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Is Church Music Exclusively Congregational Singing?

by Lawson Mayo

Is church music exclusively congregational singing? Yes! Both history and Scripture point to the validity of this. Neither instruments nor “special music” (i.e., choirs, sextets, quartets, trios, duets, etc.) are sanctioned by God as being acceptable forms of music in congregational worship. Other innovations such as hand clapping, foot tapping, humming, and vocal imitations of musical instruments, are equally unscriptural. You can search for a commandment, an example, or an inference to justify these self-satisfying innovations, but your search will be in vain. The only Biblical authorisation for church music is congregational singing (Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19).

Although instruments were used in many types of activity (including Hebrew Temple worship) they were not used in the early church. It’s a well documented fact that early Christians worshipped for a number of centuries without the accompanying strains of instrumental music. Joseph Bingham, one of the most learned scholars of the Church of England, confirms in his book, Antiquities of the Christian Church. Without mincing words, Bingham simply states:

Music in the church is as ancient as the apostles, but instrumental music is not.

Lyman Coleman, another accurate scholar, offers this noteworthy statement:

". . .musical accompaniments were gradually introduced; but can hardly be assigned to a period earlier than the fifth and sixth centuries. Previously they had their place in the theatre rather than in the church. "

Professor John Girardeau, of Columbia Theological Seminary, makes this reinforcing comment:

"...the church although lapsing more and more into defection from the truth...had no instrumental music for several hundred years. "

Professor Girardeau also records that the Calvinistic Reformed Church had ejected instruments from its services as an element of Popery (Music in the Church, p. 179).

"It is impossible to find anything concerning the origin of instrumental music in the New Testament, but these statements show very definitely that scholars, in the field of church history, recognise instrumental music in the worship as an innovation which did not make its appearance until many hundreds of years after the church had its beginning. Encyclopedias of religious knowledge, coupled with church histories, confirm quite definitely that instruments were introduced a number of centuries after the death of the apostles."

In the Greek church, musical instruments never came into use; only after the eighth century did they become common in the Latin church, and then with much opposition from the monks.

While still on the subject of historically documented quotations regarding music in the early church, there is another significant quote that I want to share. It not only sheds some light on the introduction of instruments, but also on the “special music” upheaval that we’re facing in the church today. Listen carefully. Lyman Coleman said that:

". . .the tendency of instrumental music was to secularise the music of the church, and to encourage singing by a choir."

Did you hear that? Coleman, who is considered to be an accurate scholar among religious historians, states that instruments were introduced not only to “secularise” church music, but also to “encourage singing by a choir” -- interesting isn’t it, in light of the changes that are taking place in our age! Where does our authority lie: in the world or in the Lord?

Let me tell you, my brethren, there is no room for the world in the church! When secular trends invade the sanctity of our worship, Satan wins. Yet, in our brotherhood today, we are hearing a drumming echo of a defiant people from ages past. “But the Bible doesn’t say we can’t,” is the loud, bold, urgent, immature, self-seeking cry of our day. “Everyone else is doing it,” is the insubmissive, rebellious statement of our age. Eternal consequence doesn’t seem to matter as long as we can cater to our self-satisfying whims.

Regarding such attitudes, let me say this: sin is sin even if everyone else is doing it, and right is right even if no one else is doing it. Furthermore, the Bible doesn’t have to say thou shalt not: thou shalt not use instrumental music; thou shalt not have solos, trios and choirs; thou shalt not clap your hands, tap your feet or imitate musical instruments with your voice. The positive commands that God set forth in His inspired Word negates the need for any further elaboration; it nullifies the need for any further instruction. This is an irrevocable fact.

To obey or not to obey, is a choice of the heart that each of us freely makes. One can justify that which he does, but the justification will not make it right in the sight of God. This is true in every aspect of our Christian life whether it be in the realm of modest dress, type of recreation, or appropriate music in worship.

“But I like my guitar; I want to play it while I sing praises to my Lord”: this is an actual quotation that we’ve heard since we’ve been in Australia. In all fairness to my Australian brethren, however, I must tell you that the words were uttered by an American who no longer lives in this country. Nevertheless, the possibility of playing instruments in worship was planted in the minds of those who looked to this person as a spiritual pace setter in the church. Many followed the lead of this young woman and her successful husband. The seeds of error they scattered during their tenure here will, in all probability, someday germinate, take root, and grow. I make mention of this; firstly, because I’m concerned; secondly, to alert you to the secular trends that are coming into our country; thirdly, to show how such trends weaken the cause of Christ. Rather than following the trends of the world, Christians should be setting the trends for the world to follow.

We are “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14-16). If we allow “the winds of change” to extinguish our lights, we will lose our illuminating effect.

We’ve been “sanctified” (I Corinthians 6:11). We’ve been “purified” (I Peter 1:22). We’ve been “washed by the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 1:5). We’ve been “set apart” to be a “peculiar people” -- a special people (I Peter 2:9). “Denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world.” (Titus 2:12).

As a whole, the younger generation of the church no longer objects to musical instruments in the worship service; they say the issue should not be a test of fellowship. But this is not the main battle line. No. Satan, through the medium of “change agents” has turned our attention to the realm of “special music” (i.e., solos, choirs, etc.), and those who oppose the change are branded as troublemakers. It is said that we are “hampering the noble effort to make worship more meaningful.” It is also said that we are “creedal and divisive.” But, as Dave Miller points out in his book, Piloting the Strait, those who are promoting “special music” are clearly the disrupters. And yet (as Dave also points out), they are masters of acting innocent in this regard.

They are likewise specialists at moving from ‘the New Testament allows special music’ to ‘the New Testament promotes special music.’ The militancy with which innovators are now advancing their agenda is shocking and heartbreaking. (Miller, Piloting the Strait).

Shocking! Heartbreaking! Indeed! If God through the Spirit guided the apostles into all truth: which He did (John 16:13), and if by divine guidance their music consisted solely of a capella singing by the congregation: which it did (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16); should not this be our practice today? I think so! Secular trends are not safe criteria for Christians to follow; neither are personal whims.

To follow the lead of the “change agents” is a soul-destructive course which should be avoided at all cost. Instrumental music and “special music” (i.e. choirs, etc.) are inconsistent with New Testament teaching. Therefore, it is unnecessary, unwise, and unscriptural to incorporate these innovations into our worship services. Matthew 28:18-20 leaves the church no liberty in regard to the elements of worship (including music).

When we examine this passage closely, we see: firstly, that the apostles were to teach all things which Christ commanded them; secondly, logically implied, the apostles were to teach nothing but what Christ commanded; thirdly, the church should obey the apostles’ teachings. Again I say, this leaves no liberty in regard to the elements of worship.

There are those who sometimes claim that instrumental music should be used in Christian worship because David, the singer in Israel, sang praises to God with the accompanying strains of an instrument (Psalm 150:3,4). But, we must remember that David introduced instrumental music into Hebrew worship some 400 years after God’s commandments were issued on Mt. Sinai (II Chronicles 29:25). God tolerated instrumental music in worship, but later the prophet Amos pronounced a curse upon those who, like David, introduced instrumental music into worship: “Woe unto them that...sing idle songs to the sound of the viol, and invent for themselves instruments of music like David” (Amos 6:5). Thus even under the moonlight age of Judaism, instrumental music in worship was questioned. (Haun, The Kind of Music God Wants).

Perhaps it should be noted that while instruments were tolerated in worship under the Old Law, Christians are no longer under the Old Law (Colossians 2:14). Perhaps it should also be noted that God through Paul says that those who try to justify something today because it was sanctioned (or tolerated) under the Old Law are fallen from grace (Galatians 5:4). We do not use instruments of music in worship because we are of Christ; not of David (Galatians 3:24). When we rightly divide the Word, this truth comes into focus more clearly (II Timothy 2:15).

All New Testament references regarding the type of music that God condones, in both public and private worship, state that Christians are to sing.

Matt 26:30 & Mk 14:26: “When they had sung an hymn, they went out...”

Acts 16:25: “At midnight Paul and Silas prayed and sang praises....”

Rom 15:9: “I will sing unto thy name...”

I Cor 14:15: “I will sing with the spirit and the understanding...”

Eph 5:19: “Speaking to yourself in psalms and hymns...”

Col 3:16: “Admonishing one another with psalms and hymns...”

Heb 2:12: “In the midst of the congregation I will sing thy praises...”

James 5:13: “Is any merry? Let him sing Psalms...”

Whatever might be said in favour of instrumental music, no one doubts that we are worshipping God in truth by simply singing and making melody in our hearts; neither are we going beyond what is written (I Corinthians 4:6).

Many who advocate the use of an instrument in Christian worship turn to the book of Revelation, citing passages that speak of harps in heaven, and conclude that whatever is suitable in heaven should be permitted in the church (Revelation 14:2,3). We must keep in mind, however, that Revelation is highly figurative; it draws symbolic pictures. Did John actually hear harpers harping with their harps? No! He heard 144,000 singing praises to the Lamb of God like unto harpers harping with their harps; the melody was just that beautiful; if God should choose to have harps in heaven, it still would not sanction the use of such on earth. The principle of acceptable worship is not what will or will not be in heaven, but what God wills here on earth. “There will be a sea of glass, jasper walls, and a golden street in heaven, but we don’t attempt to reproduce those within the church.”

Another argument for the use of instrumental music in worship is that its use is parallel to that of song books. Some cannot distinguish between a book that keeps silent during worship and an organ which, if anything, drowns out the voices that God would like to hear.

Delton Haun, in his tract: The Kind of Music God Wants, suggests an exercise that might be profitable. Take a pencil and paper and draw a line down the centre of the page. Label one column: Commandments of God. Label the other: Commandments of Men. Then use these columns to classify a dozen or so things which are commonly practised in religion today. For example: preaching, prayer, Lord’s supper, baptism, etc. Include a proof text for as many as possible.

Under which heading would you place preaching? Commandments of God. How do we know? Because preaching is commanded in II Timothy 4:2. What about prayer? What about counting prayer beads? What about the Lord’s supper? What about burning incense? Under which column would you put each of these items? Now, in all frankness, in which column must we place instruments of music? Can you see how we are obliged to place it under: Commandments of Men, owing to the fact that authorisation for such in worship cannot be found in the New Testament. It simply isn’t there! From this simple exercise, can you see how, in vain we worship “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men”? (Matthew 15:9).

It was no oversight on the part of God that instruments have been omitted from church worship. “His divine power hath granted unto us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” (II Peter 1:3).

Before we zero in on “special music” in the church, let’s think for a moment about the word: psallo. Since the original meaning of the word was to touch, pluck, strike, etc., some claim that this Greek word implies accompaniment with man-made instruments. In the New Testament, however, psallo is always translated “to sing” because the melody is made by touching the chords of the human heart. Hence the heart is the only “instrument” permitted by the Lord in expressing divine praise. If, perchance, psallo meant to sing with instrumental accompaniment, the apostles violated the confidence that Christ placed in them, for they did not use musical instruments as they sang; neither did they teach the early church to use them. On the contrary, instruments were not introduced until the church had apostatised.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the supporters of “special music” that are causing such a ripple in the church today. Like the instrumentalist, “special music” supporters draw attention to practices outside the New Testament; however, if one wishes to be a New Testament Christian, he must remain within the guidelines of the New Testament. Old Testament worship and early church digressions provide no assistance whatsoever in “determining divine protocol” for New Testament worship in the church today. Our worship must be “derived exclusively and warranted by” the pattern of worship that’s set forth in the New Testament.

As already pointed out, church historians record the use of choirs as a post-first century development, and describe the earliest worship of the church as being exclusively congregational. Records also show that many reformation and restoration leaders voiced opposition in regard to “special music” issues.

A solo or choir, by definition, excludes the “collective whole” (i.e., the rest of those assembled). The moment the soloist or choir (or any other select number of singers) isolates itself for the purpose of presenting a programme of “special music” (whether it be one song or several) it becomes an unscriptural item in the house of the Lord.

From whence comes the innovators’ authority for such? Well, strangely enough, they use Scripture: I Corinthians 14:26, Colossians 3:16, and Ephesians 5:19. On what premise do they base their argument? Let’s see if we can unravel their threads of confusion.

Firstly, I Corinthians 14:15,26: “What is it then?...I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also” (vs. 15). “How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying” (vs. 26). To quote David Miller:

Anyone who insists that Paul was referring to solo singing in these two passages could not prove it if his life depended on it. At least four other equally plausible interpretations fit the context. ‘Each one has a psalm’ could refer to: (1) inspired solo-singing that terminated with all other miraculous gifts; (2) song leaders; (3) recitation of an inspired psalm (i.e., poem); and (4) hymn writers teaching the congregation a new song. Evidences for hymn writers in the early church are seen in the references by Justin Martyr (Apology, v,28), Tertullian (De Anima, c.9), and Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, v,28) (Piloting the Strait)

Regarding evidences for hymn writers in the early church, McClintock and Strong state:

Here we have not only testimony to the use of spiritual songs in the Christian Church from the remotest antiquity, but also that there were hymn writers in the apostolic Church, and that their songs were collected for use at a very early date of the Christian Church. (Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, Vol 6, p. 757)

The word “psalm” (psalmos) simply refers to an authoritative writing. Again, as Dave points out in his assessment of changes in the church: When the word “psalm” does refer to a song to be sung (rather than merely read or studied), the term itself contains no indication regarding under what circumstances it is to be sung. Change agents act as if the passage ought to be translated -- “each one has a solo!”

If anything, Corinth’s problem lay in the fact that individuals were being disruptive in the assembly by failing to take their turn, but exactly what they were failing to do in an orderly fashion is ambiguous. We must not allow this one passage to alter the meaning of clearer passages which set forth specific guidelines regarding music in the church.

It must be noted, however, that “special music” advocates also quibble over the clear meaning of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. For example, some say if an individual can “speak” or “read” to the congregation, “he” or “she” could also “sing” the same material to the congregation. In their words: “There is no significant difference in singing praises and saying praises.” But (as I’ve said before) every worship practice must be authorised and sanctioned by God. Solo singing cannot be justified on the basis of solo reading or preaching. There must be separate authority for each. As far as that goes, reading, teaching, and preaching differ vastly from singing. It’s true, they share a common factor; they both “teach” and “admonish” -- but they are not the same. Singing is done in such a way that everyone assembled participates at the same time; whereas, by definition and design, preaching cannot and must not function at the same time. Such would create confusion in direct violation of the principle of peace and order that is to be maintained in public worship (I Corinthians 14:31,40). However, singing may be engaged in by everyone at the same time, which is precisely the thrust of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16.

Herein lies another quibble. “Special music” supporters reason that those (like us) who oppose “special music” in the assembly must hold to the view that the entire congregation must sing every word simultaneously. This (as you can quickly see) would rule out the singing of songs that have predominant bass and alto parts in which some singers have a few seconds of silence while the others sing. In other words, while we point our finger and say: “You cannot have choirs and solos,” they point their finger and say: “If we cannot have choirs and solos, you cannot sing in four-part harmony.” This reasoning, of course, simply fails to grasp the essence of reciprocity.

To fully appreciate the meaning of Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19, certain grammatical features of the Greek language must be grasped. From these grammatical features, certain observations and conclusions can be drawn. For example” ‘teaching,’ ‘admonishing,’ and ‘singing’ are not separate, unrelated activities...Paul’s reference to singing is his way of completing and clarifying his initial instructions regarding teaching and admonishing...After all the grammar has been examined and after all the arguments have been presented, one fact remains powerfully clear: A simple, unbiased reading of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 leaves the reader with the clear sense that God wants the church to assemble together and to sing together. The unprejudiced reader would certainly not get the impression that Paul was encouraging solos and choirs” (Miller, Piloting the Strait)

While every single Christian in the assembly may not sing every single word of the song at precisely the same moment, the language of Scripture makes clear that all are obligated to participate together. The act of segregating the soloist or choir group by its very nature militates against reciprocity. The whole point of a choir is for some to sing while others listen in silence with no intention of participating together vocally...Notice, then, the three possibilities with regard to the song service: (1) part of the congregation may be quarantined from the rest of the congregation to sing one or more songs by themselves while the rest of the membership function as spectators; (2) the entire congregation may participate together in all the songs; (3) the entire congregation may engage in simultaneous singing with everyone saying the same words at the same time. Both the second and third possibilities conform to the reciprocity requirement of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. The first possibility simply does not. (Miller, The Spiritual Sword, Vol.25, No.1)

In the words of Brother Wayne Jackson:

"It is a tragically sad fact that there are multitudes of deceived people in the religious world who, rather than having a God-oriented faith, have a man-centred religion. More specifically, they have an auto-centric religion. That expression simply suggests that such people direct their religious lives consistent with what pleases them; Jehovah’s will is not consulted in the matter."

To quote further from Brother Jackson:

"When God’s standard of truth for regulating genuine worship is dismissed, and feelings are relied upon, the floodgates of apostasy and perversion are thrown wide open. Those who respect Heaven’s will, will circumscribe their emotions with Truth, and not let their feelings run wild."

To bring our quotations closer to home, Brother Glen Tattersall wrote in the September, 1996 issue of Onward and Upward:

". . .to have any other music in New Testament worship other than what comes from a sincere heart is to add to what God has commanded. Unfortunately many today want to vary what the Scriptures say -- not to be pleasing to God, but rather to please and entertain themselves! Jesus warns that those who do, render their worship in vain. (Matthew 15:9)."

In my own mind, I have wondered why, after a hundred and fifty years of unity, the issue of music in the church has resurfaced; more specifically, why has “special music” emerged with such velocity and strength? Could it be that the “old guard” has let down its guard? Or has the “old guard” (in their vigilance to do battle with the instrumentalist) left the back door ajar, allowing Satan to enter from another direction? As a result, “special music” has crept in as an “enhancer” rather than marching in as an intruder. For sure, “enhancement” seems to be the premise on which the innovators stand. But, I ask, how can anything contrary to God’s Holy Word serve as an “enhancer” in worship? How can Christians justify using such a feeble focusing point? “Special music” in the worship of God is as much of a violation of God’s instructions as the use of instruments, and thus sinful. Underscore that point! “Special music” is a sin that needs to be repented of (Romans 3:23). Innovations that will “spark up” the singing and give new life and meaning to our worship need to be exposed and expelled. We must be careful, lest these “sparks” burn up the good works of God. Those among us who want to engage in a particular method of worship for the purpose of producing an “aesthetically pleasing” alternative, are self-focused and self-condemning members of the body of Christ. Not only must we (as a united force) lift up our voices in song, we must also (as a united force) lift up our voices in opposition to the soul-destructive trends that have invaded the sanctity of our worship.

While I am exposing digressions and issuing warnings, let me cite one more danger zone in regard to music in the church. Some are now insisting that congregations may require the use of a “worship team” (i.e., men and women who are either situated in front of the assembly or scattered throughout the auditorium with their own microphones to strengthen and enrich the congregation’s singing).

The first time I happened on to such a situation was about three years ago while travelling in the States. For convenience sake, we worshipped with the nearest congregation to our motel rather than taking the time to seek out a well-known, doctrinally sound group. On the surface, everything seemed normal as we entered the building. Bible class went well -- I was even asked to give an impromptu report on our work in Australia.

Then the worship hour began, and there they were: five of them (three men and two women) all lined up in a row just across the aisle from where we were seated: each with a microphone; drowning out everyone else in our section. Mind you now, this was a congregation of several hundred. I have no idea how many of these “worship” teams were scattered throughout that great auditorium. As far as that goes, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a “worship team” in the church until that eventful day (guess I had been away from the States too long). For a brief moment, I entertained the thought that maybe I had given my enlightening report to the wrong group; maybe I wasn’t even in the Lord’s church.

Talk about “strengthening and enriching” -- the only thing it strengthened for me was a resolve to be more careful about where I stop for worship when travelling; it certainly did nothing to enrich the worshipful attitude that I should have had. Instead, it left me feeling frustrated and angry with my brethren for allowing such an innovation. I learned later that worship in the church is now subdivided into “participatory” and “presentational” formats. Solos and choirs fall under the label “presentational” -- I’m not sure which category “worship teams” fit into. In my mind, however, they present a bit of “hype and glitter” that is out of character with God’s divine will.

For one to achieve a state of righteousness that glorifies God, one must pattern his worship according to the specifications that are laid down in God’s Word. This includes church music which must, of necessity, be exclusively congregational singing: no instruments; no special music; no worship teams; no self-satisfying innovations of any sort.

May God help us find contentment and satisfaction in simple, unpretentious New Testament worship. May we rediscover the heartfelt fulfilment and genuine excitement that can only come from simple submission to the words of our great God and Father. (Miller)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Haun, Delton. “The Kind of Music God Wants.” Delton Haun Tract Co.

Jackson, Wayne. “Worship--By Feelings of Faith.” Spiritual Sword, Oct. 1978

Miller, David. “Solos and Choirs in the Worship Assembly.” Spiritual Sword, Oct. 1993, pp. 26-31.

Miller, David. Piloting the Strait. Pulaski TN: Sain Publications, 1996

Sanders and Squire. “Church Music.” Vermont Ave. Church of Christ, Los Angeles, CA.

Tattersall, Glen. “Music in the Ears of God!” Onward and Upward, Sept. 1996.

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