Why Do We Allow Musical Instruments When the Early Churches Did Not?

You may not realize that the early churches, at least the ones in the 3rd century and later, did not allow musical instruments.

The denomination that calls itself Church of Christ and claims not to be a denomination also claims that the Bible disallows musical instruments because you can’t do anything the New Testament doesn’t expressly say you can do.

Of course, I have trouble understanding, then, why they have church buildings, parking lots, pulpits, bathrooms in their church building, hymnals, etc., etc., etc.

Anyway, here’s my reasons for believing that we should not follow that early church tradition. (Rose Creek Village’s reasons would be different. As a village, we’ve never thought about it because nothing in the Bible would remotely hint that you should forbid musical instruments … and the Spirit of God likes them.)

The Early Christian Writings and Musical Instruments

This one really throws me.

The NT says nothing of musical instruments. The 2nd century writers say nothing about musical instruments. Come the 3rd century, Origen says the reason the churches don’t use musical instruments is because they are used to lead armies into war.

The OT, however, is effuse with praise for musical instruments, and the Book of Revelation says there will be instruments in heaven.

My thought is that there were no musical instruments in the Gentile churches because they were persecuted. Their meetings were secret, and playing music would only arouse attention.

After a few decades or a century of such stealth, I’m guessing, it became tradition not to use musical instruments.

I’m not very confident of that guess, but I have several reasons for promoting the use of musical instruments.

  1. They help us sing collectively with our hearts focused on God (versus nervous singing by people who are not confident, drawing everyone’s eyes to the awkwardness in the room).
  2. The OT recommends them highly.
  3. God seems to like having musical instruments around his throne.
  4. The NT references to musical instruments seem positive enough, even though they’re references to people making mirth rather than songs of worship.
  5. There are no references to musical instruments not being used by the church until the 3rd century, when the churches were already getting larger and liturgical.
  6. I see no spiritual benefit or additional spiritual life in those who forbid musical instruments compared to those who allow it. In fact, I see the opposite. Spiritually strong people tend to allow musical instruments. Pharisees and nervous, fearful Christians tend to disallow them.
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17 Responses to Why Do We Allow Musical Instruments When the Early Churches Did Not?

  1. Tony says:

    Hi. I just started going back to a church of Christ after many years at “faith only” churches, especially Calvary Chapels. I’ve read thru much of your website and it seems to me that you may have a church of Christ influence at your congregation? Your teachings seem very similar, with the major exception being that you think it is ok to use musical instruments in worship. I personally believe that either (instruments or just singing) is ok from what I can ascertain from the Word. Do you have any affiliated churches here in Southern California, particularly in Orange County? Thanks.

    Tony Armijo

    • Shammah says:

      No Church of Christ influence here. Our strongest influence come from 3 sources: The Bible as read by our members from many different backgrounds seeking God together; Watchman Nee; and the writings of the 2nd century church.

      We have a hard time seeing that God is against musical instruments Scripturally. It does appear that historically the early churches were against musical instruments, though Clement of Alexandria says that was because musical instruments were used to lead armies into war, and the church studies peace, not war. Personally, I think the early churches didn’t use musical instruments because they made too much noise and would lead to persecution when the Christian meetings were discovered. That’s just a wild guess, though.

      We do not have any affiliated churches in Orange County. I wish I could recommend some people to you, but it may be better if God leads you to people with whom you can follow Christ and share lives.

  2. thisrestlesspilgrim says:

    > "I meant that when it's done every week, it becomes of no purpose"

    Familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt. For example, I would imagine that husbands and wives renew their marriage covenant on a regular basis without it becoming of no purpose. Would a wife ever tire of hearing her husband say "I love you"?

    > " Reality is, though, that the huge majority–at least 90%, but probably more–of those who do weekly solemnities like those associated with incense are simply following through on ritual every week getting nothing out of it and not living for God"

    Sorry, I really don't think you can legitimately make a call like this.

    > "I've seen a couple congregations that really devoted themselves to getting something out of the rituals every week"

    Do you think that Israel had to devote themselves to "getting something out" of the Temple worship?

    > "but their zeal and interest came from the Protestant charismatic movement, not from the rituals themselves"

    I think here you're setting up an unnecessary division here. It sounds like you're suggesting that the Spirit of God can move through the charismatic movement, but not through more ancient liturgical worship. As a charismatic myself I have loads of anecdotal evidence to say that He moves just as profoundly in both.

    • shammahbn says:

      Well, we can just leave this as a disagreement, except …

      I was not trying in any way to imply that the Spirit of God can only move through the charismatic movement. I'm not charismatic, nor do I like the excesses common to the charismatic movement. I most certainly believe that God can move through ancient–or modern–liturgical worship.

      I meant only what I said. I made an observation about my experience–experience extensive enough that I was guessing before you said it that you were charismatic, too.

      • thisrestlesspilgrim says:

        > "I was not trying in any way to imply that the Spirit of God can only move through the charismatic movement… I most certainly believe that God can move through ancient–or modern–liturgical worship. "

        I thought as much. Thanks for the clarification.

        > "nor do I like the excesses common to the charismatic movement"

        Likewise!

        > "I meant only what I said. I made an observation about my experience"

        Sure, but likewise I too have visited lots of churches of many different denominations and worship styles and I've come across people in each who I couldn't help but think were "simply following [ancient or modern] ritual…getting nothing out of it and not living for God" (although, equally, I would contend that I'm hardly in a position to really make such a judgement)

        > " I was guessing before you said it that you were charismatic, too"

        To complete picture, it's probably worth mentioning that my regular Sunday worship is at a Byzantine Rite church (bells, smells and men in capes!)

  3. thisrestlesspilgrim says:

    " It seems a waste–personal opinion only–to use incense in every church meeting. I like doing unusual things, though, to heighten the solemnity of certain occasions"

    While I understand what you mean, and, certainly, some occasions demand greater solemnity, I couldn't help but think of an episode in the Gospel where certain disciples considered one woman's act of worship as wasteful (Matthew 26:6-13).

    Dave has bought up a great point though – John's Revelation, which is chock full of liturgical imagery, something which has been noted by many Christian writers both old and new.

    • thisrestlesspilgrim says:

      I've been thinking about what I wrote and realized that my comment about Matthew 26 could be taken badly, so, just to clarify, I'm not comparing you to those disciples. Sorry if any offence was given.

    • shammahbn says:

      By wasteful, I didn't mean a waste of the incense. I meant that when it's done every week, it becomes of no purpose.

      Yeah, sure, if I devote myself to loving incense and pomp, I'll see meaning in it every week. Reality is, though, that the huge majority–at least 90%, but probably more–of those who do weekly solemnities like those associated with incense are simply following through on ritual every week getting nothing out of it and not living for God. In other words, there's no point to it because it's what bears fruit that matters.

      I've seen a couple congregations that really devoted themselves to getting something out of the rituals every week, but their zeal and interest came from the Protestant charismatic movement, not from the rituals themselves.

  4. Dave says:

    Hi, just my own thought thrown in here. In relation to the OT using musical instruments, so did the OT saints use incense in their worship services.

    Remember Zacharias the father of John the Baptist? Luke 1:9 "According to the custom of the priest's office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord."

    And in relation to the The Revelation showing that their will be instruments in heaven, it also shows that their will be incense in heaven.

    Revelation 8:3-4 "And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer [it] with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, [which came] with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand."

    So based on those two pieces of evidence, do you think we should have incense in our church services?

    • shammahbn says:

      Great thoughts, thank you. But, no, I don't think we "should" have incense in our church services. I like incense, and I think we "may" have incense in our gatherings. It seems a waste–personal opinion only–to use incense in every church meeting. I like doing unusual things, though, to heighten the solemnity of certain occasions.

      I think churches have a lot of freedom, and the purpose is to worship God together and to provoke one another to love and good works. If that happens, then I believe God is pleased.

  5. thisrestlesspilgrim says:

    Another point worth making is that since Christian worship grew out of Jewish worship, it was largely similar, particularly in terms of liturgical character.

    But perhaps the question should be turned on its head? Rather than questioning the place of instruments in Sunday worship maybe we should ask whether we have something to learn from the Early Church with regards to their emphasis on sung chant?

    Chant is certainly something that has been carried over into the monastic world. I've also been involved with Taizé chant and I would certainly say that unaccompanied singing has really quite a special dynamic.

    "Your renowned presbytery is fitted to the bishop as strings are to a harp. This is why, in the symphony of your harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. The rest of you should also form a choir, so that, joining in the song, taking your key note from God, you may with one voice sing to the Father through Jesus Christ, so that He may both hear you, and recognize in you the melodies of His Son."
    – Ignatius of Antioch to the Ephesians

    • shammahbn says:

      Wow. I'm not getting notifications of the comments that I don't have to approve. Thank God I actually looked at this post and saw the extra comment I didn't know about.

      I'm going to answer your comment on yesterday's post, too, which I only just found out about.

      My thought is that worship is for worship. Perhaps chanting would be something awesome. I had a friend once who loved Gregorian chants. It didn't do much for me, I have to admit.

      On the matter of liturgy, the earliest decent description we have of Christian worship, outside the NT, is Justin's, and that is not liturgical. Simple, yes. Liturgical, no.

      Paul's description in 1 Cor. 14 is even less liturgical.

      Nor am I convinced that the early churches emphasized sung chants. There's not any direct statements about how they sung, and I don't think the Jews are known for chants. I suspect those came at a period later than what I would describe as "early."

      • thisrestlesspilgrim says:

        We know a lot about the liturgy the Jews were celebrating in the Temple and the Synagogue at that time (and even today) and I don't think it's unreasonable to use that as the backdrop for the admittedly limited information we have from Christian sources. For example, we see that the earliest Eucharistic prayers had direct continuity with the Jewish "eucharistic" prayers of the day. It makes sense that the Christian worship in the early years would have drawn *extremely* heavily from Judaism.

        Maybe it depends upon our respective definitions of "liturgy" (I would describe the Seder meal as liturgical), but I would suggest that the Synaxis, Agape and Eucharist would have all had a liturgical character. The Synaxis, for example, would have been almost identical to that of the traditional Synagogue worship, except, of course with a Christological dimension.

        Also, do you not count The Didache?

        • shammahbn says:

          I would count the Didache. It does have a liturgical prayer that it mentions with the Eucharist. That's as far as it goes. It doesn't actually have an overall description of a Christian gathering. Justin does.

          I don't object to liturgical prayers. In fact, where something is done repeatedly, even those of us that do not purposely pursue liturgical prayers often end up creating our own.

          The question, on the other hand, is whether in liturgical circles there is allowance made for what Paul and Justin say. Does the congregation prophesy one by one? If something is revealed to someone in a meeting, does the one talking sit down to allow the next to share? Does each bring a prayer, a revelation, etc.?

          (I do know of at least one church that makes such allowance, so I know it happens … but rarely)

  6. Mark says:

    Thanks for these last few posts – as a musician, this one was of particular interest to me.

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