The Instrumental Music Question, From Another Angle

By Weylan Deaver

More and more, members of the Lord’s church in various places are beginning to advocate the use of mechanical musical instruments in worshiping God. This, in spite of all the hard won battles of days gone by, where ground was gained and minds were converted to the truth when we once powerfully proclaimed that every belief and practice must have a “thus saith the Lord” in back of it.

Often, the justification for instruments in modern worship is based, at least in part, on an appeal to the Old Testament. Perhaps the one making such appeal does not comprehend the distinction between the Old and New Testaments. Or, perhaps he believes that any practice that was once right in God’s eyes will always be right in God’s eyes. Thus, if Israel used instruments under the law of Moses, there is no way instruments could be wrong now.

In replying to that argument, we have often held up examples of other Old Testament practices, such as animal sacrifices and burning incense, neither of which we use in our worship now. N. B. Hardeman rightly argued along those lines in his classic 1923 debate with Ira Boswell. That which proves too much, proves nothing. If instrumental music is alright now because it was alright once, then we should also be able to offer goats in worship, and even practice polygamy.

But, let us approach the subject from a different angle (which I have not seen done before). If it is right to justify instruments today because Israel used them at one time, then ponder what that means. If an Old Testament practice could never be wrong in the New Testament, then would it not also follow that every right practice in the New Testament would also have to be a right practice in the Old Testament? Said another way, if “once right, always right” is true, then it should follow that what is right under the gospel should not have been sinful under Moses. In other words, the principle (if correct) should work both ways, right?

Consider that there are numerous Old Testament prophecies about the church, and that “all peoples, nations, and languages” would serve the Messiah (e.g. Daniel 7:13-14). What if a forward looking Israelite decided to ignore the distinction God made under Moses between Jew and Gentile? After all, the gospel makes clear that such a distinction exists no more (see, especially, Ephesians 2:11-22). Jesus brought Jew and Gentile together in himself, having torn down the “dividing wall of hostility” that had been put there by divine legislation. Now, did any Jew in Old Testament days have the right to ignore that “dividing wall” God built? No. It was good that it existed under the Old Testament. But, it is sinful for anyone under the New Testament to perpetuate what was abolished with Jesus’ death. If someone today says that every Christian doctrine would have been right to practice in the Old Testament, that is simply false. And the converse is false, as well. It is wrong to say that every Old Testament religious practice must be acceptable to God now. It is wrong to justify any practice solely on its being right under a divine law that has now been abolished.

Moses did not baptize for remission of sins, and it would have been sinful for him to start the practice. Likewise, we do not approach God through Levitical priests serving in a tabernacle containing the Ark of the Covenant. We would sin in trying to re-establish that expired practice.

The gospel brought radical change to the status quo of two millennia ago. It is wrong today to kill a goat as an animal sacrifice to God—not because it has always been wrong, but because it is not authorized in the gospel. It is wrong today for a man to have two (or more) wives—not because it has always been wrong, but because it is not sanctioned in the gospel. It is wrong today to enforce Jewish dietary laws (cf. Mark 7:19)—not because they were wrong under Moses, but, rather, because they have not been re-instituted under the gospel of Christ. Think of the law of Moses as having been issued with a sunset provision. Moses’ law was nailed to the cross, but, unlike Christ, it was never resurrected (cf. Hebrews 10:9; Colossians 2:14; Ephesians 2:15).

Our task is not to imitate what God once allowed under a now-abolished law, but, rather, to learn what his new law demands. To justify present practice by relying on the law of Moses is like going to the store to make a purchase with a stack of Confederate money. It would have worked (in the South) in the early 1860’s, but nowhere today. “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13, ESV). True, the Jews had musical instruments in worship, but their entire God-given system turned obsolete and vanished, taken out of the way, nailed to the cross by God himself. The Old Testament has much to offer (cf. Romans 15:4), but it is not normative for worship in the Lord’s church. No one has the right to appeal to the Old Testament in justifying a practice he cannot find in the New Testament!

In a nutshell, the old covenant was abolished. The new superseded it. The new covenant does not say anything about the Lord’s people using mechanical musical instruments to worship God, but it does mandate singing to worship God. Hence, the church of Christ’s historic opposition to anything other than acapella music in worship. Those who would give up that position must prove that instruments are acceptable in worship today, but on what basis? If they do not prove it by Scripture, they are disobeying 1 Thessalonians 5:21. They cannot justify it based on the Old Testament. The only remaining option is to justify the practice by New Testament proof. Where is that?

God can—and has—changed his law in going from Moses to Christ (cf. Hebrews 7:12-14). Those who would take a superseded, abolished law from Moses to sanction worship that Christ never authorized, are playing with fire.