The Glory of Singing in Worship
For many years before we bought a new building, the church in Montreal was located right next door to a Pentecostal assembly. We could hear their band (especially the bass and drums) through the walls and it made us sing louder! Their minister, Billy English, was a nice guy and we used to visit from time to time.
Now there were many differences between our respective churches. They had no Bible classes, only a long worship period. They believed in miraculous gifts, speaking in tongues and prophecy in the modern age, etc. They used all kinds of musical instruments and performers in their public worship.
But when Billy and I got together and talked about church matters, the only thing that piqued his curiosity about us was why we only "sang" at our worship services. He understood why we had Bible classes and why we did not believe in modern miracles, but he did not get why we did not use instruments. He said that this was the most distinct feature about our group and it really separated us from the others. We were truly different in this matter.
It seems a shame that so many in our brotherhood are toying with the idea of adding instruments to worship and in doing so removing one of the most unique features of our identity.
Of course as curious as Billy was, he never really gave me a chance to clearly explain why we only use singing in our praise and adoration of God in public worship.
It seems to me that there are many people out there who are not sure why we have this practice in Churches of Christ. For this reason and with the hope that Billy will read this book one day, let me simply give you the three basic reasons why the Church of Christ does not use instruments in public worship:
1. There is no command in the New Testament to do so
One of the most important elements of faith in God is worship. The very first commandment in the Old Testament is the prohibition against worshipping any other god but the Lord.
In the Old Testament God was very specific about how He wanted the Jews to worship Him.
- The building of the tabernacle in the desert as well as the Temple in Jerusalem was all done according to His detailed instructions (at least 5 chapters of instructions in Exodus).
- The manner in which the Jews worshipped, offered sacrifice, the dressing of the priests were all explained to the smallest detail.
- Even the musical instruments to be used, who and when to play them were laid out by God to Moses, David and the prophets.
For example, Moses:
1The Lord spoke further to Moses, saying, 2"Make yourself two trumpets of silver, of hammered work you shall make them; and you shall use them for summoning the congregation and for having the camps set out.
- Numbers 10:1-2
God specifies which instruments (only 2).
The priestly sons of Aaron, moreover, shall blow the trumpets; and this shall be for you a perpetual statute throughout your generations.
- Numbers 10:8
He specifies who will play them.
Also in the day of your gladness and in your appointed feasts, and on the first days of your months, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings, and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings; and they shall be as a reminder of you before your God. I am the Lord your God."
- Numbers 10:10
He explains when and why. This demonstrates that God cares about music in worship enough to give specific instructions concerning it.
25He then stationed the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, with harps and with lyres, according to the command of David and of Gad the king's seer, and of Nathan the prophet; for the command was from the Lord through His prophets. 26The Levites stood with the musical instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. 27Then Hezekiah gave the order to offer the burnt offering on the altar. When the burnt offering began, the song to the Lord also began with the trumpets, accompanied by the instruments of David, king of Israel.
- II Chronicles 29:25-27
- God through the prophets Gad and Nathan gave instructions to David as to which instruments and how they were to be used in Temple worship.
- Note that David did not do this on his own.
- The Jews never added or changed these commands.
In this passage the writers describe Hezekiah's restoration of Temple worship after a long period of neglect, and note that when it came to music, he reinstated what had been commanded before by God, nothing more or different.
My point here is that in the Old Testament God was specific in His instructions concerning the type of music used in worship. This was probably done because the Jews were easily drawn into pagan worship if left to themselves.
This same idea carries over into the New Testament. God through the Apostles still gives us the information we need about our worship to Him. Aside from the Lord's Supper, prayer, teaching and preaching the Word and caring for the church, the only instruction or command we have about music in public worship is to sing.
What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also.
- I Corinthians 14:15
Note Paul here is giving instruction about proper conduct in the public worship of the church.
… but be filled with the Spirit, 19speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord;
- Ephesians 5:18b-19
Not only does Paul repeat the idea that singing is the proper and acceptable manner of musical praise to God, the word he uses means to sing without instruments.
In English we use the term "A cappella" (Italian term meaning "chapel style") when we want to refer to singing without instruments. In the Greek language (the language of the New Testament), the word for singing without instrument is the word "psallo" which is exactly the word that Paul uses here.
Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God
- Colossians 3:16
Again, to a third group of churches, Paul repeats the same inspired instruction in reference to musical praise, psallo, sing only.
What makes us think that the God who gave very specific commands to His people in the Old Testament about worship would let His people in the New Testament do whatever they wanted when it came to praise in music?
If we ask the question, "What command from God do we have as far as musical praise in worship is concerned?" the answer from the New Testament is very clear, "sing only."
2. There is no example
What is interesting about the Old Testament and the use of instruments in praise is that there are many examples of their use. The Old Testament clearly describes in detail the use of instruments, choirs, parades, etc. There is no attempt to downplay their use, it is not a "grey" area.
- They were commanded, they were used.
- We confirm their use by God's command and the many examples of people obeying God's command by using them.
This same pattern is seen in the New Testament as well. God, through the Apostles, commands the practice of singing without instruments in public worship. We see examples of this throughout the New Testament.
The point about instruments is made by the fact that there is not a single example of them being used, spoken of, referred to or debated over in all of the New Testament. We debate it today but they did not because it was a non-issue.
- Question: Why no examples?
- Answer: They were not used.
- Question: Why?
- Answer: The command was to sing.
For example, the Greek Orthodox Church: no instrument. Why? They are Greek, they know the meaning of psallo!
Just as the Jews obeyed God's command to use instruments in the Old Testament, Christians in the New Testament obeyed God's command to only sing and the fact that there is no mention of instruments in the New Testament shows that the early Christians were faithful in this.
3. The proof of history
One of the major arguments used by folks who use instruments in worship is that the early church did not use instruments because they worshipped underground and in hiding because of the Roman persecution, so they had to be quiet!
There are a couple of problems with this argument.
- Christian worship is largely based on the Jewish synagogue worship style which did not use instruments.
- The persecution of Christians by Rome began some 30 years after the church was established (60 AD) but the church did not use instruments during this time.
- Long after the Roman persecution and even Rome itself fell, the Christian church did not use instruments in worship.
Historians estimate that for at least the first 1,000 years of church history the worship was without instruments.
Church historians, leaders and theologians as far back as Justin Martyr (150 AD) who defended Christianity in face of Roman persecution said,
"The use of singing with instrumental music was not received in the Christian church as it was among the Jews…"
(Price, "Old Light on New Worship", p. 71)
Even Augustine (354-430 AD) saw the use of instruments in worship as "fleshly."
It is interesting to note that Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote in 1260 AD,
"The church does not use musical instruments… when praising God… for musical instruments usually move the soul more to pleasure than create inner moral goodness."
(Price, "Old Light on New Worship", p. 81)
Even early Protestant reformers were against the use of instruments in public worship.
In 1571, the French Protestant church, formed under the influence of Calvin, had 2,100 congregations, some of which numbered over 10,000 members, and all used a cappella music in their public worship.
Of course, this is not Biblical proof but it is accurate historical proof. I mention it to underscore the idea that the use of instruments, drama, orchestras, choirs, bands, praise teams, are all relatively recent innovations that depart from what was practiced by the church for centuries.
We use a cappella music because we believe the Bible instructs us to do so by command and example, but we also have the bulk of church history to confirm that this is the correct way to worship.
And is this not what we are about as a New Testament church? We want to be the church that God describes in the New Testament. Of course, not just in the way we worship but in the way we preach the gospel, conduct our lives, love one another and prepare for the return of Christ.
Worship is only one element, but it is an important one if we are to truly restore the practice of Biblical Christianity in our generation.
One other thing about music I would like to share and that is how just singing is a glorious act in worship.
4. The glory of singing
We place a lot of importance on how we sing as opposed to the fact that we only sing in worship. Of course we want to do our best and offer to God songs that sound sweet and pleasant, but the fact that we only sing (without instrument) according to His command has greater significance in the spiritual context of worship.
John Price, in his book, "Old Light on New Worship," lists several ways that Christ has lifted up the practice of singing in worship as a glorious thing. Jesus has made singing in worship glorious:
A. By His own example
Jesus anoints singing as a glorious manner to praise God because He Himself sang praises with His Apostles in the upper room on the night before He died.
In Matthew 26:30, Matthew says that they sang a hymn as was the custom of the Jews at Passover. The traditional one was the "hallel" which comprised of Psalms 113-118.
Before His suffering and death, Jesus sang songs of praise, trust and thanksgiving. It is only fitting that when we worship we follow the example of our Lord who exalts this practice by doing it Himself!
B. By making it a teaching ministry
I return to Colossians 3:16 where Paul says,
...teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
When our singing is based on the Word of God with songs taken directly from the Psalms or derived from the Scripture, we are literally teaching and encouraging one another through songs.
- When we sing "Stand up, stand up for Jesus," are we not encouraging one another to remain faithful and strong for Christ?
- When we sing "Up from the grave He arose," are we not proclaiming the gospel to one another and any unbeliever who might be present?
Aside from offering our love and praise to God, congregational singing serves as a teaching ministry for the building up of the church. No instrument, no matter how beautifully played or numerous can bless the church like the human voice declaring the truths of God in spiritual song.
As I said before, some put too much emphasis on the musicality of our singing, judging it by its tone or pleasure to the ear. But God lifts up singing as an exalted method of praise because it is the direct link to a person's heart and faith.
With the heart we believe, and with the mouth we proclaim in song that Jesus Christ is Lord – this is primal Christianity.
C. By making it a foretaste of heaven
John, in his vision of heaven, in the book of Revelation says,
And they sang the song of Moses, the bond-servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying,
"Great and marvelous are Your works,
O Lord God, the Almighty;
Righteous and true are Your ways,
King of the nations!
– Revelation 15:3
Our singing here on earth in the church is the beginning and a hint of the "experience" of heaven. We only know vaguely what heaven will be like in negative terms (no death, no sin, no suffering, etc.).
It is hard to imagine because we have all these things here and have always had them so to experience the complete absence of these things is difficult. But singing, and singing joyfully, with faith, this is something we know, something we actually do.
God has given us this experience (among others) to help us actually feel in a very real sense, what heaven will be like. As a matter of fact, John Price says in his book that,
"Singing is the only ordinance of the church that shall continue in heaven. When we see Him face to face, preaching, prayer, communion and baptism...shall all be done away."
All of these were means to call and unite people to Christ, build their faith, and remember His sacrifice. In heaven none of these will be necessary except to celebrate our everlasting relationship in a perfect spiritual union. And God has chosen singing as the way to do this in both heaven and on earth.
So when we gather to worship in song, remember:
- That what we do is ordained by God and pleasing to Him because of our obedience, not our ability.
- That a cappella singing is a glorious thing because Jesus has raised it above any other form of worship by His own example and the teaching of the Apostles.
- That when we are two or more who gather in His name to worship God, Jesus is not only with us, but also sings with us as well.
In Romans 15:9 Paul quotes several verses from the Psalms showing that Christ Himself was speaking through David concerning the eventual salvation of the Gentiles.
In Psalm 18:49 Christ declares through David His prophet,
Therefore I will give thanks to You among the nations, O Lord,
And I will sing praises to Your name.
So stand and sing knowing that you sing to God and with God when you lift your voices in song.
- Why is the act of singing during worship important?
- Discuss how the following Old Testament examples of music in worship teach us about obedience to God?
- What specific guidance about worship through only vocal (singing) music is seen in the New Testament?
- What is the major difference concerning the use of instruments in worship in the Old Testament and New Testament and why is this important?
- How does Matthew 16:19 relate to the prohibition of instrumental music in worship?
- How is Matthew 26:30 an example of the power of singing in worship?
- How is vocal music a part of our overall teaching ministry? (Colossians 3:16)
- How is our singing in worship a foretaste of worship in heaven? (Revelation 15:3)
- How does singing as part of our worship support spiritual growth?