The Purpose of Song in the Gathering of the Church (1 Corinthians 14)

The purpose of song in the gathering of the Church is to build up and edify others in their faith in Christ our Savior.  Simply look at how St. Paul describes this gathering in 1 Corinthians 14.

In previous articles, we looked at a segment of Contemporary Christian Music which treats our heart and our acts of worship as a sacrifice desired by God we also examined what God inspired King David to write about worship in Psalm 40.

In this article, we look at 1 Corinthians 14 and apply what God inspired St. Paul to tell the church about her worship practices to the music selections we make for corporate worship.

In 1 Corinthians 14, St. Paul is talking to the Corinthian Christians about their use of speaking in tongues in the public worship.  He points out that the public gathering is a time to edify one another and not a time for personal acts of piety.

This logic directly applies to songs that have lyrics that do not clearly and directly confess the truths of scripture.  Songs like much of what is called, “Contemporary Christian Music” require the hearer or singer to supplement the lyrics with their own understanding of God and His work of salvation for mankind.  In many ways, this is quite similar to Paul’s laments about speaking in tongues.  Those who do not know the “rest of the story” are left out and are not edified, just like those who do not comprehend the language spoken are left out when someone speaks in tongues.

As a simple exercise, take a look at the paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 14 below where the concept, “speaking in tongues” is replaced with “speaking praises to God” and the concept “prophesies” is replaced with with “telling of God’s work on our behalf”.

It’s important to note that the “telling of God’s work on our behalf” is actually the biblical understanding of “prophecy”.  We often think of prophecy as utterances that speak about or predict future events, but that’s not a Biblical understanding.  That understanding comes from pagan mysticism and the occult.  True prophets speak specifically of Christ and His work (whether it is His work in the past, the present or the future).

In the Old Testament, it was about Christ and His coming (which naturally included the prediction of future events).  We now live in a time when Christ has come and finished His redemptive work by dying on the cross.  He continues the work of salvation by delivering forgiveness to us here and now through Word and Sacrament.  And He will return in glory to judge the living and the dead, as the confession of the Church states.  All this work that was foretold by the prophets of old has been and is being accomplished through the outworking of specific events in time.  In modern times, the telling about those events is “prophecy.”

The following thought experiment on 1 Corinthians 14 are very instructive for what ought to be the primary concern in the church’s gathering:

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of telling of God’s work on our behalf. 2 For anyone who speaks praises to God does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit.[b]3 But everyone who tells of God’s work on our behalf speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. 4 He who speaks praises to God edifies himself, but he who tells of God’s work on our behalf edifies the church. 5 I would like every one of you to speak praises to God,[c] but I would rather have you tell of God’s work on our behalf. He who tells of God’s work on our behalf is greater than one who speaks praises to God,[d]unless he interprets [note: we could say – unless he explains the reason for his praise], so that the church may be edified. 6 Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak praises to God, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? 7 Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? 8 Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? 9 So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.   . . .  12 Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.

13 For this reason anyone who speaks praises to God should pray that he may [explain] what he [is praising God for]. 14 For if I speak praises to God, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind. 16 If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand[e] say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since he does not know [why you are praising God]? 17 You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.

18 I thank God that I speak praises to God more than all of you. 19 But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in praise to God.


All this explains why I believe all activities, including the song of the congregation, should concentrate and focus on the works of God which He has accomplished and continues to accomplish for us through Christ.  The congregation’s song is a wonderful opportunity for the members to edify one another and build one another up in the faith. (For the time being, I’ll only mention that the ancient liturgical texts handed down from the first couple of centuries of Christianity accomplish this and have this as their purpose – but I’ll save for a future article an explanation of how and why these texts are particularly appropriate for proclaiming God’s wonderful deeds of salvation in Christ).

I think it’s great that St. Paul points out that it is also a wonderful “Missions Moment” when outsiders come in who do not already otherwise know why the congregation gathers and there is “prophecy” (i.e., speaking of God’s work on behalf of mankind).  Put another way, music that does not speak specifically of God’s work in Christ is unfriendly to outsiders.  It is neither “mission minded” nor “seeker sensitive” because it does not clearly describe the purpose of the gathering or provide edification to those that are there who don’t already know and therefore understand the Christian message.

God commands His church to gather together (Hebrews 10:25).  In that gathering, St. Paul points out that in that assembly we ought to encourage and build up of one another in faith toward God and love toward our neighbor by means of “prophecy” – that is – by means of speaking of God’s wonderful work (past and present) on our behalf in Christ.  This work He accomplished through His life, death and resurrection – and He continues to accomplish it through His means of Word and Sacrament.  As the church of God gathered in one place sings about these things, each individual hears God speak to him (Psalm 40:6) even as we “prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14) and edify and build each other up.  We edify others in their faith and we ourselves are edified by others as we all together declare the wonderful deeds of God!

That is the TRUE “Heart of Worship.”


To stake my position clearly on the “style versus substance” debate (which is a complete red herring), it must be noted nothing above is concerned AT ALL with style.   Organ, keyboard/strings, guitars, drums, amps, gregorian chant, modern plainsong chant, pop-ballad, pop/rock song, campfire song, spoken responsories . . .  whatever can support the content is likely going to be fine!  The most important thing is the words — SUBSTANCE is king – the musical instruments (if any) are there first and foremost to help and support the congregation to sing the lyrics and thereby to proclaim the content to one another.

While I think there needs to be dignity in instrumentation and musical arrangement – keeping artistry and beauty also in the forefront of thinking, it is be difficult for me to imagine that if we know and believe the words we are singing, we would cross the line of decorum if we keep in mind that the purpose of the congregation’s song is primarily to speak of God’s mighty deeds in Christ and communicate them to one another.  This is one act of “prophecy” that St. Paul enjoins in I Corinthians 14.

Other articles in this series:

The (True) Heart of Worship a discussion of Contemporary Christian Music which presents the worshipper as bringing a sacrifice or gift to God.

Praise and Worship in Scripture (Psalm 40) – How the Holy Spirit inspired King David to talk about Worship in Psalm 40.

Other related articles:

A Threefold Distinction of Devotional and Pious Practices in the Assembled Congregation– A discussion of devotional and pious practices and their relationship to the concept of “Adiaphora” or things neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture.

Singing in the Assembly as a “Governed Practice”  – A continuation of the argument for a “Threefold Distinction” and a defense of the proposition that music selection is not, strictly speaking, “Adiaphora,” but neither are specific songs commanded.

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