Singing and speaking to one another in the assembly is commanded in Scripture. Through the Apostle Paul, our Lord commands us to, speak to one another “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.” (Ephesians 5:19, see also Colossians 3:16).
This is Part 2 of a series on the goings on in the public assembly of the Church. In Part 1 a threefold distinction of pious practices was discussed. The first was “Free Practices” or true adiaphora – those things not forbidden nor commanded by Scripture. The second was “Commanded Practices” – those things which God not only commands His church to do but prescribes the manner in which it is to be done. Examples include “Take eat . . . take drink . . . do this in remembrance of Me,” “Baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” “when you pray, say . . . ,” etc.. The third category are those things which God in His Word commands but does not prescribe the manner in which it is to be done. Examples of this category include prayers for those in authority, the days and times that the assembly must gather, the frequency of Holy Communion, etc. These things are commanded and guidelines are given, but the precise forms are not prescribed.
In this part, the argument will be made and defended that corporate singing, when it is used in the assembly, falls into this third category.
But by using these words, St. Paul does not sanctify or approve the use of any and all music that touches the heart or spirit of a person. These words ought to be considered to have specific meanings, otherwise, St. Paul could have simply said, “Speak and sing to one another in an edifying manner.” The fact that the Holy Spirit chose these three words, “Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs” must be considered significant.
The definition of “Psalms” is self-evident. We have preserved for us the hymn-book of the Old Testament people of God in the 150 Psalms.
The definition of “Hymns” is not as evident because the word does not appear except in these two passages of the New Testament. The word also appears in the LXX in 2 Chronicles 7:6 referring to the Psalms of David. The underlying Greek word seems generally seems to refer to an “ode” or a lyrical poem speaking of the mighty deeds of the heroes. When we look at the lyrics of the hymns handed down through the church and consolidated in orthodox hymnbooks, we find most (though certainly not all) hymns are of a different quality and character than other music. They have a specific aim and focus to tell of the deeds of God for mankind and most refer specifically to God’s work in Christ for us (if not directly, then obliquely). Therefore, we will not be too far afield if we use the contemporary definition of “hymn” and, for ease of classification, restrict the application of this word to those songs which appear in orthodox hymnbooks.
“Spiritual Songs,” on the other hand, has a great ambiguity, especially in the modern understanding. “Spiritual” in contemporary parlance refers in a general sense to “spiritual things.” In today’s culture, “Spiritual Songs” would be those songs that in some sense speak of ethereal reality, God, or even songs which somehow touch the heart or “spirit” of a person. This is not, however, how Scripture defines “spiritual” things. In Scripture, those things are “spiritual” which are connected with the Holy Spirit as St. Paul says, “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.” (1 Corinthians 2:13)
DISTINGUISHING “SPIRITUAL SONGS” FROM OTHER SONGS
It is certainly to be recognized that there are a great many songs that touch the spirit or heart of people and may “resonate” with the Spirit that indwells a person. We can rejoice and be grateful that God uses many things to bring to mind things of the faith. However, even though a song may contain nothing that is contrary to the Word of God and though they can be very edifying and comforting to individuals on a personal basis, not every song that touches the heart or “spirit” ought not be considered “spiritual songs” according to Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16.
We can see what distinguishes a “spiritual song” from other songs by reading what the Holy Spirit caused St. Paul to write immediately around the words, “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” in Colossians 3. There we read the Word of God which says, “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. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the Name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”
The purpose of singing and speaking in “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” in the public assembly is specifically so that “the Word of Christ” may dwell among us and we would be taught and admonished in all true wisdom. As seen previously, such wisdom is taught in those words spoken by the Spirit (see again, 1 Corinthians 2:13). God gave His Spirit in special measure to the Apostles as teachers of the Church (Ephesians 4:11) and Jesus sanctified the writings of Moses, the Psalms, and the Holy Prophets as pointing to Himself (John 5:39 – “you diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me,”). These then are true “spiritual words” and contain true spiritual teachings.
In many cases, a song may resonate and touch the spirit of the hearer because the lyrics bring to mind what he or she already knows of the person and work of Jesus. However, the song itself does not carry the Word of Christ, testimony about Him, or achieve the ends of “teaching and admonishing . . . in all wisdom.” Because in the general gathering of the assembly it cannot be assumed that everyone possesses the requisite knowledge and background understand the connection between the lyrics and the Scriptures, these songs, though edifying and comforting to some, do not themselves accomplish the purposes for which God would have us sing in the public gathering. They are not, “spiritual songs” in the sense that they do not accomplish the Spirit’s work which is to testify to Jesus (John 15:36) and, furthermore, they do not “teach and admonish . . . in all wisdom” by bringing to the ears of the hearer, “the word of Christ” which is to “dwell richly”.
If we properly understand the Holy Spirit’s words which St. Paul records for us, “spiritual songs” are those songs that convey the Holy Spirit, that is, songs whose lyrics are derived from Holy Scripture and convey the teachings of Holy Scripture. Therefore, songs that speak of God’s gracious activity in time to bring about our salvation through the person and work of Christ as revealed to us in Holy Scripture fall within the guidelines established by the Scriptures themselves for use in the public assembly. By their connection to the Word of God, we are assured that the Holy Spirit is at work creating and sustaining faith and edifying our brothers and sisters and building them up in their faith.
Other songs, while useful to pious hearts and are otherwise aesthetically pleasing, even if they contain nothing contrary to the teachings of Scripture, ought not be treated or considered equally with those songs that carry the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, because they do not carry the command of God, they cannot be enjoined upon the consciences of those gathered for public worship. Also, without the command of God, they cannot be said with certainty to be pleasing to Him and they cannot with certainty be said to accomplish the purposes for which He calls and gathers His people together. Such songs must, therefore be left to the freedom of the Christian to engage or not engage as their personal piety and conscience dictates.
Of course, all of this must be done in a way that is sensitive to the demands of love for the neighbor and the requirement not to scandalize others or cause them to think they are “less Christian” because in Christian freedom, they wish to enjoy singing and hearing such songs. At the same time, true love demands that we speak clearly regarding these songs and not confuse the weak in the faith by permitting them to falsely believe that they can in any wise know that God and His Holy Spirit is at work where He does not promise to be. They ought to be instructed to seek God’s grace and favor only where He promises to bestow it and they also ought to be warned not to seek Him apart from the means He has established lest they find only His wrath and anger (See Leviticus 10:1-3).
In the New Testament Church, it is through the Word and Sacraments that God has promised to bring the Holy Spirit and faith to a person (1 John 5:8). Therefore, in spite of any aesthetic or personal feelings regarding these songs, they are “self elected” works of piety and are not to be relied upon for comfort and assurance. Rather, the pious soul who enjoys this music ought still be admonished and encouraged to rely only upon those means wherein they can know with certainty that God is good and gracious and merciful toward them.