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One Common Objection

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.



  1. Ryan S. says:

    I’m still wrestling with this question. Thank you for your insight.

    It was interesting that you pointing out the Psalmist verses about musical instruments, and that some believers are apt to give paramount emphasis to the New Testament, and look for repetition to find a rationale. Given that I take a covenental, and not a dispensational approach, and stress continuity and unity of covenants and Scriptures, I see a problem in discarding OT’s relevance.

    I am doubtful Scripture was intended to speak to every facet of church activity anyway, but the question looms.

    I was raised Congregational Christian, and we are having contention over the RPW, and music issues even in our day.
    Myself, I see some virtue in Puritan simplicity of worship, but I find myself unable to vindicate it in light of Scripture.

    One thing I would never change on: is my opposition to exclusive psalmody which seems very plainly legalistic too me. If my songs are only edifying in worship to the Lord if they come from the Bible, then what must the Lord think of my uninspired prayers?

  2. Bradley says:

    Yes. Actually, I agree with your skepticism about the Bible’s not attempting to give a comprehensive blueprint for our worship services. There are different Reformed views of the regulative principle. I like John Frame’s understanding of the regulative principle advanced in the book I quoted. You should read it sometime. It is enlightening as well as indicting on legalism.

    Yes. Exclusive Psalmody is legalism with a capital “L”

    Good point. Why not say were are only to pray biblical prayers. In fact, why not pray in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek?

  3. Ryan S. says:

    The Way of the Master

    Every checked out the videos on this web site by any chance.

  4. Anonymous says:

    This was an informative read – I appreciated it. (One must wonder where exclusive psalmody comes from if the Bible clearly commands “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” and not just psalms…)

    A question:
    Do Psalms like Ps 150 warrant the use of drums in worship? Drums are a different type of instrument than the ones used in the Bible. Weren’t they used first of all by the “heathens” in their spirit-worship? (you know, dancing wildly around the fire…) The “clash of cymbals” seems to be something quite different from the beat of drums. The command to use stringed instruments and pipe instruments of course warrant the use of piano, guitar, flute, organ etc. but is a rhythmnic beat, though suitable for marching armies and prancing pagans, suitable for spiritual worship? Is the beat of a drum a fleshly distraction from the melody that is to come from our hearts to the Lord?

  5. Bradley says:

    Mr. Anon,

    Thanks for your comments and appreciation. It’s good to know some people are helped by reading (after all, that’s why I wright). But, before I answer your question, I have to ask a few of my own to better know where your coming from.

    1) From what source do you get your info about the drums being originated with the “heathen,” etc.?

    2) Are you saying you think the instrumentation and music practiced by the Israelites had no rhythmic beat? If so, where do you get this idea?

    3) Do you think that the Israelites invented stringed instruments, and that “pagans” didn’t use them before the Israelites did?

  6. Anonymous says:

    Hi, I’m “miss anonymous”.
    To answer your questions:
    1) I did not get the info from a place I can now trace, I just remembered hearing it. So after reading your question, I looked it up. A web-page, which may be slightly informative (I can not say I agree with everything on the site) is http://www.wayoflife.org/fbns/isthere.htm
    Maybe it’s overkill, but it’s interesting.

    2.) I don’t think that the Israelites had no rhythmn in their music. All music has rhythmn, if it doesn’t it’s not music! It is a point of note that drums are not mentioned in the Bible (are they?) and that “dancing before the Lord” looks alot different when done to the beat of a drum, than when done to the melody of trumpet, strings, pipe and clash of cymbals. Drums, specifically when played with a syncopated beat, encourage erotic motion. Do rolling hips go with praises to a Holy God?
    3) I believe many instruments were invented before Israel was, and I must clarify what I mean by drums being used by pagans. Drums are a key instrument in much of pagan spirit worship. They are essential for the hypnotic and ecstatic state and are used to call down the demons. The actual nature of the beat is an important factor too – its rhythmn and its tempo.
    If you know of a religion that uses piano or trumpet to call down demons or induce hypnosis, I would like to know – seriously I would. I find it easier to worship without the distraction of a drum-beat, which appeals to the flesh more than the spirit. Why do church musicians use drums?

    Just wanted to give some food for thought. I’m only 18, so I’m still thinking through all this.

    Jesus died for us.
    Good point of Christian unity.

  7. Bradley says:

    Miss Anon,

    Thank you so much for your interaction. I don’t believe I have ever read such well articulated arguments against the use of drums in particular. You seem to me very sharp; even open-minded. If you don’t mind, in addition to responding to my comments below, I am surely curious to know the following: 1) Have you received these ideas from others or are you originating these thoughts about drums? 2) What kind of church do you go to? Is it “Reformed”? Do you guys use musical instruments in worship? 3) Are you in college somewhere?

    I hope you will not be offended, and therefore further resolved in your convictions in this matter, by my candid remarks.

    1) You said, “It is a point of note that drums are not mentioned in the Bible (are they?).” Actually, there are two types of percussion instruments mentioned in the psalms: a) the hand-drum / tambourine (Ps 81:2, 149:3, 150:4), and the cymbals (Ps 150:5, 1 Chr 13:8, 15:16-17). Our modern drums still incorporate cymbals, as well as more developed “hand drums” which we call “drum sets.”

    2) When you say: “Drums, specifically when played with a syncopated beat, encourage erotic motion,” I can’t help but think you are naive at this point to assume that the ancient cultures never used syncopation. This fine musical distinction you are making between the style of modern rhythmic accompaniment and the style of biblical rhythmic accompaniment is arbitrary and unbiblical.

    3) I’m afraid that the musical instruments of the Israelites were not original. They were first used by pagans–and therefore in pagan worship. In fact, the only reason scholars are familiar with the instruments mentioned in the psalms is because they are mentioned in Pagan Canaanite literature and these pagans drew pictures of them. In spite of the fact that many of the musical instruments Israel used in worship were “key instruments in much of pagan spirit worship,” God still used the cultural Canaanite musical expressions to accompany the praises of His Holy name.

    3) Songs dominated by a rhythmic beat were associated with many things other than pagan worship. For example, the Tambourine was used in processions, especially at victory celebrations. Drums were heavily associated with war (as were trumpets). Drums were associated, for the Israelites, with worship of YAHWEH (the living God). The cultural association which you have pointed out, between pagan worship (along with modern hip shakin’ and all that) and drums, is not only one of many, but is also not a necessary association–especially in the American Culture where it is (as it was in the days of the Israelite worship) prevalently associated with the Worship of the Living God (i.e. the modern praise and worship movement).

    4) You say that drums were “essential for the hypnotic and ecstatic state” and “used to call down the demons.” It seems, however, that the assumption you are working with is that if drums originated in pagan worship, and were “essential” in sensual and hypnotic pagan practices, that they therefore cannot be redeemed and used for the worship of God. But I disagree. Even if they were originated with pagans (as were the musical styles of the Israelites), and even if drums are often used to arouse people erotically (as they certainly were in the pagan cultures which were contemporaries of the Israelites), it does not follow that such associations are necessary, nor does it follow that God will be pleased to employ such cultural musical language as he did with the Israelites. These instruments may very well have been used throughout history in various cultures to induce eroticism—but so were (and are) stringed instruments. If your argument is correct, any instruments which were and are used to provoke sinful behavior among pagans would be considered off grounds for the worship of “a Holy God.” This would prove more than you bargained for, since all kinds of instruments have been “key” and “essential” in many sinful, demonic, pagan worship practices.

    5) I do not mean to come down hard on your ideas, but I must be honest. I think your ideas are legalistic. Yes, if there is unity between us in the gospel, this is a relatively marginal debate over worships style. Marginal, but yet important and revealing. I hope you will be delighted to share with me (as candidly as I have with you) your reaction to these things I have said. I am sure whatever you say will be interesting. In Christ,


  8. Bradley says:

    on point 4, I meant to say, “nor does it follow that God will NOT be pleased”

  9. Anonymous says:

    Interesting. You have successfully pointed out the weakness of my thinking. Even as I was talking about drums, something was pestering me, that surely all usage of drums can not be bad, since they are only an instrument. So I will agree with you – drums are amoral like any other instrument. I still hold that the way in which drums are often played in churches is not proper. The rhythmn too often dominates the melody, the beat sometimes causes people to move their bodies in irreverent ways and “speaking to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” can fade as “worship” becomes more of a sound experience. The domination, not the usage, of drums in worship is the problem, and that is why I am turned against them, though I needn’t be. They can be used appropriately.

    (To answer your questions -Most of my thoughts on drums in worship are my own, but of course my thinking is influenced by my parents, and others esp. mother, who is quite musical. We currently attend/lead a church plant,”Edinburgh Bible Church”, in Guyana, South America where our family is missionaries. We use keyboard and guitar in our worship services, sometimes the nationals use a tambourine. I am not in college yet. Our family is sort of reformed/baptist/”Piperite” but we don’t have a tag)

    I think this discussion has been helpful. Thank you.

  10. Bradley says:

    Miss Anonymous,

    Cool. I was pleasantly surprised to see you changed your mind. I though about prying deeper into your views on the “proper” use of drums, but that’s probably not worth getting into. I am just glad that you have been helped. After all, that’s why I write.

    That’s really cool that you actually are writing from South America, and that your family is a missionary family. It’s especially cool that you describe your church as “reformed/baptist/”Piperite.” I interpret that to mean that along with being reformed and baptist, Edinburgh Bible Church is also passionate, aware of the importance of holy affections (emotions) and global minded for the missionary cause of the gospel among the peoples of the earth.

    Thanks for you comments. I would love to see your comments again on my blog. In Christ,


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