Jeremy Sarber On Life & Scripture
Jeremy Sarber

Music in worship is overrated

I like music as much as the next guy, but the contemporary church gives it more weight than our ancient counterpart.

I like music as much as the next guy, but the contemporary church gives it more weight than our ancient counterpart.

According to Justin Martyr, writing in the 2nd century, a typical worship service opened with a greeting by the bishop. A deacon chanted an Old Testament passage to which the congregation responded with Alleluia” or Amen.” A deacon chanted a New Testament passage. Again, the congregation responded with affirmation. A deacon read a passage from one of the Gospels. The bishop preached his sermon. If any unbelievers were present, they were dismissed before the church prayed and participated in the Lord’s Supper. The bishop offered a benediction to end the nearly three-hour service.

When the early church incorporated music, they chanted more than sang. Even then, the lyrics were words of Scripture. Christians didn’t begin writing and singing original songs until at least the 4th century. They didn’t use musical instruments until much later. As Theodoret of Cyrrhus wrote in the 5th century:

Question: It was unbelievers who invented songs, and their intent was deceitful (Ge 4:21). God then ordained songs under the Jewish Law because of the childish state of their minds. So why do Christians, to whom God has given the perfect teachings of grace (which are quite contrary to Pagan and Jewish customs), still sing in the churches, like childish Jews under the Law? Answer: Simple singing is not childish. It is singing with lifeless organs, dancing, cymbals, etc, that is childish. So we Christians renounce these instruments and other things fit only for children. We retain only simple singing.

While I disagree with Theodoret’s interpretation of musical history in the Old Testament, not to mention his disapproval of instruments, he provides insight into the feelings of the early church. We may have the liberty to use instruments in worship, but our forefathers in the faith did not believe they were necessary.

As significant and potentially God-glorifying as music may be, if it is the centerpiece of our worship, we should reorder our priorities, especially when the songs we sing are sub-biblical. The Reformers moved the pulpit to the front and center of the church for a good reason.