I could have titled this post “Choirs, Solos, and Praise Leaders Oh My!”, but catchy titles that cause negative reactions are not really my thing. While there are always questions concerning the form and content of sung praise (Psalms and/or Hymns, etc…) very little time in these discussions are taken up with why we sing at all and how the answer to that question informs the more common arenas of battle over what Reformed and Presbyterian churches should be doing on the Sabbath Day. It is usually an assumption that we should have vocalized intoning of words during the Lord’s Day worship, but where do we have command in God’s Word to do this? What is God’s larger purpose for this and why does it matter how we join together in this as brothers and sisters in Christ? These are the kinds of questions I want to answer and examine in this particular blog post.
Singing is something you see all over the Old and New Testaments in private, family, and public expressions of thanksgiving to God after His providential blessings. Whether it be Moses’ song and Miriam’s response in Exodus 15, Barak and Deborah’s ecstatic call to God after their deliverance from the enemies of God in Judges 5, or David’s exclamations of praise in 2 Samuel 22 you see the covenant people praising the name of the LORD in song. This being the case there is definitely a difference between the songs of Barak and Moses and the words of David, but that is another issue that is not necessarily germane to this post. There is also a question about the applicability of these examples to corporate worship. In the Bible you have lots of examples of people doing all kinds of things, but do they meet the standard of good and necessary consequence when it comes to the worship of God? It is certainly not the case that just because it happens in the Bible, and God’s people are doing it, that therefore we can do it in worship. So can Moses or Barak or Mary be used as a command from God to have singing in public worship? The answer is no. The reformed Christian has to (if he is concerned with principle) go to other places to find the command of His LORD to worship in song on the Lord’s Day.
Now to find examples for this element of worship in the Old Testament is fairly easy. One only need to go to 1 Chronicles 6:31-33 and the myriad of examples in that book (9:33, 15:14-22, etc…). Singing is very much a part of the regular worship of the people of God in the Tabernacle, the Temple, and the Synagogue and is clearly commanded by God to be so. It is very true that any variation from the mind of men in the worship of God is not seen as a keen thing in the eyes of the LORD. So from this short and certainly not exhaustive look at the Old Testament and especially the old covenant order it is without question that singing plays a large and central role in the worship of God by His covenant people under this administration.
Having looked at the Old Testament and the old covenant it might be worthwhile for the New Testament church to look at what the Scriptures say about what role singing plays in the new covenant. There are lots of things in old covenant worship that have passed away with the end of that administration, not just the slaughtering of bulls and the bloody sacrifices, which obviously are not to carry on in this age. What examples are there of public worship singing in the new covenant? The first thing that comes to fore is Paul’s admonition to sing with understanding in 1 Cor 14:15. Contextually the Apostle is dealing there with the use of sign gifts in the church at Corinth during their public meetings. It is evident from this that there is singing going on in worship and Paul is concerned that it be properly regulated by the Spirit.
Another place is Paul’s comments about the way the people of God join together in praise of God’s glory in Romans 15. John Calvin has an excellent word on this:
For you may observe this everywhere in Scripture, that God’s praises cannot be declared, except in the assembly of the faithful, who have ears capable of hearing his praise.
These two examples are plenty (along with the sister passages of Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16) to give support for God’s command that the Christian Church have sung praise in their public Lord’s Day worship of their LORD. Much like the Old Testament examples of Moses and Barak the singing of the 144,000 in heaven and other examples of the heavenly worship of the Book of Revelation are not applicable to church’s assemblies during this age anymore than the other things that go on in those passages can be used in stated new covenant worship. Now it being proved from the Bible that Christians are to have singing in their congregations what does this have to tell us about other aspects of our praise on the Lord’s Day?
A common theme of new covenant worship is the gathering together of the saints as the one body in Christ to offer up united praise to God for His mercy and grace. Something that has found its way into the common practice of Reformed and Presbyterian churches is the choir. There is certainly no question that well-trained choirs are very soothing to the ear and provide a great service for the blessing of many. However dividing the people of God into qualified singers and unqualified singers was a part of the old covenant, not the new. Just as the other duties of the Levites went away with the second and better covenant in Christ so to did this division. Not only is there no positive command for this practice in the New Testament, but it drives against the whole purpose of singing in our worship, which is the people of God responding together as one to God’s blessing. This unbiblical division not only causes trouble in the congregation, but from a missions stand point think about how much money would be made available for diaconal and other purposes that is taken up by this non-commanded worship practice?
This same thing goes for soloists as well. While there are many of us who have not been given the gift of being able to sing well the purpose of God in granting that mercy to some is to assist the whole body in their praise, not to be singled out and given an office in the church for that purpose thereby dividing the body unlawfully.
Last, but not least this same principle of united praise to God by the assembly of the people can be applied to the creation of the worship leader who acts in a separate capacity from the only given leader of Christ’s worship. Only the called Minister and Overseer of Christ’s Church is given the authority (in consultation with the Elders) to lead and organize the worship of God’s people by the Great Shepherd Himself. [update: A question was raised about the purpose of precenters in acapella congregations and how they fit into this equation. While a precenter (someone who begins/leads the singing in an acapella context) does not fit the general idea of a worship leader I had in mind here, I do think the practice of having the precenter stay in the congregation and not bringing them up front as a separate entity is best.]
More could and probably needs to be said on this, but this should provide a starting point for our Presbyterian and Reformed churches to think about not just the how’s of our worship, but why God would ordain the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ to do the things He has called it do in His Praise.