Practical Considerations on A Capella Worship

 

Practical Considerations on A Capella Worship

Is instrumental music acceptable in new covenant worship? To answer this question we must be precise about what we are trying to investigate. The question is not whether instrumental music may be enjoyed in private, nor whether it may be used in secular, non-ecclesiastical social gatherings. It certainly can, and is a great blessing in those contexts. However, as John Calvin believed:

“We are not, indeed, forbidden to use, in private, musical instruments, but they are banished out of the churches by the plain command of the Holy Spirit” [1]

The question is specifically whether instrumental music in the public worship of the church is justifiable. Is it God’s will that instrumental music be used today in corporate worship? This series of posts will argue for the negative.

With the question clearly and precisely formulated, we will first consider a few preliminary observations before getting to our main arguments in our next post. These points are not meant to be conclusive, rather they are practical considerations to foster open-mindedness. [2] In this day and age it might seem very odd, some might even say legalistic, to suggest that musical instrumentation should not be used in the corporate worship of the church. Our hope is that such skeptical readers would consider the following points in order to realize that the propriety of using musical instruments in church is not quite as obvious as it would at first seem.

Practical Considerations.

Being good Bereans, we ought to be introspective and critical of our traditions in light of Scripture. Just because we have always done something, and we do not know anyone who does any differently, does not automatically mean that our doctrine or practice is biblical. We should always be open to correction from Scriptural arguments. Before entertaining the biblical case for a capella praise, let’s consider the following practical observations.

1. Necessity.

Instrumental music is not necessary for orderly praise, however much we may enjoy or prefer it. A loud and confident voice leading the congregation is sufficient. Pastor Michael Ives relates,

“I was once in a congregation where they used an organ that relied on electricity. At one particular point the electricity went out right before they were to sing their praise. What were they to do? They had always been accustomed to using the organ to accompany their praise. Well, some brother who knew the tune just simply began singing out and everyone fell right in. It was a very beautiful experience to hear some eight to nine hundred people singing the praise of God without musical instruments.” [3]

Instruments can be costly and cumbersome, and many congregations do not have members with the abilities to incorporate musical instruments. A capella singing is much easier for churches to implement.

A capella singing requires a minimum of musical skill and a heightened spiritual energy within the congregation. Everything rests upon the human voice, and there are no instruments to disguise the carelessness or the spiritual lethargy of the people.” [4]

2. Entertainment.

Instrumental music can easily degenerate into man-centeredness through performance and entertainment. Many songs by contemporary praise bands and worship leaders, and even much of the classical “sacred music” by Bach or Handel is undoubtedly designed to be passively listened to by the congregation rather than participated in. Instead of the congregation “singing and making melody in [their] hearts to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19) they become an audience to the spectacle taking place before them. The emotions are engaged by amusement and the mind and spirit are an afterthought. Instead of emotion following the intellect, the natural order is reversed and the emotions lead the intellect. Pastor Ives asks:

“Does performance worship with a class of professional worship leaders fit with truly congregational praise or with the priesthood of all believers? Does worship that is focused on entertainment ultimately serve God or man? Is not the worship experience often something that is engineered?…Does entertainment have a place within the worship of God?”

3. Hindrance to Congregational Singing.

Not only is it unnecessary and often entertainment driven, instrumental music also tends to be a hindrance, rather than a help, to congregational singing. An Evangelical author and “Worship Consultant” writes “Nine Reasons People Aren’t Singing in Worship.” Though clearly in favor of instrumental music, many reasons he gives can be solved by simply following the RPW and continuing the historic Christian practice of a capella worship. He notes that many worship tunes are written with the intent of having a praise band or a lead singer with a high vocal range, or in keys too high, or rhythms too complicated for the average person in the pew. The voices of the congregation are often drowned out and overwhelmed by the volume of the music, people cannot hear themselves or each other singing and are effectively no longer “speaking to” (Eph. 5:19) nor “teaching and admonishing one another” (Col. 3:16) as Christ commands.

The professional quality of the music and singing on stage may result in congregants feeling that they are not expected to sing, but rather to watch the spectacle, or “soak” in the music, [5] the people become passive spectators. Lethargic singing is also unintentionally encouraged in such environments, which is why you will see many people (particularly men) lackadaisically mumbling the words. John Price sees the same trends and asks:

“Is not the singing in many churches so poor because we have become dependent upon the musical instruments? We fail to cultivate our singing as we should and engage in it with all of our hearts because the instruments have made such labor unnecessary. Rather than aiding our singing, as many claim they do, musical instruments have become the mask that conceals our spiritual lethargy and our inability to sing. The use of musical instruments is often a positive hindrance to the development of singing skills.” [6]

It does not just hinder singing in corporate worship, but also at home. Instrumental music being the norm sets an unrealistic expectation for those who cannot play, or do not have, musical instruments. Families are thus discouraged by feeling unable to sing praise at home without them.

Furthermore, most of the musicians themselves are not psychologically able to play their instruments and to be fully engaged in worship at the same time. Neurological studies using positron emission tomography have “shown that those brain regions involved in reasoning and decision making are deactivated in pianists when they perform their musical pieces.” [7] Thus making it very difficult for them to obey the Spirit’s command, “I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.” (1 Cor. 14:15).

A Presbyterian church musician explained in a recent podcast interview that she not only finds it difficult to focus while playing, but even during the rest of the service because of the overall anxiety such performances require:

“I’ve struggled with this personally, when you’re playing the piano, you’re not so much focusing on the prayer, you’re focusing on, ok I need to flip to page 642 in my hymn book. You’re not focusing so much on the sermon as you are trying to remember which doxology you’re doing this week. It’s not so much being in front of people as it is that I’m at a higher level of anxiety because I’m trying to remember what I’m supposed to be doing next⁠—and that tends to make church more stressful. I personally like to take breaks from playing the piano for a few months.” [8]

The podcast host added a similar anecdote:

“I’ve had to fill in for the sound guy before, and our set up is pretty simple, but it’s distracting. You’re not singing the hymns, you’re not following along, you’ve got to worry about the next button to push…Those things are distracting. Sometimes we are, with complex worship, with a lot of technology, with these productions, we’re guaranteeing that a certain percentage of the people there are not going to be participating in any real way. And we’re putting burdens on people.” [8]

4. Church Officers.

Instrumental music creates an official class of skilled musicians in the church. Trained professionals performing elaborate services on behalf of the people made sense in the old covenant where God set aside priests and Levites for many purposes (one of which, as we will see below, was to play musical instruments), but it is inconsistent with the new covenant priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5, 9). New England Puritan Samuel Mather (1626–1671) writes of what we would call worship leaders and praise bands today:

“This cathedral music introduces to the Church of God a rabble of church-officers which the Lord never appointed, and which never came into His heart, the choristers and singing-men, and that is a very great evil. It is not in the power of men, but it is the great prerogative of Jesus Christ to appoint officers in His church who has appointed none but pastors and teachers, elders and deacons.” [9]

Musicians, praise bands, choirs, and worship leaders tend to inculcate a divisive mentality, as though God gave some people gifts for worship, but others without musical ability are thought to be kept from genuinely participating in worship and not being at the same spiritual level. [10] Church musicians are apt to function as mediators to bring the people before God’s throne, as Bob Kauflin, Director of Sovereign Grace Music, admitted, “I think the role of the “worship leader” has been given too much prominence in recent years, leading to people sometimes seeing a musician serving as a priest who is able to bring the presence of God while we sing.” [11] Charles Haddon Spurgeon once lamented:

“What a degradation to supplant the intelligent song of the whole congregation by the theatrical prettiness of a quartet, the refined niceties of a choir, or the blowing off of wind from inanimate bellows and pipes! We might as well pray by machinery as praise by it.” [12]

5. Division.

Instrumental music tends to be divisive within the church. People have different tastes and styles. Preferences can polarize. Older congregants might prefer a single piano or organ, while middle aged church members would prefer Keith Green style of music, and younger church members would prefer contemporary, cutting edge music with a full indie rock band. According to the Pew Research Center, music style is one of the most important factors for U.S. adults in choosing a new church, “about three-quarters say the style of worship services influenced their decision about which congregation to join.” [13] Some churches offer multiple worship services catered to different musical tastes and styles. There is a large variety of Christian worship music styles to choose from, and it is growing. Thom Rainer observes,

“Worship wars have divided churches. They have caused pastors and staff to be fired. They have pitted Christians against Christians. They have been the source of dissension, discouragement, disengagement, and depression…I have to believe Satan has taken great pride in causing us to be divided…” [14]

While this can also be the case with regard to the tunes chosen even when singing a capella, the potential divisiveness is much less, and a capella worship tends to bring much more unity within the body of Christ. We are to be “likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” (Phil. 2:2-4).

6. Historical Precedent.

The Christian Church rejected instrumental music in worship for most of church history except in two periods: the dark ages of Roman Catholicism in the 14th to the early 16th centuries (with a few isolated instances prior to that), and again in the 19th century to the present. It is not an overstatement to say that the legacy of the Church is largely against musical instruments in corporate worship. This fact is widely recognized by historians [15] and evident in the fact that the term a capella comes from Latin by way of Italian, meaning “in the style of the church [chapel].” [16] R. Scott Clark writes that “the early post-apostolic church sang only inspired songs without accompaniment…the patristic church, though in favor of the use of music in worship, was quite opposed to the use of instruments in worship.” [17] While the Western Latin Church introduced instrumental music in the late medieval period, the Eastern Orthodox Churches continued to sing praise a capella as they do to this day. [18] Clark continues,

“Gradually, over the course of the thousand years before the Reformation, the medieval church reinstituted progressively aspects of the Mosaic ceremonial cultus including the introduction of musical instruments which had been suppressed in churches until the tenth century. Their reintroduction was highly controversial…the introduction of instruments in worship accompanied the rise of sacerdotalism in medieval worship. The Reformation saw itself as recovering not only the biblical pattern of worship, but the praxis of the early post-apostolic church. The reformation of worship happened in stages. The first stage of the reformation of worship established the formal principle of the Reformation: sola scriptura. The Reformed churches applied the Scripture principle most thoroughly to the practice of worship.” [19]

Charles Spurgeon observed that musical instruments were “rejected and condemned by the whole army of Protestant divines” [20] from the Reformation onward, except for Lutherans and many Anglicans who reject the RPW. And this was the common practice up until the 19th century.

If the widespread testimony of the Christian Church is against instruments in worship, we should be very cautious about uncritically rejecting that view and thinking that modern practice to the contrary is more faithful. Especially considering how and why instrumentation was reintroduced, as Clark states, “When the use of musical instruments was re-introduced into the Reformed churches, it was not on the basis of biblical exegesis, principle, or confession but on the basis of expediency and pragmatism.” [21] We will cite many specific examples from church history in a subsequent post.

These preliminary observations are not intended to be conclusive. They are merely considerations which will hopefully cause us to re-evaluate the modern practice of instrumental music in the church, and be willing to examine the Scriptures to see if such practice is biblical. We will attempt to do just that in our next post. We will briefly explain the Regulative Principle of Worship, then demonstrate how instrumental music is abrogated with the old covenant ceremonial law. In our third post we will confirm this biblical interpretation by the overwhelming witness of church history, and lastly we will respond to common objections to a capella praise.



[1] John Calvin commentary on Ps. 71:22.

[2] Some of these preliminary observations are summarized from Pastor Michael Ives’ sermon, “Instruments in Worship” (Sermon Audio).

[3] Ives, ibid.

[4] John Price, Old Light on New Worship: Musical Instruments and the Worship of God, a Theological, Historical, and Psychological Study, p. 148

[5] There is actually a worship style called “Soaking” practiced in Charismatic circles to essentially put people into a trance. Typical characteristics include “spontaneous singing, free praise, and instrumental sections” and “an unstructured approach with plenty of space and a relaxing mood. Simple and melodic lines are used with a strong presence of repetition.” Here is an example: SOAKING IN HIS PRESENCE Instrumental Worship.

[6] Price, ibid., p. 188.

[7] Price, ibid., p. 153; citing Lawrence Parsons, “Music of the Spheres,” BBC Music Magazine, Nov. 2003, p. 36.

[8] Jennifer Greenberg and “Chortles Weakly,” Presbycast, Music Matters—Minstrels for Hire?, March 27, 2018, Time: 1:10:00 ff.

[9] Samuel Mather, The Figures or Types of the Old Testament, p. 439.

[10] Having grown up in Evangelical culture and having played in worship bands in a few churches, including a fairly large mega-church in Las Vegas, NV, I noticed this problem very early on.

[11] Bob Kauflin, Entering the Presence of God, comment at Sept. 9, 2010.

[12] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Treasury of David on Ps. 42:4.

[13] Choosing a New Church or House of Worship. Pew Research Center.

[14] Five Observations About the Current State of Worship Wars. Thom S. Rainer. Christianity Today has dozens of articles on the “worship wars,” see here.

[15] cf. David W. Music, Instruments In Church: A Collection of Source Documents (Studies in Liturgical Musicology) (1998); James McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature (Cambridge Readings in the Literature of Music) (1989); Everett Ferguson, A Cappella Music in the Public Worship of the Church (2013).

[16] William C. Holmes, Oxford Music Online.

[17] R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession, p. 246; citing David W. Music, “Instruments in the Church: A Collection of Source Documents,” p. 27. Clark footnotes that this scholar’s “account of patristic worship is interesting because he has no personal interest in appealing to the fathers in support of the RPW.” Clark also cites Johannes Quasten, “Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity,” pp. 60, 72-75.

[18] cf. Egon Wellesz, History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961). Constantine Cavarnos, Byzantine Sacred Music: The Traditional Music of the Orthodox Church (1956). “In the Orthodox Church today, as in the early Church, singing is unaccompanied and instrumental music is not found, except among certain Orthodox in America—particularly the Greeks—who are now showing a penchant for the organ or the harmonium.” (Bishop Kallistos Ware of Diokleia, The Orthodox Church (1997), p. 268).

[19] Clark, ibid., pp. 246-7; citing Music, ibid., p. 43, 47-51, and Hughes Oliphant Old, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship.

[20] Spurgeon, Works vol. 2, pt. 1, p. 223.

[21] Clark, Is the Organ God’s Gift to Worship?

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