Monday, September 14, 2020

Why Does the Church Sing When It Is Assembled?

Congregational and church choir singing has been in the news recently with state governments regulating churches to sing both as a congregation and with choirs only with masks.   That's in the news and it gets our attention.  However, I want to talk about why churches sing at all when they gather.  Does it matter whether the state stops churches or not?

The Bible Teaches Congregational Singing

The New Testament doesn't say much about congregational singing.  The Old Testament reveals loads about it.  When Israel gathered, she was to sing to God.  This is clear.  God inspired Psalms to be sung to Him by the congregation of Israel.  Whatever God constitutes for His Old Testament assembly, He wants for His New Testament one, if He has not terminated it or shelved it for a season.  He hasn't ended singing.  The New Testament says enough to know that God wants the church to follow along with what He intended for Israel.  Heaven sings and will sing to God (Revelation 4-5).

As to the church, Jesus sang in the church (Hebrews 2:12).  In the upper room gathering of Matthew 26:30 (Mark 14:26), "when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives."  This was Jesus ordaining for the church what was also already instituted for Israel.  Then you see Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 4:19.
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.
Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;
It's obvious these parallel passages include congregational singing, because Paul writes, "Speaking to yourselves," which means "speaking among yourselves."  This word for "speaking" is singing and playing musical instruments as seen in the words, "singing and making melody."

The Audience of Congregational Singing

The answer to why the church sings as a congregation relates to the audience of the singing, which is always God.  We know that the church is singing to God, because that's what scripture says dozens of times, perhaps exclusively.  The only argument for the singing to be directed to others besides God are the phrases "speaking to yourselves" and then "teaching and admonishing one another."  Those are outliers to everything someone will read in scripture about the audience of worship.  I don't believe either of those are ordering the church to sing to people.

Since the sole audience of the singing of the congregation of Israel and the church is God, the interpretation of "to yourselves" should be understood in light of that context of all of scripture.  We should interpret the exception in light of every other occasion.  The word translated "to" is the Greek preposition en, which has multiple meanings.

God won't hear singing from the lost (Psalm 66:18), so the singing is "among yourselves," one of the many meanings of that word.  This is the same understanding of the very same Greek phrase two times in Matthew 20:26-27:
But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister.  And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.

The Apostle Paul also uses the very same two words in Romans 1:13 among other places.
Now I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that oftentimes I purposed to come unto you, (but was let hitherto,) that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles.
The second construction, "teaching and admonishing one another," found only in Colossians 3:16, should be taken as the following:

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.

In other words, the word of Christ is taught and admonished to church members, and psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are to be sung to the Lord.  It really does come down to how the verse is diagrammed.  There are many who have taught this verse in this manner.  "Teaching and admonishing" modify "the word of Christ dwell in you."  "You" of "in you" is plural, so Paul is talking about congregational teaching and admonishing of the church.

Early in my preaching (over ten years ago), I did connect teaching and admonishing with the singing, but I called it a byproduct or a result of singing to the Lord.  I said that when singing is directed to God in an acceptable manner, then the church is edified.  That's probably true, that it is a byproduct, but it's not what the verse is saying.  How I'm explaining that verse now fits into the understanding of all of the rest of the Bible. 

Exceptional usages or understandings of verses should not guide the practice of the church.  Congregational singing is worship, that is, it is an offering presented to God.  One could and should call it a sacrifice of the lips of a church in fitting with Hebrews 13:15:
By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name.
God takes the praise of congregational singing in the New Testament like He would the offering of an acceptable animal sacrifice in the Old Testament.

What Happened to Church Singing

The biggest change to church singing started in the 19th century when churches changed the audience of singing.  The change came from reasoning that music could be used to attract unsaved people.  This resulted in the adaptation of music to an unbelieving audience.  The concept of "gospel music" arose out of this false concept.  Now instead of being worship of God with God as the audience, it became a means of attracting unsaved people or so-called carnal Christians to a gathering.  Instead of being an assembly of believers, it was a mixed congregation.  This shift has had a horrendous and cataclysmic effect on the church that hasn't been eliminated and has only become worse.

A very large majority of churches, I would estimate at over 90 percent, uses music.  It isn't worship.  It is a method or a tool.  The primary audience, if not exclusive audience, of the music isn't God, but people.  Out of that arose such explanations as, "we're preparing the hearts of the hearers for preaching."

I just heard Todd Friel this week explain on his "Wretched" podcast something I've heard many times, that is, the music has a purpose of passing along doctrine and practice to another generation.  He made that point by criticizing the content of contemporary Christian music versus more traditional hymns, saying that the former does not include teaching on the Trinity.  Only the old hymns have the Trinity in their lyrics.  As a result, these doctrines aren't being learned, he said.  He said that music needs to have the important function of passing along doctrine, because people can learn it easier when it is set to music.  He used a theme song from an old sitcom as an illustration, saying that he couldn't get the useless lyrics out of his mind, and that's what church music should be doing too -- using sitcom style music to teach dense doctrinal lyrics about the nature of the Trinity.

Do you understand that what Friel is saying is very, very wrong?  It isn't scriptural.  His take on church music or congregational singing is not according to the Bible.  However, it is not untypical.  What will occur and has already occurred in a wide scale manner because of the idea he expressed is that churches will put substantive lyrics to very trite, superficial, ungodly music.  Those songs might have the Trinity in them, but they will disrespect God and give an imagination of Him that clashes with His true nature.  The music is "catchy" for a purpose, and this frivolous, profane, worldly, or often sensual music is chosen or composed apparently to keep the lyrics in its adherents' heads.

God Is the Only Audience of Worship

Music in the church changed because the audience changed, first the music and then the lyrics.  When God was the only audience of singing, the music and the lyrics were vastly different.  The question changed.  Instead of, what does God want, it became, what do people want?  It wasn't just what do people want, but what do unsaved people want?  Now it is often, what do millennials want, what do the young people want, or what do the people of the region or the culture want?

God isn't worshiped when a church offers Him or presents to Him what people want.  God is worshiped by giving Him what He wants.  God is the only audience of worship.  The music should be sober, reverent, sacred, and all and only the attributes consistent with who God is.  At a root level, the church isn't even singing to God though.  The choice of the music was based on what it would do to or for the people attending.  This music isn't even being offered to God.  It is being used as a kind of allure to church or a manipulation of the attendees.

What I'm writing doesn't just apply to contemporary Christian music, that might be hip-hop, rap, heavy metal, or just classic rock.  It applies to the trite, carnival-like music of the original revivalistic music, that is the forefather of the perversion as its modern iteration.  Churches still use the quick paced, energized songs that placate the spirit of the age.  They provide a feeling that their singers consider a manifestation of the spirit.  It conforms to sentimentalism and deceives people against actual, true love of God.

I understand some of the motivation.  Leaders want their people to be excited about God.  The music excites people.  It's like an artificial sweetener.  It choreographs excitement.  True affection doesn't come through the stirring of passions.  It comes through proper, right thinking about God.

Before someone ever thinks about the effect of the music on the people, the question should be, should people anyway be the consideration for the choice of music?  Should it only be what God wants?  The right question that I'm posing could be followed by another question, why did the church stop singing the psalms?  Psalm singing did not fit the change from God as the audience to people as the audience.  Psalms were too difficult or unpopular to sing and especially to attract unconverted people.  The church stopped singing them and replaced them with loads of pablum.

Since the advent of the age of people-centered music in churches, almost entirely from the mid to late 19th century, music changed.  A correction requires discarding a very large percentage of the music the church has used since then.  Acceptable songs have been written since the mid to late 19th century, but relatively very few.  Some call many of these songs, the old hymns.  If those are the old hymns, we need the older hymns.  Very few of those hymns match a true understanding of worship.  They weren't composed with God as the focus or audience.  They were meant to do something other than sing to God.

(To Be Continued)

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