Is Instrumental Music a Circumstance of Worship?

Is Instrumental Music a Circumstance of Worship

This excerpt assumes the reader is familiar with the Regulative Principle of Worship and the difference between elements of worship and circumstances of worship. See here for a brief introduction: What is the Regulative Principle of Worship?

John L. Girardeau,
Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church
pp. 147-156

(1.) It is not claimed, so far as I know, by the advocates of instrumental music that it is necessary to any performance at all of the act of singing praise, but it is claimed that it is necessary to the “decent and orderly” performance of that act. It is justified by an appeal to the last clause of the following sentence of the Confession of Faith, about which so much has been said in the course of the foregoing argument: “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” (WCF 1.6). Among these general rules of the Word cited in the proof-texts, supporting this whole statement, beginning, “there are some circumstances,” is the following: “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). This, it is claimed, warrants the use of instrumental music. Among the “all things” to “be done decently and in order” is the singing of praise, and instrumental music is necessary to this thing being “done decently and in order.

First, It must be observed that the last clause of the statement of the Confession, the clause which is used in this argument for instrumental music, has reference to the “circumstances” mentioned in that statement. It is these circumstances, and not something else different from them, in regard to which “the general rules of the Word,” including this one, “Let all things be done decently and in order,” “are always to be observed.” Now it has already been clearly pointed out that these circumstances are circumstances “common to human actions and societies.” It is precisely such circumstances concerning which the statement of the Confession enjoins that they be ordered according to the general rules of the Word. It is precisely such circumstances, consequently, that that statement requires to “be done decently and in order.” The question before us, then, is this: Is instrumental music one of those circumstances? It has, in a previous part of this discussion, by a somewhat painstaking argument, been proved that it cannot be one of them. Those circumstances have been shown to be undistinctive conditions upon which the actions of all societies are performed. They are common to them all. But instrumental music is not common to the actions of all societies. It cannot, therefore, be one of the circumstances indicated by the statement in the Confession. The conclusion is irresistible that, so far as that statement is concerned, it is not necessary to the decent and orderly performance of the singing of praise as a part of church-worship. This particular argument in favor of instrumental music will be still further considered as the discussion draws towards its close.

Secondly, The argument takes on the aspect of preposterous arrogance, as containing an indictment of the true church of God in almost all the centuries of the Christian era for an indecent and disorderly singing of praise in its public worship, not to speak of the church in the old dispensation in its ordinary Sabbath-day services. It would be folly to test the question of the decent and orderly, or the indecorous and disorderly, singing of praise by a temporary standard, especially one erected in a modern and corrupt condition of the nominal church. Shall the standard by which the practice of the Christian church—leaving out of account the Jewish—for twelve centuries is to be judged be one in which the Church of Rome slowly and reluctantly acquiesced as late as the middle or the close of the thirteenth century? And by this standard will we convict of indecorous and disorderly worship the Reformed churches of Europe, the Swiss, the French and the Dutch, the churches of Scotland for centuries, the English Puritans and the Presbyterian Church of Ireland? Has it been left to the church in these latter days to discover the only decorous and orderly way in which God’s praises shall be sung? The supposition is intolerable.

The same considerations avail against the plea that instrumental music is a help in the singing of praise. If the church of Christ has not felt the need of this help during the greater part of its existence, it requires no argument to show that she can do without it now. It may be admitted that it is a help to such “rendering” (!) of singing as is demanded by ears cultivated for the enjoyment of Italian operas and the like artistic performances. But that is quite a different thing from admitting that it is a help to the singing of praise by humble and penitent sinners, by the afflicted people of God passing as cross-bearing pilgrims through a world to which they are crucified and which is crucified to them. The discussion is gratuitous and needless. It is sufficient to say, that that cannot be a true help to worship which the Being to be worshipped does not himself approve.

(2.) It is contended that instrumental music is to be ranked among the circumstances allowed by the Confession of Faith, and that this is proved by the fact that it is on the same foot as other circumstances about which there is no dispute: such as houses of worship, reading sermons, the length of sermons, of prayers and of singing, bells, tuning-forks and pitch-pipes, tune-books, and the like.

One would be entitled to meet this argument upon the general ground already so often and earnestly maintained, that all the circumstances remitted by the Confession to the discretion—the natural judgment—of the church are common to human actions and societies, and are such as belong to the natural sphere in which the acts of all societies are performed, and, therefore, cannot be distinctively spiritual or even ecclesiastical. As instrumental music, used in professedly spiritual and actually ecclesiastical worship, cannot possibly be assigned to that category, it is for that patent reason ruled out by the very terms of the Confession’s statement. This ground I hold to be impregnable. But inasmuch as it is a fact that certain minds do consider instrumental music as saveable to the church for the reason that it may be viewed as standing on the same foot with the circumstances which have been mentioned, I will endeavor to meet their difficulties, albeit at the conscious expense of strict logical consistency, by following this argument into its minute details; and I pray that the Spirit of God may bestow his guidance in this last step of the discussion.

First, It has been argued, that the use of instrumental music is a circumstance of the same kind with the building of a house of worship and the selection of its arrangements; that it is not an absolutely necessary condition of the church’s acts that it should hold its meetings in edifices: they might be held, as has often in fact been done, in the open air. To this the obvious reply is, that this circumstance is one common to the acts of all societies. They must meet somewhere, and it is of course competent to all of them to determine, whether they shall be subjected to the inconveniences of open-air assemblages, or avail themselves of the advantages afforded by buildings. So of the arrangements and furniture of the edifices in which they convene. Every society, even an infidel society, has this circumstance conditioning its meetings and acts, either as necessary to any performance of them or as necessary to their decorous and orderly discharge. But instrumental music is not such a circumstance: it is not common to human actions and societies. This destroys the alleged analogy, and consequently the argument founded upon it fails.

Secondly, The same disproof is applicable to the assumed analogy between the alleged circumstance of instrumental music and that of reading sermons. It is urged that a sermon must be delivered in one of two ways: either with or without reading, and there is discretion left to the church to elect between them. If she thinks reading the better way, she is at liberty to employ it. So with the choice of instrumental music as a mode in which praise shall be sung. There might be, as there has been, some discussion in regard to the legitimacy of reading sermons. But that question aside, and the argument being considered on its own ground, it is sufficient to reply that the analogy asserted does not obtain. The delivery of discourses, speeches, reports and resolutions is an act common to all human societies. Now, it is competent to all societies to say whether they shall be simply spoken or read, whether the delivery shall be extemporaneous or from manuscript. They can, each for itself, determine the circumstance of the mode in which an act common to all shall be performed. But the singing of praise in the worship of God is not an act common to all societies. It is therefore not one in regard to which the Confession grants the liberty to the church of fixing the circumstance of the mode in which it shall be done.97

Thirdly, The same line of argument, it is contended, holds good with reference to the discretionary power of the church to order the circumstances of the length of sermons, of prayers, and of singing. But, it is replied, all societies must, of necessity, fix the time allotted to their several exercises, or their meetings would be failures. Nature itself dictates this. The church, therefore, has the natural right to order this circumstance in connection with all her services. But the question of determining the length of an exercise is a very different one from that of introducing the exercise at all. There is no analogy between the determination of the time to be allowed to all acts, and the determination of the legitimacy of some special act. The adjustment of the length of its exercises is a circumstance common to all societies. The employment of instrumental music, as a concomitant of worship, is a circumstance peculiar to the church as a distinctive society. The analogy in every respect breaks down.

Fourthly, If the church has bells, it is asked, why may it not have organs? They are both instruments of sound which serve an ecclesiastical purpose. The answer is so obvious that one feels almost ashamed to give it. The bell is not directly connected with worship; the organ is. The bell stops ringing before the worship begins, the organ accompanies the worship itself. There is not the least likeness between them, so far as this question is concerned. A bell simply marks the time for assembling. So does a clock; and we may as well institute a comparison between the hands of the clock at a certain hour and instruments music in worship after that hour, as between the sound of the bell and it. The question is in regard to a concomitant of worship, not as to something that precedes it and gives way to it.

Fifthly, It is by some gravely contended that if tuning-forks and pitch-pipes may be used, so may organs. The same answer as was returned to the immediately foregoing argument is pertinent here. Did those who submit this argument ever notice the use made of a tuning-fork or a pitchpipe by a leader of singing? It is struck or sounded in a way to be heard by the leader himself, and when by means of it he has got the pitch of the tune to be sung, it is put into his pocket, where it snugly and silently rests while the singing proceeds. It no more accompanies the worship than does a bell. Like it, it stops sounding before the act of worship begins. What analogy is there between it and an instrument that accompanies every note of the singing by a corresponding note of its own. Assign to the organ the same office as the humbler tuning-fork or pitch-pipe, namely, merely to give the leader of the simple singing the pitch of the tunes, and who would object to it? The question of organs would be as quiet as they would be. One toot before the singing, and then they would be, what they ought to be during the public singing of praise, as silent as the grave. One cannot help wondering that the admirers of this “majestic instrument” would employ a comparison which reduces it to a pitch so low!

Sixthly, There is only one other argument of this minute class which will be considered. It is one which I have known some brethren to maintain as men do a last redoubt. It is argued that instrumental music is just as fairly entitled to rank among the circumstances indicated by the Confession of Faith as is a tune-book. Does a tune-book assist the singing of praise? So does an organ. If the church has discretion in employing one kind of assistance to singing, why not another?

Has it not occurred to the minds of those who insist so strenuously upon this view that they may be using a tune-book to accomplish an office to which it may be inadequate, when they wield it to knock down arguments derived from the Old Testament and the New Testament Scriptures, from the old dispensation and the new, from the practice of the Jewish synagogue, of the apostles, of the whole church for twelve hundred years, and of the Calvinistic Reformed Church for centuries? Does it not occur to them also that there may be a flaw in the statement of their argument? Expanded, it is this: Whatever assists the singing of praise is a legitimate circumstance; the tune-book and the organ alike assist, etc., therefore they are alike legitimate circumstances. The true statement would be, whatever is necessary to the singing of praise is a legitimate circumstance; the tune-book and the organ are alike so necessary; therefore they are alike legitimate circumstances. It behooves them to show that the organ is necessary to the singing of praise. It is not enough to say that it assists it. They cannot prove its necessity. Praise has been and is sung without the organ. But it also behooves me to show that the tune-book is necessary to the singing of praise, that it is a condition without which it could not be done. If this can be evinced, as the organ is not necessary to singing, it does not, as is assumed, stand on the same foot with the tune-book, and the argument is unfounded.

It will be granted that a tune is necessary to modulated singing—that is, to singing which is not merely the prolongation of a single note, and that could not be denominated singing. But the tune-book gives the tune. The tune is necessary to singing; the tune-book is necessary to the tune; therefore the tune-book is necessary to singing. Need this simple argument be pressed? Whence the tune, if not from the tune-book? Is it improvised by the leading singer? Suppose that it may be, and he would be the only singer. It would be impossible for others to unite with him.

It may be replied that the organ also gives the tune. This is a mistake. The organ is as much indebted to the tune-book for the tune as is a leading singer. If the organist should improvise the tune, where would be the singing? It will hardly be contended that a solo on the organ would be the singing of the congregation, or that the organ sings at all.

It may still be said that the tune-book is not necessary to singing, since it is a fact that singing is often done without it. This is a mistake also. The tune-book may be absent as a book, but the tune it contains is present in the mind of the leading singer, he remembers what he got from it. It is a necessity to him, whether literally absent or present, he cannot sing without the tune, and the tune is in the tune-book.

Finally, the mighty contest may yet be maintained on the ground that some leading singers do not know the musical notes, and, therefore, cannot depend on the tune-book for the tune. True, there are some who are ignorant of the notes, but all the same they depend on the tunebook, not immediately, but mediately and really. For the tune is learned, in the first instance, only from some one who does know the notes and got the tune from the book. The tune-book is the first cause of the tune, and is necessary to its existence. Of course, tunes are learned by the ear. Most members of a congregation so learn them. But these persons acquire them from the leading singer, and he received them from the tune-book. So that, look at the matter as we may, the tune-book is necessary to the singing of praise: it conditions its performance.

If, now, it be objected that the tune-book is a circumstance not common to human actions and societies, and is equally, with instrumental music, according to this argument, excluded from the discretionary control of the church, I answer, That is true. It is circumstances in the natural sphere, those which attend actions as actions, and not this or that particular action of a distinctive society, that fall within the discretion of the church. Consequently both of these circumstances—the tune-book and instrumental music—fall without that discretion. They both condition the performance of an act peculiar to the church. But the difference between them is this: One is necessary to the performance of a commanded duty, namely, the singing of praise, and the other is not. The singing of praise is undoubtedly a commanded duty, and it follows that what is a necessary condition of its discharge comes also under the scope of command. It is, therefore, not discretionary with the church to employ it; it is obligatory. It must be employed, or the commanded duty fails to be done. It is not so with instrumental music. It is not a condition necessary to the commanded duty of singing praise; neither is it a natural circumstance conditioning the acts of all societies. It is, therefore, neither obligatory upon nor discretionary with the church to use it. It is consequently excluded.


97 In addition to this, let it be noticed that in preaching to men worship is not directly offered to God; in singing praise it is, at least in great part.



c.f. Review of Dr. Girardeau’s Instrumental Music in Public Worship by R.L. Dabney

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