Congregational Singing: Source and Participants
Series: Come, Let Us Sing
As we continue the series on congregational singing, we look here at the source of it, who sings, and to whom our singing is addressed.
Ephesians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), Frank Thielman
This morning we’re on part 2 of our series of sermons on congregational singing, and I mentioned last week that singing together is something so common to Christian gatherings that we can sometimes miss just how weird it is. In what other contexts, after all, do people who are not professional musicians, just get together and sing? A few weeks back I mentioned sporting events as one answer; bars might be another. There are even bars that employ musicians to play while patrons sing along. There is a certain source of the singing in either case: Enthusiasm for the team in the case of sporting events, or in the case of the bar, perhaps the alcohol lowering inhibitions. In the passage on which we’re focusing today, we’re going to see that the source of Christian congregational singing is different, though. It comes from a certain fullness, given by the Spirit of God himself, that overflows in song, or what I’ll call Spiritual singing, where Spiritual just means, “singing that comes from the Spirit of God.” Last week we looked at the “why?” and “what?” of singing: Why do we sing, and what should we sing? This week we’re considering, “What’s the source of our singing?” and along the way we’ll hit some other questions like “Who should sing?” “To whom should we sing?” and “What do the lives of those who sing look like?” So sing out of the fullness the Spirit brings, and this passage will show us the source of Spiritual singing, the act of Spiritual singing, and the lives of Spiritual singers.
The source of Spiritual singing
Our passage begins in verse 18 with a prohibition: Do not get drunk with wine. That’s maybe not the command you were expecting to hear in a sermon on singing, but there it is. That’s in part because this passage’s teaching about singing is embedded in a section of Ephesians where Paul’s broader concern is to paint a picture for us of how we are to live as those who have been saved by grace. He uses various images: He says at one time we were darkness, but now we are light in the Lord (5:8). He says we should walk not as unwise, but as wise. He says we should make the best use of our time, because the days are evil. Drunkenness is contrary to all these things. It’s characteristic of those who are in darkness, not those who have been brought into the light. Throughout the Bible drunkenness is closely associated with folly, and the association is still fairly obvious. In verse 18, it is even called debauchery, which refers to a certain looseness or wastefulness, the opposite of making the best use of the time. It wastes alcohol itself, it wastes the time the Lord has given us on this earth, and we even call those who do it “wasted”. Engaging in it suggests my life has no greater purpose in these hours.
The Bible does not absolutely prohibit alcohol. To the contrary, it explicitly says that God gave wine to gladden the heart of man (Psalm 104:15), that everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving (1 Tim 4:4). But it does prohibit drunkenness, and no, that doesn’t just mean it prohibits 10 beers in a night, public urination, and vomiting. Drunkenness would simply refer to a level of impairment, where, as the contrast in the verse with the Spirit suggests, you are more under the influence of alcohol than the influence of God’s Spirit. Ironically, in my years of living and pastoring in Philadelphia, a city in which alcohol is a major part of social life in general, I’ve found the Christians with the hardest time obeying this command are those with more conservative backgrounds. Now that they’re out from under the parents’ authority, they think they’re exercising their “freedom in Christ” by getting drunk and calling it a buzz. But neither your parents, your small town, or your Christian school inspired the words of Ephesians 5:18; God did, and they are clear: Do not get drunk.
Another reason this command may appear in this context, though, is because drunkenness was part of pagan worship in the ancient world, most notably in the worship of the Greek god Dionysus, sometimes called Bacchus by the Romans. Maybe you think that seems like a strange way to worship, but when you consider how often attending the significant festivals of our culture, such as a live sporting event, a concert, or a wedding is accompanied by drunkenness among the attendees, it’s easier to envision. Our flesh hates being boxed in, it resists being constrained to some purpose beyond its own gratification, and so it “feels good” on some fleshly level to cast off restraint and “let loose”. It is “fun” to do so, but it is a shallow, fleeting sort of fun. The songs sung are often relatively meaningless, and the “fellowship” enjoyed among the singers is typically superficial and momentary. Drunkenness is not an overflow of fullness, but more of a compensation for emptiness, and when the alcohol wears off, the emptiness reasserts itself.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” There is a real fullness available to us, that produces a better kind of singing than what alcohol could produce at the ancient Dionysian festivals or in the modern day bar, and it’s in the second half of the verse: Do not get drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit, and really the better translation there would be “be filled by the Spirit”. Now here’s the downside of preaching from Ephesians 5:18 on a Sunday when you have not preached on Ephesians 1-5:17 on the Sundays prior. When the original audience read Ephesians 5:18, they had a lot of context for the concepts of filling and the Spirit that we don’t, so I’m going to do my best to summarize that context.
In the passage from Ephesians 1 that I read earlier as our assurance of pardon, we saw that God has lavished his grace upon us, in all wisdom and insight, making known to us the mystery of his will, which is his plan to unite all things in Christ. So wisdom in Ephesians is knowledge of God’s will, God’s plan, to unite all things in Christ. Later in chapter 1, Paul prays that God would give us the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of God. So in Ephesians, the aspect of the Spirit’s ongoing work that Paul has emphasized is the way he gives us wisdom, knowledge of God’s plan to unite all things in Christ. Then, in chapter 3, Paul says that wisdom is made visible in the church (Eph 3:10), for it is the community in which we see people who were divided in the world united in Christ. Then, at the end of chapter 3, Paul prays that we would have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that we may be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph 3:18-19).
To summarize, then: To be filled by the Spirit in Ephesians 5:18 means the Spirit fills you with a sense of the love of Christ for you, but not only for you, for it is a love you comprehend with all the saints, and a love made visible in the church, the communion of saints, a love that is part of his plan to unite all things in Christ. In a word, we could say the Spirit fills you with the gospel, in which is revealed God’s love for you, and God’s plan to reconcile not only you individually to himself, but people from every tribe and language and people and nation to himself and to one another, to create a whole new humanity in Christ, a humanity now visible in local churches, and a humanity which will one day be part of God’s plan to unite all things in Christ. This idea that the thing with which the Spirit fills us is the gospel is further confirmed by a parallel passage in Colossians 3:16-17, the wording of which is very similar to our passage, and to which I’ll refer throughout the sermon. In Colossians 3:16, the beginning of that passage, the command is not to be filled with the Spirit, but to “let the word of Christ dwell richly in you.” What’s something dwelling richly in you sound like? Filling you. The Spirit fills you with the word of Christ, the gospel.
And that fills you with the very fullness of God, a fullness alcohol simply cannot produce. When I’ve spoken on this passage in the past, I’ve said something like, “You should be full of the Spirit, not full of wine,” but the text doesn’t say that. The text contrasts drunkenness with fullness, not fullness with fullness, because wine can’t fill you! It can just make you drunk! The Spirit, on the other hand, can fill you with all the fullness of God, and that produces a singing far deeper, far more glorious, than the cheap and fleeting songs of the bar.
So if you find your desire to sing in church is lacking, from what source are you drinking? You can’t expect to give your week to the lesser joys that C.S. Lewis summarized as drink, sex, and ambition, then come to church on Sunday and expect how great thou art to flow out of you. But drink deeply of the love of Christ as it is revealed in the gospel, consider the cosmic purpose of God to unite all things in Christ and how the visible church reveals it, and verse 19 says psalms, hymns, and spiritual song is what will come out of you. So let’s talk next about the act of Spiritual singing.
The act of Spiritual singing
The first thing we can notice about singing in verse 19 is who is doing it, and to whom it is directed. It is perhaps obvious to you that verse 19 expects all the recipients of this letter to sing. In the set of verses after this one, Paul will address wives, then husbands, children, then parents, servants, then masters. In those each of those passages, he narrows his instruction to certain groups within the church (wives, husbands, children, etc.). He does no such thing here. The letter to the Ephesians is addressed to Christians in Ephesus (1:1), here we see it is something we are commanded to do toward one another, not simply one group within the church toward another, and so here, the singing is expected of all Christians. And again, maybe that’s obvious to you, but it’s not been obvious throughout history.
In the Old Testament, we read of David commanding the chiefs of the Levites to appoint their brothers as singers (1 Chr 15:16). In the time of the temple, “it was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the LORD” (2 Chr 5:13; cf. 1 Chr 9:33). This was part and parcel of the Old Testament system of worship, which included a priestly class uniquely set aside to serve the LORD at the temple (e.g., 2 Chr 31:2, 35:2, 35:10; Ezra 6:18). Under the New Testament, however, all God’s people are priests who offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Pet 2:5), not least of which is proclaiming his excellencies (1 Pet 2:9, cf. Heb 13:15). Accordingly, we do not find a New Testament office of singer. As all God’s people are priests under the New Covenant, so all God’s people are singers under the New Covenant. Nonetheless, there are traditions in some professing Christian churches where an individual or group is set aside to do the singing, whether that be a cantor or a choir. In a different way, contemporary worship often tends toward the same error. In much of what is called contemporary worship music, effort is made to emulate the music of pop culture, which is music produced primarily to be consumed, not to be joined in with, and so people tend to view the band on stage as the one doing the singing, while the congregation merely listens to it, or perhaps “sings along” like fans at a concert.
That is not what we are trying to do here. We do have musicians on stage, but their job is not to do the singing for us. Their job is to help us all sing together. When you sing “Happy Birthday” to someone at a birthday party, there is usually no sense that someone is really singing it, while the rest just sing along. There is, rather, a sense that we are all singing it together. That’s what congregational singing should be like. So if you’re a member of this church, you’re in the worship band, and every Sunday at 10, we are scheduled to address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. On that note, can I say something briefly about clapping? I’m not talking about clapping during a song; if that helps you sing, more power to you. I’m talking about the way we sometimes clap after a song in our services here. I gotta tell you, I’ve never been in a church before where that was normal. Dave tells me it was normal in every church he’s been in, so maybe I’m the weird one, but let me just say this about it: If you are clapping because that’s simply a natural way for you to express gratitude to God for the way he ministered to you through a song, feel free to do so. But if you are clapping to applaud the band for their performance, the ways fands do at a concert, can I encourage you to reconsider that? I’d encourage you to reconsider it not because the band isn’t great, but because you are part of the band! I’ve never seen a band play a song, finish it, and then clap for themselves; neither should we. But again, if that’s simply a natural way for you to express gratitude to God for the way he ministered to you through a song, feel free to do so, and if you see others doing so, let’s all assume that’s why.
Another implication of the fact that singing is something God intends for all Christians to do together is that we should sing songs that form us together as a church and help the whole to church to sing. Therefore, there may be songs that are very pleasurable to listen to, and perhaps even spiritually edifying, but that just don’t work as well for 100 people to sing together. We’re going to choose those songs that are more conducive to 100 people singing together. We also want to bear in mind that local churches are designed by God to make visible the wisdom of God’s plan to unite all things in Christ across time and space. There are limits to that on this side of Jesus’ return, of course: The church throughout time and space is made up of people from every tongue, but we can’t sing together if we are all singing in different languages, and are in fact forbidden in scripture to use languages unknown to the hearers in worship gatherings (1 Cor 14:6-28), so we sing our songs in English. Nonetheless, to make the unity of the church across the lines that tend to divide the world, when we as elders at Citylight Center City choose songs for us to sing and consider how we sing them, we are striving for diversity in three ways: generationally, culturally, and educationally. That means we want to sing songs that sound old, and songs that sound new. We want to sing songs that are accessible for the different cultures we hope to be present in this local church. And, we want to sing songs that are more readily understood by people at different reading levels, without sacrificing ascription of glory to God, which we saw last week, or the essential teaching function of singing, which includes teaching us words and concepts we don’t already know. I’ll talk about that more in just a moment.
So all Christians should sing, but then notice to whom we are to sing. Verse 19 says we address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Wouldn’t you have expected that to say, addressing the Lord in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs? Indeed, in the second part of verse 19, we see that we are to make melody with our hearts to the Lord, and we saw last week the call to sing is to sing to the LORD. But here we see there is another audience to our singing as well: One another.
Why is that? Well, think about it: If the Spirit is filling you with a sense of God’s plan to unite all things in Christ, and that plan is made visible in visible churches, you’re going to want to build up the visible church of which you are a member! If the Spirit is filling you with a sense of the love of Christ for you, and that love is comprehended with all the saints, you’re going to want to love the saints! And the way you’ll do that is by speaking the truth in love to one another, as Ephesians 4:15 puts it, so that the whole body grows to maturity, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (4:13)! Yet when the Spirit fills you, there is a sense that the truth of the gospel is so great, it cannot simply be spoken: It must be sung! Not only that, but singing tends to enhance our teaching. Our parallel passage, Colossians 3:16, perhaps makes this even clearer when it says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” We address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs because singing is one of the most effective forms of teaching. When you sing anything regularly, its lyrics get programmed into your mind.
Let’s consider a few implications of this. One simple one to just note again is that we must gather to address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. I can sing aloud to God in the privacy of my home, but I can’t address anyone else if I’m not with anyone else. Norton Hall Band can address me in a sense as I sing along with a recorded version of one of their hymns on Spotify, but I’m not addressing them. When you don’t feel like coming to church, consider that you have a responsibility to address the other members of your particular church in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Your voice matters! When I know God hasn’t yet given Karen the house she’s been praying for, but I see and hear her in church singing, “whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well with my soul,” she’s teaching me in a way that’s different from how I’d learn that by just reading it on a screen. I need that, you need that, and that means we need to be here for one another, to address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
Another implication regards lighting, instrumentation, and amplification. If one of our goals in singing is to address one another, it typically helps if we can see one another. So we don’t turn the lights way down here and spotlight the stage, as though we are here to watch or listen to what’s happening up there. The musicians on stage and the rest of us are all part of the same congregation addressing one another, so we all want to be able to see one another. Sometimes background music can help us address one another, but I was at a wedding reception recently where the music was so loud I had to yell to catch up with some old friends. Why? The goal of the reception wasn’t to facilitate conversation; it was to get people dancing. But if one of our goals in congregational singing is to address one another, we want the instrumentation and even amplification of singers to be quiet enough that we can really hear one another singing. As we’ve discussed this goal over the years, our musicians and audio techs have said that’s hard to do with a full drum set, especially with the acoustics of this room. So we are planning to experiment more with other percussion options than a full drum set, and we do hope one day to gather for worship in a room that is more conducive to singing together than this room.
In other words, the musicians and audio techs are working hard to make sure we can hear one another sing, since one of the goals of our singing is to address one another. But that’s not entirely, or even primarily, their responsibility. When I was at the wedding reception with the loud music, though I had to yell to be heard, I was willing to yell to be heard, because I wanted to talk to my friend! Will you love one another enough to be willing to yell if that’s what it takes to be heard? If you want to address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, sing louder so that others can hear you! Maybe you’re self-conscious about your singing abilities; that’s where you need to be filled by the Spirit. If the Spirit is really filling you with a sense of the love of Christ for you and your place in his plan to unite all things in Christ, you just don’t need to care as much how other people think you sound, or how you even think you sound. We sing a capella at elders’ meetings, and I can tell you that the musicality is not great, but it’s still an encouragement to my soul. In our services we do give a microphone to those who do it better to help the rest of us, but if the words of the song are worth singing, if they would really build up your brothers and sisters to hear, sing them loud enough for your brothers and sisters to hear you singing them. The main instrument we ought to be able to hear in congregational singing is the voice of God’s people.
The fact that we are addressing one another in song in hope of teaching one another also has significant implications for the songs we choose to sing. Here they are described as psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. The Greek words for psalms, hymns, and songs are roughly interchangeable, and are all used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament as titles for the biblical Psalms. As a result of this, there are some churches that have taught we should sing only Psalms. However, the word “spiritual” also appears before “songs” in this verse, which does not appear in the Psalms, and suggests that now that God’s Spirit has been poured out with the death and resurrection of Christ having occurred, we should sing new songs that celebrate the work of Christ, which the Psalms only foreshadowed. Nonetheless, if you’re tempted to scoff at churches that think we should only sing Psalms, don’t be. The insight in what they are saying is that our songs should flow from the word of Christ. Remember our Colossians 3:16 parallel: It’s as the word of Christ dwells richly in us that we are to sing. It’s the truth we want to speak to one another to build one another up. When we gather for worship, we should not only read the Bible and preach the Bible; we should sing the Bible. And just as with preaching, where we use words that aren’t in the Bible, but should flow from the Bible, so in our songs, we often use words that aren’t in the Bible, but should flow from it.
So, much like last week, our litmus test for what makes a good song to sing in congregational worship is not, “Is it free of heresy?” but rather, “Does it best teach us the word of Christ?” Or, here are some other ways of asking it: Do we want to program these lyrics into one another’s minds? If they were to be programmed into our minds, would they tend to make us more like Christ, or less like him? If we took the music out of the song and just read the lyrics, are they the kinds of things we’d want to say to one another? Would they help our maturity? Those are the questions we as elders are asking when we choose songs for us to sing in church. Chad Van Dixhoorn, professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, once told me that if he had a choice between choosing a church’s confession of faith or its hymnal, he would choose the hymnal, because that is the thing that will more profoundly shape the thinking of the average church member. I’m guessing most of you haven’t memorized our Statement of Faith, but you probably know all the words to at least some of the songs we sing. So, we’d better be intentional about what those words are. This emphasis on addressing one another also explains why many songs are addressed to one another, rather than directly to God. “How Firm a Foundation” is a classic example of this, in which the opening line says, “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent word.” The address is to “ye saints of the Lord.”
And, finally, notice in verse 19 the spirit in which this singing is done when you are filled with the Spirit. It’s described as “making melody to the Lord with your heart.” Here our hearts are almost depicted as instruments: Our singing is to be accompanied by the instrument of our hearts, which are lifted up to the Lord in praise. And when that happens, it not only produces a certain kind of singing, but a certain way of living. So let’s close by looking at the lives of Spiritual singers.
The lives of Spiritual singers
These people who have been filled by the Spirit live in the way described in verses 20 and 21. First, they give thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Worship is not just something we do when we gather. We sing when we gather, but we worship, we give thanks to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, always and for everything. Our singing together, in which we also do often give thanks to God, as we saw last week, is a formational habit, that is meant to form us into people who give thanks to God always and for everything. Most directly, this expresses itself in prayers of thanksgiving, but you can also think of the whole of our Christian lives, the way we live, as an act of thanksgiving to God for his mercies to us in Christ. Rather than living for God to earn his love, we learn in the gospel of his love for us, and as the Spirit fills us with that, as we sing to one another about it, it produces in us a thankfulness that we then express to God by way of living for his glory in every area of life. It’s easy to be miserable; we are fallen people living in a fallen world. But when the Spirit fills you with a sense of the love of Christ and his purposes, when you make it a habit to address one another in song about those very things, it has the potential to life you to a life of thanksgiving always and for everything.
And, finally, those who are filled with the Spirit submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. They sing to one another, and they submit to one another. That’s one of the big differences between the bar song and the church song. When you sing with the group at the bar, there’s no sense in which you all are committed to loving one another. You enjoy a moment together, then go your separate ways. But when you address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in the church, you are addressing those with whom you’ve been made a family, to whom you’ve been reconciled in Christ, those with whom you are meant to comprehend the breadth, and length, and height, and depth of the love of Christ. When the Spirit fills you with a sense that such is God’s great purpose, getting the upper hand over one another becomes totally undesirable. The goal becomes submitting myself, my private interests, to the true good of the other. I become eager to take on the position of a servant to build up my brothers and sisters in Christ. Such a posture is not only a result of Spiritual singing, it is a help to it amid the various preferences each of us may have about what or how we sing in church. Consider these words from theologian John Frame: “How do we love one another and defer to one another in the selection of our church music? First, we must constantly search our hearts for evidence of selfishness. Are we seeking to have it our own way or to serve our brothers and sisters? Forsaking selfishness means seeking to honor the preferences of others as much as we can. Yes, we must also consider questions of quality and appropriateness…But we should be aware of our tendency to confuse those questions with questions of taste. And we should resolve that if anyone in the church is to be offended over a matter of taste, it should be us rather than someone else.” May we all submit to one another with such an attitude.
There is a kind of submission to others that springs from a sense of inferiority, or fear of others. Our world recognizes the problems with that, and so tells us to assert ourselves, and to never assume the position of submission. But the ending of our text shows us a better way. It says we submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, and the word there is more literally “fear of Christ.” The idea is that if you are filled by God’s Spirit, you are already a servant of Christ! You are already in a position of joyful fear with respect to him. You’ve learned that we all serve something or someone, we all fear something or someone, and the one service that is truly freeing is the service of Christ, the one fear that truly brings joy is the fear of Christ. After all, he is the Lord who came not to be served, but to serve. He is the husband who loved his wife, the church, and gave himself up for her, and his love for us is so perfect, so complete, so unshakeable, that we need not fear submitting to him. He died and rose again to take a humanity divided against one another and against God, and make in himself one new humanity, united in him to one another and to God. Come to him, and his Spirit will fill you with his love for you and with a vision of his glorious plan, and that will produce in you singing to one another, lives of thankfulness to God, and a willing submission to one another, not out of inferiority, but out of submission to Christ.