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Scholars agree that the subject of Paul’s instruction in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 is corporate worship on the Lord’s Day (Sunday). What many also agree on is the interchangeability of the terms “psalms”, “hymns” and “spiritual songs.”[1] IOW: these terms do not refer to different types of songs but rather function as “overlapping near synonyms”[2] meant to emphasize the imperative of congregational singing.[3] With that in mind, here (then) is God’s prescription for our congregational singing:

1. The focus must be on God and His work not us or ours.

1.1. (Eph 5:19, “singing…to the Lord”; Col 3:16 “singing… to God”)

1.2. Too many songs in MCW (modern Christian worship) are guilty of placing the focus on us (what we are feeling, doing or going to do for God) w/very little – to no communication in respect to God (Who He is and what He has done or is doing). IOW: they are heavy on us and light on God.[4]

1.3. Compare: 1) (Psa 8, 46) = Words focused on God: Who He is and what He has done.[5] 2) Crown Him With Many Crowns (“the Lamb upon the throne…Awake my soul and sing of Him Who died for Me; And hail Him as they matchless King thru all eternity…Crown Him the Lord of heaven; One with the Father known…His glories now we sing; Who died and rose on high; Who died eternal life to bring; And lives that death may die.”) = The focus is on God (Jesus): Who He is and what He has done (not us or what we are going to do).

to [Last week’s top 20 worship songs, CCLI]: 1) I Speak Jesus (“I just wanna speak the name of Jesus, Over every heart and every mind, Cause I know there is peace within Your Presence, I speak Jesus, I just wanna speak Jesus”) = The focus of this song is what we are going to do – not Jesus or His work. 2) How Great Is Our God (“sing with me, how great is our God and then the world will see how great is our God…name above all names worthy of all praise, my heart will sing…”) = Besides being entirely about what we are doing or singing (we are the primary acting agent), the song makes no mention of Who God is or what He has done or is doing, nor speaks any of words directly to God. Consider also [the 7 top cliches in MCW]: 1) I want you, 2) I need you, 3) I lift you up, 4) I lay it down, 5) I’m in awe, 6) I’m alive in you, 7) I am living for you. = All focused on us as the primary acting agent.

1.4. PNTM: We are here to sing to God – or about God not ourselves (i.e., bows not vows is how we give praise to God).[6]

2. The words (and music) must communicate God as our King not our girlfriend.

2.1. (Eph 5:19) “Lord” = A term used to confer majesty to those in positions of authority. Our songs must therefore communicate this majesty. IOW: the songs we sing must sound like an expression of majesty to a king versus a solicitation for intimacy with our girlfriend.

2.2. Example: All Hail The Power Of Jesus’ Name (“All hail the power of Jesus’ name let angels prostrate fall, to Him ascribe all majesty and crown Him Lord of all, to Him all majesty ascribe and crown Him Lord of all!”).

2.3. Compare: The Secret Place by Phil Wickham (“Where are you going to run my soul…How you gonna keep this flame alive…In the fading light when night is breaking, I know you will always be waiting, You’ll always be there, I running to the secret place. Where you are…you stole my heart, stole my heart. Better is a moment I spend with you…I’m running, I’m running to the secret place.”).

to The Secret Place by RC Sproul (“He who dwells within His most secret place, Is never far from His blessed grace…The secret place of God Most High, The shadow of our Mighty King, The dwelling place where angels cry, Is where our praise will forever ring.”).

2.4. Examples from other MCW songs: 1) “Capture my heart again, your love is extravagant, your friendship, intimate.” (Your Love Is Extravagant by Casting Crowns), 2) “As I feel your touch, you bring a freedom to all that is within.” (Pour Out My Heart by Craig Musseau), 3) “A sloppy wet kiss and my heart turns violently inside my chest.” (How He Loves – John Mark McMillan), 4) “Lay back against you and breath, hear your heartbeat, this love is so deep, it’s more than I can stand” (The More I Seek You – Kari Jobe), 5) “We’re going all the way, and the wonder of it all is that I’m living just to fall more in love with you.” (Deeper ’99 by Delirious)

2.5. It is not just a song’s lyrics that can make us be guilty of treating God like our girlfriend. It can also be the music. Does the music [melody etc.,] make you feel like God is your king or your lover? Does it sound more like the Michigan Wolverine’s fight song, Hail To The Victors! or Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On?

2.6. PNTM: what we sing and how it sounds must be majestic. If it doesn’t feel majestic, then we probably shouldn’t be singing it.

“Care must always be taken that the song be neither light nor frivolous, but that it have weight and majesty.” – John Calvin

“There is a great difference between music which one makes to entertain men at table and in their houses, and the [songs] which are sung in the Church in the presence of God and his angels.”- St. Augustine

3. Songs must also communicate rich wisdom and theology that will aid in the congregation’s spiritual formation and fortitude.

3.1. (Col 3:16) “Let the word of Christ [or early manuscript version: the Lord] richly dwell within you [in] all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” = Because of its large biblical content, our congregational singing should represent the first sermon of our church service. Our worship in song should feel like “the meal before the main course.”

3.2. With the exception of the Getty’s (and a few other modern hymn writers), the wisdom and theology found in most MCW is extremely lacking or completely non-existent.

“Too often today the church serves up affective sentiments without much care for the discipline of the Word.” – R. Kent Hughes

“One of the saddest features of contemporary worship is that [it is filled with] trite jingles that have more in common with contemporary advertising ditties than with [God’s inspired music], the Psalms. The problem here is not so much the style of the music, though trite words fit best with trite tunes and harmonies. Rather the problem is with the content of the songs…Today’s songs reflect our shallow or nonexistent theology and do almost nothing to elevate one’s thoughts about God.” – James Montgomery Boice

“Many American evangelicals continue to exhibit a considerable gap between the materials they sing and the theology they preach. They confess to believe in a transcendent God who is above all creation, yet they sing few [songs] which properly reveal God’s excellences. Some congregations expect “strong meat” in biblical preaching but seem to be satisfied with “milk” or even lollipops in song.” – Donald Hustad

3.4. MCW Examples: Oceans by Hillsong (“You call me out upon the waters; The great unknown where feet may fail; And there I find You in the mystery; In oceans deep my faith will stand, I will call upon Your Name; And keep my eyes above the waves; When oceans rise; My soul will rest in Your embrace; For I am Yours and You are mine; Your grace abounds in deepest waters; Your sovereign hand will be my guide;
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me; You’ve never failed and You won’t start now; Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders; Let me walk upon the waters; Wherever You would call me;
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander;
And my faith will be made stronger;
In the presence of my Saviour; I will call upon Your Name; Keep my eyes above the waves; My soul will rest in Your embrace; I am Yours and You are mine.”) = This song could be talking to any (so-called) God given there is nothing specific or any theology which exclusively ties it to the God of the Bible. It is completely void of any biblical wisdom or theology.

3.5. We need to be concerned about more than simply making sure the lyrics are orthodox, they need to also be rich in wisdom and theology (“Poor songs [also] lead us to idolatry. Not just inferior worship – idolatry. It’s that important.” – Chris Anderson). [7]

3.6. In contrast, most hymns – including modern hymns (e.g., Getty’s) are packed full of wisdom and theology that aids the saints in their spiritual formation and fortitude.

3.7. Example: Crown Him With Many Crowns (“The Lamb upon the throne; Hark How the heav’nly anthems drowns; All music but its own! Awake, my soul And sing; Of Him Who died for thee; And hail Him as thy matchless King; Thru all eternity [Rev 5 and 7]…Crown Him the Lord of heav’n; One with the Father known; One with the Spirit thru him giv’n; From yonder glorious throne; To Thee be endless praise; For thou has died for me; Be Thou, O Lord, thru endless days; Adored and magnified [Heb 1; Rev 15 and 22]; …His glories now we sing; Who died and rose on high; Who died eternal life to bring; And lives that death may die.” [Rom 4 and 5; Rev 5, 12 and 13]).[8]

3.8. PTNM: Worship (in song) is not testimony it’s teaching (“rhythmic theology” – Anderson). The question then to ask when deciding whether a song should be sung by the congregation: What is it teaching? Is it (this “first” sermon) doctrinal sound or sinfully idolatrous? Additionally, how much wisdom or theology is being communicated through its verses and chorus? Is it an aid to the congregation’s spiritual formation and fortitude?[9]

4. The words and music must be beautiful but without a feminine vibe.

4.1. Similar to the above point, much of MCW makes God seem more like a metrosexual than the mighty warrior portrayed in Scripture (e.g., most if not all music/songs by Chris Tomlin especially when it is sung by Chris Tomlin).

4.2. Among the many reasons God only identifies Himself in masculine terms in the Scripture is most certainly this: to make clear that His tastes are not feminine. The words we sing and the music we use must therefore never be anything less than fully masculine. No feminine vibes allowed!

4.3. That being said, our God also cares deeply about beauty – especially in His house and what takes place there (Exo 28:2, 40; Psa 27:4, 50:2, 96:6).

4.4. What this means is that: 1) beauty is not a feminine invention – nor something that only women should care about. It is instead at the heart of masculinity (rightly understood), 2) the masculine music we sing must also be beautiful (e.g., masculine music that is not majestic/beautiful = Country worship music [words may promote aspects of masculinity but the music is not beautiful – it is instead as the saying goes, “like clean underwear covered in a sh*tty suit”]).

4.4. “The Christian Life should not only produce truth– but also beauty” – Francis Schaeffer

4.5. Beauty is achieved when our music/songs are “skillful” (i.e., complexity performed w/excellence; Psa 33:3), “glorious” (i.e., filled w/rich wisdom and right theology; Psa 66:2) – and (again) majestic (def., beauty expressed in dignity, power, perfection and stateliness).

PNTM: We must protect the masculinity of God and the beauty He loves (and is!) in the songs we sing since anything less can also make us guilty of idolatry.

CLOSING COMMITMENT: 1) song-writing group to start writing hymns, 2) a hearty diet of singing only hymns for the next 8 weeks (to inspire our song-writing group and strengthen our souls) 3) a removal of all music from our congregational singing that do not meet the criteria discussed today.

 

 

[1] See for example, F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians; Douglas J Moo, The Letters to Colossians and Philemon; Andrew Lincol, Ephesians; Frank Thielman, Ephesians; See also David F Detwiler, “Church Music and Colossians 3:16”

[2] Scott Aniol (Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs: Assessing the Debate”). That the terms psalms, hymns and spiritual songs should be viewed as referring to the same thing (as overlapping near synonyms) is supported by their interchangeable use in Scripture. For example: 1) all three terms are used in the LXX as titles for the Psalms, 2) The NT writers use the term “psalm” (Grk., psalmois) to refer to “hymns” ([Grk., hymnois]1Co 14:26; cf. 1Co 14:15) and spiritual songs ([Grk., odais] Jam 5:13). “Since [these three Greek terms] are each used as translations of psalm titles in the LXX and are employed interchangeably in the NT, the weight of evidence seems to suggest that Paul did not intend the terms to designate clearly identifiable genre of corporate song.” – Aniol (ibid)

[3] That Paul expects the church to be characterized by singing that involves the entire congregation (versus a select few – or one) is established by the “one another” phrase found in both verses. Additional PNTM: 1) the people leading us in worship are not the only ones ministering to others thru singing (we are all “speaking [ministering] to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”), 2) singing is not optional (how we accomplish the command to “let the word of Christ [or the Lord] dwell richly in [us]” is by “singing”), 3) refusing to sing or singing w/an unthankful heart is sin which not only qualifies as a threat to our eternal future (Heb 10:26-30), but may also place us under God’s immediate and special wrath (Heb 13:28-29 w/13:15), 4) the songs we sing together must be something that is easy for us to sing (hymns are “songs for unmusical people to sing together” – Erik Routley) .

[4] “In many cases, congregations have unwittingly begun to sing about themselves and how they are feeling rather than about God and His glory.” – Chris Anderson (Theology That Sticks)

[5] Keep in mind that not all of the Psalms were meant to be sung by the congregation. Only 55 of the 150 are directed to the choirmaster. Most of the psalms were meant for special music or special occasions (e.g., songs of ascent).

[6] Music must be tethered to God – His attributes, His names, His works, His purposes, and His glory. This is vital, perhaps more than anything else.” – Anderson (ibid)

[7] “Careful attention to the selection of hymns and praise songs is important. People learn from everything that happens in a worship service, not just the sermon. Indeed, there are probably many Christians who imbibe more of their theology, for good or ill, from what they sing than from what they hear taught.” – Carl Trueman (“The Trinity and Prayer”)

[8] “The old hymns expressed the theology of the church in profound and perceptive ways and with winsome, memorable language. They lifted the worshiper’s thoughts to God and gave him striking words by which to remember God’s attributes.” – James Montgomery Boice

[9] “Congregational song is part of the teaching ministry of the church. Church musicians and pastors should ask themselves: if our people learned their theology from our songs what would they know in twenty years about God, the cross, the resurrection, the offices of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, creation, justification, election, regeneration, the church, the sacraments, and all the other fundamental doctrines of the faith?” – Anderson (ibid)