Sunday Sermons

Sunday Sermons

Instrumental Music

Instrumental Music


The Psallo Argument


From time to time, proponents of instrumental music in worship have attempted to prove that instrumental music, or singing to the accompaniment of an instrument, is inherent in the definition of the Greek word psallo, which is translated “make melody” in Ephesians 5:19. Consider the following definitions that are given by the experts:


“The original meaning was ‘pluck, play – in the LXX., frequently means sing whether to the accompaniment of a harp or (usually) not. The process continued until ‘Psallo’ in modern Greek means ‘sing’ exclusively, with no reference to the instrumental accompaniment" (Arndt, p. 891). Both Thayer and Vine note the same progression in both words. “In the N.T. to sing a hymn, to celebrate the praise of God in song” (Thayer, p. 5). “Denotes in the N.T. to sing a hymn, sing praise” (Vine, p. 58 'Melody'). What these definitions reveal is that the instrument was never inherent in this word. In fact, long before the term psallo was used in the context of plucking an instrument in the Old Testament, it meant to pluck or pull whether one plucked a hair, a bowstring, a carpenter’s line or a stringed instrument.


This is true even in the Old Testament where instrumental music in worship was authorized. Psalms 98:5 “Sing praises”, the Hebrew word here means striking with the fingers, to touch, yet the instrument must be supplied by the context, hence we find what follows, with the harp”. The same is true in Psalm 71:22; 33:2; 144:9; and 149:3. Compare Ephesians 5:19 to Psalm 98:5. In both contexts an "instrument" is supplied with "psallo". In the Psalm it is a harp, in Ephesians it is the "heart". God specified the "instrument" to "touch, twang, pluck", that is, the human heart. 

  • If the instrument is inherent in the word, then there is no middle ground. To argue that psallo allows the instrument contradicts the idea that the instrument is inherent in the word. Other uses of psallo are: James 5:13 “sing praise”; Romans 15:9 “sing”; 1 Corinthians 14:15 “sing”. When psallo is found in the New Testament, the translators never translated it “playing an instrument”. Obviously the scholars that translated the KJV, ASV, NASV and NIV all understood that psallo simply means to sing. 
  • It must be a matter of some consternation, to those who argue that psallo necessarily includes the instrument, that virtually no standard (committee) translation of the English language provides a hint of instrumental music in any of the five texts where the verb is found in the New Testament. This should be dramatic testimony to the fact that the cream of the world’s scholarship has not subscribed to the notion that psallo inheres a mechanical instrument of music (Wayne Jackson).
  • “If God intends for us to use instrumental music in the church there is no standard English New Testament, no generally accepted translation in the world from which we could learn God’s will on this point” (Brewer, Instrumental Music, p. 17). 

In view of this, let us consider Ephesians 5:19, where the inspired apostle commands the saints in Ephesus to practice ‘speaking one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody. If instrumental accompaniment is inherent in the term, then: This command cannot be obeyed without the employment of the instrument. Since each Christian is under the obligation to psallo, each person must play an instrument. The instrument must be one capable of being “plucked” (e.g., the harp), which would eliminate organs, pianos, trumpets, etc.


It was Pleasing to God at One Time


It is argued that since God commanded instrumental music in the Old Testament that God would not change His mind about such a matter. It is equally argued that since we are commanded to sing psalms (Ephesians 5:19), that this authorizes instrument music seeing that the Psalms in the Old Testament at times mentioned singing to the accompaniment of instrumental music. 

  • This fails to recognize that the Psalms also mention other things besides instrumental music. They equally mention worshiping God with incense (66:15), animal sacrifices (54:6), observing the Sabbath Day (Psalm 97), and the Old Testament priesthood (132:9, 16). 
  • Just because God commanded something at one time in history does not mean that such a practice would always be authorized. God commanded circumcision, and yet religious circumcision today is unlawful (Galatians 5:1-4).
  • God has changed various ordinances, even prominent ones, such as the Sabbath Day, circumcision, not to mention the entire Old Testament Law.
  • One individual recently attempted to argue that while the Old Testament Law was removed, the Psalms were never part of the Law. That is, the Psalms were a song book, not a Law book. Yet, Jesus placed the Psalms in the Law category, “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods?’” (John 10:34). This quotation is from Psalm 82:6. Added to this, the book of Psalms is very much a Law book, in fact, the longest section of Scripture that actually praises God’s Law, is Psalm 119.

Not Inherently Sinful


This is the argument that says, “Instrumental music is not sinful in itself or God would have never authorized it in the Old Testament”, therefore it is always allowed. Yet there are many things that are not inherently sinful, yet would be sinful if offered to God as a part of worship. For example, sprinkling water is not sinful but making it a religious ordinance would be unlawful. Washing hands is not wrong in itself, but it would be sinful to make it an act of worship (Matthew 15:1-9). Thus a thing does not have to be inherently sinful to be rejected by God when offered as worship to Him (Leviticus 10:1-2).


Instruments Mentioned in the Book of Revelation


This is the argument that says that the “book of Revelation has many verses that speak of instrumental music in worship and praise to God and the Lamb. Why does God condone worship in heaven accompanied by instrumental music if it is not authorized in the worship of the church on earth?” Yet the book of Revelation equally talks about incense in worship, the throne of God, and all sorts of things that are not on earth or part of the worship of the New Testament church. In addition, the assumption that whatever is in heaven is authorized in congregational worship is not true. First, the Lord’s Supper does not exist in heaven (1 Corinthians 11:26), and neither does preaching the gospel to the lost. There are equally many things that exist here that do not exist in heaven (Revelation 21:4), and there are many things in the local congregation that will not exist in heaven. For example, marriage is authorized on earth, but does not exist in heaven (Matthew 22:30).


It is only an aid to singing?


The point of view that the instrument only aids in the command to sing is actually a concession that the instrument is nowhere commanded and that the instrument does not inherently reside in the term psallo.

  • The Bible teaches that for something to be an “aid” or “expedient”, it must first be authorized or lawful (1 Corinthians 6:12). Instrumental music is not authorized, rather, singing is authorized. 
  • An “aid” or “expedient” is a way of carrying out a command. Instrumental music is not needed to carry out the command to sing, it is something in addition to singing. “If I am commanded to walk, can I ride as an aid?” (Bales).
  • People tend to overlook the fact that the kind of music commanded is specific. When God specifically commanded singing, may we use another kind of music as an aid?
  • When God commanded that the ark of the covenant be carried, moving it by placing it on a cart was not viewed by God as an “aid” (1 Chronicles 13:7-10; 15:2,12-13).

The Bible does not say Sing “Only”?


First, neither does it say “immerse only”, or “immerse believers only”. “A command authorizes only what it authorizes. Other things must be authorized by other commands. There are no commands to sprinkle infants or to use instrumental music” (Bales, p. 330). William Woodson wrote, “It is crucially important to observe that although instrumental music of various types was readily available in contemporary society, no passage shows that the churches mentioned in the New Testament ever used instrumental music in worship. Did they not understand the true meaning of the Old Testament, particularly the Psalms? Did they not understand the meaning of various words, such as psallo, etc., so often discussed pro and con in contemporary debates. Did they not know the Jewish practices, both in the temple and in the synagogues? Did they not know the mind of God? Most certainly, on all these questions and much more. Yet, there is not even a hint of the use of instrumental music in worship of these churches. If present appeals to the Old Testament, the Greek term psallo, the temple or synagogue practice, and so on, legitimately warrant such use, why did the apostles and brethren in the first century not so understand and incorporate instrumental music into the worship of these churches? Such facts are not lightly to be dismissed or forgotten” (The Spiritual Sword, January 1993, pp. 17-18).


Congregational Singing is not Authorized?


This is an attempt to argue that one supposedly unauthorized practice authorizes another unauthorized practice, that is, “Just as long as we are doing this without Bible authority might as well do other things without Bible authority”.

  • Yet congregational singing is clearly authorized in more than one passage (1 Corinthians 14:26; Hebrews 2:12).
  • The command in Ephesians 5:19 cannot be fulfilled all by oneself, for the text says, “speaking one to another”. This demands a situation in which we are with other Christians, the same is truth of Colossians 3:16 “Teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”.
  • Once a person starts justifying instrumental music on the basis of “your (supposedly) unauthorized practice allows my unauthorized practice), they have conceded that there is no command, example or necessary inference available in any New Testament verse that would justify it.

Mark Dunagan |
Beaverton Church of Christ | 503-644-9017