Musical Instruments in Worship
Order of Contents
‘Circumstances’ are indifferent things relating to the worship of God, not having religious significance or entering into the element of worship itself, that do not need warrant from God’s Word to be used. Westminster Confession (1646), 1.6:
“…there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed.”
The Early Church and the majority of reformed history from the Reformation to the late-1800’s, de facto in their practice and in their exclusion of instruments from the worship of God, did not believe that instruments fell under the category of indifferent circumstances, nor had the nature of them.
Read below to find out why.
“The more the mass of rites is increased in the Church, the more is detracted not only from Christian liberty, but also from Christ, and from faith in Him, as long as the people seek those things in ceremonies which they should seek in the only Son of God, Jesus Christ, through faith.”
2nd Helvetic Confession
‘Of Rites, Ceremonies & Things Indifferent’
On Circumstances in General 3
Gillespie, George – pp. 130-136 of English-Popish Ceremonies, Part 3, Chapter 7, Sections 5-7 ff. (1637)
See Bannerman below for a summary. For Gillespie’s discussion of things that are not ‘circumstances’, but are purely indifferent, see the Fourth Part of his work.
Rutherford, Samuel – Intro, Section 1, pp. 1-6 of The Divine Right of Church Government… (1646)
Bannerman, James – pp. 354-358 of The Church of Christ, vol. 1, Division II, Chapter II, ‘Rites and Ceremonies in Public Worship’
Bannerman, of the Free Church of Scotland, in his classic work on the Church, summarizes the three principles of George Gillespie in what defines a ‘circumstance’. Circumstances must:
1. ‘only be a circumstance of divine worship, and no substantial part of it–no sacred, significant, efficacious ceremony;’
2. ‘be such as are not determinable by Scripture;’
3. be those for the appointment of which she is ‘able to give a sufficient reason and warrant.’
Musical instruments break all three of these principles as:
(1) they are often considered spiritually significant in the service and to people’s faith; and where they are not, yet they inevitably, by their nature, form a substantial part of the worship service and the total offering of the praise of the Church (see James Harper’s quote below, and R. Scott Clark’s idolatry article below).
(2) musical instruments in worship are determinable by Scripture. They were elements of worship in the Old Testament, being regulated by God, they necessarily having the nature of things not circumstantial to worship, but parts thereof.
(3) a sufficient reason and warrant cannot be given for the inclusion of musical instruments in worship as they are not necessary to the element itself: of singing Psalms.
While Gillespie’s context is discussing circumstances that the Church has lawful power to bind, whereas most Churches today do not legislate that musical instruments must be used, but only that they may be used, yet many local churches do bind that they be used and when they are used in worship, musical instrumentation necessarily binds the consciences of all the worshippers as the music thereof necessarily enters as a substantial part into the praise of all, and persons cannot sing to God with the fruit of their lips without music from those instruments; and yet persons are morally obligated to attend the regular Lord’s Day public worship of the Church.
Hence Gillespie’s discussion on which circumstances the Church has authority to bind, is very relevant.
A Clear and Simple Treatise on the Lord’s Supper (RHB, 2016), p. 143
“First of all, I hold that it is proper for the ceremonies in the church to be absolutely as few and as pure as possible. For besides the fact that we must now worship the Lord in Spirit and truth, even plain experience, that teacher of fools, ought to warn us not to imitate the example of those who–while setting no limit on their ceremonies–do not increase the worship of God, but completely undermine it. And so we determined that we should take thought how to do away with ceremonies rather than establishing them.”
‘The Constitutional Principle of the Scottish Reformation: 1547-1648’ in Scottish Reformation Society Historical Journal, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 1-42
“This comprehensive application of the [Scriptural] rule [articulated by Rutherford] was necessitated because the advocates for human ceremonies had argued that such things might be justified as circumstances of worship. It was maintained that circumstances which were not forbidden were lawful if they were edifying. Their reformed opponents quickly saw that this argument effectively created a class of religious actions which were beside the Word in matters of faith and worship.
Their response was clear and concise: any action which served as a means of worship was a moral action and required the warrant of God’s Word. To the point, Rutherford asserted, “In actions or religious means of worship, and actions moral, whatever is beside the Word of God is against the Word of God”. (Divine Right of Church Government, 1646, pp. 19-20)”
Girardeau, John – Are Musical Instruments Circumstances of Worship? Part 1 & Part 2 p. 136 ff. & 188 ff., 18 & 11 pp. respectively, from his Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church
Girardeau was an important American, southern presbyterian.
Harper, James – ‘Instruments of Music not an Incident of Worship’ 1883 16 pp. in Proceedings of the Convention of the United Presbyterians Opposed to Instrumental Music in the Worship of God, p 102-118
Harper was a minister in the American United Presbyterian Church.
Carson, J.G. – pp. 42-45 of Proceedings of the Convention of the United Presbyterians Opposed to Instrumental Music in the Worship of God 1883 4 pp.
Glasgow, James – ‘Section II – Second Counter-proof’ n.d. 9 pp. in Heart and Voice: Instrumental Music in Christian Worship not Divinely Authorized, pp. 241-249
Glasgow was an Irish presbyterian.
Begg, James – ‘Instruments Not Necessary in Singing’ being Appendix no. VI in The Use of Organs and Other Instruments of Music in Christian Music, pp. 270-1
Begg the younger was a minister and constitutionalist in the Free Church of Scotland.
While the premise of the article is self-evidently true to anyone who sings ‘Happy Birthday to You’ without instruments, because people sing ‘Happy Birthday’ so poorly these days, the premise is worth spelling out.
Not only is it possible to sing without instruments (as many congregations throughout the world do), but those who sing a capella are almost always better singers than those who sing with instruments, precisely because:
(1) they are not trained to be dependent on instruments,
(2) there is no instrument to cover up and endlessly continue bad singing, and
(3) lack of instruments allows for hearing the voice better in order that both ear and voice, of necessity, improve together.
People spend years training themselves to play instruments well and many public schools require children to play instruments in their education, and will not persons put forth a bit of effort to improve their singing to God?
Schwertley, Brian – p. 52 of Musical Instruments in the Public Worship of God 1999 1 p.
Clark, R. Scott
‘Could Instruments be Idols?’ 2008 6 paragraphs
‘On Elements and Circumstances’ 2008 8 pp.
William Cunningham, Theological Lectures, Lecture 40, pp. 493-4
But there is a fundamental difference between this reasonable and necessary principle of regulating, so far as may be necessary for securing decency and order, some circumstances in the mode of doing those things which God has authorized and required to be done, and the arbitrary introduction into the worship and government of the church of new and distinct things unsanctioned by Scripture, because men in their wisdom imagine, or profess to imagine, that they are fitted to promote decency and good order.
The circumstances referred to in the Confession, judging from the principles that have been usually held by Presbyterians upon this subject, are such as these provisions and arrangements concerning the external conveniences for and the necessary accompaniments of the worship of God and the government of the church; the time, place, and manner of meeting for the administration of the public worship of God; the most convenient way of administering public ordinances so as to promote general comfort and decency, without pretending to introduce new things professedly for the purpose of making them more solemn and impressive, or presuming to omit anything which God’s word sanctions or enjoins…
Singing of psalms is authorized in Scripture as a part of the public worship of God, and therefore some circumstances connected with the singing of psalms which it may be necessary, from a regard to decency and order, to regulate, may be regulated by the church; but this affords no warrant for introducing an entirely distinct or different thing, in order, it is said, to heighten the devotion by instrumental music.
It may be contended, indeed, that the introduction of instrumental music is merely a regulation of the mode of performing the unquestionable duty of singing psalms. This seems to be rather a lax use of words; and besides, experience seems to show that the introduction of this invention of man, in place of aiding or assisting, has a powerful tendency to exclude or to put an end to the practice of singing psalms by the congregation, which God has unquestionably sanctioned and required.
John L. Girardeau
‘The Discretionary Power of the Church, Matt 28:20’ (1875) in Sermons, ed. George A. Blackburn (1907).
“The specific element, then, in the part of worship we are considering is singing. Now it is pleaded that the church has discretionary power to employ instrumental music, as one of the circumstances allowed by our Standards. Let us submit it to the test of the criteria by which these circumstances are determined:
First, they are not parts of the acts of worship by which they are modified; but this circumstance is a part of the act of singing praise by which it is performed.
Secondly, these circumstances are common to the acts of human societies, not peculiar to, and distinctive of, those of the church. It is very certain that instrumental music is not such a circumstance. It will hardly be said that all societies play on instruments as well as the church.
Thirdly, these circumstances are conditions necessary to the performance of the acts of worship, without which they either cannot be done at all, or not done decently and in order. That the singing of praise cannot be performed at all without instrumental music will be affirmed by none.
But it may be affirmed that it cannot without it be performed decently and in order. Let it be noticed that the question is not whether it may be performed in an indecent and disorderly manner. Granted; but so may instrumental music. The question is, whether it cannot be done decently and in order without instrumental accompaniment. The question can only be determined by reference of the practice to a permanent and universal standard of propriety and decorum. And to say that the simple singing of God’s praise in His house is indecent and disorderly is to say, that for twelve centuries the church of Christ was guilty of this impropriety; for it is a matter of history that for that period not even the Church of Rome knew anything of instruments in her worship. To say that the simple singing of God’s praise violates the standard of decency and order of this age is to censure the glorious Free Church of Scotland and the Irish Presbyterian Church for an indecent and disorderly conduct of this part of divine worship.
The ground, therefore, that instrumental music in public worship is one of those circumstances required by the rule that all things be done decently and in order cannot be maintained without a spirit of arrogance and censoriousness which would itself violate the higher principle of Christian charity.
It is submitted, with all modesty, that this line of argument ought to be conclusive with Presbyterians, at least, against ranking instrumental music in public worship as one of the circumstances common to human actions and societies which fall under the discretion of the church.”
The ‘incidental’ theory as to instrumental music, we feel confident found no place for at least several centuries in the Church of Christ after its New Testament organization…
…the ‘incidental’ theory is of modern origin, or at least only of late years has obtained any prominence. In days long past, there were discussions, keen and learned, as to the propriety of using instrumental music in worship, but the advocates of that practice were wont to plead either that it was prescribed, or that it was clearly commended in Scripture, or that the Church was vested with authority to decree rites not expressly forbidden, and might therefore employ as an aid or embellishment of its worship instrumental music.
Even so late as the time of Dr. [Robert] Candlish, of Edinburgh [of the Free Church of Scotland], whose life was bounded by the years of 1807 and 1873, the notion that instrumental music is an incident on a par with a tuning fork, though it had been mooted, was deemed so crude and absurd, that, acute thinker as he was, he declared that the man who seriously propounded such a view was not fit to be reasoned with.
…the argument of common sense, alleging that instrumental music when used with vocal song, and blending with it, forms an integral part of the entire offering made to God in the way of praise.
Notice how cautiously the clause in the [Westminster] Confession [1.6] is worded. Instead of the phrase ‘circumstances of worship’, which might be understood to mean things involved in, or blended with, the worship, the language used is, ‘circumstances concerning worship’…
Now it seems clear that, so far as regards, worship, the ‘circumstances’ contemplated in this clause of the Confession are distinguishable by these two marks, namely:
1. They are only circumstances concerning worship, not elements or parts of it.
First. Is instrumental music, when employed in connection with worship, any part or element of the worship? or is it a mere circumstance concerning it?
So far from forming no part or ingredient of the worship, instrumental music, when used, is always an obvious, and in most cases an obtrusive and dominant element of it. We may venture to say that no man, unwarped by theory or the desire to gratify a taste, would form any other judgment.
So far as the external service is concerned, the combined volume of music, instrumental and vocal, married to certain words, is the offering which, in the case supposed, the worshipper presents to God.
Unlike the preparatory use of a tuning fork, or the silent unnoticeable use of musical notation, the instrumental music audibly pervades from beginning to end the service in which it is employed, and as really as the vocal, with which it unites, is to be deemed a part of the service.
To any who can be present in a worshipping assembly where instruments are brought into use, and not feel the truth of our position, it is difficult to carry conviction by any process of reasoning, just as it is difficult if not absurd, to reason with anyone who stoutly repudiates the evidence of his senses as to the existence of an external world.
Is not the use of the voice in praising God a form or mode of worship? And is not instrumental music, when used in combination with vocal music, a form of worship also, or a mode of expressing homage to God? Why should the one be called a form or mode of worship, and the other not?
If a stranger to our religion were to enter a church while the service of praise in vocal instrumental music was in progress, would he not inevitably conclude that it is a part of our religion to play to God as well as sing to Him?
Then, when to all this is added the consideration, that music of an instrumental sort was once appointed by God as a substantive part of the forms to be employed in his worship, the conviction is forced upon us that such music, if used now, constitutes a mode or form in which men express to God their praises. But if this music is a part or element of the worship, it is not one of the circumstances contemplated in the clause under which instrumentalists take shelter, and cannot be allowed under cover of that clause.
Littell, D.S., Proceedings of the Convention of the United Presbyterians Opposed to Instrumental Music in the Worship of God, 1883, p. 54
“What is admitted by some hair-splitting distinction, as incident or circumstance, a distinction it takes learned doctors two years to elaborate, goes to the people, and with them becomes worship, takes the place of simple and spiritual worship. Misled by their spiritual guides, they practice or enjoy music, and think that worship.
Have you not heard of Christians, not very ignorant, who were ‘carried to the very gates of heaven’ by an instrumental voluntary? When you have given that delicate infant spiritual worship, a Corliss engine [organ] to cut its teeth on, the probable, nay, certain result is, that the infant will have the breath knocked out of it, and the engine will go on.
Paul, who admits doctrinally, that circumcision has no spiritual effect, who for social reasons, ‘because of the Jews who were in those quarters’ circumcised Timothy, yet utterly refused to do the same in the case of Titus. The doctrinal results are too dangerous. ‘To whom we gave place by subjugation, no, not for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might continue with you.”
“…no one, at least, who adopts the theory that instrumental music is a ‘circumstance’ of worship to be determined, not by written revelation, but by the light of nature, can fairly doubt on this point any longer. The apostles give us instances and examples of worship, instances and examples of singing praise, but there is not a shadow of evidence that an instrument of music was used by any individuals, families or congregations in the worship of God.”
Kennedy, D.S., Proceedings of the Convention of the United Presbyterians Opposed to Instrumental Music in the Worship of God, 1883, p. 67-68
“Forbear! Forbear! It’s a little one! ‘A non-essential!’ ‘A circumstance!’ Only an ‘incident’! It’s popular, many of us like it, ‘and want it, and will have it’…”
Shall we set the sails and send the church of Christ to sea, before the pleasant breezes of culture, tastes, preferences and aesthetics, knowing the terrific gale soon to blow, and before which our ecclesiastical ship is doomed to flounder?… Our responsibilities extend to the incidents as well to the essentials…
As quoted in this article.
[After making the supposition that a Presbyterian Church might come to the conclusion that the question be left an open one, and that kirk-sessions and congregations should be allowed to exercise their discretion in regard to it, he adds:]
‘It is manifest, however, that this is a conclusion which could satisfy none but those who either approve of instrumental music, or reckon it a matter of indifference. All who are conscientiously opposed to it – who regard it as inexpedient and unlawful, unauthorised, and unscriptural – must feel themselves bound, as Presbyterians, to do their utmost against a proposal to have it even tolerated. In their own judgment it is an act of will worship; and there is no plea of conscience on the other side to which they might be bound to let their own judgment defer.’
‘It is enough to say that it [tolerating both sides of the practice] is inconsistent with Presbyterianism. Those Presbyterians who disapprove on conscientious and scriptural grounds of a particular mode of worship – as, for instance, of the organ – cannot divest themselves of responsibility by merely excluding it from their own congregations. They are bound to resist the introduction of it in all the congregations of the Church, as well as in their own.’
Rev. Watkins is a minister in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. ‘Musical Instruments in Worship’, p. 10
Fifthly, some consider instruments to be a mere circumstance rather than a real element of worship, so the Church can use them or not, as it sees fit. That there are such circumstances the Westminster Confession acknowledges: “There are some circumstances concerning the worship of God . . . common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed” (1:6).
However, God did not treat instruments as mere circumstances. They had no place in Old Testament worship until He put them in it by His express command. And He has never put them into New Testament worship. Plus, to class something as a mere circumstance rather than an element of worship, it must be common to human society and necessary. Appointing a suitable time and place to meet for public worship is a circumstance of worship, because without that no gathering of people could be possible, and is done for all orderly public meetings. But singing with instruments is not necessary: it may be done, but it does not need to be done.
Rev. Freeman is a Presbyterian Reformed Church minister. Why Not Instruments In Worship?, V. A Common Reason Answered
There are many who consider the use of instruments as merely an aid to singing. If Christians are commanded to sing in worship, what is wrong with using an instrument to assist the voice in carrying the tune? After all, it is argued, without an instrument to assist, many would not be able to sing the tunes properly. In other words, instruments have become a necessary aid to the practice of a Scriptural element of worship, as if congregational singing is impossible or impractical without mechanical help. Looking at it this way, some argue that instruments are a circumstance to worship, not an element regulated by Scripture, much like the building, what pulpit is used, and other things common to any kind of meeting.
Even if instrumental music could be considered as an aid to worship, the Lord still strictly controls what aids are allowed in His worship. The Israelites, in their zeal to offer to the Lord true worship, nevertheless committed idolatry when they forged the golden calf at Sinai to magnify the great power of God. They weren’t blind pagans; they intended to worship the God of Israel, not some pagan deity. But in their desire for an aid to worship, they sinned and instead provoked the wrath of God. To them the golden calf was an aid to worship that they thought the Lord would have allowed, but to the Lord it was an unauthorized aid that He abhorred. In matters of worship, both reason and the will of man is a fatal guide. We would do well to remember the words of Solomon in Prov. 16:25, “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.”
In relation to Christian conscience, we must realize that employing instruments treads on the liberty of conscience Christ purchased for all His saints. On the other hand, since it can’t be demonstrated that instruments are expressly commanded in worship, no harm is done to any conscience where instruments are prohibited and the unity of the Spirit can be maintained in the bond of peace.
Do Instruments in Worship Justify Separation from such Worship?