Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, signing to God with gratitude in your hearts. – Colossians 3:16 (CSB)
A recent blog post by Mark Terry addressed the sad reality that what were once termed the “worship wars” still rage in some churches today. An animosity exists between old and new—what are the proper songs and styles with which to worship God in the 21st Century church?
I want us to consider some of the things the Bible tells us about our musical worship of God.
In Old Testament Judaism and New Testament Christianity, worship in song is a major aspect of our spiritual formation. And while the Bible does give us some commands to sing, it is more largely assumed that we will just sing. Song, after all, has been long ingrained in human history as a way to express our greatest joys and deepest sorrows and everything in between. This should not surprise us, though, as we are creatures created in the image of God and we worship a God who “will delight in you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).
One of the commands we find is in Colossians 3:16, with close parallel in Ephesians 5:19. Paul had been teaching the Colossians and us how to live a heaven-focused life where we cast off sin and put on our new righteousness. One mark of this new life is letting the word of Christ dwell in us richly.
Today, in our culture, we are more hard-pressed to not have a copy of God’s word than we are to have a copy. In fact, as I sit in my office and type these words, I look around and count 18 copies of the Bible on my desk and shelves in various translations and languages, and that doesn’t include smart phone apps.
But this wasn’t so in the days that Paul wrote. There were no printing presses and greater illiteracy existed among the culture. You didn’t just break out a copy of a scroll from your shelf and have family devotions before dinner. So, how then would they let the word of Christ dwell in them richly? Through song. They would set scripture and its theological truths to music.
The singing of Scripture’s words and ideas accomplished three main things, according to Paul: First, it let followers of Jesus teach one another. In setting God’s truths to memorable music, it allowed these to be more easily kept in one’s heart and mind and it helped Christians remind one another of the greatness of God and the gospel. Second, it let followers of Jesus challenge one another. This is the idea of admonishing—not only do we share truth, but we also help press one another into living the truth by encouraging the good and warning against the bad. Third, it produces thankful worship of God. When we sing as a gathered church, we have two audiences: one another as we teach and admonish, and God as we sing corporately to him. In these ways, our singing is always both vertical and horizontal.
In the midst of detailing these accomplishments of singing, Paul also charged us to sing a variety of songs. If you read any reputable commentary, you will find that you can’t press the differences too far between the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, but you also will find a nuance intended. Paul didn’t use three terms simply to pad his letter’s word count.
Psalms was the word most often used for those 150 songs found square in the middle of our present day Bibles. These songs and prayers were not simply inspired writings of gifted persons in their praise of God, no, they were breathed out by God’s Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds of those who wrote them. They are a God-written song book for us to sing.
Hymns is the vaguest of Paul’s three terms and the most all-encompassing. Today, we largely use the term for a particular style or perhaps even songs of traditions. There may be a hint of that in Paul’s usage, a reference to the songs of Moses and Hannah, of Mary and Zechariah, and of short, familiar choruses that Paul even used. But in large part, these were songs in general. Songs that the churches knew and shared.
Then we have spiritual songs or perhaps songs of the Spirit. This seems best a reference to the charismatic songs, again not in the way the term is popularly used today, but in reference to men and women in the church gifted musically and lyrically by the Holy Spirit to edify their brothers and sisters. These would be new songs introduced or spontaneous songs sung in the moment of worship.
With these three categories, Paul did not write to the church telling them to sing psalms or hymns or spiritual songs, whatever your greatest preference, but to sing all across the spectrum. The only qualification is that they teach and admonish and lead us to thankful praise of God.
The simple fact is that when we let preference, style, or taste in music rule then we are guilty of not letting the word of Christ dwell in us richly. When we engage in the so-called “worship wars” we are robbing ourselves and those around us of the chance to grow deeper in our spirituality.
This is true of those who want to cling only to the old, the “traditional.” Which is really only “old to us” since even the most traditional song was contemporary at the moment someone first wrote it. And this rejection of the contemporary based on its newness is itself a rejection of Scripture which commands us to “Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the faithful” (Psalm 149:1). Robbing ourselves of depth is also true of those who want to sing only the new, the “contemporary,” and hold an attitude of disdain for the old.
The attitude found in both sides is a symptom of spiritual immaturity, a symptom of placing personal enjoyment over the edification of others. But, oh, the richness and depth we find when we seek to embrace the old and the new, the ancient and the contemporary. What a richness of God’s word in our souls when we open ourselves to sing together as a gathered congregation the psalms and the hymns and the spiritual songs. So, let us sing and let us sing broadly!
A Postscript: What Does This Look Like Practically?
In an age where we speak about traditional or contemporary or blended services, how do we practically apply the principles of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs? Some thoughts:
First, you have to play the cards you’re dealt. That might be an odd way to put this, but it’s a reality: Not every church is going to have the same levels of musical abilities. The first church I pastored was a small country church. When I first got there, we had an average attendance of 15. That doubled in my tenure, but our gains did not include people with musical experience. Our lone instrumentalist was a largely self-taught piano player who had about 20-30 songs in her repertoire. We were occasionally graced with visiting musicians who led in a variety of other songs that the church enjoyed and sang along with, but our normal worship gathering was very “traditional” and limited. But that was how God had gifted our church at the time, and that’s okay. The people showed a willingness to sing a broader spectrum of songs when available, and that’s where we must remember to operate: The level of the heart. Do we leave out the new (or even the old) because of the giftedness and abilities of those in the church to lead music, or do we do so because of our stubborn refusal to step beyond our comforts and tastes? The former is “playing the cards you’re dealt,” and that’s alright. The latter is the attitude that I write against above.
Second, mix it up as able. This is one of my great loves about my current church. We are not clearly traditional, contemporary, or blended. The way to describe us depends on the week. I have two main musicians who rotate, in part because of the work schedule of one (four Sundays off, two at work, repeat). One is able to lead with a pianist or to play a guitar. The other is our pianist who can also sing well while playing. In a typical week, whoever is leading the upcoming Sunday will get my sermon notes on Monday, spend a few days thinking and praying about the music, and get back to me by Thursday with their song selections they think go with my notes. Some weeks it’s all songs straight out of the hymnal. Other weeks it’s all contemporary songs. Still other weeks it’s blended. Some weeks it’s just the piano. Other weeks it’s all on the guitar. Still other weeks it’s a mixture of both. Again, this is how God has presently gifted us in terms of available musicians. It allows us to mix it up across the spectrum as our musicians feel led.
Third, remember the aim should always be to love God supremely and love others deeply. This should produce two driving questions: First, does the song honor God (aka: does it present him and the truths of Scripture accurately and lead us to worship him)? Second, does it edify others through teaching and admonishing? And neither of these questions are about style. Yes, there are still some who say that certain instruments or rhythms/beats/styles shouldn’t be used in church because they’re too “worldly.” The simple reality, though, is this: God inspired lyrics to some songs in Scripture, but he didn’t give us the tunes. And nowhere in the Bible does God condemn using a particular musical style. Calling styles too “worldly” is a man-opinionated addendum to the Scriptures. If all your church has available is a piano, then use that piano to belt out songs to the glory of God! But also remember that pianos aren’t mentioned anywhere in the Bible, but trumpets and harps and tambourines and loud crashing cymbals are. So if you have those and people who can play them, then use them to belt out songs to the glory of God!