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A Tradition of Singing

by Tim O'Hearn

When talking about traditions, one sometimes has to be careful. Some things such as taking a weekly contribution for maintenance of the church budget (Minutes With Messiah, January 2012) or church buildings (February 2012) are clearly and purely traditional. With some other issues, though, one has to clearly distinguish between what is scriptural and what is traditional. This is true about singing in the church. Some of what we do with church music is strictly traditional, but music in the church is more than a mere tradition.

Actually, the New Testament is relatively silent about the subject of music. Clearly music was very much a part of early church life. Paul frequently includes in his letters what appear to have been songs in use in his day. (He didn’t have to worry about copyrights and the “fair use” doctrine.) In spite of this, there are really only three verses in the New Testament about singing.

What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. (1 Cor 14:15)
The paucity of mention of singing in the life of the church has opened the door for many traditions.
And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph 5:18-20)
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. (Col 3:16)

The first of those is really not about singing, but placing a limitation on miraculously speaking in human languages not learned in the normal way. Still, it does point out that singing was a normal part of the assembly of the saints. The latter two are parallel passages instructing the church what and how to sing. There are some who claim that these are not even talking about the assembly of the church, ignoring the “one another” aspect of the passages. It is fairly clear, though, that Paul is instructing the church about something they are already doing in their congregational assemblies.

Perhaps the paucity of mention of singing or music in the congregational life of the church has opened the door for many traditions. As has been stated in previous articles, this is not always bad. Traditions may be good; they may be bad; or they may just be. Each tradition would have to be closely examined to see if any quality of goodness or badness can or should be assigned to it.

Song Leaders

Because the churches of Christ have a longstanding tradition of congregational singing, we also have a tradition of an individual song or worship leader. This man usually stands in front of the congregation and starts and ends the song. He may sometimes conduct the congregation. With some more sophisticated congregations he may even be able to interpret the song, using tempo and volume variations to good effect.

Sometimes we justify this position, which usually makes a man the second most recognized person in the congregation to a visitor, by quoting Paul’s admonition that all things be done “decently and in order.” (1 Cor 14:40) Never mind that Paul was not even addressing singing in that passage. It is the “principle” that justifies the position.

Worship leaders are merely a tradition. Can we conduct an assembly without such a man? Many congregations do. It is especially common to see, in gatherings of young people assemblies in which the songs are spontaneously selected and started by various people within the group. Although this reduces the chance of coordinated teaching in the music, this is usually a more heartfelt, spirit-filled way of singing.

Why do we, as we get older, tend toward the more traditional, structured way of singing? Possibly it is because the older we get, the lazier we get; let someone else do all the work, and I may choose to sing along. When we substitute a worship band, worship leader, or any other tradition for our own service to God, then the tradition becomes bad, as far as we are concerned; it may continue to be neutral or even good for others.

Soloists, choruses, and four part harmony

The Church of Christ has a longstanding tradition, previously mentioned, of congregational singing. Far be it from anyone to form a chorus or sing a solo in the assembly of such churches. And particularly in America, that tradition includes singing in four part harmony.

Fifty years ago all the hymnals used in the churches of Christ, and many denominations that practiced congregational singing, were written using shape notes. Each tone of the scale had a note of its own shape, so the singer could easily distinguish between a mi and a la. To those who were raised with shape notes, sight reading round notes can even be difficult. But fifty years ago it was not uncommon for people in a number of traditions to be able to sight read music. Unfortunately, many of our young people cannot read music at all.

Some missionaries who have not learned that Christianity is not an American phenomenon have even insisted on teaching four part harmony in cultures where other harmonies or unison singing were the norm. Although to the Western ear four or six part harmony is pleasing, and most a capella group singing is done in those formats, it is a mere tradition. Early church music was unison chanting. The Gregorian chant looked down on music in which a note was followed by one that was not next to it in the scale. The style of music is simply a tradition. If a congregation wants to sing in unison that is a choice. If they are able to sing in complex harmonies, that is a choice. If they want to sing country, rock, reggae, or klezmer styles, that is an option. The scriptures only demand psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. They don’t demand the style or arrangement of those songs.

Many churches today have gotten away from congregational singing, entirely or in part. They use bands, choruses, or soloists to sing praises to God (and sometimes teach one another, assuming the words can be heard and understood). Other traditions insist on purely congregational singing. Either choice is tradition. There is nothing in the three scriptures quoted above that insists that everyone sing at the same time. In fact, one could argue that “speaking to one another” implies that some are silent while others are singing.

Congregational singing is good, because everyone can participate in the worship and teaching. One preacher, however, went to the extreme of saying that even with four part harmony one part could not sing alone, such as is common with the basses echoing other parts. This person was so much against any appearance of solo or chorus singing that he went to another extreme. There is nothing in scripture that would prohibit the occasional chorus or soloist. Since one function of music in the church is teaching, sometimes it might be good for the congregation to listen to what is being taught. After all, we let preachers speak by themselves. It might not be proper to go to the extreme of eliminating congregational singing altogether, because then it tends to become entertainment rather than worship, but it would not be improper to let a limited number sing occasionally.

Musical Instruments

Any time a Church of Christ preacher (or Orthodox or some Baptists) teaches about music in the congregational assembly, the question of musical instruments comes up. There are some today who have never sung in a church without an instrumental accompaniment. There are others who insist there be no instrument used at all, except the human voice. It should be pointed out, however, that the use of musical instruments in church music is only a tradition, and one that was not practiced in the first century church.

For hundreds of years after Jesus’ death, congregations of the church sang a capella. In fact, the musical term means singing “like in church.” The longest standing tradition in regard to music in the church is actually singing with no instrumental accompaniment.

The question to be asked, then, is whether the newer tradition is, in itself, right or wrong. And that is where the disputes begin. Those of the older tradition will argue that the only instrument Paul mentioned was the human body, and to introduce any other form of music would be like Noah choosing to use something other than “gopher wood,” or like King Saul offering the sacrifice himself. Since the instrument to use was specified, the use of any other instrument is necessarily forbidden. Furthermore, many who use instruments have introducedThe scriptures only demand psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, not the style or arrangement of those songs. instrumental solos; and an instrument is incapable of forming words and so is incapable of speaking, teaching, or admonishing. These arguments say that based on the limited evidence available, coupled with the example of almost five centuries of early church history, the introduction of musical instruments is a tradition that is necessarily wrong.

Those of the more recent tradition argue that the scriptures do not specifically forbid instruments, yet they can show no instance in Christ’s church when instruments were authorized. They point out that instruments were used in the Temple worship (although most would not accept other aspects of the Temple worship), ignoring that even the Jewish people do not traditionally use instruments in the synagogue assemblies. Some argue that it enhances the singing. Others, though, argue that it becomes a distraction at best and overpowers the singing at worst. Those who support the use of musical instruments in the worship do so because it is tradition, and traditions are hard to break.

Even something so well established as singing is accompanied by traditions. Some are good; others are questionable. As in all walks of life, traditions are necessary and unavoidable.