Congregational singing versus music that excludes the congregation
“The people in the pews have become spectators enjoying a show rather than worshipers entering into the spiritual activity of praising God and admonishing brethren.” – Ken Green in “Balancing Faith and Tradition: Congregational Singing”[i]
Command, principle, and example all favor congregational singing as the normal way churches should sing in gathered worship. This should be a three-fold cord not easily broken.
The command to sing in Ephesians 5:18-19 and Colossians 3:16 is addressed to churches (congregations). In the immediate context of both texts, a plurality of individuals is commanded to be filled and let dwell. The participles further address this plurality (the congregation) – speaking, singing, making melody, teaching, admonishing. Taken together this indicates the participation of the whole church.
The terms to yourselves and one another (heautou) are reciprocal, reflexive pronouns. According to Dana and Mantey’s Grammar (in which they give Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 as examples), this is “When a plural subject is represented as affected by an interchange of action signified by the verb...”[ii] If an individual or select group of singers are active and the rest of the church is passively listening, then there is no interchange of action as Dana and Mantey suggest – and the “speaking one to another” is not happening as Paul intended.
Besides the Bible command for the churches to sing, we have an example of the disciples singing together. This is found in Matthew 26:30 (Cf. Mark 14:26). The apostles sang an hymn with Jesus after the institution of the Lord’s Supper before going out to the Mount of Olives. The context and construction of the sentence leave no doubt that they sang together. They sang. They went out. The participle humnasantes (translated “they had sung an hymn”) is plural as well as the 3rd person plural verb exelthon (translated they went out). The people who went out to the Mount of Olives are the same ones who had sung an hymn. This incident is alluded to in Hebrews 2:12.
In addition to both command and example, congregational singing is supported by a New Testament worship principle – New Covenant believers are an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:5). The spiritual sacrifices include the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips (Hebrews 13:15). Our worship is a personal spiritual sacrifice to God offered up by a priesthood of believers – not a few believers who offer up worship for others.
The New Testament holds forth the ideal of congregational singing. Perhaps we can never ideally achieve it, but that does not mean we should not try.[iii]
Sing praises to God, sing praises: sing praises unto our King, sing praises. (Psalm 47:6)