Another Look at the Purpose of Congregational Singing
I lied, well kind of. I said that we’d only do two on psalm-singing, and yet here we are with another installment on sung praise. Given some of the responses I’ve received it is evident that we probably need to spend some time talking about the place, role, and reasons for singing in the stated worship of the Church on the Lord’s Day. There is seemingly some confusion about what exactly is taking place when we bring our vocal devotion to God. While this strictly won’t be an “ARP” post like its predecessors it is still an important subject to help us understand who we are and what we do before Christ in worship, and since this Tuesday letter was originally designed to be for that purpose it most certainly fits our call, no pun intended.
If you head into the Bible, especially the New Testament, one of the things you will soon discover is there are few references to congregational singing. We know it happened from various sources outside the pages of Scripture (see Pliny’s letter to Trajan) and from the fact that it would not have become the norm in the early church if there weren’t apostolic precedents. Yet, it is important for us to take a look at the few examples we can find to help us get a good foundation for what is supposed to be taking place when we sing our Bible Songs or hymns.
When you come to this question the first two places’ people usually want to go are Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19. Let’s go ahead and reproduce them here for our purposes.
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” – Col. 3:16
“Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” – Eph. 5:19
Without getting into the issue as to what Paul means by “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” one thing we can be certain of is that the Greek words, psalmos, hymnos, and ode all refer to compositions meant for singing done together. Also for our purposes today it’s important to think back to last week’s prayer and worship help in that the singing of God’s people has the blessing of teaching us to dwell in the word of Christ. This is vital in that it matters what we sing as much as that we do sing. We cannot be praising God with words that would offend His holiness, or that would cause us to sin, or would teach us something that is false. Just because something is pretty or fun or enjoyable to the ear doesn’t mean Jehovah is honored in its usage. Often our liking a song is more geared towards the tune anyway, which in and of itself is worth coming back to at another time.
The Old Testament picture is a little clearer in that we have several testimonies to the Levite choirs (1 Chron. 15:16, 25:2-3, 2 Chron. 29:27) and Moses with the Israelites (Ex. 15) and Barak and Deborah (Judges 5). Exuberant thanksgiving for the mercy of God has always been a part of the life of the people, however, the only problem is here we are talking about the gathered worship of the Church. There is a difference between attending a concert or even a wedding and singing and what happens in Sunday worship, yet, it is more than enough for us to testify that God would have us to sing together as part of service to Him on the day He has set aside for this purpose. For that we can go to the Hallel psalms, which Jesus sang with the Disciples after the Upper Room in Matthew 26:30 or passages like Psalm 47:7 or Psalm 96:1.
The Bible tells us to sing, to sing together, and to make sure we are singing to Christ in the midst of all of it. That middle clause is what we are going to spend the rest of our brief space considering. What does it mean to sing together. I mean on one hand that seems like one of those things that ain’t exactly rocket science, but it probably would be good for us to define some particulars. First, together means together. Congregational singing involves there not being set apart worship leaders or singers singing for the congregation. While we won’t get into instruments and the like (and I’ve said before that if you are going to allow accompanied singing what kind of instrument is really about aesthetics/preference, not which one is more Biblical) it is had to get around the fact that if someone is up front singing to you in a microphone facing towards you he or she is not singing with you in the congregation.
Too much of contemporary worship is a return back to the Levitical shadows of 1 Chron. 15:16. Just because you have been blessed to sing well (I have not) does not mean for the purposes of Congregational singing that you should be marked out separate from others. The most helpful thing a good singer can do in the worship of the church is help their neighbors in the pews find the right pitch and tempo. We live in a day and age where very few people receive any kind of serious musical training and it is because of this that it is even more important that we disciple one another in this way, something envisioned there by Colossians 3:16 in its witness to teach in song. In a perfect world we would actually practice as a congregation our singing. True “choir practice” would involve everyone, for no other reason than it’s hard to be good at something you don’t work at and Christian worship should be done well. Imagine how much more robust our singing would be if we were confident in our ability (not necessarily our talent) to know the intonations, etc… in the songs we sing. This is part of the reason for our 5th Lord’s Days Bible Song sings, to help familiarize ourselves with the songs we sing in worship.
Second, on this question of together it is reminded that what we do in worship is for the benefit of our becoming one. To open up a giant can of worms, and recognizing that this may sound self-justifying in some sense since I am the one saying it, but the only people set aside to lead worship are elders and ministers of the gospel. Children, women, and those men not ordained for that purpose should not be leading the people of God to bring praise to God. There is a simplicity to New Testament worship which we would be wise to follow. Too much busyness in the liturgy causes us to get lost.
We’ll close on this quotation from Michael Bushell:
When we worship God the focus of our attention should be on [God], not upon ourselves or on those around us. . .The contrast between the ornate worship of the Temple liturgy and the worship which Jesus announced, the worship of God in spirit and truth (John 4:23), could hardly be more stark. . .All that we know about the apostolic church is that believers met weekly on the Lord’s Day to celebrate the sacraments, pray together, to sing the Psalms which Jesus loved so much, and to hear the word read and expounded. They did it simply and without the benefit of choreographers or praise committees. The transition was one from sensual to spiritual, from grand complexity to quiet simplicity.
We’ve gone on long enough this morning, but the goal of this post today has been merely to help us think some more about what is happening when get together at 11am and 5:30pm on the Lord’s Day to lift up our voices to the Heavens, as one people, called to Christ’s in one faith, one baptism, and one hope united to Him in grace.
Here’s one more word:
Blessings in Christ,
Rev. Benjamin Glaser
Pastor, Bethany ARP Church