Throughout church history, various disputes have erupted over particular practices in wor ship. Frequently, these conflicts have promoted an inquiry into general principles of worship, in order to assess the particular practices in question. Among the many controverted subjects during the Reformation, there were disputes over the Roman Catholic mass, the correct posture for receiving the Lord's Supper, the use of ministerial vestments, the observance of ecclesiastical festivals, etc. In the 19th and 20th centuries, conflicts have persisted over the use of non-canonical hymns, instrumental music, ecclesiastical holy days, and crosses. We offer the following observations, in an effort to evaluate the issues in conformity with the scriptural law of worship.
Throughout the scriptures, mankind is instructed to worship God only in the manner prescribed in God's word. When Moses revealed the details of tabernacle worship, there was anticipation that the portable tabernacle would eventually give way to a permanent place of worship (Deut. 12:5-14). Nevertheless, in both settings, the public ordinances were conducted under the Levitical priesthood. The priests offered the prescribed sacrifices; and certain priests were also designated as musicians.
When David brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, he learned the importance of seeking the Lord according to the "due order" of God's word. Part of the priestly order of the Old Testament included the appointment of Levitical musicians in both the tabernacle and the temple (1 Chron. 15:12-13).
After bringing the ark to Jerusalem, David left priests "to minister before the ark continually, as every day's work required" (1 Chron. 16:37, 42). These priests included those making sacrificial offerings, and "with them Heman and Jeduthun with trumpets and cymbals for those that should make a sound, and with musical instruments of God" (1 Chron. 16:37, 42).
When David divided the courses of the priesthood, the divisions included those "who should prophesy with harps, with psalteries, and with cymbals," etc., "for song in the house of the Lord, with cymbals, psalteries, and harps, for the service of the house of God" (1 Chron. 23:6ff.; 25:1; 25:6).
When David delivered to Solomon the divine pattern for the temple, it included "the courses of the priests and the Levites, and for all the work of the service of the house of the Lord" (1 Chron. 28:12-13, 19, 21).
When the temple was dedicated, the ark of the covenant was placed within it. The Levitical musicians made a great sound of praise, and the Lord filled the house with a cloud of glory. During the feast of dedication, "the priests waited on their offices: the Levites also with the instruments of music of the Lord, which David the king had made to praise the Lord" (2 Chron. 5:12-14; 7:6).
Throughout these narratives, it is absolutely clear that the musicians and their instruments were not employed simply from the aesthetic tastes of the king or the people. Rather, the musicians were selected in conformity with the divine pattern for worship delivered to David. Some of these heavenly directives came by "Gad the king's seer, and Nathan the prophet;" and all the details were by "the commandment of the Lord by his prophets" (2 Chron. 29:25).
Moreover, it is indisputable that these musicians were part of the Levitical priesthood. They ministered near the ark of the covenant, the meeting-place between God and his people.
Throughout the history of Israel, there were many seasons of apostasy. When the people later repented of their wickedness, temple worship was restored according to biblical law. Such reforms required a resumption of priestly duties which had been neglected.
During Hezekiah's reform, the king directed the Levites to cleanse the house of the Lord and resume the offerings and sacrifices. Also, "he set the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, with psalteries, and with harps, according to the commandment of David, and of Gad the king's seer, and Nathan the prophet: for so was the commandment of the Lord by his prophets. And the Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets" (1 Chron. 29:1-24; 2 Chron. 29:25-26; cf. 30:21).
Again we see conformity to the divine pattern for worship, down to minute details. Even the instruments themselves were not chosen haphazardly, or according to personal taste. There is a specific reference to "the instruments of David." Similar language is used elsewhere: "the musical instruments of David, the man of God," and even, "musical instruments of God" (2Chron.29:26; Neh. 12:36; 1 Chron.16:42). Such statements indicate that the particular instruments were selected by the Lord himself, in order to fulfill his own purposes.
The priestly character of the musicians is again underscored in the reform conducted by King Josiah. The house of God was repaired, "and the men did the work faithfully" under the oversight of Jahath and Obadiah, etc., "and other of the Levites, all that could skill of instruments of music" (2 Chron.34:12).
During Nehemiah's reform, after Israel's captivity, there is further evidence of the priestly character of the instrumental musicians. "At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites out of all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem, to keep the dedication with gladness, both with thanksgivings, and with singing, with cymbals, psalteries and with harps. and certain of the priests' sons with trumpets. and his brethren. with the musical instruments of David the man of God" (Neh. 12:27, 35-36).
There are additional references to musical instruments in the Old Testament narratives and the Psalms. But these appear to be further references to temple services, or to the use of instruments in conjunction with prophetic offices, or to musical pursuits associated with everyday life (Ps.150:1-5; 81:2-3; 1Sam.10:5-6; 16:14-23; 18:6,10; 19:9; 1 Chron.25:1-3).
Musicians should always seek to glorify God with their music; that principle is not con tested. The real question before us is whether musical instruments were ever commanded by God as ordinary implements in worship apart from their use in the temple services (Ps.33:2-3; 57:7-9; 1 Cor.10:31).
After examining these Old Testament narratives, we should note the following facts:
1. The appointment of tabernacle and temple musicians came under divine direction as part of the biblical pattern for worship.
2. These musicians were all Levites, ministering near the ark of the covenant, the meeting -place between God and his people.
3. The specific instruments used by the Levitical musicians were dictated by divine inspira tion.
As we examine New Testament passages relevant to this subject, we discover certain ele ments of discontinuity, as well as some aspects of continuity with the Old Testament.
The most prominent feature of discontinuity is the replacement of the Levitical priesthood and the temple ordinances.
Christ has come as "a priest after the order of Melchisedec," and his superior priesthood takes precedence over the Levitical priesthood. "The priesthood being changed" (Heb. 5:6,10; 7:11), the courses of Levitical priests, including the musicians, no longer minister in the tabernacle near the ark.
Moreover, "the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law." The old covenant had "ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary." The ninth chapter of Hebrews contains a description of the furniture in the tabernacle, and the ark; all of these items had significance as "a shadow of heavenly things," "figures of the true" tabernacle in heaven (Heb. 7:12; 9:1; 8:5; 9:24).
The Levitical sacrifices and ordinances were types which were fulfilled in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. But now, Christ has come as our high priest, "by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands." As our high priest, Christ "needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for his own sins, and then for the people's." No, Christ was "once offered to bear the sins of many," and "when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Heb. 9:11; 7:27; 9:28; 1:3).
It is striking to recall that the instrumental musicians in the public worship of the Old Testament were all Levites, ministering in tabernacle or temple ordinances. The priestly services of the Levites have been replaced in the New Testament. Therefore, the burden of proof rests with the proponents of instrumental music; they must prove a divine warrant for such service apart from tabernacle or temple ordinances, if they wish to introduce instrumental music into new covenant worship. Without such a warrant, it is improper to reintroduce such ceremonial observances back into public worship.
Moreover, should the proponents of instrumental music establish a warrant for their use in public worship, it would seem incumbent upon them to restore only the "instruments of David," or such specific instruments as were divinely ordained for use in worship. By any scriptural measure, they would not possess a blanket endorsement to use all musical instruments, according to subjective preferences.
Within the New Testament, we find certain elements which correspond to the priestly service of the Levites in the Old Testament. These elements of new covenant practice provide continuity with the old.
For example, in the New Testament, we are taught that all Christians are made "kings and priests unto God" "an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ" (Rev. 1:6; 1 Pet. 2:5). As priests, Christians present their bodies "a living sacrifice" (Rom. 12:1) as a reasonable service unto God. They "offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name" (Heb. 13:15). And they speak to one another "in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in their hearts"(Eph. 5:19). (Note that the melody which is specifically enjoined is in the heart.)
These actions reveal the true priestly service of the New Testament, as expressed in the life of the believer. These actions reflect the legitimate continuity between the Levitical forms of the Old Testament and Christian piety in the New Testament. All too often, however, a preoccupation with outward Levitical forms and liturgies has been marked by a neglect of the practical godliness. It has always been so with Rome; and it is presently so today among professing Protestants who are obsessed with liturgies.
In commenting on Psalm 81:3, John Calvin observed:
The Levites, under the law, were justified in making use of instrumental music in the worship of God; it having been his will to train his people, while they were yet tender and like children, by such rudiments, until the coming of Christ. But now when the clear light of the gospel has dissipated the shadows of the law, and taught us that God is to be served in a simpler form, it would be to act a foolish and mistaken part to imitate that which the prophet enjoined only upon those of his own time. From this, it is apparent that the Papists have shown themselves to be very apes in transferring this to themselves.
In a similar vein, Calvin remarks upon Psalm 33:2.
I have no doubt that playing upon cymbals, touching the harp and the viol, and all that kind of music, which is so frequently mentioned in the Psalms, was a part of the education; that is to say, the puerile instruction of the law: I speak of the stated service of the temple. For even now, if believers choose to cheer themselves with musical instruments, they should, I think, make it their object not to dissever their cheerfulness from the praises of God. But when they frequent their sacred assemblies, musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting of lamps, and the restoration of the other shadows of the law. The Papists, therefore, have foolishly borrowed this, as well as many other things, from the Jews. Men who are fond of outward pomp may delight in that noise; but the simplicity which God recommends to us by the apostle is far more pleasing to him.
For a summary of the typical nature of instrumental music in the Old Testament, the reader may find it helpful to consult John L. Girardeau's classic work, Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church (Richmond, 1888). Girardeau explains,
The instrumental music of temple-worship was typical of the joy and triumph of God's believing people to result from the plentiful effusion of the Holy Ghost in New Testament times.
[I]t pleased God to typify the spiritual joy to spring from a richer possession of the Holy Spirit through the sensuous rapture engendered by the passionate melody of stringed instruments and the clash of cymbals, by the blare of trumpets and the ringing of harps. It was the instruction of his children in a lower school, preparing them for a higher.
The book of Psalms in the Bible is comprised of spiritual songs composed over the course of many centuries. The psalms were used in a variety of settings for private, domestic, and public worship. It is not surprising, then, that we find the psalms similarly employed in the New Testa ment.
In the Hebrew Old Testament, the psalms are sometimes called psalms (mizmohr) in the titles affixed to them. In other cases, a psalm may be referred to as a praise (t'hillah), especially since many of the psalms begin with the word Hallelujah in Hebrew, which means, "Praise the Lord." A psalm may also be called a song (sheer), by title, or as a description of its nature.
In the Greek New Testament, there are several terms which correspond closely with the nomenclature of the Old Testament. The word translated psalm (psalmos) is equivalent to its Old Testament counterpart. The word translated hymn (humnos) comes from a root word meaning praise. Likewise, there is another word for song (odee), from which we get the English term ode. All three Greek terms are found numerous times in the descriptive headings of the Psalms within the Septuagint version of the Old Testament. The three terms are used together in Ephesians 5:19 and Col. 3:16.
The singing of the 150 biblical psalms is a practice which Christ and the apostles carried over into the New Testament. The psalter is the divinely-inspired songbook for worship, and it contains timeless expressions of praise to God. Even when the psalter makes reference to the older and displaced forms of worship, and the history of the Old Testament, the words may be sung with spiritual profit, as "ensamples written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come" (1 Cor. 10:11).
After Christ instituted the Lord's Supper, he and his disciples sang a hymn (a praise), before going to the Mount of Olives (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26). This singing was probably from the hallel, or praise psalms traditionally associated with the Jewish passover.
In Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians, the apostle rebukes the church for its discord and chaos. In chapter 14, verse 26, he mentions a psalm as one of the elements of public worship. Whereas Paul chides the Corinthians for unseemliness in many aspects of their practice, he never questions the propriety of psalms in worship.
Both Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 affirm the continued use of psalms in the New Testament. The words used are "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs." These are different terms, previously used in scripture, undoubtedly referring to various portions of the biblical psalter. Many modern readers employ these passages as a justification for introducing uninspired "hymns" into public worship. Unfortunately, popular nomenclature is not as precise as scripture; and this argument for non-canonical hymnody has a ring of plausibility, only because several generations have been raised singing nothing but uninspired hymnody drawn largely from 17th to 20th century composers. Thus, many people attempt to read back into the text of Ephesians and Colossians a meaning for the word hymn that is far from the apostle's original intent.
Paul's epistles offer no genuine support for non-canonical hymnody, since the scriptural use of the terminology must govern the meaning of the words used in this context. If the advocates of uninspired hymnody wish to establish their case, they must prove that Paul is using these terms in a manner contrary to their ordinary scriptural usage; or, they must show that, elsewhere, Christians have been enjoined to compose new psalms to supplement those given in the Bible.
In other words, the burden of proof rests upon the advocates of new hymnody to demonstrate that uninspired hymns are part of the divinely-revealed pattern for worship. The opponents of non-canonical hymnody in worship need no further proof of their unlawfulness, since there does not exist a biblical warrant for their use in worship.
For centuries, the Romish church has promoted a liturgical calendar, complete with major festi vals, lesser holidays, and saints' days. Some Protestants have joined with Rome in the celebration of major holidays such as Christmas and Easter while eschewing the grosser superstitions associated with saint worship.
The discussion of religious holidays is emotionally-charged, but the root issue is really quite simple: "Who hath required this at your hand?" (Isa. 1:12). Who established these religious ordinances God or man?
Under the Mosaic law, the Israelites observed the weekly sabbath, as well as special holy days in conjunction with the Levitical ordinances. After the death of Christ, the ceremonial holidays were no longer to be observed. The Lord's day is the Christian sabbath the day for public worship. "There is no day commanded in scripture to be kept under the gospel but the Lord's day, which is the Christian sabbath. Festival days, vulgarly [ commonly] called holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued."
The liturgical year and the ecclesiastical festivals have been brought into the church without any warrant from the scriptures. They are man-made observances, and therefore should be abolished on that basis alone.
Furthermore, the chief religious holidays actually developed out of pagan religious festivals: Christmas from Saturnalia, and Easter from the heathen fertility rites of spring. Saturnalia was a riotous festival in honor of the birth of the sun god, and it included homage to Bacchus, the Roman god of revelry and wine. The term Easter is derived from the name of the pagan goddess of spring (cf. Deut. 12:3); hence, the association with the symbols of fertility (rabbits and eggs) and illicit sexual activities.
The incorporation of such elements into Christian worship was a process of syncretism the absorption of pagan worship into ecclesiastical ritual. For this reason, a double-condemnation rests upon these observances, because the Bible forbids the imitation of heathen worship, and commands the people of God to purge the implements of corrupt worship from their midst. (Deut. 12:2-3, 30-31)
It is appropriate for us to offer a few comments on the placement of crosses in edifices of worship. When we speak of the cross, or crosses, we are referring to the visible symbol called a cross, not the sufferings of the Saviour. When the apostle Paul exclaimed, "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal. 6:14), he uttered a precious truth. But the apostle's expression is obviously a synecdoche, by which he exalts the saving work of Christ. Paul's statement has no reference to visible symbols, known among us as crosses.
The direct adoration or worship of crosses is plainly forbidden by the scriptures, in the first and second commandments, which prohibit worshipping anyone or anything besides the Lord. Historically, Protestants condemned the adoration of crosses; for example, the Scottish Confession of 1580 specifically lists the "worshipping of images, relics and crosses," among the deplorable practices of "the Roman Antichrist." (This condemnation was extended to the superstitious gesture of "crossing," which is also employed within Romish rites and ceremonies.)
Most Protestants still acknowledge that the direct worship of crosses is sinful. But a dispute results when many professing Protestants defend the use of the cross as a symbol.
Now, what is a symbol? It is a visible representation of something. If they say that the cross is a symbol of deity, then they again violate the second commandment, which prohibits making or using representations of the Lord (Cf. Deut. 4:15-16; Acts 17:29). Of course, most Protestants would not claim that the cross is a representation of God. Therefore, cross-keepers must explain it as a symbol of something else; so they shift the argument to say that a cross is a symbol of redemption, or of the work of Christ.
In this situation, the cross now becomes a man-made rival to the sacraments. As we have noted, baptism and the Lord's Supper serve as visible signs and seals of Christ's redemptive work; the sacraments are a visible word to testify of redemption. "For as oft as ye eat this bread, and drink of this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come" (1 Cor. 11:26).
Cross-keepers implicitly impugn the wisdom of Christ by supplementing the sacraments with the cross as an accessory sign. It is an inescapable implication, that the cross, employed as a symbol or as an aid to devotion, partakes of a sacramental characteristic as a sign.
Some will claim that the posting of a cross in a home, or on a church building, is an incidental thing, much as the arrangement of chairs, carpet, and wallpaper. But such incidental elements of decor do not possess the symbolic character of the cross. Cross-keepers must contend with the undeniable fact that the placement of a cross within an edifice of worship is not a merely indifferent aspect of architectural design. The only incidentals in a place of worship are those "circumstances concerning the worship of God, and the government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed. "
One must also consider the evil associations of the cross. The cross, as a symbol or gesture, is not found in the scriptures. For centuries, the cross has been and continues to be a prominent implement of Popish worship and superstition. No sane man can deny these facts. Since the cross has no biblical warrant for its use, why should it have any place among those who worship "in spirit and in truth"? (John 4:23-24). The people of God have been commanded to purge from their midst the implements of corrupt worship used by false religions (Deut. 12:2-3, 30-31).
Moreover, even if the cross had possessed a noble origin, the superstition now linked with it would argue for its abolition. Consider the example of Hezekiah in reference to the brazen serpent. The brazen serpent was originally constructed at God's command, yet it was destroyed when it became a snare to the people of God (2 Kings 18:4). How much more quickly, then, should we discard a man-made symbol which continues to be an ensign of the Roman Antichrist?
In summary, there is no scriptural warrant to designate the cross as a symbol (or gesture) to adorn the assemblies of God's people. Until cross-keepers can produce such a warrant, the use of crosses stands condemned on this basis alone, since the regulative principle of worship forbids all human additions to God's appointed rites and symbols in worship. Further, the superstition fostered by crosses demands that they be purged from among the people of God.
Footnotes for Chapter 4
1. Historic disputes about worship are covered in the following publications: John à Lasco, "The Abolition of Vestments," in Iain Murray (ed.), The Reformation of the Church (London: Banner of Truth, 1965); William Ames, A Fresh Suit Against Human Ceremonies in God's Worship (1633); David Calderwood, The Perth Assembly (1619), The Pastor and the Prelate (1628); William Cunningham, "Leaders of the Reformation," in The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (1862; rpt. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1979), pp. 27-46 (a portion of this article appears in Murray, The Reformation of the Church); George Gillespie, A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies Obtruded upon the Church of Scotland (1637); John Knox, True and False Worship ( 1551; rpt. Dallas: Presbyterian Heritage, 1987). Peter Lorimer, John Knox and the Church of England (1875); C.G. M'Crie, Public Worship in Presbyterian Scotland (1892).
2. Related remarks by Calvin are located in his commentary on the Psalms; see the following references 71:22; 92:3; 93:6; 149:3; 150:3.
3. Pages 60-63. Girardeau discusses this proposition more extensively, from pages 49-75, and he produces numerous citations from earlier reformed authors to illustrate that such views were not a novelty.
4. This term will be noted at the head of Psalms 3-6, 8-9, 12-13, 15, 19-24, etc.
5. See the title of Psalm 145; the first verses of the following psalms begin with the word the word Hallelujah, "Praise the Lord; " hence, their designation: 106, 111, 112, 113, 135, 146, 147, 148, 149, 150.
6. In the titles affixed to the following Psalms: 30, 45-46, 48, 65-69, 75, 83, 87-88, 92, 108, 120-34; cf. Ps. 137:3.
7. Hallel a shortened form of Hallelujah; see note 5 above; the hallel psalms generally sung at the celebration of the Passover were 113-18.
8. "An Appendix, Touching Days and Places for Public Worship," as annexed to the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God (1645).
9. For a more extensive discussion of ecclesiastical holidays, see: Michael Schneider and Kevin Reed, Christmas: A Biblical Critique (Dallas: Presbyterian Heritage, 1993).
10. Westminster Confession of Faith, 1:6.
Copyright ©1995 by Kevin Reed