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Questions on singing

Where’s the band?

Through song, Christians teach and remind one another about who they really are and what they really believe (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). When done right, congregational singing is moving, beautiful, and meaningful.

In addition to the Scriptures just mentioned, there are plenty of examples of singing in the New Testament (e.g., Matthew 26:30; Acts 16:25; James 5:13; etc.). Amazingly, given how most church groups do it today, there are no examples of singing and playing.

When Paul is trying to show where the church in Corinth has gone horribly wrong in their worship services, he compares what they are doing to “noisy gongs,” “clanging cymbals,” and “lifeless instruments” (1 Corinthians 13:1; 14:7). Contrast this with what he says a few verses later: “I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also” (1 Corinthians 14:15).

Overall, Paul casts a good light on songs sung well and a bad light on instruments played badly. This is not to say that Paul hated musical instruments, but when he was trying to highlight undesirable attitudes and behaviours within the church, he reached for something alien to the church. Instruments, for Paul, were foreign objects. They served as points of comparison, and nothing more.

The New Testament assumes: (a) that Christians will sing; and (b), that instruments are excess to requirements. This view is backed up by historical evidence. Clement of Alexandria, writing toward the end of the 2nd century, associated instruments with noisy parties and war:

The one instrument of peace, the Word alone by which we honour God, is what we employ. We no longer employ the ancient psaltery, and trumpet, and timbrel, and flute, which those expert in war and contemners [condemners] of the fear of God were wont [inclined] to make use of also in the choruses at their festive assemblies; that by such strains they might raise their dejected minds. – The Instructor, AD 198, 2.4

Organs started appearing in cathedrals in the 10th century, but sacred music continued to rely almost exclusively on the human voice. Instrumental accompaniment became more common when composers were able to mimic the parts of music that had traditionally been assigned to singers. By the 17th century, Italian composers began to distinguish between singing and playing versus singing alone. They referred to purely vocal music as a cappella (literally “of the chapel”).

We know our style of worship stands out, but we can’t ignore the simple New Testament command to sing. As soon as someone claps his hands or strums a guitar everyone’s worship is affected whether they like it or not. To do it any differently, we would need to hear a really good Scriptural argument in favour of playing. The usual excuses don’t carry a lot of weight. Doing something because everyone else is doing it has a terrible track record in the Bible (Exodus 23:2; 1 Corinthians 10:5). Doing something just because we like it is equally suspect (Proverbs 21:2; 2 Timothy 4:3).

The Scriptures constantly challenge our motives when it comes to worship. We can only hope and pray that our sacrifice of praise is pleasing to God (John 4:23-24; Galatians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:4). If you think there is something unscriptural about our worship, please let us know.

What about David?

Here are some undeniable Biblical facts: God appointed priests to blow trumpets (Numbers 10:8-10). Lots of psalms call for the use of instruments (e.g., Psalm 33:2-3). David set up a praise band to “play loudly on musical instruments, on harps and lyres and cymbals” (1 Chronicles 15:16). If it was good enough for David and the Temple, surely it is good enough for us and the church, right?

Well, no. But before we go on, let’s be very clear on these two points: David was a chosen man of God (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22), and the Hebrew Scriptures are divinely inspired (Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). It would be wrong to imply that the Old Testament is no longer relevant to Christians. Having said that, the Old Testament also tells us that a new covenant is coming that will replace the old (Jeremiah 31:31-32; Hebrews 8:13). This new agreement came into effect at the moment of Jesus’ death (Hebrews 9:15). So, although the disciples of Christ can learn a lot from Moses and David, they must look first and foremost to the teaching of Christ and his apostles (Ephesians 2:20).

From their teaching we learn that the church is very different from the Temple. Jesus said he would build his church (Matthew 16:18). It would not be a physical building located on a particular plot of ground (John 4:21). The Temple, as a place to offer sacrifices for the sins of the people every year, was replaced by a single sacrificial act of Jesus on the cross (Hebrews 10:11-14).

So, yes, David sang and played. And yes, instruments were used in Temple worship. But we are no longer under that system, which is good news, because it could never completely take away our sins (Galatians 2:15-16). If we reach back into Temple times to justify our music, then we are going to have to reach back and grab everything – Levitical priests, altars, and bleating sheep. We cannot choose the bits of law we like, and leave out the bits of law we don’t like. Put it this way: if we follow David’s instructions to “play loudly on musical instruments,” then we are also going to have to follow Moses’s instructions to “kill the lamb of the guilt offering” (Leviticus 14:25).

One final point: after the destruction of the temple in AD 70, Jews apparently had no interest in recreating Temple music. The introduction of instruments into synagogue services would have to wait until 1818. Opponents in the Jewish community at the time argued against the instrument. They said it should be avoided “as a sign of mourning for the destruction of the Temple” (Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2007, 15:467).

The church is no more synagogue than it is Temple, but we can ask the same question posed by the Jewish rabbis: Is it right to carry on Temple practices without the Temple? Thankfully, Christ settled that question almost two thousand years ago. His work on the cross brought us a better covenant based on better promises – the promises of forgiveness that were never available through the Temple and all its trappings (Hebrews 8:6; 10:4).

What about Revelation?

In the Book of Revelation, John sees both angelic beings and the souls of the faithful holding harps and singing (Revelation 5:8-9; 15:2-4). If it was okay for them to play and sing, then why can’t we play and sing?

First, this is apples and oranges. John is describing events in the throne room of God (Revelation 4:2). A couple of chapters later, in the same vision, we find souls under an altar (Revelation 6:9). This was not a Sunday morning worship service.

Second, we need to tread carefully in the Book of Revelation. John uses highly symbolic language. In chapter 15 the souls of the faithful are holding harps and singing, but in the previous chapter John says that their singing only sounds like harps (Revelation 14:2). In chapter 5, John explains incense as “the prayers of the saints.” If incense represents prayer, then harps could represent singing.

The point is that we are on very shaky exegetical ground if we think the figurative language of Revelation justifies the not-so-figurative use of pianos, guitars, and drums in the worship of the New Testament church. If we are going to be über-literal about Revelation, then each of us would have to sing and play with a harp, and harps only. If that sounds rediculous, it is. It reminds us, once again, that we need to be careful students of God’s word (2 Timothy 2:15).

Questions on the Lord’s Supper

When and how often?

On the night before he was arrested, Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples (Luke 22:7-8,14-15). He took two traditional elements of the meal — unleavened bread and fruit of the vine (grape juice) – and gave them a new meaning. The bread, he said, would represent his body “given for you,” and the fruit of the vine would represent “the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20). Jesus was to become our Passover Lamb, sacrificing himself on the cross to save us from our sins (1 Corinthians 5:7).

The Lord’s Supper became a defining feature of Christian worship. Unfortunately, the Corinthian church was getting it all wrong (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Paul wrote to remind them that it was not the time to satisfy cravings for food and drink, and it should never divide the church. He repeats Jesus’ instructions in verses 24-25, and adds this crucial statement: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

How often? Five times in this section of his letter, Paul uses a Greek verb that means “come together.” In verse 18 he gets very specific: “when you come together as a church.” How would a reasonable person interpret that phrase in light of the Lord’s Supper? Put it this way: if your boss tells you to sign in “when you come to work,” surely you would sign in every time you came to work. If you signed in every second time, or only when you felt like it, you would probably get in trouble.

When? Christians came together to worship on a Sunday. In the Jewish culture of Jesus and his disciples, this was known as the first day of the week. God raised Jesus from the dead on the first day (John 20:19). The church began on the Day of Pentecost, which fell on the first day (Acts 2:1; Leviticus 23:15-16). Paul met with the church at Troas on the first day (Acts 20:7). He instructed the church at Corinth to bring their contributions for famine relief on the first day (1 Corinthians 16:2).

So, the church came together to worship on Sunday, and every time they came together to worship they ate the bread and drank the cup that reminded them of Christ’s sacrifice (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).

Some fear that observing the Lord’s Supper every Sunday will cheapen it. Of course, that could happen with any aspect of worship. Ironically, some of the same churches that skip the Lord’s Supper never skip the collection. What kind of message is that sending? To combat abuse and apathy around the Lord’s table, Paul encouraged each Christian to “examine himself” (1 Corinthians 11:28). As sinners we often fall short of where we should be in our relationship with Christ, but still, he wanted us to remember him every time we meet, until he comes.

Should I take the Lord’s Supper?

The New Testament is very clear about the what and the when of the Lord’s Supper. But it does not tell us the exact mechanics. Some religious groups practice what might called “closed communion”: only recognised members of their group may take the Lord’s Supper.

This is not our approach at South Auckland. We hand around the bread and the grape juice without deciding who should and should not take it. We have a couple of reasons for doing it like this. The first is practical: we may not recognise every visitor in the audience. Is someone a faithful Christian who needs to take the Lord’s Supper, or not? Since we cannot always answer that question, we welcome all to gather around the table (Hebrews 13:2; 3 John 5).

Second, Paul’s warning about self-examination applies to everyone who eats the bread and drinks the cup (1 Corinthians 11:28). He was obviously aiming this instructions at Christians who had all been baptised into the body of Christ, i.e., the church (1 Corinthians 12:13,27; see also Colossians 1:18). Someone who has not been baptised into his death (Romans 6:4) is not in the best position to commemorate his body (1 Corinthians 10:16; 11:29). But not everyone who shows up at our services knows this or understands this. At least, not yet. Faith is a journey, and wanting to share in the Lord’s Supper is surely a step in the right direction. Again, for us as a church, the default response should be one of hospitality and kindness (Galatians 6:10).

Bottom line: it is up to you, but those who have not been washed by the blood of the Passover Lamb (Revelation 7:14) are under no obligation to remember or celebrate that sacrifice.

Questions on giving

What about tithing?

For some people, “tithing” simply means giving money to the church. For others, “to tithe,” in the strict sense of the word, means to give a tenth of one’s income to the church. In some extreme cases it means extracting a commitment from members to raise a certain amount of money for the church, and then coming after them if it doesn’t show up in the offering plate on Sunday. That is certainly not the practice here at South Auckland.

Back in the Old Testament, Abram offered a tenth of everything he owned to the priest Melchizedek (Genesis 14:20). Jacob promised a tenth of what God had given him (Genesis 28:22). Under the Law of Moses, the people of Israel were to give a tenth of their goods to the Levites to support them in their service to God (Numbers 18:21).

In the Gospels, Jesus commended the Pharisees for tithing, but criticised them for neglecting “the weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42). He also laid the groundwork for thinking beyond quantities or percentages. A widow dropped a couple of tiny coins into the collection box at the Temple but, Jesus notes, she still gave “everything she had” (Mark 12:44). The point was not that we should give 100% instead of 10%, but that quiet sacrifice is better than showy displays of righteousness.

At his death on the cross, Christ’s New Covenant replaced the Old Covenant (Hebrews 8:13; 9:16). The Law of Moses, with its rules for supporting Levites and the Temple, went away. From Acts 2 on, we never read about tithing in the church. Christians sold possessions to support the work of the church (Acts 2:45; 4:36-37). Christians raised funds to help out with famine relief (Acts 11:28; Romans 15:26). Everyone gave “according to his ability” (Acts 11:29), “as he may prosper” (1 Corinthians 16:2), and “according to their means,” or even “beyond their means” (2 Corinthians 8:3). But the New Testament never tells us the exact amount or percentage.

Today, Christians may decide that they want to give exactly 10%. Others might decide on 5% or 16.67%. The exact amount or percentage does not matter. What matters is that we give proportionally, generously, willingly, purposefully, and cheerfully (2 Corinthians 8:3; 9:7,13).

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