear the Law and the Prophets read aloud (most people could not read, and books were handwritten and therefore so expensive as to be beyond the reach of most people). If they wanted to learn about Moses and the Prophets they had to go to synagogue. So the Apostle Paul told Timothy not to neglect the reading aloud of the Scriptures of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament).

If Jesus and the Apostles wanted to make the worship service format important and bound by rules, they could have done so easily and simply in a format similar to the way the Law of Moses was delivered: a list of rules. But what do we read in the book of Acts? The Apostles were concerned with eliminating the rules of the Law of Moses. This was very upsetting to them, and required a growth that was difficult and a bumpy ride. They were not interested at all in making more and new rules about worship services for the group of believers in Christ.

The center of the gospel (Christ died for us) and the church’s response to that good news (walking in love and righteousness) can be done without a format of worship. In fact I can find people who are loving, forgiving and work for the betterment of humanity in all churches regardless of the format of worship they choose or believe in. They are accomplishing the center of what Jesus and the Apostles preached.

The hard line Churches of Christ on the other hand have substituted the format of the worship service for the center of the gospel. This is true to such an extent that when one says, “I am completely forgiven of all my sins by the sacrifice of Jesus” they will invariably, without exception, rush in to caution you and qualify your statement. And the hint in their qualification is: “As long as you don’t use instrumental music.” If you were to unabashedly state the center of the gospel in a Bible class in a hard line Church of Christ, you would soon be labeled a false teacher who has “gone liberal”.

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About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
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7 Responses to Instrumental Music was not used in the Early Church

  1. Christy says:

    So glad to find you on the web. Fellowship was withdrawn from me last year after I missed several months of service. I had been suffering from clinical depression. What family cuts you off when you need them the most? I live in a small town and church members have gone out of their way to avoid speaking to me. I will never, ever return. My teenage children saw how the church “kicked me” when I was down. They are now very distrustful of all religion. I am not attending church anywhere. I did go to one Methodist service but could not enjoy it because of all the previous CoC training I had received. Please keep the posts coming…

    • Hi Christy, Your story is so sad. Very few churches practice withdrawal even among the hard liners, so you were in the toughest of the tough. Yes, I remember a friend saying they would get the yellow pages out every Sunday (before the age of the internet) and go through the churches trying to find one to go to, after they had decided not to go to a Church of Christ, and every Sunday they came up blank. It ruins you for other churches for a long time.
      The hard line Churches of Christ contribute to clinical depression because they believe one can never be secure in one’s relationship with God, because they view being secure as arrogance–because they believe one has to earn their relationship with God. A cure for clinical depression is to meditate on the story of the Prodigal Son. The father tried to convince both his sons that his love (and the party) was free.
      Have you been to our support board? There are many with stories like yours. It is a place to draw encouragement from during the in-between time when you cannot find a place to go to church.
      It is doubly sad when we look at our children and see that they have no desire to go to church or read the Bible after being around hard liners.

  2. silver price says:

    If you need help in locating a congregation of the churches of Christ nearest to you, please e-mail us at garcia@church-of-christ.org , and we will be more than happy to help you find one. No one from the church will call without your consent. Please come by and visit us soon. We care about you and your family.

  3. BH says:

    If psallo means to play an instrument then that serves as proof the early church used instruments since psallo is used as a term for Christian worship in the Bible., For some reason the practice later died out and was forgotten by the laypeople. Then when it got reintroduced later on in time many people objected wrongly believing it to be an innovation not previously used. The problem isn’t with psallo and its translation but of ignorant people not knowing history.

    • This argument has been addressed by churches of Christ with the argument that psallo definitely means to pluck the strings of an instrument, but the instrument has been specified in the biblical passages: the strings of the heart. “Making melody in the heart”: “psallontes en te kardia”.

      If the custom of using musical instruments dropped out, why did it drop out?

      • BH says:

        It says you are to do two things with your heart in Ephesians 5–sing and make music. If it mean to play an instrument, but the heart is the instrument, then it means we are to sing in our hearts and not vocally per Colossians 3:16. This argument by the CoC is simply one they (and other opponents of instruments in worship) made up in their own imaginations because they don’t want to be wrong.

        Arguing over the instrument with them is like arguing over Sunday School with a non-sunday schooler—-every time an argument of theirs is refuted they just make up another objection just to not having to admit they are wrong.

        As for history—-it does not matter just when or why the early Christians stopped using the instruments. The only thing that matters is if psallo has been proven to mean play instruments, then at least the Ephesians used them to accompany their singing.

  4. Gary Cummings says:

    Forget all you were taught in the COC, and just enjoy Jesus at home or at the UMC. My wife and I attend the UMC, as it was the church of my youth before I got joined to the COC. The Wesleyan hymns are beautiful, and the UMC doesn’t do much, if any, harm to people.
    God bless and heal you of all the old COC teaching and baggage.

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