Singing has always been a part of my Christian life. Singing in church, singing in choirs, singing in small groups, and carrying a song of praise to the Lord in my heart has been my joy. Singing has brought me peace in times of distress, reminded me of God’s truth, inspired me to be bold, and comforted me when I’ve been sad.
For these reasons, I believe singing is essential to the Christian life and essential in the life of congregational worship. But it is not my desire to merely express another opinion or give philosophical reasons that singing is important. Instead, I would like to expound on what the Scriptures teach about why singing is essential when God’s people gather as a congregation.
When the people of God gather for corporate worship, they have not come to watch a concert, quietly sit and listen to a band, or simply meditate to music and words together. This is not to say that listening to special music or attending a concert cannot edify, should not be a part of a worship service, or not be worshipful. Those are helpful but there are a multitude of commands, exhortations, and encouragements to sing and praise the Lord in vocal participation as a congregation. Bob Kauflin says that the BIble has over four hundred indirect references to singing and at least fifty direct commands to sing. Many of these passages below are from the Psalms – the congregational ‘hymnal’ of the Old Testament exhorting us to worship both corporately and individually through singing.
True worship isn’t about the external music, the ‘act’ of singing, frequency of singing, or number of songs on Sundays. Also, singing is not exercised because of “tradition,” “habit,” or merely “to include a song” in order to say we’ve worshipped God.
True worship through singing comes from the Holy Spirit’s work in one’s heart. Ephesians 5:18-19 is key to our understanding of where worship emanates: “And do not get drunk with wine, in which there is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your hearts to the Lord.”
True worship supernaturally emanates from the heart (v. 19) of a Spirit-filled life, which connects back to a life of walking in obedience to Christ (v. 18). In other words, v. 19 is a result of v. 18. A Spirit-filled Christian has a praise-filled heart toward the Lord. When we congregate, the manifestation of a Holy Spirit filled obedient Christian is “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your hearts to the Lord.”
John MacArthur says it this way:
“The Spirit-filled life produces music. Whether he has a good voice or cannot carry a tune, the Spirit-filled Christian is a singing Christian. Nothing is more indicative of a fulfilled life, a contented soul, and a happy heart than the expression of song.”
Colossians 3:16-17 reminds us:
“Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.”
This is a parallel passage to Ephesians 5:19. One of the responses to the Word of God is “teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
When the word of the Lord is proclaimed, and our hearts are touched, the Holy Spirit works within our hearts to respond in singing and praise with thanksgiving to God.
Ephesians 5:19, “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your hearts to the Lord”
Colossians 3:16b, “admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
The speaking and admonishing of one another is through the act of singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to one another.
The context of these verses is important. These letters are addressed to congregations and the command is for all believers – not just those who have musical gifts or specific individuals such as soloists. To say that congregational singing is never commanded to congregations would be to overlook these passages and our personal responsibility of ministering to one another in the Biblical context of the gathered congregation. Like many of the “one another’s” (e.g. love one another, encourage one another, teach one another, etc…) of the New Testament, we cannot simply ignore their practice for a period of time. The one another’s are commands to be obeyed as the Lord brings opportunity – and congregational gatherings are for that opportunity.
Jesus Himself Sings with Us in Congregational Praise
The writer of Hebrews records Jesus’s expression of singing incongregational praise:
“For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for this reason He is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, ‘I will proclaim Your name to My brothers, In the midst of the assembly I will sing Your praise.”
About this passage, F.F. Bruce writes, “The first quotation (Ps. 22:22 [LXX 21:23]) is taken from a psalm in which no Christian of the first century would have failed to recognize Christ as the speaker” (Bruce, Hebrews, 82).