bits from bob....

Another Perspective on the Value of Singing in Worship

by Robert J. Young
Note: This is a slightly edited version of an article that appeared in "Christian Chronicle" (June, 2004)
©, 2006, Robert J. Young

[permission is given to reprint with credit noted]

In the church today we are often defensive concerning our insistence on a capella music in worship. We often feel as though we are a lonely voice supporting the value and importance of singing. We see increasing tendencies among us to compromise our historic position. Several have observed that we are losing our ability to sing well. For all of these reasons and more, a recent article by Steven Guthrie, lecturer in theology at University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland caught my eye. "Singing, in the Body and in the Spirit," was published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (46:4, 633-46). The article is worthy of study by all, but is of special interest to those who share a Restoration heritage that historically has affirmed singing as the kind of music God has authorized in the worship assemblies of the church. Here I summarize several points from Guthrie's article and suggest directions for future study.

The overall thrust of Guthrie's article is reflected in his recurring question, "Why sing?" He begins by pointing out that prayer, Scripture, and singing are all part of the communication process. He claims that the unique contribution of singing has been overlooked in the church. Neither has the modern church considered the carnal nature of music as reflected in the concerns of Augustine, Athanasius and others. Early Christian writers express caution with regard to music, affirm the value of a capella psalm singing and congregational song, and embrace music (singing) as valuable primarily as a medium of memorizing and communicating the text. This is not unlike the frequent observation today that singing must teach and admonish. Certainly, singing enhances the memorization of the text.

Guthrie notes that Calvin commends congregational song. Brunner writes that the sacred Word stands over musical tone and is of much more importance, and Bonhoeffer's concern about humming is that we should rather "sing words of praise, thanksgiving, confession, and prayer." Given such concerns, Guthrie again asks, why sing? That is, why should we not speak words rather than singing them?

He answers with a study of the context of Eph. 5:19. Considering a larger context than is often treated, he contrasts speaking in songs with living in darkness. Guthrie denies that the admonition about singing hymns and spiritual songs is a mere stray remark. Nor does he seem to doubt that the verse applies to the Christian assembly. His treatment of the text brings him full circle to the question, why sing? Why is song an apt response to the temptation to sensuality?

His response is that Christians should be singing people because music engages body and spirit. Singing has the ability to integrate body and spirit in a holistic spirituality. Our spirits speak through our bodies--both are essential in developing a biblical spirituality. Further, singing encourages us toward responsive relationships. Lack of sensitivity leads to sensuality, but sensitive singing encourages sensible response to God's world and to one another. Finally, singing is an evidence of the unity of the body of Christ and sounds out the shared voice of the church as faith and hope are spoken in song. Guthrie's conclusion is that God's intention for his children and for his church cannot be fully realized apart from the shared experience of song. Despite the concerns that have surfaced throughout the history of the church, singing uses our bodies to glorify God rather than gratify self, singing involves sensing and responding to one another, and singing provides a powerful image of our shared life together.

Having read the article, I came away with a new insight into the value of singing in the life of the church and grateful for yet another perspective that supports the unique contribution of singing in worship. In response, I suggest that the church today needs to study afresh the context of Scripture and carefully formulate the questions we address to the text. We must facilitate a process whereby each Christian can examine the evidence and arrive at personal convictions. We must recognize the individual nature of faith. This is especially important with regard to singing in worship. Second, the church needs to hear other voices in the dialog, especially in light of the fact that a capella singing is increasing popular. Third, the church needs to understand the nature of music as a background for the study. When I was a music major over 30 years ago, one professor pointed out that there were three kinds of music--vocal, instrumental, and electronic. That certainly caught the ear of a young man who had learned in church that there were only two. Today we might add digital as yet another kind of music.

Finally, the church, while appreciating the importance of a "thus saith the Lord," must be willing to inquire concerning the principles that undergird biblical instruction, principles that can help us chart a course that both obeys God's commands and understands the practical aspects of those commands. When we attempt to understand the reasons for Scriptural instruction, such attempts are not a denial of the importance of the "thus saith the Lord." Always we must take care not claim more than the text, nor less. All of this raises an important question: Do you know what you believe, and why?


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Last updated November 7, 2006