1998 Inman Forum

"Some Contemporary Issues

Concerning Worship and the Christian Assembly"

Lecture 4


Chapter 4

MUSIC IN THE ASSEMBLY

by Dr. Everett Ferguson

The format of these lectures does not permit a complete study of activities in the assembly,(1) so we select two topics on which there is considerable contemporary discussion, music in the assembly and the role of women in the assembly. Different topics require discussion at different times. We thought we settled the question of music long ago, but every generation needs instruction.(2)

Vocal Music

I prefer to make a positive case, and there is a strong one in the New Testament for vocal music. Singing has a place in the assembly. At the last supper of Jesus with his disciples, the meal closed with the singing of a hymn: Matthew 26:30, "When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives." The Jewish Passover celebration included the singing of the Hallel Psalms, Psalms 111-118, so the reference in Matthew is probably to the last of these, Psalms 115-118, which were sung at the close of the meal.(3) This practice of Jesus with his disciples, especially since it is noted by Matthew and Mark, likely accounts for the practice of early Christians singing when they came together to take the Lord's supper. Paul personalizes his directions concerning singing in the assemblies of the Christians at Corinth, 1 Corinthians 14:15, "What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also."

There is a rich doctrinal teaching in the New Testament about vocal music. What are we doing when we sing? Let us note what the New Testament says we are doing when we sing. Congregational singing accomplishes many beneficial purposes.

(1) Singing is way of praising God. Hebrew 2:12 pictures Christ in the presence of the assembly of his people and singing with them Psalm 22:22, "I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst to the congregation I will praise you." Many of the Psalms are praises to God. Their use by Christians began in the early days of the church (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), and they have continued to be a staple of Christian worship ever since. The very word "hymn" means a song of praise.

(2) Singing shares in the heavenly praise. The heavenly beings are constantly praising God. Revelation 4:8, "Day and night without ceasing [the four living creatures] sing, `Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty who was and is and is to come.'" And verses 10-11, "The twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever . . ., singing `You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.'" This is an example of a Biblical praise song. There are many others in Revelation (5:8-13; 14:2-3; 15:2-3). When we sing God's praises, we are sharing in a heavenly activity. Moreover, we are anticipating the end-time activity. By sharing in what the heavenly beings do, we also anticipate our own participation in the praise of God in our future heavenly existence.

(3) Singing is a way of giving thanks to God. Ephesians 5:19-20 and Colossians 3:16-17 both connect the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with thanksgiving to God. Ephesians 5:19-20, "Speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." Colossians 3:16-17, "With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everying in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." So song is directed to God. But it is offered to God through Christ and in his name (that is, with reference to him and as an act of worship to him). Song proceeds from the heart and is accompanied by the attitudes of the heart, especially the attitude of thanksgiving. Singing expresses thanksgiving.

(4) Singing preaches Christ. Philippians 2:6-11; 1 Timothy 3:16; and probably Colossians 1:15-20 have been identified by scholars as early Christian hymns. They all have in common that they proclaim the story of Christ. Christ is preached not only in sermons but in the hymns that are sung. Christ's saving work on behalf of humanity is the reason why Christians sing. But he is not only the inspiration for Christian song; he also provides its essential content.

(5) Singing confesses faith. Hebrews 13:15 says, "Through Christ, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name." Praise to God and preaching Christ are also confessions of faith. Making a confession is not necessarily expressed in melody, but certainly it can be. With the lips confession is made to the Lord, and sometimes we set those confessions to melody in a song.

(6) Singing is a spiritual sacrifice. According to this same verse, Hebrews 13:15, the fruit of lips is a spiritual sacrifice. We noted this verse in the first chapter's discussion of spiritual sacrifice as including verbal praise. Instead of the material offerings of the ancient pagan and Jewish temple worship, Christians offer spiritual sacrifices. One of the items that qualifies as a spiritual sacrifice is song, if it is offered from the human spirit and is in accord with God's will.

(7) Singing expresses the indwelling Spirit and word of Christ. Ephesians 5:18-20 and Colossians 3:16-17 make parallel statements with interesting variations. Ephesians 5:18-19 says, "Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves." Colossians 3:16 says, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; . . . and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God." I deliberately put these two statements together. The Spirit and the word are often set against each other. I believe that Biblically they belong together. It is not necessary to interpret one of these statements in terms of the other, so that the word of Christ really means the Spirit or the Spirit really means the word. They belong together. The indwelling word of Christ, the teaching of Christ laid up in the heart, and the filling with the Spirit, who also dwells within the believer, will result in vocal expressions--psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. In order to express the Spirit of Christ and the word of Christ, the songs must be spiritual and in accord with Christ's teaching.

(8) Singing is mutually edifying. We quoted at the beginning 1 Corinthians 14:15, "I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also." This verse is set in a context that emphasizes the necessity of speech being intelligible in order to contribute to edification. Verses 16-17 continue: "Otherwise, if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the `Amen' to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying? For you may give thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up." The same principles apply to singing as to prayer and speaking in tongues. The words are to be intelligible to others present, because the singing as well as the praying is to build up others mentally and spiritually. Hence, verse 26 says, "When you come together each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up." Singing is to be edifying, and, therefore, we should keep this in mind in choosing songs and in determining the manner in which they are sung. The teaching of 1 Corinthians coincides, therefore, with Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. As those verses say, the singing is a speaking to one another, as well as being a thanksgiving to God in the name of Christ, is a teaching and an admonishing of one another.

(9) Singing expresses deep religious emotion. James 5:13 admonishes, "Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise." This verse is not in a congregational setting, but the idea is applicable to songs in the assembly. Singing is a way of expressing emotion.

(10) Singing exemplifies the unity of the church. Romans 15:5-6 exhorts, "May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." We found in our second lesson that one of the purposes of the congregational assembly is to exemplify the unity of the church. Joint participation in song is a wonderful way of building this unity and expressing it. The phrase "one voice" was frequently used in the literature of the time to describe harmonious agreement and united action. Hence, the emphasis is not so much on unison singing; indeed authors often commented on the difference between the voices of male and female and young and old, making the point that their blending together created a sweeter harmony. This kind of unity is what Paul wanted of the Roman Christians and indeed what God wants of all Christians.

These are things that vocal music can accomplish. You may be able to add some items to the list. Instrumental music cannot accomplish these things. Instruments at their best are irrelevant to most of these activities and at their worst hinder or even prevent their accomplishment. But someone may say, "The singing can still accomplish these things when it is accompanied by an instrument." I would respond that the instrument adds nothing to these vocal purposes, and by its emphasis on the melody or by its volume may detract from the vocal content.

Instrumental Music

Instruments cannot do the things that we have seen singing does. Instrumental music, indeed, serves no theological purpose. Understandably, then, there is no mention in the New Testament of playing instruments in the assembly.

I learned enough on the college debate team not to affirm a negative. The burden of proof is on one who wants to do something or who makes a positive statement. Advocates of instrumental music try to shift the burden of proof to their opponents. They ask, "What is wrong with it?" "Why not do it?" They know it is harder to prove a negative than a positive. But if instruments have no theological purpose in the assembly, then those who want to use them must offer some justification for their introduction. When they do try to make a case, the following are some of the arguments presented. I will state the principal arguments of which I am aware and give a response to each.

(1) "Instrumental music was used in the worship of God in the temple in the Old Testament (1 Chron. 23:5; 2 Chron. 29:30-36), and that use of instrumental music is spoken of with approval in the Psalms (e.g., Ps. 150)." That is correct. What is not stated, however, is that instruments in the temple were an accompaniment to animal sacrifice. When the sacrificial system of the Old Testament was abolished by the perfect sacrifice of Christ, its accompaniments ceased too--a physical temple and altar, a separate class of priests, burning incense, and other material offerings. It would have taken an express authorization from God to carry over any aspect of the temple ritual into the New Testament. We have that authorization for singing but not for playing on instruments.

Moreover, Christians are under the new covenant, not the Mosaic covenant.(4) There were many activities approved, or even commanded, by God in the Old Testament that were not continued in the covenant of Christ. So the presence of something in the Old Testament does not automatically approve its use in the church.

(2) "Instrumental music is present in the heavenly worship in Revelation." This statement must be qualified in some important ways. The book of Revelation draws on Old Testament practices in order to symbolize spiritual realities. I do not suppose anyone would insist on literal harps in heaven, any more than they would a literal altar, literal streets of gold, or any of the other items described.

Let us look at the texts themselves to see if a spiritual interpretation may be pressed further. Revelation 5:8-9, "The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sing a new song." Although they hold harps, one could point out that they are not said to play, but only to sing. This may not be just a quibble, for the bowls of incense are said to be the prayers of the saints. The harps would seem to symbolize singing in the same way that incense symbolizes prayers. We are expressly told that the golden bowls of incense represent something else--prayer. It would follow that the harps too stand for something else; although not as expressly interpreted, the immediate connection of the harps is with the song quoted in verse 9. Such an interpretation is strengthened by Revelation 14:2-3, "And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they sing a new song before the throne." What is heard is a "voice." It is compared to the sound of rushing water, the sound of thunder, and the sound of harpists. There is no literal water, thunder, or harp; only a voice. And the voice is the singing of the redeemed. Revelation 15:2-3, "And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God and the song of the Lamb." The sea of glass mixed with fire is a comparison, imagery, so one should be careful about pressing the nature of the harps in the hands of those who have overcome the beast. Once more, all that is stated as being done is that they sing a song. Although one's first assumption is that the harps are there to be played, their presence may be symbolic, part of the imagery of the scene, which probably alludes to the song of Israel in Exodus 15 celebrating the deliverance from Pharaoh at the Red Sea.

The word translated "harp" is in each instance the kithara, the ordinary string instrument of the Greek world. The words for "sing" and "song" are words that never refer to anything other than vocal music. I suppose we should go on to say that voices and singing in these contexts also must be understood as expressing some spiritual condition appropriate to the resurrected, spiritual body, but the point to be made is that the texts themselves do not offer as much support to the contention about instrumental music in heaven as is often claimed. And in any case, not everything in heaven is to be in the church: an altar, thrones, bowls of incense, a sea of glass, and so forth.

(3) "Instrumental music is included in the words `psalm' and `make music' (Eph. 5:19)." It is correct that these words were used in Classical and Hellenistic Greek in reference to instruments. The noun psalmos (*ÿóú) meant the plucking on strings and then the sound made by plucking on a string instrument, and the verb psallo (*ßóó) meant "to pluck," usually with reference to plucking on a string instrument (with the fingers, not with a plectron). The lexica do not cite the noun or verb as referring to "playing" on other kinds of instruments. In some Jewish works before the beginning of the Christian era, however, psallo is used of singing, at first to the accompaniment of an instrument but then without accompaniment, and psalmos is used for the songs sung, preeminently the book of Psalms in the Bible. This vocal usage is reflected in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, and in apocryphal and pseudepigraphal works.

Christian usage of these words was uniformly in reference to vocal music. We may note the pairing of psallo, "to sing praise," with "to pray" in 1 Corinthians 14:15 and James 5:13. Psalmos is uniformly used for the Psalms of the Old Testament or songs of a similar nature. This is the consistent usage of Christian authors after the New Testament and continues into modern Greek, which uses psallo to mean "to sing." Vocal music alone, therefore, is being referred to in Ephesians 5:19 and other passages using these words.

(4) "Instrumental music was omitted in the early church because of its association with pagan worship and immorality." If this were the reason for its omission, then the early church would have omitted song from its assemblies as well. Pagan worship included singing as well as playing on instruments. Ancient authors, pagan as well as Christian, who criticized the contributions of music to immorality included songs as well as instruments in their strictures. This explanation overlooks the presence of instruments in the Jewish temple. There was a non-pagan instrumental religious music available to the early church.

Various types of religious music were employed in New Testament times: Vocal music (Jewish synagogues and homes), instrumental music (pagan religions), and instrumentally accompanied singing (Jewish temple and pagan religions and society). The New Testament practice of only singing represents a choice out of the available options and therefore constitutes a rejection of the instrumental alternatives.

(5) "Instrumental music is an aid to singing." This may or may not be so. An aid to one person may be a hindrance to another. What is an aid and what is a hindrance are subjective matters. The general experience of religious bodies is that the presence of an instrument works against congregational participation in the music. The emphasis shifts from active involvement to passive listening, from accompanied singing to playing only.

Moreover, it may be questioned on Biblical grounds that the instruments should be considered only an aid. In the Old Testament playing on instruments was an act of worship. Psalm 150 calls on the people to praise God with various instruments. If instrumental music may itself be an act of praise and worship, then one must evaluate it on other grounds, namely the theological considerations advanced in the first part of this study.

Reasons for Not Having Musical Instruments in the Assembly

We may say in regard to instruments in the assembly not only that the case is not made but also that the case is disproved. Here we may bring together some of the arguments against the use of instruments of music in the Christian assembly.

(1) Instrumental music does not accomplish what vocal music does. The first part of this study listed some of the purposes and benefits accomplished by singing in the congregational assembly. It is impossible for instrumental music to do most of these things. Instruments may be used to praise God, but the New Testament references to praise, both in church and in heaven, have to do with vocal praise. Instrumental music may express deep emotions, but the meaning must be interpreted by words. On the other hand, instruments cannot express thanksgiving to God. Instruments cannot preach Christ, confess faith, or be a non-material, spiritual sacrifice. They cannot express the indwelling word of Christ. They cannot edify in the sense of giving intelligible instruction, encouragement, or consolation (1 Cor. 14:3, 26). Instrumental music cannot exemplify the unity of the church. The spiritual nature of Christian worship is lowered when something mechanical or material competes with the vocal, mental expressions of the activities in the assembly.

(2) Instrumental music does not fit the purposes of the assembly. These purposes, as outlined in Chapter 2, closely correspond to what song accomplishes, but are outside the realm of what instruments can do. We found the purposes of the assembly to be to glorify God, to exemplify the church, to edify Christians, to express unity, to express fellowship, and to commemorate and proclaim salvation. Singing does these things. Instruments do not. According to the Old Testament understanding, instruments might praise God, but the New Testament throws its weight on behalf of rational, spiritual, vocal praise. The only purpose that might really fit instruments is to impress outsiders, and that is why many churches use instruments, to attract visitors to the quality of their musical programs. But that is not what is described in 1 Corinthians 14:23-25, the passage that appeals to the effect of what is done on outsiders as part of the argument for what should be done in the assembly. In that passage the outsider is called to account by intelligible speech that discloses the secrets of his heart. Being reproved, he is brought to bow before God and confess God's presence among the assembled believers. That kind of impression is not going to be made on outsiders by an instrument of music. The kind of speech (and the kind of music--singing) that edifies will also properly impress outsiders.

(3) There is no apostolic authorization for the use of instruments of music in the assembly. One should not divide the church over what has no apostolic authorization. There is ample support for singing, but no indication of the presence of an instrument. Here we are brought to the question of silence, and what its implications are. There are many circumstances in which silence speaks with a powerfully negative voice.(5) The prominence of instruments in the environment in which early Christianity arose makes the silence of the New Testament about their presence in the assemblies of the church impressive and significant. When options are available, the designation of one option and silence about the others constitutes a prohibition of the items about which there is silence. When a choice has been made, it is unnecessary, and indeed redundant, to list all the items that are excluded or forbidden.

(4) The evidence of church history is decisively against the presence of instrumental music in early Christian assemblies.(6) The earliest Christian documents outside the New Testament are like the New Testament in referring to song in the assemblies but making no mention of instruments. Authors in the fourth and fifth centuries began to take notice in their writings of this difference between Christian vocal music and the instruments employed in the Old Testament and in pagan religion and offered explanations for the superiority of singing over instrumental music. This vocal only music in the church lasted for about a thousand years. When organs were employed in the western church, it was before and after the liturgy proper, so that it was some time later before instruments accompanied singing. The eastern churches have continued to use only vocal music.

Only in the present context of the western world does the a cappella(7) practice of churches of Christ seem unusual or out of step. Instruments did not become a common feature of Protestant church worship, outside of Lutheran and Anglican circles, until the nineteenth century, and then it provoked opposition not only in our churches but also in Reformed and Mennonite circles. If we take a broader look, the historical sweep across the centuries and a more worldwide perspective in the present, the position of churches of Christ on this issue is more nearly a majority view, certainly not the minority view it might appear on the current scene in the United States.

(5) Instruments shift the emphasis in church music from joint participation to performance, from words to the music itself. This certainly happens when one instrument (such as organ or piano) is played alone or when a small group plays instruments, and there is no singing. Even in accompanied circumstances, the presence of instruments puts the emphasis on the musical quality rather than on the words and their message.

Some Contemporary Observations

Music in church is once again an issue not because of the weakness of the arguments against instrumental music or because of any new information. Discussion has arisen because of a change in attitudes, and there are probably many factors that have influenced such a change. Some of these come from societal pressures; some come from the current denominational context; some come from internal dissatisfactions with the Restoration Plea and how it has been expressed in our churches.

There are some persons who interpret the slogan "speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent" to mean "do not teach against instruments of music." Those who introduced instruments of music into the assembly broke the silence first. After someone else has broken the silence, then there is the obligation to respond. "Being silent where the Bible is silent" does not mean not to teach against something once the subject is brought up.

I occasionally hear the statement that instrumental music is a "non-issue." I have not been able to determine exactly what any given individual means by this. It may mean, "Nobody around here advocates an instrument and so there is no need to talk about it." Or, it may mean, "I do not consider instrumental music to be of any consequence; it is optional; either to use it or not to use it is all right." Either meaning has its problems. If the former is the meaning, the person must not know what is going on. If the latter, the person is wrong. The use or non-use of the instrument does matter.

The grounds on which someone accepts an instrument into the assembly will make possible opening the door to many other things. Instrumental music may not be so important in and of itself, but the basis on which it is accepted or rejected represents an important principle in Biblical interpretation. Something unimportant in itself may become important if it is tied to an important principle or if it becomes an occasion of division. On both grounds instrumental music has become important.

As to the principle of interpretation, instruments raise the question, Does silence give permission, or does it exclude? The issue of instrumental music, however, does not rest on this hermeneutical question alone. As argued above and in my book on A Cappella Music there is a great deal of historical evidence and many doctrinal considerations that place the matter of silence in regard to instruments in a larger context and make the question of instrumental music different from simply a matter of silence. Historical and doctrinal considerations belong to the hermeneutical discussion.

Moreover, the issue of instrumental music has been important in our history because other people made it important. There never would have been a sermon preached against instrumental music if no one had ever advocated introducing it into the assembly. To make out the opponents of instrumental music as the bad guys is to fail to understand history. The Restoration Movement was united on the subjects of music and activities in the assembly until the instrument was introduced. To accuse opponents of instrumental music of being divisive is to ignore the united common practice in the first place.

Actually, the a cappella practice is the ecumenical common ground. Nearly everyone will say unaccompanied singing is acceptable. The criticism of us concerns our insistence on the exclusive use of vocal singing. But a "unity movement" should not abandon the common ground, the position that is agreed to be Biblical and to have historical precedent behind it. If something is right, it cannot be wrong to teach and practice it. The advocates of instruments still have to make a case for their position.

The principles upheld in the preceding discussion apply to the congregational assemblies of the church. They do not have force in reference to religious music in other settings. For some time it has seemed to me that religious words may be sung to instrumental accompaniment in other settings than the assembly when other purposes are in mind--such as at a concert hall or around a piano at home. On the other hand, the ready availability and acceptance of religious music with instrumental accompaniment in other settings is undoubtedly part of the current pressure to introduce instruments into the assemblies. Those who have opposed singing religious songs to instrumental accompaniment in any setting have tried to prove too much, it seems to me, but they have a certain consistency on their side, and in the present climate, although offering a position difficult to maintain in practice, they provide a cautionary word that deserves respect.

In the contemporary climate, more needs to be said in regard to the a cappella practice. Possibly we have stressed the necessity of vocal music to the exclusion of instrumental accompaniment so much that we have left some other important things unsaid and maybe even left a wrong impression. That music is vocal does not alone make it acceptable. The music in church must accomplish the purposes set forth in the first part of our study. We may think that if something is done with the voice, then it is all right. But the same doctrinal purposes that eliminate instruments will eliminate uses of the voice which do not edify, that is, which do not make intelligible sounds, which do not express the indwelling word of Christ, which do not preach Christ and confess faith. It is possible to imitate an instrument with the voice or the body, and to imitate some vocal sounds with an instrument. The issue goes beyond a simple contrast of voice versus an instrument.

The Biblical principles stated above, therefore, raise some serious questions in my mind about certain practices. Perhaps I enter here the realm of opinion, but I ask for your consideration of certain practices on the basis of the theological principles we have stated. Can descants, singing rounds, and choosing songs with complicated music be justified in the assembly? These practices work against congregational singing and the principles of vocal music stated in the Biblical text. They put the emphasis on the musical quality rather than on the words. They make it difficult for the ordinary person to understand what is being said and to participate meaningfully. We remind you of 1 Corinthians 14:16, "How can anyone . . . say the `Amen' . . . [if he] does not know what you are saying?" Some outstanding and powerful religious music, such as Handel's "Hallelluia Chorus," is out of place in any congregation that I know of--not because of unscriptural content but because it requires professional voices to perform it. And there is the key word--it involves a performance. The same recognition will greatly circumscribe the use of some music and some arrangements found in our song books.

There is another problem area, as I see it. Can hand clapping (or foot stomping) be justified? How different is this from the use of a percussion instrument to keep time or add a beat to the rhythm?

The use of a soloist, chorus, or other small group of vocalists is not subject to the same objections as apply to instrumentalists. But there are other problems. The tendency when such special groups are employed, contrary to the intention when they are introduced, has always been to decrease congregational participation and to set the special singers apart from the congregation. Participation versus performance remains a key issue. And this applies to all the assembly activities, not just the song service.

The New Testament verse that is used to justify a soloist or a small group singing to the assembly is 1 Corinthians 14:26, "When you come together, each one has a hymn [or psalm]." Before we jump to a particular interpretation of this passage, some considerations must be kept in mind. It may be that Paul is describing what the Corinthians were doing rather than prescribing what they should do. If Paul is simply stating what is being done, it may not be an endorsement, for Paul often states a Corinthian position and then offers a modification or correction. In this case, the emphasis falls on the statement, "Let all things be done for building up." Assuming, however, that Paul is endorsing, or at least approving, this list of activities, we must ask what it meant that "each one has a hymn." The word is "psalm," a word that most often refers to the Old Testament Psalms but may have meant a new composition in the manner of the book of Psalms. The person may be singing the psalm, but particularly if it is an Old Testament Psalm, then the person may be selecting it to be sung by the whole group. If a new composition, the person may be offering it as a hymn to be taught to the congregation, in which case the solo singing would have been a preliminary way of teaching what was to become a group activity. Even in the case of a person singing a "solo," and especially is this true if the hymn was a Psalm from the Old Testament but is likely true of other compositions as well, the extra Biblical evidence for how songs were sung would indicate that the congregation joined in on the refrain. Responsorial singing was the common way of rendering a Psalm. A leader sang the first part, and the congregation joined in with a refrain; the leader sang the next line, and the congregation repeated the refrain; and so on. This was truly "congregational singing" although in a different manner from what we are accustomed to. It was not a situation in which an audience simply listened to what someone else was singing.

The use of a so-called "praise team" has become common. The name itself calls for some comment: Is this the only function of the song service? The practice must be evaluated by its purposes, if these are worthy, then by how well it accomplishes these, and by the manner in which it conducts itself. My wife and I attended a church that had a group of male and female singers with microphones on the stage in front of the congregation leading the singing. What struck us as incongruous was that the table for the communion had been moved into the foyer out of sight, and the servers of the Lord's supper served from there, apparently to make room for the "praise team" to dominate the front of the assembly room. The symbolism sent a message I feel sure the congregation would not really want to send. I later read a comment that fit the situation: "The local stars who must always be placed where everyone can admire the way they feel the meaning of words."(8)

We are not the only religious fellowship having problems on these matters. One place where we might not expect it is among Roman Catholics. That last quotation came from Thomas Day's Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste. Let me read another passage from his book. [Pp. 51-52.] It may be a song leader with excessive amplification, or substitute "praise team," or in other churches an organ, but the point is the same. These things done on the pretext of improving congregational singing actually are inimical to it. The important thing, as Day says, is to "let the congregation hear itself." Elsewhere (p. 69) he exhorts, "Let the assembly hear its own voice, not the voice of an ego behind a microphone." Day describes one service he attended: The "musical ensemble up front did nearly all of the singing. The rest of the congregation, for the most part, just watched in silence." Then he added the parenthetical comment that should give us pause for consideration: "(This is usually the case with `contemporary' music)."(9)

While I am quoting from Day, a professional musician and educator, let me pass on some other observations he makes that are pertinent for churches of Christ. "The repertory of . . . `contemporary' songs needs all kinds of accompaniment props to keep it from collapsing."(10) This comment has a bearing on songs that start from an instrumental base. I suspect that situation is part of the openness to the use of instruments in some circles now; these persons are accustomed to music that is primarily instrumental, instead of songs to which an accompaniment is added. (As a parenthesis I would note what that word "accompaniment" says; the very language of "instrumental accompaniment" reminds us that the words are primary.) Again, Day says, "Good congregational singing begins with a sense of beloved familiarity and the best ways to develop that familiarity is with an outstanding hymnal/service book which will stay in the pews for more than a generation."(11) And then the reluctant admission, "But all the musical `good advice' in the world is wasted on a people who think of themselves as the most important aspect of worship."(12)

The purposes of congregational singing provide some criteria for the melodies and words in our songs.(13) The music will be elevating and not appeal primarily to the senses. The words will be scripturally correct and not simply beautiful poetry. In order to accomplish the purposes of Christian song, the melody must serve the words and not vice versa. The contrast often made between so-called contemporary songs and traditional songs is in itself not helpful in determining what is to be sung. Use of any given song--whether new or old--should be according to the principles stated in the first section of this study. There are old songs that do not measure up, and there are new songs that do. The concern that many have is not that aesthetic taste has changed but that theology has.

Good a cappella music is a strong argument for its use. Poor singing, on the other hand, has been a major incentive for the introduction of instruments. Hence, it is important to develop our singing and to use this part of our meetings in the most effective ways possible.

Many religious people in the larger Christian world are rediscovering a cappella music--its power, beauty, and meaningfulness. Now is not the time for us to be giving up on it.


1. 1See my book The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 247-279.Return to text

2. 2Some treatments from within our brotherhood in recent years include the following: Everett Ferguson, A Cappella Music in the Public Worship of the Church, 2nd ed. (Abilene: ACU Press, 1988); Bill Flatt, ed., The Instrumental Music Issue (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1987); Jimmy Jividen, Worship in Song (Fort Worth: Star, 1987); Rubel Shelly, Sing His Praise! A Case for A Cappella Music as Worship Today (Nashville: 20th Century Christian, 1987); Milo Richard Hadwin, "What Kind of Music Does God Want?" in Jim Sheerer and Charles L. Williams, eds., Directions for the Road Ahead: Stability in Change among Churches of Christ (Chickasha, OK: Yeomen, 1998), pp. 54-67. Return to text

3. 3Mishnah, Pesahim 10.6-7.Return to text

4. 42 Cor. 3:5-18; Galatians 3:23-25; Hebrews 8-9.Return to text

5. 5Cf. Jim Baird, "Boomergeist: The Spirit of the Age," in Jim Sheerer and Charles L. Williams, eds., Directions for the Road Ahead: Stability in Change among Churches of Christ (Chickasha: Yeomen, 1998), pp. 163-176. He is speaking of a totally different matter--how silence about religion in the public schools and the public arena in general in our society conveys the impression that it is unimportant--but the point illustrates how silence in a given context is significant.Return to text

6. 6For the recognition of this fact by scholars unrelated to Churches of Christ, note James W. McKinnon, "The Meaning of the Patristic Polemic Against Musical Instruments," Current Musicology (Spring 1965):69-81; repr. in E. Ferguson, ed., Worship in Early Christianity, Vol. 15 of "Studies in Early Christianity" (New York: Garland, 1993), pp. 283-295; Christian Hannick, "Christian Church, music of the early," New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan, 1980), Vol. 4, pp. 363-371 ("Instruments were also firmly rejected"--p. 364; "Early Christian music excluded [instrumental music] completely"--p. 368); James W. McKinnon, ed., Music in Early Christian Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Edward Foley, Foundations of Christian Music: The Music of Pre-Constantinian Christianity (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1996).Return to text

7. 7A term that neatly summarizes the historical evidence, for it means "in the style of the church."Return to text

8. 8Thomas Day, Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste (New York: Crossroad, 1990), p. 74.Return to text

9. 9Ibid., p. 76.Return to text

10. 10Ibid., p. 160.Return to text

11. 11Ibid., p. 170.Return to text

12. 12Ibid., p. 172.Return to text

13. 13Dan Chambers, Showtime! Worship in the Age of Show Business (Nashville: 21st Century Christian, 1997), pp. 107-109 offers the following criteria for songs in the assembly: (1) The words will reflect a basic theme or insight into Christian theology or Christian experience; (2) they will be in harmony with scripture; (3) they will not reflect an excessive emphasis on selfish concerns; (4) the rhythm will express the tone or feelings of the lyrics; (5) the language will be clear and understandable; (6) the musical arrangement and rhythm will be appropriate to an assembly of worshippers.Return to text


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