A City Set On a Hill
Surviving the Seventieth Week by Reforming Fundamentalism and Establishing Cities of Refuge
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Music and the Regulative Principle
Copyright 2010 by Raul E. Lopez, MD, MDiv

In the discussion above, we saw how some churches err in that the style of the music used in their worship is worldly. Musical instruments are used inappropriately and the music cannot be recognized as a new song. Often the words are also shallow and devoid of Biblical or theological content. However, it is important to avoid the opposite extreme. In reaction to such worldliness other churches limit their music to congregational hymns or psalms sung either a capella (that is, without instruments) or accompanied with a piano alone. Choirs, special music, or orchestras are forbidden. The theological basis for these restrictions is a principle of Biblical interpretation called by those who hold this view, the regulative principle. It is the basis for Reformed worship. This style of worship is common in traditional Presbyterian churches and in Reformed Baptist Churches, churches which do not necessarily consider themselves to be fundamentalists. However, because they are otherwise fairly conservative and Biblical in many of their other beliefs, this view will be discussed here.

The principle states that no practice is to be permitted in the church unless it is mentioned in the New Testament. However, this approach to scripture decreases the authority of the Old Testament. In many other cases where a clear precedent from the Old Testament was no longer to be followed by the church it is possible to find a clear New Testament command which provides a substitute practice. An explanation for such a change is also frequently given in the same passage. This observation suggests that a better approach to Biblical interpretation is that Old Testament commands and precedents are to be followed unless there is a clear New Testament substitute. One possible name for this better principle is the principle of consistency.

Worship in both the earthly and the heavenly temple involves the use of musical instruments. David says, "Praise the LORD. . . Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet; Praise Him with the lute and harp! . . . [etc.]" (Psalm 150). David "appointed some of the Levites to minister before the ark of the LORD, to commemorate, to thank, and to praise the LORD God of Israel. . . Jeiel with stringed instruments and harps, but Asaph made music with cymbals; Benaiah and Jahaziel the priests regularly blew the trumpets before the ark. . ." (I Chronicles. 16:4-6). John records a vision of heaven, "Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp. . . . And they sang a new song, saying. . ." (Rev. 5:8-9). Paul says that the "members of the household of God" are "a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a habitation of God in the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:19, 21-22). If the church is the modern temple of God and the earthly and heavenly temples both have instrumental music, the principle of consistency would dictate that instrumental music should also be a part of Christian worship.

Furthermore, there does exist a New Testament passage which seems to command the use of musical instruments. This passage is the text we have been analyzing in this section. Paul says "be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms. . ." (Ephesians 5:18-19 nkjv). There are two ways to interpret this word. One is to use the common Greek usage. The word 'psalm' is a Greek word which referred to a poem sung to the accompaniment of a musical instrument. The other way is to base its meaning on its use in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. In that work it is used to refer to the contents of the book of Psalms. As we have seen, these were sung to the accompaniment of musical instruments in temple worship. Therefore, both meanings are associated with the use of musical instruments. Consequently, there is a New Testament command to use musical instruments in Christian worship. Therefore, even the regulative principle, when correctly applied, allows the use of musical instruments in Christian worship.

Some consider the use of choirs or special music sung or performed by individuals or small groups to be contrary to New Testament example. However, one of the few passages which describes New Testament worship says "Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification" (I Corinthians. 14:26). The phrase "each of you" shows that the actions of individuals are being discussed. Paul corrects several aspects of the worship described here, but says nothing negative about the singing of psalms by individual members. This is not referring to the recitation of a passage from the book of the Psalms, but the singing of a Christian song as described in the passage in Ephesians. The passage concludes "Let all things be done decently and in order" (v. 40).

The Old Testament Levitical priesthood enjoyed specialization of labor. Some Levites sang while other took care of the buildings and furnishings and other offered sacrifices. Temple worship involved the singing of songs by choirs while the congregation listened or responded with a refrain. The church is the modern priesthood. Peter says "But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you" (I Peter 2:9 nkjv). Paul mentions that the body of the church has different parts and different gifts (I Corinthians.). I have met people who have received amazing musical abilities as gifts from the Lord in the form of beautiful voices or amazing musical dexterity in playing musical instruments. The analogy of scripture, or the principle of consistency, suggests that, just as the use of a group of specially qualified Levites for the task of singing was appropriate under the Old Testament, so too the use of specially gifted members of the modern priesthood, the church, for special music, is also appropriate.

There are two dangers associated with the reformed view of worship. One is that it limits an important tool for bringing people to salvation and for Holy Spirit filling. As we saw above, the psalmist says "He put a new song in my heart, even praise unto our God. Many will see it and fear and trust in the Lord" (Psalms 40:3). Even though all forms of music are not an appropriate vehicle for worship, the last sentence of this passage implies that one important result of public praise and testimony given in an orderly musical form is the salvation of souls. Care should be taken not to limit the Lord's work by restricting the proper use of a means designed to bring people to salvation.

A second danger is that unless this practice is coupled with a warning to abstain from listening at home to any music which contains instruments, it tends to create a division between that which is appropriate at church and that which is appropriate at home. Congregational singing is limited by its very nature to simple songs which the majority of the congregation can sing. Many other styles of music exist which are much more complex and rich, and, at the same time, are pleasing to the Lord. We would call these styles classical or semi-classical music. However, the distinction between good and bad music is one which is not easily determined. Rather, this distinction becomes clear with maturity and wisdom. If a person is not exposed to many different types of good music at church, and, thus, taught, by example, to make such a distinction, church members will end up listening to simple congregational hymns at church and ungodly wild music at home. Since more time is spent at home than at church, music, in the end, will end up having an overall negative impact.

To summarize, the regulative principle must be applied with wisdom and caution. It is a principle of interpretation designed to combat the excessive ritualism and pomp of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches. Ironically, the principle itself is not clearly stated in the New Testament. In fact, the development of Old Testament worship argues against it. At mount Sinai, shortly after the Exodus, the Lord revealed in very specific detail, the form which Old Testament worship should take. The model for the tabernacle was based on a revealed pattern (Ex. 25:40). This pattern included many specific measurements and details. Nevertheless, the Lord was pleased when David decided to build Him a temple. The temple did not follow the same pattern as the tabernacle and the design of the temple does not seem to have been revealed by God, only its location. It was adapted from the pattern for the tabernacle using human wisdom. For example the tabernacle had one golden lamp stand (Ex. 25:31-40; 40:24) while the temple had ten (I Kings 7:49). This temple is shown to have been accepted by the Lord, since it is clear that His ‘shekinah' glory filled the temple at its dedication (II Chronicles 5:13-14). This glory continued to dwell in it until shortly before the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians. There is a detailed account, found in the book of Ezekiel, which describes how the glory of the Lord left the temple before the fall of Jerusalem. After the Babylonian captivity God commands the Israelites to rebuild the temple. This command sets His direct stamp of approval on this newer form of worship.

This newer form of worship was an adaptation of the earlier form to a time when Israel had matured in it nationhood. Similarly, it seems natural that as the church would grow in numbers and in maturity, that forms of worship and organization which existed only in seed form in the early church, would become more fully developed. The regulative principle is a useful tradition which serves as a valuable tool in deciding whether a practice of the church is in agreement with the Bible. Nevertheless, as with all human traditions, it is important to not let tradition interfere with God's will as revealed in the totality of scripture, nor to let tradition unnecessarily limit the freedom which God has given to His children.

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