A STUDY OF MUSIC IN WORSHIP: EARLY CHURCH HISTORY

It is taught by some in the Churches of Christ that the early church condemned instrumental music in worship and that the practice didn’t begin until the 6th or 7th century. But would you be surprised to know that the early church for the first several hundred years after its establishment never condemned instrumental music in worship to God? There is not one condemning comment made by the early church about instrumental music in worship during the first several hundred years after the church was established.

The typical response to this is that the early church didn’t condemn instrumental music because it wasn’t in use. However, this simply isn’t the case. In this article, we will do a brief overview on what the early church had to say in regards to instrumental music in worship.

Clement of Alexandra

Clement of Alexandria (c.a. 190) said:

“For the apostle adds again, ‘Teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your heart to God.’ And again, ‘Whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and His Father.’ This is our thankful revelry. And even if you wish to sing and play to the harp or lyre, there is no blame. Thou shalt imitate the righteous Hebrew king in his thanksgiving to God.” (Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2, p. 249)

While Clement had his personal (negative) feelings about instrumental music, he clearly saw no problem with using instruments in worship to God. If nobody in the early church used instrumental music, then Clement wouldn’t have addressed the issue. His addressing of such issues proves that some in the early church did indeed use instrumental music. This also shows that the shared musical Puritanism of the intellectual pagans was already becoming a factor. While the early church was not legalistic about instruments early on, hundreds of years later many became very legalistic towards the use of instrumental music in any setting for any reason.

Yet, during early church history, not only are there no early church writings that condemn instrumental worship in worship, there are early church writings that speak of instrumental music in worship in a positive light. In fact, instrumental illustrations occur far more frequently in Christian writings than any other musical texts in the first several centuries (Music in Early Church Literature, McKinnon, p. 5).

Ephraim

Ephraim Syrus (c.a. 306-373) said:

“Let us praise that Voice whose glory is hymned with our lute, and His virtue with our harp. The Gentiles have assembled and have come to hear His strains” (Post Nicene Fathers, vol. 13, p. 227).

Jerome

Jerome speaks of a “sister” who praises God with instruments and he also mentions a choir (c.a. 347- 420):

“Oh! that you could see your sister and that it might be yours to hear the eloquence of her holy lips and to behold the mighty spirit which animates her diminutive frame. You might hear the whole contents of the old and new testaments come bubbling up out of her heart. Fasting is her sport, and prayer she makes her pastime. Like Miriam after the drowning Pharaoh, she takes up her timbrel and sings to the virgin choir, ‘Let us sing to the Lord for He hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.’ She teaches her companions to be music girls but music girls for Christ, to be lute players but lute players for the Saviour” (Schaff & Wace, Nicene & Post Nicene Fathers, 1893, vol. 6, p. 107).

Those who would later oppose mechanical instruments in worship wouldn’t oppose it on the grounds that there was “no authority” for it. Rather, they opposed it because of the shared musical Puritanism of pagan intellectuals, and they also condemned even David’s use of instruments as well as instrumental music in all contexts, not just worship (Missing More Than Music, Corbitt pp. 26-30). Scholars reason that this opposition to instrumental music in any setting probably stemmed from the outside pagan influences which eventually affected some in the church (ibid, pp. 30-35).

“The later fathers on the other hand, all thoroughly educated in the classical tradition, might be said to have shared the musical Puritanism of pagan intellectuals, taking it—for reasons of their own—beyond all precedent” (McKinnon, pp. 3-5).

Far from a biblical precedent, the binding of “vocal music only” probably stems from pagan roots. But what about some of the early church fathers that some have brought up supposedly condemning music in worship very early on?

Justin Martyr:

I want to begin with one of the most famous quotes that some Churches of Christ have used. It is allegedly claimed by some that the following quote comes from Justin Martyr:

“The use of [instrumental] music was not received in the Christian churches, as it was among the Jews, in their infant state, but only the use of plain song…Simply singing is not agreeable to children [the aforementioned Jews], but singing with lifeless instruments and with dancing and clapping is. On this account the use of this kind of instruments and of others agreeable to children is removed from the songs of the churches, and there is left remaining simply singing.”

This quote is found nowhere in Justin’s writings. It has been long accepted by scholars and textual critics that this was not a quote from Justin Martyr and should be rejected. This was a “pseudo-Justinian” quote that came hundreds of years after Justin (McKinnon, James. Music in Early Christian Literature, p. 107; Ferguson, Everett. The Instrumental Music Issue, p. 95). There are no writings of Justin Martyr (c.a. 139) condemning instruments in worship.

Tertullian

Another individual used whose information is often misapplied is Tertullian (c.a. 200). Tertullian writes:

“That immodesty of gesture and attire which so specially and peculiarly characterizes the stage are consecrated to them—the one deity wanton by her sex, the other by his drapery; while its services of voice, and song, and lute, and pipe, belong to Apollos, and Muses, and Minervas, and Mercuries. You will hate, O Christian, the things whose authors must be the objects of your utter detestation” (Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, p. 84).

This quote is sometimes used to allegedly prove that Tertullian was against instruments in worship. However, this is not the context of Tertullian’s statement. Tertullian is not speaking about worship to God, he is talking about the theater or “The Show.” He was speaking against going to shows that he believed were ungodly.

Furthermore, the lute and pipe were not the only things that Tertullian mentioned. He also mentioned the voice and song. If this quote condemns instruments in worship, then it also condemns the voice and song.

CONCLUSION

While we could look at quite a few more texts, the aforementioned is sufficient in showing the early church at the beginning did not unanimously condemn instrumental music and, in fact, some spoke favorably towards it. Although some opposed instrumental music in all settings, the early church was not yet legalistic towards instrumental music. The condemnation of instrumental music did not come until later—and as the condemnation of music grew, it was condemned in all settings—not just worship. Furthermore the condemnation wasn’t on the basis of Bible authority, but because of pagan influences.

– Kevin Pendergrass

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