The Regulative Principle – One common objection to the use of musical instruments in corporate worship has to do with the regulative principle. What is the regulative principle? Well…it depends on which tradition your coming from.
“Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and Lutherans have taken the position that we may do anything in worship except what Scripture forbids. Here Scripture regulates worship in a negative way—by exercising veto power. Presbyterian and Reformed churches, however, have employed a stronger principle: whatever Scripture does not command is forbidden. Here, Scripture has more than veto power; its function is essentially positive. On this view, Scripture must positively require a practice, if that practice is to be suitable for the worship of God.” – John Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth: A Refreshing Study of the Principles and Practice of Biblical Worship (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 1996, 38. See Frames Chapter “The Rules of Worship” for a basic discussion of the regulative principle.
The regulative principle is simply this: you don’t worship any other way than the way God has commanded. Where does this principle come from? A better question would be this: Where must it come from in order to escape self-referential absurdity? That’s right. The Bible. It’s explicitly stated in Deuteronomy 12:32 when the Lord says, “Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it.” It is exemplified in examples like Nadab and Abihu who offered “unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command” and were immediately executed by God (Lev 10:1-3, cf. 1 Sam 13:7-14, 2 Sam 6:6-7, 1 Kgs 12:32-33, 15:30, 2 Chron 26:16-23, 28:3, Jer 7:31, 1 Cor 11:29-30).
Regulative Principle in Service of Legalism – So, enough with the regulative principle introduction. I want to tell you how this principle—which is a good biblical principle by the way—is used to justify pessimism with respect to the use of musical instruments in corporate worship. The argument is not hard to understand. It goes something like this: Although the Old Covenant commands the use of musical instrumentality in worship, the New Covenant has no such emphasis—therefore, a church which emphasizes their worship with instruments is out of kilter with the emphasis of the New Testament. That is, since the NT does not repeat such commands concerning the use of musical instruments, we are justified as New Covenant believers to neglect these older practices. Those who have musical accompaniment in their corporate worship are putting emphasis where the Bible does not. The New Testament does not make a big deal out of music. In fact, nowhere in the New Testament do you find reference to musical instruments except for the trumpets which are to signal the coming of Christ—and these are symbolic referances rather than literal musical instruments.
Well…what shall we say to such an argument? Nobody wants to be “unbiblical” and put “emphasis” where the Bible does not. But this argument does not really need a lengthy rebuttal. First of all, even if there were no references to music in the NT, the commands from the OT would still be sufficient to mandate musical accompaniment in corporate worship. Though many of the Old Covenant demands have been done away with in Christ, music is nowhere said to be one of these aspects. Music was not a shadow of things to come in Christ in the way that blood sacrifices were. Thus, according to the Reformed maxim which goes along with the regulative principle—if it’s not repelled in the New Testament, it still stands. Thus, all the commands in the OT concerning musical worship still stand. Secondly, the NT only reinforces this duty by commanding us to sing psalms. This is because 1) the meaning of the word bears a subtle nuance of musical instrumentality (see below), and 2) if the singing of psalms are commanded, then psalms like Psalm 150 would be edifying for the church—but imagine singing this in a church which forbid the use of musical instruments: “Praise the Lord! Praise Him in His sanctuary … Praise Him with trumpet sound; Praise Him with harp and lyre. Praise Him with timbrel and dancing; Praise Him with stringed instruments and pipe. Praise Him with loud cymbals; Praise Him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord!”
Ephesians 5:18-19, Colossians 3:16, I Corinthians 14:26 – The Greek word used in the NT for “Psalms” carries the subtle nuance of the accompanying of musical instruments. It is reflexive of the Hebrew word used in the Old Testament in reference to the poetry that was accompanied by musical instruments.
Though psalmos is translated literally “psalm” (song of praise), it is used “in accordance w. OT usage.” Thus, when used in the NT epistles, it is distinguished from songs and hymns as having it’s own nuance from the OT. Frederick William Danker, rev. ed., et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1096.
Louw & Nida also say that yalmov” “in the NT probably [is] a reference to an OT psalm.” Louw & Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, vol. 1, 2nd ed. (Broadway, New York: United Bible Societies, 1989), 402.
“The Hebrew designation of Psalms is Tehillim, meaning “praises,” a term that reflects much of the book’s content. Its name in Latin and English Bibles, however, comes from the Greek, Psalmoi, which means “twangings [of harp strings],” and then, as a result, songs sung to the accompaniment of harps. This latter name originated in the LXX (cf. its NT authentication, Luke 20:42) and reflects the form of the book’s poetry. The same is true of its alternate title, psalterion, meaning “psaltery,” a collection of harp songs, from which comes the English term “Psalter.” J.D. Douglas, revising ed., Merrill C. Tenney, general ed., The New International Bible Commentary, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987, p 832.
Ephesians 5:18-19 – “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one anther in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord;” So part of being filled with the Holy Spirit (or evidence thereof) is singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (presuming it is coming from our hearts).
Colossians 3:16 – “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Part of letting the Word of Christ dwell richly within us is to be admonishing one another by way of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
I Corinthians 14:26 – “What is the outcome then, bretheren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.” The Scripture once again commands us to let God be worshiped in psalm for the edification of the body.
Conclusion – Given that we are worship God as He desires, not adding to nor taking away, consider the following. If the Psalms command or direct us to worship with stringed instruments and drum, etc. and the NT nowhere explicitly forbids this kind of worship—but even reassures us of this duty (Ephesians 5:18-19, Colossians 3:16, I Corinthians 14:26)—then the regulative principle demands that we continue in the way God originally directed or commanded us to worship – with musical instruments.
P.S. – Sorry no pics, the comp won’t let me download them.