Instruments in the Assembly

A few days ago I asked for suggestions on Facebook for texts that people would like me to work through for a short Bible study, and the topical request for a study on “instruments in the Church” was made. Some of you might find this request strange since you have grown up with various instruments in worship, while others might be getting ready for a heated debate. So let me preface this post by encouraging everyone to listen to what I’m saying with fresh ears because I am not approaching this question to look for “laws of form” that govern the outward expression of our worship, as some might expect, but, instead, I’m searching to understand what it means to “worship in Spirit and truth”.

Since no text was given in this request, I was given the freedom to go in any direction I wanted with this topic, so we’re going to look at the instrument of the heart. And I selected this text because we so often forget that the tongue is God’s chosen instrument by which we render his most precious praise from deep within the holy of hollies! Indeed, this is one of the reasons why I loathe “tradition” so much because in our traditions we lose sight of God’s purpose.

So let’s think about what it means to worship God with the instrument of our tongues.


1 Corinthians 14:7 (CSB) — 7 Even lifeless instruments that produce sounds—whether flute or harp—if they don’t make a distinction in the notes, how will what is played on the flute or harp be recognized?

Paul is writing to the Corinthians about spiritual matters (12:1). He draws their attention to the deeper, unseen realities, and explains that no one can speak by the Holy Spirit curses at Jesus (or, by some grammatical constructions, “in Jesus’ name”), nor can anyone effectually call on Jesus as Lord apart from the Holy Spirit (12:3). Indeed, one’s mouth may form the words, but they are meaningless unless there is real spiritual reality behind them. So we begin to learn from this that our tongues are the direct relay of the things that reside deep within our heart.

Paul then teaches Christians to discern the spiritual body of Christ by understanding the unity and diversity in our midst (12:4-30). We are individually members of one another, bound together by the Spirit of God. The spiritual realities that we have now been born into must renew and regenerate the very disposition of our hearts, which our tongues bring and declare out in the open. Therefore, “love” (13:1-13) is the great anchor of Paul’s discourse to the Corinthians about spiritual matters (12:1-14:40) and functions to help transition us into “eternal things”. In other words, the spiritual realities that Paul taught in chapters 12 and 14 are meaningless without “love” (13:1-3). For the Christian, “love” can’t be reduced to mere sentiment or passion. Love transcends our fallen nature and reaches out to take hold of those divine attributes that come only from Christ (13:4-8). These are the eternal realities that will never fade (13:9-13). Therefore, we should anticipate that the spiritual realities he will discuss next will themselves be rooted as expressions of this love.

Paul now turns his attention to the practice and use of these new spiritual realities in love in chapter fourteen, and explains how these new spiritual realities are meant to be expressed and practiced (in love) by Christians in the assembly. What should stick out is how Paul speaks about the “tongue” 22 times in 20 verses, and further personifies our “speech” an additional 11 times in 8 verses. So our tongues are an integral part of our spiritual life precisely because they draw from the depths of our hearts. And we may safely say that the role our tongue plays in the spiritual life of the Church is quite often overlooked.

I hope the reason is clear why I’ve chosen to focus on the above text to answer the question of “instruments in the Church”. Paul uses “instruments” as an analogy to explain a truly profound spiritual lesson about our tongues. So, let’s look closer and draw out some meaning.

Even lifeless instruments that produce sounds—whether flute or harp” (v.7): Paul uses some vivid illustrations from the flute and the harp, both of which were well-known musical instruments in Greece and in the music of Jewish temple worship, to characterize our “tongue” and the manner in which we should use our tongue in the assembly. Our worship should express clear and beautiful truths to the glory of God!

“…if they don’t make a distinction in the notes” (v.7): Paul’s principle is that what we say in the assembly should be clear and comprehensible to the body in the same way that music must be clear and comprehensible to its listeners. Even the finest instruments produce nothing more than senseless noise unless they accurately play the systematic differences in pitch, tone, and meter. So our worship should draw on the depths of God’s glory and make them clearly known in all his creation!

“…how will what is played on the flute or harp be recognized?” (v.7): We are meant to learn two lessons from this illustration: first, our praise should be beneficially understood by all who are worshiping God; second, necessary to the first lesson is the demand that there be authentic spiritual content behind our worship! I think we have all seen how useless it is when we sing the praises of God’s love and then turn against one another to bite and devour those we just professed our love to God with. Our worship must be true and authentic!

Concerning the first lesson, some mistakenly believe that unintelligible ramblings should have a place in the assembly simply because they come from spiritual sources. But this is the mistake of separating “the spiritual” from “the physical”. Christians exercise spiritual matters in the physical realm. And this is no small observation precisely because we worship the Son of God who is Yahweh-incarnate! God, who is Spirit, took on flesh and lived among mortal, physical beings. So Paul restrains the tendencies of some to disassociate their spiritual realities from the physical existence. We cannot be so hungry for spiritual things that we pretend like our physical realities do not matter. Both were perfectly expressed by the person of Jesus, and so, we should have both expressed in the worship of the body! For this reason, Paul says that uttering nonsensical things is not a spiritual practice in the presence of the assembled body of Christ because the assembled body of Christ is a physical assembly of embodied believers. Consequently, unintelligible speech is out of order among God’s people because it does not make the glory of God known unless it is first interpreted.

Concerning the second lesson, I took the time to trace Paul’s discourse above (12:1-14:40) because the premise of Paul’s lesson is that the tongue is speaking by the Spirit things that are holy and spiritual (12:3-4). The tongue is the instrument of the human heart, which is why the God who looks for worshipers to worship him in “spirit and truth” (Jn. 4:23) calls for his praise to be rendered by singing (Ps. 96:1-2; 104:33; Isa. 44:23; Acts 16:25; Rom. 15:11; 1st Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:19-20; Col. 3:16; Jam. 5:13). God wants the spiritual realities of his glory to be declared from the depths of our heart “in Spirit and truth”. And this is what the human tongue does as the principle instrument of worship in the assembly of God’s people. Therefore, our tongue is holy to God, and how we use our tongues matters.


Luke 6:45 (CSB) — 45 A good person produces good out of the good stored up in his heart. An evil person produces evil out of the evil stored up in his heart, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.

When God took human-nature upon himself and came into this world, he did not come only to forgive our sins, but also to redeem a holy-people as his royal priesthood (1 Pt. 2:9). He came not only to wipe away our sins, but also to give us a new heart (Ezk. 36:26), “so that you may proclaim the praises of the one who called you out of the darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pt. 2:9).

Jesus teaches us that our tongues bear the fruit of our heart. We are meant to put away all impure, malicious, and evil kinds of speaking, not by slapping our wrists every-time we cuss in order to train ourselves like a dog not to say the wrong thing (and thereby covering up what is secretly in our hearts), but by the washing and regeneration of the Holy Spirit! We are meant to put to death by the Spirit the carnality that defiles us from within, just as what Jesus said, “it’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth—this defiles a person.” (Mt. 15:11).

So now the tongue is the instrument of the heart that produces either “holy” or “profane” things according to what fills the heart.


James 3:9–12 (CSB) — 9 With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in God’s likeness. 10 Blessing and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, these things should not be this way. 11 Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening? 12 Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers and sisters, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a saltwater spring yield fresh water.

What comes out of your mouth?

Can you imagine for a moment taking the holy temple instruments that were used to worship God to play worship to Baal? Would it be fitting for the instruments by which God’s praises are made to simultaneously produce those things that are detestable to him?

Sometimes we come under the impression that our words don’t mean anything and that God is too big and mighty to be so easily offended by what we say. But God does care about what you say because your tongue is holy as the instrument that proclaims his glory. What you say is a reflection of your heart, by which you enter into the holy-place of God and render praises to him in the presence of his Holy Spirit.

We may open our mouths and utter noises that we call worship, but unless our hearts make the distinction of holiness, as God’s priests are called to do (Lev. 10:10), our worship is impure, unfit, and nothing more than a loud noise before God.  We cannot rightly use our tongues to worship God and then turn around and curse our fellow image-bearers. Likewise, we cannot rightly sing his praises and utter impure speech at the same time.

Therefore, let those who seek to worship God in spirit and truth likewise “cleanse ourselves from every impurity of the flesh and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Co. 7:1). And let us “put away all anger, wrath, malice, slander, and filthy language from your mouth” (Col. 3:8), so that, “if anyone purifies themselves from [dishonorable things], they will be a special instrument, set apart, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Tim. 2:21).

Jesus and his apostles never talked about human made instruments in worship. And since Jesus and his apostles didn’t talk about human made instruments, I dare not draw from these things an unspoken law of my own making concluding that instrumental accompaniments are wrong. Some people enjoy instrumental accompaniments in worship while others do not. “Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). But we should not miss the point that human made instruments are essentially irrelevant to the deepest heart of worship. Just think about Christians in times past and in places around the world who worship under persecution and can only chant low-volume worship for fear of being heard. Is their worship any less spiritual or deep because they don’t use instruments? No. The instrument that truly matters to God is the tongue because it expresses the deep spiritual realities of the heart. We can make whatever noise we want with our tongues, and we can sing the great hymns of the church, but if our hearts are defiled with resentment, division, hate, slander, unfaithfulness, greed, and various kinds of immorality, then our worship – no matter what music we’re making – is evil in God’s sight.

Food for thought.

Let’s worship in Spirit and truth with instruments that lift the praises of sincere hearts to God in the beauty of holiness!

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