The Sabbath Principle and the (Christian) Musician, Part Two

This week I am concluding the thoughts begun in a post from November 29. Those that have not yet read that post should begin with it before returning to this one.

You might have noticed that this post first appeared on Saturday rather than Friday, as had been my normal pattern. My teaching load has increased quite a bit this year over the previous year, and I am finding it increasingly difficult to have something written before the end of the day each Friday. So, I am revising my schedule to a more modest goal of publishing something “each weekend” rather than “each Friday.”

With that, here is the second half of my thoughts on “The Sabbath Principle and the (Christian) Musician.”

3. We rest to worship, not just from work.

Thirdly, there is more than mere rest in the Sabbath as found in Scripture. In Leviticus 23:3 and elsewhere the Sabbath is described as “a holy convocation.” The people of Israel were called not only to rest from their normal labors for one day in seven, but to gather together as the people of God for Scripture reading and prayer in what later became known as synagogues. The earliest Christian churches grew out of these, with a similar pattern of weekly gathering for corporate worship, though in most cases not a full replication of the Jewish Sabbath.  

Both God’s example and human experience dictate that resting one day in seven is necessary for our physical well-being, but for the Christian physical rest is but a partial realization of the Sabbath principle. The writer to the Hebrews warned Christians to not neglect corporate assembly (Hebrews 10:25), and whether or not one subscribes to Westminster’s understanding of the Sabbath in its fullness, the New Testament unambiguously teaches that gathering together regularly is a necessary part of the Christian life. We must set aside time for the corporate dimension of Christian experience, gathering with God’s people weekly for fellowship, encouragement, mutual edification, and corporate worship.

4. Music is part of Christian worship, but it can become a distraction from worship.

Turning my thoughts now to that corporate gathering of God’s people, we see in Scripture that music is a part of Christian worship, but it is not the only part or even the most important part. Both the New Testament and the Westminster Standards privilege Word, sacrament, and prayer as the primary means of grace and, by extension, the central acts of our gathered worship. Music is a commanded element of worship as well, and is an effective way of communicating and internalizing the Word. As musicians, though, we must be careful to not be so absorbed in planning, preparing, and performing music in worship that we find ourselves unable to concentrate upon the preached Word, to approach the Lord’s Table with due contemplation and self-examination, or to engage in prayer without distraction. It is for this reason that I have repeatedly argued for a certain simplicity in corporate worship, not because I think larger productions to be always and necessarily “bad,” but because the danger is always present that musicians can lapse into a “performance mentality” that prevents due consideration of the things of God, even in the midst of God’s worship. And if our thoughts fail to ascend God-ward, those of the congregation might, as well.

Music in corporate worship should be excellently done, but for the Christian musician it must not be “just another gig.” If it is, even as we participate and perhaps lead in worship we have failed to put aside our regular life’s work for even a little while in order to focus upon Christ. We are called to regular times of corporately stepping away from the “daily grind” to fix our thoughts upon the things of God. If we have a place of leadership in the musical portion of God’s worship, our calling is to assist the congregation in doing just that, and we will be incapable of doing so if we have not done so ourselves.

Christian musicians, don’t let music in worship take the Sabbath away from you!

5. A word to those who plan and schedule concerts: musicians’ work is work!

I want to end with a reminder to those that plan Sunday afternoon activities: the work of the musician is work. To many people, taking in a concert on Sunday afternoon after worship (or between services) is a good and edifying way to spend the Sabbath afternoon. However, having had to participate in a number of these concerts over the years, I can say that, for the musicians performing the concert, even a 2pm or 3pm performance takes away from their ability to fully concentrate in the worship service that morning, as preparations for the concert will have had to begin perhaps even before leaving for morning worship. If the concert is some distance away from one’s home, the services might even have to be skipped entirely because of concert preparations. While most congregants can go to church in the morning, spend two or three hours fully focused upon God’s Word, and then in a relaxed way take in an afternoon concert before returning to the evening service, the musicians involved in the concert won’t be able to do this without considerable effort and enduring much distraction.

Of course, this very situation brings together a number of conflicting points of view. To those subscribing to the fullness of the Westminster Standards’ view of Sabbath keeping, this should be a non-issue. The entire day is to be spent in contemplation of the things of God, and thus no Christian can without sin participate in or attend a Sunday afternoon concert. Those taking a more “Continental” view, which allows for more leisure on the Sabbath day, have more conflict here, because what constitutes “leisure” for concertgoers nevertheless creates both work and distraction from corporate worship for the musicians. Those subscribing to the view that the Sabbath has been fulfilled in Christ have the least conflict; work is not absolutely prohibited on Sundays according to this view, and the musicians and the concertgoers are without sin. Still, it should be troubling that this seemingly innocuous activity robs some Christians of the ability to fully and meaningfully participate in worship.

Me? As I said in the opening of the first part of this article, I find it to be a special blessing to observe the Sabbath in the “Westminsterian” sense, or at least something close to it. However, I think those arguing for the “fulfillment” view have some excellent points, and so I lean on the side of saying that participation in such events is “less than ideal, but not sinful.” In any case, my purpose here was simply to point out that planning concerts and events for Sunday afternoons is not without consequences for believing musicians’ ability to participate in corporate worship. While non-believers will go on holding and promoting concerts on Sunday afternoons, perhaps believers involved in planning such events might think twice about what doing so means for the musicians in their congregations.

Of course, before long we would then have to start thinking about sporting events on Sunday afternoons and what these do for players’ ability to be present and involved in worship. Then there is the question of restaurant meals after church and their effects upon workers employed in that industry. That’s another “can of worms” entirely!

Or is it?

In Matthew 11 Christ invites us to find our rest in Him. The letters to the Colossians and the Hebrews have portions which seem to suggest some level of “fulfillment” of the Sabbath commandment in the New Testament era. I am of the opinion that, particularly in a largely nonbelieving society such as ours, believers can participate in any number of activities on Sundays and remain without sin, so long as the corporate assembly of Christians is not regularly forsaken. Still, God instituted a 6-1 pattern by both precept and example, and there remains a place for this pattern in our thinking and in how we order our lives. I hope these scattered thoughts will be of use to Christian musicians as we think on matters of work, worship, and rest.

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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