Christian Singing: Its Necessity, History, Didactic Nature, and Teleology

The fifth chapter of Ephesians contains an important verse related to singing and music: “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with you heart” (v. 19). Of all the posts I have written, one has received far more views than any other. In early 2019, I wrote a blog post about singing the Psalms in church. That post, a satirical one entitled “Five Reasons Pastors Should Not Allow the Psalms to Be Sung in Church,” received 21 times as many views as my next most popular post in 2019. It easily received more traffic than all of my other posts combined. It seems that there are some issues that will always be hot-button topics. Music in the church may be one of those issues. One blogger wrote that “complaining about music is almost a universal phenomenon in the church today.”

In this post, I want to look at four main things about singing:

  1. Its Necessity
  2. Its History
  3. Its Didactic Nature
  4. Its Teleology

Along the way I hope to make a few points of application.

Its Necessity

Paul’s charge for the Christians at Ephesus to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” comes after his exhortation that they be filled with the Spirit, rather than be drunk with wine. All around the Ephesian Christians, the people were practicing their pagan religions. Singing was commonplace at the pagan Greek banquets. The Greeks had one god called Dionysus. And the Romans, it seems, named this god Bacchus. The term bacchanalian came to mean that which is “characterized by or given to drunken revelry,” as in “a bacchanalian orgy.” The pagans all around the Ephesian Christians were singing their songs to each other and to their “gods.” At their heathen feasts, they sang these “bacchanalian…licentious songs.” Paul doesn’t say, “Don’t sing.” He says, “Instead of singing those bacchanalian, those debauched songs, sing ‘psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.’”

There are two general ways to understand Paul’s phrase “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” The first is that Paul is directly referring to the book of Psalms with all three references. The second is that it also includes uninspired songs. As we will see later, Calvin generally adopted the former in practice. But even he wrote, “What may be the exact difference between psalms and hymns, or between hymns and songs, it is not easy to determine.” The English Puritan Matthew Poole wrote: 

Under these names [psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs] he comprehends all manner of singing to mutual edification [that’s key, more on that later] and God’s glory. The particular distinction of them is uncertain, but most take psalms to be such as anciently were sung with musical praise; hymns, such as contained only matter of praise; spiritual songs, such as were of various matter, doctrine, prophetical, historical etc.

John Gill, a Reformed Baptist of the 18th century, seemed to see a particular focus on the book of Psalms, but he also believed that uninspired “hymns and spiritual songs,” if consistent with Scripture, ought to be sung by Christians as well.

The main point is that the Apostle Paul contrasts the Spirit-filled Christian with the unbeliever in terms of the songs they sing—and the spirit in which they do it: sing godly songs “to the Lord with your heart.” This is not to be a mere formal exercise. Christians are not to merely flatter God with their lips. They are to sing with “thankfulness” in their hearts (Col. 3:16). Christians indeed have reason to sing, no matter how talented they are—for they have been redeemed from sin, delivered from the kingdom of darkness, forgiven of all their sins, given the Holy Spirit, brought into fellowship with the Triune God of the universe. If you can’t sing about that, then you have no pulse.

The general charge is clear: singing is one of the things that is to characterize our fellowship as Christians.

Its History

Debating music in the church is not a novelty in church history. Specifically, as the church made its way out of the darkness of Roman Catholicism during the Reformation, the issue of music in the church was an important one. I would like to give a brief, introductory overview of singing in church history. And I want to start with the Reformation, before going back further.

The practice of Christians singing together was largely lost with the rise of the Roman Catholic church. In the Roman Catholic church, prior to the Reformation, “congregations rarely spoke let alone sang during a church service” (Schuermann). If singing did occur it was performed by a select group of Monks, and it was in Latin. The idea of Christians singing one to another—congregational singing—was not acceptable. Martin Luther, perhaps the most famous reformer, is well-known for his (re)introduction of congregational singing. He sought a return to what he believed was the biblical and historical pattern: Christians gathering together and, among other things, singing Luther advocated that the church sing both the Psalms and thoughtfully-composed hymns. Carl Trueman notes that Luther relied on the Psalms, as they “provided both significant content for hymnody and paradigms to be followed in future compositions.” But Luther’s view was not accepted across the board by reformers.

A passage like Ephesians 5:19—addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with you heart—may seem like a clear-cut directive for congregational singing. However, throughout church history, it has not been so simple. We can identify at least three general approaches to this question of congregational singing/music coming out of the break from the Roman Catholic church: the Luther Approach, the Calvin Approach, and the Zwingli Approach. Let’s consider each of these approaches briefly before moving on.

The Luther Approach

As already mentioned, Luther believed in singing both Psalms and uninspired hymns in the gatherings of the church. He was very concerned with doctrinal purity—he wanted every song to be a clear expression of the truth found in the revealed Word of God. In this sense, he believed that everything should be regulated by Scripture. However, he did believe that he had freedom to use different musical forms and write new lyrics. Some of his contemporaries (and people today) believed this to be opening the door to man-made “worship.” For Luther, however, the church was free to utilize music in order to aid congregational involvement. The idea of a band on a stage, drowning out the voice of the congregation, is probably not what Luther had in mind. Chuck Fromm notes:

[The Reformers] objected to the distractions of elaborate vocal and instrumental music, the dangers of overly theatrical performances, the unwarranted expense of elaborate ceremonies and enormous pipe organs and the uselessness of text unintelligible to the common man. Contrasting with the high church’s entrenched musical traditions was the simple and pragmatic approach of men like Martin Luther. Luther’s stated goal was the restoration of true worship. He understood the tremendous benefit resulting from hearing the Word of God and then uniting as a congregation to offer thanksgiving in song. This stress on congregational participation in worship became a lynch-pin of the Reformation.

Matt Merker elaborates:

In order for the whole church to sing, Luther argued that the music must be intelligible. When it came to versification of the Psalms, [Luther said,] “Only the simplest and the most common words should be used. . . . at the same time, however, they should be pure and apt.” Rather than introduce too many new tunes at once, he employed well-known melodies that were easy to memorize. In advocating simplicity, Luther wasn’t calling for corporate praise to be dumbed down. Nor was he opposed to artistry. His prevailing concern was the whole congregation’s piety: “I desire to see all the arts, especially music, used in the service of him who gave and created them.”

Clearly, Luther’s primary concern was that the church address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Luther view’s would have included the use of instruments, as an aid to congregational singing.

The Calvin Approach

John Calvin believed that the Word of God should be the sole basis for anything done in the corporate gathering of the church. He further believed that the Scripture regulated the very words that could be sung in the church. Richard Arnold explains:

Calvin’s enthusiasm for singing was subject to a crucial qualification: he restricted what was to be sung exclusively to the Psalms—these were, he writes in 1543, the songs provided by God and dictated by His Holy Spirit, and it would be presumptuous and sacrilegious for humankind to sing any words or arrangements of his or her own devising.

It appears that in addition to the Psalms, Calvin allowed other portions of Scripture to be sung. Contra Luther, Calvin believed that musical instruments had no place in New Testament congregational singing. There are no passages commanding instruments to be used in the New Testament church (though some would say “melody” in Ephesians 5:19 is just such an instance), therefore, he reasoned, they are forbidden. The Calvin Approach is that congregational singing is allowed, but it must be restricted to a cappella singing of the words of Scripture.

The Zwingli Approach

Huldrych Zwingli was an outstanding musician. Nevertheless, he “removed all music from the church in Zurich” (T. Johnson). Zwingli sought to operate based on the same principle as Calvin: unless it was specifically commanded in God’s Word, it had no place during the times when the church gathered together. He also had other concerns with music in the church service. W. Robert Godfrey explains:

Zwingli believed that music was too powerful and too emotional to be used in Christian worship. Under the strong influence of Platonic philosophy, he argued that music would too easily move people away from focusing on the Word and its meaning for them. As a result, in Zurich singing was eliminated from worship in Zwingli’s day. No musical instruments, no choirs and no congregational singing were permitted. In the place of singing, Zwingli had the congregation recite Scriptural passages antiphonally.

“Essentially, Zwingli did away with anything that was not specifically prescribed in Scripture” (D. Chow). The Zwingli approach is to keep all congregational singing out of the corporate gathering of the church.

Broadly speaking, those are the three approaches to congregational singing:

  1. Luther: congregational singing (inspired and uninspired songs) with instruments
  2. Calvin: congregational singing (inspired songs) without instruments
  3. Zwingli: no congregational singing

While that may seem strange, Zwingli was not alone. In fact there was a significant debate among Reformed Baptist a few years after the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith was approved. Benjamin Keach and Isaac Marlow debated this issue. Marlow argued there should be no congregational singing. Keach argued their should be. They, especially Marlow, wrote voluminously on the topic. And it is certainly interesting reading. Before commenting on how that debate turned out, let’s take a look at singing further back in church history.

The first thing I want to point out is that singing could properly be considered part of what is called “natural religion.” (This was actually a point of contention in the Keach-Marlow debate over congregational singing.) The idea here is that God has created man in his image and man is therefore inclined to do certain things in relation to his Creator. One clear example is prayer. The inclination to pray is not limited to Christians. The pagan sailors in the book of Jonah each “cried out to his god” for deliverance from the storm. Mormons pray, Muslims pray, Hindus pray, Buddhists pray. The difference between Christians and non-Christians isn’t that one prays and the other doesn’t. The difference is that one prays to the true God, through Christ, and the others pray to false gods.

It is the same with singing. The difference between Christians and non-Christians isn’t that one group sings and another doesn’t. God didn’t need to tell people to sing to their “gods.” Throughout human history, singing has been the natural response to the concept of God. Plutarch, a Roman writer who lived during the time of the Apostle Paul, attested to the fact that “the whole science of music was employed by the ancient Greeks in the worship of their gods” (Gill). John Gill concluded that “the Gentiles were by the light of nature directed, and by the law of nature obliged, to this part of worship; and consequently that it is a part of natural religion.” In Genesis 4:26, we read “at that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.” Given humanity’s natural propensity to prayer and song, it is reasonable to conclude that this calling upon the name of the Lord was expressed in both prayer and song. 

But let’s move ahead to the time of Moses. Before Moses receives the Law from God, he leads the people in song after they cross the Red Sea. He opens with, in Exodus 15:1, “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” Gill notes that the Israelites sang this song, not because they were commanded to, but simply “according to the dictates of their consciences.” It is a natural response for mankind to pray when they are in distress and sing praises when they are delivered.

Of course, when God reveals himself through the Law and the Prophets, the book of Psalms were given to the people of God. They contain songs that were sung at specific feasts, festivals, and occasions of worship at the Temple. But they were also sung by the Jews in their homes and in their communities. The Psalms provided a songbook for all of life for all the people of God. (A little more on the Psalms in a moment.)

By the time we reach the period of Jesus’ earthly ministry, songs are still an important part of Jewish culture. Jesus attended weekly services in the synagogue. Jews couldn’t travel every week to the Temple. And even though the synagogue service was not specifically laid out in the Law like the Temple worship was, Jesus still attended the service weekly (Luke 4:16). A service in the synagogue generally went like this: psalms were sung, Scripture was read, a sermon was preached, and then a time of discussion followed. But Jesus also sang songs outside of the synagogue service. For example, after the Passover, as was the custom, Jesus and his disciples would have sung the Hallel, which is from Psalm 115-118 (cf. Matthew 26:30). And, of course, Paul and Silas, when in prison, were “praying and singing hymns to God.” 

Once Christianity began to spread, and the Jews who believed in Christ were kicked out of the synagogues, they began meeting in homes. And it seems that, in their homes, they largely mirrored the general structure of the synagogue service. This makes sense to me for two reasons: (1) as mentioned previously, Jews living far away could not attend the Temple weekly; the synagogue meetings, however, occurred at least weekly in every town; and (2) the Temple was centered on the sacrificial system, which was brought to an end with Jesus’ sacrifice of himself. The Christians became known for gathering together, breaking bread, teaching about Christ, and singing hymns. Many of these hymns are believed to have been preserved in the New Testament (for example, see 1 Timothy 3:16). 

Pliny the Younger, who lived during the 1st and 2nd centuries in the Roman Empire, wrote to Trajan the emperor and said that “they [the Christians] met together on a stated day, before it was light, and sung a song among themselves to Christ, as to God.” Tertullian, in the third century, spoke of four things that were central to the gathering of Christians: “reading the Scriptures, singing psalms, preaching, and prayer.”   

It seems clear that Christians were following Paul’s exhortation to sing godly songs among themselves, edifying one another with the truth of what they sang. What happened then by the time we get to the Reformation? Why did the Roman Catholic Church remove this practice? One of the worst errors that popery led the true church into was this idea of a gulf between the clergy and the laity, the religious elite and the common people. It was the Pharisaical System 2.0. The elite can read the Bible, the common people can’t. The elite can understand doctrine, the common people can’t. The elite can sing praises when the church gathers, the common people can’t. A break from this was one of the most freeing aspects of the Reformation. (And it led not only to changes in church polity, but political structures as well.)

A Heated Reformed Baptist Debate

As previously mentioned, after the publication of the London Baptist Confession of Faith in 1689, the Reformed Baptists in England soon found themselves in the midst of a rigorous debate over congregational singing. Benjamin Keach, a well-known figure in Reformed Baptist history, advocated congregational singing. In 1692, Keach introduced congregational singing. James C. Brooks, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on this issue, notes:

Keach’s introduction of singing led his detractors, a minority of his congregation, to challenge him on “will-worship,” the introduction of a man-made element into the worship service. Twenty-six members left the Horsleydown congregation, including the wife of Isaac Marlow. A respected layman as well as a delegate to the General Assemblies and the treasurer of the assembly’s fund, Marlow launched a pamphlet war on the matter.

Isaac Marlow would go on to write rather voluminously on the subject. Marlow believed that congregational singing was a man-made intrusion into the strictly regulated worship service. Marlow gave several arguments against congregational singing. Here are several:

1. Marlow denied that the mere existence of the Psalms provided authorization for the Christian church to sing.

He did not believe the singing of the psalms was specifically commanded or “ordained” either by Christ or the apostles. He contended that singing in the Old Testament (at least in formal settings) occurred among the Levites, not the whole congregation. Furthermore, even if the Psalms were to be sung, “the complete form, including tunes, must be used” (Brooks).

2. Marlow denied that the New Testament commanded congregational singing.

In doing so, he looked at three passages: 1 Corinthians 14:15, 26; Ephesians 5:18-19; and Colossians 3:16. Concerning 1 Corinthians 14:15 and 14:26, Marlow argued that no positive command was given in these verses. He wrote, “Neither is there any color of reason to think that the Psalm should be vocally sung by all the Church together, any more than that the Doctrine, and the Revelation, and other Gifts of the Holy Spirit, should be delivered or said vocally together.”

Regarding Ephesians 5:18-19, he interpreted this as an inward action rather than vocal singing. Furthermore, Brooks notes, “the goal [Marlow] sought was to be filled with the Holy Spirit, not to correctly implement a form of worship.” As far as Colossians 3:16 goes, Brookes notes that Marlow believed “that the Apostle Paul, the author of the epistle to the Colossians, intended to encourage the church at Colosse to strive for the spiritual gift of singing. In other words, the passage described a mindset, not a commanded activity.”

3. Marlow rejected the moral argument regarding singing.

Some opponents of Marlow argued that even if congregational singing wasn’t commanded in Scripture, it was a moral duty given to all men. However, Marlow rejected that nature could inform man how to “worship” God.

Marlow believed that advocates of the moral argument put it forth because they could not substantiate singing as duly instituted by a positive command. “Their flying to the moral Law seems virtually to confess” that there is no New Testament foundation for singing. (Brooks)

4. Marlow believed the prohibition against women speaking in church forbade congregational singing.

Brooks notes: “Marlow understood this prohibition to extend beyond speaking and to include singing.”

5. Marlow believed that since congregational singing required precomposed forms, it ought to be rejected.

The Book of Common Prayer was explicitly rejected by the Puritans and Reformed Baptists in England. The use of precomposed prayers was viewed as a man-made invention—the Scripture did not regulate their use in “worship” services. Brooks explains: “Marlow believed it inconsistent to reject forms of precomposed prayer, such as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, yet accept precomposed forms of singing. Such a choice provided formal, as opposed to spiritual, worship.”

6. Marlow believed that since congregational singing would inevitably include both believers and unbelievers, it ought to be rejected.

Marlow believed that true worship should be reserved for Christian only. Advocating congregational singing would open the door to allowing unbelievers to worship with believers.

Benjamin Keach, on the other hand, differed from Marlow on all these points. Keach recognized that the discussion was not really about singing in general, but only if congregational singing was authorized “on Sunday, the Lord’s Day” (Brooks). While generally agreeing with the need for a clear command to do anything in a “worship service,” Keach eventually argued that singing was a moral duty. Concerning Keach’s view of the singing passages in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3, Brooks notes:

[Keach’s] reading of Ephesians 5:18-19 and Colossians 3:16 produced a singular, compelling understanding: Paul, the author of both epistles, expected Christian churches to sing…Keach believed that the expectation was for all people to sing, and since he could not find evidence that the Bible limited either this directive, or who could sing or at what point of the worship service, then Keach concluded that all Christians have a duty to sing. And even though he recognized that there was no biblical example of a congregation singing, his argument, was that had a limit been intended, then God would had given those restrictions. To refocus this conclusion in the language of scriptural silence, permission, and prohibition, Keach is saying that without specific prohibition on the matter of singing, all Christians have permission…[Keach] sought to introduce regular, vocal congregational singing into the Sunday worship. He believed God ordained the practice for the Christian church. He believed that precomposed forms were an acceptable method of accomplishing this ordinance. Like Marlow, he supported patterns, examples, and commands as authoritative. He differed, however, in his definition of singing and on how to relate scriptural passages on singing to these criteria.

Keach’s arguments begin to show a breaking down of the supposed firm line between what is sometimes called the “regulative principle of worship” and the “normative principle of worship.” (Personally, I think both principles miss the whole point by using the term “worship” in a way inconsistent with the New Testament use of the term. But for more on that, see my post, “Worship” and the Regulative Principle.) In the end, it seems Keach’s arguments largely won the day. In 1742, when the Reformed Baptists in America were seeking to adopt a modified version of the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, they added two sections. One section was on the laying on of hands; the other section was on congregational singing. The addition reads:

We believe that (Acts 16:25, Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16) singing the praises of God, is a holy
ordinance of Christ, and not a part of natural religion, or a moral duty only; but that it is brought under divine institution, it being enjoined on the churches of Christ to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; and that the whole church in their public assemblies, as well as private Christians, ought to (Heb. 2:12, Jam. 5:13) sing God’s praises according to the best light they have received. Moreover, it was practiced in the great representative church, by (Matt.26:30, Matt. 14:26) our Lord Jesus Christ with His disciples, after He had instituted and celebrated the sacred ordinance of His Holy Supper, as commemorative token of redeeming love. (Philadelphia Confession of Faith of 1742, Chapter 23, Of Singing Psalms, & c., emphasis added)

The Philadelphia Confession takes the approach that singing is both a moral duty to mankind in general and a specific command to “churches of Christ” in particular. The actions of Jesus and the disciples are used as a paradigm for church services. The key proof-text for congregational singing is a reference to Jesus in Hebrews 2:11-12 (citing Psalm 22:22): “For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, ‘I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.'”

Its Didactic Nature

The term didactic refers to that which is “adapted to teach; preceptive; containing doctrines, precepts, principles or rules; intended to instruct; as a didactic poem or essay.” Christian singing, I believe, to varying degrees, is to be didactic. It is to contain doctrine, truth. When Luther sought to bring back congregational singing, he wanted the songs to contain words that were rich in theological truth, not merely personal expressions. 

In Ephesians 5:19, the first thing Paul mentions is speaking to one another, or “addressing” one another. Words are important. The Apostle Paul said he’d rather say five words that edify than ten thousand words that don’t (1 Corinthians 14:19). This word addressing is sometimes translated as speaking. It is the same Greek word used in Acts 16:32: “And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.”

It is a very interesting way Paul words it. Why not simply say, singing to one another? He says addressing or speaking to one another in psalms and hymns, etc. The result of being continually filled, or carried along by the Spirit, is, in the first place, an intelligible use of words among Christians—an intelligible addressing of one another, even in song.

Think about the concept of words and the concept of truth for a moment. Paul refers to the gospel as the “word of truth” (Eph. 1:13). Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). The Spirit is the Spirit of truth (John 16). And truth is communicated with words. When Paul was in prison, why would he want, above all other things, the parchments (2 Timothy 4:13)? Why would saints living in England under the reign of bloody Mary give up their lives to read words in their own language? Why do Christians today risk their lives to read and study the words of the Bible? Are these “mere” words? By no means! Every word of God proves true; he is a shield unto them who put their trust in him. Words have meaning and words are powerful. Earlier, in chapter 4 of Ephesians, Paul had urged his readers to “speak the truth” with their neighbors (4:25). In 4:29, he says that no “corrupting talk” is to come out of our mouths, but only that which is edifying. Jesus said that man will have to give an account for every careless word he speaks…and I’d say that includes every careless word he sings (Matthew 12:36). We often overlook the importance God places on our words. We ought not to.

John Gill defined singing as simply “speaking melodiously, musically, or with the modulation of the voice.” His point is that you don’t distinguish speaking from singing by what is said, but how it is said. I can speak the truth to you. I could sing the truth to you. I can speak falsehoods to you. I could sing falsehoods to you. Regarding what Christians ought to sing, John Gill wrote:

I deny not, but that such hymns and spiritual songs, composed by good men, uninspired, may be made use of; provided care is taken that they may be agreeable to the sacred writings, and to the analogy of faith, and are expressed as much as may be in scripture language.

Gill was concerned that the words leaving the mouths of Christians, whether spoken or sung, were consistent with Scripture. He wanted songs to use as much “scripture language” as possible. Are there not many “hymns” today that would fail to meet Gill’s qualifications?

Charles Spurgeon once said that in casting his eyes over modern writings, he felt as if he were about to die from breathing poisonous gas! I believe the same could be said about many songs sung in American churches today. What a shame that is because songs ought to be used as forms of exhortation, encouragement, and instruction—in a word, edification. Though I tend to agree with Luther in that Christians can sing songs other than the Psalms, there will never be a songbook better than the one inspired by the Holy Spirit. The book of Psalms show us so clearly how didactic, how instructive, singing can (and should) be among Christians.

Singing the Psalms requires us to make sure our understanding of God and his world is accurate. Singing the Psalms together remind us that God judges the wicked (Psalm 75). Singing the Psalms together teaches us that God’s heart is to help the needy and oppressed (Psalm 10). Singing the Psalms together encourages us with the truth that Christ reigns over all the nations (Psalm 2). Singing the Psalms together instructs us about how God deals with the nations according to his Law-Word (Psalm 9:19). Singing the Psalms together exhorts us to speak out for those being mistreated and oppressed (Psalm 10:12, cf. Proverbs 24:11). Singing the Psalms together calls to our mind the reality that persecution is inevitable in the Christian life, and some of our brothers and sisters around the world are suffering greatly even today (Psalm 119:51). Even an unbeliever listening to such songs would be called to count the cost of following Jesus. 

Unfortunately, and I’m not trying to be condescending, a lot of modern worship music (and probably old music too!) is sterile, insipid and tidy, focusing on only one part of the Christian experience. The Psalms—and like Luther believed, songs like them—help us to sing rich truths that touch on all of the Christian experience. If we are going to sing songs together, let’s make sure they are precise, rich, and fitting for us to sing together, memorize together, and edify one another with.

Its Teleology

Finally, to conclude this look at singing, let us consider singing’s teleology. Teleology relates to the purpose for which something exists (as opposed to the cause by which it arises). Here is a teleological statement: Christians gather together for the purpose of edifying, or building up, the body; therefore, Christians singing together is for the purpose of edifying, or building up, the body.

I tend to agree with David Peterson, who believes that “in the New Testament, worship is all of life, while the focal purpose of the time when the church gathers and sings, prays and hears the Word is edification” (Hammett). 1 Corinthians 11-14 provides the clearest instruction for how the congregation is to operate when it gathers together. The Apostle Paul lists two main guidelines: (1) first and foremost, all things should be done for edification (14:5, 12, 26) and (2) second, all things should be done decently and in order (14:40). (For more on this, see my aforementioned post, “Worship” and the Regulative Principle.) 

Why You Should Never Leave a Church Because of the Music

Given the purpose of the church meeting (to edify others): I do not believe you should ever leave a church because of the musical quality in the services. (Note that I say musical quality, not lyrics. Heretical ideas, consistently spoken or sung, should not be tolerated.) When you gather with the saints, you are not gathering in order to hear great music (though you may in fact hear it). You are meeting in order to edify and encourage one another. Singing is part of that, but not in a consumerist sense (“How good is this music to my taste?”).

Luther, I believe in accord with Paul’s words here, wanted the church to sing together, not a choir of trained professionals. Rather than continue the elite and common distinction, he sought to have all sing. As such, he wanted everyone to receive a basic musical education as a child. In fact, as congregational singing rose to the surface, teachers, called “cantors,” helped provide vocal training to the congregation as a whole. Nevertheless, as far as judging the quality of the music, there is no doubt that congregational singing was a “step down” from the Latin clerical choirs before them. No matter to Luther, it was more important that all the saints sing, than that the music was the greatest quality it could possibly be. (After all, there is still a place for professional orchestras and concerts outside the gathering of the church. And, in fact, the momentum of the Reformation helped bring about some of the greatest musical creations in history.)

What about preaching? You might say, “Chris, you would never speak this way about preaching. You must not really enjoy music that much to place such little emphasis on it. It is totally legitimate to select a church based on how good the people can sing.” First of all, I do enjoy music and recognize the difference between my singing and Andrea Bocelli’s singing. Second, I actually don’t believe that one should leave a church because of preaching that is less than other preaching; one should only leave if the preaching is not faithful to the truths of the Bible. I believe it is the same with music. We ought not base a decision about a church by comparing the quality of the music with other churches. The Holy Spirit is not more or less present due to the caliber of music. 

I could spend an entire night reading Puritan sermons and be amazed and moved by the cohesiveness of the arguments, the logic of the conclusions, and the deft use of imagery. It would be easy for me to compare all preaching with what I consider (and what may in fact be) better preaching. But I am not gathering with the church in order to hear the greatest preaching I can—after all, Jonathan Edwards’ sermons are available online and I can access them whenever I want (just like professional songs are available online). One of the worst things you can do is judge your pastor by comparing him with the greatest preachers out there (living or dead). I gather together with the body to edify others and be edified by them. I gather to hear a specific part of God’s Word preached (imperfectly) by a man who knows me (my pastor). The church, in whatever context is best, then ought to discuss the Word with one another, whether right after the sermon, or in our homes that day or throughout the week. Many church services today have become a performance: the people merely spectate, and then go on with their day. The Puritans had a different view, they discussed and built upon the sermon, not taking it as a finished product, but as a launching point for them to dig deeper into the Word.

With access to the Internet, I can listen to the Psalms Project, or John Williams, or Handel’s Messiah, whenever I want. I can read Scripture while listening to John Williams and even put the text into lyric, if I am so gifted and inclined. Music is a wonderful thing and we ought to happily avail ourselves of it often. However, the question is how we ought to evaluate the “music” of a gathered assembly when determining what church to fellowship with. My belief is that expecting the gathering of the saints to provide an exceptional level of music is not prudent or useful. Furthermore, it rather self-centered: what can I out of this, rather than, how can I edify others? Good music can stir the affections, but it doesn’t enable us to “worship” better. Music is a gift that should be enjoyed when available. But that such things should be used to gauge the value of a church is wrong.

One problem is that those who focus so much on the “worship experience” of the church (i.e. the music) are looking at 0.29 percent of their lives. What about the other 99.71%? A Sunday morning service will at most contain 30 minutes of music. That is 30 minutes out of 10,080 weekly minutes. I do not think those minutes are not important, but I do think an undue emphasis has been placed on the music, rather than on the joy of singing God’s truth with your brothers and sisters in Christ (not matter how talented at singing they are). Perhaps this is why Calvin wanted the simplest of songs sung―that way we wouldn’t be tempted to attend another congregation simply because they had a more robust “worship”—i.e. music—experience.

You didn’t covenant with the church in order gain access to professional music. You can save up for a John Williams’ concert if that is what you are after. The point is for the saints to sing together—the idea is to edify one another. Have you ever thought about that? In the modern conception of a worship service, how does old Mrs. White edify anyone during the 30 minutes when the music is so loud that she actually has to turn down her hearing aid? Truth be told, my affections are stirred most and I am most edified when I hear all the saints singing truth, not because they rival the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, but because we are all praising God together. There is a great danger when we begin to compare the music of our church to music elsewhere.

In fact, one clear example of how people are discouraged from following Ephesians 5:19 (singing to one another) is when people make negative comments about the singing ability of their brothers and sisters in Christ. That some people can sing better than others no one will deny. But such a distinction has no place in the congregational singing of the church. If there is a solo performance, that may be a different matter. However, Luther and Keach and Calvin sought to implement congregational singing. The focus was on the church uniting their voice in praise, addressing one another and God. Everyone is to sing. I tend to think this focus would lead to more simplicity and more focus on the voice of the congregation, rather than a band (this is what led Luther to focus on teaching singing to the congregation). If God calls all Christians to sing, then we ought not discourage them from doing so. When you gather with the saints, you are not gathering in order to hear great music. You are meeting in order to edify and encourage one another.

The key is that we need to understand why we gather with the church. It is not in order to hear good music, hear great preaching, or listen to great prayers. Singing, preaching, and praying will occur when we meet, but we do not meet in order to get the best product we can. We meet to encourage others and be edified by them. If we think we aren’t being edified because the music isn’t as good as the church down the road, what does that say about our belief that God equips the saints to edify one another?

In one sense, it is certainly true that the corporate gathering of the church is primarily for us—for our edification. But it is not for our entertainment. And every Christian is called to sing to one another. A question to ask about the time when your church gathers together and sings: Is it a performance for us to enjoy or an opportunity for us to sing with all our brothers and sisters in Christ―encouraging and building each other up by our corporate singing?

Does this mean I think music should be ignored? No, but it should be thought about differently. Should preaching be ignored? No, but it should be thought about differently. The preacher should seek to stimulate thinking and discussion and application, not simply perform. Similarly, singing in the church ought not to be viewed as a performance by a select few. The church can sing together and get better at it, but they are to sing together.

Whenever I hear someone say, “The music or ‘worship’ just isn’t doing it for me, I think about the first-century church or a house-church in China today. How much emphasis would a saint in those contexts place on the caliber of the music or the excellence of the preaching? Can you imagine a persecuted saint, who just risked his life to gather with the saints in the catacombs of first century Rome, complaining that the hushed humming and singing of an ancient hymn with no instruments or amplification wasn’t good enough? Can you imagine him saying he just didn’t “feel the Holy Spirit’s presence” because of a child’s off-key singing? I cannot imagine it. Nor can I imagine him leaving that gathering, in search of another, because the pastor just wasn’t able to speak with the eloquence and skill of a Greek orator, though he preached truth.

What I can imagine, however, is a saint who goes to such a meeting, risking his life in the process, who hears words (spoken or sung) that do not honor his Lord―I can imagine him leaving for that.

We have been spoiled with a wealth of choices. But I think it would be wrong to ever leave a church simply because the quality of any aspect was not “doing it” for me. Every aspect of our gatherings, whether Sunday morning, Friday night, whenever, ought to be viewed in this light: how can we edify each other in our common faith? According to Paul, singing is one of those ways. Let’s utilize it. Together.


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