The Role and Execution of Music in Worship According to the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America
In my previous post on this topic I provided an extended summary of how I believe we should think about music and worship. Today I hope to apply that material and then draw some overarching conclusions, but before doing so I would like to reference my Chapter 51 of my denomination’s Book of Church Order. The BCO’s succinct discussion of music in worship more or less encapsulates in much shorter form the thoughts I set forth in my earlier post, and will provide an effective means of reorienting the reader’s thoughts before I proceed to application and conclusions.
“Chapter 51: The Singing of Psalms and Hymns
1. Praising God through the medium of music is a duty and a privilege. Therefore, the singing of hymns and psalms and the use of musical instruments should have an important part in public worship.
2. In singing the praises of God, we are to sing in the spirit of worship, with understanding in our hearts.
3. It is recommended that Psalms be sung along with the hymns of the Church, but that caution be observed in the selection of hymns, that they be true to the Word. Hymns should have the note of praise, or be in accord with the spirit of the sermon.
4. The leadership in song is left to the judgment of the Session, who should give careful thought to the character of those asked to lead in this part of worship, and the singing of a choir should not be allowed to displace congregational singing.
5. The proportion of the time of public worship given to praise is left to the judgment of the minister, and the singing of psalms and hymns by the congregation should be encouraged.”
That’s it. Basically, the PCA says that music in worship is important, should be grounded in the Word, and that congregational singing is of paramount importance in our usage of music. I believe that if we hold to the central importance doctrinal soundness as a consideration when choosing music for worship and keep in view the centrality of congregational singing in the musical portion of New Testament worship, much of the “traditional versus contemporary debate” simply evaporates.
In light of all of the above considerations, how should we “do music” in our churches?
1. We must first consider the purposes of music in worship.
- Praising, thanking, and glorifying God.
- “Praise the LORD! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant, and a song of praise is fitting.” (Psalm 147:1)
- The instruction of the church.
- “ 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.” (Colossians 3:16)
2. What should we sing?
- Commanded in Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16.
- Worship music in the Reformed tradition centered upon the Psalms.
- These are God-inspired worship songs. Why would we not sing them?
- Hymns and spiritual songs.
- Advocates of Exclusive Psalmody argue that the “hymns and spiritual songs” of Colossians 3 are types of Psalms. That is a stretch that I believe is not borne out by the text or by Patristic church history.
- The teaching function of music in New Testament worship dictates that these songs should be scripturally based and useful for teaching scriptural concepts. Even those hymns and songs that are not Scripture set to music should be permeated with Scriptural teaching rather than by our subjective feelings, thoughts, or emotions.
- The teaching function of music also necessitates that the tunes employed be singable and not distracting or overwhelming to the point that the teaching function is hindered.
3. Should we use instruments?
- Arguments against using instruments in worship:
- Some claim that instrumental music is not specifically commanded in the New Testament, and therefore should not be used. There are several responses to this objection. First of all, the Old Testament is still relevant. While parts have been fulfilled, other parts are still in force. Secondly, there is a linguistic argument from some of the Greek terminology used regarding music in the New Testament that suggests that musical instrument use is called for.
- Some claim that the use of instruments in Old Testament worship was a Levitical and ceremonial function that is abrogated in the New Testament. While I have taught and do believe that the worship forms used in the Temple have been fulfilled by Christ and should not directly inform our worship, I do not believe that, for example, the exhortations in the Psalms to praise God using musical instruments are limited in application to Old Covenant Temple worship. The Psalms seem to me to be much more general in application than this.
- Some in the early church and most of the early Reformed theologians eschewed the use of instruments in worship. Yes they did, and we should consider their opinions. However, I do find their arguments to be wanting in this regard.
- Overdone instrumental music becomes a distraction from the teaching of the text. I absolutely agree with this concern, but to abandon instrumental music entirely for this reason seems to be extreme. That would be like avoiding food because gluttony is a sin. The possibility that a good gift God has given to us might be abused is no reason to put away that gift. Better to find a wise manner in which to use musical instruments that avoids this problem.
- Arguments for using instruments in worship:
- Several of the Psalms enjoin God’s people to praise Him using musical instruments. While the ceremonial use of musical instruments as was the case in Temple worship has been fulfilled, surely this more general exhortation to praise God with instruments has not.
- The Greek term for “making melody” in Ephesians 5:19 can be used to refer to playing on an instrument. This is a somewhat weak argument, but combined with the repeated commendation of instrumental music in the Psalms, I am inclined to believe that this term supports the use of instrumental music, at the very least to support or accompany the singing.
- A practical argument: Musical instruments do help to keep the congregation “on pitch” when singing together. God has commanded that we use music for praise and instruction. These ends can, in my opinion, be more practically achieved if everyone isn’t struggling to remain “on pitch.” In other words, the instruments, used wisely, can be an important aid to the congregational singing we all agree is commanded and commended in the New Testament.
- Conclusions regarding the use of instruments in worship:
- God commands in the Psalms that instrumental music be used in His praise and worship. While ceremonial aspects of this have been abrogated, absent a positive command in the New Testament to abandon instrumental music entirely, we must assume from the Psalms that God is still pleased to be praised with instruments. The possibility that some of the Greek words used regarding music in the New Testament can refer approvingly to instrumental music constitutes a supporting case for using instrumental music, but not an airtight one by itself.
- All of that said, since instruction is such a central function of music in the New Testament, instrumental music should not be allowed to detract or distract from this. I am forced to admit that my call for simplicity in worship music, with small-scale instrumental accompaniment supporting congregational singing, is largely a “wisdom issue.” Instruction in the Word of God is a key function of music in our worship, and let us not forget that preaching has a much larger role to play in our worship than does music. Because of the tendency of large-scale musical productions—of any genre—to generate extremes of emotion in the hearers and other distractions so that consideration of the texts being sung and of those to be preached is hindered, I believe that we should exercise some restraint in our use of instrumental music in corporate worship.
4. How should our vocal and instrumental music be regulated?
- Vocal music
- I have frequently spoken of congregational singing as the primary musical activity of New Covenant worship, which is a significant change from Old Covenant Temple worship, in which music was primarily if not entirely a priestly and Levitical function. In the New Testament we are commanded in Colossians 3 and elsewhere to teach and admonish one another through our singing. We are all to be participants in the musical element of God’s worship, not merely spectators.
- Music for congregational singing should be excellently written and, to the best of the congregation’s abilities, executed (Colossians 3:23-24). Congregation members should make an effort to sing well, understanding that not all are equally gifted. It should be “good, true, and beautiful” according to the instructions of Philippians 4:8, and it should be useful for the edification and instruction of the church (Ephesians 4:29).
- Tunes with excesses of syncopation, melodic leaps, dissonance, or other musical devices that are difficult to sing are best avoided. If congregation members are distracted by a particularly difficult tune, they will have difficulty absorbing the message of the text, either because they are trying too hard to sing the tune, or because they “give up.”
- Both Scripture (Colossians 3:16) and tradition agree that the Psalms should be part of our use of music in worship.
- Other “hymns and spiritual songs” should be scripturally-based, and thus useful for instruction. As is the case with the Psalms, texts covering complex doctrinal concepts and simpler offerings of praise are appropriate for God’s worship; neither should be favored over the other.
- Older hymns should not be jettisoned out of a desire to be “relevant.” Rather, they should be embraced because of the connection they give us to the Christians that preceded us. Nevertheless, these should always be evaluated for theological accuracy and “singable-ness.”
- Newer hymns and songs should not be refused because they are unfamiliar, but neither should they be embraced simply because they are new. These also should be evaluated for theological accuracy and “singable-ness.” Often a tune that is quite sound and edifying when sung by a solo singer on Christian radio is nevertheless not well-suited to congregational singing. Also, because newer tunes have not been “vetted by time,” special care should be exercised in appropriating these for public worship.
- “Special Music,” whether by individuals, choirs, ensembles, or “praise teams” should be employed very judiciously. I will admit to being cautious about using anything like this, largely because I have seen so many abuses. Between my work as a professional musician and speaking for the Gideons I have been in lots of churches, and have seen overblown musical productions masquerading as worship that those who have rarely ventured outside of conservative Reformed churches can hardly imagine. If such groups are to be used, only that music which is useful for offering praises to God and for teaching Scriptural concepts to congregants should be employed. Any attempt to generate an emotional “high” through music should be avoided. Scripture never calls us to “perform” for our fellow congregants in public worship.
- Instrumental music
- Instrumental music is neither commended nor even mentioned in the Westminster Standards. While I believe the Confession is mistaken on this minor point, its omission should give us pause as we proceed.
- The most obvious use of instrumental music in public worship is to accompany congregational singing. I believe that it is best to use only a piano or other acoustic instrument or instruments so that this provides support to the singing without overshadowing it.
- If at all possible, different individuals should “rotate” accompanying congregational singing so that they are not deprived of the opportunity for instruction afforded by singing the texts with God’s people. Even as a professional instrumental musician I prefer singing in corporate worship to playing my instruments (though I am usually happy to play when asked), simply because the singing of the great hymns of the faith is such an aid to absorbing sound doctrine.
- The use of instrumental music for preludes, offertories, postludes, or other forms of “Special Music” should be excellently-done, but perhaps understated, promoting serious contemplation of the things of God rather than glorifying the instrumentalist. Again, any resemblance to a “performance” atmosphere should be avoided in public worship.
- Though one cannot say so dogmatically, I think that wisdom dictates that we avoid the amplified instrumental forms common in today’s popular music, including electric guitar and bass, drumset, etc. For one thing, these tend to overshadow singing. Secondly, these musical forms easily promote intense emotions that interfere with sober contemplation of the things of God. Thirdly, there is an association with “worldliness” which is difficult to avoid with this style. Fourthly, consider that much “commercial” music is designed to discourage critical thought. Whether we like it or not, this effect does happen, and is antithetical to what we seek in church. Finally, why should the church seek to imitate the world? Those seeking God are being called and drawn to that which is above the world, not reflective of it! Best to cultivate a simple, “church” style that may use contemporary tunes, but deliberately eschews the instrumentation and atmosphere of a rock concert.
- For similar reasons to the above, I think it is best to avoid “overdone” versions of “traditional” music.
Final, Overarching Considerations
- Scripture alone dictates how we are to worship God (WCF XXI.1.), not preferences or pragmatism.
- All must be done for God’s glory first and foremost. (WSC 1)
- All must be done with love for our fellow believers (Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 13), and for their edification (Ephesians 4:29).
- Remember above all else the exhortation of Hebrews 12:1-3:
- “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.”
Sometimes people joke that when a Sunday School teacher asks a question and no one knows the answer “just say Jesus,” because that’s always the right answer. In all seriousness, though, we must in every situation, in every theological or practical dispute, in every circumstance of life—in all things we must keep our eyes firmly fixed upon Christ. When we do so, I think we will find that He will by His Spirit guide us into all truth, and our personal preferences and petty squabblings over those differences will appear as they truly are—insignificant—and we will seek wholeheartedly to serve and worship Him, musically and otherwise, only in the manner that He has commanded.
This material is derived from notes for a series of Sunday School lessons presented at Calhoun Presbyterian Church, Calhoun, Louisiana, between August 7 and September 11, 2011.