Instruments in Church: A Collection of Source Documents

    -- by David W. Music, 1998, Lanham & London: Scarecrow Press, 220 pages 

“Instruments, it seems, have always been somewhat controversial in Christian worship. From the early church to today, the issue of whether or not instruments are appropriate, valid, or necessary in worship has been constantly debated.” So begins the foreword to this fine book, which should be
required reading for anyone (in any culture) wrestling with issues concerning instruments in church.

Dr. Music has done an exemplary job of culling material from many sources and many centuries. The material has been compiled into chapters organized into five main parts. He provides helpful introductions to each section and chapter. The chapters contain selections from various writers, sometimes on opposing views of the subject under discussion. An excellent bibliography suggests sources for further reading, categorized according to each of the book’s five parts.

Part One of the book begins with a 16-page compilation of Scripture passages dealing with the use of musical instruments in the Old Testament (quoted from the KJV). This is followed by a 5-page chapter of relevant New Testament

Part Two has two chapters. Chapter 3 is a collection of writings by the early Church Fathers who rejected instrumental music. The Fathers had three main arguments against the use of instruments:

This chapter has many fascinating viewpoints, such as this one expressed by Arnobius (d. 330): “In the same way that the foolish crying of infants will be stopped when they hear rattles, are the almighty deities soothed by the shrill sound of pipes, and do they relax at the rhythm of cymbals, their indignation mollified?”

Chapter 4 deals with the introduction of the organ (invented about 250 BC) into the medieval Western church. In early church history, the (hydraulic) organ could have been voted “least likely instrument to be used in worship.” Among other things, it was associated with the Roman Coliseum where early Christians had often been martyred. However, by the 10th century, the organ began appearing in Christian settings. Subsequently, in a reversal from previous centuries, an allegorical explanation was given in favor of the organ as a church instrument (by Baldric, circa 1120).

Part Three has three chapters dealing with instrumental church music in the 16th and 17th centuries, beginning with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, the Council of Trent and many others gave their opinions that became official verdicts for their followers. Luther said, “If it is helpful and conducive to growth [of God’s Kingdom], I would make all the bells to ring and all the organs to pipe, and use every sound that can sound.” On the other side of the debate, John Calvin resurrected the view of the Church Fathers, added an “anti-Papacy” element to it, and declared that instrumental music constituted “an unknown tongue” and was therefore to be banned from churches (though not private life). No great effort was made to banish instruments from Roman Catholic services.

A German church leader found it necessary to write these exhortations and instructions in 1619: “It causes a very great inconvenience and noise if the instrumentalists tune their bassoons, trombones, and cornetts in the middle of the organist’s prelude, making many pipings and fussings, so that one’s ears hurt and the listeners get the shivers. This sounds so bad and makes such a racket that a person might think he has been stung or cut. Therefore… tune and warm up in private” (p. 81).

Part Four covers the 18th and 19th centuries. One chapter examines the controversial introduction of the organ into American churches. Another chapter—actually hilarious!—looks at how acceptance of the organ in Scottish churches a hundred years later was led by an American musical evangelist (Ira Sankey). Other chapters survey the changing situation in Europe and the rejection of instruments by the Church of Christ.

A founder of that denomination’s parent church had this to say in 1851: “To those who have no real devotion or spirituality in them, and whose animal nature flags under the oppression of church service, I think that instrumental music would be not only a desideratum [something desired as necessary] but an essential prerequisite to fire up their souls to even animal devotion. But I presume that to all spiritually-minded Christians, such aids would be as a cow bell in a concert” (p. 147).1

The 20th century is the timeframe for Part Five, which looks at the following topics:

Special mention should be made of a thought-provoking article in this section by Chuck Kraft on instruments used by contemporary worship bands in a church. He considers a
congregation’s preference for hymns/organ or choruses/guitars to be not only a musical issue, but also a theological reflection of their view of God: the organ symbolizes God’s transcendence and the guitar God’s immanence.

The material chosen to represent various viewpoints was done with obvious care. However, it presents examples and attitudes only from the early church, and from Europe and America. We know that as the Church has grown tremendously throughout the Two-Thirds World in the last century, these same sorts of debates are currently taking place around the globe. From the rainforests of Africa to the urban jungles of Asia, people are looking at instruments in their own
culture—and at instruments borrowed from other cultures, particularly the West—and are asking difficult questions. Perhaps a second volume will use examples from non-Western locations so that we get a more global perspective.3

In the introduction, the author4 writes, “The history of the church reveals that it has had what might be called a serious love-hate affair with musical instruments.” This book does a good job of giving voice to different sides of the issue, letting leaders who have shaped attitudes speak in their own words. It has significant historical value, helping us see the “long view” of the dispute. The book also provides essential background to the discussion that continues in contemporary times around the world. To everyone working with people who are wrestling with the issues of instruments and musicians in churches, the book will be an indispensable resource.

As a professional percussionist, I am proud to proclaim that I have played many a cowbell in concerts in front of spiritually-minded Christians, and it did not seem to dampen their devotion.
Pages 167-68 speak of an interesting cross-cultural music communication problem when American piano players introduced “gospel songs” into Britain.
3 A problem in this proposal is that there is comparatively little material written down about these issues outside of the West. I believe that because most of the discussion takes place at the oral level, it is difficult to document.
4 Dr. Music taught in California for 10 years, then at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Texas) for 12 years, and is now at Baylor University.

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.1, No.4 of

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