Colossians 3.16, Instrumental Music, and What We’ve Missed

Perhaps the most controversial subject in the history of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement has been the issue of instrumental music in Christian worship. It has caused much division and along with that much heated argumentation and hurt feelings.

Those who know me well or have followed this blog already know that I have given up the belief that instrumental music is wrong in Christian worship. Although, I am also very happy to serve as a preacher/minister in a congregation that worships in a capella. The reasons why I no longer believe instrumental music to be wrong is beyond the scope of why I am writing this post. Nevertheless, It simply boils down to the fact that I believe the traditional view opposing instrumental music based on scriptural silence relies on a faulty hermeneutic and a faulty exegesis of certain passages in the New Testament.

One of those passages is Colossians 3.16 which reads “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” (NRSV). One of the basic rules of biblical interpretation is that no passage of scripture can mean anything other than what the author intended it to mean to the original recipients.

So here we have a passage belonging to a letter written by the Apostle Paul from prison (4.10, 18) which places it’s date of writing probably in the early 60’s CE. Of all the issues facing the Colossians, instrumental music was not one of them. Therefore, we must automatically strike any notion that Paul is trying to answer the question of whether or not instruments are permissible in Christian worship.

If then, instrumental music in worship is not the issue, what then is Paul trying to get across to the Colossians and subsequently, us? This is where we must turn to the larger context in Colossians. Here we have a church struggling with the question of whether Jesus Christ is sufficient for there salvation. Paul’s answer is an emphatic “Yes” because in Jesus Christ, the fullness of God dwells (1.19). Jesus is the one who has reconciled these Christians to God in his body through death (1.21). The Colossians are believers who have been buried with Christ in baptism (2.12), having their life now raised with and hidden in Christ waiting to appear with him in glory (3.1-4). So yes, the Colossians have assurance of their salvation in Jesus Christ.

Of course this glorious picture of salvation comes with moral/ethical expectations if the Colossians are to fully embrace this new life in Christ. Therefore, Paul first insists that these struggling Christians “put to death” those “earthly” (γῆ) behaviors that remain (3.5-11). Then Paul further instructs them in 3.12ff to “clothe” themselves in the virtues of God such as compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, and love.

What is clear from the context is that Paul is trying to exhort the Colossians towards a lifestyle rooted in this new life they have in Christ. In v. 16, it makes grammatical sense to read the phrase “in all wisdom” with the instruction to “teach and admonish” and the phrase “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” with the instruction to sing (F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, 158). Contextually, what this means is that in v. 16 Paul is giving an instruction for the Colossians 1) to continue teaching and admonishing each other to keep clothing themselves in these virtues of God, and 2) to praise God with gratitude in song for this new life they have been given and are now being clothed in.

What is to be said then about the rather contemporary issue of instrumental music in Christian worship? Absolutely nothing from this passage since it is not addressing such issue but instead is offering us a means of encouraging our fellow Christians in living a life in Christ clothed in godly virtue. However, we miss this when we try to force this passage to address an issue it never was meant to tackle. Yet how ironic is it that some of the most vitriolic and condemning rhetoric in the Restoration Movement has come about over the question of instrumental music in Christian worship including the interpretation of Colossians 3.16 where, in context, we are being exhorted to be people of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness and love. It would be funny if it were not so true.

Questions about Christian worship, including the question of instrumental music in Christian worship, will never go away. Each generation of Christians needs the freedom to deal with such questions even if they arrive at a different conclusion than the previous generation. But in proceeding forth, may we all never lose sight of the virtues we are to be clothed in. May we be more compassionate and kind to each other, learning to forgive, and to always love one another!

——————–

Feel free to comment if you like but please keep the comments relatively short, on point, and above all, in harmony with the godly virtues that Colossians instructs us to clothe ourselves in.

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18 responses to “Colossians 3.16, Instrumental Music, and What We’ve Missed

  1. For Most of Christian History and in the period of the Undivided Church, and in the Orthodox Church that has continued the worship Tradition from the Beginning, worship is non-instrumental. Their exegesis and hermeneutic is better than ours; they were closer to the world-views of the time. This is another example of attempting to reinvent a wheel that still exists! There are sound reasons rooted in sanctification why instrumental music is not a part of Christian worship, and in Orthodoxy there is no controversy….

  2. Rex, I don’t believe that there is a single passage in all of scripture which was written to directly address the issue of instrumental worship. I have to conclude that it simply wasn’t an issue, and was never meant to be. (Except, of course, by Satan — for whom any opportunity to divide the body of Christ is acceptable.)

    • I am in agreement with you so you’ll get no argument from me. However, Since I was trying to offer a simple exegesis about what Paul was actually saying in Colossians 3.16, I didn’t want to deal with any other passages that have been used to condemn instrumental music in worship.

  3. This is a little off topic, and perhaps a bit picky (sorry!), but the sentence at the end of paragraph 3: “One of the basic rules of biblical interpretation is that no passage of scripture can mean anything other than what the author intended it to mean to the original recipients” – should probably be adjusted slightly. For if that was true, there are too many things we would have to throw out the window; from Matthew’s use of the OT, to the sermons in Acts, and on and on; where the speakers and writers of those texts most definitely interpret biblical passages in a way that the original authors and hearers never meant or took them to mean.

    Perhaps a better way to put it would be “One of the basic rules of biblical interpretation is that each passage of Scripture has a contextual meaning for the original author and original recipients. Not understanding and considering this meaning is an exegetical and hermeneutical error.”

    Or something like that. 🙂

    Grace be with you –
    Jr

  4. As an ex-longtime member of the Church of Christ I find it ironic now how many times I used the verses of Col 3:16 and Eph 5:19 as an A Cappella only verse. But notice how it says to speak in Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual songs. So, we can SING about praising God with instruments but not actually do it -which would be sinful. Sounds a little weak to me.

  5. Excellent thoughts Rex, as always!

  6. Rex, I would be delighted to debate with you on this issue. Needless to say, i do not see eye to eye on much of what you blog and preach. I have been a fervent member of the church of Christ for over thirty-four years now, working my way here, through many hard-felt trials and tribulations, previously through years of denominational ism, preachers, false prophets, false teachers and doctrines and the like. I have been there, seen that, done that; and the church of Christ needs no reforming. God’s word is our authority, not the beliefs or power of a single preacher, or young reformers or college professors. Where we have fallen asleep is in not obeying Jesus Christ,–the word of God –which I love; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit– but in our turning elsewhere to determine our own so-called “mission statement.” Our mission is not to be simply Christians; –we already are Christians! It didn’t use to be this way, haven fallen asleep. Churches of Christ I knew were always awake and growing leaps and bounds, bearing much fruit. The difference was that we knew our mission, and we put on the full armour of God, and were truly marching Christian soldiers. (Eph. 6:11-18). Obeying Jesus: (Mat. 28:18-20).
    –dc

    • Really, I’m not interested in debating. Especially since you haven’t addressed anything about the biblical text as to why my exegesis and interpretation of Colossians is wrong, offering a different exegesis and interpretation. The only thing you’ve done is ranted and complained with a back-door Ad Hominem as though I or others who would agree with me don’t accept the word of God as authoritative but instead want to follow something “elsewhere” wherever that elsewhere is. Not true!

      • Rex, I already know that you are not interested in a real debate with me, because you have already told me that. As I stated, I would be delighted to debate the issue, if you did not keep blocking me. Even now, as I type, I cannot see what I am typing, because it is black on black. It is obvious to me that unless you are winning the debate, you no longer allow the debate to continue. Your reply given here is not an honestr one, in that you are insinuating thating that you would be willing to debate if I had talked about the issue. You well know, that is not the case. Like I said, I would be delighted to debate, if after my making the effort you would not block it.

      • Don,

        The black on black issues you are having is something to do with your computer. I don’t know what it is but it is nothing I’ve done on this end. As far as you being blocked on here…not so. I have your comments waiting approval since some of your comments have been, in my opinion, accusatory in their tone and often mention stuff that has little, if anything, to do with the issue at hand. It’s my blog so it’s my discretion. But as long as you keep making accusatory judgements regarding my motives or the motives of anyone referenced in the blog, you will be moderated.

        I hope that helps explain and I hope you can understand.

        Grace and Peace,

        Rex

  7. Pingback: Weekly Meanderings | Jesus Creed

  8. Doesn’t “Psallo” in the GK mean to “Pluck”?

    • C,

      If you read the 3rd edition of Bauer Greek Lexicon (http://goo.gl/aHU3g), which is the basic standard for defining and translating Greek, you will find that one of the meanings of “psallo” is “to pluck.” However, by the first century “psallo” simply meant “to sing” and had nothing to do with plucking or playing some instrument. It is also well known that the earliest Christians did not use instruments in their worship. These two reasons happen to be the heart of the argument for why Churches of Christ (the a capella branch of Restoration Churches) have upheld a capella worship, believing instrumental worship to be wrong.

      Having acknowledged what is known historically about the first-century church and what the word “psallo” means, the point of this post was to show contextually that Paul is not trying to regulate whether Christians worship without instruments. Rather, singing ought to be an expression of gratitude for the redemptive work of God among the Christian community which is bringing about the virtues of Christ in the people.

      Grace and Peace,

      Rex

      • Eph 5:19 (ESV) Paul says, “singing and making melody” wouldn’t that include instruments?

        PS: Sorry the 1st post only left a “C” for my name….

      • Yes it can but for whatever reason, that was not the practice (as far as we know) of the first-century Christians. The article in BDAG for “psallo” suggest as a possible reason that the church was trying to distinguish itself from the mystery cults. Whatever the case, I don’t think that this means that contemporary Christians must be bound by the same practice. The traditional CoC argument for a capella worship is based on what I believe are some faulty hermeneutical assumptions about the NT (including that the NT serving as a constitution for ekklesia polity and worship and that silence is prohibitive). That is why I am not going to preach & teach that instrumental music in Christian worship is inherently wrong.

  9. Okay Rex, I will try debating issues with you again, as soon as I have some time. The way I remember it, was that you no longer wanted to debate with me, and it had notinng to do do with anything other than your unwillingness to consider any further in the valid points that I was making. Because I can no longer see what I am typing on your web site, I will write it elsewhere, and than cut and paste. I used to be able to read what I type here, white on black, until you began blocking me. But, whatever; I will just resort to cut and paste. I really look forward to again exchanging thoughts with you on these issues. Grace and peace, –dc

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