An Examination Of The Book Acappella Music In The Public Worship Of The Church-Part One

By: Mark Tabata (Evangelist)

One of the first things which visitors to churches of Christ notice is the absence of instrumental music in our worship assemblies.

Considering the entertainment-driven culture of religion found in many common-day churches and denominations, where bands and instruments of all kinds are used to energize and bring forth emotionally charged experiences, the simple order of acappella music is quite the contrast!  

When asked why New Testament Christians do not employ instrumental music in the worship of the church, we respond with the biblical injunction that everything which we practice and teach in the assembly of the saints must be authorized by the Lord (Colossians 3:17). Since only acappella music is authorized by the Lord, this is the only type of music we employ in the assemblies of the saints (Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19). To go beyond this is to risk turning true worship (John 4:23-24) into empty worship (Matthew 15:9; Mark 7:7) or will-worship (Colossians 2:20-23).

While the subject of instrumental music in the church may not be a priority to many, those who are true worshippers of God will carefully consider these matters (John 4:23-24). We are called upon by God to give rational defenses of why we believe what we believe and why we practice what we do (1 Peter 3:15; 1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1).

It is in that spirit of honest investigation that I would like to share some observations with you (in this and the next two articles) about a book that carefully examines these subjects.

Years ago, Brother Everett Ferguson wrote an excellent work entitled Acapella Music In The Public Worship Of The Church.

Ferguson’s book is an exploration of the history of the use of instrumental music in the public worship of the church (as the title suggests). It seeks to carefully examine the relevance of instrumental music in worship, paying special attention to the mention of instrumental music by early Christian writers. His volume is also extremely helpful in that it examines the history of instrumental music through the Old Testament, as well as considering the use of instrumental music between the Testaments.

As to why such a study is beneficial, Ferguson has pointed out:

“One means of testing an interpretation of New Testament texts is by the background sources. …Have we read the New Testament correctly? This can be checked in part by the interpretation of the New Testament in early Christian writings and by the practice of the post-New Testament church. Is it an accident that we have no clear reference to instrumental music in the church’s worship in the New Testament? Was instrumental music actually used but not referred to? The answer of history is “no.” What is an inference from the New Testament evidence, and the presumption from the church’s setting in the context of Judaism, is made explicit in the testimony from church history. When our conclusions about the New Testament evidence concerning the use of the instrument are checked by the writings of the early church, we once more find a negative result.” (Everett Ferguson, Acappella Music In The Public Worship Of The Church, 860-870 (Kindle Edition); Abilene, TX; Desert Willow Publishing)

Just as Paul encourages Christians to learn from the important history of the Old Testament (Romans 15:4), so we can also learn from the study of church history.

An Interesting Beginning

Ferguson begins his study by mentioning a conversation he had with a friend a number of years ago:

“During my graduate study days at Harvard I lived in the same dormitory with a Greek Orthodox student who was a graduate of the University of Athens and a candidate for an advanced degree at Harvard. I asked him if it was correct that the Greek Orthodox churches did not use instrumental music in their public worship. He said, “Yes.” Then I inquired as to the reasons why. His reply was most interesting to me: “We do not use instrumental music because it is not in the New Testament and it is contrary to the nature of Christian worship.” By this he stated my case exactly for unaccompanied church music. Other Orthodox would add that the tradition of the church is against the practice. A special contribution of this book is to demonstrate the historical evidence of the early Christian centuries.” (Everett Ferguson, Acappella Music In The Public Worship Of The Church, 85-89 (Kindle Edition); Abilene, TX; Desert Willow Publishing)

Three-Fold Outline Of Study

The author goes on to explain that his investigation of acappella music in the public of the church will involve a three-fold study.

First, Ferguson believes a detailed and careful examination of the New Testament Scriptures which discuss music in the worship of the church should (of course) be of primary importance.

Second, he proposes a careful examination of the writings of the post-apostolic Christians (who are often referred to as the church fathers) to determine whether or not they held the same basic views regarding acappella and instrumental music in the public worship of the church.

Finally, Ferguson would encourage an investigation of other theological or doctrinal subjects to determine whether or not instrumental music should be rejected in the worship of the church.

This article will focus on Ferguson’s investigation of the New Testament Scriptures regarding these topics (and future articles will examine the other two steps in Ferguson’s outline).

The Absence Of Instrumental Music In The New Testament Scriptures

The author quickly points out that the New Testament clearly authorizes acappella music in the worship of the church, but is also very silent regarding instrumental music in such:

“According to the New Testament evidence instrumental music was not present in the worship of the early church. Singing incontestably was present in the corporate life of the early Christians (1 Corinthians 14: 15, 26; Colossians 3: 15 ff.; Ephesians 5: 18 ff.), and this was rooted in the practice of Jesus with his disciples (Mark 14: 26). But there is no clear reference to instrumental music in Christian worship in any New Testament text.” (Everett Ferguson, Acappella Music In The Public Worship Of The Church, 95-100 (Kindle Edition); Abilene, TX; Desert Willow Publishing)

Brother Ferguson then engages in a detailed study of the Greek word psallo (usually translated as psalm).

Psallo

Through the years, advocates of instrumental music in the church have argued that the word psallo authorizes the use of the instrument since the word sometimes meant to pluck (like on an instrument) in the Old Testament era.

Ferguson demonstrates quite convincingly that by the time of the first century, the word psallo had come to mean simply to “sing.” Words change over time, and the word psallo had likewise evolved to carry the idea of acappella music.

Our author cites a common English example to demonstrate how such a change can occur over time. The word “lyric” had originally come from a word that had reference to the “lyre,” a stringed instrument; yet now, it simply means the words of a song.

In studying the history of the word psallo, Ferguson observations:

“The main controversy has in the past concerned the Greek word psallo, which in the history of its usage has referred to both instrumental and vocal music. Consequently, it would seem, no one has been able to establish with finality that the word necessarily includes or excludes instrumental music. From an earlier classical (500-300 B.C.) meaning “to play,” the word came to mean in Byzantine (after A.D. 300) and modern Greek “to sing” or “to chant.” 1 This transition in meaning was apparently effected by Jewish and early Christian usage. The real question is how the word is used in the specific New Testament texts (Rom. 15.9; 1 Cor. 14: 15; Eph. 5: 19; Jas. 5: 13). Personally, I am convinced that later ecclesiastical usage and Jewish usage before and contemporary with the New Testament confirm a reference to vocal music exclusively in the New Testament texts.” (Everett Ferguson, Acappella Music In The Public Worship Of The Church, 100-106 (Kindle Edition); Abilene, TX; Desert Willow Publishing).

In describing the specific definitions and etymology of the word, we are told:

“The root meaning of psallo, as defined by H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, is “pluck,” and so most frequently “to play a stringed instrument.” 2 In this limited sense the word referred to playing an instrument plucked with the fingers. (In a broader sense the word could be used of making music in other ways.) This was the meaning of the word in classical Greek. The Greek language has other words for “to play on an instrument,” such as kitharizo (“ to play the kithara,” a lyre or harp’ 3) and auleo (“ to play the aulos,” or pipe) in 1 Corinthians 14: 7, and kreko (“ play”). Words meaning just “to sing” were ado (compare the noun “ode”) and humneo (“ to hymn” or “to praise”). On the other hand, E. A. Sophocles’ Greek Lexicon of the Roman and Byzantine Periods (From B. C. 146 to A.D. 1100) defines psallo as “chant, sing religious hymns.” The word thus later completely lost any connotation of an instrument and so in modern Greek (shaped by ecclesiastical usage) means simply “to sing.” (Everett Ferguson, Acappella Music In The Public Worship Of The Church, 111-117 (Kindle Edition); Abilene, TX; Desert Willow Publishing).

The difficultly lies, as Ferguson explains, in trying to determine exactly when the word psallo underwent this change from instrumental to acappella. There is evidence, for example, that this change took place long before the first century, for there are several Jewish works from the first century B.C which use psallo in reference to acappella music:

“Conversely, psallo with the simple meaning “sing” or “sing praise” (“ sing the psalms”) is well attested before New Testament times. Such is the usage of the Psalms of Solomon, Jewish hymns from the first century B.C. usually ascribed to the Pharisees but thoroughly representative of Palestinian religious piety shortly before the time of the New Testament.” (Everett Ferguson, Acappella Music In The Public Worship Of The Church, 143 (Kindle Edition); Abilene, TX; Desert Willow Publishing)
Two hundred years earlier, in the third century B.C., the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures were translated into the Greek language. This translation, known as the Septuagint, has some very interesting lessons for us regarding the etymological history of the word psallo.

When the scholars who translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek came upon the Hebrew word nagan, they used the Greek word psallo. This clearly referred to instrumental music in some passages (1 Samuel 16:16-18, 23; 18:10; 19:9).

However, it is when psallo is used to translate the Hebrew word zamar that things really start getting interesting:

“Psallo occurs most frequently in the Septuagint as a translation of zamar, a Hebrew word with a similar etymology and development to its Greek translation. It is defined as “make music” in praise of God, and the lexicon cites many instances of “singing,” in a few of which instrumental accompaniment is mentioned in the context (but not included in the word itself), and several instances “of playing musical instruments.” 10 In a few instances where psallo translates zamar, the mention of an instrument with the word shows that the idea is “to play” (Ps. 33: 2; 71: 22; 98: 5; 144: 9; 147: 7; 149: 3). Each of these references is cited by Brown, Driver, and Briggs for “making melody on an instrument” as a definition of zamar. The Greek construction in each instance is psallo followed by the preposition en (“ with” or “on”) and the name of the instrument.”…intended by the word psallo. Thus Psalms 47: 6, 7 concludes in the Septuagint, “Sing [psalate] intelligibly.” Psalms 71: 23f., “My lips will rejoice when I sing [psalo] to you… and my tongue will be concerned with your righteousness all day.” Psalms 105: 2, “Sing to him and make melody [psalate] to him; narrate all his marvels.” A large number of the occurrences of psallo in the Psalms are in passages where the parallelism characteristic of Hebrew poetry is employed. In nearly every case the Septuagint translators have paired psallo with a word for vocal praise….The Hebrew word in these verses is defined as “sing” or “sing praise,” and we can assume that the Greek translators understood the Hebrew and sought to convey the same idea by psallo. Thus modern translators too have rendered “sing” or “make melody.” Other occurrences of psallo in the Septuagint, all once more apparently meant to express singing in praise to God as zamar did, are Psalms 7: 17; 9: 2; 9: 11; 30: 12; 61: 8; 66: 2, 4; 75: 9; 98: 4; 108: 3.” (Everett Ferguson, Acappella Music In The Public Worship Of The Church, 157-195 (Kindle Edition); Abilene, TX; Desert Willow Publishing).

Why does this matter?

“If the precise meaning of certain verses may be in doubt, what is clear is that an instrument did not inhere in the word psallo in the Septuagint. Psallo could translate a word meaning “play” (nagan), or a general word (zamar). The meaning which would cover all occurrences is “make melody.” This could include making melody on an instrument, the classical use of the word, but in the preponderance of occurrences it clearly refers to making melody with the voice.” (Everett Ferguson, Acappella Music In The Public Worship Of The Church, 195-201 (Kindle Edition); Abilene, TX; Desert Willow Publishing).

After examining several other ancient authorities and references, Ferguson explains when the basic shift of the word psallo began to take place:

“Regardless of the conclusion to be drawn from Philo’s silence, linguistic evidence would seem to indicate that it was in Jewish religious language that we find the shift in usage for psallo from instrumental to vocal music (Septuagint, Psalms of Solomon, etc.). Where the instrumental idea was present, it was treated metaphorically (Philo, perhaps the Dead Sea Scrolls). This linguistic development will be seen to correspond to the developments in regard to the music of Jewish worship, which will furnish a further clarification of the background to worship in the early church.” (Everett Ferguson, Acappella Music In The Public Worship Of The Church, 325-330 (Kindle Edition); Abilene, TX; Desert Willow Publishing)

Ferguson goes on to explain the importance of the Jewish synagogue in the years before Christ’s birth in this investigation, and how these were used for teaching and worship among the Hebrews. Interestingly enough, the case may be argued that it was the influence of the Jewish synagogues themselves that brought about the change of the word psallo from instrumental to acappella music:

“There remains no evidence that instrumental music was used in the synagogue service; indeed this holds true until comparatively recent times….Since a special vocal use of psallo is first and most clearly attested in Jewish religious literature, and since the Psalms were recited without instrumental accompaniment in the synagogue services, a reasonable hypothesis may be suggested for the change in the usage of the word. The change in practice in the synagogue, so that the Psalms were used without the instrumental accompaniment that had characterized their use in the Temple, produced a change of meaning in the word so that it meant “to sing the Psalms.” The difference in the way the Psalms were used changed the meaning of psallo which was employed to describe this use. Christians derived their use of the word from the Jewish circles in which the church began, not from classical Greek usage. Moreover, Christian worship in many of its practices seems to have followed the worship of the synagogue.” (Everett Ferguson, Acappella Music In The Public Worship Of The Church, 732-742 (Kindle Edition); Abilene, TX; Desert Willow Publishing)

The evidence is therefore very strong that the word psallo (by the time of the first century) had come to have reference to acappella music, and that any inherent quality of the word authorizing instrumental music had been lost long before the dawn of the Christian Age.

Ferguson concludes section one of his book by noting:

“The conclusion drawn from the New Testament texts and from linguistic evidence was that instrumental music was not present in the worship of the New Testament church. This conclusion has further support in the contextual setting of New Testament times. Jewish practices and attitudes (both Rabbinic and Hellenistic) furnish strong presumption against the presence of instrumental music in the early church. The next chapter will test this conclusion by the testimony of church history. Before leaving the New Testament references, we may note in passing that the New Testament gives no negative judgment on instrumental music per se. It makes neutral references to playing on instruments (Matthew 11: 17 and parallels), uses instruments as illustrations (1 Corinthians 13: 1; 14: 7f., with unfavorable connotations it may be noted), and compares the heavenly worship to the sound of instruments (Revelation 14: 2f., probably under the influence of Old Testament and Temple practice). A parallel to the last reference may be seen in Revelation 5: 8 with its figurative use of incense from the temple worship. The situation is simply that instruments are not referred to in the church’s worship.” (Everett Ferguson, Acappella Music In The Public Worship Of The Church, 838-848 (Kindle Edition); Abilene, TX; Desert Willow Publishing)

Conclusion

The New Testament Scriptures are clear that God has authorized acappella music in the public worship of His church. Since we are commanded to abide in the teaching of Christ and His Apostles (2 John 9-11; Colossians 3:17), why not simply have acappella music in the church assembly, as God has authorized?

Worship is one of the great privileges of God’s people. We may freely praise Him for His great lovingkindness and mercy, especially when we consider the wondrous gift of Jesus Christ to be our Savior (Matthew 11:28-30). Through His death, burial, and resurrection from the dead on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:1-8), Jesus has the power to save us (Hebrews 7:25).

Why not today repent and be baptized into Christ as a believer, confessing Him before men and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-47; 8:35-38)?

Why not today, as a Christian who has turned from the Lord, repent and pray to Him for forgiveness (Acts 8:22; 1 John 1:9)?

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

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