All that’s fit to sing

“Let me write the songs of a nation–I don’t care who writes its laws.” -Andrew Fletcher

From time to time a member of the Merritt brood will make a comment or ask a question that gives rise to a 10-15 minute family colloquy. The most recent one arose when one of the teenagers called into question the biblical accuracy of a (currently) popular Christian song and the appropriateness of using said song in a music set at church.

While we took the time to address specific lines in the song, we also used it as an opportunity to talk more broadly about how we ought to think about music in the church. I don’t remember everything that was said but the discussion set me to thinking on a verse that ought to play a larger role in these friendly music critiques.

Colossians 3:16 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. {NAS}

Two observations are in order. First, “teaching and admonishing one another . . .” helps to explain the command “let the word of Christ richly dwell within you.” Most likely we’re to understand this teaching/admonishing either as the command’s result (i.e. what happens when the word dwells in us) or as its means (i.e. how we let the word dwell in us). Either way, the point is that the teaching & correction Paul has in mind is decidedly Word-based. Second, this Word-based teaching & correction is done in the church’s singing.

Certain implications follow when we consider the relationship of singing to biblical instruction:

  1. Our songs ought to articulate biblical truth. By this I do not mean that the only viable songs consist of Scripture set to music (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Rather, our songs should be more like a good sermon, declaring and expounding what God has revealed in his word. Practically, this means avoiding songs that are so theologically impoverished that we can only commend them on the ground that “there’s nothing wrong with it.” We need more than “not wrong” for teaching and correction. [Try this thought experiment: if you removed the sermon from your church service, how deeply and how clearly would your singing preach the glory of God and His saving work in Christ?]
  2. We sing to each other. “Singing for an audience of One” turns out to be too narrow a view of what the church is doing when it sings together. Yes, we’re singing to the Lord but we’re also singing to one another. In this light, the relative merit of a song turns not only on what it says to me but on what it says to the member next to me. And if I’m singing for the other’s instruction an unmistakably clear message should be the order of the day. Let’s drop the ambiguous and innocuous and clamor for something with definition and depth. If our songs leave every man to interpret what is right in his own eyes we’re missing the mark.
  3. Our singing is formative. Good teaching is more concerned with long term results than momentary effects and we need more of this perspective as we sift and select our church music. Too much singing these days is short-sighted and one dimensional as if our main concern is setting a positive tone for this particular gathering. If even a good song can ring hollow when confronted by the vagaries of a sojourning life, we ought to consider the benefits of diversifying our music catalog. Otherwise, how will we sing under the shadow of death? What songs will give us a meaningful response to spiritual (or clinical) depression? When will we sing of the cost of discipleship?

Say the Word. Pray the Word. Sing the Word.

Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Associate pastor for education at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian and theological Luddite. A student of one book.

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