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Can Instrumental Music Be Used Outside Of The Worship Assembly?

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

By bro Alvin Lin

In a recent adult Bible class, bro Justin shared with us an excellent lesson showing conclusively that there is no place for the use of instrumental music in New Testament worship as God has only authorised acapella singing. An interesting question was raised during the discussion on whether Christians are allowed to listen to hymns accompanied by instrumental music in their private time. Hence, I thought of penning this bulletin article to share some thoughts for consideration on the proper use of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” outside of the worship assembly.

According to Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, ode (song) is the generic term. Psalmos (psalm) and humnos (hymn) are specific; the former (psalmos) designates a song which took its general character from the Old Testament ‘Psalms’ (although not restricted to them; see 1 Cor. 14:15,26), and the latter (humnos) means a song of praise. Paul’s exhortation in Eph 5:19 and Col 3:16 teaches that “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” are to be directed “to the Lord”.

Can we sing along to instrumental hymns?

Some feel that they can sing along to instrumental hymns because they do not consider it to be worship and they reason that only singing during Sunday worship needs to be acapella singing. However, singing of hymns is an act of worship and whenever we sing hymns, we are worshipping God in giving praises to Him (Heb 13:15). We often quote Eph 5:19 and Col 3:16 to argue against the use of instrumental music in congregational worship, and rightly so, but the verses following show that the injunction to have acapella singing of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” is not merely confined to the worship assembly, rather it is applicable “always” (Eph 5:20), in “whatsoever ye do in word or deed” (Col 3:17). While Jas 5:13 authorises us to “sing psalms” anytime of the week, we have to do so “in spirit and in truth” (Joh 4:24), with the right attitude and according to what God has authorised, since singing of hymns is an act of worship.

Consider the implications if it is permissible to sing along to instrumental hymns outside of the worship assembly. Can we then use instrumental hymns in church fellowships, during weddings or funerals, or even for karaoke singing? If we have the liberty to make modifications to the singing of hymns in private, can we then modify prayer, which is another act of worship, when done in private? Do we have the liberty to pray to Jesus by arguing that so long as it is not Sunday worship, it doesn’t matter? Musical instruments have no place in the singing of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” because God has only authorised acapella singing.

Can we listen to instrumental hymns?

Most people who listen to instrumental hymns would argue that they are not worshipping God but are only listening for leisure and relaxation. However, there is no authority for the use of hymns, be it instrumental or acapella, for leisure or entertainment – there is no direct command, no approved example, and no necessary inference. As pointed out earlier, “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” are to be directed “to the Lord” (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16), not for personal enjoyment, and God wants us to sing, not to listen. We need to beware, lest we be guilty of “will worship” (Col 2:23), professing religious piety while doing it for ourselves (Zec 7:5-6).

Furthermore, those who listen to hymns for pleasure often do not pay conscious attention to the words of praise. If prayers offered without understanding do not edify (1Co 14:16-17), so is listening to hymns without understanding. Using hymns for leisure, regardless of whether it be instrumental or acapella, is unauthorized as God wants us to sing and we are to do it “with the spirit” and “with the understanding” whenever we do so (1Co 14:15). If we want to listen to songs for leisure and relaxation, it would be better to do so with wholesome secular songs.

Can we play musical instruments to hymns?

It is wrong to sing along to instrumental hymns because singing is an act of worship and God has authorised acapella singing, not instrumental music. It is also wrong to listen to instrumental hymns because hymns are to be directed to God and He has authorised its use for reverential worship, not for personal pleasure. By the same principle, it would be wrong to play musical instruments while singing to hymns as well, whether it be in public or in private. However, something that needs to be clarified is that the words of the hymn are the medium by which we use to praise God, not the tune, and consequently what gives a song its character as “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” is the words, not the tune. This means that while the singing of words of praise to God is worship, the playing of the tune just by itself is not.

Consider for example the hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. The tune to this beloved hymn was actually taken from a Felix Mendelssohn cantata titled “Festgesang zur Eröffnung der am ersten Tage der vierten Säcularfeier der Erfindung der Buchdruckerkunst” (in German), or more simply called “Gutenberg Cantata”, a piece written to honour the 400th anniversary of the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. If an orchestra were to play the “Gutenberg Cantata”, would they be guilty of using musical instruments in praising God? Surely not. But if they were to play the tune and sing along to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, then they would be going against God’s command of “speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19). As such, I don’t personally see any problems with one using an instrument to learn the tune to a hymn, if one is not singing along in praise to God.

In conclusion, at the heart of the question about the use of instrumental music outside of the worship assembly is the issue of Biblical authority. God has only authorised the use of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” for worship, just as He has only authorised acapella singing in worship. If we cannot go beyond Biblical authority in adding instrumental music to acapella singing, then we should not use “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” outside of worship for leisure and entertainment. We must not “think of men above that which is written” (1Co 4:6).

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