In all the examples of believers meeting together for worship in the New Testament, we have no clear instance of musical instruments being used. Most churches today utilize musical instruments of all kinds, but some use none at all. The lack of a biblical example of a church using musical instruments has led some to believe that musical instruments should not be used in the church but that our singing should be done a cappella.
While the church is a New Testament concept, we should look at the use of musical instruments by God’s people in the Old Testament. Musical instruments were definitely used in worship in the Old Testament. The use of musical instruments was even commanded in some passages: “Begin the music, strike the timbrel, play the melodious harp and lyre” (Psalm 81:2; cf. 98:5; 150:4). Several of the psalms were intended to be played “with stringed instruments” (e.g., Psalm 4:1; 55:1; 67:1; 76:1), as well as the song of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:19). Instrumental musical accompaniment was a common part of worship. David commanded the leaders of the Levites “to appoint their fellow Levites as musicians to make a joyful sound with musical instruments: lyres, harps and cymbals” (1 Chronicles 15:16); in fact, four thousand Levites were set apart for playing musical instruments (1 Chronicles 23:5).
Christians who believe that musical instruments should not be used in church acknowledge the Old Testament use of musical instruments, but they rightly assert that Old Testament examples do not set New Testament church practices. They assert that, under the New Covenant, the believers’ “instrument” is the human voice. Just as the Old Testament temple has given way to the “living temple” of the human body (1 Corinthians 6:19), so the old “mechanical” instruments of temple music have given way to the “living,” Spirit-filled instrument of the human voice.
So, are churches who utilize musical instruments working outside the will of God? In answering this, we should remember a few important things: first, our guide for church practice should be Scripture alone, not church tradition, not the writings of church fathers, and not modern culture.
Second, absent a direct teaching in Scripture, we should exercise grace and tolerance. There may not be any example of a New Testament church using musical instruments, but, by the same token, the New Testament nowhere condemns musical instruments in the church. It’s natural to come up with rules that are not in the Bible, but we should be very slow to require what Scripture does not require or to forbid what Scripture does not forbid.
Third, the fact that there is no example in Scripture of a church using musical instruments does not imply a command not to have musical instruments. Arguments from silence are notoriously flawed. Saying that the New Testament does not authorize the church to use mechanical instruments of music is not the same as saying the use of such instruments is wrong. The New Testament also does not authorize the church to pass offering plates or install stained glass windows, yet few would say that those things are “wrong.” A lack of direct scriptural “authorization” of a certain practice is not an automatic prohibition.
In short, the Bible neither forbids nor commands the use of musical instruments in church. A church has freedom to use musical instruments in worship, and a church has freedom not to. Whatever a church decides to do concerning the use of musical instruments, other churches should accept it as that church’s way of praising the Lord. With or without musical instruments, we should “do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).