Monday, January 28, 2013

On Worship: Singing in Context

I love singing. I love to sing in worship to God, with or without others present. I was a bit shocked to learn this week that after years of thinking otherwise, there are really no commands pertaining to singing in the corporate worship in the New Testament. After hearing a lesson on the subject, I did some quick searches on the words "sing," "singing," "song," and "hymn" in the New Testament. I was quite surprised how few hits came up (as opposed to the many hits in the OT, most of the NT ones are in Revelation). I was looking for the commands to "sing" for the church as a whole, for worship services. There is a verse in Hebrews that mentions the congregation but it is not a command to sing (Hebrews 2:12). It is a declaration of someone singing and it sounds more like a solo.

Two of the main proof texts for advocates of a cappella-only, full congregational singing (no solos, no choirs, no instruments) are Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. There are lots of points made about the Greek words, history, and culture. As in my previous article, I do not feel the need to debate those points as there is another issue that precedes even having that discussion: Context. What is the context of each of these verses?

Ephesians 5 in context is talking about the Christian's daily walk through life. There is no mention of the assembly. There is no mention of a "worship service." If you want to stretch this to the worship time then you have to look back at verse 18 and wonder why Paul is telling them not to get drunk during the worship service. Is it okay other times? And no coarse joking during worship. Nah, he is talking about our daily lives. Rather than filling our lives with filth and spewing that out to everyone, spill praise all over them with songs to God and be thankful. Colossians 3 reads much the same way. The context is our lives in Christ, not just Sunday, but every day.

In all the New Testament, the only reference I found to singing where instruction is being given pertaining to the assembly of the body is 1 Corinthians 14:26. In the midst of discussions about tongues and prophecy and other spiritual gifts, Paul lists some things that people bring with them to worship to share: "a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation." A couple things jump out at me here. He is not commanding them to sing or to bring any of these things. It seems he is allowing, accepting, validating the things they are already doing (based on culture, heritage, tradition, teaching) and setting up some guidelines so that they are respectful of everyone. We learn early on in school to raise our hands when we have a question and not interrupt others when they are talking. Paul is playing a bit of teacher/principal here and setting some rules for the classroom. But not the rules we often spout. Again the context is so important. This whole section of 1 Corinthians starting in chapter 11 through chapter 14 is about treating each other with respect and love. Something we have no issues with today, but apparently the Corinthians did.

So where does that leave us as far as commands to sing? As individual we should use our songs to God to encourage others. So if I am out and see you around town, or call you on the phone, or we meet for coffee, I am to encourage you by sharing a song. Maybe just a kind word would do. People get uncomfortable for some reason when you burst out in song in public unless you're part of a flash mob (then it goes on Youtube). When we gather together as a body to break bread and talk about Jesus are we allowed to sing? It certainly seems so. What form should the singing take? What are the rules concerning how we sing? Well if I have a song, I should wait till you're done with yours before I start. And the whatever I bring should be done for the purpose (whether it works or not is a different story) of building up the body. Those seem to be the only regulations specific to the assembly. There is no indication that everyone would sing along with me if I were to start a song. I might end up singing a solo. There are additional regulations around the tongues and prophecy, but none around the singing.
Can we bring the individual commands to sing into the worship? Well probably in some form. We certainly want to respect the commands to not get drunk and tell crude jokes. Just because we are together as a body does not mean those go by the wayside. In fact, we are not supposed to treat our time together as a holy time and the rest of the time as secular time. That is what those letters are about, living a holy life before God all the time.
My point is that in context, those passages are not about laying out a pattern for worship. There seems to be a lot of freedom and very little pattern. What there is not freedom to do is to create rules and divide Christ's body because someone disagrees on the rules. What there is a pattern for is how we are to treat other people.
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