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Old Light On New Worship

Category Articles
Date October 20, 2005

It is time for a little stir about worship, isn’t it? We have had Iain Murray’s booklet, The Psalter – the Only Hymnal? (Banner of Truth) which rejects exclusive psalmody for the New Covenant Church. Now we have this 250 page book, Old Light on New Worship, Musical Instruments and the Worship of God. A Theological, Historical and Psychological Study, written by John Price, a graduate of Trinity Ministerial Academy, Montville, New Jersey, and currently the pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Rochester, New York, which he has served since 1995 (Simpson Publishing Company, P.O.Box 100, Avinger, TX 75630 ).

Old Light on New Worship focuses on a single issue. Is there a place for the use of musical instruments in the new covenant worship of God? Ted Donnelly, the pastor of Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church, Newtownabbey, and Principal of the Reformed Theological College, Belfast writes the Foreword to the book. He points out three damaging weaknesses in modern evangelicalism.

1] The first is a failure to apply the principle of sola scriptura, the conviction that the Bible is our supreme and sufficient guide and that, specifically, we are to worship God only in the way appointed in his Word. This perspective, once the common property of Reformed churches, is now so overlooked as to seem bizarre or fanatical to many, while others choose to exempt worship from its scope, as if God had little or nothing to say about that which most intimately concerns his glory.

2] Another weakness is a kind of historical blindness, the neglect of what previous generations have discovered from the Scriptures. It almost indicates contempt for the past, a careless dismissal of how God has over the years been guiding the church into a fuller understanding of truth. This “chronological snobbery,” as C. S. Lewis called it, can masquerade as a commitment to “Scripture alone.” But it is at least curious that those who lay such stress on what the Spirit has taught them from the Bible are so little interested in what he has taught others. Those believers are self-impoverished who will not listen to their forefathers.

3] A third characteristic of today’s church is a frightening naïveté. Like children playing with high explosive, too many Christians seem unaware of music’s potential for harm as well as good. Closing their eyes and ears to the manifold evidence around them, they introduce musical innovations with little reflection or discernment, apparently oblivious to the risks they are running. It is a lemming-like rush towards the coarsening of worship and the trivialising of spiritual experience.

Ted Donnelly points out that the author addresses each of these weaknesses. He demonstrates, with an impressive accumulation of scriptural evidence, the absence of any reference to musical instruments in the worship of the early church and the silence of the New Testament on this matter. For their use in the public worshipping assemblies of new covenant saints there is not a shred of scriptural warrant. His overview of church history will surprise many, with its weight of evidence that the church has sung praise unaccompanied for the greater part of her history and that this has been the position of many of the greatest and wisest of her leaders. A penetrating analysis of the psychology of music points up its frequently deceptive effect upon the human emotions and the very real danger of confusing a merely sensual excitement with true worship.

In these pages we find a two-fold appeal. Where musical instruments are part of worship, pastors and churches are urged to think again, to examine the evidence and to change to a more biblical pattern. Such a change would admittedly be startling, a radical step. True reformation usually is. But if our repeated assertion that “the reformed church stands in constant need of reformation” is more than a cliché, we need to have the God-given boldness to do what is right, no matter what. And, as the very word “re-formation” implies, this often involves a return to a purer original. In this sense, to go back to the practice of the New Testament would be the most constructive and forward-looking step possible.

But perhaps more urgent is the plea not to change. For we find ourselves at a moment of crisis in reformed worship. Churches which have up to the present accompanied their singing with a single instrument are contemplating moving to multiple instruments. Perhaps they are being influenced more deeply than they realize by the surrounding evangelical culture. It may be that they feel that this is one way of retaining the loyalty of their young people, an argument which Robert L. Dabney describes as “the most unsound and perilous possible for a good man to adopt.” They may genuinely believe that this would make their worship more biblical. But this book is a call to pause and reflect.

The only possible scriptural basis for the use of instruments in worship is to be found in the Old Testament passages where the worshippers are described as using them or commanded to use them. “Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals! . . .” (Psalm 150:3ff). But the overwhelming consensus of the church has been that these instruments were an integral part of that ceremonial worship fulfilled and abrogated in Christ. We sing in the Psalms of the hyssop (5 1:7), the altar (43:4), the sack-cloth (69:11), the evening sacrifice (141:2), the goats and bulls (66:15), the cherubim (80:1), the ark (132:8) and the new moon (81:3). No one applies these with a wooden literalism to the church today. On what grounds, then, can we place the musical instruments of the temple in a different category than other ceremonial elements? We may not as clearly understand the typical significance of musical instruments, but that is no warrant for assuming that they had none. “Musical instruments,” wrote Calvin, “in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting up of lamps, and the restoration of the other shadows of the law.

Music was useful as an elementary aid to the people of God in ancient times . . . . Now that Christ has appeared, and the Church has reached full age, it were only to bury the light of the Gospel, should we introduce the shadows of a departed dispensation.”

How wise is it to introduce such a momentous change on such a slender and dubious basis? The controversies which may well arise will be the responsibility of the innovators. New Testament practice is against it. The majority verdict of the past is against it. The dangers are patent. If, as reformed Christians believe, the words of our praise must always be primary, how much can instruments add to the singing of those words? Will the trumpets, tambourines and cymbals which the Old Testament requires really enhance our appreciation of what is being sung? How will churches organize the dancing which is an integral element in such passages (Psalm 149:3; 150:4)? Is this a constructive, edifying course to adopt?

“I write,” says Ted Donnelly, “as one who, for a lifetime, has sung unaccompanied praise to God. It puts us on our mettle, makes us depend on each other, for there is no fallback – singing or silence! And it can be wonderful! No equipment needed, no obtrusion of human talents, no controversy, nothing to distract from the glorious words – just the voices of the redeemed harmoniously worshipping the Lord. It is my prayer that the following pages may persuade more of God’s people to experience in Christ this liberating simplicity. ‘Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name’ (Heb.13:15).”

So here is the book of 250 pages. Its scheme is as follows: The Regulative Principle Applied to Musical Instruments; The History of Musical Instruments in the Christian Church (these two chapters are found in the first 150 pages); The Psychology of Music (20 pages); Argument in Favor of Instrumental Music Considered (35 pages); then some brief chapters conclude the book, “The True Glory of Gospel Worship”, “The Exalted Place of Singing in the Church”, “An Exhortation to Unity,” and “Some Suggestions For Reformation.”

The Exhortation to Unity is particularly helpful.

1] Unity Between Pastors and People. Pastors who are convinced that reformation is necessary should proceed “with great patience and instruction in leading their congregations. The minds and consciences of the people must be fully persuaded before any changes can be made. The pastors should proceed slowly and with care, always seeking to guard the unity of the church throughout the entire process of reformation.

It may be helpful to envision a scenario in which this reformation proceeds in a most judicious manner. The pastors are the first to become convinced of the exclusion of musical instruments from Christian worship. They then provide the necessary reading materials to the members of their church, encouraging them to respond with their thoughts and concerns. As the people read and respond, the pastors get a feel for the pulse of the congregation. During regular oversight meetings, they may continue to receive input concerning this issue. This process may go on for many months before the pastors believe there is sufficient unity to proceed to public instruction of the entire church. If they do not believe that this unity is present, they should wait and graciously try to persuade those who may be opposed as they have opportunity. The hope is that the church will be able to make this reformation with one mind and heart. In this way, the pastors move carefully and slowly, seeking to guard the unity of the church throughout the reformation process.

We should remember an historical model in this matter of patience in reformation. In the late 1600s, the Particular Baptists in England did not believe that singing was an ordinance of New Testament worship. When Benjamin Keach came to the conviction that it was, he gave instruction to his congregation. But Keach was willing to wait patiently for seventeen years before his church was fully convinced and finally received singing as a part of their worship.

2) Unity Within the Congregation. In this situation, we envision an individual member who has become convinced that musical instruments should be excluded from New Testament worship. Before this individual speaks with other members of his church over this issue, he should first humbly bring his concern before his elders. He should prayerfully and patiently wait upon their response. Under no circumstances should he seek to stir up a faction within the membership of his church or cause any disruption of its peace over this issue. If the elders do not come to share the same convictions, the individual member should continue to diligently maintain “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” He should understand that his church may have a high regard for the regulative principle of worship, while not being convinced of this particular issue. The concern over the use or nonuse of a single musical instrument is not of such importance that any member should absent himself from the assembly of the church or in any other way disturb its peace.

The London Baptist Confession of Faith gives a helpful admonition regarding unity in the church. Although the admonition regards issues of discipline, the principle still applies, “No church members, upon any offense taken by them, having performed their duty required of them towards the person they are offended at, ought to disturb any church order, or absent themselves from the assemblies of the church, or administration of any ordinances, upon the account of such offense at any of their fellow members, but to wait upon Christ, in the further proceeding of the church.” (1.London Baptist Confession of 1689, Chapter 26, Paragraph 13.)

3) Unity Between Churches. Every church should desire to maintain communion with other like-minded churches that hold to the same confessional standards. Divisions that separate churches from one another are as grievous as those that split individual congregations. Churches that exclude musical instruments from worship should continue to have high esteem for other churches that differ from them on this issue. Once again, the concern of unity is of greater importance than this particular issue of reformation. Those churches that reform should remember that this particular aspect of reformation does not guarantee that their worship is all that Christ desires it to be. A church may exclude the use of musical instruments and still fall short of the biblical standard in other areas of worship. “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).

How does John Price envisage the steps to the practical removal of the organ or piano from the congregation?

1) Congregational Instruction. Instruction from the Word of God must always precede reformation. It is assumed that the congregation has been instructed and convinced that the singing of the church should be composed of human voices without the accompaniment of musical instruments. Instruction should also be given regarding the exalted place Christ has given to singing in His church. The people must understand the benefits and the blessings of singing if they are to engage in it with all their hearts. If singing is to be what Christ desires, there must first be a zeal for it among the members of the church.

2) Identifying and Using Simple Tunes. Many of the tunes found in modern hymnbooks were written in the 19th century when the organ was increasing in use among Protestant churches. These tunes were often written more for the enjoyment of the organist than for the ease of congregational singing. The result is that many tunes are beyond the musical ability of the average congregation. Each congregation must assess its own singing talent and identify those tunes it knows and sings well. In our church, we were able to identify more than 150 tunes acceptable for a cappella singing. These tunes are used on Sunday mornings. On Sunday evenings and Wednesday prayer meetings, we use other tunes, and when we have learned them well, they are added to the Sunday morning list. By interchanging tunes with the same meter, we are able to sing the majority of hymns in our book.

3) Beginning the Hymn. Some have a concern over how the congregation can begin a hymn when there is no instrumental accompaniment. The solution is quite simple. One man who can hit the proper pitch and whose voice can be sufficiently heard can begin the hymn. The congregation should then quickly follow along with him. This is the method used by Spurgeon and many other churches.

4) Learning of New Tunes. A church should never stagnate in the number of tunes it knows but should be encouraged to periodically learn new tunes appropriate for congregational singing. An effort to learn one new tune a month will add up quickly over time. Simple tunes that may be learned relatively easily may be found in many hymnbooks and other resources. Louis Bourgeois wrote the majority of the tunes used by John Calvin in Geneva during the Protestant Reformation. His tunes, such as the Old Hundredth, used in the doxology, were simple and became the standard for the Reformed churches of Europe and England for hundreds of years. At a time other than Sunday worship services, simple tunes such as these or others can be introduced to the congregation by those who are musically talented. The experts tell us that a new tune can be learned by listening to another’s voice even more easily than with a musical instrument. James Sydnor states, “The conductor’s voice is a better teaching medium than playing the tune on the organ.” (James Rawlings Sydnor, Hymns & Their Uses, (Carol Stream, IL: Agape, 1982).) When a satisfactory level of singing proficiency is achieved, these new tunes can then be used in the Lord’s Day services.

5) Good Singing Begins at Home. When a congregation gathers for worship, it is really made up of a collection of families. The public singing of the church is a reflection of the singing of the families throughout the week. The hymns sung in family worship should be the same as those sung in the public worship of the church. If families sing these hymns well at home, they will do even better when they gather for corporate worship. The fathers should take the lead and encourage their children in singing both in the home and in the church. During the Reformation, John Calvin had his psalter published in pocket size so that the people could bring it home and use it in singing with their families.

6) Proper Use of Singing Skills. Every church has a number of members who possess a higher-than-average level of singing talent. Such members may want to place themselves in different locations throughout the congregation in order to help guide and carry the rest of the people in singing. The musically talented members of the church may want to give some simple instruction in the basic principles of singing. The duty of singing rests not upon a trained group within the church, but on the entire congregation. Every member should be encouraged to develop whatever gift of singing he possesses to the best of his ability. The purpose here is not to turn the church into a choral society, but to increase confidence so that all the members can fulfill Christ’s command to sing. In this way, a church makes the most use of the talents God has given to it. In a smaller congregation, the people may want to sit closer together so that their voices can be better heard by one another.

Those are all the wise suggestions of John Price. I would think that it would be easy to ask a congregation and organist to sing one hymn each Sunday unaccompanied, and then to sing the hymns in the mid-week meeting unaccompanied. See how capable you all are at doing that.


How does one respond to all of this? The book indicates the amount of yeast in the Reformed barrel in the UK and USA today. We have convictions about many aspects of our congregational life and it is a wonder that there are not more divisions. We share in the general consumerist mentality of worshippers – “I like my Sunday worship to be like this . . .” It is a mentality that guarantees restlessness; Christians can become rolling stones.

But in this book is a carefully laid out biblical argument demonstrating the absence of musical instruments from New Covenant worship. If we are shown something from the word of God that we believe is its message – whatever our tradition or present position might be or however much we are reacting against our background – are we prepared to accept and do what it says? If the only impact of the book were to make the church consider again whether the introduction of bands and orchestras has been pleasing to God it would have made a heroic contribution.

As Christians in the United Kingdom our situation is precarious. Our churches are small and struggling. To sing hymns on Sunday is unusual. Not to have a band and worship leader is unusual. To have a man leading the entire service, and the congregation singing hymns from a hymnal is increasingly unusual. We have people coming to our services who have never sung anything but choruses which have been accompanied by a band. To meet us is a spiritual shock. To preach the Sovereignty of God so that people understand and love this truth is the first challenge that faces us. To preach with an awakening ministry so that sinners are saved – that too is up there alongside it in importance. To encourage a life of credible godliness in all who profess the name of Jesus is a third category of equal significance to the other two. These are three goals and it will take most of our spiritual energy and consecration to establish this in a contemporary church.

I grow fainthearted at the sight of a group of about a dozen people meeting in a hired room in a leisure centre. They are in that place having broken away from a larger church over such an issue as a particular version of the Bible, or that the pastor was prepared to contemplate taking the marriage service of a believer with an unbeliever (after a sufficient rebuke), or there had been a change to another hymn book. That is why John Price’s plea for unity amongst the people of God whose priorities are the three I have listed is crucially important.

In our own congregation we sing unaccompanied at our mid-week meeting, and infrequently at our Sunday services – one hymn, or at the communion service. When we had no organist we sang unaccompanied. It was fine. But I alone am a precentor in our church and on that practicality we stagger embarrassedly without an instrument to help us. If the truth were told we have not given ourselves to find other precentors. In the accompanying role the organ has, while I lead the singing, I find us keeping the spirit of the Bible in its coolness towards musical instruments being used in the service of God. There is not any church I know in our nation of Wales which by choice and conviction sings its praise unaccompanied. There probably are one or two, but it is not for this I want our congregation to be known but for the three goals I have earlier laid out. This is a fine book, all the more significant having come from a Baptist preacher – very much in the C.H. Spurgeon and his Metropolitan Tabernacle congregation’s tradition.

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