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On Worship and Music

Category Articles
Date September 1, 2005

Until recently, my family and I regularly attended a nearby evangelical, Protestant church, one which is spiritually sound and has done much for the Gospel over the years. Throughout our ten years in that church, we certainly benefited from the preaching and teaching we heard, but we were also privileged, at times, to take part in aspects of that work ourselves. During our last couple of years there, the church began to move toward offering what is commonly called a “contemporary” worship service. While neither the congregation nor the church’s leadership were in complete agreement about the propriety of taking such a course, eventually the church did begin providing a contemporary service, in addition to the so called “traditional” worship service.

During the church leadership’s time of discussion and deliberation about contemporary worship, terms like “worship idiom,” “worship style,” and the like, were often used in church gatherings where the topic was discussed and in various letters which were sent to the congregation. But it began to dawn on me that we might not be using the term “worship” in an entirely Biblical sense. So I began to look at the Scriptures-particularly the New Testament-to see what it has to say about worship and-because the most obvious distinction between contemporary and traditional worship is the music that goes along with it-I also included music and singing in my investigation.

Rather quickly, I discovered an “omission” in the New Testament that I thought was significant. (It may be just as important to consider what the Scriptures do not say on a subject, as it is to concentrate on what they do say.) In the great majority of instances where the word “worship” appears in the New Testament, the Greek word proskuneo-which literally means “to kiss”-is used, 59 times altogether. For each occurrence of this word proskuneo, there is not one instance where music or singing has anything to do with the context. I mentioned this finding to one of the church’s leaders, who replied with a comment something like, “Well, we have to look to the Old Testament to find a model for worship.” My response was, “But why would we want to look there for a worship ‘model’ when the New Testament record contains several instances of worship and also provides us with criteria for worship?”

My mind is frequently drawn to that powerful and intriguing interchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, recorded in John 4. He informed her that a time was coming when worship (proskuneo) of the Father would no longer be a localized experience, associated with the Samaritan’s temple on Mount Gerazim or the Jews’ temple in Jerusalem. (John 4:21 NIV) Then, He introduced her to a new and superior reality in worship when He said, “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:23). With an additional clarification, He related to her the need for worship, that takes into consideration the spiritual nature of God, when He said, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Certainly Christ has presented us here in this text with an understanding of worship that requires something more than-and something other than-what had gone on in worship prior to His coming.

Regarding the many other occurrences of proskuneo in the New Testament, it is generally clear from the context what is meant by it. Very often, the word carries the idea of adoration of the Lord or prostration (either literally or figuratively) before Him. The Magi, upon finding the child Jesus with his mother Mary, “bowed down and worshiped him” (Matt. 2:11). When the two Marys met the Lord himself on the day of his resurrection, they “clasped his feet and worshiped him” (Matt. 28:9). Paul speaks of the unbeliever who hears the whole church prophesying, convinced that he is a sinner, who then will “fall down and worship God, exclaiming ‘God is really among you'” (1 Cor. 14:25). As the great multitude in heaven is shouting “Hallelujah!” John says that “The twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God, who was seated on the throne. And they cried: ‘Amen, Hallelujah!'” (Rev. 19:4). These are just a few examples.

It should come as no surprise to us that worship, as presented in the New Testament, is different in some respects from that experienced in the Old Testament world. Several key aspects of the Old Testament covenant have been superseded by realities that Christ has brought about: Jesus himself is the ultimate and final atoning sacrifice for sins; each believer is a priest; circumcision is unnecessary as an outward sign of special spiritual status; the Church (made up of both Jews and Gentiles) is God’s means for spreading the Gospel of Christ to the world; “grace and truth” have come through Jesus; and the body of each believer is now the “temple of the Holy Spirit.”

But, again, music and singing are not explicitly an element of the passages where the word proskuneo is used. There are a few references to singing in the New Testament, and it may very well be that singing can be considered as an expression of worship-assuming the content of the song and the condition of the heart of the singer are such that worship of God is possible. Whether or not the New Testament advocates the use of musical instruments as accompaniment to Christian singing is regrettably a matter of debate. For example, opinions differ on the correct translation of the Greek word psallo, and its derivatives, in passages like Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. Do these terms refer to a capella singing or singing with musical instrument accompaniment? Assuming that musical instruments are implied, then are Paul’s words on this matter to be taken as commands or recommendations? Do they apply to Christians everywhere and in every time in history? These instructions do not appear in Paul’s other letters-was there something peculiar to the churches at Ephesus and Colosse that made these directives appropriate for them? If, for whatever reason, certain Christians who gather together are unable to sing at all, or are only able to sing to God and to each other without musical accompaniment, then how does their custom measure up in the light of these verses in Ephesians and Colossians?

Considering the time, money and effort devoted to both the production of church music and our participation in it-and the fact that the leader of that portion of a worship service is often referred to as the “worship leader”-one would expect these things to have a prominent place in the New Testament’s Gospel message, in its record of the history of the early Church and in the writings of the apostles. But that is NOT the case.

In our day, sadly, the increasing emphasis on music and singing in Christian worship-particularly the use of musical instruments, choirs and soloists-has had some unfortunate consequences.

My family and I recently attended a concert held in a large and highly respected local church. At the close of that event, one of the pastors there made the following comments to the audience and performers that, I fear, represent the opinion of many church pastors and music “ministers” today:

…to our choir…you just keep singing, from Chichester songs to [Irving] Berlin, and it’s just marvelous. You touch us in many ways that the preaching of The Word and mere speaking cannot. So thank you for your ministry tonight.

I should add that this was a patriotic concert which was not really a spiritual event-any recognition of God occurred when we all sang God Bless America and during prayers that were offered. We were appalled to hear that this pastor had such a high regard for the musical experience in comparison to the value of the preaching of The Word, but many churches and their leadership have come to regard the music and singing of the church to be equal, or at least indispensable, to their preaching and teaching ministries.

A pastor friend, whose church experienced the upheaval that often accompanies the adoption of contemporary worship, has had the courage to tell his congregation where they can be mistaken in their understanding of worship. On one occasion, he said that he realized there were some among the membership who erroneously thought the “worship” ended when the music minister (a.k.a. “worship leader”) left the stage for the preaching to begin. He went on to say that, while we should hope that worship of God takes place during the music and singing portion of the service, he expected that it was at least as likely that worship would occur during the preaching and teaching of the Scriptures.

Another friend, who served as a missionary for many years in Central America, once expressed in a letter his concerns about the people for whom he labored there in Bible translation.

By and large, the church in _______ is in an adolescent stage, mistakenly confusing “the building up of the Body of Christ” with the acquisition of a new building, new musical equipment or worship services that overemphasize singing at the cost of learning the basics of their faith in Christ.

So, then, the extremes in music and singing are not confined to America alone.

Possibly the most beautiful music ever written is associated with Christ in some way. Consider the work of J. S. Bach, who wrote timeless pieces like Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, or G. F. Handel, who wrote The Messiah. Many, many Christmas compositions are among the very loveliest of musical works. However, after the Protestant Reformation-but before Bach’s and Handel’s time-much of the Protestant church world abandoned the use of musical instruments in their church services. Musical instruments did not gain widespread acceptance in Protestant churches until the last 150 to 200 years or so. Much controversy developed during the earlier years of their adoption in those churches-not just in the Church of Christ or the Primitive Baptist groups that do not use them to this day, but also among mainstream Baptists and Presbyterians, for example. (The Roman Catholic church, however, has used organs, and the like, since the seventh or eighth century.) Ironically, a capella is an ancient Latin term, whose literal meaning is “as in the chapel” or “in chapel style.” So we see that singing without musical instrument accompaniment was originally defined by equating it with the practice of the churches, which was plain singing!

There are notable men in the history of the Church-Thomas Aquinas, John Knox, John Calvin, Justin Martyr, Matthew Henry and John Wesley, for example-who had reservations about the use of musical instruments, choirs and the like, in worship. During his twenty years at Metropolitan Tabernacle, C. H. Spurgeon, in spite of the growing use of the organ in other churches of his time, only allowed the use of musical instruments one time during their church services; that was during a special meeting in which Ira Sankey played a type of organ called a “harmonium.” Spurgeon’s views on the subject of musical instruments appear in his Treasury of David, particularly the commentary for Psalm 33, verse 2; Psalm 42, verse 4; and Psalm 81, verse 1.
Here is an example.

Psalms 33:2

Ver. 2. “Praise the Lord with harp.” Men need all the help they can get to stir them up to praise. This is the lesson to be gathered from the use of musical instruments under the old dispensation. Israel was at school, and used childish things to help her to learn; but in these days, when Jesus gives us spiritual manhood, we can make melody without strings and pipes. We who do not believe these things to be expedient in worship, lest they should mar its simplicity, [but] do not affirm them to be unlawful, and if any George Herbert or Martin Luther can worship God better by the aid of well tuned instruments, who shall gainsay their right? We do not need them, they would hinder [more] than help our praise, but if others are otherwise minded, are they not living in gospel liberty? “Sing unto him.” This is the sweetest and best of music. No instrument like the human voice. As a help to singing the instrument is alone to be tolerated, for keys and strings do not praise the Lord. “With the psaltery and an instrument of ten strings.” The Lord must have a full octave, for all notes are his, and all music belongs to him. Where several pieces of music are mentioned, we are taught to praise God with all the powers which we possess.

The reader has noticed, of course, that Spurgeon starts off by speaking against the use of musical instruments, but then defers to Herbert and Luther conceding that the matter may be a matter of Christian liberty; and then he finishes by making some qualifications for their use. It appears, however, from this text that he considered a capella singing as the best choice. Now, taking another look at the Treasury of David, let us consider Spurgeon’s use of quotes from other men regarding this same passage.


Ver. 2. “Praise the Lord with harp: sing unto him with the psaltery and an instrument of ten strings.” Here we have the first mention of musical instruments in the Psalms. It is to be observed that the early fathers almost with one accord protest against their use in churches; as they are forbidden in the Eastern church to this day, where yet, by the consent of all, the singing is infinitely superior to anything that can be heard in the West. [J. M. Neale]. Ver. 2. “Harp; Psaltery, etc.” Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaise. [Thomas Aquinas.] It was only permitted to the Jews, as sacrifice was, for the heaviness and grossness of their souls. God condescended to their weakness, because they were lately drawn off from idols; but now instead of organs, we may use our own bodies to praise him withal. [Chrysostom.] The use of singing with instrumental music was not received in the Christian churches as it was among the Jews in their infant state, but only the use of plain song. [Justin Martyr.] Ver. 2. (last clause). It is said that David praised God upon an instrument of ten strings; and he would never have told how many strings there were, but that without doubt he made use of them all. God hath given all of us bodies, as it were, instruments of many strings; and can we think it music good enough to strike but one string, to call upon him with our tongues only? No, no; when the still sound of the heart by holy thoughts, and the shrill sound of the tongue by holy words, and the loud sound of the hands by pious works, do all join together, that is God’s concert, and the only music wherewith he is affected. [Sir Richard Baker.]

The first four men quoted above advocate plain song, without instruments, and the fifth man refers to the use of our bodies as “instruments of many strings” that constitute “God’s concert.”

Yet another comment of Spurgeon’s, from his analysis of Psalm 42:4 is this:

David appears to have had a peculiarly tender remembrance of the singing of the pilgrims, and assuredly it is the most delightful part of worship and that which comes nearest to the adoration of heaven. What a degradation to supplant the intelligent song of the whole congregation by the theatrical prettiness of a quartet, the refined niceties of a choir, or the blowing off of wind from inanimate bellows and pipes! We might as well pray by machinery as praise by it.

All of these points have been made here because I have seen, first-hand and painfully, the harm that has come to the Church by an excessive emphasis on singing and music, particularly with the use of musical instruments, choirs and soloists-in either a traditional or contemporary worship setting. Certainly, the best of traditional hymns, with or without musical accompaniment, are BY FAR superior in depth of meaning to the typical contemporary song. But is not the growing popularity of contemporary worship the result, at least in part, of our having placed too high a priority on traditional music/singing, all along? As the generations pass, music styles change and very often young people develop tastes in music that are not like that of their elders. Because, all too frequently, the young in our churches are integrated into the captivating pop culture around them, including its music, they are very likely to long for a more contemporary type of music and song in their church services. And because they have been given the impression that singing and musical instruments are essential to valid worship-by virtue of the fact that their parents have required these in their worship services-then the young think it reasonable to continue that tradition, but with a music style that pleases them more.

Without doubt, the singing of “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (even with accompanying musical instruments) can have a legitimate place in the gathering of God’s people. Ideally, such a song would have meaningful, truthful lyrics wedded to very simple music. Any musical accompaniment should be done with modestly-played, innocuous instruments so that the singer/listener is primarily conscious of the words rather than the music. But my own experience-in a variety of churches-has been that the singing and musical instrument accompaniment are presented in such a way that the would-be worshiper is essentially (though unwittingly and unconsciously) entertained. To the extent that the music and singing is beautiful and professionally performed, or the more loudly it is played, the further our minds will be drawn into the realm of musical pleasure and away from thoughts of God and the innately spiritual. Strangely, then, the very things which we believe to be an aid to worship may in fact be an impediment to it.

The fact that our appreciation of music is a matter of taste ensures that there will NOT be universal agreement on what songs and instrumental accompaniment are appropriate for spiritual ends. And, quite frankly, no matter which “worship style” we prefer, the fact that WE obtain pleasure from music-apart from any concerns we may claim to have about worship-compromises our objectivity in determining its suitability for worship. How sad it is, then, that music may become a primary factor in evaluating the virtues of a church, rather than whether we can genuinely respond to God in awe and adoration-or experience Christ “in the midst”-when we are there.

Copyright 2002 by William F. Rodgers, Jr.

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