George, R. J. (Robert James) on “Instrumental Music in Worship, and Our Church Standards”


Lecture XVII

Instrumental Music in Worship, and Our Church Standards

The Standards of the Covenanter Church embrace the following: The Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, the Form of Church Government, and the Directory for Worship. These are known as the Westminster Standards, and are accepted by our Church, “as they were received by the Church of Scotland.” In addition to these, we have the Declaration and Testimony of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, and our own Church Covenant entered into in 1871.

It will be the aim of the present lecture, first, to show that the use of instrumental music in divine worship is opposed both to the letter and to the spirit of these standards; and then to close the discussion of the subject by more general arguments, and a brief consideration of arguments in favor of the use of instruments.

I. The Use of Instruments in the Worship of God Is Contrary to Our Church Standards.

The question as to the teaching of the Westminster Standards is an important one, because many of the Presbyterian bodies professing to hold these standards have introduced instruments into their worship; and also because, we having accepted these standards “as agreeable unto and founded on the Scriptures,” they are, for us, authoritative.

1. These standards embody the principle that what God has not commanded in His worship He has forbidden.

(1) Confession of Faith, Chap. XXI, Sec. 1.

“The light of nature sheweth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all; is good, and doeth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in and served with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.”

(2) Larger Catechism, Questions 108, 109; and Shorter Catechism, Question 51.

These proofs were cited in Lecture XV, I, 4. I will make only one quotation here: “The sins forbidden in the second commandment are all devising, counselling, commanding, using, or any wise approving any religious worship not instituted by God Himself. . . . All superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense whatsoever.”

(3) Testimony, Chap. XXIV, Sec. 1.

“God is to be worshiped by all His intelligent creatures in such a manner as He Himself shall prescribe: And as no sinner can have access unto Him but in Christ Jesus, divine revelation is the supreme standard by which all modes of worship must be regulated.”

2. These standards specify the parts and modes of worship which have the divine warrant.

(1) Confession of Faith, Chap. XXI, Sec. 5.

“The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear; the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith and reverence: singing of psalms with grace in the heart, as also the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ: are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God; besides religious oaths and vows, solemn fastings and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are in their several times and seasons to be used in a holy and religious manner.”

(2) The Directory for Worship, last paragraph, entitled: “Of Singing of Psalms.”

The Directory for Worship takes up the different institutions of worship as named in the Confession of Faith, and directs how they are to be observed. In the praise service, under the title “Of Singing of Psalms,” it says: “It is the duty of Christians to praise God publicly by singing of psalms together in the congregation, and also privately in the family. In singing of psalms, the voice is to be tunably and gravely ordered; but the chief care must be to sing with understanding and with grace in the heart, making melody unto the Lord.”

(3) Testimony, Chap. XXIV, entitled: “Of Christian Worship.”

The Testimony in the first section of this chapter lays down the principle that “divine revelation is the supreme standard by which all modes of worship must be regulated,” and makes the following declaration: “Singing God’s praise is a part of public worship, in which the whole congregation should join. The Book of Psalms, which are of divine inspiration, is well adapted to the state of the Church and of every member in all ages and circumstances; and these Psalms, to the exclusion of all imitations and uninspired compositions, are to be used in social worship.”

3. Instrumental music in worship, not being included by these standards in that which is commanded, must be included in that which is forbidden.

This is self-evident, because if that which is not commanded is forbidden, and instruments are not commanded, then instruments are forbidden. On this our Covenant is explicit. It says: “After careful examination, having embraced the system of faith, order, and worship revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and summarized as to doctrine in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, and Reformed Presbyterian Testimony: and, as to order and worship, justly set forth in substance and outline in the Westminster Form of Church Government and Directory for Worship, we do publicly profess and own this as the true Christian faith and religion, and the system of order and worship appointed by Christ for His own house; and by the grace of God, we will sincerely and constantly endeavor to understand it more fully, to hold and observe it in its integrity, and to transmit the knowledge of the same to posterity. We solemnly reject whatever is known to us to be contrary to the Word of God, our recognized and approved manuals of faith and order, and the great principles of the Protestant Reformation.” — Covenant of1871, Sec. 2.

The argument then stands thus:

First: The standards of the Reformed Presbyterian Church expressly teach that all the institutions of divine worship and the modes of their observance are expressly set forth in the Holy Scriptures.

Second: These standards name and particularize the several institutions appointed by Christ for the worship of God, and describe the manner of their observance.

Third: Instrumental music has neither name nor place among these divine appointments.

Fourth: The conclusion is imperative that instrumental music in worship is without authority from these standards, and is contrary both to the letter and the spirit of their teaching.

4. This view is confirmed by all we know of the minds and purposes of the framers of these standards.

(1) Before the Assembly of Divines at Westminster began preparing the Directory for Worship, the Parliament had authoritatively adopted measures looking to the removal of organs from the churches of England.

Professor Girardeau gives the following quotation from the Acts of Assembly of the Church of Scotland: “On the 20th of May, 1644, the commissioners from Scotland wrote to the General Assembly of their church, and made the following statement among others: ‘We cannot but admire the good hand of God in the great things done here already, particularly that the Covenant, the foundation of the whole work, is taken, prelacy and the whole train thereof extirpated, the service book in many places forsaken, plain and powerful preaching set up, many colleges in Cambridge provided with such ministers as are most zealous of the best reformation, altars removed, the communion in some places given at the table with sitting, the great organs at Paul’s and Peter’s in Westminster taken down, images and many other monuments of idolatry defaced and abolished, the chapel at Whitehall purged and reformed, and all by authority, in a quiet manner at noonday without tumult.”

Girardeau also quotes from the Encyclopedia Britannica under the word “Organ”: “At the Revolution most of the organs in England had been destroyed.” He then adds: “When, therefore, the assembly addressed itself to the task of forming a Directory for Worship, it found itself confronted by a condition of the churches of Great Britain in which the singing of psalms without instrumental accompaniment almost universally prevailed. In prescribing, consequently, the singing of psalms, without making any allusion to the restoration of instrumental music, it must, in all fairness, be construed to specify the simple singing of praise as a part of public worship.”

(2) The decisions of the assembly were controlled by the Puritan Presbyterians and the commissioners from the Church of Scotland.

There is no question as to the position of the Presbyterian body, both in Scotland and in England, on this subject. And the General Assembly which formulated a Form of Church Government in which Presbyterianism is set forth as of divine right, was morally certain to set forth a Directory for Worship from which instrumental music would be excluded.

On this point Dr. Breckenridge says: “It is contrary to the Covenanted Church Standards of the Presbyterians to make such innovations and changes as these and to make them in this manner. According to the faith of our Church, clearly laid down, singing is the proper Scriptural and public mode of the praise of God, specially so called: and instrumental, mechanical, and artificial noises of machinery are not once alluded to, but are, by the very force of all the terms and definitions, excluded as any allowable part of God’s public praise in the stated worship of His Church. That all this is the fact, let any one consult the whole spirit and the special definitions of our standards, the testimonies of those who composed and those who have most honored them, and the constant faith and practice of the nations and churches that have received them. During the very session of the Westminster Assembly which composed our Standards in their present form, the Long Parliament passed an act, under advice of leading members of the Westminster Assembly, declaring the use of organs in churches to be a part of idolatrous worship, and ordering every one to be removed.”

(3) Instrumental music has had to fight its way into the churches holding the Westminster Standards.

Professor Worman gives interesting testimony on this point: “The Presbyterian churches of Scotland have made stout and continued resistance against the use of organs. In the Church of Scotland the matter was discussed in connection with the use of an organ by the congregation of St. Andrew’s, Glasgow; and no appeal was made. On October 7, 1807, the following motion was carried: ‘That the Presbytery are of the opinion that the use of the organ in the public worship of God is contrary to the law of the land, and to the law and constitution of our established church; and therefore prohibit it in all the churches and chapels within our bounds.’” — McClintock & Strong’s Enc., “Organ.”

In 1829 the question was brought up in the Relief Synod, as an organ had been introduced into Roxburgh Place Chapel, Edinburgh. The deliverance given by a very large majority was as follows: “It being admitted, and incontrovertibly true, that the Rev. John Johnston had introduced instrumental music into the public worship of God in the Relief congregation, Roxburgh Place, Edinburgh, which innovation the Synod are of opinion is unauthorized by the laws of the New Testament, contrary to the universal practice of the Church of Scotland, and contrary to the consuetudinary laws of the Synod of Relief, and highly inexpedient, the Synod agree to express their regret that any individual member of their body should have had the temerity to introduce such a dangerous innovation into the public worship of God in this country, which has a manifest tendency to offend many serious Christians and congregations and create a schism in the body, without having first submitted it to the consideration of his brethren according to the usual form.

“On all these accounts, the Synod agree to enjoin the Rev. John Johnston to give up this practice, instanter, with certification that, if he do not, the Edinburgh Presbytery shall hold a meeting on the second Tuesday of September next, and strike his name off the roll of Presbytery, and declare him incapable of holding office as a minister in the Relief denomination;

“And further to prevent the recurrence of this or any similar practice, the Synod enjoin a copy of this sentence to be laid before his session and read after public worship to his congregation for their satisfaction, and to deter others from following similar courses in all time coming.”

It is no reply to all this to say that the organ has forced its way into churches holding the Westminster Standards. So it has. But the fact is established beyond all controversy that it was the intention of the framers of these Standards to exclude the instrument, and that it was excluded, and has only found admittance into these churches, in every instance from that day to this, by breaking down the walls of discipline as then set up.

(4) That exclusion of the organ was the intention of the framers of our Testimony is evident from the fact that it has always been interpreted in that way.

Even if we had no constitutional law on the subject, the position of the Church would be placed beyond all controversy by her judicial procedure. While, so far as I know, there has been no test case of discipline in our Church caused by infraction of the rules, or uniform practice, as in those cases referred to, yet there have been judicial interpretations of the Church’s position. For instance, the terms laid down by the Synod as to the condition upon which she would become a member of the Pan-Presbyterian Alliance; and the action of the Synod in 1897, on the request of the United Presbyterians for the Young People of our Church to join them in their convention. Our position was then affirmed, and re-affirmed in 1898.

The action of the Covenanter Convention held in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1896, representing the Covenanter Churches of all the world. sustains the same position. It declares: “That the simplicity and spirituality of Christian worship and conformity to the will of Christ require the singing of these psalms to the Lord with grace in the heart, and forbid everything that tends to sensuousness, or to the excitement of merely natural emotion, as we believe the use of instrumental music in the praise service does.”

This is an express declaration that it is the position of this Church, in all lands, that instrumental music in the worship of God is forbidden by the law of Christ.

II. A Convincing Argument Against Instrumental Music in Worship May Be Drawn from the Consensus of Opinion of Many of the Most Pious, Scholarly, and Successful Servants of Christ in All Ages.

These are collected in a tract entitled Voice of the Ages Against Instrumental Music in Worship, published by the Committee on Testimony-Bearing. It embraces such names as Justin Martyr, A. D. 150; Clemens of Alexandria, A. D. 190; Cyprian, A. D. 240; Chrysostom, A. D. 396; Isidore, A. D. 620; Thomas Aquinas, A. D. 1250; Erasmus, 1516; Cajetan, 1518; Beza, 1518; Calvin, 1545; John Knox, 1560; James Renwick, 1687; and among modern authorities, Dr. Adam Clarke, Charles Spurgeon, Dr. Arthur L. Pearson.

III. The Arguments Used in Favor of Instrumental Music in the Worship of the New Testament Church.

1. The argument from the psalms.

This is the most plausible argument used for the instruments. It is often presented with great confidence; but it will not stand weighing. In reply to it, it is sufficient to remark:

(1) That psalm-singing churches generally exclude the instruments, and hymn-singing churches generally use them.

In the apostolic church neither hymns nor instruments were used. In the Roman Catholic Church, both were used. In the Reformed Churches both were again excluded. Now, both are forcing their way back into the Presbyterian churches on both sides of the sea. On the supposition that the psalms furnish a sound Scriptural argument for the use of instruments, it is impossible to account for the fact that, when instruments come in, the psalms are invariably thrust out, and vice-versa.

(2) If the psalms authorize the use of instruments, they command it.

This is more than the advocates of instruments want. They do not undertake to say that the churches which oppose the instruments are corrupting the worship of God and disobeying the law of Christ.

(3) This argument would require the introduction of the whole temple service into the New Testament worship.

The psalms refer to sacrifices, and altars, and incense, and the ministry of priests, just as they do to the employment of musical instruments.

2. The argument for instruments from their use under the Old Testament.

The answer to this has been given in the first lecture of this series:

(1) They were then used by divine command.

(2) Their use was discontinued by the same authority.

(3) The New Testament contains no warrant for them.

(4) They are contrary to the spirit of New Testament worship.

(5) The example of the apostolic church is conclusive against them.

3. The argument from the Scriptural principle that we are to serve God with the best.

Dr. Timmons says: “Yes, with the best; but not with the best of the swine.” The Scriptural answer is:

(1) God is the only judge of what is best in His worship.

(2) God says the service of obedience is best.

When Saul saved the best of the flocks of the Amalekites for sacrifices, he put it on this ground: “To obey is better than sacrifice.”

4. “If we use church bells and tuning forks, we may also employ fiddles, horns, and organs.”

The answer to this is:

(1) Church bells correspond to those instruments used for calling the assemblies together, and not to the instruments used in worship.

(2) Bells and tuning forks are silent when worship begins, and so should all other instruments be.

5. Argument from the Confession of Faith, Chap. I, Sec. 6.

This section reads: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or, by good and necessary consequence, may be deduced from Scripture; unto which nothing is at any time to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word, and that there are some 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.”

The clause in this section which the advocates of the instrument grasp at, after the manner of the drowning man and the straw, is this: “That there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and government of the Church 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.”

The answer to this argument is:

(1) Instrumental music is not a circumstance “common to human actions and societies.” It is therefore excluded by the terms of the Confession.

(2) The circumstances referred to are such as:

A. A time of meeting.

B. A place of meeting.

C. An order of exercises.

D. The length of time to be employed.

These and such like circumstances are “common to human actions and societies,” and these are left to be determined by the light of nature and the general rules of the Word. But no kind of mental legerdemain can place instrumental music as used in the worship of God in that category.

(3) Instrumental music in worship was not treated as a “circumstance,” left to the judgment of men. It was introduced by the command of God and done away with by the same authority.

(4) The framers of the Confession of Faith never so interpreted it.

Here I close this discussion. The rubric for New Testament worship is laid down by Christ Himself, when He says: “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship Him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” Young gentlemen, the arguments which I have placed before you in support of purity of worship seem to me honest arguments. God forbid that the controversial zeal of your youth should mar the spiritual melody in your hearts.

His three volume work on pastoral theology is avaiblble here.


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