When Christians discuss worship, they often focus on one primary element of worship above others—music. The church’s songs are without question the most controversial aspect of Christian worship. I am convinced, however, that some careful thinking about what Scripture has to say about our hymns, adequate understand of the purpose of power of Christian hymnody, and consideration of how the church’s music has related to the culture around it throughout history will help us arrive at some conclusions about how we should go about choosing hymnody for our churches. In this series of articles we will focus on these considerations and arrive and some principles for our choices.
Before we proceed, however, we should define what we mean by “hymn.” As with many other terms, “hymn” has several different definitions, and it can be used in a variety of ways. In its most basic definition, a hymn is simply a song of praise. A Christian hymn, therefore, is a song of praise to God.
The term may be used more narrowly, however. In some context it is appropriate to distinguish between a psalm and a hymn. Usually when these two terms are contrasted, the former refers to an inspired song and the latter a song of human composure. There are also other terms that describe different kinds of sacred songs, terms like gospel song or praise chorus, and in the next chapter we will take some time to distinguish between those designations.
For our purposes at this point, however, I will use the term “hymn” very broadly to describe any song written for congregations to sing in Christian worship, and our goal is to come to some conclusions about how to discern which hymns we should use in our worship. Much of what we’ll discuss could apply to other music used in worship like choral anthems and vocal solos, but we’re going to focus on the Church’s congregational song.
The Biblical Mandate
The first question we must ask in this discussion is, “Why do we sing hymns in Christian worship at all?” Is the singing of hymns optional? Is it something churches do simply because it is an enjoyable to affirm biblical truth that way? If a congregation or an individual doesn’t want to sing hymns in their worship, may they get rid of singing altogether? These are very important questions to ask, because they get right at the heart of the function hymns play in our worship.
Put very simply, we sing in our worship because the Bible tells us to. Since the Bible is our supreme authority, we must do whatever it tells us to do in worship, and we may do only what it tells us to do. Since the Bible commands that we sing together as his people, we must have hymns in our Christian worship.
Let us begin broadly with some example of Old Testament commands to sing in assemblies. Psalm 149:1, for example, admonishes us to “Sing to the Lord a new song.” But notice the specific location of this singing: “in the assembly of the godly.” God has commanded us to sing to him, not only individually, but also corporately. Psalms 9:11,18:49, 21:13, 57:9, 95:1 are additional examples of commands or illustrations of singing praise to God corporately. God has commanded us to gather corporately for worship, and singing is one element that should be a part of those gatherings.
But what about the Christian church specifically? The two most well-known commands to sing together are found in Ephesians 5:18-21 and Colossians 3:16:
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Notice the specific “one another” contexts of these commands, which indicates the corporate nature of the singing. Indeed, singing must be a part of the corporate gatherings of the church.
Now, I’d like to make one side comment about instrumental music in worship. Some traditions have argued that we may only use vocal music in Christian worship. They appeal to the authority of the New Testament Scriptures for what we may do, an emphasis that I greatly appreciate. They insist that since the New Testament only commands us to “sing,” making no mention of instruments, then we must limit ourselves to vocal singing only.
However, notice exactly what Ephesians 5:19 says. It commands that we sing and “make melody.” The term translated “sing” in this verse literally means to “make a melody with the vocal chords,” so it clearly refers to vocal singing as we would expect. But the word translated “making melody” literally means to “pluck,” as on a stringed instrument. So this verse refers both to vocal and instrumental music.
So very simply, we sing in our worship because the Bible tells us to do so. This may seems obvious and simplistic, but it raises an important point: singing in Christian worship is not optional. An individual cannot just decide that because he doesn’t like singing, he won’t sing. A church can’t decide that they’re going to eliminate congregational singing and just have a concert with performers on a stage. The New Testament clearly commands that we sing and make melody with one another in our corporate gatherings.
Next time, we’ll look at the purpose and power of our hymnody