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The Church Ethic
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Importance of Music in Worship
The Church and Going to Church
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In the modern church worship has become synonymous with music and song. This is also true of the term praise. As a result, music and singing have been elevated to a place of prominence in church meetings and services. In fact, the term "worship service" is used to describe a congregational gathering comprised largely of music and song.
Although, we do concur wholeheartedly that the New Testament directs us to include singing praise as a part of our Christian lives there is a disproportionate amount of emphasis placed upon musical activity in the corporate gatherings of most modern churches. In many, many church gatherings, music and singing can occupy a third to half of the service.
Our position is that our emphasis and the amount of time devoted to music in our services should be reduced to match the New Testament church. In the New Testament music is given a much less prominent role than it receives in the church today. We also believe that our dependence on music as a part of our worship of God may, likewise, need to be reduced so that we can sincerely praise God without distraction or purely superficial emotional displays. As we will see, the New Testament does indicate that music, at times, is involved in worshipping God. However, from a biblical perspective, worship did not necessarily invoke or involve music or singing. These perspectives can be easily supported by surveying the New Testament references to worship and music.
We will begin with a study of the New Testament's discussion of worship and praise. There are 13 Greek words used in the New Testament to refer to worship (or any derivative thereof). These 13 Greek words for “worship” appear a total of 80 times in the New Testament. Linguistically none of them inherently invoke any reference to or for musical accompaniment or singing. (The number after the Greek word is its lexical reference number used by Strong’s Concordance.)
proskuneo - 4352 - used 60 times, a physical gesture or posture of homage
sebomai - 4576 - used 6 times, to revere
doxa - 1391 - used 1 time, glory or splender
latreuo - 3000 - used 4 times, to serve or service
eusebeo - 2151 - used 1 time, a show of piety or reverence
ethelothreskeia - 1479 - used 1 time, voluntary or arbitrary worship
therapeuo - 2323 - used 1 time, to serve or do service
sebazomai - 4573 - used 1 time, to fear or to honor religiously
sebasma - 4574 - used 1 time, an object of religious worship or honor
theosebes - 2318 - used 1 time, worshipping God or pious
neokoros - 3511 - used 1 time, worshipper or temple servant
proskunetes - 4353 - used 1 time, a worshipper
threskeia - 2356 - used 1 time, religious worship
Of these 13 words and their 80 total occurrences in the New Testament, there are only 3 passages when “worship” involves music and singing. These passages are accounts of angelic beings, the 144,000, and others praising God, singing, and playing harps (Revelation 5:8-9, 14, Revelation 14:2-3, and Revelation 15:3.) None of these passages are instructional for church gatherings to include music or singing.
Similarly, we can do a word study on praise and its derivatives. There are a total of 9 words used in the New Testament that refer to praise. These 9 words appear a total of 33 times. (They are listed below, with an analysis following.)
ainos - 136 - used 2 times, a saying or proverb or laudatory phrase, praise
aineo - 134 - used 9 times, (the verb tense of 136) extol, sing praises to God, promise or vow
doxa - 1391 - used 4 times, glory or splender
epainos - 1868 - used 11 times, approbation or commendation
epaineo - 1867 - used 3 times, to approve
humneo - 5214 - used 1 time, to sing the praise of or sing hymns to
ainesis - 133 - used 1 time, a thank offering
eulogeo - 2127* - used 1 time, bless or celebrate or consecrate with solemn prayer
arete - 703 - used 1 time, a virtuous course of thought, feeling and action
* Eulogeo is translated 1 times as praise and 43 times as bless.
None of these 9 words for “praise” inherently involves music. And 7 of these Greek words for “praise” invoke no reference to singing. The remaining 2 words do reference singing. However, of the 33 total uses of these 9 Greek words in the New Testament, only 2 passages refer to singing praise to God. Hebrews 2:12 is a quote of an Old Testament prophecy of Christ. And Acts 16:25 records that Paul and Silas sang praises to God while they were in prison.
This survey of Greek words for “praise” and “worship” reveals several important facts. First, none of the 22 Greek words used to refer to “praise” and “worship” linguistically invoke the idea of music or musical instruments. Only 2 of these Greek words linguistically invoke the idea of singing. However, the usage of these words in the New Testament shows only a total of 5 passages (out of a total of 113) when praising God involved music or singing. While these passages are informative, none of these 5 passages instruct us to involve music or singing in our praise and worship of God. These biblical facts indicate that a biblically-developed concept of praise and worship does not place a high degree of emphasis on music or singing and certainly not as much as the church does today.
Even though music and singing are not biblically equated with worshipping God, we can still ask what level of prominence music and singing had in New Testament church life. Another survey of the New Testament is helpful.
There are 7 Greek words used in the New Testament that refer to songs, psalms, singing, or playing a harp (or string instrument). (One of these words, humneo, is listed above in our list of New Testament Greek words for “praise.”)
5567 psallo – to sing, sing psalms, to play or pluck a stringed instrument, harp – 5x
5568 psalmos – an OT psalm, playing a musical instrument – 7x
5603 ode – song, ode – 7x
103 ado – sing, to praise someone – 5x
5215 humnos – a song in praise of someone, a sacred hymn – 2x
5214 humneo – to sing praise of someone, sing a hymn – 4x
2788 kithara – a harp – 4x
These 7 words occur a total of 34 times in a total of 18 verses in 17 separate passages. At least 6 of these references are historical references to prophesies of Christ made in the Old Testament. Romans 15:9 quotes to 2 Samuel 22:50. Hebrews 2:12 quotes to Psalm 22:22. And Luke 20:42, Luke 20:44, Acts 1:20, and Acts 13:33 all refer to verses in Psalms.
Another 5 uses of these words are accounts of particular figures singing or playing a harp. In Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26, Jesus and his disciples sing after the Last Supper. We’ve already mentioned the next four passages. In Acts 16:25, Paul and Barnabas sing praise to God while in prison. In Revelation 5:9, angelic beings sing praises to God and play harps. And in Revelation 14:2-3 and 15:3, the 144,000 and tribulation martyrs sing and play harps.
In 1 instance (1 Corinthians 14:7), Paul uses playing a harp as an analogy for communicating with others.
In 1 Corinthians 14:26, Paul is discussing teaching and instruction. Among them, he mentions those who have a psalm.
1 Corinthians 14: 26 How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.
The Greek word for psalm that Paul uses here in verse 26 is used in the New Testament to refer to the Old Testament Book of Psalms. The Psalms were often used in the early church to instruct the church about Christ because the Psalm contain many prophesies of Christ. Contextually and linguistically, there are good reasons to conclude that Paul is talking about teaching from the Old Testament rather than singing songs. Again, Paul’s emphasis throughout this chapter is on instructing the church. Teaching from the Book of Psalms fits that theme more aptly than singing a song.
James 5:13 is an instructional reference to singing.
James 5: 13 Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.
However, James instruction is personal and not corporate in nature. He is encouraging those who are glad to sing. It is obvious that James is not instructing the church to sing corporately only when they are happy.
This leaves 3 places in the New Testament that are instructional about music and singing. They are 1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 5:19, and Colossians 3:16. All 3 verses seem to indicate a use of singing in corporate exchanges.
1 Corinthians 14:15 What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.
Ephesians 5:19 Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;
Colossians 3:16 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.
Based on the above surveys we can conclude the following:
1. From a definitional point of view, biblical praise and worship do not inherently involve or require music or singing.
2. There are 4 places in the New Testament where singing and playing music (harps) are involved in specific instances of praising God. (Acts 16:25, Revelation 5:8-9, 17, Revelation 14:2-3, and Revelation 15:3).
3. There are 3 places in the New Testament that instruct us that we can sing to one another using spiritual songs in a corporate setting (1 Corinthians 14:15, Ephesians 5:19, and Colossians 3:16.)
This biblical study reveals that music and singing had a pretty minimal role in New Testament church life and corporate gatherings.
Contrasted with this biblical picture is the New Testament’s emphasis on teaching. First, a surpassing component of the New Testament is devoted to the proclamation, teaching, and understanding of sound doctrine. For example, though Jesus is constantly and regularly teaching his disciples whenever they are together, there is only 1 instance where the gospel record that they sang together. Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 both record that after the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn before they went to the Mount of Olives.
In addition, the Greek word for teaching (didache, Strong’s number 30) and the related verb (didasko, Strong’s number 97) are used 130 times in the New Testament. There are also numerous direct and indirect commands in the New Testament regarding the importance and centrality of the Word of God to the life and growth of Christians, both corporately and personally. This comparison should clearly and conclusively demonstrate the imbalance in emphasis that the modern church has placed on singing and music as a significant element of our church meetings.
Along with this biblical data, we can also consider some relevant historical information. The church of the earliest centuries didn’t give a significant place to music in their church life.
According to Frank Senn, "Christians of the first several centuries…staged no public festivals, dances, musical performances, or pilgrimages."
Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelic (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 53, quoted by Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, page 14
The Reverend Dr. Frank C. Senn, STS – He holds a B.A. from Hartwick College, Oneonta, NY, a M.Div. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame. He was Assistant Professor of Liturgics at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago from 1978-81 and has taught courses at the University of Chicago Divinity School, the University of Notre Dame, Concordia University in River Forest, IL, Seabury-Western Theological Seminary and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston. Active in liturgical circles, Dr. Senn has served as President of the North American Academy of Liturgy and The Liturgical Conference. – Immanuel Lutheran Church, http://ilcevanston.org/
Justin Martyr, a Christian writer of the middle of the second century reports that typical church gatherings included reading the scripture, teaching, prayer, collecting and distributing support for persons in need in the church community, and the communion meal. Music and singing are not mentioned.
And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday,(1) all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability,(2) and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given,(3) and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. - Justin Martyr, THE FIRST APOLOGY OF JUSTIN, CHAP. LXVII
According to Christian scholars and church historians, the modern church’s emphasis on and use of music in our gatherings resulted from Roman imperial, Greek dramas, and pagan religious customs.
The roots of the choir are found in the pagan Greek temples and Greek dramas. The Greeks had trained choirs to accompany their pagan worship.
(H. W. Parke, The Oracles of Apollo in Asia Minor [London: Croom Helm, 1985], 102-103). Greek plays, both tragedy and comedy, were accompanied by orchestras (Marion Bauer and Ethel Peyser, How Music Grew [New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1939], 36, 45; Elizabeth Rogers, Music Through the Ages [New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1978], 64; Quasten, Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity, 78; Alfred Sendrey, Music in the Social and Religious Life of Antiquity [Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1974], 327, 412), quoted from Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, p.159.
The Greek musical system was the precursor of that of the early Christian church, and the line of descent is unbroken from Greece, through Rome, to the Middle Ages and modern times.
Dickinson, The Study of the History of Music, 9, quoted from Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, p.160.
Antiquity; The oldest unambiguously choral repertory that survives is that of ancient Greece, of which the 2c BC Delphic hymns and the 2c A.D. hymns of Mesomedes are the most complete. The original Greek chorus sang its part in Greek drama, and fragments of works by Euripides (Orestes) and Sophocles (Ajax) are known from papyri….Of the Roman drama's music…
Music of Ancient Greece –
The function of music in ancient Greek society was bound up in their mythology:...It is no wonder, then, that music was omnipresent at the Pythian Games, the Olympic Games, religious ceremonies, leisure activities, and even the beginnings of drama as an outgrowth of the dithyrambs performed in honor of Dionysus. It may be that the actual sounds of the music heard at rituals, games, dramas, etc.
- Encyclopedia Britannica
The [theatre and the arena] resemble each other also in their ceremony, having the same procession to the scene of their display from temples and altars, and that mournful profusion of incense and blood, with music of pipes and trumpets.
Tertullian (c. 197 AD, W), 3.84.
As would be expected we have heard many objections to our view that music is inappropriately emphasized in the worship practices of the modern church. We will deal with the three most common of them below.
The first argument that is often heard is based upon the Levitical practice of leading God's people in worship in the Old Testament. The basis of this objection is twofold with regard to its relevance to our current discussion. One, music was an important aspect of Old Testament, Levitical worship duties. Two, as such we should preserve the importance of music in our worship of God in the New Covenant.
At this point two critical issues become obvious with these claims. First, although worship is an inarguably essential part of a believer's walk with God in both the Old and New Covenants, it does not follow that music is an essential aspect of this worship. Even if it can be biblically demonstrated that music was an essential aspect of worship under the Old Covenant it does not follow that because something was divinely mandated under the Old Covenant that it is divinely mandated under the New Covenant. One would then have to then search the New Testament scripture to see the prominence assigned to the role of music and song in worship for those under the New Covenant. This we have sufficiently examined above.
In addition, given the ending of the Levitical order of priests that took place when the New Testament was ushered in, why would we assume that any or all components of their duties should automatically be carried over into the New Covenant?
A second argument that is often used to refute our position is that the longest book in the entire Bible, the Book of Psalms, is entirely composed of worshipful writings which were accompanied by music. The argument is then constructed that because Psalms is such a large book and since it contains songs or musical works of worship that music is an essential aspect of worship. To defuse this claim one only need ask the following question. What has God preserved for us in the Psalms, the words or the music? The obvious answer is the words. Evidently the musical accompaniment to these writings was not important enough for God to preserve and pass down to us. What was important was His Word, which he inspired the writers of the Psalms to pen and then preserved for those of us who would come afterwards.
This brings us to the final objection to our position. Some proponents of music as an essential aspect of worship might finally agree that music is not essential to worship, but that it is a useful and effective aid in assisting believers in sincerely worshipping God. On this point we would question whether or not music is an aid to sincere worship or a distraction from it, or at least a far easier substitute for it.