We have seen that God has been concerned for his people to worship him together since the creation of man. From the creation of mankind in his image, to the calling of his covenant people, Israel, to the fulfillment of that covenant people in the New Covenant Church, God has desired that his people, regardless of gender, social standing, or age, worship him together. But one element that seems so central to modern worship that has also been such a point of contention throughout Church history is one element that was intended from the beginning to hold us together… music.
Music is vital to both Old Testament and New Testament worship. One cannot read through the book of Psalms, itself a hymnbook, without seeing the obvious emphasis on music both vocal and instrumental. While the New Testament is fairly quiet in regards to music in the corporate worship service, there are two mentions of its use. I think some will be surprised at the emphasis both of these citations make.
Both references to music in the New Testament Church are echoes of one another by the Apostle Paul to the Ephesians and the Colossians. In his letter to the Ephesians, in chapter 4, in a short section on “walking in love,” Paul ends by commanding that the church be “filled with the Spirit” (vv. 2,17). One of the ways this fullness of the Spirit is evidenced is that people are “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with [their] heart” (v. 19). So, as a sign of our walking in love with one another, we are filled with the Spirit, and as a sign of being filled with the Spirit, we are to sing! But notice the direction of the singing, “to one another.” Again, in a section concerning “bearing with one another,” Paul tells the Colossian church to let, “the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in [their] hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). We may find that a bit off-putting in today’s notion of corporate worship. We’ve been cultivated into seeing all worship, even corporate worship, as nothing more than an individual experience with God, the corporate setting merely being a combination of those experiences. But isn’t it telling that in the only two mentions of music in the corporate worship setting in the New Testament, both references command us to sing, “to one another”? Now I do not mean to negate any individual expression of worship in the congregational setting, the Psalms make continual use of the first person. I only mean to draw attention and place primacy on the togetherness of the corporate setting as we sing “to one another.”
The majority of divisions along the lines of corporate worship today do not occur along the elemental, foundational lines such as the Sacraments or the preaching of the Word, they occur over music or style of music. That, which by its very nature is intended to help us teach and admonish one another, has become a point of division. Issues over musical style or accompaniment have split churches and congregations all over the nation. And let us not be fooled, a division of services for this purpose is a division of the congregation. Perhaps the most poignant loss of this current mindset, is the loss of the importance of the very idea of “assembly,” to gather men and women from every nation, language, and age to worship and glorify God together, “commending” his “mighty works,” from one generation to another (Ps. 145:4). I would suspect that most evangelicals would lament the division of the Body of Christ over any number of things from race to secondary or tertiary issues of doctrine; but for some reason, we find separating along the lines of age or preferences (not even tertiary issues) to be not only valuable, but also helpful! Unity is a hard quality to cultivate, especially in regards to preferences over style, format, and sometimes, even volume; but unity is nevertheless commanded and cherished above most things except truth throughout the New Testament in regard to the body of Christ.
In part four of this series, we will discuss the “prize” of unity in the church, especially in regards to musical preference and style. Until then, let us evaluate our own motive in corporate worship. Are we more prone to “experience worship” when they sing our favorite song or style? Are we more apt to “encounter God” when we close our eyes, zone out and sing just to him? Isn’t our singing together supposed to be something more? How are we to sing “to one another” if we can’t even agree on the tune? Can’t we just divide ourselves based on our personal preferences? Wouldn’t that just be easier and simpler for everyone? God has called us to something higher than that. He has called us to unity and by it’s very definition, unity cannot be accomplished by division.