Music in the Church (2)

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Colossians 3:16)


“Singing,” the Holy Spirit says, with reference to our teaching and admonishing one another is psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. The Body of Christ is to be a singing Body in her assemblies for worship. The gift of song has unique power, not only to move the people of God, but also to serve as the vehicle to express most fervently our love, thanks, and praise to God our Savior. Accordingly, singing has a vital place in the worship of the congregation. God wills congregational singing.

Our exclusion of choirs and soloists (“special music”) from the worship services is based on the revealed will of God that in His worship the congregation—all the members as one Body—is to sing His praise. It is not His will that most of the congregation be entertained, or even edified, by a few, but that the whole church praise Him in song. Inevitably, choirs and special numbers in the services not only infringe on the preaching, but also weaken congregational singing. The musical power and beauty of a church is not a large and excellent church-choir, but good congregational singing.

Like the exclusive singing of Psalms in the worship services, the excluding of choirs and special music from the service for Divine worship is the historic, traditional Reformed stand. John Calvin banned choirs from the Reformed, Biblically-based worship. He was disgusted with the entertainment that cluttered up the services of Roman Catholicism:

Similarly in these days, in the popedom, the organs are piping on one side, and there is chanting in four parts on the other side, and there is such a lot of foolery, that the simple people are ravished by it, but never a whit edified. [Sermons on Ephesians)

We should not hang our heads in shame when visitors to our services exclaim in amazement, “You have no choir!” ; but we have every right spiritedly to defend this exclusion of a choir and to point to our emphasis on congregational singing as Reformed and Biblical.

A contemporary, Presbyterian student of liturgy (the form of worship) has noted that the introduction of choirs tends to “suppress congregational participation.”

Even in churches with no tendency to sacerdotalism, the use of robed choirs in chancels (the part of the church building containing seats for the clergy and the choir -D.E.) tends to approximate the worship service to a concert of sacred music, and works against congregational worship. Perhaps the most unfortunate legacy of the Anglo-Catholic movement to the Reformed churches generally has been this epidemic of chancels and theatrical choirs. (James Hastings Nichols, Corporate Worship in the Reformed Tradition)

The call to sing is not limited to the worship services, but extends to other areas of the life of the saints. We do well to sing at our society meetings for the study of Holy Scripture. We should sing more often than we do when we come together for Christian fellowship—our Sunday evening visits. We ought to sing in our homes, as part of our family-worship. Parents must teach their children the Psalms and the great, good hymns of the New Testament Church, in this way. Our Christian schools, likewise, must be full of music, especially the praise of God in song. We owe our schools a great debt, that they teach The Psalter to our children. They may also teach them good hymns, although even in the schools the Psalms should have pride of place. We certainly must not have bad hymns in the schools, i.e., hymns that are doctrinally erroneous and spiritually misleading, much less “gospel-rock” and the like corruption. Singing is to be part of our personal life. “Is any merry?,” asks James; “let him sing psalms.” (James 5:13) In your home, as you travel, on the job (if permitted), it should not be an unheard-of thing, that you break out in song—not turn the radio on, but yourself sing; not sing the latest “hit-song”, but sing psalms. If now some young person sneers at this, or raises his eyes heavenward in exasperation at such piety, let him ask himself whether he has any of the merriment of eternal life, worked in his heart by the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ the Lord, at all!

As part of the broader life of a congregation than its services for Divine worship, a choral society (or choir) has its rightful, valuable place. Those specially gifted musically can exercise their gift. The rest of the saints can be edified by the singing of the choral society. That God forbids this as part of the worship service does not imply that there is no place for this at all. We are not always singing ourselves; there are times when we take pleasure in listening to the singing of others.

What better way is there to spend an hour or so a week than singing, with a view to giving an edifying, pleasing program for others! What more worthwhile, enjoyable way to spend an evening once in awhile than hearing a good program of music! It is especially beneficial that the young people participate in the choral society. We warn them against bad music. Sharp and frequent as our warning is, it is not sharp and frequent enough. The temptation is strong. The bad music is rotten. They are still listening to it. But with the warning, we should give them opportunity and encouragement to fill the strong need for music with good music. The choirs and bands at school and the choral society of the church do this.

Let there be music in the church!


The importance of music in the church is indicated when the apostle of Christ writes, in Colossians 3:16, that by our singing we teach and admonish one another. Probably, this is not a familiar thought to us; perhaps, we are not conscious of this when we sing. We are well aware, of course, that we all should teach each other, and admonish each other, as the opportunity, or need, arises (although our practice leaves much to be desired). But we are doing this by our singing, in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”

Music has great power to teach—to drive what is sung deeply into the soul and to fasten the words that are sung in the memory. Secular education has recognized this and has always used music in teaching. The Devil also knows this power of music; and he has always used it, effectively, to teach the lie. I have found this to be true, to my sorrow. Some fifteen years ago, in order, I thought, to be able better to contend against it, I listened to the music of the Christ-denying rock opera, Jesus Christ, Superstar. To this day, I find myself humming, and sometimes singing, the haunting, but demonic, piece of Magdalene, “I don’t know how to love Him.” But Christ has redeemed God’s creature, music; and God the Holy Spirit uses the singing of the congregation, or of a group of saints, to teach and admonish the people of God with the Word of Christ.

If we stop and think about this, we will find it so in our own experience. You come to church on a Sunday morning depressed, so “down” that you do not even sing yourself. Then, the congregation sings:

“O my soul, why art thou grieving?

What disquiets and dismays?

Hope in God; His help receiving,

I shall yet my Savior praise.” (Psalm 43)

As the church sings, you feel your own soul addressed; your lips begin to move; you are taught, effectively, to hope in God.

Or, I come to Men’s Society bitter, really against God, for some disappointment. The group sings number 210 in The Psalter, from Psalm 77:

“I asked in fear and bitterness,

Will God forsake me in distress?

Shall I His promise faithless find?

Has God forgotten to be kind?

Has He in anger hopelessly

Removed His love and grace from me?”

To these fearful, bitter questions comes the calm answer:

“These doubts and fears that troubled me

Were born of my infirmity;

Tho’ I am weak, God is most high,

And on His goodness I rely;

Of all His wonders I will tell,

And on His deeds my tho’ts shall dwell.”

I am admonished, mightily, so that then and there I am converted and renewed to live in trust in the goodness of God.

This happens through the singing of the people of God. It makes a difference that I do not merely read, or think about, these words, but that the Body of believers and their children sing them, with one heart and one voice. (to be continued)