Singing with The Church

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Acapella Singing: What it is, and why it’s right for the church.

Singing without instrumental “accompaniment” is sometimes called acapella singing. Only a few churches in the modern era have opted to sing psalms,hymns, and spiritual songs without instruments. Despite the practice being relatively uncommon now, there is a great deal of historical support for acapella singing in the church, including the word acapella itself (from Latin, meaning “as in the chapel”). Some citations from ancient Christian writings, written in the first few centuries of the church’s existence, follow the verses below, for your consideration along with the inspired scriptures themselves.

We know that when the church met together in New Testament times along with other kinds of teaching they shared songs called hymns that praised God and encouraged the Christians. These hymns, just like the other kinds of messages, required nothing but a voice and godly words to share them in the church, to help the church grow stronger.

1 Cor 14:26 26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.

Singing and praying are often connected in the New Testament, and neither requires any mechanical assistance. Because Christian singing calls for only a song and a voice, Christians can sing their psalms (a song of praise) anytime and anywhere that they feel like it, which in particular is whenever a Christian is happy. No talent is required, no instrument is called for, just the voice of a happy Christian.

James 5:13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. (NIV 2011)

No mechanical device would help a Christian’s prayer, and no mechanical device can help a Christian’s song. The New Testament never suggests that Christians should use any kind of instrument or device with their singing, but just has instructions to sing, and gives examples of singing (not playing). Christians like Paul and Silas could and can sing in any circumstances, even prison. Singing and praying can be done anywhere, no devices or instruments are required or desired or helpful.

Acts 16:25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. (NIV 2011)

Singing songs of praise should a part of every Christian’s experience. Singing is for everyone, not just a select few, not as a performance to be admired, not in a chorus or a band or a choir, not just for the vocally talented, but the congregation sharing together, joining together in song.

Rom 15:9-11 As it is written: “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing the praises of your name.”
10 Again, it says, “Rejoice, you Gentiles, with his people.”
11 And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; let all the peoples extol him.”

Heb 2:11-12 Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. 12 He says,
“I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; in the assembly I will sing your praises.” (NIV 2011)

The New Testament does not teach Christians to sing with any kind of instrument, but does teach Christians to sing with their heart, their mind, and their spirit. What is to accompany Christian singing isn’t a mechanical instrument, but a thankful heart that gives God glory, a mind that communicates truth, and a spirit that is committed to serving God and other Christians.

Eph 5:18-20 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (NIV 2011)

Col 3:15-17 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (NIV 2011)

1 Cor 14:15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. (NIV 2011)

In the verses above there is an emphasis on message. Instruments of music can stir feelings and emotions but they cannot convey truth or teach Christ. The Christian message, even in music, is a message to be verbalized. Teaching is a core part of what Christian music, singing, is about. With the various kinds of songs to be sung among Christians there is an emphasis on what is being done together, for one another, with enthusiasm, with conviction, with true teaching, with concern for each other, with understanding. Singing is a powerful unifying activity, and a powerful teaching tool, with the great added benefit of being very memorable. Words with tunes are easy to remember and useful everyday, whenever anyone is happy, and in times of stress, even in a dark prison. Only vocal music, acapella singing, has this versatility, this usefulness to every believer, and the command and example of New Testament teaching to commend it.


Testimony from ancient history:

Instruments were not used in the worship of the ancient synagogue. They belonged to the tabernacle and the Temple, especially the latter; but were never in the congregational assemblies of God’s people.
(from McClintock and Strong Encyclopedia, Electronic Database. Copyright © 2000, 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)

“There is the fact that early Christian music was vocal, and there is the patristic polemic against instruments.”
(James McKinnon, “The Church Fathers and Musical Instruments.” Abstract)
— Note: James McKinnon was “one of America’s foremost musical scholars” and a professor at North Carolina University (from the faculty memorial to James McKinnon)

“If the casual reader of patristic denunciations of musical instruments is struck by their vehemence, the systematic investigator is surprised by another characteristic: their uniformity. The attitude of opposition to instruments was virtually monolithic even though it was shared by men of diverse temperaments and different regional backgrounds, and even though it extended over a span of at least two centuries of changing fortunes for the church. That there were no widespread exceptions to the general position defies credulity.”
(James McKinnon, “The Church Fathers and Musical Instruments.’‘ Abstract)

About 190 A.D. Clement of Alexandria listed eight musical instruments used by ancient peoples and said:
“We, however, make use of but one instrument, the word of peace alone by which we honor God, and no longer the ancient psaltery, nor the trumpet, the tympanum and the aulos, as was the custom among those expert in war and those scornful of the fear of God who employed string instruments in their festive gatherings, as if to arouse their remissness of spirit through such rhythms.” (Paedagogus, Book 2, Chapter 4).

For almost a thousand years Gregorian chant, without any instrumental or harmonic addition, was the only music used in connection with the liturgy.
ie, from about 600-1600 A.D.
(“Musical Instruments in Church Services,” Catholic Encyclopedia on CD-ROM)

In secular music, however, instruments played an important role at an early date. It may be said that instrumental music developed simultaneously with the secular music itself.
(“Musical Instruments in Church Services,” Catholic Encyclopedia on CD-ROM)

While all this development had, up to the first half of the sixteenth century, served mainly secular purposes, it was through Ludovico Grossi da Viadana (1564-1627) that the use of instruments became more common in churches. While choirmaster in Mantua and in Venice, this master published his “Cento concerti ecclesiastici”, compositions to sacred texts, for one or more voices and basso continuo, or figured bass played on the organ and supplemented by violins, bass viols, and wind instruments, a species of composition in vogue before his time. A contemporary of Viadana, Giovanni Gabrieli (1557-1612), choirmaster of St. Mark’s, Venice, went a considerable step farther than any one before him. He wrote not only numerous works for voices and instruments, but created works for instruments alone.
(“Musical Instruments in Church Services,” Catholic Encyclopedia on CD-ROM)

Another event which was destined to exercise a momentous influence, not only on the growth of the use of instruments but also on the future development of liturgical music itself, was the birth of opera with the first performance (1594) of Jacopo Peri’s “Dafne” in Florence. This new art form, originating as it did with the humanistic spirit of the time and being a return to the musical and literary ideals of antiquity which enthralled the cultivated classes of the day, soon gained an enormous popularity and completely overshadowed all previously accepted ideals in popular favour. It was but a short time before the spirit and forms of the theatre, instruments and all, found their way into the Church. While formerly the spirit and form of church music dominated secular music (mostly early secular melodies which have come down to us belonging to one or the other of the Gregorian modes) it was now the spirit, taste, and passions of the world as expressed in opera which were in the ascendancy and began to dominate the compositions to liturgical texts.
(“Musical Instruments in Church Services,” Catholic Encyclopedia on CD-ROM)

The early Reformers, when they came out of Rome, removed them as the monuments of idolatry. Luther called the organ an ensign of Baal ; Calvin said that instrumental music was not fitter to be adopted into the Christian Church than the incense and the candlestick; Knox called the organ a kist [chest] of whistles. The Church of England revived them, against a very strong protest, and the English dissenters would not touch them.
(from McClintock and Strong Encyclopedia, Electronic Database. Copyright © 2000, 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)


CATHOLIC – Although Josephus tells of the wonderful effects produced in the Temple by the use of instruments, the first Christians were of too spiritual a fibre to substitute lifeless instruments for or to use them to accompany the human voice. Clement of Alexandria severely condemns the use of instruments even at Christian banquets (P. G., VIII, 440). St. Chrysostom sharply contrasts the customs of the Christians at the time when they had full freedom with those of the Jews of the Old Testament (ibid., LV, 494-7). Similarly write a series of early ecclesiastical writers down to St. Thomas (Summa, II-II, Q. xci, a. 2). .” — CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA

GREEK ORTHODOX – “The execution of Byzantine church music by instruments, or even the accompaniment of sacred chanting by instruments was ruled out by the Eastern Fathers as being incompatible with the pure, solemn, spiritual character of the religion of Christ.” — Constantine Cavarnos, BYSANTINE SACRED MUSIC

PRESBYTERIAN – “Musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting up of lamps, 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. Men who are fond of outward pomp may delight in that noise; but the simplicity which God recommends to us by the apostle is far more pleasing to Him.” – JOHN CALVIN, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Vol. I, p. 539
METHODIST – “I have no objection to instruments of music, in our chapels, provided they are neither heard nor seen.” – JOHN WESLEY (founder)
METHODIST – “Music as a science, I esteem and admire: but instruments of music in the house of God I abominate and abhor. This is the abuse of music; and here I register my protest against all such corruptions in the worship of the Author of Christianity.” – ADAM CLARKE (commentator)

LUTHERAN – “Martin Luther called the organ an ‘ensign of Baal’.” – MCCLINTOCK & STRONG’S ENCYCLOPEDIA

BAPTIST – “I would as soon attempt to pray to God with machinery as to sing to Him with machinery.” – CHARLES H. SPURGEON

a –cap-pel-la Music.

  1. without instrumental accompaniment.
  2. in the style of church or chapel music.
    [1875–80; < It: in the manner of a chapel (choir)]
    (Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary)

Old Testament Music

Some may wonder why, if the Old Testament had instruments of music, why not the new, as in some of the Psalms? However, the Psalms also speak of sacrifices of animals and other rituals that were part of the covenant of Moses, not the covenant of Christ. The covenant of Moses has been fulfilled by Christ, who brought a new covenant.

The Old Testament Psalms do extol the use of harps and selected other instruments in praising God, as they also extol bring animals to present on the altar for sins and to fulfill vows. The New Testament of Jesus Christ presents a better covenant in Christ, that depends on neither Levite singers at the temple nor animals presented as burnt offerings.
Ps 33:1-3
Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him.
2 Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.
3 Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.

Ps 66:13-15
I will come to your temple with burnt offerings and fulfill my vows to you —
vows my lips promised and my mouth spoke when I was in trouble.
I will sacrifice fat animals to you and an offering of rams; I will offer bulls and goats.

Heb 10:11-14
11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. 13 Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, 14 because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

Heb 13:15-16
15 Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise — the fruit of lips that confess his name. 16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices G
od is pleased.

Why We Sing
The New Testament provides examples of believers singing, and instruction for believers to sing, and affirms the value of the words of spiritual songs.
The universal testimony of ancient history is that the church, like the synagogue, had no music other than vocal singing for hundreds of years.

1 Cor 14:15 I will sing with my spirit… I will sing with my mind
Eph 5:19 sing and make melody in your heart
Col 3:16 sing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
Heb 2:12 in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises
James 5:13 Is anyone happy? Let him sing

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