by Michael E. Brooks
“And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:18-20, NKJV).
When I first began traveling in South Asia, I was immediately struck by the different styles of songs used in worship. Though both Bangladesh and Nepal have some English hymns which have been translated to their languages, their native songs are significantly different from ours, and from each other’s.
Bangladesh’s music tends to the slower, more formal style. To the western ear it is sometimes atonal, apparently off-key. Nepali songs tend to be of more upbeat tempo, with appealing tunes. The English speaker, of course, cannot understand the meaning or follow the tune of either.
There are few, if any, elements of Christian worship which draw more attention and controversy than music. Which songs are to be sung, how they are to be used, what style or type of music is favored – these are just a few of the subjects which draw attention and debate. Many Christians are extremely passionate and deeply convicted concerning their preferences.
As we examine the Biblical texts from which we must answer these questions we must remember to include the context of each passage. As an example, Ephesians 5:19 is often quoted as a command to sing, and to give evidence as to the nature of music desired in worship. But that is only part of its message. The verses on either side of it add much meaning to Paul’s instructions.
Music is not a dry ritual filling the liturgical demands of public worship.
The inspired apostle presents it rather as a spontaneous overflow of the indwelling Spirit. Just as the drunkard behaves in predictable ways as a result of his indulgence of “spirits,” so the Christian responds to the presence of the Holy Spirit within. Singing is one appropriate and natural response.
The music of the church is surrounded by the partaking of the Spirit on one side (verse 18) and gratitude for God’s blessings on the other (verse 20). We are not filled with the Spirit today in a miraculous way, as was the case originally (Acts 2), but rather through our reading and meditation upon God’s word (Hebrews 4:12; James 1:21).
Acceptable music is not only that which meets the formal requirements of Scripture, but must also reflect the proper Spiritual motivation and purpose. As Paul also said, “I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding” (1 Corinthians 14:15).
When we arrive at the place of assembly at the last moment (or even a little tardy), flustered by the rush of preparation and perhaps frustrated by traffic or other considerations, it is no wonder that we have difficulty participating meaningfully.
It is also not surprising that we find little real personal benefit from the experience. With such distractions we find it difficult to focus on the prayers, listen to the sermon, or meditate upon the death of Christ during communion. And, predictably, we mumble our way through the words of a few songs with little attention or effort.
How different this is from Paul’s ideal. He saw music as a fountain of spiritual expression, pouring from each believer to glorify God and to build up and encourage fellow Christians. It results from that which is within us — the Spirit of God. It is empowered by our gratitude for God’s abundant blessings.
Such music is truly worship.