Christian Living

Why I Love A Cappella Music In Worship12 min read

July 16, 2015 9 min read

Why I Love A Cappella Music In Worship12 min read

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Aren’t you the people who don’t have music?” Yep, that’s us. Mere Christians. Except we really do have music – and we love music. When it comes to our worship, however, we just don’t use man-made instruments to accompany our music. We simply use the strings (psallo) of the heart: our voices.

People who walk into our church buildings often ask, “Where’s the piano?” If I didn’t know much about the church of Christ, I would ask the same thing. It is, after all, one of the most obvious differences between Christ’s church and other churches.

Can I share with you the reasons why I love the exclusive use of a cappella music in worship? The following reasons aren’t in any particular order, except for the last one (it is by far the most important).

1. It’s simple.

Suddenly, worship becomes much less complicated when you take instruments out of the equation. You don’t have as many wires and electronics to deal with. You don’t need as much real estate on stage. You don’t need a sound technician. You don’t have to find musicians. You don’t have to coordinate as many people to assist with the worship service.

Additionally, you don’t have to worry near as much about the “worship wars” – the almost constant battle between those who want traditional music and those who want more contemporary music. Yes, there will always be people who want to sing newer or older songs, but in my experience the problem is greatly exacerbated when drum sets and guitars are part of the equation.

With a cappella music in worship, there are fewer things that can go wrong. And there are fewer issues by which to be distracted. When it comes to worshiping the Lord, simple is all He wants. A cappella music makes it easier to worship anytime, anywhere. (And if a cappella is the norm, you don’t feel like you’re “missing” something when instruments aren’t around.)

2. I like how the church can spend its money on more important things.

a cappella4Have you seen how much stuff costs these days? A new Baldwin grand piano will run you over $40,000. I hear what you’re saying, “It doesn’t to be a Baldwin.” Okay, but even a new Yamaha grand piano will be in the ballpark of $30,000. That is, of course, if you want to buy “new.” You can pick up used guitars, pianos, organs, drum sets, etc., for a fraction of the price. Maybe someone can even donate an old electric piano that has been collecting dust in their garage. But everyone wants the best – especially if it is supposedly for the Lord – and the best is going to cost some $$$. And if you can afford the best, why not get the best?

Plus, there’s the sound equipment you’ve got to worry about. Mixers, equalizers, microphones, amplifiers, and speakers that will do it all justice. This all costs money, and assets need to be insured. And in today’s turbulent legal situation (with implications of legalized same-sex marriage looming on the horizon) and unsteady economy, having unnecessary assets of sometimes-exorbitant worth can be irresponsible.

Without having to equip a “praise band,” think of the ways the Lord’s money can be stretched. Perhaps your church wouldn’t benefit much from the added savings, but other churches with more elaborate bands could save even more. Which in turn means more money could be allocated to feed the homeless, organize evangelistic efforts, or hire another minister. Use your imagination.

3. It is easier for me to keep the main thing the main thing.

Instrumental music in worship makes it easier to misplace my focus. I think less about the words in the song when sister Jones playing the organ accidentally presses a wrong note. I think less about the words in the song when the professional musician visits our service and amazes us with his talent on the guitar. I think less about the words in the song when I visit a different church and am charmed by how much better their band is than that of my home church.

When I was preaching in Georgia, I remember a nearby Missionary Baptist church that split over an argument between parents over whose child would get the lead role in the worship band. I know of a Methodist church in Lexington, Kentucky that lost over 200 members because the “music director” was fired over his reluctance to incorporate more “contemporary” music.

There is a natural tendency to make worship about the musician and his or her abilities rather than the object of our worship, God Himself. Musicians may humbly say, “I use my talent for God’s glory,” but what about the people in the audience who may be doing more listening than they are participating?

We must remember that those present in worship must participate in worship, not merely spectate. Acceptable worship involves teaching and encouraging one another through our singing (Col. 3:16). God has specifically requested reciprocal, congregational singing (Eph. 5:19). When instrumental music is added to the worship service, however, it tends to lend itself to performance-based worship. A cappella music allows me personally to focus on using the words of the song to edify the people sitting next to me.

4. I like worshiping like the early church.

I don’t believe in denominational Christianity. I simply want pre-denominational New Testament Christianity. I want to be as close as possible in doctrine and practice to the church instituted by Jesus Christ through His apostles in the 1st century. And there is no doubt about it: the early church worshiped with a cappella music. After all, “a cappella” is Italian for, “in the manner of the church.” For hundreds of years, a cappella singing characterized Christian worship.[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]There is no doubt about it: the early church worshiped with a cappella music

The late James McKinnon, professor of musicology at the State University of New York, wrote, “The antagonism which the Fathers of the early Church displayed toward instruments has two outstanding characteristics: vehemence and uniformity” (69). The Reformed theologian John Girardeau wrote, “Instrumental music had no place in the early Christian churches” (102). Edmond Lorenz, a well-known Adventist in the late 19th century, said regarding the music of the early church, “there was no instrumental accompaniment” (217). Dr. Everett Ferguson, professor at Abilene University, wrote, “The testimony of early church history is clear and strong that early Christians employed vocal music but did not employ instrumental music in their assemblies” (79).

I will mention a sampling of overwhelming evidence from the early Christian witnesses about the exclusive use of a cappella music in the church. Eusebius of Caesarea, a well-known church historian from the 4th century, wrote,

We render our hymn with a living psalterion and a living kithara with spiritual songs. The unison voices of Christians would be more acceptable to God than any musical instrument. (Ferguson 94)

Nicetas Dardani, an elder in the 3rd century, wrote,

Only the corporal institutions have been rejected, like circumcision, the Sabbath, sacrifices, discrimination in foods, [from the Old Law and have fallen into desuetude]. So, too, the trumpets, harps, cymbals, and timbrels. For the sound of these we now have a better substitute in the music from the mouths of men. (94)

Theodoret of Cyrus, an early theologian from the 4th century, wrote,

It is not simple singing that belongs to the childish state (in reference to the Old Covenant, BG), but singing with lifeless instruments, with dancing, and with clappers. Hence the use of such instruments and the others that belong to the childish state is excluded from the singing in the churches, and simple singing is left. (95)

Don’t you want to identify as closely as possible with the early church? Early Christians are not alone. Renowned men such as John Calvin, Adam Clarke, and Charles Spurgeon were all opposed to instrumental music. Spurgeon, perhaps the most famous of all Baptist preachers, commented on 1 Corinthians 14:15, “I would as soon pray to God with machinery as to sing to God with machinery.”

5. I find it easier to worship God with my mind (and not fall into the trap of empty emotionalism).

Music manipulates the human mind evokes different emotions. Background music in horror films, music played at gyms, and music in romance movies are all very distinctive. When young David played his harp, “Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him” (1 Sam 16:23, ESV). Modern scientific research proves in varying degrees the power of music upon our subconscious and our emotions.[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]Why not rebel against mainstream religion and truly be fresh? Be different. Pursue 1st century Christianity.

When I sing about matters such as Christ’s death, His resurrection, or His glory, I want to feel strong emotions – not primarily because of the talented band or compelling orchestra, but because of the potent words of the song. Music that is instrument-centered, instead of linguistically-focused, is a danger to the intelligent worship of God’s people, which must be “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).

Worship must be edifying and encouraging, but it must also captivate the mind. “I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also” (1 Cor. 14:15). While worship should be emotional, it should principally be intellectual (which should then lead to emotional worship). In the words of John Prince, “Anything that has the power to bypass the mind and directly affect the emotions must be handled with the greatest care in the worship of God. Musical instruments, and even unaccompanied tunes, have this power” (153).

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones commented, “We can become drunk with music – there is no question about that. Music can have the effect of creating an emotional state in which the mind is no longer functioning as it should be, and no longer discriminating. I have known people to sing themselves into a state of intoxication without realizing what they were doing” (282).

Please do not misunderstand (as some may eagerly do); I believe singing must reflect the deep convictions and affections of the heart – especially our joy and thankfulness in Christ. “Serve the Lord with gladness; Come before Him with joyful singing” (Psa. 100:2). All I am saying is we don’t need instruments to accomplish this. (And if you need instruments for emotional worship, then you do not adequately appreciate the depth of your salvation.)

6. I don’t like adding to what God specifically commanded.  

When it comes to worship, has God through Scripture told us what will please Him? Absolutely. His Spirit-inspired Word says,

Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. (Heb. 13:15)

We express our worship through our lips. We do this by praying and singing (1 Cor. 14:15). James writes,

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. (Jas. 5:13)

Elsewhere in the New Testament, we read:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.  (Col. 3:16)

18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:18-20)

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:25)

Again, has God indicated what is pleasing to Him? He wants us to worship Him with our hearts and with our voices. Additionally, there is an absence of mechanical instruments of music in the New Testament context of Christians assembling to worship. F. LaGard Smith wrote,

In contrast to the many Old Testament passages referring to musical instruments in temple worship, in the New Testament text not one sound of a musical instrument is heard – not a trumpet, not a harp, not the quietest jungle of a tambourine! Singing, yes. Musical instruments, no. Relative to musical instruments, there is only an ominous haunting silence.

When I assemble with Christians and worship God with a cappella music, I find comfort in the fact that I am worshiping God in the manner He specifically wants – no man-made additives. Simple, beautiful, congregational a cappella singing – just as He wants.

Conclusion

The first five reasons I listed are my preferences, and you are allowed to disagree. I genuinely believe a cappella music is most conducive for truly spiritual worship. But there is no getting around the sixth reason: God has specifically asked for a cappella music in our worship to Him.

I just want to stick with the primitive New Testament pattern for worship. Call it “vintage.” Call it “restoration.” Call it “radical.” But in an age where non-conformity is celebrated, why not rebel against mainstream religion and truly be fresh? Be different. Pursue 1st century Christianity.

Your comments are welcome and encouraged, even if they are in disagreement. However, please keep your comments relevant to the article. For my full comment policy, click here.

Sources
Ferguson, Everett, Jack P. Lewis, Earl West. The Instrumental Music Issue. Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1987.
Girardeau, John. Instrumental music in the public worship of the church. Richmond: Whittet & Shepperson, Printers, 1888.
Lorenz, Edmund. Church Music: What a Minister Should Know About It. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1923.
Lloyd-Jones, Martin. Preachers & Preaching. Zondervan, 2012.
McKinnon, James. The Temple, the Church Fathers and Early Western Chant. Brookfield: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1998.
Price, John. Old Light On New Worship. Avinger, Texas: Simpson Publishing Company, 2007
Smith, F. LaGard. The Cultural Church. Nashville: 21st Century Christian, 1992.

Ben Giselbach is the pulpit minister at the Edgewood church of Christ in Columbus, GA. He and his wife Hannah have two children, Ezra & Colleyanna. Ben is a graduate of Freed-Hardeman University and has returned to pursue his MDiv. He has written three books in his You Are A Theologian Series: Thinking Right about the Bible, Thinking Right about God, and Thinking Right about Salvation.
14 Comments
  1. Caleb

    I think your scripture references in colossians and ephesians directly contradict your stance. Doesn't the Greek translation of psalms literally mean praises instrumental music?

    • Ben

      I think you meant the Greek word "psalló," used in Ephesians 5:19, and not not "psalmos," used in Colossians 3:16 (which simply means "a psalm"). The grammar of your comment is just ambiguous enough that I'm not entirely sure what the question is. There is no contradiction. "Psalló" ("making melody") is to take place in "your heart" (Eph. 5:19), not on a stringed instrument. If "psalló" in Ephesians 5:19 refers to a literal stringed instrument, then we would be required to have a stringed instrument in all worship assemblies. No, we are to play the strings of our heart, worshiping God with the spirit and mind (cf. 1 Cor. 14:15). In the highly respected Greek Lexicon by Bauer, Gingrich, Arndt, and Danker, they write that when Paul wrote Romans 15:9, 1 Corinthians 14:15, and Ephesians 5:19, the word "psallô" just meant to “sing, sing praise” (page 891). Regardless, the object of the sentence is not "psallô," but the heart.

      • Lynn Helton

        Our heart is the instrument

      • Caleb

        If it's just about the heart then it shouldn't matter how we translate it one way or another. We should just worship him with full abandon.

  2. Brian Giselbach

    Excellent!!!

  3. Rachel

    Lots of great points and thoughts - esp #2. However, I think we need to be careful about telling people that instrumental music is wrong, because we do not know that for 100% fact. Please consider these verses:Psalm 331 Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him.2 Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.3 Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joyAlso, a trumpet is mentioned in Revelations.I have heard people argue that it is sinful because it is in the old testament, not the new testament. Yet, we use verses in the Old Testament all the time for issues about homosexuality, gossip, handling money, treating your neighbor, honoring your parents, etc.But you do make some great points, and I agree that the costs for it are outrageous and could be used on so much more.

    • Ben

      Rachel, thanks for the comment. Yes, we absolutely can say that worshiping God with mechanical instruments today is wrong. While the Bible does not specifically say, "Thou shalt not worship God with musical instruments," the Bible also does not specifically say, "Thou shalt not be a polygamist." (By the way, most any argument used in favor of instrumental music in worship can also be made in favor of polygamy.) It is wrong to assume that worshiping God with instruments is right and acceptable to God simply because He has not specifically forbidden it. Here's the point (and this is the core issue in this instrumental music question): God wants the specific prescription of ways He has told us we are to worship Him to be the exclusive way we worship Him. Consider the infamous Nadab & Abihu in Leviticus 10:1-2; I do not think we can question the fact that God expected Nadab & Abihu to offer Him worship only in the ways He had specifically prescribed. If I order a pepperoni pizza from you, I don't want you to bring me a supreme, fully-loaded pizza (even though it still has pepperoni).You are also correct that God's people worshiped Him with mechanical instruments under the Mosaical Regime (i.e. the Old Testament). Take many of the chapters from Psalms, for instance. Consider 2 Chronicles 29:25, where Hezekiah was re-establishing divinely acceptable worship in the temple. As he restored the worship service, "he stationed the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king's seer and of Nathan the prophet, for the commandment was from the Lord through his prophets."Not only did they use instruments - God commanded them! But Hezekiah, nor anyone else, had a choice; they had to use instruments, and they had to use them exactly how God prescribed. Compare this strict pattern to the modern use of instruments in worship, where people use whatever they want, whenever they want.It is true that we are living under the New Covenant now, and not the Old Covenant. The Old Law, along with their worship requirements, are no longer bound on us as they have been nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14). If the Old Testament authorizes instruments in worship today, it also authorizes an alter of acacia wood to burn incense to the Lord (Exo. 30:1), grain offerings of unleavened cakes mixed with oil (Lev. 2:4-9), and the animal sacrifices of bulls and goats (Lev. 1:1ff). The reason why we sometimes point to the Old Testament's words about homosexuality, gossip, handling money, handling money, and how to treat one's neighbor is because these things are also addressed in the New Testament.Regarding any imagery of instruments in Revelations, context needs to be respected. I like Dr. Everett Ferguson's words regarding instruments used specifically to worship God in Revelation: "Their only appearance in a worship context [in the New Testament] is in the book of Revelation, where, drawing on the imagery of the temple, the voices of the heavenly singers are compared to stringed instruments (Rev. 14:2-3); the instruments symbolize singing (cf. Rev. 15:2-3) in the same way that incense does prayer (Rev. 5:8-9)" (The Church of Christ: An Ecclesiology for Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996. Page 272.)Furthermore, what is true in heaven is not necessarily true on earth. For example, there is no marriage relationship in heaven (Matt. 22:30). What happens in heaven should never be a precedent for our present life. The New Testament has much to say about worship today; every verse that discusses music in worship very clearly specifies a cappella praise.

  4. Ivy

    Please, for the sake of remaining unified in an age where we are condemned and persecuted for believing what we believe, be the harbinger of the message of our salvation, not of a doctrinal belief that is creating unnecessary factions in the Christian community. We are called to "go and make disciples of all nations." Is that what you're doing, or are you picking theological fights that will only affirm the current negative view of Christians? Whether we use instruments to show our love and reverence to God is inconsequential. If you believe anyone is going to hell over this issue, then you don't serve the same just, loving God I serve.

    • Ben

      The title of the article is, "Why I Love A Cappella Music In Worship." Am I not allowed to state what I love? What doctrinal beliefs am I allowed to teach that will not create "unnecessary factions"? Please provide a list for my future reference.In reality, this question about instrumental music in worship is one of the most important theological discussions we can have. It's not just about instruments per se, but about how we ascertain authority for everything we do in faith and religion before God. This is indeed part of "making disciples" (Matt. 28:19). Jesus wants us to make disciples specifically by teaching people to observe "all that [He] commanded" (Matt. 28:20). If Jesus & His apostles address how we are to worship Him (which they do), is this not important for us to also teach as we make disciples?To call what God has commanded "inconsequential" is what causes division. What promotes unity and solidarity is when we agree to simply follow the New Testament - not adding to it (as we do when we introduce mechanical instruments to worship), or taking away from it (as you are doing by calling some doctrines "inconsequential"). Jesus specifically prayed for unity when He said, "...for those who will believe in Me through [the apostles'] word, that they (Christians) may all be one, just as you, Father, are in Me, and I in you, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me" (John 17:20-21). Unity is not found by making Christ's teachings "inconsequential," but by believing and holding to high esteem the teachings of the Holy Spirit written by the apostles (i.e. the New Testament). You are the divisive one.It is precisely because I serve a loving God that I love Him (1 John 4:19) enough to try to follow His Word to a T. And it is precisely because I serve a just God that I fear divine retribution when I approach Him in worship with "will-worship" (Col. 2:23).True Christian unity can only be found when the Bible - and only the Bible - is our standard of authority.

      • Nancy Crail

        How can believers ever be united when people keep 'debating' over things that have no bearing on salvation. Preach and teach the 'gospel'! That is, Christ's death, burial and resurrection. His purpose in coming, His saving grace, His love, His command to love God with all our heart, soul, body and mind (the greatest command) and the 2nd to love our neighbors. Somehow in all these petty statements 'love' seems to get pushed to the side and I really don't believe that is anyone's intention, but it does and is happening. I'm afraid that is one of the reasons that churches are losing more and more people. They are not finding love, they are hearing too much discord over 'things'. Prayerfully

        • Ben

          Nancy, please provide me with a list of things that have "no bearing on salvation." I could certainly use this for future reference.Love is the central reason why a cappella music should be in our worship. Love for God, love for obeying Him, and love for being found faithful. Is it unloving to teach others how to avoid the same fate of people like Nadab & Abihu (Lev. 10) and Uzziah (2 Sam. 6)?The gospel is not limited to Christ's death, burial, and resurrection. Rather, the gospel includes the "whole counsel" (Acts 20:27). This would certainly include how to worship God - and how to offer Him acceptable worship.See, you seem to have a very worldly view of "love." Your shallow view of love seems to tolerate error, and your cheap idea of unity seems to pursue religious unity 'just for the sake of unity' - at the expense of holiness. Love for God, and love for our fellow man, demands that we teach holiness to God and His Word. Is it so unloving to teach that we should simply do what God asks? Perhaps you are the unloving one. Let's not reduce this issue to mere "things." It's about loving God and being faithful to Him.

        • jbevans

          I have to wonder how it is possible to obey the Gospel if it only consists in the items you mentioned. Consider Romans 10:16; 2 Thessalonians 1:8 and 1 Peter 4:17. All command us to obey the gospel. There are conditions to be met and commands to be obeyed. Our worship is to be in truth (John 4:24) which certainly implies that false worship is possible. How we worship is not the only important activity of the Christian life but it is one.

  5. David barton

    I like what you are saying. It doesn't matter what other people think. It is what God wants that matters. And He didn't tell us certain types of instruments...He told us in Ephesians ( and other passages) to use our voice in praising him. Instruments were only used in the Old Testament, but he wants us to use our voices, hearts to praise instead of using any kind of instrument.

  6. jbevans

    Excellent article! You covered the bases well and were grounded in Scripture.

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