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.