A Biblical Theology of Singing

(Speical thanks to Everett Ferguson’s The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today)

D. L. DeBord, M.Div

What does a life look like when it is filled with God? It overflows with Godliness. We sing praises to God because we are filled to overflowing with his word and thankfulness to him. Our text in Ephesians 5:18-19 instructs us in this way.

Worldly pleasures are to be emptied from our souls. “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery” (Ephesians 5:18). Drunkenness is no way to approach God’s holiness. Being filled with the world, we will never be filled with the Word.

Instead, we are to be filled with spiritual truth and spiritual joy. “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:18-21).


We are so familiar with singing and most grew up singing in church that we forget to ask this question. As we examine singing we see that is closely related to prayer (1 Corinthians 14:15; James 5:13). Like prayer, our singing is done “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16-17). That means that it is with reference to him, for his worship, and done by his authority.

We are told when and how to sing praises to God. There are times to sing alone (James 5:13). However, we are also commanded to sing together as the church body. The commands in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 can only be fulfilled in the church assembly. The singing is for the edification of the entire church body and the praise of God.


We can and must look to the Bible to see what Biblical worship in song is like. When we follow God’s plan for worship we can be certain that it is pleasing to Him and beneficial to his people. Why would we want to do anything other than follow God’s perfect pattern?

Singing is a way of preaching. God’s work in Christ is the foundation and content of our songs. Early Christian hymns have been identified in the Scriptures—Philippians 2:6-11 and 1 Timothy 3:16 for example. These ancient songs teach sound theology and praise simultaneously as they are/were used by Christians.

Singing is a confession of faith. Hebrews 13:15, “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is the fruit of our lips that acknowledge his name.” The word translated “acknowledge” or “confess” is related to the concept of praise. Singing is a way of acknowledging God—praising and confessing faith in him. Second Samuel 22:50 is quoted in Romans 15:9, “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.”

Singing is an expression of relationship with God. Our main texts associate our singing with being filled with Christ and with his Spirit—Colossians 3:16 & Ephesians 5:19.

Singing is a spiritual sacrifice. Hebrews 13:15, “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” The Old Testament had presented thanksgiving as accompanying sacrifice (Psalm 26:6, I wash my hands in innocence and go around your altar, O LORD, proclaiming thanksgiving aloud, and telling all your wondrous deeds.”; Psalm 141:2, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice”) and a substitute for sacrifice—Psalm 50:14, 23, “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High” & “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God.”

Our Singing shares in heavenly praise. The heavenly beings are in constant praise to God (Revelation 4:8, 10-11, 5:8-12; 14:2-3; 15:2-3). In this special ways the barriers between Heaven and earth are removed as we worship God together.

Our singing is for mutual edification. Singing is not only directed toward God but also for those around. Ephesians 5:19 reminds us to “speak to one another.” 1 Corinthians 14:26 enjoins the singing be in the corporate assembly be for edification as well.

Our singing is a concrete expression of church unity. Romans 15:6 instructs us “Together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The harmony of the Christian hymn is the goal of the Christian church. 


The August 2008 issue of Christianity Today has a nice summary of the introduction of instrumental music into worship.

Though we know that early Christians sang during worship, they probably used no instruments. Nearly all of the backgrounds from which early Christians came-Jewish, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and more-had instrumental traditions, but these traditions carried negative associations. Most church fathers saw the use of instruments in Jewish worship as a “childish” weakness, less glorifying to God than words of praise. In pagan worship, instrumental music and debauchery were often linked, as this fourth-century manuscript suggests:

“[I]n blowing on the tibia [pipes] they puff out their cheeks … they lead obscene songs … they raise a great din with the clapping of acapella [a type of foot percussion]; under the influence of which a multitude of other lascivious souls abandon themselves to bizarre movements of the body” (The Story of Christian Music, p. 28).

Unaccompanied vocal music continued to be the norm in Christian worship for centuries. Then, in about the 10th or 12th century, Western Christians began to use the organ in the liturgy. (The organ had been used in processions and possibly as a call to worship centuries earlier, but it seems to have made its way only slowly into the actual liturgy.) By the 15th century, organ music was widely accepted in the Roman Catholic West, though it never caught on the Orthodox East. The Coptic and Ethiopian churches, by contrast, have their own musical traditions, which make use of ancient percussion instruments.

The Reformation kicked off large-scale worship wars. When the major western traditions picked their positions, they looked broadly like this: Catholics retained instrumental and organ music performed only by musicians (the congregation was not invited to sing along, and members couldn’t have followed the complex music anyway), Calvinists opted for unaccompanied congregational psalm-singing, and Lutherans adopted a mix of instrumental and vocal music, some of which was performed by musicians and some of which was sung by the congregation.

A few western churches, such as the Churches of Christ, still eschew the use of instruments in worship. These churches tend to employ primitivist arguments: because there’s nothing in the New Testament about instruments, and because the early church almost certainly didn’t use instruments, we shouldn’t either. Churches that do use instruments tend to find support in the Old Testament and to argue that while the New Testament says nothing positive about instruments, it says nothing negative either.

Reformed Presbyterians have also argued against instrumental music.

(1) the basic Protestant principle that the written word of God is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. It is also to assume (2) the special application of this general principle in what is commonly called the regulative principle of worship, which has never been stated more clearly than in the Westminster Confession of Faith. “The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men . . . or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.” (XXI.i) (http://www.westminsterconfession.org/worship/instrumental-music-in-worship-commanded-or-not-commanded.php)


            In New Testament times, believers understood the temporary role of instrumental music in worship from the start. The Apostles gave no command to either Jew or Gentile to include it in the worship of the early church.  Early Christians argued against the use of instruments in Biblical worship. “The one instrument of peace, the Word alone by which we honour God, is what we employ. We no longer employ the ancient psaltery, and trumpet, and timbrel, and flute, which those expert in war and contemners of the fear of God were wont to make use of also in the choruses at their festive assemblies; that by such strains they might raise their dejected minds.”  (Clement of Alexandria, 190 AD)

The 4th-century church father John Chrysostom stated in his Homily on Psalm 149, “It was only permitted to the Jews as sacrifice was, for the heaviness and grossness of their souls. God condescended to their weakness, because they were lately drawn off from idols; but now, instead of organs, we may use our own bodies to praise him withal….Instruments appertain not to Christians.”  The unwavering testimony of Christians for several hundred years after the ascension of Christ was decidedly against using any instruments in public worship.

            Historians have noted that instruments didn’t appear in Christian worship until the Dark Ages, when in the 7th century Pope Vitalian introduced organs to Western European churches.  Even then it was controversial, and it wasn’t until A.D. 1200 that instrumental use in worship became more widespread. 19th Century theologian John Girardeau points out, “In spite of this opposition, the organ, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, steadily made its way towards universal triumph in the Romish church. Then came the Reformation; and the question arises, How did the Reformers deal with instrumental music in the church? Did they teach that the Reformation ought to embrace the expulsion of that kind of music from its services?”

From the volume and clarity of their writings, Reformers such as John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Knox all denounced instrumental music in worship as an idolatrous return to the shadowy Old Testament form of worship.

            In his commentary on the 33rd Psalm, Calvin states, “But when they frequent their sacred assemblies, musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting up of lamps, and the restoration of the other shadows of the law. The Papists, therefore, have foolishly borrowed this, as well as many other things, from the Jews.”  Though Huldrych Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer, was an accomplished musician in his own right, he agreed with Calvin that instruments were not approved by God in public worship.

            Instruments were not only prohibited from use in public worship in Switzerland, but the French and Dutch Reformed Churches were decidedly against the use of instrumental worship as well.  In Scotland, instruments were banned from public worship, and to this day several Presbyterian and Reformed denominations there still worship without any instrumental music.  In England, non-prelatic Independents and Presbyterians opposed the use of instruments in worship.  Later, the great 19th Century Minister, Charles Spurgeon, echoed the thoughts of his puritan forefathers against instrumental music when he was reported as saying, “I would as soon pray to God with machinery as to sing to God with machinery.”

            When Scottish and English Puritans came to America, they continued their practice of non-instrumental worship, a tradition some denominations, such as the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, along with the Presbyterian Reformed Church continue to practice.


Musical instruments appear in the New Testament as a part of everyday life (Matt. 9:23; 11:17; Rev. 18:22) and as illustrations (1 Cor. 13:1; 14:7-8). However, they are never mentioned as part of the assemblies of the church or accompanying Christian music. Their only appearance is in the book of Revelation as a symbol of something else—the praise in the Heavenly Temple.

The arguments for having instrumental music in Christian worship fail. Some say we should or could have instruments today because they were used in the Old Testament temple worship (1 Chronicles 23:5; 2 Chronicles 29:20-36). However, the abolition of the Old Testament by the New Testament has done away with its religious rituals (Hebrew 8-9:1).

Some argue that musical instruments are included in the word “psalm” and “make melody.” However, those terms were used in the past we know that in the days the New Testament was written they were used exclusively of the acapella worship of the Christian church. Either way you see the word’s definition, the only instrument that is authorized is that of the Christian heart.

Some argue that acapella music was simply a cultural matter due to its association with idolatry and immorality. This is lacking in proof and in fact the opposite is true. The Jews were familiar with instruments in the temple worship and pagans were familiar with instrumental music in their idol worship, but the Christians abstained from its use.

Some argue that instruments are simply an aid to the singing. However, that is not how they were used in the Old Testament. The instruments were an actual part of the worship toward God and not simply an aid. The same is true today. Those who offer instrumental music in worship do it for worship and without Biblical authority.


            The Second Commandment declares how God is to be worshiped.  Forbidding the use of any images of God in worship, it also forbids the use of any other inventions of man not expressly commanded by God; all other options are forbidden. “But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 21:1)

            In addition to the Second Commandment, there are many other references in Scriptures to unacceptable worship before the Lord. Two examples should suffice. First, in Lev. 10:1-2 Nadab and Abihu offered “strange” fire before the Lord, “which he commanded them not.”  They were commanded to use fire from the coals of the altar, but they offered fire from another unauthorized source, incurring the wrath of God for neglecting His express command. (see also Lev. 16:12-13)

            Second, in 1 Sam. 13:14 the kingdom was stripped from Saul when he violated God’s commands regarding worship. He took it upon himself to offer sacrifices rather than wait for the prophet Samuel to offer them as the Lord commanded. “But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the LORD hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the LORD hath commanded him to be captain over his people, because thou hast not kept that which the LORD commanded thee.”  No matter how good or sincere may be the intentions of those like Nadab, Abihu, or Saul, the Lord only accepts the worship He prescribes in His word.  We are still bound to the Second Commandment today and all its implications (Matt. 5:17-20, 1 John 5:21). We may not do what is right in our eyes; we must do nothing but what the Lord commands in worship. Deut. 12:8, “Ye shall not do after all the things that we do here this day, every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes.”


“What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.” (Deut. 12:32)

“But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. 24 God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23-24)


Everett Fergusson The church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today

Christianity Today August 2008


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