This is part of a paper distributed to members of The Point Church to promote Bible study and discussion regarding the issue of musical praise in church. Although some material specific to The Point Church has been omitted here, some of the language and applications may still reflect the “in-house” nature of the study. This study was related to a broader consideration of the function and form of our Sunday assemblies at The Point. The material is made available in its present form in the hope that it may prove to be thought provoking and useful to other individuals and churches that may be wrestling with the same issues.
Come, let us sing to the Lord!
Let us give a joyous shout to the Rock of our salvation!
Let us come before Him with thanksgiving.
Let us sing him psalms of praise.
Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts.
God’s word advocates that sacred music - musical praise directed towards God - is an integral part of His peoples’ expression of worship. And if it is important to God, it ought to be important to us. What follows is an attempt to assemble in one document a number of biblical and extrabiblical considerations regarding sacred music which should be foundational to our understanding and practise as a community of God’s people seeking to honour and glorify Him.
This material is intended to develop our understanding and appreciation of the biblical teaching on the subject - the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of sacred music in Christian worship according to the Bible. It also includes mention of relevant historical data regarding church music. While church history does not ‘prove’ anything, an understanding of the history of church music does give us a useful benchmark by which we can test our own interpretations of Scripture. To this end, the practise and teaching of the early post- apostolic church is most valuable.
Because the subject of sacred music brings together theological, hermeneutical, cultural, and historical issues, the scope of this study is necessarily broad. Anything less would be superficial and less than helpful. But no attempt is made here to be comprehensive, nor is this a polemical treatment of the subject. This is a summary of major relevant points and issues intended to form the basis of mutual understanding (if not agreement) and to provide a unified direction in the use of sacred music in our corporate worship.
The Question Of What?
What kind of musical praise in corporate worship pleases and honours God?
Sacred Music Under the Old Covenant
Without taking the time to trace the development of music in the worship of Yahweh under the old covenant, it is sufficient for our present purposes to note these important facts: Music (both vocal and mechanical or instrumental) under the old covenant was an integral part of the temple worship ritual and it was commanded by God. In the record of king Hezekiah’s restoration of temple worship we notice: “Then he stationed the Levites in the house of the LORD with cymbals, with stringed instruments, and with harps, according to the commandment of David, of Gad the king’s seer, and of Nathan the prophet; for thus was the commandment of the LORD by His prophets. The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah commanded them to offer the burnt offering on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song of the LORD also began, with the trumpets and with the instruments of David king of Israel. So all the congregation worshipped, the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded; all this continued until the burnt offering was finished” (2 Chronicles 29:25-28 emphasis mine, SW cf. Psalm 81:1-3). The following points are evident from these Scriptures:
Music in temple worship, including instrumental music, was commanded by God. It was not an optional extra. The instruments were not an unbidden innovation in the worship of Yahweh. Through David, God seems to have enhanced the organisation and variety of instruments in Israelite worship (1 Chronicles 15:16-16:43), but instruments were used in the Tabernacle from the beginning (Numbers 10:10). Amos 6:5 is sometimes interpreted to suggest David introduced instruments into Israelite worship without God’s approval. The more likely interpretation is that the Israelites addressed by Amos perverted the use of instruments employed by David to praise God by using them in their ‘high living’ and ungodly revelry and it is this practise which Amos rebukes.
The use of instrumental music, as well as singing in Israelite worship, was worship. The instruments were an integral and necessary part of their praise. The Levites ”…praised the LORD with musical instruments, ‘which I made,’ said David, ‘for giving praise’“ (1 Chronicles 23:5). Playing the instruments was worship, not merely an aid or expedient to their worship.
The Book of Psalms was essentially the Israelite song book for worship. Examples of earlier Israelite praise songs can be found in Exodus 15:1-21 and Judges 5:1-31 and 1 Chronicles 16:8-36.
Sacred Music under the New Covenant
Music in worship, both instrumental and vocal, was practised by divine warrant under the old covenant. However, with the establishment of the new covenant, instrumental music became conspicuous by its absence and singing alone (a cappella praise) was practised. The New Testament Scriptures explicitly instruct and encourage Christians to sing praises to God, but there is no indication that the church used instrumental accompaniment to their sacred songs: The New Testament simply says nothing of instruments in Christian worship. In stark contrast to the prominent place of instrumental music in both pagan and Jewish worship at the time of the new covenant’s establishment, God’s silence about its use in Christian worship is all the more striking. What do we make of this?
We could ignore it and do whatever pleases us anyway - but this is hardly possible for anyone believing the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) to be inspired: the inerrant and complete and therefore authoritative word of God. In a similar fashion, we could dismiss the matter claiming that because the New Testament is not a constitution we shouldn’t be looking for normative forms or patterns of worship in the New Testament. The relevant definition of ‘constitution’ is as follows: “The body of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a State or other organisation is acknowledged to be governed” (Tulloch, 307). While the New Testament cannot be adequately described as a ‘constitution’ (it is much more than that), it does nonetheless include principles, commandments and precedents which are normative and prescribe the mission, worship and organisation of Christ’s church. The apostles certainly didn’t view their teaching and practise as being merely optional ‘divine suggestions’ - they claimed to be revealing and practising the authoritative will of God (cf. Romans 1:5; 16:26; 1 Corinthians 11:2; 14:37; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6; 1 Timothy 3:14-15; 1 John 2:3-6). We cannot seriously lay claim to the inspiration and authority of Scripture or truly claim allegience to the Christ of Scripture and at the same time treat apostolic teaching and traditions as if they were optional for us today. Our concern should be to understand and obey apostolic teaching and traditions - “to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) - not to ignore or dismiss them.
We could say it doesn’t matter, that God doesn’t care about ‘how’ we worship Him, as long as we are sincere - but this is uncharacteristic of God as He has revealed Himself in the Bible. Since the very beginning, God has been concerned with both form and motive in worship. Consider the incidents involving Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:3-5), Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3), and Saul (1 Samuel 15:22-23). Jesus Himself declared God’s ‘narrow’ view that the right motive [a good tree] is manifested in obedience [good fruit] (Matthew 7:13-23; cf. James 2:14-26). The Bible will not allow us to arbitrarily divorce motive and obedience, faith and works, and declare one or the other to be unimportant - it has always been a ‘package deal’ as far as God is concerned (John 14:15, 21, 23). Jesus indicates that although character and motive are more important than form (because motive gives meaning and substance to form), even the minutest detail of form is not unimportant (Matthew 23:23).
We could argue that although God doesn’t say to use instruments in Christian worship, He doesn’t say not to use them either - but that is to assume that God’s omission of instruments under the new covenant is of no consequence or is unintentional. We need to be very cautious in pursuing this line of thinking for several reasons:
Building upon the premise that the apostles were establishing normative teaching and practise for God’s church, a matter of ‘common sense’ hermeneutics applies here. When we specify what we want, we don’t feel obliged to specify everything we don’t want as well. That would make communication tedious, if not impossible. Try writing a short shopping list or a short story and be sure to state or include everything you don’t want or mean and you’ll soon get the picture. If we recognise this notion is both unnecessary and unreasonable in our everyday communications, why would we expect it of God in communicating His will to us? (cf. Hebrews 7:12-19). When we specify what we want, we automatically assume that excludes anything else unless there is good reason to think otherwise.
Under the old covenant, God sought to impress upon Israel that He wanted obedience without deviation, omission or addition on their part. “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take anything from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you” (Deuteronomy 4:2). “Therefore you shall be careful to do as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left” (Deuteronomy 5:32). “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). This ‘strictness’ on God’s part highlights something of our human character and His concern to protect us from ourselves more than it speaks of God’s character as Ruler: “O LORD, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jeremiah 10:23). “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 16:25). We should not, as many seem to do today, confuse legalism with obedience, thus wittingly or unwittingly circumventing the need for obedience. It has never been possible to ‘earn’ acceptance with God through law keeping (i.e. depending upon our own performance - legalism), but God has always required a humble and submissive heart evidenced in trust and obedience (i.e. faith, Galatians 3; Hebrews 11). Under both the old and new covenants, God has revealed and preserved His will in the Scriptures to provide His people with everything that was needed to walk in the right way - His way, not ours. “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It straightens us out and teaches us to do what is right. It is God’s way of preparing us in every way, fully equipped for every good thing God wants us to do” (NLT, 2 Timothy 3:16-17; cf. 2 Peter 1:2-4). By omitting instrumental praise from the New Testament Scriptures, there is good reason to suspect God is telling us it is no longer part of the “every good thing” He wants His people to do. Further, as is argued below; instruments of music, burning of incense, animal sacrifices and all other elements of the temple worship not incorporated into the new covenant by the apostles ceased when the old covenant was nailed to the cross. If God says the Law is out, then God implicitly says the use of instruments in worship (an integral part of worship under the Law but not carried over under the new covenant) is out.
To employ instrumental praise in Christian worship without any indication of God’s approval from the New Testament is assumption at best, and at worst it is will worship (Colossians 2:20-23) - “voluntarily adopted worship, whether unbidden or forbidden, not that which is imposed by others, but which one affects” (Vine, 236). To sing without instrumental accompaniment ( a cappella praise) is, at the very least, a practise which is free of assumptions - we know a cappella praise honours God because that is what the apostolic church practised under God’s inspired direction. Why would one delve into uncertainties when it comes to something as important and fundamental to our faith as expressing worship to God?
We could cite the many references to instruments used in praising God in the Old Testament (e.g. Psalm 150) as justification for musical instruments in Christian worship, despite their absence in the New Testament - but this ignores the fundamental relationship and distinction between the old and new covenants. The covenant given to Israel served a specific purpose and was only intended to last for a specific period (Galatians 3:19-29; cf. Romans 7:1-13). When Christ came, He fulfilled the Law (Matthew 5:17-18). With the death of Jesus on the cross, the old covenant had served its purpose (Colossians 2:11-17). Christ became the end of the Law for righteousness (Romans 10:4) and He initiated the new covenant in its place (Hebrews 8:1-9:28).
To employ instrumental music in Christian worship is to Judaize Christian worship, and to that degree, it is to abandon the new covenant and return to the old. It is to leave the spirit (i.e. ‘worship in spirit and truth’, cf. John 1:17; 4:21-24; Philippians 3:3 and note the contrast between ‘old’ and ‘new’ worship) and return to the flesh (i.e. ‘carnal ordinances’, cf. John 1:17; 4:21-24; Philippians 3:3-9; Hebrews 9:6-10, 23; 10:1; 13:10-15). Whatever God’s purposes for the trumpets and harps and cymbals, along with the incense and the sacrifices and the priestly clothing and everything else that was part and parcel of old covenant worship, they were all fulfilled through Jesus and these carnal ordinances are now done away with - the copies have given way to the real thing in Christ.
The implication for Christian worship derived from the distinction between the covenants, the spiritual (antitype and substance) as opposed to the carnal (type and shadow), explains God’s silence regarding instrumental praise in the New Testament. The omission was intentional, not incidental. The early Christians understood this to be so - listen in as as they explain the apostolic tradition of a cappella praise.
Eusebius of Caesarea [ca. 260-339], wrote the following comments on Psalm 91:2-3.
Of old at the time those of the circumcision were worshipping with symbols and types it was not inappropriate to send up hymns to God with the psalterion and kithara and to do this on Sabbath days…We render our hymn with a living psalterion and a living kithara with spiritual songs. The unison voices of Christians would be more acceptable to God than any musical instrument. Accordingly in all the churches of God, united in soul and attitude, with one mind and in agreement of faith and piety, we send up a unison melody in the words of the Psalms (Lewis, et al., 93-94).
Niceta, bishop of Remesiana in what is now Yugoslavia [ca. 370-414], wrote one of the first treatises on church music. Apparently some Christians had developed such a ‘spiritual’ view of music in worship they considered thoughts alone [i.e. ‘silent singing’] as proper; rejecting vocal singing, as well as instruments, as remnants of old covenant worship. Niceta said:
It is time to turn to the New Testament to confirm what is said in the Old, and, particularly, to point out that the office of psalmody is not to be considered abolished merely because many other observances of the Old Law have fallen into desuetude. Only the corporal institutions have been rejected, like circumcision, the sabbath, sacrifices, discrimination in foods. So, too, the trumpets, harps, cymbals, and timbrels. For the sound of these we now have a better substitute in the music from the mouths of men. The daily ablutions, the new-moon observances, the careful inspection of leprosy are completely past and gone, along with whatever else was necessary only for a time - as it were, for children. Of course, what was spiritual in the Old Testament, for example, faith, piety, prayer, fasting, patience, chastity, psalm- singing - all this has been increased in the New Testament rather than diminished (Lewis, et al., 94).
Theodoret, bishop of Cyrus in Syria [ca. 393-460], wrote in his Questions and Answers for the Orthodox:
107. Question: If songs were invented by unbelievers to seduce men, but were allowed to those under the Law on account of their childish state, why do those who have received the perfect teaching of grace in their churches still use songs, just like the children under the Law? Answer: It is not simple singing that belongs to the childish state, but singing with lifeless instruments, with dancing, and with clappers. Hence the use of such instruments and the others that belong to the childish state is excluded from the singing in the churches, and simple singing is left (Ferguson, 53).
In similar fashion, John Chrysostom [ca. 347-407], On Psalms 149,2 says:
…that in olden times they [Jews] were thus led by these instruments because of the dullness of their understanding and their recent deliverance from idols. Just as God allowed animal sacrifices, so also he let them have these instruments, condescending to help their weakness (Ferguson, 55).
This common perspective shared by these early church leaders from different parts of the Roman Empire is significant - it represents the general, if not universal, understanding and practise of the early church. While the singing of the Psalms of the Old Testament was continued in the church, instrumental music and the other fleshly ordinances of old covenant worship were rejected as being corporeal [i.e. unspiritual] and weak or childish… it was not worship in spirit and truth. This same understanding is reflected in the early church leaders’ practise of allegorising the musical instruments enjoined in the Psalms they sang. The Jews used lifeless mechanical instruments to praise God, but Christians were to use the living instruments of their bodies to worship God.
Chrysostom, On Psalms, commented:
Therefore, just as the Jews are commanded to praise God with all musical instruments, so we are commanded to praise him with all our members - the eye, the tongue, ear, the hand. Paul makes this clear when he says, ‘Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your spiritual service’. The eye praises when it does not gaze licentiously, the tongue when it sings [psalle], the ear when it does not listen to wicked songs and accusations against a neighbour, the mind when it does not devise treachery, but abounds in love, the feet when they do not run to do evil, but to carry out good works, the hands when they are stretched out, not for robbery and grasping and blows, but to give alms and to protect those who are wronged. Then man becomes a tuneful lyre, offering up to God a harmonious and spiritual melody. Those instruments were then allowed because of the weakness of the people to train them to love and harmony …David at that time was singing [epsalle] in the Psalms, and we today with David. He had a kithara of lifeless strings; the church has a kithara arranged of living strings. Our tongues are the strings of our kithara, putting forth a different sound yet a godly harmony. For indeed women and men, old and young, have different voices but they do not differ in the word of hymnody for the Spirit blends the voice of each and effects one melody in all…The soul is an excellent musician, an artist; the body is an instrument, holding the place of the kithara and aulos and lyre…Since it is necessary to pray unceasingly, the instrument is always with the artist (Ferguson, 56-57).
So with Origen [ca. 185-251], as he comments on Psalm 33:
The kithara is the active soul being moved by the commandments of God, the psalterion is the pure mind being moved by spiritual knowledge. The musical instruments of the Old Covenant understood spiritually are applicable to us. The kithara, speaking figuratively, is the body, the psalterion the spirit…He who makes melody [psallon] with the mind makes melody [psallei] well, speaking songs and singing in his heart to God (Ferguson, 57).
Similar quotations illustrating the figurative or allegorical applications of musical instruments mentioned in the Psalms used by the early Christians could be multiplied many times from many early sources [including Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Eusebius, and Augustine]. These suffice to demonstrate that the early Christians saw the musical instruments of Jewish temple worship as both inadequate and inappropriate to express worship in spirit and truth. Mechanical instruments of music, essential to Jewish temple ritual worship under the old covenant, had no place in Christian worship under the new covenant.
We could dismiss the absence of instrumental music from Christian worship as a cultural phenomenon of the first several centuries which is not relevant to us today - but it is evident that the a cappella praise of the church was not a product of their culture - it was radically counter-cultural. The distinctively Christian practise of a cappella praise was contrary to the musical practices of the religious and social institutions of that day. Some have suggested the early Christians rejected instrumental music because of its association with pagan worship and occult rituals - but the Christians knew God sanctioned instruments in Jewish worship nonetheless. Besides, we know by their own testimony why the early church rejected instruments in their worship - the reason was essentially theological, not cultural. If we share the early Christians’ theology of the distinction between the old and new covenants, we should also accept their exclusion of old covenant worship practices such as instrumental praise from Christian (new covenant) worship.
Based upon Paul’s statement in Ephesians 5:19, “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”, we know that the psalms were utilised in Christian worship (references to the psalms by early church leaders cited above evidence this). Although it is difficult to draw any hard and fast distinctions between these three kinds of songs mentioned by Paul, it is commonly suggested that ‘psalms’ (psalmois) were drawn from the O.T. Psalter, ‘hymns’ (hymnois) were written compositions of the early church, and ‘spiritual songs’ (odais pneumatikais) were unpremeditated words sung as spontaneously Spirit-inspired (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:15). Some scholars have suggested that early Christian hymns are embedded in Scripture, or that those Scripture passages were adapted as hymns (e.g. John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:6-11; Colossians 1:15-20; 1 Timothy 3:16).
The Bottom Line
The distinction between the covenants, recognising that God superseded the old with the new (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:1-13), is the theological basis of the New Testament church’s exclusive practise of singing a cappella praise. Instrumental praise passed with the other types and shadows of the Law. It is not surprising therefore that the New Testament is silent regarding instrumental music in Christian worship - By God’s design, it simply doesn’t belong there. This conclusion is supported by the teaching and practise of the early post-apostolic church. Though radically counter-cultural in our particular social context, commitment to our vision of becoming a church of God’s dreams - a community of Christians pursuing God’s design and purpose for His church as revealed in the New Testament - leads us to follow the apostolic tradition of singing a cappella praise to God, worshipping Him in Spirit and truth.
The Question Of Why?
What is the biblical purpose of vocal music in corporate Christian worship? In anticipating an answer to this question, perhaps a broader question needs to be asked first: What is worship?
An exact definition of worship is difficult because the Bible doesn’t give one. The meanings of the original words translated worship will help build a picture:
Shachah: This is the most common word in the Old Testament for worship. It meant ‘to bow down’ in reverence and humility before another, whether God or man (cf. Genesis 22:5; Exodus 12:27-28; Psalm 22:27). Bowing down or prostrating oneself was the common way of expressing one’s unworthiness before a greater person.
Proskuneo: The basic Greek equivalent to shachah, it literally means ‘to kiss toward’ and conveys the idea of doing obesience, to prostrate oneself, to reverence and show humility. It is the primary verb for worship in the New Testament (cf. Acts 8:27; 10:25; 24:11; 1 Corinthians 14:25; Revelation 5:14; 19:10; 22:9).
Abad: The second most frequently used Hebrew word for worship, it means ‘to serve’, and is from the same root as ‘slave’ or ‘servant’ (cf. Exodus 3:12; 4:23; Deuteronomy 10:12-13).
Latreia: The Greek equivalent to abad, it too means ‘to serve’ and is one of the most common words translated ‘worship’ (also ‘serve’ or ‘service’) in the New Testament (cf. Romans 12:1; Hebrews 9:1, 9; Revelation 22:3).
A related word to latreia is leitourgos, from which we get the English word ‘liturgy’ (fc. 2 Corinthians 9:12; Philippians 2:17). Dan Dozier comments:
The word is composed of the word for ‘people’ (laos) and the word for ‘work’ (ergon). In ancient Greece, a liturgy was a public work, something performed by the people for the benefit of the city or state. Liturgy is a work performed by the people for the benefit of others. The word came to be used by Christians for the public ministry to God. It is now confined to services of worship. Some churches growing out of the ‘free church’ tradition do not use the word ‘liturgy’. It sounds too ‘high church’ for some - too much like religious bells and smells and incense…However, those churches mean exactly the same thing when they use the term ‘service’ in reference to the forms and order of our church assembly…the concept of doing service for God in worship is very important (49-50).
There are at least two other Greek words translated worship, eusebeo (Acts 17:23) and sebomai (Matthew 15:9; Acts 16:14; 18:7; 18:13; 19:27), both of which convey the ideas of reverence, respect and veneration, and showing profound awe.
The family of words translated ‘praise’ also need to be considered: Hallal and shabach (to praise, to glorify, to bless); yadah (to stretch out the hand, to confess); epaineo (to praise); humneo (to hymn). A reading of the Psalms gives us a good picture of what praise is.
The meanings of these words illustrate the broad nature of worship directed toward God through a sacrificial and holy life (cf. Romans 12:1; Hebrews 13:15-16). Worship is serving God through giving ourselves to God. In the context of Christians assembled for corporate worship it is:
The community acknowledging and confessing God’s transcendent greatness with reverence, awe and humility.
The community expressing and confessing adoration and thankfulness, blessing (praising) God for who He is and what He has done and what He continues to do.
The community serving God through submitting to Him in learning and doing His will - thus benefitting the servants (through equipping/ building one another up in spiritual growth, cf. Hebrews 10:24-25) and glorifying the One served.
It is not difficult to see how the worship practices of the apostolic church including singing, proclamation of God’s word - communicating His will and His deeds, communion, prayer and giving/sharing provide the means to the end of corporate worship.
But now, to consider the purpose of vocal praise in Christian worship in particular:
A Survey of New Testament Texts on Singing in Christian Worship
In relation to the purpose of singing in Christian worship, there are four key contexts of Scripture which need to be considered:
“Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel…I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding” (1 Corinthians 14:12-15). And again, “How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching…let all things be done for edification” (14:26).
Singing plays a part in edifying or building up the body - promoting the spiritual growth of the church. The importance of everybody’s understanding what is sung is emphasised by Paul in the overall context. Singing with understanding is an important community vehicle for rehearsing and celebrating God’s will and redemptive acts.
“Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God” (Ephesians 5:17-21).
Kenneth L. Boles comments:
The imperative ‘be filled’ is followed by a series of four participle expressions which illustrate what it means to be full of the Spirit: speaking, singing/making music, giving thanks, and being subject…The Spirit filled life is not lived in isolation, but in community with God’s saints. The ‘one another’ (heautois) duties are incumbent upon all who are in Christ, for they are also in his body the church. Praise that is directed toward God can also be sung for the mutual benefit of fellow believers…The primary focus of such singing is probably the public assembly, although the context is the entire spectrum of the Spirit-filled life. ‘Singing’ (adontes) and ‘making music’ (psallontes) are likely a hendiadys, saying the same thing with two separate terms. While psallo originally meant to ‘pluck with the fingers’ as on a harp, by the first century the word usually meant ‘to sing’ and did not necessarily imply the use of a musical instrument. Paul’s purpose here is to encourage his readers to sing enthusiastically and with inward conviction (‘in/with your heart’) to one another and to the Lord (308-309).
Vocal praise is an expression of a joyful heart directing thankfulness towards God (cf. James 5:13). In a congregational context, the community of worshippers share together as they sing their praise to God, thus speaking to one another as well as to God. It is a communal activity in which the worshippers participate, not a performance for spectators.
“And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual sings, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:15-17).
The parallelism between this context and that of Ephesians is obvious. The command is to be filled with the Spirit and to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly, and the result is: teaching and admonishing one another, singing with grace in our hearts to the Lord, giving thanks, and submission (Colossians 3:18-25). The grammatical construction of Colossians 3:16 is ambiguous. F. F. Bruce expresses his view as follows:
It makes better sense if the phrase ‘in all wisdom’ is attached to ‘teach and instruct’ (not to ‘dwell richly’) and the words ‘in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs’ modify the verb ‘singing’ (and not ‘teach and instruct’)” (Bruce 158). Bruce’s understanding is reflected in the NIV translation of verse 16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God”. The alternate interpretation is reflected in the NKJV’s translation cited above where the teaching and admonishing is understood to directly modify the singing. But, “Whatever view is taken of the punctuation or construction of the sentence, the collocation of the two participial clauses (as they are in the Greek text), ‘teaching and instructing…’ and ‘singing…’, suggests that the singing might be the means of mutual edification as well as a vehicle of praise to God (Bruce, 158).
And this is in harmony with Paul’s admonition to the church at Corinth that everything in the assembly, including their singing, be done with mutual understanding in order to build one another up (1 Corinthians 14:15, 26). The connection between the word of Christ and singing emphasises the need for the content of songs to be in harmony with the word as we teach one another/declare biblical truths about God.
“Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Hebrews 13:13-16).
This is the last of the New Testament contexts which deal with vocal music in Christian worship, and here the connection is not explicit. The writer is speaking of Christian worship in general, not especially of a Christian worship assembly or some other ‘one another’ context [though such gatherings are not excluded]. In Romans 12:1, Paul described the sanctified life of Christians when he urged Christians ”…to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (NASB). In the view of the apostle Paul and the writer of Hebrews; worship is not so much something Christians do, worship is something Christians are! In this sense, Christian worship assemblies are a communal aspect of our everyday lives of worship [i.e. service] to God, not the be all and end all of our worship. ”…the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name…”, is reminiscent of Paul’s, “…singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord”, and, ”…singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father”. And singing certainly fits the bill here in Hebrews 13:15. But so would prayer. And so would God-honouring talk, testimony and teaching, etc.
Singing is a spiritual sacrifice of praise with the lips offered to God. The idea of spiritual sacrifice is worth pondering here:
Christian worship is to be done ‘in spirit’ (John 4:24). Vocal expressions are peculiarly well suited to the expression of spiritual worship, to expressing what comes from the spirit of a person and through the Spirit of God. They are rational, not in the sense of non- emotional, but as proceeding from and appealing to the highest nature of people. The whole self (including the emotions) is involved in Christian worship, but the mind (reason) is to be in control…The voice is much more a matter of one’s self than any other gift of praise can be. Vocal music thus best corresponds to the nature of a person’s relationship to God…[Romans 12:1 and 1 Peter 2:5] speak of ‘rational service’ (logike latreia) and ‘spiritual service’ ( pneumatike thusia). These expressions are virtually synonymous. The adjective logike was current in the philosophical literature for the distinctive nature of humans, the reasoning power (logos), which distinguished people from animals, and their spiritual nature instead of their sensual nature. In this way logike thusia (rational or spiritual sacrifice) was used of prayers and hymns in contrast to the animal sacrifices of pagan and Jewish cults…what is spiritual corresponds to a person’s spirit. Worship characterised in this way can neither proceed from nor appeal to the lower nature of humans (Ferguson, 88-90).
Singing engages mind, heart, and the organs of speech: the intellect, the emotions, and the physical self are involved…hence, the tongue - the physical body - is the instrument on which God is praised. The mind understands, the heart responds in thankfulness, the tongue expresses it. All are involved in singing (Ferguson, 80-81).
The Bottom Line
The function of singing in corporate worship is derived from the underlying purpose of coming together as a church - to encourage and build one another up. To this end, singing is a means of expressing our praise and thanksgiving to God. Vocal praise is one of the key means by which we render spiritual sacrifice appropriate to worshipping God ‘in spirit and truth’, where [our] spirits (intellect, will and emotions) communicate directly with [God’s] Spirit. Singing is also a means of mutual instruction. Understanding what is sung is therefore important. So too is the content of our songs. The words we sing must express only that which is in harmony with God’s word. And church vocal praise is a communal activity. In that context, worshippers are participants sharing together in the expression of their faith and praise towards God, not passive spectators of a performance. These biblical considerations underline the function and purpose of sacred song in worship. Issues of form (e.g. traditional or contemporary songs, unison or four part harmony styles, etc.) should remain subject to biblical function and purpose.
The history of church music is worth considering briefly lest the challenge to the legitimacy of instrumental music in Christian worship be dismissed as a novel eccentricity or fanaticism. After all, the reader’s experience is likely to be drawn only from present practices in Western Christendom (Roman Catholicism and Protestantism) and their practise today, almost without exception, includes instrumental music in worship. But the reader may be interested to learn that instrumental praise is a relatively new kid on the block in Western Christendom. The reader may be even more interested to know that Eastern Christendom [e.g. the Greek Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, et al.] never has employed musical instruments in worship [and today, those denominations incorporate many millions of followers].
Timothy Ware, Bishop of Diokleia and assistant bishop in the Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain, states the current Orthodox situation this way: “In the Orthodox Church today, as in the early Church, singing is unaccompanied and instrumental music is not found, except among certain Orthodox in America - particularly the Greeks - who are now showing a penchant for the organ or the harmonium” (Ware, 274-275, emphasis his). There always seems to be a few exceptions to the rule, but Ware expresses disapproval of their practise and makes it clear that their use of instrumental music in worship is an aberration.
The fact is, even today, a very significant part of Christendom continues in the apostolic tradition of a cappella singing in worship. It is not now, nor has it ever been, a practise peculiar to ‘non-instrumental’ churches of Christ.
Turning to the West, it is not at all certain just when the Roman Catholic Church introduced instrumental music into its worship. McClintock and Strong’s Encyclopedia makes the following comment:
The Greek word psallo is applied among the Greeks of modern times exclusively to sacred music, which in the Eastern Church has never been any other than vocal, instrumental music being unknown in that Church, as it was in the primitive Church. Sir John Hawkins, following the Romish writers in his erudite work in the History of Music, makes pope Vitalian, in A.D. 660, the first who introduced organs into churches. But students of ecclesiastical archaeology are generally agreed that instrumental music was not used in churches till a much later date; for Thomas Aquinas, A.D. 1250, has these remarkable words: ‘Our Church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize.’ From this passage we are surely warranted in concluding that there was no ecclesiastical use of organs in the time of Aquinas. It is alleged that Marinus Sanutus, who lived about A.D. 1290, was the first that brought the use of wind organs into churches, and hence he received the name of Torcellus. In the East, the organ was in use in the emperor’s courts, probably from the time of Julian, but never has either the organ or any other instrument been employed in public worship in Eastern churches; nor is mention of instrumental music found in all their liturgies, ancient or modern (Kurfees, 153).
F. LaGard Smith’s comments add to this somewhat:
From the Catholic Encyclopedia comes this important acknowledgement: ‘Pius X, in his motu proprio on church music (22 November 1903) in paragraph IV, says, ‘Although the music proper to the church is purely vocal music, music with the accompaniment of the organ is also permitted’…Not until the last 30 years has there been any official pronouncement giving the organ formal approval. Hardly surprising in the wake of centuries of unofficial ‘permission’ for the organ’s use, we now have the 1963 pronouncement of Vatican II’s liturgical constitution (paragraph 120) saying that the pipe organ is held in ‘high esteem’. But it was not always so (1992, 200).
Most of the founders of the Protestant denominations taught against the use of instrumental music in Christian worship. The Methodist commentator, Adam Clarke, speaks of John Wesley’s conviction, and adds his own sentiment on the issue:
The late venerable and most eminent divine, the Rev. John Wesley, who was a lover of music, and an elegant poet, when asked his opinion of instruments of music being introduced into chapels of the Methodists, said in his terse and powerful manner, ‘I have no objection to instruments of music in our chapels, provided they are neither heard nor seen.’ I say the same, though I think the expense of purchase had better be spared (Kurfees, 182).
John Calvin wrote,
But when they [believers] frequent their sacred assemblies, musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting up of lamps, and the restoration of the other shadows of the law. The Papists, therefore, have foolishly borrowed this, as well as many other things, from the Jews. Men who are fond of outward pomp may delight in that noise; but the simplicity which God recommends to us by the apostle is far more pleasing to him” (Girardeau, 163-164).
Theodore Beza, a notable colleague of Calvin, claimed that if “the apostle justly prohibits the use of unknown tongues in the church, much less would he have tolerated these artificial musical performances which are addressed to the ear alone, and seldom strike the understanding even of the performers themselves” (Girardeau, 166).
The Church of England voted in 1562 on the proposal [among others] that “the use of organs be laid aside”. The final vote came down to fifty-eight for the proposal; fifty-nine against (Girardeau, 173-174). Most Protestant churches rejected the instruments in their beginning. It seems, however, that by the middle of the eighteenth century, the use of the instrument in worship began to gradually make inroads. The first organs were introduced into Mennonite churches in 1764, but “several conservative branches of these heirs of the sixteenth century Anabaptists have never accepted instrumental music, and it is estimated [in 1957] that [only] about one-third of the Mennonite churches in North America use an instrument” (Ferguson, 83). By the time of John L. Girardeau’s writing , he gives the impression that most of Protestantism in the U.S. had adopted the practise. He mentions the United Presbyterian Church as having only recently “given way”, and the Associate Reformed Church was yet refusing “to yield to the demands of a latitudinarian age” (Girardeau, 178).
The leaders of the Restoration Movement of the early nineteenth century, in both Great Britain and North America, unanimously rejected instrumental music in worship. In the context of the church in North America, J. W. McGarvey, wrote shortly after the Civil War: “Once we had no men among us who were known to tolerate instrumental music in worship. After that there arose some who contended that whether we use it or not is a mere matter of expediency” (Lewis, et al., 61). The early restorationist’s view may fairly be summed up by the words of one of the original and most influential champions of the restoration cause in America, Alexander Campbell. “To those who have no real devotion or spirituality in them, and whose animal nature flags under the oppression of church service, I think instrumental music would be not only a desideratum, but an essential prerequisite to fire up their souls to even animal devotion. But I presume to all spiritually-minded Christians, such aids would be as a cow bell in a concert” (Kurfees, 210).
Though the use of instrumental music in Christian worship has never been more common (in the West) than it is today, objections to the practise are certainly not ‘new’ or ‘strange’. The very term used in musical circles for unaccompanied singing sums up the evidence of church history: a cappella comes from the Latin and literally means “in the style of the church”; “as is done in the church”. From the first century onward, the church’s purely vocal music was so distinctive from the instrumental accompaniment characteristic of both non-Christian worship and private or social entertainment that it was uniquely known as music of the church - a cappella!.
In an age where church growth strategies and worship practices revolve largely around entertainment and the call, accordingly, is for bigger and better musical performances, the non-use of instruments would seem peculiar indeed. But authentic biblical Christianity is “unworldly” and authentic biblical Christians are to be a “special, set apart from the world” people (1 Peter 2:9). Christian worship is about selflessly, even sacrificially, serving and giving to God (Romans 12:1-2). “What does God desire?” and “What honours God?” are the questions we ought to be asking when it comes to Christian worship, not “What makes me feel good?” or “What do the people want?” Corporate worship should not be confused with entertainment! Admittedly, the church which today sings a cappella in worshipping God in Spirit and truth is out of step with the world…but why would that surprise anyone?
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