You could put the entire teaching about church music in the New Testament in a paragraph or two. Add to this teaching those spirited illustrations of corporate singing in heaven displayed in the last book of the Bible, when angels and throngs of people fill the air with thundering six to eight line choruses. When it comes to intentional instruction about music, however, there are really only four passages in the New Testament:
- Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord. Ephesians 5:19
- 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
- Therefore, let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 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. Otherwise, if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the “Amen” at your giving of thanks since he does not know what you are saying? For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not edified. 1 Corinthians 14:13-17
- What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. 1 Corinthians 14:26
That’s it. For all the millions of dollars spent on buying equipment, paying music leaders, crafting multi-level music programs, training choral leaders, and building buildings that accommodate elaborate musical presentations, these verses comprise a very tiny pedestal upon which to rest such a large elephant as the music program of the church.
With all this going on, you would think that surely under it all you would discover a solid foundation of Scripture to support such massive, expensive and time-intensive behavior. Sadly, however, very few churches think through what the New Testament teaches when forming their music strategy. What did churches of the New Testament, large or small, mature or new-born, do with music under the tutelage of the Apostle Paul?
“I Go Because I Like The Music”
I’m guessing, but I doubt that anybody joined with the early believers because they liked the music. If they were looking primarily for music and show, perhaps the local temple would have been the better choice. The pagan temple worship that most people knew in those days included plays, dance, singing, and even parades, but the early believers appear to have never thought of emulating their kind of worship in order to attract such people for Christ. Early church music was no match for the extravaganzas temple leaders could put on. Unlike our churches today, early Christians didn’t even compete with them.
The Jewish Temple worship was also highly skilled, choreographed and perhaps exciting to listen to, but, again, the early church seemed to by-pass that approach to winning people to Christ, or for designing their church life together.
In more recent days (yet long before Christian people used the words “Church Growth”), enterprising leaders sought to attract crowds to their churches with music. It was called “special music.” I once made up an entire verse of a well-loved solo piece in a large church which rhymed but didn’t make sense. Perhaps that could be called “special,” but not most of what happens in churches every Sunday. What we do each week in churches might better be called “routine music.” We should say, “Miss Roselle will give the routine music this morning.” It doesn’t matter if Miss Roselle wilts the flowers with her shrill soprano warble, the order of service demands “special music.” It is planned out and pressed into the agenda, even if you have to get the most ungodly church members to do it. How did the apostle Paul ever make it without special music prior to his messages?
But some churches offer more than a shrill solo. Some lay out a feast of music that is close to dazzling. Nobody announces that Miss Roselle will sing. She just does it—maybe with smoke rising up all around her. And many more do it after her. I cannot count the number of times in churches around our nation when I’ve heard music that was so professional, practiced, and polished that it would rival any ticket-only concert. Only the top musicians could be engaged to do it. Everybody else is “audience.” To be more truthful, Miss Roselle wouldn’t have a chance to warble among such musicians.
Often people join churches only when they “like the music.” For many people, that alone is enough to satisfy. Sadly, many churches are so music-driven that the teaching of the word is swallowed up in its ample motherly arms until it is nearly irrelevant. Three weeks without the full production, and the church building would be emptied.
Don’t mistake my concern for a lack of desire for excellence. I once thought I would give my ministry life to music. I know something about it. But it seems to me that we have gone to elaborate extremes before reflecting on what the New Testament has to say.
The New Testament on Music
So how should we integrate moving, meaningful, Christ-exalting music into our church’s life? What should we do or not do? I could suggest a thousand things off the top of my head (beginning with, “Have a talk with Miss Roselle.”). But what we need is not better ideas, but biblical ideas. Let me suggest a few things the Bible teaches. I believe these are among the most critical ideas, because these are all God has chosen to say about music to the New Testament church in the New Covenant. Be prepared for some radical concepts:
First, the verses above indicate that music should be about edification of believers. At least this is the emphasis in Paul’s writing. From John’s Revelation we see music employed for praise, but Paul is straight as an arrow about insisting on edification as his principal directive. Music is not all vertical. It also keeps others in view. We are to “speak” to each other with music, and “teach” and “admonish” (warn) each other. It should go without saying that edification is not the same as entertainment, which makes people happy and excited, but often does not deal deeply with the soul in the way that the word “edification” implies. The simple music of a congregation, for instance, when seeking to teach each other through thought-provoking words and music, can be a potent tool for spiritual development. This concept alone might change the content and manner of your music experience.
Second, music is to be a way to “let the word dwell richly among you.” This means that good music is the “word” or the “message” musically presented. It is joined to the testifying word, the preached word, the taught word, the prayed word of God, in such a way that the time spent together becomes a baptism in the word of God. The music of the song carries “the word,” “the message,” or “the truth” of God on its wings.
Third, Christian music is often to be an offering to the congregation from a spiritually-minded brother or sister. Paul says “each one has a psalm” as if to say, individuals come prepared and spiritually ready to sing a psalm (or, by extension, a spiritual song or hymn) to the group for their edification; or perhaps they are to suggest their psalm to the group for corporate singing. This does not preclude thinking through a song beforehand as opposed to being entirely spontaneous, but when offered, it often will give the appearance of spontaneity in the meeting itself. I know it is entirely out of range for most of us to consider this idea at all, but I’m only reporting what I’m reading. In the early church, people made contributions of their gifts and talents for the building up of the body. It was part of what it meant to have body-life in the church. The meetings were more or less open to believers’ gifts—orchestrated by God; not chaotic. To think otherwise is to be more a child of the Reformation than the New Testament.
Fourth, by necessary assumption, coordination of the meeting, including all musical gifts, must have been the responsibility of the elders who were in charge of guiding the believers, under the headship of Christ. I don’t think they would have understood an “order of service” as a means of doing this. The people simply brought their gifts and made their contributions under the guidance of the Spirit, looking to the elders as leaders for shaping the meeting as needed. Wise elders may have curbed the excesses of some, or even refused to allow others to offer their supposed gift, but however they worked it out, their meetings were open for the sharing of gifts and talents under their sagacious oversight.
Fifth, though Paul did not rule out ecstatic singing (singing in the spirit without engaging the mind), he admonished the church to “sing with mind also.” The larger point being made is that what is sung must be able to receive the “Amen” from those who are there. He mentions the “ungifted” being among them. It must be, on some level, understandable to them also. Here Paul is not approving what he denies earlier in 1 Corinthians (that those without the Spirit cannot understand the things of God), but is only meaning that people need to hear intelligible words in their singing. I am not going to delve into this debated issue of praying in the spirit and the matter of tongues, or the issue of interpreting such speech, but I am only making the obvious comment: Our singing must be intelligible to have its greatest value. It is what is intelligible that is ultimately most edifying. Understanding is important.
Sixth, a variety of music forms may used. Whatever is meant by “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs,” we may at least note that this was not a “hymns only” church, or a “psalms only” church. I know there are arguments about these words from those who practice exclusive psalmody. Even so, I take the view that these represent varying forms of music found in the church. Who would argue that an emotive Scripture praise song done by memory is usually more appropriate during a heartfelt prayer-time, than the singing of even such a great hymn as “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”? We need variety.
Seventh, no music directors are seen in the early church pattern of worship. Paul highlighted in Ephesians 4 the human gifts to the church Christ left us: “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.” Surprisingly, he did not mention “music directors.” When spiritual gifts are listed in 1 Corinthians, Romans and 1 Peter, nothing about a music gift is mentioned there either. Though I owe a lot to those music directors I enjoyed as a boy, and though there are some godly ones that I sincerely appreciate, the absence of such a staff position in the local churches of the New Testament documents is glaring. This is not to say that pastors who have musical gifts cannot do some wonderful things with music related to the church, but they should be pastors (elders, overseers) in every sense of the word. At the same time, musical gifts are not a requirement of pastoral ministry.
All I’m really saying is that, like a child in the park, we have run off in all directions related to music without consulting our Father for His wishes. For 60 years my uncle faithfully and lovingly brought his sister chocolate-covered cherries for Christmas. Only in her late 80s did she tell me privately that she never liked chocolate-covered cherries. He had never consulted her, but assumed his taste was hers. What if we like what we do for God, but God doesn’t like it at all? When our practice, as sincere as it might be, almost totally disregards the body-life design of God for the church spelled out for us in great detail in the New Testament, we surely are working against His intentions. Even if arriving at His view of the church means that we make major structural changes, would it not be right to do so?
The main lesson, summarized, is that early New Testament believers purposefully abandoned choreographed, professional and elaborate musical presentations to the shadowlands of the temple age, and moved forward into the simpler, more fluid and flexible, leadership of the Spirit. Although I’m not sure exactly how all of this is accomplished, I would rather be attempting to go His direction than assuming I know better than God what He likes. With careful attention to the body language of the New Testament, and authentic trust in God, surely we can take steps, gradually if necessary, to return to this glorious simplicity, beauty and balance.
Copyright Jim Elliff 2009; reposted August 31, 2021