Are Choirs Authorized in the New Testament?
The employment of choirs and specialized singing groups in the worship assemblies of the church have long been resisted by our brethren upon the basis of the lack of biblical authority for their use. Since the Bible demands authority for every practice we would engage ourselves in (Colossians 3:17), and since there is no passage which would authorize their use, we have consistently withstood this innovation.
Recently, though, some have advocated their use by citing certain “one another” passages in the New Testament. The argument is made that since we are to confess our faults one to another (James 5:16), which implies one confessing to the assembly, then one may sing to the assembly as well, because we are commanded to be involved in “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16). Some preachers are citing I Corinthians 14:26 and James 5:13 as authorization for special singing groups in the assembly. Citation is then given to Paul and Silas singing while others listened (Acts 16:25). Many are now jumping on the bandwagon, believing these are the definitive answers on the subject. Yet, such is simply not the case, as these passages do not imply what has been inferred by advocates of specialized singing groups in the assembly.
First, the confession of wrong and the singing of songs are not parallel activities. If they were, then the confession of faults could be uttered by everyone at the same time or they could be confessed individually. Since it is simply absurd to suggest that the confession of faults could possibly be carried out by everyone at the same time, though the singing of a song certainly can be, it then must be understood that these activities are not truly parallel in this regard. Too, the reflexive pronoun “one another” indicates an interchange of action. While confessing one must be silent to hear and understand. But singing involves the harmony of minds upon the same message which is easily followed by the entire assembly. To be involved in the command of singing, all must sing. To be involved in the interchange of the confession, one must, by implication, only hear. This crucial difference simply must be understood.
Second, if specialized singing groups in the assembly are authorized by citing teaching passages, then what about I Timothy 2:12, which says, “But I suffer not a woman to teach, not to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence”? Many of these choirs have women utilized in them. If argument is made that these groups simply teach, then women are placed in a teaching position over men because many men will be silent as women teach them. This is a clear violation of Scripture. I do not for one moment believe that specialized singing groups are authorized in the public worship services of the church; yet, if they are, which is simply counterfactual, they must not use women. Since all are to sing, and by women singing over men they violate the Scripture, no special singing group utilizing women is authorized in the Scripture. This should be clear as a bell.
Third, the supposed example of Paul and Silas singing while others heard does not imply what some have concluded. If this is an approved example of some listening while others sang in worship assemblies, then it also follows that some need never sing which is a violation of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. The Acts 16 account is parallel to a visitor attending a worship service and choosing not to sing, or someone who might find him walking by a church service and then “hear the singing.” If the prisoners had joined in the singing, who would suggest that Paul and Silas would have stopped them and instructed them only to listen? Yet that would be the true parallel to specialized singing groups today. Nowhere does the Bible authorize anyone to assemble to hear someone else sing.
Fourth, 1 Corinthians 14:26 says, “How is it then, brethren? when ye come together every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.” Some are arguing that since each individual had a “psalm” they were individually sung to the assembly. This does not follow. Paul was correcting their attitude. Each of the spiritually gifted at Corinth was asked a question. Why would they each have a psalm? Why would they each insist on singing their psalm or leading their psalm? They should have been concerned about edification. Neither does James 5:13 offer support for solo and choir singing. James simply states two alternative activities in lieu of two different circumstances. The passage says “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry, let him sing psalms.” Since Paul also encouraged us to weep with them that weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15), we must understand that if others are weeping and praying, we should weep and pray with them. If others are singing, we should sing with them.
Fifth, the specialized singing groups simply do not satisfy the requirements of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. The reciprocal pronoun demands a dynamic that is not satisfied by only a few singing. Some argue that if the whole congregation sings sometime during the worship all requirements of Scripture have been met. This, however, is not sound reasoning. If there is an allowance for singing groups in a part of the worship service, then for at least that part of the assembly, something less than God has commanded is being practiced. What if we do more than what God commands (mechanical instrumental music) for part of the worship service? If less is practiced than God has commanded, that practice is simply too little. If more is being practiced than God has commanded, too much is being practiced (Revelation 22:18-19). If God only demands our carrying out his will for a portion of the time, then in reality we need only have congregational singing once during our lives, and then the special singing groups could take over.
Sixth, the testimony from history tells us that specialized singing groups were an innovation to the simple worship services of the church. Henry Hart Milman in his History of Christianity, Volume 3, says, “The first change in the manner of singing was the substitution of singers, who became a special order in the church, for the mingled voices of all ranks, ages, and sexes, which was compared by the great reformer of church music to the glad sound of many waters” (page 409). According to McClintock and Strong in their Cyclopedia in Volume 9, page 776, “From the apostolic age singing was always a part of divine service, in which the whole body of the church joined together: and it was the decay of this practice that first brought the order of singers into the church.” Just like instrumental mechanical music, choir music came later than the pure worship offered to God by congregational singing.
Finally, the move to choirs and specialized singing groups in our worship assemblies has come as a result of our desire to be entertained. They originated with that desire, and they continue because of that desire. Worship is for edification, not entertainment. The emphasis of preaching ought to be on the substance of the message rather than the phraseology and elocution. So too, our singing ought to emphasize involvement and the meaning of the message rather than the esthetics of a choir. When Noah offered to God of every clean beast and fowl that had survived the flood, the roasting fires that burnt the animal flesh became repugnant to human nostrils, but to God it was called “a sweet savor” (Genesis 8:22). May we never substitute the divine for the carnal, nor respond to any innovation with the inclinations of fickle emotions, but only by the divine blood-sealed covenant of our Lord who demands His followers to worship Him in spirit and in truth.