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  The Value of Singing in WorshipTuesday, June 18th, 2024  
by Robert J. Young

A recent article by Steven R. Guthrie (Singing, in the Body and in the Spirit, JETS 46:4, 633-646) deserves a careful reading by all, but especially by those who share a Restorationist heritage that has historically affirmed singing as the kind of music God authorized in the worship assemblies of the church. While Guthrie does not overtly disparage the use of instrumental music in worship, he makes a strong case for the value of singing while surveying some of the relevant materials from church history and the text of Ephesians 5. Given the historic position of the non-instrumental churches of Christ for a capella singing and against the inclusion of any music other than vocal music in the worship assembly, the article is worthy of note because of its exaltation of singing as an essential part of God's plan for worship. The purpose of this article is to summarize some of Guthrie's materials and to encourage a wider awareness of the article. Along the way I add some comments drawn from my own Restorationist context. I have not footnoted the specific citations from Guthrie since this article is a summary of his. I have tried to differentiate clearly my comments from his arguments.

Guthrie treats four matters: why sing, reasons not to sing, the context of the command to sing, and the connection between the human spirit and song. What is the value of singing? This question Guthrie raises but does not answer immediately. In most Christian communities, worship is a combination of prayer, Scripture, and song. (I would want to add the regular weekly observance of the Supper to the shared worship experience of the church, but not all Christian religious groups observe the Supper weekly.) In my view, these three activities may be described as speaking to God, hearing God, and connecting with one another, although perhaps many would not want to limit singing in this way. Limiting the concept of song to mutual sharing may be especially uncomfortable in light of the current popularity of praise songs, but one should note that praise to God is not one of the purposes mentioned in the Ephesians 5 or Colossians 3 references to singing (unless in the phrase "to the Lord"). More important is Guthrie's treatment of the question, How is it that music is an appropriate vehicle for the words we share, whether speaking to one another or to God? Why are words set to music more appropriate than spoken words?

Guthrie next considers reasons not to sing as seen through the eyes of various personalities in church history. For example, one finds in Augustine an affirmation of the power of music to touch the soul, and a simultaneous concern with the carnal nature of music. Augustine believed song must support the mind and reason and never allow the subordination of the mind to the emotions which are given to the danger of pleasure. The concerns expressed by this ambivalence have been all but lost in our day. Guthrie notes that in the history of the church, the value of songs is that they teach Scripture and help with memorization. The value is in the words, not the tune. Calvin issued a caution against being more concerned with the melody than to the spiritual meaning of the words. Brunner expressed concern that artistry may take precedence over the words of God--Scripture. Bonhoeffer wrote that singing (hymns) must concentrate attention on the Word, and noted that melodies are not hummed in worship. (An observation obviously no longer valid in many Christian worship assemblies.--by) Music which calls attention to the musical sound more than the words being sung is a distraction. Thus Augustine noted that the singing Christian may be led to sin if the music and experience lead the mind and understanding.

Against this background, Guthrie explores the context of the command to sing, although he limits his study to the context of Ephesians 5. Guthrie concludes that the context demands singing as an antidote to foolishness and sensuality.

Finally, Guthrie explores Paul's connection of singing and sanctification. He affirms that the brief Ephesians 5:19 reference is more than a passing remark. In answer the question, why is song an appropriate response to spirituality, Guthrie notes three possible responses. First, music (singing) allows the Holy Spirit to bring our bodily experience and spiritual sensitivity from the desires of darkness to the realm of light. Second, music allows a release of our senses, reoriented toward God and lifted in song. Third, singing allows a dead, unresponsive physical nature to become spiritually sensitive and animated. Singing expresses responsiveness to God and to other Christians. Thus music shared in worship is a means to unity. Guthrie's description of the power of singing which hears our bodies making sound, resonating in God's space, hearing and attuned to other voices, responding to people and space, sharing and submitting to tempo, melody, rhythm, moving in sympathy with others in community is stirring.

Guthrie concludes that voices singing together allow a new emerging entity--the voice of the church, many parts in one body. Thus singing connects individuals to the life of the church, honoring individuality and contributing to a sense of assimilation. In singing we find true symphony (sounding together). Music is a support for the words of God which communicate God's presence and work among us.

Guthrie's summary is to the point. Music enlists the body in praising God, reorienting and redefining human abilities which were formerly used only for self-gratification. Singing involves sensing and responding to others. The distinctiveness of music offers a powerful image of our shared life. It is not clear that Guthrie intends to indict the use of musical instruments, but his positive affirmation of the value and meaning of song might well cause one to question the value of adding anything musically to the song of the church. I commend a careful study of the article.

©, 2004, Robert J. Young

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