I have often heard historical arguments like the following against the use of musical instruments:

Neither he [Paul] nor any other apostle, nor the Lord Jesus, nor any of the disciples for five hundred years, used instruments. This too, in the face of the fact that the Jews had used instruments in the days of their prosperity and that the Greeks and heathen nations all used them in their worship. They were dropped out with such emphasis that they were not taken up till the middle of the Dark Ages, and came in as part of the order of the Roman Catholic Church. It seems there cannot be doubt but that the use of instrumental music in connection with the worship of God, whether used as a part of the worship or as an attraction accompaniment, is unauthorized by God and violates the oft-repeated prohibition to add nothing to, take nothing from, the commandments of the Lord. It destroys the difference between the clean and the unclean, the holy and unholy, counts the blood of the Son of God unclean, and tramples under foot the authority of the Son of God. They have not been authorized by God or sanctified with the blood of his Son.

— David Lipscomb, Queries and Answers by David Lipscomb, pp. 226-227, and Gospel Advocate, 1899, pp. 376-377. Taken from jasonsbibleblog.com.

The argument is that the original Christians did not use musical instruments—even though the Jews and all other religions at the time did use them. Therefore, the argument goes, Christians should not use musical instruments in worship.

Does the quote above accurately portray early church history? I am not asking for the validity of the conclusions, only for whether Lipscomb gets the history right.


3 Answers 3


Was the music of the Early Church a cappella?

A cappella as a form of music was used in the Early Church. To what degree may not entirely be known.

A cappella music was originally used in religious music, especially church music as well as anasheed and zemirot. Gregorian Chant is an example of a cappella singing, as is the majority of secular vocal music from the Renaissance. The madrigal, up until its development in the early Baroque into an instrumentally accompanied form, is also usually in a cappella form. The Psalms note that some early songs were accompanied by string instruments, though Jewish and Early Christian music was largely a cappella (1); the use of instruments has subsequently increased within both of these religions as well as in Islam.

There is no reference to instrumental music in early church worship in the New Testament, or in the worship of churches for the first six centuries. Several reasons have been posited throughout church history for the absence of instrumental music in church worship.

Christians who believe in a cappella music today believe that in the Israelite worship assembly during Temple worship only the Priests of Levi sang, played, and offered animal sacrifices, whereas in the church era, all Christians are commanded to sing praises to God. They believe that if God wanted instrumental music in New Testament worship, He would have commanded not just singing, but singing and playing like he did in the Hebrew scriptures.

There is no written opposition to musical instruments in any setting in the first century and a half of Christian churches (33–180 AD). The use of instruments for Christian worship during this period is also undocumented. Toward the end of the 2nd century, Christians began condemning the instruments themselves. Those who oppose instruments today believe these Church Fathers had a better understanding of God's desire for the church,[citation needed] but there are significant differences between the teachings of these Church Fathers and Christian opposition to instruments today.

  • Modern Christians typically believe it is acceptable to play instruments or to attend weddings, funerals, banquets, etc., where instruments are heard playing religious music. The Church Fathers made no exceptions. Since the New Testament never condemns instruments themselves, much less in any of these settings, it is believed that "the church Fathers go beyond the New Testament in pronouncing a negative judgment on musical instruments."

  • Written opposition to instruments in worship began near the turn of the 5th century. Modern opponents of instruments typically do not make the same assessment of instruments as these writers, who argued that God had allowed David the "evil" of using musical instruments in praise. While the Old Testament teaches that God specifically asked for musical instruments, modern concern is for worship based on the New Testament.

(1) Smith, John Arthur. Music in ancient Judaism and early Christianity. Farnham, Surrey.


For the earliest church, we have no definite information. So Lipscomb's statement must be rejected as tendentious (the author justifies his own church's tradition of vocal music only) when he claims:

Neither [Paul] nor any other apostle, nor the Lord Jesus, nor any of the disciples for five hundred years, used instruments.

In fact, Jesus himself spoke of his own metaphorical flute playing in Mt. 11:17:

17 ‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance, we sang a dirge but you did not mourn.’

This, of course, it not convincing evidence, but it does cause one to wonder why Jesus would refer to himself playing a metaphorical flute if he intended to forbid his disciples from playing real ones. A more definite indication is the fact instrumental music was an important part of Jewish worship in the first century. During this time the Christian church was largely Jewish and even many Jewish priests joined the church.

Acts 6:7

The word of God continued to spread, and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly; even a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith.

In addition, Acts 21 indicates that the Temple itself was still a key center of religious worship among Jewish Christians, who were the majority in Jewish lands as well as a substantial demographic group in the church throughout the Roman Empire. While the Temple of Jerusalem still stood, instrumental music was an [integral part of Jewish worship] as indicted in the psalms that speak of making a "joyful noise" unto the Lord with stringed instruments, horns, etc. This was true for synagogues as well as the Temple, and there is no indication that Christian congregations at this point differed dramatically from their Jewish counterparts in worship style.

However, the Jewish attitude toward instrumental music changed dramatically after the Temple fell, as it was felt that mourning rather than joy was the appropriate religious attitude. Meanwhile, once the Jerusalem church was dispersed, Christian liturgical tradition increasingly diverged from Jewish customs. The attitude soon evolved that instrumental music was "of the body" or of "the old covenant" and that only vocal music was truly spiritual. This attitude probably did not take form suddenly, nor was it universal, but it was well established by the fifth century.

Paul James-Griffiths writes in an article on the History of Music in the Church:

The majority of Church Fathers between AD 100 and 500 did not accept the use of musical instruments in church and the Christians worshipped God with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs in a chanting fashion... Apart from the rejection of musical accompaniment during worship because they regarded it as being from the Old Covenant, they were also defensive about the possible influences of pagan music creeping into the Church and leading it astray.

However, some Church Fathers, while preferring vocal music, clearly allowed instruments. For example Clement of Alexandria - Instructor 2:4

And even if you wish to sing and play to the harp or lyre, there is no blame. You shall imitate the righteous Hebrew king in his thanksgiving to God.

Conclusion: The statement quoted in the OP is inaccurate. The earliest church probably did use musical instruments, especially in Jewish-Christian congregations, until sometime after 70 CE. After that, the tradition to avoid musical instruments in the period discussed was not universal, although it was fairly well established.


Forgive the pedantic response, but the term a capella means "in the style of the chapel". So, if there was a chapel involved, or if it was sung in a chapel, or sung in similar manner as if in a chapel, then yes, it would by definition be a capella.

As far as the meaning of music sung without accompaniment, numerous references, especially those abundant in the Psalms in the Old Testament, refer to the use of both song and musical instruments to give praises to God:

Sing for joy in the Lord, O you righteous ones; Praise is becoming to the upright. Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre; Sing praises to Him with a harp of ten strings. Sing to Him a new song; Play skillfully with a shout of joy. (Psalm 33:1-3)

I will also praise You with a harp, Even Your truth, O my God; To You I will sing praises with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel. (Psalm 71:22-24)

Sing for joy to God our strength; Shout joyfully to the God of Jacob. Raise a song, strike the timbrel, The sweet sounding lyre with the harp. (Psalm 81:1-2)

Thus all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the Lord with shouting, and with sound of the horn, with trumpets, with loud-sounding cymbals, with harps and lyres. (1 Chronicles 15:27-28)

Given that the early Christians were one and the same with the historic Jews under King David, it seems more likely than unlikely that the followers of Jesus permitted or perhaps even regularly used musical instruments in their worship. I do note that the New Testament speaks much less about instruments than does the Old Testament. One notable difference is that during the time of King David, the people of Israel were a free people. It is entirely possible that the use of musical instruments for worship, etc. would have been more regulated under the reign of Caesar, or that a lack of prosperity meant a dwindling of such instruments being possessed by the vassal Israelites. The Savior does make reference to trumpets being used to announce almsgiving by hypocrites. I don't claim to know very much about the economics or regulation of music during that time period, but it seems likely that the relative freedom and prosperity of certain OT times is causally linked to increased abundance of musical instruments.

Singing is of course something that the poorest of the poor could do, and there is record of singing in the New Testament, without any explicit reference to instruments:

And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (Matthew 26:30)

So while it seems likely that many poor Christians did sing a capella, without extensive further information about the conditions it seems impossible to rule out the use of musical instruments.

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