As one studies historical worship practice in the church, music has most often played a major role in the worship of the church. It is also interesting that the ongoing discussion of what type or style of music is appropriate for corporate worship is really not a new discussion. Since the New Testament does not give much instruction on the role of music in worship, worship planners must wisely decide how music will be used in the corporate worship of the church.
The Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 5:18 and Colossians 3:16 about the use of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs in gatherings of believers. We see that these worship songs should have a “teaching and admonishing” aspect. I Corinthians 14:26 mentions that psalm singing should be a part of the gathering and that all things should edify as the church is worshiping together. There is a strong case for congregational singing found in these passages.
Is there a biblical basis for “special music” in the corporate worship of the church? (When I say special music, I am referring to music performed by a soloist or group of musicians in worship for the congregation.) Most writers on this topic usually point to the Old Testament worship practices of the Tabernacle and Temple when skilled Levite musicians both vocalists and instrumentalists performed music as part of the worship. One fascinating passage describing “special music” in the Old Testament is II Chronicles 5:11-14. King Solomon has completed the building of the Temple and the Ark of the Covenant is brought into the Temple. These verses describe the musical scene:
“and all the Levitical singers, Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun, and their sons and kinsmen, clothed in fine linen, with cymbals, harps, and lyres, standing east of the altar, and with them one hundred and twenty priests blowing trumpets in unison when the trumpeters and the singers were to make themselves heard with one voice to praise and to glorify the Lord, and when they lifted up their voice accompanied by trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and when they praise the Lord saying, “He indeed is good for His lovingkindness is everlasting,” then the house, the house of the Lord was filled with a cloud sot that the priests could not stand to minister because of the could, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.”
Here we have the Levitical music directors, orchestra (trumpeters), and choir (Levitical singers) joining together to praise the Lord. There are many other examples like this that describe musical worship in the Tabernacle or Temple (I Chronicles 6:31-32, 9:33, 16:4-36, 25: 107, II Chronicles 7:6, 29:28). We also have a hymnbook (Psalms) that was written for corporate and private worship.
The Reformers had different views on the use of music in worship. Martin Luther encouraged the use of all kinds of music in the worship of the church, wrote some hymns to be used in worship (A Mighty Fortess is Our God), and published hymnbooks. John Calvin restricted the use of music in worship by allowing only unaccompanied, unison psalm singing in worship. He felt that music should be simple, undistracting and should only use the words of Scripture for text. Another reformer Ulrich Zwingli decided to not have any music in the corporate worship times of the church he pastored. He felt music was too distracting to worship and even dismantled the pipe organ in his church.
I personally do not have a problem with “special music” in worship. I think there is better support in Scripture for choirs, and instrumental groups than solo performances. At least when a church uses choirs and instrumental groups a good number of church members can participate in the worship leadership. Most of the musical worship time in the worship service needs to be reserved for the whole congregation. Congregational singing is one wonderful way to help the congregation to be actively involved in the worship.
Obviously, a whole book could be written on this topic. Music in worship can enhance the worship time or distract when it takes the attention off of the Lord. It must always be about His Glory. I like how Ron Owens in his book Return to Worship (Broadman and Holman, 1999, ISBN 0-8054-1888-1, p.5-6) describes the role of music in worship:
“As wonderful and important as music is, the truth is we don’t have to have music to worship…It is my conviction that in much of the Western Church today, music has become overly important. To many, worship is music and music is worship, and many worship music.”
Lord forbid that our worship music would ever become an idol in our worship. As we discern the role of music in corporate worship, let us first of all seek to be biblical in our approach. Secondly, let us seek for the edification and unity of the body of Christ. My prayer is that we would never allow a church to be divided over the issue of the role of music in worship.