What the Bible Has to Say About Singing, Part 2

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Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. - Colossians 3:16 (NASB)

Colossians 3:16 instructs us about congregational singing in at least 7 ways.

  1. The CAUSE and COROLLARY of our singing is God’s Word

  2. » God’s Word should be the CONTENT of our singing

  3. Singing is a COMMUNITY activity

  4. Singing is a COMMAND

  5. There are a variety of CATEGORIES of congregational songs

  6. The CORE of singing is the heart attitude behind it

  7. The CULMINATION of singing must be God’s glory

God’s Word Should Be the Content of our Singing

"Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”

Singing is one way to allow God's Word to richly dwell within us. While there are non-musical ways to allow God's Word to richly dwell within us such as memorization and meditation, singing is a uniquely powerful mechanism that helps us engage our hearts as we memorize and meditate on lyrics. God's Word can richly dwell within us through singing only if the lyrics we sing contain propositional truth that is in harmony with Scripture. While we are certainly free (and commanded) to praise God with purely instrumental music, there is nothing intrinsic to music that will help us to engage with and focus on the true God. Music can be used to praise any god, including ourselves, but music set to lyrics which are biblical point to the true and living God of Scripture.

This passage also instructs us that our minds are to be engaged with the lyrics as we sing. This stands in contrast to many of the ways in which music is used in our media saturated culture today. Music is often piped into restaurants, elevators, malls, and even bathrooms, and we become trained to "tune it out." What's more, the mixing of many types of music make it almost impossible to understand what's being said (which actually might be beneficial). We need to sing songs full of Scripture and train our people to pay close attention to their lyrics, that they might feed their hearts with what will lead them to respond in true worship. Paul instructs the Corinthians to sing not only with their spirits, but also with their minds: "I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also." (1 Corinthians 14:15)

Colossians 3:16 is not teaching that we can only sing lyrics which are verbatim quotations from Scripture. We'll see in a later article that psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs point to various types of songs, and even in the New Testament we see what appear to be hymns included in some of the Epistles (such as 1 Tim 6:15-16). At the time of the writing of Scripture, writers were far less concerned with verbatim quotations than we are. We see examples of this in how the Apostles use the Old Testament - they often restate passages in their own words to reflect a slightly different application or simply to express the idea in their own unique way. Modern songs can do much the same thing. While it is good to sing so-called "Scripture songs," songs which are, more or less, direct quotations from Scripture, other songs can be full of biblical truth without quoting specific Scripture passages. It is the essence of what we sing that is important, not the specific word order.

While we are to sing songs that are rich with Scripture truth, our lyrics should also be accessible to those singing them. When a congregation gathers, it will typically consist of people from all walks of life, including education and mental capacity. If we were to sing only five stanza hymns with complex grammar and large vocabularies, we would probably be making it more difficult for some to obey the command to allow God's Word to dwell richly within them. Let the whole of Scripture be our guide for how complex or theologically deep our songs should be - the Bible is amazingly varied in its depth. It contains everything from simple, repetitive Psalms to short parables to intensely theological epistles. Let's do everything we can to make sure our people can understand the lyrics we sing, including explaining difficult lines or editing hymns that were written several centuries ago and contain words or phrases that are unclear today.

Next time we’ll explore the fact that singing is to be a community activity.


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Hello, David. I did enjoy reading your posts regarding worship and music. I would like to ask you a question regarding worship with the focus on the make up of a church choir (or praise team as they might be called these days). Now, your posts thus far have led me to come to a conclusion that in order to worship our God, one must be a person that has a heart for God or that has a circumcised heart, a faithful heart and a renewed mind. This person is led by the Holy Spirit to the feet of God to worship with his/her voice. This is verbal expression from what is in our hearts, I would say.

When it comes to a "praise team" or choir, can the make up of such groups include the unregenerate? Those who are not saved and have not repented and confessed Jesus as savior. The reason why I asked this is because in my personal opinion, worship teams and choirs should be made up of those that are holy with pure hearts and renewed minds. Also, I addressed this issue with our choir pastor who insisted that I was wrong to think that. I felt confused and frustrated. I have not changed my mind about the conclusion that I have on this issue. I would really appreciate it if you could address this question that I have.

Thanks for your time and may our God bless you. Aloha.

» Ed on September 26th, 2010


Thanks for taking the time to voice your question. I would agree with you that only believers, that is, those who have been born again and given a new heart that loves God and wants to praise Him, are able to offer true worship. Unbelievers can certainly join in singing the praises of God, which still ultimately glorifies Him as the true God, but their hearts are far from trusting in Jesus. Romans 8:8 tells us "Those who are in the flesh cannot please God." Paul tells us of a time when every knee will bow (Philippains 2:9) – both those redeemed by God and those still in sin. To the believer, it will be a knee bowed in reverence and honor, to the unbeliever it will be a knee bowed in outward submission but inward resentment and hatred.

The question of whether to have those who are not professing Christians join you in worship on some kind of team is not black and white, and I have had several worship or choir directors who have taken different opinions on this decision, in part due to different circumstances and make-ups of their ensembles. Even though an unbeliever may not be capable of true worship, the music that they produce can still glorify God. Think of how the Psalms tell us that the rocks, trees, and hill glorify God, though they are not offering personal worship. To that end, we may use music composed by anyone to worship God, and are free to use performers who are not believers to glorify God. I regularly play with several jazz ensembles which are normally made up of mostly unbelievers.

That being said, I wouldn't use unbelievers as part of my "song team" – in fact, I require church membership for participation. That's because I believe that people who are on stage are leading people not simply by the music that they play, but also by the way they engage with the lyrics and focus on the Lord. We are seeking to communicate the unity that we have in the gospel, and if a member of the team doesn't share that unity, I think it can communicate that musical excellence is more important than enjoying the gospel together. That's also why I won't hire musicians to play for us (at least on a normal basis) from outside of the church even if they are believers. I want to communicate the value of making music as a family as being more important than having a polished presentation.

Would I recommend you allow unbelievers as part of a choir? It depends on several factors. What about hiring an accompanist to simply play the piano for choir rehearsals or presentations? You need to think through these questions pretty deeply, and humbly trust and submit to your leadership, remembering that God will glorify Himself despite our sometimes bad decisions!

For Christ and His church,
» David Ward on September 26th, 2010