Three basic ingredients for biblical church music
Written by Ben Pakula
Singing in the New Testament
As far as I can tell, there are two places in the New Testament where corporate Christian singing is specifically addressed.
The first is Ephesians 5:19-20:
"Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."
The second is Colossians 3:16-17:
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him."
On the basis of these two lessons, there are some obvious (though often overlooked) implications for Christian singing.
1. Faithful Teaching
It is plain that as Christians gather together and sing, we are to be teaching one another. Whilst our singing should be more than teaching, it should certainly never be less.
Evangelicals rightly give a high priority to clear and faithful teaching from God’s Word. All scripture is inspired by God, and therefore our usual practice is to preach through books of the Bible, verse-by-verse and chapter-by-chapter. This ensures that the preacher doesn’t simply deliver a message on a few of his favourite things. Rather, he is bound to teach on the full counsel of God, no matter how unpalatable this may be for his hearers (as well as himself!). A good church will therefore encourage its members to weigh up what is taught, by the measure of scripture alone. Yet it is self-evidently true, that what is sung is almost always more memorable than what is preached. The obvious implication is that we should be even more deliberate and vigorous in our critique of the lyrical content of Christian songs, than we are of the sermons we hear. ‘Poetic license’ is granted of course, but this should not serve as an excuse to allow potentially false teaching to be circulated amongst God’s redeemed. A good Christian songwriter will be able to write poetic and emotive songs, without allowing doubt as to their Biblical consonance.
2. Christ-Centred lyrics
Both passages above emphasise the ‘Christo-centric’ nature of corporate singing. In Colossians, it is the “word of Christ” that is to “dwell in [us] richly” as we sing. Arguably, the “word of Christ” is synonymous with “word of truth”, in Paul’s letter to the Colossian church. In both cases, it is the word that emphasises the supremacy of Jesus over all other things (cf. Col 1:15-23, 28). In the Ephesians passage, context indicates that the corporate singing/speaking is apparently a means of being “filled with the Spirit”, which parallels with “understanding what [Christ’s] will is” (v. 17).
Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs then, should by-and-large have some mention of the person and/or work of Jesus. This doesn’t mean that every song needs to include the word “Jesus”. The Psalms, for instance, don’t include the word “Jesus”, yet ultimately all Psalms are about him (cf. Lk 24:25-27, 44-47, Jn 5:39). The New Testament shows that Jesus can rightly be called “LORD” (that is, “Yahweh”), and therefore songs about the triune God, are songs about Jesus. As a good rule of thumb, ask the question: “Could a modern-day Jew happily sing this song?” If more often than not, the answer is “yes”, then something is awry.
Note that in both passages, there is a great emphasis on “giving thanks” to God the Father (through Jesus Christ). Being thankful to God is a great antidote to our tendency to focus on our own achievements and merits.
It may well be, that an extremely godly person might be comfortable exclaiming that “in all I do, I honour you”. An impossibly mature saint may well declare: “everyday, it’s you I live for”. But even in such rare cases, the scriptures make it blatantly obvious that it is only by the gracious provision of God, that anyone stands (and continues) justified before him. Even the most dutiful worker is merely an unworthy servant. I often hear people defending tall claims in Christian songs by insisting “it’s expressing a desire”. I’d much rather be expressing thanks.
About the author: Ben Pakula is a Christian (with a Jewish background) who seeks to teach deep theological truths from the Bible to kids using heavy rock music. Check out some sample tracks here.