One of the most common, and simplest, justifications for instrumental music is that it merely serves to aid the worship. Like a song book or pitch pipe the piano, drums or guitar keep the time, pitch and music as we sing along. What could possibly be wrong with that?
Many attempts have been made to answer this line of thinking by drawing a distinction between aids and additions. In my opinion, this approach may have some merit but ultimately turns out to be far less than compelling. Trying to argue that instruments don’t aid our singing seems to me to be a losing battle. If one does not have a good sense of music having an instrument play the tune does, in fact, assist and aid one’s singing. Trying to say otherwise seems to be a genuine exercise in futility. Instead, I would like to suggest we stop arguing if instruments are aids and turn our attention to whether or not they are lawful aids.
That is a fine question to discuss because scripture clearly shows that there are unlawful aids. 2 Samuel 6:3ff records the ark of the covenant being carried on an ox cart. There is no doubt that the cart assisted and aided the transport of the ark. However, it was an unlawful aid that displeased God and violated divine law. David even says “For because you did not do it the first time the Lord our God broke out against us, because we did not consult Him about the proper order” 1 Chronicles 15:13. Could instruments of music be like this ox cart, that is “not of the proper order?” What determines the differences between lawful aids and unlawful aids?
First, an aid cannot violate other scriptures. In our desire to preach to the lost we might decide that showing X-rated films would attract a big crowd of sinners. However, this appeal to lust and carnality would violate many NT principles and commands (see 2 Tim. 2:22). Thus, showing such movies would be an unlawful aid to evangelism.
Second, our aid cannot substitute for the divinely specified way of doing things. In other words, we cannot decide we know better than God and use our means and methods instead of divinely specified ones. In the example in 2 Samuel 6 cited above the cart was an aid, but it was a substitution for the clear and specific way the ark was to be carried (by the priests). The cart was a substitution of human origin and displeased God.
Third, and very importantly, an aid cannot change the nature of our obedience. For example, we could offer twenty dollars to every person who would be baptized and as a result baptize hundreds. The financial incentive of twenty dollars could be called an aid (or bribe!) to evangelism. But it is an unlawful aid because it changes freewill obedience to the gospel of Christ into an act of greed and self-interest. The aid transforms the nature of what is done so that it spoils, if you will, the very act itself. What is done is no longer pleasing to God because of the change that has occurred.
Let us make some applications of these principles. Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper with unleavened bread (Matthew 26:26). One might argue that leaven is an aid to taking the Supper, because it makes the bread taste better. However, adding leaven changes the very nature of the bread, doesn’t it? The aid changes what we are eating into something different from the Lord specified, and would thus be an unlawful aid. In Numbers 19:2 the Law specified that Israelites were to bring an unblemished red heifer to be used in purification rites. An Israelite could argue that a choke leash would make it easier to bring the red heifer. The choke leash would thus be an aid to his or her obedience. However, the choke leash would not only make it easier to bring the animal to the tabernacle, it would scar and blemish the red heifer along the way. The aid blemishes the sacrifice and thus is unlawful because it spoils the sacrifice.
It is not hard now to make application to instrumental music, is it? Instrumental accompaniment changes what is specified in Ephesians 5:19 (“sing”) into an entirely different form of music. Just as bread is changed when leaven is added, and the red heifer would be changed by a choke leash, so instrumental accompaniment changes our music from acappella singing to instrumental music. This change makes our worship different, and in fact, represents a substitution of what people want over what God has directly specified.
God has given us great liberty to use helps, like song books, microphones and church buildings, to fulfill His will and do as He instructs. However, let us examine every aid to our obedience carefully to make certain that it is a lawful. Long ago God’s people had to learn that ox carts and the ark of the covenant did not mix, even if someone thought it was a help. Let us learn this valuable lesson too. Instrumental music may help our singing sound prettier in our ears, but this unlawful aid is an affront to the God who desires the sincere praise and obedience of our hearts.