This article is part of a series responding to an article titled "THE BIBLE VERSUS THE CHURCH OF CHRIST" by James L. Melton. The original article is no longer available at av1611.org as it once was. Reading a response without access to the original writing can be frustrating. Having the context of quotes is important. You can download Mr. Melton's article here.
by William J. Stewart
The author quotes from a Dub McClish publication which cites Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, and then calls upon the reader to notice that worship in song is an activity “which all assembled worshippers are to be involved in.” Mr. Melton then emphatically tells us Paul’s instruction pertains to “PERSONAL FELLOWSHIP WITH CHRIST, not worship services,” and charges McClish and others of taking the texts out of context. We can do an extensive study on the context of both verses in a separate study, if anyone desires to do so, but let me point out two words that appear in the texts which reveal this is not about an individual worshiper engaged in private worship. The words are “one another.”
- “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19)
- “submitting to one another in the fear of God” (Ephesians 5:21)
- “do not lie to one another” (Colossians 3:9)
- “bearing with one another, and forgiving one another” (Colossians 3:13)
- “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16)
Anything that is done to or with one another is not a personal, private, individual thing. Are these texts necessarily about a public worship service? No, I don’t think that can be established. But, that is beside the point. What do the texts reveal about worship in song? Melton confidently declares, “Neither chapter forbids musical instruments.” He’s right. Neither text says, “Thou shall not use instrumental music in worship.” In fact, there is no New Testament text which condemns the use of instrumental music in worship. So, why do we not use instrumental music in worship? Why do we believe it is wrong to use instrumental music in worship?
Melton derides L.R. Wilson’s statement, “…we are not governed by what He did not forbid, but by what He has authorized” (p. 3). He calls this “unscriptural logic.” Really? If we read just one verse further in Colossians 3, we find this:
And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him (v 17)
That sure sounds like the Lord expects us to have authority for what we do.
The author states, “There are MANY things that are used in worship services that are not specifically authorized.” He mentions hymnals, microphones, and pitch pipes. There are a host of things we could add to the list: seats, a pulpit, PowerPoint presentations, communion trays, etc.. How can we use these things, if God has not specifically authorized them? We need to understand the difference between specific and generic authority. I’ll use a couple Old Testament examples to illustrate. God commissioned Noah to build an ark of Gopher wood (Genesis 6). The Lord didn’t say, “Don’t use Spruce…” (Pine, Poplar, Ash, etc..). When He told him what kind of wood to use, that excluded every other kind. Where was he to get the Gopher wood from? It didn’t matter. God didn’t specify, and so Noah was free to gather it from the hill side or the valley, from 2 miles away or 20 miles away. The Lord also gave Noah the dimensions of the ark, and commanded that there be three levels. He couldn’t build it with four levels. God specifically authorized three levels. However, the height of each level was left to Noah’s discretion. God had not specified. The number of levels was specifically authorized, variant heights of the levels was generically authorized.
Consider another example—Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10). These two sons of Aaron were excited to burn incense before the Lord. No specific instructions are given in the Law about how to fashion the censers. Something was needed to burn the incense in, so they were generically authorized. The composition of the incense was specifically authorized (Exodus 30:35-38), and so they could use no other incense in the tabernacle than what God had commanded. The censers and incense were fine, the problem in Leviticus 10 was the fire they used. We are told “…they offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.” I don’t believe these eager priests went to a local dump or pagan temple to get fire. We don’t know where they got the fire from, but the indication is they wanted to worship God and they thought the fire they selected would be fine. It was not. Leviticus 16:12 tells us the fire was to come from “…the altar before the LORD…” We don’t know where they got their fire from, but it was not the fire which God authorized, and because of that, they perished before the Lord.
So, what does all this have to do with using instruments or not? In Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, a specific type of music is authorized—singing. The Lord doesn’t have to tell us not to use instruments any more than He had to tell Moses not to use Maple trees. Search through the New Testament, and you will not find a single verse authorizing the use of instrumental music in worship. What you will find is multiple references to singing. If we are going to “…do all in the name of the Lord Jesus…” (Colossians 3:17), then we are going to sing (Colossians 3:16), not play instruments in worship. Still don’t think it’s a big deal? Ask Nadab and Abihu if it matters whether we do what God authorized or not.
What about the hymnals, microphones, pitch pipes, etc.? We don’t have specific authority for these. They are all in the realm of generic authority; they are expedients to help us obey the command to sing. We can sing words that we have memorized, we can sing words projected on a wall, we can sing words that are recorded in a hymnal. None of these alter the nature of our worship—it is still singing. The same is true with the microphone and the pitch pipe. They will amplify the sound and make sure we start on the right note, but they do not change the nature of what we are doing—it is still singing. However, instrumental music is a different kind of music. It is not an expedience. It doesn’t help us to sing, it is something in addition to our singing. It is a different kind of music being added to (or in some cases replacing) singing.
Melton gives a list of verses to prove “the Lord loves good music of praise and worship, and this DOES include musical instruments.” The list consists of six Old Testament texts and three from the book of Revelation. We can no more use Old Testament texts to justify using instrumental music in worship than we can use it to justify enforcing a tithe, the Sabbath laws, or the requirements of animal sacrifices. The Old Law is obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). The texts from Revelation speak about harps being used in heaven. Is it about praise? Yes. Is it authority to use instrumental music in our assemblies on earth? If it is, then what it authorizes is harps, not pianos, drums, guitars, keyboards, etc.. But the harps are a figure, just like the bowls of incense (5:8). The bowls of incense represent the prayers of the saints. We must be careful not to misuse symbolic language in Revelation to justify what the Lord has not authorized.