Orthodox acapella chant redux


One of the most popular posts on this blog is Why do the Orthodox not use instruments. It was posted nearly five years ago, and still keeps coming up. I have had various comments on the subject, including the challenge that instruments are mentioned in the Old Testament, therefore, how can they be not used, or even forbidden, in the New Testament. In passing, it is true that various Orthodox parishes now allow the use of the organ to guide the choir. However, in every case I have seen of the use of the organ, the volume is kept deliberately low. But, let’s get back to the subject.

What troubles me is the automatic assumption that those who do not use instruments have to justify their failure to use instruments. A weaker approach is that those who do not use instruments have no right to speak to those who do to question their use of instruments, or worship bands, etc. In an absolutely worst case situation, the old freedom argument gets pulled out. We are free in Christ, therefore, you cannot deny me anything that is not strictly, definitively, and clearly forbidden in Scripture. In passing, since bread and wine are not specified, and there is no stricture against the use of other substances, this argument really does allow for the use crackers and Kool-Aid for communion.

But let’s take a quick look at Church history. Instruments were not used in the Church until nearly 1100. Many of the Early Church Fathers actually wrote against the use of instruments in the Church. But, this does not mean that the Church was against instruments per se, only against their use in the Church. As someone pointed out to me recently, instruments began to be used in Church processions two or three centuries before their use in the Church. Also, we have records of secular music, that included instruments, from after the Roman Empire “became Christian.” Instruments were never forbidden outside a Church worship. But, the Church did consider that the use of instruments inside the Church was not appropriate. It took nearly a thousand years of Church history before they made it inside the Church.

Here it might be appropriate to consider the arguments of John Calvin. Most who cannot understand why anyone would have ever forbidden instruments are not aware that only some of the Protestants allowed the use of instruments. But, most of the Calvinists did not. In fact, many only allowed the singing of the Psalms, as the singing of anything outside of Scripture was considered to be allowing non-Biblical things into worship. “Early Calvinists also eschewed musical instruments and advocated exclusive psalmody in worship, though Calvin himself allowed other scriptural songs as well as psalms, and this practice typified Presbyterian worship and the worship of other Reformed churches for some time. … Those who oppose instruments in worship, such as John Murray and G. I. Williamson, argue first that there is no example of the use of musical instruments for worship in the New Testament and second that the Old Testament uses of instruments in worship were specifically tied to the ceremonial laws of the Temple in Jerusalem, which they take to be abrogated for the church.”

It is true that almost all Calvinists changed that beginning in the 1800’s. But, realize that it was not until 1996 that the Calvinist theologian John Frame even argued that liturgical dance was permitted inside the Church. And, guess what? Various conservative Calvinist theologians strenuously disagreed with him.  So, the idea that, somehow, to not use instruments in the Church, to not dance in the Church, is somehow obviously against what  Scripture says is rather out of touch with what Early Church Fathers and various Protestant theologians have written.

But, there are a couple of practical points that I ought to make. While these are not theological, they are considerations:

  • Non-instrumental singing encourages singing by the congregation. I do not argue that the singing is always great singing. But, a capella singing tends to pull people into the worship, if nothing else by the sheer silence that occurs otherwise. For the same reason, I sometimes have concerns about congregations in which the a capella choir uses complex musical compositions. They may sound wonderful, but I think that the Slavic Church has a point when they tend to use simpler harmonies for worship. The idea is to draw people in, not to show musical prowess.
  • The use of instruments and music groups has led to a performance orientation that often divides the worship into the part controlled by the music group (an almost performance-like atmosphere) and the part controlled by the pastor (which in America tends to mean the sermon).

The last two points are not strong arguments because there are non-instrumental congregation in which few participate in the singing, and there are instrumental churches that do achieve a reasonable balance between congregational singing and the use of instruments. But, I would argue that—on the whole—I have heard more organs overwhelming the congregation than congregations strongly participating in singing the hymns.

Non-instrumental Christians will not be able to return the Church to non-instrumental singing. But, please do not argue that somehow what we do is neither Scriptural nor historical. Actually, it is both. In fact, notice that the Scriptural arguments used by instrumental-using Christians are only Old Testament arguments. There is no New Testament exhortation to use instruments in worship. There is no mention of the use of instruments in worship. In the writings of the Early Church Fathers, there are various writings against instruments. In the writings of some of the Protestant Reformers, the prohibition against instruments is continued.

Face it, for those of you who use instruments in worship, you have ended up agreeing with the Medieval Roman Catholic Church and against the Early Church Fathers that the Early Church somehow did not see in seed form the later permission to use instruments. Or, you have to argue that there has been a “development” by the Holy Spirit that has given the Church a better discernment of what God really wants for the Church. The developing and unfolding Holy Tradition argument is Roman Catholic and certainly not Protestant Reformation. If you are Roman Catholic, you do have a consistent theology on this subject. I do not agree with it, because I do not agree that everything that the Roman Catholic Church teaches is found in “seed form” in the Early Church fathers. But, I will grant the consistency of your Church. For those of you who are Protestant, well, you hold an interpretation that is neither consistent with the Early Church fathers nor historical with the actual practice of the New Testament and the Early Church nor historical with various of the Protestant Reformers. And, in order to justify yourselves, you have to use Old Testament scriptures in a way in which they were not used in either the New Testament or in the Early Church or by various of the Protestant Reformers, but are most certainly used in that way by the Roman Catholic Church. Enjoy the thought!


  1. Leon M. Green says

    As I noted in the previous comment, the standard of Romans 14 and 15 should apply: if the presence or absence of instruments is dedicated to the glory of God, who of either camp has a right to speak against any other of the servants of our Master?

    • says

      The problem is the unanimous witness of the Church for 1,000 years. Using the Romans 14 & 15 Scriptures in the way you suggest opens the way for quite a bit of rejection of ancient Church teaching. As with all Scriptural principles, this one has to be used in balance with what principle you are trying to get approved.

      After all, why is it wrong to use crackers and Kool-Aid if they are dedicated to the glory of God, and so on? Eventually, it becomes difficult to reject almost anything using only Romans 14 & 15.

  2. Aryl says

    Great post! When I heard an Orthodox service for the first time (it was Greek Orthodox), I was over-flooded with admiration and awe and came to tears afterwards. Not necessarily because of emotion, but because of the authenticity and power of the Church as demonstrated through the human senses. It was the type of worship I had been looking for and had never expected. There is a lot of power in the voice, but it is directly incorporated with the rest of the human person. The voice of the priest sung hymns and proclaimed the gospel while the same body possessed the hands that consecrated the gifts. I find the Slavonic-style hymns at my parish incredibly beautiful and I continually find myself awe-struck by the power of the Church through this particular sense. I am able to distinguish this feeling from that of my emotion-driven Protestant days when the rock band tried to accomplish and set a temporary fix for what human bodies alone failed to do.

    It is evident that a capella is part of the Apostolic tradition given its widespread use (same as facing east when praying or having alters). I’ve heard some criticisms of Eastern Christians as being inconsistent themselves by saying that yes, a capella was used, but harmonies were not. Nowadays, harmonies have been incorporated and this, as the critics say, is in direct violation of early Church canons and Tradition itself. The critics then use this as a gateway to say that instruments are permissible, since Tradition has demonstrated its wide parameters of practice on this particular matter (a poor argument).

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