Congregational singing is in the crosshairs of Covid-19 as public health recommendations and orders from civil magistrates in some areas of the country seek to restrict the liturgy. Some churches have pulled the trigger and put singing to rest, at least for a time. Others have refused to comply. Leaving aside the question of the legitimacy of such recommendations and orders and realizing not all churches face such restrictions, all Christians should still reckon with the question: Why do we sing in worship?
Why do we sing?
One might appeal to tradition. The church has historically incorporated singing into Lord’s Day worship. Therefore, churches today continue in this tradition, lifting their hearts in song to the Lord as Christians have always done.
We could also appeal to biblical command. The Apostle Paul instructed the Colossian church to let the word of Christ dwell in them richly by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Therefore, congregational singing is an act of obedience to Scripture.
One might point to the fittingness of singing in worship. When we contemplate the glory, greatness, beauty, and majesty of the Lord and his kindness toward sinners in Christ, our hearts swell with praise. And since what is in the heart flows out of the mouth, we sing. It’s a fitting response to grace.
Congregational singing is also participatory. Corporate worship is not a spectator sport, left to the paid holy men on stage to perform for the parishioners. Rather, God’s people gather to actively worship the Lord, taking part in the worship through praying, singing, confessing, eating, drinking, and receiving the Word preached. Passive worshippers in church on Sunday become passive Christians in the world throughout the week. But those who ascend the heavenly Mt. Zion to render worship to the Lord of Hosts come down from the mountain changed and ready to work for God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.
Singing and the Sons of God
But I want to highlight one less obvious, but very potent, reason for singing: It’s what the sons of God have always done when God speaks.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy? —Job 38-4-7
When God spoke the world into existence, the angels—the sons of God—sang. They erupted in song and shouted for joy.
The New Testament teaches that Christians have been made sons of God (Rom 8:14) and join the angels in heavenly worship (Heb 12:22-23).
Each Lord’s Day marks a type of creation: a new week and a celebration of the resurrection, which ushered in a new world. And like at the original creation, God’s Word is central. In corporate worship, Christians hear God’s Word read and preached.
What else are we supposed to do, but sing? The sons of God have always sung when God speaks and makes new.
Modern evangelicals are reduction artists, theological minimalists. Maria Kondo stands clapping in the corner every time an evangelical discards a doctrine or practice that fails to spark joy. The only bulwark against full capitulation to late modern liberalism is the most explicit of biblical commands, which one cannot violate and still plausibly hold to the inerrancy of Scripture.
So, many churches will continue to sing because of the explicit command in Colossians 3:16. It’s cut-and-dry obvious.
But they do not see the patterns God has woven into Scripture and the world. They cannot see the connection between Christians, angels, creation, Sabbath, and song.
Therefore, God’s commands become disconnected from nature, from the created order. They become arbitrary, and once God’s commands are arbitrary, the road to disobedience is short.
Yes, God said that, but nobody knows why.
The Example of Paper Thin Complementarianism
The New Testament explicitly prohibits a woman from the office of pastor and from exercising authority over husband. Modern conservative evangelicals, seeing no other choice, have drawn the line there: no women senior pastors and husbands have tie-breaking authority in the home. They are complementarian, but just barely.
They still profess that men and women have different roles, but they don’t like it. They have to hold their nose when they say it, if they ever get around to saying it amidst all the qualifications of what they are not saying.
This happens because modern evangelicals find themselves in a quandary: The Bible makes some explicit commands (e.g. 1 Tim 2:12), but the commands make little sense given our modern conceptions of the world and equality.
Modern evangelicals reduced the Bible’s teaching about the sexes to roles, not natures. But to understand the male and female natures, we need more than proof-texts and pithy formulations. We must be attentive to the creational order and the patterns in the Bible and in the world. We need to know why it matters that Adam was formed first (1 Tim 2:13).
A Recovery of Maximalism
We need a recovery of maximalism. Instead of condensing everything to its irreducible minimum, we ought to layer commands on top of stories on top of patterns on top of symbols on top of proverbs to arrive at our understanding. We should bring all of revelation, special and general, to bear on any given topic.
If not, when the attempts to restrict our worship increases, they will only be received with shrugged shoulders, compliance, and more reductionist explanations by the churches.
Governor: Of course you have the freedom to worship. Just keep your mouth closed, face covered, and stay at home while you do.
Christian: Well, Romans 13 does say…
Rhett Burns (@rhett_burns) is an associate pastor and small business owner living in Greenville, SC with his wife and four kids.