The Command to Sing
Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, June 22, 2014
Have you ever thought about the biblical command to sing? It’s not really optional for a Christian. You can’t gather with the body of Christ and stand there with your arms folded and your mouth shut as if you weren’t part of the body, as if this command did not apply to you. The Bible never says, let those who can sing, sing, as if it were a spiritual gift. The Bible never says, let those who have beautiful voices sing, as if natural talent were required to praise God. The Bible just says “Sing!” Over and over, dozens of times, we are commanded to sing: sing to the Lord, sing praises, sing joyfully, sing a new song. Come into God’s presence with singing. The command to sing may be repeated more frequently than any command in the Bible except the one to love. Certainly we’re told to sing more times than we are told to witness or teach or baptize or even to bring offerings. I like the instruction in James 5:13 (NIV): "Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise." Of course we know we are commanded to pray. But we are also commanded to sing.
Christianity started as a singing religion. That’s one of the things that made it different and attractive in the pagan world. One of the earliest descriptions of Christians by a secular historian came in a letter by Pliny the Younger around 111 AD, asking a superior in Rome what he should do about these Christians. He said that they would gather early in the morning and sing joyfully to one another, singing “hymns to Christ as to a god.” It has always been so.
My parents went to Japan a few years after the end of World War II. They used to tell the story—you may have heard it—of a young tailor who lived in Hiroshima but was out of town the day the atom bomb fell. He searched through the ruins and could not even locate his house until he heard a voice calling him faintly from a mound of flesh he could only recognize as his sister by the print of the dress burned into her skin. He watched her die and determined to hate the Americans forever. But as he wandered in a daze through Hiroshima he came across a Baptist church which had three walls standing and no roof, and inside those walls a group of people were singing hymns. He was drawn to the joy in their voices in the midst of destruction. Week after week the young tailor came to hear the songs. He would leave before the sermon, because he was not interested, he said, in a God who was the God of Americans. But finally the music drew him in and he stayed to hear the message that there is a loving God who cares for all his children of every nation, who offers forgiveness and the ability to forgive, and the tailor came to faith in Christ. Hymn writer Brian Wren says “Congregational song does important things that speech alone cannot do.” Music speaks to parts of the brain that words alone cannot.
In places around the world today, believers are gathered in bombed out churches, in house churches that are prohibited by the government, in caves and in tents, and wherever they are gathered they are singing. In nursing homes today the elderly will gather for worship, wheeled in by aides to day rooms where someone will try to preach to those who do not seem to be paying attention. Often the residents will seem unresponsive, but if you start to sing one of the old hymns they miraculously wake up and know all the words. Why is that? Is it because the hymns tap into something deeper than all the talk about God? Is it because their souls are being prepared for the next part of their journey? When we all get to heaven, the book of Revelation makes clear that we will all be singing. Revelation 5 (11-13) says that in the heavenly realm—in the realm where the kingdom of God has come—the angels and living creatures and elders all sing, “myriads of myriads, thousands of thousands, and they sing with one voice.” Then John hears “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and all that is in the sea and all that is in it, and they were singing.” I love that: every being in the universe singing! Congregational singing is not just a command; it is our destiny.
In Ephesians 5:19, Paul gives a direct command to the church: “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord.” There are two parts to the command to sing. First we are told to “speak to one another” with songs. The audience there is one another. Our singing is a way to communicate with one another in the body of Christ. These hymns are one way we build one another up, by speaking to one another in song. We are teaching one another about God, reminding one another of the gospel, driving the truths of the gospel deep into the hearts of every member of the body. Most of you have learned more theology from hymns than from preachers – or at least you remember a lot more of it.
The second command is to “sing and make music in your heart to the Lord,” that is, to the Lord Jesus Christ. This time a different audience is in view. Here we are singing to Jesus himself, and we are not just singing with our mouths but with our hearts. To make music in your heart doesn’t just mean to feel the music; it means to sing from the center of your being, with your whole self, to make music with integrity. When we sing as part of our worship, we sing both to one another and to the Lord. Both are important.
When the first Christians gathered in homes, they sang hymns without accompaniment or books. Several of those early hymns are quoted in the New Testament in, for example, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, and Revelation. Most likely the song leaders or pastors lined the song out for people the way they do in country churches where people don’t read: the leader sings a line which is repeated by the congregation. Sometimes the group in an early church might be given the refrain, while the leader sang the verse. Some people in later centuries came to think of antiphonal singing as the way they do it in heaven, the way it’s supposed to be. But do you know why they sang that way rather than using hymnals as we do? Because books were expensive! They had to be copied by hand. When the invention of the printing press came along, it not only made the Bible available to the average person but it also led to an explosion in hymn singing because the people could finally be given words—and sometimes music.
Singing together as a congregation binds us together. Back in the 4th century, Bishop Ambrose of Milan said, “It is a powerful bond of unity when such a great number of people come together in one choir…when all sing in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” Singing in church is for everyone, not for the musical elite or for the talented. Making a joyful noise is good enough if it’s the best you can do. In Africa, there is a saying, “If you can walk, you can dance; if you can talk, you can sing.” In North America, we have lots of people who are afraid to dance and afraid to sing. That’s too bad. The group that calls itself the Block Island Singers meets at least weekly at the Rescue Barn to sing a capella. They were inspired by Doug Koss, who taught them the African way of thinking, telling them “This is a perfection-free zone.” We should announce that in church: This is a perfection-free zone—musically, morally, spiritually, every way you can think of. Do not be afraid to join us.
A couple of months ago I was looking for a guide to congregational singing, and I found a wonderful document online produced by—of all people—the Unitarian-Universalist Association. If the Unitarians can sing, surely the Baptists can sing! But I want to quote what they wrote, because it is spot-on:
When singing a hymn or song together, we become participants rather than observers of worship. Singing gives us an opportunity to make ourselves really and truly present—to “step into the room” and take an active part. We become givers as well as receivers. We give our individual voices to the whole ensemble –thus demonstrating first-hand how “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” When done with confidence and enthusiasm, this totality of sound created by the group—combined with each individual contribution, voice by voice—moves us from simply being those who attend worship to those who experience worship. This is the beauty and power of congregational singing—a special time to be actively involved and contribute. [http://www.uua.org/documents/poleyjoyce/music_ministry.pdf]
You may not know that there were centuries during which the congregation was not allowed to sing in church at all. Early church life was modeled on the small synagogue with its singing, but as the church became institutionalized and built large buildings, some leaders began to think of the church as modeled on the Jerusalem Temple with its professional choir of Levites. They also got scared because the Arians and theological opponents used hymns to teach their doctrine. So at the Synod of Laodicea in the 4th century a rule was issued that “No others shall sing in the Church, save only the canonical singers [the ordained, all male], who shall go up to the platform and sing from a book.” For a thousand years after that in most parts of Christendom hymns were sung only by priests and only in Greek or Latin, which of course the people did not understand.
When the Reformation began in the 15th century, this began to change. Martin Luther, who bridged from the late Middle Ages into the Renaissance, was influenced by the classical Greek idea that music has inherent moral virtue. Aristotle had written, “It is plain that music has the power of producing a certain effect on the ethos of the soul, and if it has the power to do this, it is clear that the young must be directed to music and must be educated in it.” Luther thought that music was an important part of education. In his reforms of worship, his main goal was to restore the preaching of the Word, but his secondary goal was to give lay people both education and access to participation in worship. He encouraged both psalm singing and hymn writing and the use of folk music and popular tunes instead of the Gregorian chant, which had never found a home in the hearts of the German peasants. Here’s what Luther said about music:
I wish to see all art, principally music, in the service of Him who gave and created them. Music is a fair and glorious gift of God. I would not for the world forego my humble share of music. Singers are never sorrowful, but are merry, and smile through their troubles in song. Music makes people kinder, gentler, more staid and reasonable. I am strongly persuaded that after theology there is no art that can be placed on a level with music; for besides theology, music is the only art capable of affording peace and joy of the heart…the devil flees before the sound of music almost as much as before the Word of God.
Singing is a characteristic of life in the body of Christ. Singing is not only for musicians. It is not only for the sanctuary, but for wherever God’s people gather. The leading Reformed theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth, wrote:
The Christian church sings. It is not a choral society. Its singing is not a concert. But from the inner, material necessity it sings. Singing is the highest form of human expression…What we can and must say quite confidently is that the church which does not sing is not the church.
Let us at Harbor Church be the church. Let us sing to one another in hymns and psalms and spiritual songs, and let us sing and make music in our hearts to the Lord. Let it never be said that you are an audience, but that you are a congregation gathered to pray and sing. Barth also said, “The praise of God which finds its concrete culmination in the singing of the community is one of the indispensable forms of the ministry of the church.” Indispensable. So let us sing.
- Harbor ChurchBox D2Phone: 401-466-5940
Block Island, RI 02807