We begin by identifying the purpose of the applicable Scriptures.
Ephesians 5:15-20 “15Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (ESV)
At the first reading it seems fairly clear that this text is not ABOUT giving direction as to how we ought to worship or what type of worship God expects from His people. The purpose of the text centers around one word, “walk.”
Paul used the word seven times in the letter he wrote to the Ephesians (2:2; 2:10; 4:1; 4:17; 5:2; 5:8; 5:15). In all but one of these occurrences (2:2), Paul was giving the Ephesians directions on how they ought to walk. Check it out: 2:10-Our walk is to be filled with good works. 4:1-Our walk should be in a manner that is worthy of our calling. 4:17-We should not walk as the Gentiles do (with futile thinking). 5:2-We are to imitate Christ and walk in love. 5:8-We are to walk in the light because we are children of light. 5:15-We should walk wisely (which is with an understanding of what the will of the Lord is). The Greek word that is translated as “walk” is περιπατεο (peripateo). Here’s what it means: 1) to physically or literally walk 2) to make one’s way, progress; to make due use of opportunities 3) to live 4) to regulate one’s life 5) to conduct one’s self.
The idea of how a Christian lived his life was obviously of utmost importance to Paul, which he went to great efforts to stress to the Ephesians. With a little background knowledge of Ephesus, and by looking at the entire letter, it appears that the Christians in Ephesus were struggling with returning to their Gentile and pagan roots (2:11-12; 4:17-24). There were people trying to pull them back to what they used to be – foolish, ignorant, idol worshipers who were full of deceitful desires (4:22). So Paul was trying to respond to this danger. Notice in the first two chapters how Paul goes to much effort to remind the readers of what God has done for them, to instruct them of what that means now and to encourage them to remain faithful.
That’s the high-level perspective of what’s going on in the letter. Now for a closer look at the verses that surround 5:19. Notice first how Paul gives several short commands leading up to v.19. He ends the list of commands with a negative (what not to do) followed by a positive (what to do) when he says to “be filled with the Spirit.” So in essence he says don’t do that, but do this instead. After Paul gives the direction to be filled with the Spirit he then lists five masculine plural participles (using the ESV translation): addressing, singing, making (melody), giving (thanks) and submitting. Together, these five participles serve to modify the subject of the imperative (be filled with the Spirit). We must go back to v.15 to find the subject, you (walk), which in the Greek is a 2nd person plural verb. So these five participles describe the condition of those people who are filled with the spirit. In other words, the best way to interpret this verse is to say that anyone who is filled with the Spirit will be addressing one another in psalms hymns and spiritual songs, singing, making melody to the Lord (with their heart), always giving thanks and submitting to one another.
So after taking a closer look at the verses surrounding v.19, we see that the purpose is still about providing instructions to the Ephesians on how they ought to walk (i.e. live) and what that will look like in their lives. The last two questions are a little easier and more quickly answered. Is there a principle (relating to musical instruments) here that needs to be applied? Simple answer: No. I don’t think the argument could be made that worship is in Paul’s view as he writes this text, much less the type or method of worship. Finally, is there a precedent that ought to be followed (related to musical instruments). Again, the answer is no. Musical instruments are simply not in view at this point.
The next text is found in Colossians.
Colossians 3:12-17 “12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (ESV)
These comments from Paul are set against or as a counter-point to his previous thoughts in vss.5-11. Notice what Paul says there:
5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you:sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old selfwith its practices 10and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (ESV)
This all starts with the first four verses of the chapter where Paul exhorts the reader to set his mind on things above (where Christ is). If we are focusing on what is above then the natural reaction would be to move away from the things of the world, which Paul identifies as sexual immorality, impurity, passion, anger, wrath, lying, etc (vss.5-11). Then he goes back to identifying what he meant when he said to “seek the things that are above,” which is what vss. 12-15 are about. Essentially the flow of his arguments is “don’t do this, but instead do this.”
Then in vs. 15-16 he gives specific direction on how they are to accomplish seeking the heavenly things. First, let the peace of Christ rule our hearts. Second, let the word of Christ dwell in us.
Paul is saying that Christ’s peace is to hold sway over every aspect of the readers’ lives they relate to one another. In other words, Christ himself, who is the Lord of peace, is to be present and ruling in their midst. If this occurs then the members of the congregation will mutually teach and admonish one another in a thoughtful and tactful way. This teaching and admonishing will take place by singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, all the while being done with a thankful and gracious heart.
In applying the Purpose/Principle/Precedent model to this scripture we see that Paul’s purpose here has nothing to do with musical instruments or even worship. His purpose in writing was to instruct the readers to focus on things above (not earthly things). That’s it. It’s really a fairly simple and straight-forward passage: “here’s what I expect, this is how not to do it and this is how to do it. And if you are doing it, then this will be taking place.”
Is there a specific principle there to apply? Yes, I believe so. But it’s not about instruments or worship. Instead, I think it has to do with our relationships with each other. Notice how Paul focuses on our relationships in vss.13-14, which he sums up with defining how to achieve perfect harmony. I think that’s the principle. Is there a specific precedent to be followed? No, I don’t believe so. This is about righteous living (i.e. focusing on things above). There is no specific action (other than those listed of course) to emulate.
The result of this method: instruments are not referred to or commented on. Thus, they are allowed.