Our Singing in Worship

A Lord's Day reflection on how Scripture commands our singing to be intimate, doctrinal, and whole-hearted.

Our Singing in Worship

"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" (Col.3:16).

In our public worship of God, fundamental questions like who we worship, why we worship, and how we worship should be thoroughly regulated by Scripture. During the Reformation, there was a debate over the way Scripture should inform and fashion our worship. Some argued for the regulative principle of worship which is the view that only that which is commanded or instituted in Scripture should be included in worship. Whereas others argued for the normative principle of worship which is the view that everything not prohibited in Scripture is permitted. Clearly, normative principle takes advantage of the silence of Scripture to introduce even new elements into worship. Regulative principle rightly understands that on this very important issue, if the revelation of God is silent on a matter, we better assume it as forbidden in worship.

In Colossians 3:16, we find three foundational truths that undergird and regulate a biblical understanding of singing in the public worship of God.

1. Cause: Why should we sing?

The verse here ends by saying we sing unto the Lord but begins by talking about the Word of Christ richly dwelling in us. In the parallel passage in Ephesians 5:18-19 it is the infilling of the Spirit of God that gives way to our singing. Thus in both cases we find it is one's communion with God through the Word and the Spirit that leads one to singing. Though anyone can move their lips and raise their voice in singing, the singing that God accepts as worship is one that arises from an intimate walk with God.

2. Criterion: What should we sing?

The criterion for our singing, found in this verse is that we should sing doctrinal songs. For two reasons, firstly, as we saw, this singing flows from a heart immersed in the truths of the Word of God. Secondly, we read that even as we sing unto the Lord, we are ministering to each other teaching and admonishment. The Greek word translated as "admonish" simply means to put into mind. It thus means to urge, to exhort, and to warn. It carries the meaning of calling forth an action in light of a truth. Thus we need to remember that we not only exhort between our songs, but even our singing is a means of exhorting one another. Precisely because of this didactic function of our singing, we better sing doctrinally sound songs. The Psalter (book of Psalms in metrical translation) and some of the great hymns of old are marvelous examples of teaching us objective, biblical truths glorifying God's attributes, His great redemptive acts, and inviting us to true worship. Quite honestly, mindlessly repeating a line fifteen times as a chorus is neither teaching nor edifying anyone.

One could ask why when there is already teaching and exhortation in speech during our worship, do we need it in singing? One possible answer is that God not only wants our minds instructed, but also our hearts affected with His truth. Singing, unlike speech, is more affective. So God wants us to not only speak the truth, but also sing the truth with all gladness. (See Deut.28:47-48 where God pronounces punishment over Israel for lacking heart-felt joy in their obedience.)

3. Conduct: How should we sing?

Regarding the manner we should sing, the verse says we should sing to the Lord with grace or gratitude in our hearts. It is heart-worship expressed through singing that the Lord is looking from us. Our singing thus should be heart-felt and wholehearted in thanksgiving. In church history, this truth is one of the main reasons why majority of churches insisted on having no instruments in the public worship of God. Even the Italian word "a cappella" which means, singing without instruments, literally means "in the manner of the chapel". Historically, this is how much of the church has sung in worship. There is good documentation that the early church did not use any instruments, even though instruments were accessible and available. During the Reformation, the Reformers removed instruments which were introduced by some during the Medieval age. Even post-Reformation movements like the Puritans of the seventeenth century and majority of the Evangelicals of the eighteenth and nineteenth century were committed to having no instruments in their public worship. Today, in India, only the Brethren Assembly movement has consistently held to this Biblical principle of worship in the past one hundred and twenty years of her existence.

Though there is much historical precedence in the Old Testament for the practice of including instruments, the reason why the church did not use them is due to her doctrinal conviction. In addition to the emphasis of the New Testament on heart-worship (compare Ps.33:2 and Eph.5:19 as to where the melody is made), the church understood the many references to the use of instruments in the Old Testament as closely tied to the animal sacrifices in temple worship (see 2Chron.29:27-30). Thus the use of instruments in the Old Testament, rightly understood is part of the ceremonial law which has been abrogated with the coming of Christ. Moreover, the "liturgy" of the New Testament church is fashioned more after the Jewish synagogue than the Jewish temple. It is a matter of fact that in the synagogue they used no instruments in worship. In the synagogue there was mostly prayer, praise, reading of Scripture, exhortations, and preaching from the Word. The church of the New Testament follows the same pattern and hence the New Testament Scriptures are silent on instruments in public worship. As the regulative principle says, if the Scriptures are silent, it is forbidden.

To conclude, the Lord has ordained and desires that His people sing to Him in worship. He desires our singing to be intimate, doctrinal and whole-hearted.