Christian believers who are alert to contemporary developments in the area of worship are, undoubtedly, aware of what have come to be known as “worship wars.” Though disputes about Christian doctrine or teaching can become heated, they seldom compare in intensity of feeling and conviction with disputes about what is proper in the public worship of the Triune God. Many are willing to tolerate some departures from biblical teaching in the church. But tamper with the form of worship, or introduce new ways (in the name of being “contemporary”) of doing things in worship, and the temperature rises rather rapidly. Whereas churches in the past often divided over doctrinal issues, today they are more likely to divide over differences regarding what constitutes a proper form of worship. Churches even advertise themselves in terms of their worship. Some offer a smorgasbord ofstyles—“contemporary” on Saturday evening, “traditional” on Sunday morning, “blended” on Sunday evening. Others choose to be known by one form of worship rather than another.
In the midst of these worship wars, one of the disputed issues among Reformed believers is the subject of what is commonly called “special music” or “ministry of music” in worship. May a Reformed church, which desires to worship the Triune God in a biblically obedient and responsible manner, incorporate special music into its public services of worship on the Lord’s Day?1 Or does this practice represent a departure from a biblically directed form of worship, the implementation of which must necessarily conflict with several important principles of God-honoring worship? Is it little more than the ecclesiastical version of turning worship into a form of entertainment, complete with a “variety hour” blend of musical offerings for the entertainment of the worshipers? And in this sense, does it not represent one example of the church’s captivity to contemporary culture?
Admittedly, to wander into this territory is to risk entering a place where even angels fear to tread! And to do so (as I am) without any particular expertise in music or in the discipline known as liturgics, is a likely recipe for trouble. Indeed, as I do so, the words of a former high school mathematics teacher come to mind—“Venema, you are treading on thin ice!” However, the subject is too important and potentially disruptive among Reformed believers and churches not to deserve some comment.
In order to address the question about so-called “special music” in worship, I will begin with what, as it seems to me, are the most common objections to this practice.
Interrupts the Covenant Conversation in Worship
In the biblical and Reformed understanding of worship, the public worship of God is regarded as essentially a covenant conversation between the Lord and His people, assembled and gathered in His presence for this purpose. The elements of worship—salutation, song, Scripture reading, confession, prayer, offering, preaching, sacrament, benediction—fall into one of two categories: either God is addressing His people, or His people are addressing God. There are no “third parties” to this conversation which may interrupt the dialogue between the Lord and His people. Nor are there to be any elements in worship which involve a segment of the congregation performing an act of worship to the exclusion of the remainder of the congregation.
Though the minister who leads the service may represent the congregation before God by virtue of his office, no individual congregational member or group of members may presume this right for themselves.
The practice, therefore, of having a member or members of the congregation offer a song in praise to God during the public worship service must violate this principle. Rather than the congregation as a whole offering corporate praise to God, a portion of the congregation assumes the prerogative of singing for the congregation. The remainder of the congregation is excluded from this portion of the assembly’s dialogue with God (only some speak in praise to God). Rather than this practice representing a greater measure of “participation” in worship, as is often claimed, it actually leads to a circumstance in which many are passive spectators, while only a few participate. Thus, it was precisely in order to restore true congregational participation in worship that the Reformation of the sixteenth century reintroduced congregational singing and banished the use of choirs and vocal ensembles.
Represents a Return to the Immature Form of Temple Worship
When defenders of the practice of “special music” appeal to the use of choirs, antiphonal singing, diverse vocalists and instrumentalists, in the worship of Old Testament Israel, it is often objected that these usages belong to the ceremonial and temple worship of the old covenant. Not only were choirs linked, for example, with the presentation of the burnt offering, an element of temple worship that has been fulfilled in Christ, but they also testify to an age of immaturity prior to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit in greater measure upon the whole people of God. On the same principle that the types and shadows of the Old Testament ceremonial law and patterns of worship have been fulfilled and abrogated in Christ, it is maintained that it would be a reversion to an earlier period in the worship of God’s people for the new covenant church to continue the musical practices of the old. The Spirit-indwelt church of the new covenant no longer needs, nor should it be served by, vocalists or ensembles that exclude a portion of the congregation. Together with many other details and acts of Old Testament worship—prlestlyvestments, the use of incense, salt and water, the offering of sacrifices—these practices must give way to the exclusive use of the whole congregation’s voice in the singing of God’s praise. From this point of view, the practice of “special music” in worship represents a failure to embrace the maturity of the whole congregation in its sacrifice of (musical) praise to God in the church of Jesus Christ.
Encourages Worship as Entertainment
Perhaps the most popular of the objections to “special music” in the worship of the Christian church is that it amounts to the introduction of entertainment into the worship service. Even the language used to describe this practice, “special music,” tends to emphasize its importance from the vantage point of its benefit to the worshiper rather than its service as a means of offering praise to God. After all, why call it “special” music if it, like the congregational song, intends to offer a sacrifice acceptable to God? Surely, from the vantage point of the true Audience in worship, the Triune God, there could be nothing more “special” about a segment of the congregation singing His praise than the congregation as a whole. The inherent problem with the practice of “special music,” then, is that it mistakes the congregation as the audience in worship, rather than remembering that all the congregation does must be directed to God. The measure of worship becomes “what is pleasing to me and to my ear,” rather than as it ought to be: “what is pleasing to God and His ear.” If I may be permitted a simple analogy, the practice of special music in worship is a little like praising your wife’s excellence as a cook while in the presence of a host who is feeding you at her table. It is generally thought to be bad manners to neglect the praise of your host in favor of someone else, particularly when they are busily furnishing you with the finest of their culinary achievement!
In the same way, for a congregation gathered together for the express purpose of offering grateful praise to the Lord, the insertion of a musical number for the purpose of entertaining the congregation can only be regarded as an interruption at best, a rude forgetfulness of God’s presence at worst! The only Auditor of the congregation’s song who matters and who, if I may use the expression reverently, should be ((entertained" is the Lord whom the congregation comes to exalt.
Undermines the “Official” Oversight of Worship by the Elders
Consistent with the objection that “special” music substitutes entertainment for true worship of God, it is frequently noted that the determination of what is sung is made by the measure of what suits the taste or favor of singer and/or congregation. Because the aim is to please (=entertain) those assembled for worship, the selection of music and song is left to the discretion either of the individual who sings, the director of the choir, or the members of the ensemble. As a practical matter, the elders of the church, who are responsible for the conduct of public worship in all its parts, have little or no oversight of what is called “special music.” Whether the songs express biblical truth, whether they are suited to their place in the order of worship, whether they contribute to the preaching of the Word on a given Lord's Day, whether the music is conformable to the serious and solemn task of the worship of the Triune God—such questions are seldom asked and, even less frequently, answered in a proper way. Rather, the congregation is served with a wide assortment of musical “interludes” or “disruptions” in worship, often artlessly presented by congregational members or “traveling troubadours” who are pleased to offer their services to any church that will have them.
Answering the Objections
Anyone of these common objections to “special music” in public worship would seem sufficient to demand an end to this practice. But when taken together they seem to present an absolutely insurmountable barrier. Not even an Olympic champion in the high jump could find his way over these objections, at least not if held to biblical and Reformed convictions when it comes to the public worship of God!
At the risk of being regarded a defender of lost causes, however, I should like to offer what I regard as plausible responses or answers to these objections. In my judgment, these objections are only valid in those cases where the practice of “special music” represents an “abuse” of biblical principles of worship. They do not necessarily hold weight against a practice that seeks to incorporate the concerns expressed by them. The Latins have a saying, “Abuse does not abrogate proper use” (abusus non tollit usum). This expression, I will suggest, might well apply in respect to the question of special music in worship.
Part of the Congregation’s Praise
The objection that “special music” interrupts or intrudes itself into the dialogue in worship between the Lord and the assembled congregation only holds true on the assumption that it necessarily excludes from the act of worship those who are not directly participating. But why grant this assumption? Though this may be the case, it need not be the case. Surely the congregation can worship with and through the songs of choir, vocalist or ensemble! The simple fact that a song is sung by the whole congregation does not guarantee that all are participating in the same way (some might be standing mute, others unable physically to sing, still others unable to read or unfamiliar with the song being sung, and still others refusing to join the congregation’s song because of hardness of heart). Similarly, though some congregational members may fail to join their voice (even if spoken, not with the lips, but with the heart) with the song of a vocalist or choir, this failure is not inherent in the fact that not all present are actually singing.
If I may hazard an example, let’s say the preacher has finished preaching a sermon on Psalm 27 and the order of service calls for the singing of this song by a gifted tenor voice in the congregation. I can see no reason why the singing of Psalm 27 by such a member excludes the full, heartfelt involvement of the congregation in voicing their praise to the Lord. Those who argue that the congregation is excluded from this act of worship seem to miss the fact that the Singer is a member of the congregation and the congregation’s participation is not restricted to the audible voicing of the words. Though the comparison is inexact, since the minister may, in virtue of his office, represent the congregation in prayer before God, the argument that the congregation could not be participating in this act of worship seems to suggest that the minister’s prayers could not be the congregation's prayers, simply because he alone voices the prayer.
Uses the Full Range of Congregational Gifts
It is undouotedly true that many of the features and elements of the ceremonial and temple worship of the old covenant have been fulfilled in Christ, and therefore no longer are found in the new covenant church’s patterns of worship. But this does not mean that there is a radical discontinuity between what was encouraged in the old covenant and what is encouraged in the new. There seem to be no features inherent to the use of choirs or vocalists in worship which, being fulfilled in Christ and in the context of the maturity of the Spirit-indwelt new covenant church, demands their exclusion from the worship of the church. The argument, for example, from the more rich and mature state of the new covenant people of God is a double-edged sword. Why, if the Lord of the church has distributed among her members considerable musical gifts and talents, should the full range of the congregation's giftedness not be used in worship? How is worship enriched when musically gifted congregational members are not permitted to use those gifts in leading and representing the congregation in her sacrifice of praise to the Lord?
Here again a rigid and unnuanced adherence to principle can lead to inconsistencies. Even in congregations which forbid “special music,” including choirs, there are members who “lead” in the singing. Whether, to cite an old custom, they play the role of a “before singer” (the person who gives the pitch) as the congregation begins singing, or they play instruments, or they hold the congregation’s pitch and tune, or they sing in distinct parts congregational members, even when engaged in corporate praise, blend their voices even as they use their individual gifts in singing God’s praise. Why is it that, though God variously distributes musical gifts among congregational members, some insist so confidently that He does not wish them to be used in the congregation's song of praise to God? To cite but one illustration of this point: churches with a long and rich tradition of good choral leadership are often among the most gifted and excellent in the practice of congregational singing.
To Glorify God Is the Christian’s Joy
There can be little doubt that much that goes under the title of “special music” in the church today is little more than entertainment or a musical interruption in worship. I would be the last to deny this rather obvious truth.
However, in making this objection, those who object to “special music” need to beware of the danger of pitting worship, which is directed to God and seeks to be pleasing to Him, against the congregation's genuine joy and delight in God. Though it is little more than an impression of mine, I often observe that those who most object to “special music” in worship seem to be content with a musical offering to God that is rather anemic in its expression of delighted praise. God is pleased, so it seems to be argued, when the congregation sings all of the stanzas of one of the Psalms, even when they are sung in an (appropriately) minor key; slow of pace (the slower the better), and with nary a hint of real enthusiasm. Never mind that the congregation lacked heart in it, so long as the formal elements were present it will assuredly be pleasing to God!
(Lest the reader misunderstand my point, let me make it clear that I am not speaking against the singing of the Psalms. God forbid! The Psalms should, no doubt, have the principal place in the mouth of the congregation when it assembles for praise and worship. Moreover, when the Reformation occurred in the sixteenth century, churches were filled for the first time, after of a long period of decline, with worshipers singing joyfully and lustily to the praise of God. No passerby need have doubted it was a church of the Reformation; the walls of the sanctuary or the open air of the field rang with a burst of joyful thanksgiving at God's grace toward His people in Christ.)
But what I am advocating is the recognition that the congregation, when it glorifies God in a manner pleasing to Him, will also be pleased! When a song is sung, a song whose words reflect biblical truth and genuinely offer praise to God, congregational members find their hearts filled with gladness. And this may be true as much when one or another member sings as when all members sing together.
This means that the argument that “special music” is a form of entertainment in worship needs to be carefully articulated. The problem is not that the song delights the worshiper; the problem is that it may be offered with the purpose, not first of bringing praise to God, but of pleasing the ear of the worshiper.
Remains Subject to the Elders’ Oversight
The last objection to “special music” is one that can easily draw upon the actual experience of many worshipers. Few are the churches (even those with no “special music”!) whose elders genuinely oversee what takes place in worship. Fewer still are the churches whose elders oversee what is sung.
This may, of course, mean that the simplest solution to the problem of unbiblical and unworthy songs in worship by vocalists and ensembles is to forbid them. But there is a real difference between a solution that is “simple” and one that is “necessary.” It may be one solution to forbid the practice altogether, but it may be another solution to take responsibility for a proper and fitting use of such music in worship. There is no reason that elders could not oversee the use of vocal groups and singers in congregational worship. It is not impossible for elders to make sure that those who sing be congregational members, that they honor the purpose of worship, that their songs be biblically and musically sound, that they support rather than distract from the preaching of the Word, and the like. Here again it is important to distinguish proper from improper use, and to acknowledge that not every practice of “special music” in worship necessarily violates biblical principles.2
To conclude this brief, and rather inadequate handling of the question of “special music” in congregational worship, there are two observations that I would like to make.
First, whenever this question is addressed we need to keep distinct what is demanded by biblical principle and what may only be the product of our traditional practice. Decisions regarding the public worship of Christ’s church can and should be informed by traditional practice. After all, reformation in the church’s practice may never be confused with revolution. I am not advocating, therefore, any kind of revolution in the practice of the Reformed churches, when it comes to the matter of “special music.” I am certainly not advocating the introduction of this practice in churches where it would constitute a needless disruption or diversion in the congregation’s life.
I am cautioning, however, against the insistence of some that a truly biblical and consistently Reformed practice of worship requires a prohibition upon all use of choirs or vocalists in worship. When this argument is strongly argued, especially in churches with a history of using choirs or vocalists, it almost always leads to unnecessary congregational division and diversion of energy. It also often takes the form of appealing to tradition—after all, it is not difficult to show historically that soloists and choirs were not part of the traditional patterns of Reformed worship. Though the appeal to tradition at this point has some weight, it ought to be noted that this kind of argument is, by itself, inadequate. You could argue, for example, on the same basis for the rejection of the use of all instruments in public worship and the exclusive singing of the Psalms (which the tradition of the church for many centuries certainly would encourage). My second observation has to do with the importance we ascribe to the congregation’s use of song in worship. Often those who oppose the use of soloists and choirs ascribe insufficient importance to the congregation’s musical praise of God. As a congregational member once said to me, “They act as though, because preaching is the most important element in worship, it is the only element. The singing of the congregation has little or no importance.” Perhaps if those who oppose “special music” in worship were as keen to insist upon congregational excellence and reformation in singing God’s praise in worship, then the arguments for the strict prohibition of this practice would gain a more ready hearing. But when churches are satisfied that they are “Reformed” in their worship simply because they do not do the things that are forbidden, true reformation is unlikely to occur. For example, I have witnessed churches that forbid “special music,” but at the same time seem indifferent to the quality of instrument(s) used to accompany the congregation’s worship, the ability of the accompanist to truly enhance the congregation's singing, and the lackluster character of the congregational singing itself. The attitude seems tobe: So longas we avoid what is forbidden, our worship will undoubtedlybe pleasing to the Lord.
When it comes to the disputed issue of “special music” in worship, it is not enough simply to follow the way of tradition. Whether a congregation’s worship includes or excludes what is called “special music,” it is important that careful attention be given to the congregation’s singing of praise to God. If it is always true that we are “to give of our best to the Master,” then it is especially true that this be done in singing His praise.
1 By special music I mean the following: vocal solos, vocal ensembles (men’s or women’s choruses), or choir anthems, often accompanied by a variety of musical instruments and/or ensembles. The principle of distinction is that a segment or portion of the congregation assembled for worship offers, on behalf of the congregation, a musical offering of praise. Throughout this article I am using the language of “special music,” not because it is my choice but because it is the most common language used. The language is obviously inappropriate. The music of choir, soloist or ensemble is no more special than any other. Sometimes the language of “ministry of music” is used to try to avoid the misleading implications of this terminology.
2 It is not my purpose in this article to offer any practical suggestions about how these things could be done. It seems to me this belongs to the freedom and authority of the elders of each church to determine. However, one place in worship where musical offerings could be included is during the receiving of the congregation’s offering. What could be more fitting than accompanying the presentation of the congregation’s gifts with a musical offering?
Dr. Comelis Venema, a contributing editor of The Outlook magazine, teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana.