Hands on piano

Christian singing: Why and how? (Ephesians 5:19–20)

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Lionel Windsor
Lionel Windsor lectures in New Testament at Moore College, Sydney.

Music is part of who we are as human beings. We all know that music stirs the soul and engages the heart. But music isn’t just something that happens to us. Music is something we do: human beings sing! Of course, not all of us are very good at keeping a tune (I’m certainly not). But most of us still sing—or at least we hum along under our breath to the tunes we hear others sing. Indeed, human beings often sing together. This has been true of societies down through the ages. Whether it’s folk tunes, anthems, or chants at sporting events, singing has brought people together, stirred hearts and souls, and enabled people to express together what they love and long for.

In some ways, modern technology has changed how we in our Western society engage with music. We now have instant access to a huge range of music from around the world, recorded for our convenience so we can play it back at leisure and listen in private. As a result, we can each pick and choose and consume our music according to our individual tastes. This means that the phenomenon of singing together—using our voices to sing one song with others near to us—is becoming less common in our modern world. On one bus or on one street corner, you’re likely to find fifty people with ear pods listening to fifty different songs, rather than a group of people all singing the same song.

This means that the age-old Christian practice of singing together is becoming a little strange and antiquated in our world. I play the piano, and I’ve been involved in church music for many years, serving as a musician and music leader in various contexts. One thing I’ve noticed is that when visitors who aren’t familiar with church come and join us, they can find the whole idea of people singing together a little bit foreign and uncomfortable. Yet despite its strangeness, we still do it. Why do we Christians resist the modern trend towards individualising music and keep singing together when we meet? Why does singing together matter to us so much?

Hands on piano

In these verses from Ephesians, the apostle Paul says some important things about Christian singing. What Paul says here helps us to see why Christians sing together. It also helps us to understand a little more about how we should sing together.

Speak to one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making music with your heart to the Lord, constantly giving thanks for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to our God and Father.

Ephesians 5:19–20

Spirit-fulfilled singing

First let’s look at why Christians sing. Christian singing is a result of what Paul has just spoken about in the previous verse: “be fulfilled by the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18).  In Ephesians, being “fulfilled by the Spirit” is about becoming who we were made to be, for the sake of God and his purposes. God has a great plan for his world “to sum up all things in Christ” (Ephesians 1:10). We believers play a key part in this plan as Christ’s “body”, the church. Although the final fulfilment of God’s plan won’t happen until the last day when Christ returns, nevertheless, even now, through his Holy Spirit, God is bringing us towards fulfilment, enabling us to live for him and his purposes (Ephesians 3:18–19). As this happens, we have some work to do, building one another up and growing together as Christ’s body (Ephesians 4:13). Yet this is not ultimately our own work; it’s God’s work. God’s Spirit brings us to believe in Christ and strengthens us in Christ. And in these verses, we see that one important result of being fulfilled by the Spirit is that we sing!

This tells us something very significant about Christian singing. Our singing, by itself, doesn’t cause God’s Spirit to work in us. Rather, it’s the opposite: the Spirit’s work in us through the gospel causes us to sing! This is, unfortunately, one of the fundamental and serious errors of Bethel Music, a large and influential music publisher in the USA. They see it as their task to create “worship songs that carry God’s presence” to worshippers, and worship events “to host His [i.e. God’s] presence”.[1] But our singing does not carry God’s presence—instead, Christ’s presence among us, by his Spirit, through faith in his word, “carries” us. God’s Spirit leads us to sing praises to the God who saved us. If we get it the wrong way around, our singing will end up replacing the role of God’s Holy Spirit. We will feel we need to work ourselves up into a certain emotional state through our singing, so that we can bring God’s presence down to earth. This is disastrous for our faith, because it makes our own emotional state, rather than the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the measure of God’s presence among us. In fact, the idea that our own activities can “carry” God and his presence is ultimately idolatrous: the true God carries us; we don’t carry him (see, for example, Isaiah 46:1–­4)![2]

Why, then, do we sing? We don’t sing to cause God to work in us. We sing because God is at work in us, by his Spirit, bringing us to trust and know the Lord Jesus Christ through the message of the gospel. Singing is the result of this work of God in our lives.

The horizontal dimension

The first few words Paul uses to describe singing might sound a little strange at first glance. He doesn’t start by saying “sing to God”, but “speak to one another”. In other words, our singing is a form of speech to one another. This means singing has an important horizontal dimension. Singing involves building one another up through the use of words (see also Colossians 3:16).

By using the word “speak”, Paul is here deliberately connecting the idea of Christian singing with all the things he has already said in Ephesians about Christian speech. Our Christian life together involves “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) to one another. This means speaking the gospel of Jesus Christ (see Ephesians 1:13), speaking the implications of the gospel, and speaking in a gospel-shaped way within the network of loving relationships characterised by God’s love for us in Jesus. We’re to build one another up with the truth of the gospel, rather than get carried away by false teachings and “empty words”. We are to speak the truth rather than lies to one another (Ephesians 4:25). We are to speak words that point people to Jesus and build them up in him (Ephesians 4:29–30). Speaking to one another in this way is at the core of our lives together as Christians.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

So Paul describes singing as a form of speech to one another. This has important implications for how we understand and practice singing. Christian singing is not simply a private, individual experience. It’s not even a private, individual experience among others having their own private, individual experiences in the same room. It’s not just about building ourselves up as individuals; rather it’s about being built together as the body of Christ. That means our practice of singing should not involve shutting others off: for example, we should not spend our singing time at church closing ourselves off from others, only concentrating on our own individual experience. As we sing, we should be opening ourselves to one another, to build others up and to be in turn built up by others. Christian singing is not about each individual singing individual words to himself or herself. Rather, it’s about everybody singing the same, intelligible, gospel-focused words together, building one another up in God’s word.

What are we to sing? Paul here mentions “psalms”, “hymns”, and “(spiritual) songs”. He’s not talking here about three different forms of song. All three terms are commonly used in the Old Testament to describe pretty much the same thing: Israel’s response of praise and worship to God. But the three different words help us to see that there are different aspects of the one activity of singing.

The personal dimension

The word “psalm” helps us to focus on the musical aspect of singing (a “psalm” was originally a song accompanied by stringed instruments; it’s related to the phrase “making music”). That is, when it comes to singing, the musical aspect is important. Why? Well, there’s just something about music, isn’t there? Music has a power to affect us. It gets under our skin and stirs our souls. Music helps us to engage at a deep, emotional level with the truths of the gospel. It is particularly powerful when it’s used to help us to consciously engage our whole beings—our minds, wills, and affections—with the truth of the gospel. The emotional power of music is a wonderful gift from God!

Image by Alberto Bigoni on Unsplash

Now because music is so powerful, there are dangers associated with it. For example, music can be used to manipulate our emotions and bypass our minds and wills. This happens when the music itself, rather than the truth of the gospel, dominates the experience—when repetition or volume or other musical devices are used to overwhelm the experience, so that the words themselves become largely irrelevant. We need to resist this danger.

Another danger associated with the deeply emotional power of music is that music can divide us. We all come to church with different past experiences and different emotional reactions to different kinds music. This is where we need to remember that singing is not just about ourselves, but about one another. As God’s people gathered together, we need to sing a variety of songs and song types, so that all of us, with our varied preferences and experiences, have a chance to engage our whole beings with the truths of the gospel. We need to keep bearing with each other and forgiving each other in this. It’s a profound act of love to sing a song that isn’t your style for the sake of a brother or sister who loves that style and will be built up by it.

The vertical dimension

The word “hymns” helps us to see another very important dimension: the vertical dimension. A hymn is a song of praise to God: praising God for who he is and what he has done. That means theology really matters when it comes to singing. Singing is, in fact, one of the most powerful and effective ways to learn theology. Singing the truths about God and his actions helps to drive these truths deep into our hearts. That’s why Paul uses the phrase “spiritual songs”. The word “spiritual” isn’t referring to “spontaneous” songs, or to a certain kind of musical style. It means a song that comes about through the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s a song that points us to the Lord Jesus Christ and God the Father—a song that speaks the truth about God and teaches us to learn and love that truth. This is a key way the Holy Spirit works in our lives (see Ephesians 1:17–18).

This is why we must make sure that those involved in leading music and choosing songs in our churches have excellent theological training. Christian music is one of the most powerful and enduring ways to teach theology. Singing gets under our skin and into our souls. So the words really matter, at a detailed level. We repeat those words again and again and learn to love them. Have you found yourself singing or humming a song from church during the week, not knowing why it’s popped into your head? Or when you are struggling all you can call to mind are the words of a hymn? Music ministry, therefore, is profoundly theological. That means we need to look for music leaders who are theologically astute, and keep giving them all we can to help them grow in theological depth and insight.

Paul says to sing “with your heart to the Lord”. Today, we often use the word “heart” to refer to our emotions. But in the Bible, the “heart” is much more than that: it’s a way of referring to our whole being—who we are inside. It encompasses our minds, our wills, our consciences, and our affections. When Paul talks about singing with our “heart”, he is saying that our singing is to come from who we are inside: the person God has made us in Christ. In his letter so far, Paul has already said some important things about what God does with the “hearts” of believers. Through the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, believers have had “the eyes of [our] hearts enlightened”—that is, we have come to know God’s great purposes and plans (Ephesians 1:18). And as the Holy Spirit works in us, bringing us to believe in that gospel word and grow in hope and love, Christ is present among us: he “dwell[s] in [our] hearts through faith” (Ephesians 3:17). As our hearts are renewed more and more, that should overflow in song to the God who saved us and loves us.

Singing and grace

Finally, we should always remember that Christian singing flows from God’s grace. Straight after he talks about singing, Paul says we should be “constantly giving thanks for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to our God and Father”. Thanksgiving is about responding to God’s grace to us (see Ephesians 5:4). It’s about being thankful for his gift of salvation, and thankful for all the gifts that God has richly provided us with in this world. Singing is part of our whole life of thanksgiving. This is why we need to make sure our singing as Christians is not isolated from the rest of our lives. Singing praise to God is meant to lead us into whole lives of thanksgiving. If we sing praises to God and then straight afterwards grumble or complain, we’ve forgotten what we’ve sung and are denying the truths we sing.

So what do these verses tell us about the why and how of Christian singing? Singing flows from being fulfilled by the Spirit. This helps us to see why we sing. It also helps us to see how we should sing. Singing has a horizonal dimension, as we speak to one another in song, building up and encouraging one another in God’s grace. It has a deeply personal dimension, as it engages our whole heart, including our emotions, responding to God’s grace. And it has a vertical, theological, dimension, as we sing about and to God himself, on the basis of his grace to us in Jesus Christ.

For reflection

Christians sing together as a result of God’s work in our lives by his Holy Spirit. How does this encourage you as you gather in church to sing?

Consider your own practice of Christian singing. Are you neglecting any of the dimensions that Paul describes here: the horizontal dimension, the personal dimension, the vertical dimension?

[1] https://bethelmusic.com/about/ cited September 2019.

[2] Bill Johnson, president and co-founder of Bethel Music, describes God’s “Presence” as a kind of physical manifestation that can be brought to earth by Christian music and ministry, and can inhabit buildings even after a worship session is over. Johnson writes, “I’ve seen this myself when we’ve rented a particular facility for church services, only to have the people who use it afterward comment on the Presence that remains… I can’t think of any greater privilege than to carry the Presence of the Holy Spirit into this world and then look for open doors to release Him” (Bill Johnson, Hosting the Presence: Unveiling Heaven’s Agenda; Destiny Image 2012,p. 168).

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Want more?

This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, by following this link.

The academic details behind these reflections

Reading Ephesians & Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ's Mission through Israel to the Nations

In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.