The Expression of Worship in Music (Ephesians 5:18–19)

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Thus far in our consideration of biblical worship, we have managed to nail down a workable definition of worship: worship is the reverent, rational response to the revelation of God. We have seen, too, something of God’s design of worship, as well as some of the contemporary and historical distortions of worship. In all of this, I have strived to show clearly that God’s Word must regulate our worship. There is no expression of worship that escapes this “biblical regulation clause,” including the expression of worship that we will consider in this study: music. In The Church Musicians’ Handbook, David Peterson writes of the potential blessings and problems of the music ministry in the local church, and concludes, “If [music] is to be a meaningful and effective part of body life, we need to apply the Scriptures quite specifically to this problem area and do so in a public way.”1

Paul understood something of the need for regulation in musical expression in worship. Nowhere does the New Testament forbid the use of singing and music (in fact, it commands the use of singing in worship), but it does tell us clearly that our expression in music is to flow from the work of the Spirit in our lives and, thus, be regulated by the Spirit. Paul said it this way:

And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;

(Ephesians 5:18-19)

In this study, then, we will look at that which the Scriptures say about the matter of singing in our corporate worship. Martin Luther believed that, “next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise.”2 I would agree. Again, Luther wrote, “Nor am I of the opinion that through the Gospel all arts should be cast to the ground and should perish, as some misled religious people claim. But I want to see all the arts, especially music, used in the service of Him who has given and created them.”3

It is true that music is a gift of God: a gift that should be employed in the corporate worship of the church. As I mentioned in the previous study, not all gifts are to be used in the corporate worship of the church. God may have gifted you as an athlete, but it would be out of place for you to run laps around the church auditorium during the preaching of the Word! Certainly, running can be used for the glory of God, but it is inappropriate for corporate worship. Music, on the other hand, is a gift of God, which can be used for His glory, and is appropriate for the corporate worship of the local church.

When considering the New Testament teaching on singing and music, there are two passages that immediately spring to mind: Ephesians 5:18-19 and Colossians 3:15-16. The two passages are very similar, but a few slight distinctions make it worthwhile to consider both. Both passages–and particularly the Ephesians 5 passage–describe the corporate worship service of a local church. We will spend most of our time in Ephesians 5, with brief allusions to Colossians 3 where necessary.

According to Ephesians 5:18-21, Paul expects at least three major expressions of worship when the church gathers corporately. If the local church comprises Spirit-filled believers (5:18), these three expressions of worship will be evident: (1) joyfulness toward others, expressed in singing (5:19); (2) gratefulness toward others, expressed in thanksgiving (5:20); and (3) submissiveness, expressed in thoughtfulness toward others (5:21ff).

For our purposes, we will focus primarily on the expression of joyfulness in song. As we consider Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:18-19, we will see five distinctives of singing and musical expression that relate to the corporate worship of the local church.

The Dynamic Behind Musical Expression

Before dealing with the actual expressions of worship in the local church, Paul first deals with the dynamic behind the church’s expression of worship. “And be not drunk with wine,” he exhorts them, “wherein is excess, but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). Everything he says from 5:19-6:9 (dealing with church life, home life and work life) will only be true as believers are filled with the Spirit:

  • Spirit-filled worshippers will speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, making melody in their hearts to the Lord (5:19).
  • Spirit-filled worshippers will give thanks always for all things (5:20).
  • Spirit-filled worshippers will submit to one another in the fear of the Lord (5:21).
  • Spirit-filled wives will submit to their husbands (5:22-24).
  • Spirit-filled husbands will sacrificially love their wives (5:25-33).
  • Spirit-filled children will obey their parents (6:1-3).
  • Spirit-filled parents will raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (6:4).
  • Spirit-filled employees will submit to their employers (6:5-8).
  • Spirit-filled employers will treat their employees justly (6:9).

Simply put, Spirit-filled worshippers will carry Christ-likeness into the home and into the workplace; in short, to every area of society. But it all begins with God-honouring worship in the corporate gathering of the church.

Some might ask: can we confidently assert that Ephesians 5:18-21 refers to a corporate worship service? I think that we can, for several reasons. Paul writes of “speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” We might literally render this as “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” The most likely place that this will be enacted is in the local church gathering. He speaks also of “submitting…one to another.” Bible commentators are almost unanimous that this is a reference to the corporate worship service of the local church.

Perhaps one major objection to the corporate worship service view is Paul’s admonition against drunkenness. Most of us would not associate drunkenness with the corporate worship of the church. But we must understand the background from which the Ephesians were saved. They had been saved from an utterly pagan background, in which drunkenness was often employed in idolatrous worship. Idolaters sought to reach a “higher consciousness” through such intoxicating means. Diana was the great goddess of the Ephesians, and alcohol and drugs played a significant role in her worship. In Ephesian religion, you were normally in something of a drunken stupor for the duration of your worship, which led to all sorts of lewd, immoral behaviour. Since these believers had always associated worship with such practices, the danger was that they would carry this into the worship of Jesus Christ. So Paul urges them not to do this. “You are accustomed to the use of alcohol and drugs in Ephesian worship,” he seems to say, “but Jesus Christ will have none of this! Steer clear of drunkenness in your worship, and be filled with the Spirit instead!” And the first evidence of being Spirit-filled is this attitude of speaking to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

When I was growing up in the United States, my youth pastor was often greatly frustrated at the teenage boys in our youth group. You see, we were “cool,” and “cool” guys don’t sing! So, whenever the youth group was supposed to sing, he would get agitated as he to coax the “cool” guys into singing with the rest. As I look back at those days, I realise that the reason we refused to sing was not because we were “cool,” but because we were not filled with the Spirit. I am not sure that coaxing us to sing was the solution (for singing would have been pure hypocrisy for us): what we needed was to be filled with the Spirit, which would result in song.

Music in worship is a tremendously controversial subject. But, taking our cue from Paul, we must deal with the dynamic behind musical expression before we consider the details. The biblical dynamic is spiritual rather than fleshly. Biblical worship is driven by God and is, thus, distinct from the world. Therefore, we must make sure that the dynamic behind the songs and music of our church is a spiritual one.

I for one am not opposed to the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) movement. Like anything else in this life, the CCM movement has its good and its bad. I do think, however, that much contemporary Christian music has a fleshly rather than a spiritual dynamic. Much of the emphasis is upon the affections and emotions rather than on the truth that the particular song conveys, or should convey. This is a danger that we must avoid.

Large segments of the professing Church today are doing all they can to make their services appealing to the world. One of the easiest ways to conform to worldliness in worship is to adopt worldly music. But if you use fleshly methods, you will quite naturally attract the flesh. Paul urged the Ephesians to be different in their worship (not to use alcohol, etc.); we need to heed this admonition in our own worship today.

Since biblical worship is driven by God, it is not only distinct from the world, but also dignified in its expression. The pagan religion in Ephesus was chaotic and disorderly. It is this type of worship that Paul warned against. Worship resulting from drunkenness will quite naturally be chaotic; worship resulting from the dynamic of the Spirit, on the other hand, will be most dignified.

Several years ago, the Toronto Blessing took the “Christian” world by storm. The Spirit of God purportedly descended on churches during their worship services, causing hysterical laughter, dog-like barking, lion-like roaring, and a host of other “spiritual manifestations.” The novelty of the Toronto Blessing has since worn off, but it is still practised in certain churches today. It has sadly become even more bizarre than before: now people are actually vomiting ‘in the Spirit’. It does not take a trained theologian to recognise that such a manifestation is not of God! God is a God of dignity and order, and we must mirror this dignity and order in all expressions of worship. Any expression of worship that violates this decency and dignity must be discarded. If your music, therefore, is indecent and undignified, you can be sure that it is not driven by God and should be discarded.

By way of application, I would urge us all to emphasise order in the music ministry of our church. I am not a musician of any note (no one who knows me will be taken aback by that statement). Years ago, however, I read a book by Francis Schaeffer dealing with the decline of the West. In the book, Schaeffer did a synopsis of music and showed how it reached its peak under men like Johann Sebastian Bach, his son, Johann Christian Bach, and other composers of the era. Their music had order to it, and there was definite climax and completion to their compositions. But music declined over time to the point where there was no resolution in it. Richard Wagner was one of the major composers of such non-resolution musical pieces. Schaeffer showed clearly that Wagner had embraced an existential, Eastern philosophy, in which there is no resolution in life. This clearly came to the fore in his compositions: there is a clear lack of cohesiveness and resolution in Wagner’s music. (Interestingly, both Friedrich Nietzsche and Adolph Hitler were both fans of Wagner’s music.)

I am simply saying that God is a God of order, and when music lacks order and resolution, we must be careful of using it in our corporate worship. We must be careful of following the world’s “order” of disorder and chaos in musical expression. Much of the rock ‘n roll music of ours and bygone eras is simply chaotic, and is thus unfit for corporate worship. Our musical expression must reflect the character of God.

The question is sometimes asked concerning the legitimacy of music as an evangelistic tool. Should we not employ musical evangelism in our churches? Does Christian rap (or any other style of worldly music) not have its place in the local church in terms of attracting and evangelising unbelievers? After all, Christian rap is far more likely to attract some of the worldly young than Christian opera! Should the local church not wake up to the 21st century and begin using music as an evangelistic tool? The major problem with this is that there is not a single verse of Scripture to support such a practice! God has chosen to save the lost through preaching, not music (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:17-25).

Certainly people can and ought to use their gifts to aid evangelism. Men like Steven Curtis Chapman and Steve Green can use their musical abilities to draw people, and then make time during the concert to clearly present the gospel. That is a wonderful tool that can be used in the accomplishment of the Great Commission, but when the local church gathers to worship, she gathers primarily for worship, not for evangelism. Though the employment of music for evangelistic purposes may be sincere, it is flawed in its very premise.

We must be careful that we do not use the flesh to try to do the work of the Spirit. I once heard Alistair Begg cite Al Mohler’s definition of a “praise chorus” as “one word, two chords, three hours.” Humorous as that may be, a pastor friend recently told me that the song leader of his church had stumbled across a chorus that quite literally had one word and two chords! Even more amazing is the fact that the song was copyrighted (my friend was not quite sure whether they copyrighted the two chords or the one word!)! I’m sure that the song is wonderful for moving the emotions, but I can hardly see much edificational value in it!

We can conclude, therefore, that it is important for us to discern what is driving our expression of worship. Is it the fleshly dynamic of traditionalism? The fleshly dynamic of emotionalism? Or the spiritual dynamic of Christ-likeness?

It is historically true that whenever God has performed a mighty work in history, there has been an upswing in music. I think particularly of the Reformation. Martin Luther was largely responsible for introducing musical accompaniment into the worship of the church. (John Calvin believed that musical accompaniment was fine for private worship, but that corporate worship should be a capella; Ulrich Zwingli was opposed to singing completely in corporate meeting of the local church.) When God does a work in our midst, we will almost certainly turn to music as an expression of our worship, but we must then be careful not to be so carried away with the spirit of our enthusiasm that we neglect biblical discernment.

The Discrimination in Musical Expression

Paul tells us that the Spirit-filled church will be characterised by “speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19). Again, this can be fairly rendered as “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” A biblical music ministry discriminates when it comes to those with whom it expresses itself. Paul is not describing a crowd of Manchester United supporters at Old Trafford chanting Olé, olé, olé, olé. Instead, he is speaking specifically of singing with fellow-believers in the local church.

When the local church gathers and sings, she gathers and sings as a means to worship God. At the risk of being repetitious, the corporate gathering of the church is not for the purpose of evangelism, but for the purpose of worship. We gather with likeminded believers in order to worship our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Unbelievers have little place in such a gathering. (Unbelievers are certainly welcome in the local church worship service, and the preaching ought to be Christ-centred and thus evangelistic (i.e. the gospel ought to be preached). Nevertheless, the gathering is primarily for God’s people: we do not cater primarily for the lost.) I would, therefore, stress again that our music ministry should not be designed to please or attract the lost. The church is a distinct group of people, and we gather as church members to sing to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

Much of the contemporary literature dealing with the church’s music ministry stresses the importance of having a ministry of excellence in order to attract people. Certainly, we should strive for a ministry of excellence in the church, but our excellence should be to glorify God, not to impress men. The Bible is silent on music as a means to attract people; it is clear that our worship ought to glorify God at all times.

I love the music ministry of our church. I believe that our musicians love God and desire to glorify Him as best as possible in their ministry. But we do not have a “professional” setup in our auditorium. We cannot compete, for instance, with the Linden Auditorium in Johannesburg, which is the virtual epitome of acoustics. I doubt very much that a professional musician, given the option, would choose to perform in our auditorium rather than Linden. Most churches cannot compare to the professionalism of the secular music industry. But the local church is far better equipped to glorify God in music than even the most talented worldly entertainer in the world’s most renowned music hall.

In our attempt to cater to the world, we have, I am afraid, “dumbed down” much of our worship. This is what I would call the OBE approach to music. (OBE as in ‘Outcomes Based Education’. In the outcomes based mentality, the standard is lowered in order to have greater “success” in the outcome.) But we must be careful of this, for a biblical music ministry is discriminating in its expression. Though we cannot compete with Sony or EMI, imperfection in performance is irrelevant to those who are making melody in their heart to the Lord.

The Design of Musical Expression

Again, Paul commands the local church to be “speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” The parallel passage in Colossians 3 is important at this juncture, for it sheds light on the design of musical expression that may not be quite as evident in the Ephesians 5 passage:

And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful. 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.

(Colossians 3:15-16)

According to Paul in the Colossians passage, the purpose of singing and music in the worship of the church is “teaching and admonishing.” The design, then, of the church’s music ministry is twofold.

It is Instructional

First, we see that the music ministry of the local church is designed to be instructional or edificational. Paul said that we are to be “teaching” one another in song. We are to be giving profitable instruction, which leads to edification, for which music is a wonderful tool.

Some time ago, my youngest daughter was learning all the countries on the continent of Africa and in the Middle East. In order to aid her learning, her teacher gave her a tape on which the names of the countries are sung. She quickly learned the song and, thus, the names of the countries that she was supposed to memorise. The music helped her to learn her geography (I wished that I had had such tapes when I was in school for I, like most Americans, battle with geography).

Perhaps this is what God is saying through Paul: that when the Word of Christ resides in the mind of a believer, it soon finds expression in song. I have made up songs about truth before as God has put a song in my heart. When the church gathers and sings, it is not to pass the time or to get us “in the mood” for the preaching (you should already be “in the mood” for the preaching!). Rather, the music ministry is designed to teach us truth. We are very careful in our church about the songs that are selected for the corporate worship: we want to make sure that they are biblical and that they teach truth. There are hymns that we have crossed out in our hymnal, for they have unbiblical lyrics. There are some hymns that we never used to sing but have begun to sing as we have grown in our understanding of Scripture. My point is simple: we should not sing songs just because they sound nice–they must be filled with Scriptural truth.

When I was at university, I took a class on music, and our lecturer one day asked how many of us ever drove somewhere whistling the tune of Strangers in the Night. I may be giving my age away here, but we all readily admitted to this. The lecturer then asked, “Have you ever listened closely to the words of that song?” He rightly pointed out that the context speaks of an immoral relationship. The point was clear: it is easy to get tunes into our head without actually thinking about the lyrics of the song, but we must be careful of this.

If the Word of Christ is dominant in our lives, truthful songs will flow from our lips. It is vital that the lyrics of a given song be the primary concern in our musical expression. If the words of a song do not line up with Scriptural truth, we ought to scratch those songs from our repertoire, despite their popularity and ability to generate emotional response. The best Christian songwriters are those who are students of the Word. We seem to have the idea that if a Christian man is an able musician, we should automatically turn him loose to write songs. But if he is not solidly grounded in the Word of God, this can do more harm than good! The great songs of the faith were written by those who wrote with a deep understanding of theology: John and Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, etc.

The greatest songwriters in the Bible were those who were filled with wisdom, understanding things as God understands them. In heralding the wisdom of Solomon, the historian compares him to Ethan the Ezrahite, Heman, Chalcol and Darda, the son of Mahol (1 Kings 4:29-31). This may not seem terribly significant to some, but it is interesting that Ethan the Ezrahite and Heman were chief musicians in Israel during their lifetime (1 Chronicles 15:19). In other words, until Solomon, the wisest of men were Israel’s chief musicians. This means that the music ministry is not handed simply to the most gifted individuals in the church. The song leader is not necessarily the best singer in the congregation. Instead, those leading in corporate worship are to be those who are grounded in the things of God, those who are wise, understanding things as God understands things.

Many of the songs of our era are sentimental, superficial and insipid. Such songs have no place in the corporate worship of Christ’s Church. The songs employed in our worship must be biblical and Christ-centred.

It Is Inspirational

Second, we are told that the music in the church should be inspirational or exhortational. This is what Paul means by “admonishing one another” (the word “admonishing” means “to put in a right mind”). The music ministry of the church should not seek to merely store information in the head; it should strive to motivate God’s people to obedience. Consider how some of the great hymns of the faith urge us to obedience:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ, my God;
All the vain things that charm me most–
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See, from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mind,
That were a present far too small:
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

This great song by Isaac Watts not only teaches us biblical truth about Christ’s death and suffering, but also admonishes us to be done with pride, to forsake our sin, and to sacrifice our soul, our life, our all for the sake of the One who gave His life for us. Or consider this one by Sabine Baring-Gould:

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before!
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banner go!

At the sign of triumph Satan’s host doth flee;
On, then, Christian soldiers, on to victory!
Hell’s foundations quiver at the shout of praise;
Brothers, lift your voices, loud your anthems raise!

Like a mighty army moves the Church of God;
Brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.
We are not divided, all one body we–
One in hope and doctrine, one in charity.

Onward, then, ye people, join our happy throng;
Blend with ours your voices in the triumph song.
Glory laud and honour unto Christ the King–
This through countless ages men and angels sing.

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before!

Once again, this hymn teaches us wonderful truths about the ever-sure march of the Church: that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. But it also urges us to take up our spiritual arms and involve ourselves in the spiritual battle that takes place around us every day. Or how about this one by R. Kelso Carter:

Standing on the promises of Christ my King,
Through eternal ages let His praises ring;
Glory in the highest I will shout and sing,
Standing on the promises of God.

Standing on the promises that cannot fail,
When the howling storms of doubt and fear assail,
By the living Word of God I shall prevail,
Standing on the promises of God.

Standing on the promises of Christ the Lord,
Bound to Him eternally by love’s strong cord,
Overcoming daily with the Spirit’s sword,
Standing on the promises of God.

Standing on the promises I cannot fall,
List’ning ev’ry moment to the Spirit’s call,
Resting in my Saviour as my all in all,
Standing on the promises of God.

Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God, my Saviour;
Standing, standing, I’m standing on the promises of God.

We learn here the truth that God’s Word never fails. The Scriptures are as sure as God Himself. We can stand on the promises found in the Word. It encourages us to believe God’s Word, and to act in faith: to act upon God’s Word because of a confidence in His character.

We could mention song after song that fits the biblical requirement of instruction and inspiration: Have Thine Own Way, Lord (by Adelaide A. Pollard), And Can It Be? (by Charles Wesley), Just As I Am (by Charlotte Elliott), etc. Biblical music teaches us the truth of God’s Word and challenges us to live obediently in light of the truth that we have learned. Let us, then, be sure that the music in our church is rooted in the Scriptures so that we might be both stirred and changed.

The Diversity in Musical Expression

In both Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3, Paul speaks of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” as well as “making melody in your heart to the Lord” or “singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” We see two areas of musical diversity mentioned in these phrases.

Vocal Diversity

Diversity in musical expression is one area in which much controversy arises. There are churches which insist that only the Psalms are fit for the music ministry of the local church. Others argue for exclusive hymnody. Still others ignore the Psalms and want to throw out hymns in favour of exclusive “praise chorus” musical worship. The problem with any exclusive mentality is that Paul, under inspiration, mentions at least three categories of music that churches can use in worship.

The Greek word for “psalms” refers to any song accompanied by musical instruments. Many of the inspired Psalms were sung to musical accompaniment: Paul is commending this practice in local church worship. “Hymns” simply refers to a song of praise to God, and “songs” refers to any ode, but Paul qualifies this by adding the word “spiritual” (i.e. those that contain spiritual truth).

I’m not convinced that Paul is giving us an exhaustive list of the types of songs that are permitted in the corporate worship of the local church. If I understand him correctly, he is simply saying that there is room for diversity in the musical worship of the local church. This would include the Psalms of the Bible, all of which have been written to music. It would also include hymns: both contemporary (such as the hymns from the pen of James Montgomery Boice, R.C. Sproul, Eric J. Alexander and Edmund Clowney), and traditional (such as those mentioned earlier by Watts, Baring-Gould, Carter, Pollard, Wesley and Elliott). And it would include any modern day choruses whose message lines with Scripture and whose tone is appropriate for corporate worship.

There is a movement within this diversity-debate to which I am strongly opposed: the practice of having one “traditional” church service for those who like traditional hymns, and one “contemporary” service for those who enjoy more contemporary music. This usually results in an older generation service and a younger generation service, and a generation gap is soon formed. But if we are going to do this, why not just split our churches down the middle? If church members are submitting to one another, as Paul commands in Ephesians 5:21, there will be diversity in musical expression in the worship services of the church–so long as all the songs chosen meet the biblical criteria.

Instrumental Diversity

The phrase “making melody” in Ephesians 5:19 literally means “to pluck the strings.” In other words, Paul is advocating the use of musical instruments in this passage. I have already mentioned the debate over the types of songs appropriate for corporate worship; there is also much debate concerning what type of musical instruments, if any, are appropriate for corporate church worship. Not only does the Bible allow for diversity in song, but also for diversity in accompaniment in corporate worship.

I found it fascinating to study the various musical instruments mentioned in Scripture. Mention is made of wind instruments (the trumpet, the pipes, the organ, the cornet, and the flute), stringed instruments (the dulcimer, the psaltery, the harp, and the sackbut) and percussion instruments (the timbrel, the tabret, and the cymbal). This diversity, of course, flies in the face of those who insist that only the organ and the piano should be used in church worship. (The “organ” mentioned in the King James Bible seems to have been more of an ancient bagpipe than the organs to which we are accustomed. The piano is not mentioned at all–though, technically, the piano is considered a percussion instrument, so it is certainly allowable.)

Of course, musical instruments are spoken of predominantly in the Old Testament, but this does not mean that the New Testament is opposed to them. Music, I would submit, is given such brief attention in the New Testament because God expects us to understand continuity of worship from the Old to the New Testament. That is, church worship today includes musical instruments because the Old Testament includes them.

Now, as I have said, there are those who are heavily opposed to certain musical instruments in corporate worship. One of my spiritual heroes, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, was highly upset at the thought of a saxophone being used in corporate church worship. There is, however, absolutely no Scripture that expressly limits us to the types of instruments we can use. But there is a biblical principle that we must keep in mind when considering those musical instruments we will make use of in the church.

That principle is that the music should never dominate the lyrics of the songs we sing. In fact, I would maintain that singing is imperative in biblical worship, but music is not. Whilst music is certainly permissible, there is nothing in Scripture to suggest that we must sing to musical accompaniment when we worship the Lord. I would love to have an entire gamut of musical instruments in our music team–as long as the music does not become the predominant element in the song-worship of the church. Music should always act as a servant to the lyrics, that God’s people might be taught the Word and exhorted to obedience.

In corporate worship, we should be careful to follow the principle of order and distinction. We do not want to be so like the world that the difference cannot be told. I know of a church that wrote Christian words to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. I would be uncomfortable with that: it is too close to the world for my liking. I once stopped my daughters from playing a particular contemporary Christian song in our home because it brought back memories of a terrible song that I listened to in high school.

Certainly, there ought to be diversity within the church when it comes to musical expression. At the same time, we must guard the unity that the Spirit of God has given to His church. So, what will keep us from falling overboard one way or the other? Only Ephesians 5:21, “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.” The church’s music may not suit your taste perfectly, but if the peace of God rules the heart of the church (Colossians 3:15), we will be able to maintain unity within diversity. However, if there is a danger of foisting disharmony in the church by particular music, we must be careful of going in that direction. I know of churches that have literally driven away older members because of their insistence on attracting the younger generation with their music. God doubtless takes offence at such inconsideration.

So, what about drums? What about a saxophone? What about a bass guitar? Are these acceptable? Are they edificational? And who will make the final decision as to which instruments are used in the worship service of the church? As one of my fellow-pastors said, “the overriding concern should be control and leadership by the elders.” It is not fair to leave the decision to those involved in the music ministry; this is an area in which the elders of the church must take the leadership and make the final decision. The elders must take into consideration biblical principles, congregational maturity, and edificational value and make the final decision in the musical expression of the church.

The Devotional Purpose of Musical Expression

Everything in musical expression is to be done “in your heart to the Lord.” To put it another way, our musical worship is to be done in spirit and in truth. The “heart” here does not refer to the emotions, but to the core of our being. We must prepare ourselves if our musical expression of worship will be acceptable to God. We should arrive alive. We must come to the corporate worship service filled with the Spirit, prepared to sing, and realise that the purpose of the music ministry of the church is to worship God. It is not for entertainment. It is not for the musicians to exhibit their gifts. It is not for evangelism. We are not to emulate the world. Rather, we are to exalt our God in order that His people may be edified.

We have considered the dynamic of musical expression, the discrimination of musical expression, the design of musical expression, the diversity of musical expression and the devotion accompanying musical expression. These are the five principles that Paul, in Ephesians 5:18-19 and Colossians 3:15-16, gives to consider when it comes to the music ministry of the church. Within these principles, there is room for diversity. This is what Christian liberty is all about: moving freely within the limits that God has set. If we do so, we can continue to enjoy wonderful, worshipful music in the church to the glory of God.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. David Peterson, The Church Musician’s Handbook (New South Wales: Matthias, 1994, 1999), pp. 30-31
  2. Quoted by Paul S. Jones in Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2003), pg. 231.
  3. Jones, Give Praise to God, pg. 231