Sound Pollution

The history of Christian worship reveals that in early times churches did not use instrumental music in their worship and that its introduction, centuries later, resulted in divisions. As per the proverbial saying, “History is repeating itself”. We propose to take a different look at this subject in this article.

Some months ago in a discussion of some current changes in congregational worship, a respected friend and fellow servant of Jesus Christ likened “clapping” to the use of instrumental music in that both are “intrusions”. This was a new idea to me. Upon meditating on it and applying it to my own experiences, I have come to understand this observation.

In an earlier incident the editors of this paper caused a writer to be unhappy by not printing his submission. His article stated that hand clapping during the singing of hymns in worship is authorized by the same scripture passages that authorize instrumental music in Christian worship. (It was his conviction that there are no such passages.) We were hesitant at that time to see the two placed as parallels.

However, in terms of the “intrusion” aspect, there certainly does seem to be a parallel. In both cases meditations on the profound and meaningful thoughts in a hymn are interrupted by sounds, which, quite often, drown out the words and detract a person's concentration from the thoughts involved. An intrusion indeed!

Another friend has stated that those who oppose the use of instrumental music in worship are “presumptuous and arrogant” in telling him that he can't do so. As I have considered this rather harsh and judgemental statement, a comparison has come to mind. Are those who ask their friends or visitors not to smoke in their cars or homes, thereby being presumptuous or arrogant? Perhaps they could be judged as practising poor hospitality?

How are they parallel? Smoking pollutes the air. Those in the environment have no choice but to breath this polluted air. They may find it unpleasant. They may be concerned that it is harmful to their physical health. They are not trying to take away the other person's choice but rather are asking the person who wants to smoke to be considerate by doing so elsewhere.

Although it is possible that some readers will not feel that the situations are parallel, it seems to me that both the instrument and hand clapping are sound pollution much as the smoke is air pollution. The beautiful, healthy, vocal sounds of a capella singing with easily heard and clearly understood lyrics is being overridden and spoiled by noises which, rather than contributing to the “with the spirit and with the understanding” (I Cor. 14:15) is making such more difficult. Those in the environment have no choice. They are exposed. They may find it displeasing. They may, as many are, be concerned about it being harmful to their spiritual health. This is certainly true where there are conscientious convictions on the matter. To ask that others refrain is neither arrogant nor presumptuous but rather, is requesting that those who want to do so be considerate, and, if they must do it, to behave as the smoker should and do it elsewhere. There are those who see the instrument in worship as a presumptuous addition and who because of conscience cannot compromise with those who use it.

Some may have thought that the church apostatized very soon after the age of the apostles. In his two volumes, “Early Christians Speak” published by the ACU Press (1999-2000), Evertt Ferguson shows that the church continued its commitment to the teaching of the Scriptures, practised believers baptism by immersion for forgiveness of sin, sang praises to God a cappella, observed communion on the first day of the week and maintained aspects of congregational autonomy.

In conclusion, we remind that neither scripture nor history supports the use of instrumental music in Christian worship. Those who have introduced it, have done so like the smoker, because they want it and have justified the practise by human reasoning - their wants and their wisdom - rather than by reference to God's will.

Eugene Perry

Published in The Old Paths Archive