Church Music Exclusively Congregational Singing?
by Lawson Mayo
Is church music exclusively congregational singing? Yes! Both history and
Scripture point to the validity of this. Neither instruments nor “special
music” (i.e., choirs, sextets, quartets, trios, duets, etc.) are sanctioned by
God as being acceptable forms of music in congregational worship. Other
innovations such as hand clapping, foot tapping, humming, and vocal imitations
of musical instruments, are equally unscriptural. You can search for a
commandment, an example, or an inference to justify these self-satisfying
innovations, but your search will be in vain. The only Biblical authorisation
for church music is congregational singing (Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19).
Although instruments were used in many types of activity (including Hebrew
Temple worship) they were not used in the early church. It’s a well documented
fact that early Christians worshipped for a number of centuries without the
accompanying strains of instrumental music. Joseph Bingham, one of the most
learned scholars of the Church of England, confirms in his book, Antiquities
of the Christian Church. Without mincing words, Bingham simply states:
Music in the church is as ancient as the apostles, but instrumental music
Lyman Coleman, another accurate scholar, offers this noteworthy statement:
". . .musical accompaniments were gradually introduced; but can hardly be
assigned to a period earlier than the fifth and sixth centuries. Previously
they had their place in the theatre rather than in the church. "
Professor John Girardeau, of Columbia Theological Seminary, makes this
"...the church although lapsing more and more into defection from the
truth...had no instrumental music for several hundred years. "
Professor Girardeau also records that the Calvinistic Reformed Church had
ejected instruments from its services as an element of Popery (Music in the
Church, p. 179).
"It is impossible to find anything concerning the origin of instrumental
music in the New Testament, but these statements show very definitely that
scholars, in the field of church history, recognise instrumental music in the
worship as an innovation which did not make its appearance until many hundreds
of years after the church had its beginning. Encyclopedias of religious
knowledge, coupled with church histories, confirm quite definitely that
instruments were introduced a number of centuries after the death of the
In the Greek church, musical instruments never came into use; only after
the eighth century did they become common in the Latin church, and then with
much opposition from the monks.
While still on the subject of historically documented quotations regarding
music in the early church, there is another significant quote that I want to
share. It not only sheds some light on the introduction of instruments, but
also on the “special music” upheaval that we’re facing in the church today.
Listen carefully. Lyman Coleman said that:
". . .the tendency of instrumental music was to secularise the music of the
church, and to encourage singing by a choir."
Did you hear that? Coleman, who is considered to be an accurate scholar
among religious historians, states that instruments were introduced not only
to “secularise” church music, but also to “encourage singing by a choir” --
interesting isn’t it, in light of the changes that are taking place in our
age! Where does our authority lie: in the world or in the Lord?
Let me tell you, my brethren, there is no room for the world in the church!
When secular trends invade the sanctity of our worship, Satan wins. Yet, in
our brotherhood today, we are hearing a drumming echo of a defiant people from
ages past. “But the Bible doesn’t say we can’t,” is the loud, bold, urgent,
immature, self-seeking cry of our day. “Everyone else is doing it,” is the
insubmissive, rebellious statement of our age. Eternal consequence doesn’t
seem to matter as long as we can cater to our self-satisfying whims.
Regarding such attitudes, let me say this: sin is sin even if everyone else
is doing it, and right is right even if no one else is doing it. Furthermore,
the Bible doesn’t have to say thou shalt not: thou shalt not use instrumental
music; thou shalt not have solos, trios and choirs; thou shalt not clap your
hands, tap your feet or imitate musical instruments with your voice. The
positive commands that God set forth in His inspired Word negates the need for
any further elaboration; it nullifies the need for any further instruction.
This is an irrevocable fact.
To obey or not to obey, is a choice of the heart that each of us freely
makes. One can justify that which he does, but the justification will not make
it right in the sight of God. This is true in every aspect of our Christian
life whether it be in the realm of modest dress, type of recreation, or
appropriate music in worship.
“But I like my guitar; I want to play it while I sing praises to my Lord”:
this is an actual quotation that we’ve heard since we’ve been in Australia. In
all fairness to my Australian brethren, however, I must tell you that the
words were uttered by an American who no longer lives in this country.
Nevertheless, the possibility of playing instruments in worship was planted in
the minds of those who looked to this person as a spiritual pace setter in the
church. Many followed the lead of this young woman and her successful husband.
The seeds of error they scattered during their tenure here will, in all
probability, someday germinate, take root, and grow. I make mention of this;
firstly, because I’m concerned; secondly, to alert you to the secular trends
that are coming into our country; thirdly, to show how such trends weaken the
cause of Christ. Rather than following the trends of the world, Christians
should be setting the trends for the world to follow.
We are “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14-16). If we allow “the winds
of change” to extinguish our lights, we will lose our illuminating effect.
We’ve been “sanctified” (I Corinthians 6:11). We’ve been “purified” (I
Peter 1:22). We’ve been “washed by the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 1:5).
We’ve been “set apart” to be a “peculiar people” -- a special people (I Peter
2:9). “Denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly,
righteously, and godly, in this present world.” (Titus 2:12).
As a whole, the younger generation of the church no longer objects to
musical instruments in the worship service; they say the issue should not be a
test of fellowship. But this is not the main battle line. No. Satan, through
the medium of “change agents” has turned our attention to the realm of
“special music” (i.e., solos, choirs, etc.), and those who oppose the change
are branded as troublemakers. It is said that we are “hampering the noble
effort to make worship more meaningful.” It is also said that we are “creedal
and divisive.” But, as Dave Miller points out in his book, Piloting the
Strait, those who are promoting “special music” are clearly the disrupters.
And yet (as Dave also points out), they are masters of acting innocent in this
They are likewise specialists at moving from ‘the New Testament allows
special music’ to ‘the New Testament promotes special music.’ The militancy
with which innovators are now advancing their agenda is shocking and
heartbreaking. (Miller, Piloting the Strait).
Shocking! Heartbreaking! Indeed! If God through the Spirit guided the
apostles into all truth: which He did (John 16:13), and if by divine guidance
their music consisted solely of a capella singing by the congregation: which
it did (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16); should not this be our practice
today? I think so! Secular trends are not safe criteria for Christians to
follow; neither are personal whims.
To follow the lead of the “change agents” is a soul-destructive course
which should be avoided at all cost. Instrumental music and “special music”
(i.e. choirs, etc.) are inconsistent with New Testament teaching. Therefore,
it is unnecessary, unwise, and unscriptural to incorporate these innovations
into our worship services. Matthew 28:18-20 leaves the church no liberty in
regard to the elements of worship (including music).
When we examine this passage closely, we see: firstly, that the apostles
were to teach all things which Christ commanded them; secondly, logically
implied, the apostles were to teach nothing but what Christ commanded;
thirdly, the church should obey the apostles’ teachings. Again I say, this
leaves no liberty in regard to the elements of worship.
There are those who sometimes claim that instrumental music should be used
in Christian worship because David, the singer in Israel, sang praises to God
with the accompanying strains of an instrument (Psalm 150:3,4). But, we must
remember that David introduced instrumental music into Hebrew worship some 400
years after God’s commandments were issued on Mt. Sinai (II Chronicles 29:25).
God tolerated instrumental music in worship, but later the prophet Amos
pronounced a curse upon those who, like David, introduced instrumental music
into worship: “Woe unto them that...sing idle songs to the sound of the viol,
and invent for themselves instruments of music like David” (Amos 6:5). Thus
even under the moonlight age of Judaism, instrumental music in worship was
questioned. (Haun, The Kind of Music God Wants).
Perhaps it should be noted that while instruments were tolerated in worship
under the Old Law, Christians are no longer under the Old Law (Colossians
2:14). Perhaps it should also be noted that God through Paul says that those
who try to justify something today because it was sanctioned (or tolerated)
under the Old Law are fallen from grace (Galatians 5:4). We do not use
instruments of music in worship because we are of Christ; not of David
(Galatians 3:24). When we rightly divide the Word, this truth comes into focus
more clearly (II Timothy 2:15).
All New Testament references regarding the type of music that God condones,
in both public and private worship, state that Christians are to sing.
Matt 26:30 & Mk 14:26: “When they had sung an hymn, they went out...”
Acts 16:25: “At midnight Paul and Silas prayed and sang praises....”
Rom 15:9: “I will sing unto thy name...”
I Cor 14:15: “I will sing with the spirit and the understanding...”
Eph 5:19: “Speaking to yourself in psalms and hymns...”
Col 3:16: “Admonishing one another with psalms and hymns...”
Heb 2:12: “In the midst of the congregation I will sing thy praises...”
James 5:13: “Is any merry? Let him sing Psalms...”
Whatever might be said in favour of instrumental music, no one doubts that
we are worshipping God in truth by simply singing and making melody in our
hearts; neither are we going beyond what is written (I Corinthians 4:6).
Many who advocate the use of an instrument in Christian worship turn to the
book of Revelation, citing passages that speak of harps in heaven, and
conclude that whatever is suitable in heaven should be permitted in the church
(Revelation 14:2,3). We must keep in mind, however, that Revelation is highly
figurative; it draws symbolic pictures. Did John actually hear harpers harping
with their harps? No! He heard 144,000 singing praises to the Lamb of God like
unto harpers harping with their harps; the melody was just that beautiful; if
God should choose to have harps in heaven, it still would not sanction the use
of such on earth. The principle of acceptable worship is not what will or will
not be in heaven, but what God wills here on earth. “There will be a sea of
glass, jasper walls, and a golden street in heaven, but we don’t attempt to
reproduce those within the church.”
Another argument for the use of instrumental music in worship is that its
use is parallel to that of song books. Some cannot distinguish between a book
that keeps silent during worship and an organ which, if anything, drowns out
the voices that God would like to hear.
Delton Haun, in his tract: The Kind of Music God Wants, suggests an
exercise that might be profitable. Take a pencil and paper and draw a line
down the centre of the page. Label one column: Commandments of God. Label the
other: Commandments of Men. Then use these columns to classify a dozen or so
things which are commonly practised in religion today. For example: preaching,
prayer, Lord’s supper, baptism, etc. Include a proof text for as many as
Under which heading would you place preaching? Commandments of God. How do
we know? Because preaching is commanded in II Timothy 4:2. What about prayer?
What about counting prayer beads? What about the Lord’s supper? What about
burning incense? Under which column would you put each of these items? Now, in
all frankness, in which column must we place instruments of music? Can you see
how we are obliged to place it under: Commandments of Men, owing to the fact
that authorisation for such in worship cannot be found in the New Testament.
It simply isn’t there! From this simple exercise, can you see how, in vain we
worship “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men”? (Matthew 15:9).
It was no oversight on the part of God that instruments have been omitted
from church worship. “His divine power hath granted unto us all things that
pertain to life and godliness.” (II Peter 1:3).
Before we zero in on “special music” in the church, let’s think for a
moment about the word: psallo. Since the original meaning of the word was to
touch, pluck, strike, etc., some claim that this Greek word implies
accompaniment with man-made instruments. In the New Testament, however, psallo
is always translated “to sing” because the melody is made by touching the
chords of the human heart. Hence the heart is the only “instrument” permitted
by the Lord in expressing divine praise. If, perchance, psallo meant to sing
with instrumental accompaniment, the apostles violated the confidence that
Christ placed in them, for they did not use musical instruments as they sang;
neither did they teach the early church to use them. On the contrary,
instruments were not introduced until the church had apostatised.
Now, let’s turn our attention to the supporters of “special music” that are
causing such a ripple in the church today. Like the instrumentalist, “special
music” supporters draw attention to practices outside the New Testament;
however, if one wishes to be a New Testament Christian, he must remain within
the guidelines of the New Testament. Old Testament worship and early church
digressions provide no assistance whatsoever in “determining divine protocol”
for New Testament worship in the church today. Our worship must be “derived
exclusively and warranted by” the pattern of worship that’s set forth in the
As already pointed out, church historians record the use of choirs as a
post-first century development, and describe the earliest worship of the
church as being exclusively congregational. Records also show that many
reformation and restoration leaders voiced opposition in regard to “special
A solo or choir, by definition, excludes the “collective whole” (i.e., the
rest of those assembled). The moment the soloist or choir (or any other select
number of singers) isolates itself for the purpose of presenting a programme
of “special music” (whether it be one song or several) it becomes an
unscriptural item in the house of the Lord.
From whence comes the innovators’ authority for such? Well, strangely
enough, they use Scripture: I Corinthians 14:26, Colossians 3:16, and
Ephesians 5:19. On what premise do they base their argument? Let’s see if we
can unravel their threads of confusion.
Firstly, I Corinthians 14:15,26: “What is it then?...I will sing with the
spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also” (vs. 15). “How is it
then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a
doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all
things be done unto edifying” (vs. 26). To quote David Miller:
Anyone who insists that Paul was referring to solo singing in these two
passages could not prove it if his life depended on it. At least four other
equally plausible interpretations fit the context. ‘Each one has a psalm’
could refer to: (1) inspired solo-singing that terminated with all other
miraculous gifts; (2) song leaders; (3) recitation of an inspired psalm (i.e.,
poem); and (4) hymn writers teaching the congregation a new song. Evidences
for hymn writers in the early church are seen in the references by Justin
Martyr (Apology, v,28), Tertullian (De Anima, c.9), and Eusebius
(Ecclesiastical History, v,28) (Piloting the Strait)
Regarding evidences for hymn writers in the early church, McClintock and
Here we have not only testimony to the use of spiritual songs in the
Christian Church from the remotest antiquity, but also that there were hymn
writers in the apostolic Church, and that their songs were collected for use
at a very early date of the Christian Church. (Cyclopaedia of Biblical,
Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, Vol 6, p. 757)
The word “psalm” (psalmos) simply refers to an authoritative writing.
Again, as Dave points out in his assessment of changes in the church: When the
word “psalm” does refer to a song to be sung (rather than merely read or
studied), the term itself contains no indication regarding under what
circumstances it is to be sung. Change agents act as if the passage ought to
be translated -- “each one has a solo!”
If anything, Corinth’s problem lay in the fact that individuals were being
disruptive in the assembly by failing to take their turn, but exactly what
they were failing to do in an orderly fashion is ambiguous. We must not allow
this one passage to alter the meaning of clearer passages which set forth
specific guidelines regarding music in the church.
It must be noted, however, that “special music” advocates also quibble over
the clear meaning of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. For example, some say
if an individual can “speak” or “read” to the congregation, “he” or “she”
could also “sing” the same material to the congregation. In their words:
“There is no significant difference in singing praises and saying praises.”
But (as I’ve said before) every worship practice must be authorised and
sanctioned by God. Solo singing cannot be justified on the basis of solo
reading or preaching. There must be separate authority for each. As far as
that goes, reading, teaching, and preaching differ vastly from singing. It’s
true, they share a common factor; they both “teach” and “admonish” -- but they
are not the same. Singing is done in such a way that everyone assembled
participates at the same time; whereas, by definition and design, preaching
cannot and must not function at the same time. Such would create confusion in
direct violation of the principle of peace and order that is to be maintained
in public worship (I Corinthians 14:31,40). However, singing may be engaged in
by everyone at the same time, which is precisely the thrust of Ephesians 5:19
and Colossians 3:16.
Herein lies another quibble. “Special music” supporters reason that those
(like us) who oppose “special music” in the assembly must hold to the view
that the entire congregation must sing every word simultaneously. This (as you
can quickly see) would rule out the singing of songs that have predominant
bass and alto parts in which some singers have a few seconds of silence while
the others sing. In other words, while we point our finger and say: “You
cannot have choirs and solos,” they point their finger and say: “If we cannot
have choirs and solos, you cannot sing in four-part harmony.” This reasoning,
of course, simply fails to grasp the essence of reciprocity.
To fully appreciate the meaning of Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19,
certain grammatical features of the Greek language must be grasped. From these
grammatical features, certain observations and conclusions can be drawn. For
example” ‘teaching,’ ‘admonishing,’ and ‘singing’ are not separate, unrelated
activities...Paul’s reference to singing is his way of completing and
clarifying his initial instructions regarding teaching and admonishing...After
all the grammar has been examined and after all the arguments have been
presented, one fact remains powerfully clear: A simple, unbiased reading of
Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 leaves the reader with the clear sense that
God wants the church to assemble together and to sing together. The
unprejudiced reader would certainly not get the impression that Paul was
encouraging solos and choirs” (Miller, Piloting the Strait)
While every single Christian in the assembly may not sing every single word
of the song at precisely the same moment, the language of Scripture makes
clear that all are obligated to participate together. The act of segregating
the soloist or choir group by its very nature militates against reciprocity.
The whole point of a choir is for some to sing while others listen in silence
with no intention of participating together vocally...Notice, then, the three
possibilities with regard to the song service: (1) part of the congregation
may be quarantined from the rest of the congregation to sing one or more songs
by themselves while the rest of the membership function as spectators; (2) the
entire congregation may participate together in all the songs; (3) the entire
congregation may engage in simultaneous singing with everyone saying the same
words at the same time. Both the second and third possibilities conform to the
reciprocity requirement of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. The first
possibility simply does not. (Miller, The Spiritual Sword, Vol.25, No.1)
In the words of Brother Wayne Jackson:
"It is a tragically sad fact that there are multitudes of deceived people
in the religious world who, rather than having a God-oriented faith, have a
man-centred religion. More specifically, they have an auto-centric religion.
That expression simply suggests that such people direct their religious lives
consistent with what pleases them; Jehovah’s will is not consulted in the
To quote further from Brother Jackson:
"When God’s standard of truth for regulating genuine worship is dismissed,
and feelings are relied upon, the floodgates of apostasy and perversion are
thrown wide open. Those who respect Heaven’s will, will circumscribe their
emotions with Truth, and not let their feelings run wild."
To bring our quotations closer to home, Brother Glen Tattersall wrote in
the September, 1996 issue of Onward and Upward:
". . .to have any other music in New Testament worship other than what
comes from a sincere heart is to add to what God has commanded. Unfortunately
many today want to vary what the Scriptures say -- not to be pleasing to God,
but rather to please and entertain themselves! Jesus warns that those who do,
render their worship in vain. (Matthew 15:9)."
In my own mind, I have wondered why, after a hundred and fifty years of
unity, the issue of music in the church has resurfaced; more specifically, why
has “special music” emerged with such velocity and strength? Could it be that
the “old guard” has let down its guard? Or has the “old guard” (in their
vigilance to do battle with the instrumentalist) left the back door ajar,
allowing Satan to enter from another direction? As a result, “special music”
has crept in as an “enhancer” rather than marching in as an intruder. For
sure, “enhancement” seems to be the premise on which the innovators stand.
But, I ask, how can anything contrary to God’s Holy Word serve as an
“enhancer” in worship? How can Christians justify using such a feeble focusing
point? “Special music” in the worship of God is as much of a violation of
God’s instructions as the use of instruments, and thus sinful. Underscore that
point! “Special music” is a sin that needs to be repented of (Romans 3:23).
Innovations that will “spark up” the singing and give new life and meaning to
our worship need to be exposed and expelled. We must be careful, lest these
“sparks” burn up the good works of God. Those among us who want to engage in a
particular method of worship for the purpose of producing an “aesthetically
pleasing” alternative, are self-focused and self-condemning members of the
body of Christ. Not only must we (as a united force) lift up our voices in
song, we must also (as a united force) lift up our voices in opposition to the
soul-destructive trends that have invaded the sanctity of our worship.
While I am exposing digressions and issuing warnings, let me cite one more
danger zone in regard to music in the church. Some are now insisting that
congregations may require the use of a “worship team” (i.e., men and women who
are either situated in front of the assembly or scattered throughout the
auditorium with their own microphones to strengthen and enrich the
The first time I happened on to such a situation was about three years ago
while travelling in the States. For convenience sake, we worshipped with the
nearest congregation to our motel rather than taking the time to seek out a
well-known, doctrinally sound group. On the surface, everything seemed normal
as we entered the building. Bible class went well -- I was even asked to give
an impromptu report on our work in Australia.
Then the worship hour began, and there they were: five of them (three men
and two women) all lined up in a row just across the aisle from where we were
seated: each with a microphone; drowning out everyone else in our section.
Mind you now, this was a congregation of several hundred. I have no idea how
many of these “worship” teams were scattered throughout that great auditorium.
As far as that goes, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a “worship
team” in the church until that eventful day (guess I had been away from the
States too long). For a brief moment, I entertained the thought that maybe I
had given my enlightening report to the wrong group; maybe I wasn’t even in
the Lord’s church.
Talk about “strengthening and enriching” -- the only thing it strengthened
for me was a resolve to be more careful about where I stop for worship when
travelling; it certainly did nothing to enrich the worshipful attitude that I
should have had. Instead, it left me feeling frustrated and angry with my
brethren for allowing such an innovation. I learned later that worship in the
church is now subdivided into “participatory” and “presentational” formats.
Solos and choirs fall under the label “presentational” -- I’m not sure which
category “worship teams” fit into. In my mind, however, they present a bit of
“hype and glitter” that is out of character with God’s divine will.
For one to achieve a state of righteousness that glorifies God, one must
pattern his worship according to the specifications that are laid down in
God’s Word. This includes church music which must, of necessity, be
exclusively congregational singing: no instruments; no special music; no
worship teams; no self-satisfying innovations of any sort.
May God help us find contentment and satisfaction in simple, unpretentious
New Testament worship. May we rediscover the heartfelt fulfilment and genuine
excitement that can only come from simple submission to the words of our great
God and Father. (Miller)
Haun, Delton. “The Kind of Music God Wants.” Delton Haun Tract Co.
Jackson, Wayne. “Worship--By Feelings of Faith.” Spiritual Sword, Oct. 1978
Miller, David. “Solos and Choirs in the Worship Assembly.” Spiritual Sword,
Oct. 1993, pp. 26-31.
Miller, David. Piloting the Strait. Pulaski TN: Sain Publications, 1996
Sanders and Squire. “Church Music.” Vermont Ave. Church of Christ, Los
Tattersall, Glen. “Music in the Ears of God!” Onward and Upward, Sept.