A Capella Praise In Church

By Stephen Wilson

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.

Psalm 95:1-2

Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts.

Colossians 3:16

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:

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?

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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).

  3. 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).

  4. 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).

  5. 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).

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

Worship 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:

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:

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.

Historical Footnotes

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 [1888], 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?

Bibliography