The Style of New Testament Worship
It’s clear that our churches are meant to worship (Rom. 12:1). But when we gather to worship in song, what should that music sound like?
That can be a tricky question to answer. When we look in the Old Testament, we are told to praise God with the trumpet, harp, lyre, cymbals, and other instruments. This gives us some insight into what Old Testament worship music would have sounded like, though we’re still left to wonder about the style of this music.
When we look at worship music in the New Testament, we find that we are commanded to sing:
“Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart…” (Ephesians 5:18–19)
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16)
Using music in worship is not optional in either the Old or New Testaments. We are commanded to do this. Some have argued that because these New Testament passages make no mention of instrumentation, instruments are therefore prohibited from worship. But this is an argument from silence that tries to swim upstream.
An argument from silence would work well here if we said that because instrumentation is a common and critical aspect of worship in the Old Testament, and because the New Testament writers don’t say anything against instruments, they are simply assuming that their command to “sing and make melody” will be played out in contexts where instruments were a common and critical aspect of worship. In other words, “singing and making melody” would naturally have musical accompaniment. But to argue that the New Testament is arguing against instrumentation by not saying anything is using the argument from silence backwards.
So the New Testament tells us to sing, and assumes that this will include musical accompaniment. (The qualifier that this is to be “with your heart” means that the praise originates in the heart, not that it stays there.)
But this tells us nothing of the style of music we are to use in worship. It leaves the door wide open for culture, personality, and diversity. Our worship music can be as diverse as the church itself.
And church history bears this out. Worship music has taken the form of simple theological songs; Gregorian chants; choral pieces; fugues, concertos, and suites; “traditional” hymns; praise choruses; and so on. At one point, the piano took the lead over the organ in many modern churches, only to be surpassed by the acoustic and sometimes electric guitar. Country, gospel, pop, rock, and sometimes even techno and rap are represented in worship today, to say nothing of the exceedingly diverse styles of music around the world.
Most of our churches experienced “worship wars” 20 or more years ago where praise songs and hymns were pitted against one another. The aging organist fought tooth and nail against the young guitarists. Some churches are still experiencing this. But when we consider the freedom that the New Testament leaves us on this issue, these wars are downright silly. (By the way, this freedom extends to those who choose not to use instruments in their worship as well—another God-glorifying way to worship him!)
One of the greatest lessons we learn from the Psalms is that God is to be praised in every conceivable way—and this diversity extends to musical expressions of worship. Our churches tend to get stuck in ruts, believing that worship music must always sound like Chris Tomlin or Hillsong or Charles Wesley or John Newton.
But if we take a step back and view the worship music scene globally, historically, and theologically, we will see a beautiful diversity as God’s people voice his praise in innumerable variations. And this diversity glorifies the God who created a world in which near-infinite instruments can be perfected and mastered, where near-infinite combinations of sounds, lyrics, and vocal accompaniment can be adopted—all with the intention of praising the Creator.