Q&A: Musicial Instruments in the Worship Service
Written by Arnoud Vergunst
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Reformed Practice - Music

Question: Is it correct to use the musical instruments outlined in Psalm 150 in our congregations today? What about singing a "new song to the Lord" as instructed in Psalms 33:3, 40:3, 96:1, 98:1, 144:9, 149:1, if all the songs we sing are songs that we have previously learnt? It would clearly not be a new song if it has been sung even if only once before.

How should we approach:
* Clapping (Psalm 47:1)
* Shouting for joy (Psalm 32:11)
* Dancing (Psalm 149:3, 150:4)
* Lifting up of the hands (Psalm 63:4, 134:2, 1 Timothy 2:8)

All of this, of course, in a reverent and orderly manner, not in the charismatic way of some congregations today. 
Hasn't the Holy Spirit made these passages of Psalms part of the New Testament by commanding us in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 to speak and sing the Psalms? How are we to sing these Psalms and not obey them? What is your Bible-based point of view on this?
Evidently, one could say that these were Old Testament customs of Israel. However, since the Psalms have been made part of the New Testament church (as per the previous passages in Ephesians and Colossians) wouldn't the argument of culture be invalid? Because in the same way, any argument (like women\'s head coverings) could be refuted on the basis of "culture" or "tradition".

Warm regards,
Israel

Answer:
Hello Israel, 

Let me try to give an answer. 

With tongue in cheek, I can say that we use nearly all the instruments mentioned in Ps. 150 in our worship services. At times we make the ground to shake as the congregation sings along with the full scale of our available instrumental ensemble.  Now, before you imagine an orchestra in front of our church, I need to admit that we have combined all those instruments into one digital-electronic organ!  Now this instrument as we know today, was unknown among the Hebrew culture. 

Where no organ is available, the use of other instruments locally available may be used within the worship services.  Churches in Africa aren’t in organs or pianos as qua climate and culture they really don’t work or fit.  So they will use their local instruments in a pure and godly manner.  As long at their worship service is orderly and reverent, we must respect their manner of worship. 

In Ps. 149 and 150 is spoken about ‘dance.’  The alternate translation could also be ‘with the pipe’ thus making it another reference to an instrument.  But in various places in the OT it is rendered ‘dance’ (Ps. 30:11,  Jer. 31:13.)  David danced before the ark of the LORD on its way to Jerusalem.  (2 Sam. 6:14)  In this instance for sure it refers to David’s measured steps or solemn movement in which he expressed his exuberant joy at the occasion of the moving of the ark of God to Jerusalem.  So such an expression of worship can on basis of such an example not be proved wrong.  But we don’t need to draw the conclusion that it is wise or expedient to introduce such styles of worship into our worship services today.  Unessential customs in worship services change as people and culture changes.  As Barnes commented, “What might be proper in one stage of society, or in one period of the world’s history, though not in itself wrong, might be unadvisable in another. There was much in the Hebrew mode of worship which cannot be transferred to the forms of Christian worship without an obvious incongruity and disadvantage; and because a thing has been done, and is not in itself wrong, we should not infer that it should always be done, or that it would be always best.” There is great wisdom in these thoughts.  Within our western context, and I must add our Reformed and Dutch context, the introduction of various instrumental and physical expressions of worship will not be expedient.  Within African, Middle-Eastern and other cultures, clapping may be a very appropriate expression of joy and it shouldn’t be excluded as long as it is truly expressive of reverent worship.  Having travelled a bit and having attending various worship services, I have come to appreciate the individuality of each culture’s expression of the worship of the heart.  

DeJongste, in a publication in Thoughts on Public Worship shared the thought that sometimes churches adopt new worship styles to be more culturally attractive to the youth or those un-churched.  Though it may make a church temporarily more popular, it clearly has shown that their methods were in vain.  Let’s not make that same mistake.  Adapting to the popular culture of the world in order to make them more comfortable isn’t the same as expression your worship in the cultural manner existing. For example, I have been in India and witnessed their cultural expressions of greeting and thanking as well as celebrating joy and sorrow. It wouldn’t be inappropriate that some of those find their way into the Christian worship service as long as they are proper and orderly expressions of the worship of God.  I can see that many aspects of their cultural expressions could easily become a distraction or a ‘let’s see how well they can perform’ rather than worship.  I know that the Reformed Fellowships there struggle with how to Biblically find their way.  

I appreciate you caution in suggesting that you don’t mean to go into the Charismatic mode where the movement and music leans toward become the worship in spirit and truth. There is always such danger in the ‘put on’ outward expressions that aren’t the expression of our heart.  But looking over our own worship service, I wonder how much ‘spirit and truth’ is expressed in our quiet demeanor and nearly expressionless faces.  God knows the heart and it is the heart that is the heart of the worship.  Jesus taught us that clearly in John 4.  Whether it is in Jerusalem or Gerizim, each with their own styles, wasn’t the point.  

You premised in your question that all the Old Testament manners of worship are transferred into the New Testament and you based that on Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16.  I don’t agree that those two verses legitimize your premise.  Both verses support that our worship should be from the heart and to be expressed in the spirit and truths of the Psalms.  The worship services of the New Testament churches are decisive different than the Old Testament.  The many ceremonial aspects of the OT worship services are put away in Christ.  But singing and praising God from the heart, using even the Old Testament inspired, and therefore eternal, Psalms are time-less requirements.  

For a quite a while after the Reformation, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (and I know that this was and still is the case among the Presbyterian Churches in Great Britain) all musical instruments were banned out of the worship services.  All singing was Psalms only and a-capella (no musical instruments).  But after many years of struggling about whether to use the organ to accompany the singing, ecclesiastical assemblies left it more and more to the individual churches decided whether to use the organ.  That is now the case in every church.  In all honesty, I prefer the way we use the organ within our church.  It is a simple and brief prelude to ready the congregation for singing and most of the organ is played to accompany or lead the singing of the congregation.  I have attended churches where the organ playing takes a far too great part in the worship service.  It is then no more a means to an end and that’s how God meant the use of instruments. 

I really don’t know what to say on your question of the ‘new song.’  In the context of deliverance, our singing just become ‘new’ in heart and in the verses you mentioned that may be all that was expressed.  However, David’s Psalms were each time a new additional to the Psalm collection.  Your question is whether such songs may still be added as expressions of our worship.  On private basis, yes, why not.  If you have that ability to express your heart in praises or prayers in a song, then I wouldn’t see a problem.  That’s how we received the great hymns like “Amazing Grace” and “How great thou art!”  I love reading the poems in various hymnals and we sing them at home.  I can’t say that I ever wrote one myself because I don’t have the talent to do that. 

But whether to include them in the public worship service in another matter.  Then they become the collective expressions of the believers.  Much strife, unrest but also heresy has been introduced through songs.  Many hymns are also Biblically or theologically unsound.  To avoid that happening, many churches wisely have limited themselves in the public worship services to the songs based on the Scriptural Psalms.  Our church also holds that conviction. 

I hope I have been able to give you some directions on these questions.  Thanks for asking as it also forced me to go back to asking “why don’t we do such and such and do this or that?’ 

God’s blessings,

Pastor Vergunst

Rev. Arnoud Vergunst is the pastor of The Reformed Congregation of Carlton, New Zealand.  He answers questions on his church's website, www.rcnz.org.