The Third Commandment

Chapter 14 – Music in Worship

Arguments over music have divided Christians for centuries. When the Reformers reinstituted congregational singing they were accused of removing one of the prerogatives of the clergy and of vulgarizing worship music by putting it in the hands of commoners. Early Baptists argued over whether singing was appropriate at all! Others debated whether any songs besides the Psalms could be used in worship. Subsequent generations have engaged in more than one brawl over the style and nature of church music.

It is not surprising, then, that debates over contemporary worship have tended to focus on music. Contemporary worship has made significant changes in every element of worship, but those changes are most noticeable in the realm of music. Music touches the emotions like little else, so any Christian asked to abandon any familiar form of worship music in favor of any new or different trend is likely to demonstrate a visceral response.

It would therefore be easy to dismiss all conflict over contemporary worship music as mere emotional reaction to change. However, we are committed to the principle that worship is to be thoroughly regulated by Scripture. While most of what the New Testament tells us about music is found in just two passages, the New Testament does regulate worship music.

The two passages are parallel, meaning that Paul used similar words in two letters to instruct the churches in this matter, but each contains certain distinct emphases. Consequently, we must look at both. In Ephesians 5:19 Paul’s instructions include the following phrase: “…addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart…” Then, in Colossians 3:16 he writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” What do we learn from these instructions?

Music as Participation
The first application of these verses is that the whole church is meant to join in song. Contrary to medieval practice, in which choirs of ordained clerics set a mood for worship, the New Testament both authorizes and demands singing of the entire congregation.

The context of both passages is that Paul was addressing the church as a whole before singling out various categories of members, such as husbands and wives, children and parents. Both verses contain the words “one another.” Unlike the preaching ministry of the church, in which pastors instruct their people authoritatively from God’s Word, singing is an element in which the whole congregation joins, addressing both God and one another.

This is no small thing that Paul demands. Looking at both verses together, we see that congregational singing requires churches whose people have the Scriptures “dwelling in them richly” so that they may “make melody with their whole hearts”! Christians are to immerse themselves in Scripture to the point that their hearts overflow with melodies of praise and thanksgiving. Merely singing along and hitting all the right notes is not biblical singing.

In fact, the spiritual requirements of biblical worship music exceed the artistic requirements. One of the results of the professional choirs of the middle ages was that music became too complex for the common people. The Reformers recognized that a simpler form of music was necessary to fulfill Scriptural requirements.

Complexity in music is a sure enemy to biblical singing. The New Testament knows nothing of a worship style in which skilled musicians perform for the benefit of the broader congregation. What it commands is participatory singing. One of the weaknesses of many innovations in church music throughout history is that they drive the congregation out of music, leaving it in the hands of the skilled “professionals.”

Music as Worship
The second application of these verses is that God is the primary “audience” for church music. Both passages end with this thought. It is “to God” that we are to “make melody with all our hearts,” and those hearts are to be filled with “thankfulness to God.” This does not mean that we should not care how our music sounds to the people around us, for we are also singing “to one another.” However, since our primary focus is the worship of God, we must first be concerned that our singing is acceptable to Him.

We may never forget that our music, like all our worship, is “lifting up the name of the Lord.” It is part of our conversation with Him. Music is one of two ways (prayer being the other) in which we respond to the God who has spoken to us through Scripture.

This introduces an element into our theology of worship which, while difficult to apply, cannot be ignored. God demands that we approach Him with reverence and awe. If worship music is part of that approach, we cannot ask only or first: “What music do we enjoy?” We must first ask whether our music conveys the attitude toward God which He demands of those who worship Him. The New Testament does not authorize us to revoke that demand. Instead, our music must be appropriate for addressing the Sovereign of the Universe, who commands both reverence and fear.

Music as Instruction
The third application of these verses delves into the manner in which music is addressed to other worshipers. We have already seen that God is one of those whom we address in song. We should be primarily concerned with how our songs will address Him. Paul has also said, though, that we also “address one another” in song. What is to be the outcome of that communication?

The answer is found in Colossians, where we discover why it is so critical for “the word of God to dwell in us richly” as we sing. Our songs are meant to “teach and admonish” the congregation. In other words, two things must be included in the content of our worship music: instruction in the truth of God and a challenge to respond appropriately to that truth.

The New Testament allows no worship music which fails to challenge the singer both intellectually and ethically. The music of worship is another instructional tool, presenting the doctrine of the Bible in another form than preaching. Appropriate worship music is that from which we learn as we sing. Furthermore, good worship music should “admonish” the congregation, encouraging it to abandon sub-biblical patterns of thought, speech and action in order to conform itself to the pattern of Scripture.

With these thoughts in mind, we may begin to evaluate worship music from a biblical viewpoint. We want music in which the whole congregation may participate, which conveys a proper reverence toward God, and which instructs and challenges the worshipers. Only this music will enable us to follow the instructions of the New Testament.

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