Corporate worship is one of the fundamental purposes and actions of the church. Unfortunately, that which should unite us together in praise of the triune God often serves as a wedge to divide the people of God across fault lines of age, socioeconomic status, and personal preference. We often make decisions concerning the various aspects of corporate worship without searching the Scriptures to determine the priorities that God places on this central action of His body.
In His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, Jesus emphasizes the divine priority of worship when He utters the incredible statement, “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24). Here, Jesus describes authentic worship as that which is offered to the Father in spirit and in truth. Astoundingly, the Father is searching for those who will offer Him this type of worship. We must continually evaluate and adjust our worship practices in light of these Scriptural mandates.
Throughout his letters to the churches in Asia Minor, Paul continues to unpack the meaning of Christian worship. In the Epistle to the Romans, he locates the fundamental problem of humanity in its false worship whereby “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). He spends considerable time correcting faulty worship attitudes and practices throughout 1 Corinthians. It is the twin Pauline passages found in Colossians and Ephesians that speak of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” that provide us the best vantage point from which to examine the Pauline understanding of biblical worship through song.
Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father (Colossians 3:16-17).
This passage demonstrates that the Word of Christ—the truth of the Gospel about Christ—should indwell the music of the church. This means that the Gospel should permeate the lyrical content of what we sing together as believers. In the School of Church Music at Southwestern Seminary, we train men and women who will serve God in a variety of capacities, with many of them serving as worship and music leaders in their churches. One of the priorities that we emphasize countless times is the pastoral responsibility they bear as they place the Word of God on the lips of the people of God.
Music possesses tremendous power to guide the thoughts and affections of those who listen and, more importantly, actively participate. Singing the truth of the Word of God drives these doctrines deep into the minds and hearts of the congregation. It is necessary and beneficial for the people of God to express their love, devotion, and need for God, but often the music of the church can lack the revealed truth of the Bible. Just as we urge preachers to “let the Word speak,” so also must we “let the Word sing”!
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ (Ephesians 5:18-21).
This parallel passage in Ephesians similarly emphasizes singing to the Lord with thankfulness, but the prominence shifts from the work of Christ to that of the Spirit. Here, we are commanded to be filled with the Spirit as we address each other and sing to the Lord. Paul concludes by instructing believers to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. These dual mandates teach us a powerful truth: Worship is corporate in nature, and the Spirit uses our times of worship to shape us into the image of Christ.
Corporate worship is not just a collection of individuals who happen to be worshiping God in the same room. When we lift up our voices to praise the Lord together, we are united in spirit and in faith. In fact, corporate times of singing are the only times when we are all doing the same thing at the same time. The Spirit of God uses these experiences to mold us into the body of Christ, where we set aside our stylistic preferences for the good of the body and the sake of the Kingdom of God.
Sing praise to the Lord, you His godly ones, and give thanks to His holy name (Psalm 30:4).
Let the Word of God be on our lips as we sing praises to Him, and let the Spirit move among us as He becomes more and more the object of our worship!