Christians readily identify with assembling on the first day of the week to worship their God and remember their Savior. Additionally, familiarity exists for Christians partaking of the Lord’s Supper, giving, praying, hearing preaching, and singing each Sunday. Few Christians would reject the notion that these practices represent the worship of faithful followers of Christ from today all the way back to the first century with the establishment of the Church. Throughout the centuries, Christians strove to obey the commands of God regarding worship. Sadly, the Church also saw its fair share of false teachers, skewed doctrine, and rebellious members over the years. Yet it was not until the 1800’s that wide spread abuses began to assault Christian worship practices. What did God authorize for the Churches in regard to singing in its assemblies? What specific type of music can be utilized in relation to God? Do these standards only apply to the first day of the week assembly or do they apply any time music normally associated with God is sung? For instance, what about V.B.S., WinterFest, L.T.C., Bible camp, youth devotions, “Christian” music on the car radio, at home on the piano, or just anywhere? What does God expect when it comes to singing and what about those who say “My singing is not worship unless I intend it to be, so I can do whatever I want with songs normally associated with God.” Elderships, congregations, and individual Christians should be answering these questions with the full authority of scripture before potentially risking their souls and the souls of others with an improper course of action.
What, When, and Where Worship?
A moment should be taken to clearly identify what “worship” means. Worship displays itself in the honor, reverence, or respect given to a specific target. Historically, man chose to direct worship toward all sort of animate and inanimate objects, real and imagined, in addition to or excluding Jehovah, the one and only God of all that exists (Isaiah 44). The Bible provides guidelines for proper worship in John 4:24 stating: “God is Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” Summarily, this verse establishes: a defined target for properly worshiping God (God Himself), an intent to worship Him (spirit), and a pattern of worshiping Him (truth – found in His Word – John 17:17). Thus, the concept of no worship unless there is intent seems to hold firm. However, this does not provide a clear framework or answer for determining how singing songs associated with God should be treated whether in or out of worship. It also does not determine whether or not such songs have authorization to be separated from worship (reverence to God). Before moving away from a look at worship, one other aspect must be examined. When does worship occur? Is the act of purposely showing reverence to God, as He has prescribed, limited to a specific time or location? Consider prayer in this query. Prayer for the Christian aims itself at a very specific target – God! (Matthew 6:6-13) Scripture is very specific about how we approach God. God must be treated as Holy (I Peter 1:16 – “Be Ye Holy; for I am Holy.) Seeing a target, an intent, and a pattern for prayer, when and where does it occur? Paul answers this question in I Thessalonians 5:17 – “Pray without ceasing”. Worshiping God can occur at anytime and anywhere and this is born out in the practice of prayer (Mat. 26:36, Mk. 1:35, Lk. 5:16, Lk. 18:10, Acts 4:31, Acts 10:30, Acts 16:25…). Worship is not limited to a specific location or a specific time.
What is the Standard of Authority for Examining Singing?
Turn now your attention to the issue of singing songs associated with God and to the objective of singing without intent to worship. The analysis of singing will be done with the authority of God’s eternal principles and that of the Law of Christ as seen in the New Testament. Practices recorded in the Old Testament, which occurred with and without authority under the Law of Moses, will not be considered as that law was nailed to the cross and never had authority (nor was intended to have) over Christians and the Church of our Lord (Jeremiah 31:31, Hebrews 8:10-13, Colossians 2:13-14).
What Do Christians Sing?
Christian songs as seen in the New Testament take three forms: psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16). Psalms are odes to God as seen in the book of Psalms and a few other books. Hymns are songs from the mind of man with themes made to praise God or educate man about God. Indeed, many psalms could be classified as hymns as well. Hymns also include all songs created today which are associated with God. Examples would include: “Jesus Loves Me”, “I’ll Fly Away”, “Sing to Me of Heaven”, “The B.I.B.L.E”, “Hilltops of Glory”, “Alleluia”, “Love One Another”, “My God is an Awesome God”, and others. Men often find the third type of songs, spiritual songs, confusing. Some think of these as deep soul songs, however, Greek definitions provides a very telling understanding. Research the word “spiritual” (pneumatikos) and the following words will be found: “belonging to the Divine Spirit”, “non-carnal”, and “supernatural”. In fact, a search for this same word in scripture will demonstrate that it is used exclusively for things not of man, but of God. What does this mean to us? Consider that spiritual songs were those given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the first century and not coming from the mind of man. These were part of the gifts as mentioned in I Corinthians 14. These were needed along with spiritual teaching and spiritual prayer in the newborn Church because folks did not know these things on their own, nor did they have scriptures to guide them as we do today. Of course, with the complete revelation of scripture, its confirmation, and its spread throughout the world, gifts ceased as foretold in I Corinthians 13 and Ephesians 4. Thus, today the Christians sing psalms and hymns, and spiritual songs having ceased.
What is the Purpose of Christian Singing?
In I Corinthians 1:18-21, it is established that the communication by proclamation of the cross (gospel) is what saves. That proclamation includes verbal and non-verbal communication. Biblical authority by way of command, example, and necessary inference supports this in at least the following forms: Preaching, teaching, singing, writing, illustration, and sign language. Recall that all scripture is from God (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Thus, the Ephesians and Colossians passages mentioned previously are God providing man information through the Holy Spirit and spoken and written by man exactly as given. The context of Ephesians and Colossians lays out what God wants from man. God gives a command through general authority which summarily says “teach and admonish one another through speech and song, and sing and make melody in your hearts to God.” There are eleven verses which speak of singing in the New Testament (Matthew 26:30, Mark 14:26, Act 16:25, Romans 15:8-9, 1 Corinthians 14:15, Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, Hebrews 2:10-12, James 5:13, Revelation 5:8-9, Revelation 14:2-3). In all of these verses, it is clear singing is done with God being targeted. Of the 11 verses mentioned, five are specific to New Testament Christian usage (Acts 16, I Cor14, Eph. 5, Col. 3, and James 5). All of these pertain to Christians communicating in song serving the purpose of edification (building up) of others and self – communication which saves. In a broad focus it can be said the singing of psalms and hymns by Christians in the Bible served one of two purposes: 1. Worship, 2. Edification.
What are the Guidelines for Singing Psalms and Hymns?
Time: Of great importance to the Christian singing psalms and hymns: when are they authorized sing these songs associated with God? None of the verses demonstrating or directing Christian singing limit singing to a singular time frame. The guidelines we gather from the five New Testament passages regarding singing by Christians apply at all times. Christians can sing when they assemble, when they are alone, in their car, in their home, day or night, and in any location. Paul and Silas sang at midnight in a prison!
Edification: Romans 14:14-19 states the following:
“I know, and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean of itself: save that to him who accounteth anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. For if because of meat thy brother is grieved, thou walkest no longer in love. Destroy not with thy meat him for whom Christ died. Let not then your good be evil spoken of: for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he that herein serveth Christ is well-pleasing to God, and approved of men. So then let us follow after things which make for peace, and things whereby we may edify one another.”
Paul speaks here regarding the issue of eating foods once considered unclean. It violated the conscience of some to eat that food. Paul’s conclusion is rather than to destroy someone’s faith, they should only engage in what edifies (builds up). The application is the same with singing, edification is a guideline that must be followed. God commands we sing psalms and hymns, but, however it is done, it must be done in a manner which builds up those present. If there is a concern by another that the manner in which you are engaging in singing is sinful, then you certainly are not edifying and must stop. Paul would go on to classify such actions as stumbling blocks.
Expedience: I Corinthians 10:23-24 carries the same theme as the above verse in that it requires that Christian actions edify. But it also requires that they be expedient. Expedient may be translated “profitable” in your Bible text. This means, there must be an authorized profit or help from our actions. If somehow the atmosphere or actions engaged in by Christians surrounding singing are not expedient, then they are also not acceptable.
Understanding: I Corinthians 14:15 establishes that singing must be done with understanding. That is, the words shared must be communication which will be able to be understood by the hearer either by first hand listening or interpretation. Everyone knows what singing is. Singing comes from the vocal chords. A guitar cannot sing. A piano cannot sing. A harmonica cannot sing. In fact, no electronic or mechanical instrument can sing. What they do is respond to human input and play desired sounds. Playing is not singing. It is an addition to singing. Additionally, clapping is not singing. It is the use of percussion similar to a drum. Christians are never asked by God to play, they are asked to communicate the salvation of God through singing psalms and hymns as seen in the verses mentioned. This is what Christians have authority to do – sing. Thus, this is a very important guideline for the communication of psalms and hymns. Edifying, expedient psalms and hymns may be sung at anytime, but there is no authorization for adding the unintelligible playing of instruments or clash of clapping with them. This would include at a V.B.S., WinterFest, on the radio, in the car, at your piano in your home, or anywhere else. Such action is sin and requires repentance.
Bluntly, there are no commands, examples, or necessary inference for worldly usage of psalms and hymns by Christians of the first century in scripture (and therefore no Biblical authority for such usage). Since, scripture provides all we need for life and Godliness (2 Pet. 1:2-3), if psalms and hymns were allowed for worldly usage it would be established in the Bible.
Does Intent Matter?
Perhaps you have heard, “Outside of Sunday morning assembly, I have no intent to worship when singing psalms and hymns! I can add what I want to the songs.” or “We aren’t worshipping, we are celebrating!” Folks who want to add clapping and playing and other innovations to their singing frequently say things like this. The nature and creation of psalms and hymns is that they are to be directed toward God at all times and are meant to edify Christians as well. They are set apart for God and directed by God for Christian usage and are thus holy. Now, someone might ask what the difference is between “psalms and hymns” and “Unleavened bread and the fruit of the vine”. God created food for man to eat. Sometimes God has declared the food have additional purposes, such as the Lord’s Supper. Psalms and hymns were created for offering to God and edification. They have no other purpose that one which is holy. Utilizing them for enjoyment, entertainment, celebration for man, and other reasons is to treat what is holy, profanely. Treating Holy things in a profane manner is sinful.
When God makes something holy, it is not to be profaned. Consider the following: Moses was told to remove his shoes when he approached holy Ground. (Exodus 3:5). Mount Sinai was Holy when God descended down upon it. If the people or any beast came into contact with it, profaning it, they were to be put to death. (Exodus 19:12-13) Nadab and Abihu did not treat the Lord in a sanctified “holy” manner when approaching him. By not doing what he specifically said, they treated Him profanely. (Leviticus 10:1-3). Korah and reputable princes of the people rebelled against Moses saying they were Holy before God. They were commanded to go before the Lord with the censors of God and see what God would do. God swallowed up their families in the ground and consumed them with fire. Then God commanded their censors be picked up because those were Holy. Those men were profane. (Numbers 16:1-37) Christian communication is to be Holy, not profane by following after Old wives fables or profane babblings. (I Tim. 6:20; I Tim. 4:7, 2 Peter 3:11) In Hebrews 12:16, Esau is called profane because he profanely treated his Holy birthright, which would set him apart with the responsibility of spiritually leading His family before God. 1 Corinthians 3:17 - “If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.” When Christians, set apart and holy to God, step outside of what God has authorized they are acting profanely.
The bottom line application of these scriptures is this: Whether your intent is to use psalms and hymns for worship or not, they are holy. Treating them in an unauthorized manner and thus in an unholy manner is to profane them and sin. Just as using the Lord’s Supper in a vain manner by not focusing on Christ is sinful, singing psalms and hymns without God in mind and reverence toward Him is sinful. Clapping out the song B.I.B.L.E., the word of God – sinful! Playing the “The Old Rugged Cross” on the piano at home – sinful! Listening to instrumental psalms and hymns on the radio in your car – sinful! To use the name of God, the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit in song for non-authorized purposes is to use the name of God in vain – This too is sinful! It is vanity and pride to think one can take something holy to God and use it for themselves in an ordinary worldly way.
What Should We Now Know about Singing?
We know in regard to worship with psalms and hymns, it can be done anywhere and at anytime. The authority for determining how Christians should treat psalms and hymns in a proper manner comes from God’s eternal principles and the Covenant of Christ as found in the New Testament. Christians today sing psalms and hymns, but not spiritual songs as sung in the first century. The purpose of those songs is worship and edification not worldly applications like entertainment, personal enjoyment, or personal celebration. Psalms and hymns can be sung anywhere and at any time, but must edify, be expedient, and understandable. There is no authorization to sing Psalms and hymns accompanied by clapping or instruments at anytime whether intending to worship or not. God has presented psalms and hymns as holy. Their usage is not to be profaned with common treatment in any setting and to do so is sinful. Psalms and hymns must always be treated reverently.
How is your congregational leadership handling these issues? How are you handling these issues in your family when they have arisen? If you are engaged in them, more is needed then just stopping the activity. Repentance requires seeking forgiveness from God. If this is something you or the congregation has engaged in publicly, then there needs to be public repentance so all will know not to follow your example causing you to be a stumbling block. Brothers and sisters, leaders of congregations, let us treat our God and what He has sanctified to Himself as Holy that we might stand before Him in good favor.
some adaptations were made from the original artilce