Worship Wars and the Bible

A Lyre Musical Instrument on white

To what source can we turn to shine light on how to navigate (or, more preferably, avoid) the worship wars? Do we just go with our gut? What we like? What we think? What we feel? If we really want to know what’s right when it comes to worship, we’d better seek the answers in the only place those answers can reliably be found: God’s Word, scripture.

So what does the Bible say about this whole worship wars thing? Is there any insight from scripture as to how we should think about preferences in worship style? Of course.   You’ll never get me to answer no to the question of the Bible’s relevance to anything. Certainly on this point the Bible has much to say.

Lessons from the Psalms

Let’s start with the Psalms. The book of psalms stands as the prayer book of Israel. It is also the song book of Israel. Indeed psalmos is a Greek word that means “song.” The psalms are prayers that were sung. They were songs which were prayed. This tells us something about our song singing in worship – in whatever style we do so, when we sing we are actually praying (or should be!). Songs of praise are enacted prayers. But what do these song-prayers teach us about worship style? Oodles.

  • The Psalms reflect enormous variety in subject matter and form. Not all psalms are the same. There are many different types of psalms. There are praise psalms, confession psalms, psalms of lament (73 of them!), messianic psalms, trust psalms, psalms of Zion, imprecatory psalms, etc. We can learn something from this. We all like toe-tappers. We enjoy upbeat songs. But a lot of psalms lay bare the soul of an anguished worshipper. There is deep pathos, often grief, need, sorrow, or penitence, in these songs. Do our songs reflect this kind of variety? I think not. And that means we’re missing some stuff. Our diet should reflect the full panoply of divine worship. Neglecting to do so will lead (and has led) to our long-term spiritual malnourishment.
  • The Psalms include both Individual and Corporate songs. Some psalms are “I” psalms. Some psalms are “we” psalms. There are many of both. Both are appropriate. Both are, in fact, necessary. This is a point I will come back to in a later post (in defense of praise songs). A common critique of praise songs: they are perceived as being too individualistic, too “me”-focused. While that can be an unhealthy thing if not balanced with “we” material, it also reflects an important biblical precedent in the psalms.
  • The Psalms reflect great variety in their presentation. Not all psalms were sung the same way. Some psalms (like 136) clearly involved a call and antiphonal response. Others may even reflect a threefold division of the assembly (118). Still others involved choirs (“Sons of Asaph,” “Sons of Korah”). There are a variety of instruments called for, as well as references to a variety of tunes (As in Psalm 45: For the director of music. To the tune of “Lilies.” Of the Sons of Korah. A maskil. A wedding song). There was sometimes a “conductor” – to what do we equate this office? A choir director? A praise team leader? Or both… There are also references to a variety of bodily postures. To sum up: they were sung with great variety.

On Instrumentation.  

In some Christian traditions the only instrument permitted is the voice. The Reformed Presbyterian Church, for instance, allows for singing only of psalms and only without musical accompaniment. This no doubt lends itself to learning the psalms well and to high vocal quality in congregational singing, yet it is a hard position to defend biblically.

The Bible portrays varied instrumentation as being part of worship from the very beginning. Miriam leads the women of Israel in a celebratory tambourine-accompanied spontaneous chorus (Exodus 15). David played the harp (1 Samuel 16:3). Psalm 150 outlines a remarkable array of instrumentation:

Psalm 150:1-6 Praise the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. 2 Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. 3 Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, 4 praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute, 5 praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. 6 Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. Praise the LORD.

The New Testament gives a vision of heaven that includes instrumentation as well. The saints in heaven worship God upon harps (Revelation 14:2).

What instruments are acceptable in worship? Well…on what basis could we exclude any potential candidate? Unless we restrict ourselves to zithers and lutes (something even strict traditionalists don’t champion), we have to allow for more “modern” instrumentation. And if we allow the piano (invented ~1700 AD), why not the guitar? Indeed, a guitar is closer to a zither, harp, or lute, than is a piano or an organ! And if the guitar, why not the electric guitar, synthesizer, etc.?

This doesn’t mean that there is no place for discussion around the appropriateness of a given instrument in a particular context (more on this in a later post). But the goal should be: 1) beauty; and 2) utility in leading the congregation in their work of worship (not performance!).

The New Testament and Worship Wars

Paul writes in Colossians (3:15-17) and Ephesians (5:19-20) about the unity which is ours in Christ. He calls for that unity to be on display through the worship of God’s people in song. Consider the Colossians text:

Colossians 3:15-17  15 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 word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. 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.

Peace (not war!) should be on full display among God’s people. And that peace should be demonstrated through the worship of God’s people in song. These songs are to include “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” What does that list include? Well, psalms are psalms (as in the book of…). Hymns are songs of praise (the word “hymn” is simply a transliteration of a Greek word meaning “praise song” – ironic, no?), and spiritual songs are songs which are spiritual. Now, we don’t know exactly what Paul envisioned as fitting into these three categories, but we can say this: Paul clearly embraced a big tent view of different types of songs which were appropriate to Christian worship! And he admonishes the church to display the peace of Christ through unity in this very matter! And we war over this?

There is also good evidence of an emerging collection of early Christian “hymns” (or praise songs, if you prefer). We see this in Colossians 1:15-20:

Colossians 1:15-20  15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

We see it also in Philippians 2:5-11:

Philippians 2:5-11  5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross! 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

It is theorized that these wonderful passages were, in fact, the emerging corpus of early Christian psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

In Conclusion: Diversity of style, instrumentation, and so on were the norm from the very beginning of the Christian movement (and before). It is beyond ridiculous that this should serve as a source of division in the worship of our day. Do we know better than the apostles? Are we wiser than scripture? I think not. Indeed, our unnecessary warfare demonstrates our folly.   Lay down your weapons! Pick up your song books (if you use those)!