Singing is an essential element of Christian worship. No child of God, capable of speech, is exempt from the practice, regardless of talent (cf. Eph. 5.19; Col. 3.16).
Yet, since most Christians tend to be, at best, musical neophytes, our performance in song may, at times, be less than desirable. In fact, some of our songs will occasionally suffer a musical blow so fatal that even a dirge could put more people in a livelier mood.
In the immediate aftermath, we will remember the fact that
"the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Sam. 16.7).
Indeed, mortal opinions notwithstanding, screeching sopranos and tuneless tenors are immensely pleasing to the Lord's ears, provided they sing with genuine faith. Once that point has been conceded, however, some spark of mortal shame will ignite within our hearts, and excuses for the shoddy performance are soon to follow.
One such excuse, frequently articulated, runs as follows: "That's ok. The music doesn't matter. It's the words that really count!" — or something to that effect. Somehow, our conscience is appeased by the excuse, and the sounds of discord and chaos are quickly "remembered no more."
But is this a legitimate sentiment? Doesn't the music we offer to God matter too? Suppose for a moment that the music truly doesn't matter.
Mechanical Instruments of Music
If the music doesn't matter, organs, pianos, and every other type of artificially-made instruments of music in worship make no difference to God. After all, this is precisely what Catholics and Protestants have argued for years. From their point of view, the Lord has left the musical part of worship up to them. So long as they "make a joyful noise" (Ps. 98.4), God cares not either way.
Christians, however, have long recognized the fact that the music in New Testament worship has been regulated by the Lord — that the music really does matter to God.
First, the Lord has specified that our musical praise be offered with but two instruments:
(1) the voice (Mt. 26.30; Mk. 14.26; Acts 16.25; Rm. 15.9; 1 Cor. 14.15; Eph. 5.19; Col. 3.16; Heb. 2.12; Jms. 5.13); and
(2) the heart (Eph. 5.19; Col. 3.16).
The force of the original language in each of these passages limits Christian musical praise to vocal intonations The original Greek New Testament makes use of only three verbs instructing us in musical praise, each of which reflect this meaning.
Ado — "to chant" an ode; to "sing" (see Thayer, 13). Renowned theologian, Basil the Great (cir. 330 A.D.), observed that the singing of an ode was performed "by voice alone, without any instrument accompanying it" (Homilia in Psalma 44; see Way).
Humneo — "to sing a hymn" (Thayer, 637). This verb embraces lyrical content designed to offer praise to God, which can only be performed by the voice. Augustine (cir. 354 A.D.) wrote:
"Hymns are praises to God with singing; hymns are songs containing praises to God. If there is praise but not to God, it is not a hymn; if there is praise and it is to God but is not sung, it is not a hymn. It is necessary, therefore, to be a hymn that it have three things: praise, and to God, and singing."
Hence, while an organist may attempt to offer their praise to God, they cannot properly humeno with the organ. And, since the design of Christian musical worship is to "speak" words that "teach" and "admonish" us (Col. 3.16; Eph. 5.19) — a function which only the human voice is capable of performing — no mechanical instrument of music can fulfill the demands of Christ on this subject. Only the voice can truly humneo to God, and that is the sense reflected unanimously throughout the New Testament (cf. Mt. 26.30; Mk. 14.26; Acts 16.25; Heb. 2.12).
Psallo — Originally, this term had to do with plucking or vibrating some object, like a carpenter's line, or a stringed musical instrument. However, by the time the New Testament was written, "the idea of accompaniment passed away in usage" (Vincent, 506), and the word came to refer solely to singing with the voice and heart (cf. Rm. 15.9; 1 Cor. 14.15; Eph. 5.19; Jms. 5.13). W.E. Vine, renowned Greek lexicographer, explains:
"The word psallo originally meant to play a stringed instrument with the fingers, or to sing with the accompaniment of a harp. Later, however, and in the New Testament, it came to signify simply to praise without the accompaniment of an instrument” (1951, 191).
Another Greek scholar remarks that psallo "does not now denote literally playing on a stringed instrument" (Bromiley, 1226). That no Greek New Testament text allows for the use of mechanical instruments of music is further evident by the fact that the Greek Orthodox Church, a group intimately acquainted with the language of the New Testament, has opposed such instruments in their worship since their church's inception.
Psallo is, then, the New Testament equivalent of our modern term: a cappella — singing without any accompaniment of a mechanical instrument.
Second, while God authorized the use of man-made instruments in Jewish worship (cf. 2 Chron. 29.25; Ps. 150.3-5), no such authority has been given in Christian worship.
Everything we do as Christians must be sanctioned by the Lord — Moses is no authority for Christian conduct (cf. Col. 3.17; Mt. 17.1-5; 2 Cor. 3.7-18; Heb. 3.5-6). Any form of worship which man performs without sacred authority is vain (cf. Mt. 15.9). Paul condemns this type of "self-imposed religion" (Col. 2.23; "will-worship," KJV).
With reference to the word, will-worship, James Hastings observes that it refers to that which "men have chosen according to their own fantasy" (923). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says it is
"worship originating in the human will as opposed to the Divine; arbitrary religious acts; worthless despite the difficulty of performance" (Orr, 3085).
And Vine further clarifies that it embraces both that which is "forbidden" as well as that which is "unbidden" (or unauthorized, 1985, 687).
Hence, since the Lord has "bidden" only vocal music to be performed in Christian worship, leaving mechanical music "unbidden," no Christian may worship with such instruments without sinning presumptuously and engaging in self-imposed religion (cf. Ps. 19.13; 2 Jn. 9; Gal. 1.6-9; Rev. 22.18f; 1 Cor. 4.6; etc...).
Third, it is interesting to note that the phrase, a cappella, literally means, "in the manner of the church." The phrase alludes to the fact that, for nearly a thousand years, Christians and Catholics alike worshipped without man-made instruments.
In 1965, James McKinnon delivered a dissertation relative to The Church Fathers and Musical Instruments at Columbia University. He noted that the early "church fathers" exhibited a decisive "polemic against instruments." Instead, "early Christian music was vocal" (2).
In that same work, he demonstrated the fact that mechanical instruments of music were not widely employed in worship for over a thousand years after the writing of the New Testament (cf. 269).
Furthermore, Joseph Bingham, Anglican cleric from the 1700s, observed the following:
"Music in churches is as ancient as the apostles, but instrumental music not so: for it is now generally agreed by learned men, that the use of organs came into the church since the time of Thomas Aquinas, anno 1250. For he in his Sums has these words: 'Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize" (I.315).
It will be noted that the reason for engaging in a cappella music, as stated by Thomas Aquinas, is out of a recognition of the difference between Jewish worship and Christian worship.
Finally, in the Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, McClintock and Strong have this to say on the subject:
"The Greeks as well as the Jews were wont to use instruments as accompaniments in their sacred songs. The converts to Christianity accordingly must have been familiar with this mode of singing; yet it is generally believed that the primitive Christians failed to adopt the use of instrumental music in their religious worship" (Vol. 6., 759).
While the New Testament alone is our authority for the pattern of Christian worship, the history of Christian music reveals the fact that mechanical instrumental music was unheard of during New Testament times, and is a relatively recent innovation into the worship of Christ.
Indubitably, then, the music mattered to Christ, his immediate disciples, as well as to all those who for over a millennium refused to tamper with the original form of musical worship.
If the music doesn't matter, apathy in our worship to God must be allowable too. If I operate under the notion that all I have to do to worship God acceptably is to utter scriptural words in a sincere manner, what incentive do I have to attempt to get “better” at singing? Too many feel that because they have never been a “good” singer, they should give up trying to get better.
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going” (Ecc. 9.10).
Just as no one will improve their understanding of the Scriptures except “by reason of use” (Heb. 5.14), so no one will ever improve their singing abilities through indolence and apathy.
Hence, even though the music doesn’t have to be “perfect,” God will never accept music that is offered by lazy and indifferent individuals.
Let us, instead, strive to offer him our "first-fruits," "the fruit of our lips," striving to "abound" in every worship act "with all the fulness of God" (Heb. 13.15; Eph. 3.19; Col. 1.10-12; 2.6-7).
Indeed, the music matters. Apathetic service to Christ, including the musical portion of our singing, will never be tolerated.
Style of Music
If the music doesn’t matter, then the style of music doesn't matter either. Yet, the Christian manner of worship was decidedly elevated above the crass and profane gestures of heathen practice.
Paraphrasing Paul's letter to the Ephesians, Coneybeare & Howson make an excellent observation regarding the “contrast” between primitive non-Christian entertainment and Christian practice. Whereas the pagans entertained themselves with drinking intoxicants, Christians elevated themselves with the fulness of the Spirit (5.18); heathen feasts consisted of drinking songs, while Christians sang “psalms and hymns” (5.19a); their accompaniment, “not the music of the lyre, but the melody of the heart” (5.19b); “while you sing them to the praise, not of Bacchus or Venus, but of the Lord Jesus Christ” (5.20-21) (714-715).
Thus, Paul here addresses four elements of Christian worship: 1) Manner (viz., holiness); 2) Style (viz., sacred, reverential); 3) Kind (viz., a cappella); and 4) Object (viz., the God of heaven).
The style of their songs addresses both the content of the lyrics and the nature of the music itself. “Psalms” may have referred to the sacred compositions (lyrically and musically) which were then in vogue, that derive their origin from the Old Testament Scriptures (see Trench, 312).
“Hymns” may refer to compositions that were written in praise of God (see Augustine).
“Spiritual songs” may refer to compositions that are designed to teach sacred truths and principles in general (see Vincent, 506-507).
While it may be difficult to grasp such minute distinctions between these words (as there is a lot of overflow between them), it is certain that reverence and loftiness characterize them all. As Wayne Jackson suggests:
“These certainly are a universe distanced from the religious jazz, hip-hop, and rap, so commonly making inroads in some churches today.”
Efforts to make the worship of God casual and profane have been plenteous, even in the church of our Lord. But these are the futile efforts of men who seek their own pleasure and entertainment, rather than the reverence and adoration of God Almighty (cf. Heb. 12.28-29; Col. 2.20-23; Gal. 1.10; Jn. 6.2).
In fine, the next time you find your performance in song to be undesirable, promise yourself that you will do all you can to do better next time – don’t minimize the music.
Indeed, the lyrics matter, but the music matters too!
Augustine. Ennarationes in Psalma 82.1. Basil. Homilia in Psalma 44. Bingham, Joseph. The Antiquities of the Christian Church. London, England: Henry Bohn, 2 Vols., 1865. Bromiley, G.W., Ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament — Abridged. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985. Conybeare, W. J., J. S. Howson. The Life and Epistles of St. Paul. London, England: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1889. Hastings, James. Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 4. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark, 1902. Jackson, Wayne. “The Authorized Elements of Church Music." Christian Courier.com. http://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1518-the-authorized-elements-of-church-music McClintock, James and James Strong. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1969. McKinnon, James. The Church Fathers and Musical Instruments. Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University, 1965. Orr, James, Ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 4. Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986. Thayer, J.H. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. New York: American Book Company, 1889. Trench, R.C. Trench's Synonyms of the New Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2000. Vincent, Marvin R. Word Studies in the New Testament: Volume III. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973. Vine, W.E. First Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1951. Vine, W.E. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985. Way, Agnes Claire. St. Basil Exegetic Homilies: Fathers of the Church, Vol. 46. Washington D.C., Catholic University of America Press, 1963.