I've always had a musical background. My father was a church songwriter and I felt I had to follow in his footsteps. It seemed I ought to get into any musical activity I could, religious or secular. I didn't really see a difference. I went to four summers of a church singing school. In Jr. high, I signed up for band and choir. I continued with band through high school, six years in all of playing the clarinet. (I'm not trying to give "credentials" here; I have a point to come later.)
All my life I was told it was wrong to use an instrument in worship. In fact, I used to think that was the one, primary difference between the church of Christ and the denominations. It was matter-of-factly explained to me in my youth that it was wrong to use an instrument because God had commanded singing. In addition, I was told, the first century Christians came out of an instrumental music in worship background, yet mechanical instruments were conspicuously absent from their worship.
This was good enough for me for years, but as I entered my early teen years, I began to doubt. (Don't most teenagers? ) "After all," I reasoned, "the Bible doesn't say not to." I knew by then that there were more serious issues separating the church from the world than instrumental music. I began to feel that instrumental music was a preference, that we should prefer a capella because that is what God commanded, but that it really didn't matter if a mechanical instrument was added. You can find this attitude all over the place today.
In high school band, I grew to enjoy music more and more. I never really liked listening to music; I liked playing it. I didn't even care if there was an audience or not; rehearsals were much more important to me than concerts. All I needed was the thrill of the music.
My band director was a bit of a hero to me. He would talk to us about whatever was on his mind, at times. I started to think like he did. He always got carried away when we played really well: completely emotional and caught up in the music. I remember him making a statement to the effect that "That was so beautiful it was like looking into the face of God." He was not particularly religious.
One day I had a thought like that. I got completely caught up in the music and thought "This is like heaven. I'm having a spiritual experience." I actually thought that what I was doing was bringing me closer to God. Almost immediately, I thought again. My thought struck me as strange. There was no difference in the way I felt and other, non-religious band members felt. They were not coming any closer to God. None were standing up and repenting of sins, or saying anything about Jesus, or anything even remotely religious.
That day I decided I would never think like that again. I realized there was nothing spiritual about what I was doing; just emotional. I could have all the fun I wanted in life, and it still wouldn't bring me closer to God. I realized for the first time the difference between the music we sang with the church and the music I played at school. In church music, we "teach and admonish one another" (Colossians 3:16).
Since then, I have studied closer what God wants in worship. My primary reason for believing instrumental music is wrong as worship is Jesus' statement about worship: "God is [a] spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24), but I don't understand this verse the way most people explain it. I grew up hearing that "in truth" meant that we were to do everything right, the way it was taught in the Bible; while "in spirit" meant we did it emotionally: our spirits worshipped, without us just "going through the motions." It always seemed to me that there was a sort of conflict between the two, that we were to strike a careful balance.
I no longer believe that that is what these two phrases mean. In fact, it seems just the opposite. Jesus makes a very telling statement: "The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life," (John 6:63), and "Thy [God's] word is truth." (John 17:17). These are not conflicting values; they are different ways of expressing the same thing. ("This fruit is red and round," as opposed to "This fruit is red and green.".)
We are to be led by the spirit (Romans 8:4-6, 13-14). In this passage, and in John 6:63, and all through the New Testament, the spirit is contrasted with the flesh. They are opposites. Learning this has helped me to see that "spiritual" does not mean "emotional." "Spiritual" means I give up my own desires and subject them to God's Spirit. In fact, Paul tells us that anyone who is spiritual has to acknowledge that the things he wrote are God's commands (1 Corinthians 14:37-38). This does not sound like most people's definition of spiritual. It is also significant that Jesus told the Samaritan woman that God must be worshipped in spirit while she was trying to justify her [erroneous] religious practices.
The songs we teach and admonish each other with are to be spiritual songs (Colossians 3:16). There's just nothing spiritual about a mechanical instrument. It may be pretty. It may be emotional. It may produce absolutely gorgeous music. But it isn't spiritual. It doesn't teach and admonish. The sound doesn't even get above the roof.
If we decide to include a mechanical instrument as part of our worship, are we making a spiritual decision? No way! There are only two motivations for this: to be like everyone else (a fleshly decision condemned in 1 Samuel 8), and to please ourselves (another fleshly decision condemned all over the Bible). One might say it makes the worship better, but that is just our opinion. We are just pleasing ourselves. We might say we are more uplifted, but what we really mean is we got more emotional during the music. Who is to say what builds up the church besides God? God has told us what he wanted, and it didn't include an instrument. If we do otherwise, we have left the realm of spiritual thinking and gone back to fleshly, worldly things.
And so I ask, how could I ever go before God with my clarinet or a piano and call it worship? I know better. I would be lying to Him, and to myself. And, if there were any other people with me, I would be lying to them. I know that God cannot be praised with these lifeless, inanimate objects. I cannot ever mislead anyone into thinking otherwise. That would be sin.