Compared with this side of the Atlantic, the United States has remarkably high rates of church attendance. Multitudes flock to the churches, but the quality of the worship, to put it mildly, leaves a great deal to be desired from a scriptural point of view. In a book entitled, Why I Left the Contemporary Christian Music Movement (1), which appeared last year, Dan Lucarini – an American – has given a clear picture of what people are prepared to describe as the praise of God although it is altogether worldly.
“Contemporary Christian music”, it should be explained, embraces many modern styles, including rock. Lucarini himself was actively involved for some years in organising the “praise” element – in “contemporary” mode – in church services. However, he now believes that such music “ignores God’s instructions for acceptable worship. Using it for worship has produced wrong attitudes and encouraged carnal lifestyles . . . . I also believe the real motive for adopting contemporary Christian music for praise and worship was not, as we were often told, to evangelise those from outside the Church; it was rooted in a need to satisfy our own desires for our favourite music.” And later, referring to the effects of rock music: “I believe its physical hold came about because rock music was associated with every flagrant sin of the flesh I had committed, and even a hint of that music was enough to stir up memories of those ungodly associations”. That being so, it is clear that such music should have no place in the life of anyone who takes the law of God seriously. And to bring it into the worship of God is to lose sight of the reverence which should characterise those who would approach Him with praise. God Himself has given us light on how we should do so: “Give unto the Lord the glory due unto His name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness”. “Contemporary” music therefore, whether in the United States or Britain or wherever, is totally inappropriate.
Lucarini himself began to realise this: “I became sickened at the way my generation so glibly used profane and vulgar music accompanied by vulgar dress to offer up worship and praise to a holy God! And no one seemed to notice what we were doing.” Further on in the book he states: “I am now convinced that God will not accept our worship when it is offered with music styles that are also used by pagans for their immoral practices. If I am wrong, why was He so harsh in judging Israel when they sacrificed to Him using the pagan high places and rituals? He is a jealous God. If you grasp this principle alone, it will change for ever the way you lead a worship service.” And of course he is right, though the use of the word harsh seems inappropriate in this context.
This represents a welcome transformation in Lucarini’s attitude to worship, but a consistently scriptural approach would require a further transformation. His only acknowledgement of such an approach is: “A clever Contemporary may remind you that the organ was considered an evil instrument of the devil when it was first introduced to the Church. Apparently some Christians strongly objected to its use in worship. . . . We have the unfair advantage of looking back on them from a time and culture where the organ is very acceptable in church. Any objections of the past are long forgotten.”
Thankfully, the objections of the past have not altogether faded away from the memory of the Church. There are still some who believe, on good scriptural grounds, that in public worship we should not use any instrumental music of any kind and that we should confine ourselves to singing from the Book of Psalms. This is of course the position of the Free Presbyterian Church, which understands, with the Westminster Assembly, that the Second Commandment forbids “the worshipping of God by images, or in any other way not appointed in His Word“. (2) God’s Word has not appointed instrumental music for the New Testament Church, nor has it appointed any manual of praise other than the book of Psalms. (3)
It is obviously accepted, however, that instrumental music was divinely appointed for worship at the temple in Jerusalem. But we believe that this was not a permanent appointment and that, accordingly, instrumental music passed away with all the other parts of the ceremonial law when it was fulfilled in Christ. It therefore must have had a figurative significance, and David Calderwood, an important seventeenth-century Scottish writer on such subjects, argued that it served for training the Jews under the law, “being figurative of the spiritual joy whereunto our hearts should be opened under the gospel”. (4) So instrumental music is not necessary today. In New Testament times we do not need to show forth what is spiritual by outward symbols.
Indeed singing in churches was unaccompanied everywhere for several centuries after the time of the apostles; New Testament worship followed the pattern of the synagogue, where instrumental music was never used. It seems that only in the thirteenth century did instrumental music become common in public worship, by which time both doctrine and worship had almost everywhere become thoroughly Romanised. After the Reformation, organs were unknown in Presbyterian churches in Scotland until the nineteenth century; in 1807 an organ was introduced into St Andrew’s Church, Glasgow. But it was no less a person than the Lord Provost of the city who brought the matter to the attention of the Presbytery, which declared that organ music was “contrary to . . . the law and constitution of our Established Church”. (5) By 1866 the situation in the Church of Scotland had changed significantly; in that year the General Assembly agreed that such matters should be within the discretion of presbyteries. The Free Church of the time followed in 1883, when the General Assembly agreed to permit congregations to use organs if they so wished.
Instrumental music is a way of worshipping God which He has not appointed in His Word for the New Testament Church. It is therefore forbidden and comes under the category of will worship (see Colossians 2:23). Matthew Poole comments: “When the will of man, in contradistinction to the will of God, is considered as constitutive of that worship which is offered to God of a man’s own brain and devising, without God’s warrant, then that will worship is hateful to God”.
But God has indeed commanded us to praise Him. And God’s people have done so since the beginning of time. If they follow the principles of God’s Word, they will have no place for musical instruments in public worship. And anyone who has the least degree of reverence for the holy God will have no place whatever for the worldly entertainment that masquerades under the name of contemporary Christian music. But we should seek to sing well and, as Paul says, “with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col 3:16).
Glory is due to Jehovah as the great God of eternity, whose majesty is infinite. David had a keen sense of God’s greatness; so his desire was: “My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord: and let all flesh bless His holy name for ever and ever” (Ps 145:21). David has long since gone where all will praise God’s holy name for ever and ever. While we are spared here, it should be our desire also that all the peoples of the world would turn to the Lord and learn to praise Him. May we ourselves do so in a way acceptable to Him – not only as to the outward form, but also with a pure heart!
1. A 141-page paperback published by Evangelical Press.
2. The Shorter Catechism, answer 51.
3. This article concentrates on the subject of instrumental music. For a discussion of exclusive Psalmody see the article, “Psalms or Hymns in Public Worship”, by Rev H M Cartwright, on page 78 of the March 2002 issue of this magazine.
4. Quoted in John L Girardeau, Instrumental Music in Public Worship, p 68.
5. Quoted in N de S Cameron (ed), Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology.