Question #14: What do you think of a compromise position between hymns and Psalms in worship? My church allows the singing of hymns before the Call to Worship and after the benediction, but only Psalms during the formal worship service.
For the Encouragement and Preservation of Biblical Worship
6 thoughts on “Question #14: What do you think of a compromise position between hymns and Psalms in worship? My church allows the singing of hymns before the Call to Worship and after the benediction, but only Psalms during the formal worship service.”
I have known several churches that have attempted this “compromise” position in their worship services. It seems to be an order of worship that is allowable for worshipers who are EP and those who are non-EP. In the end, however, I do not think the effort to combine hymns and Psalms in this manner is a beneficial compromise. The following are the reasons why:
Reason #1: It seems to me to be based upon a misunderstanding of the “Call to Worship”. Basically, the argument for combining hymns and Psalms is that since the hymns come before the Call to Worship they are not technically part of the worship service. This seems to be a very contrived assumption. After all, the people of God have gathered at the appropriate time and in the appropriate place for the purpose of worshiping God. Together in one voice the people begin to sing songs about God and about their love for Christ. For five to ten minutes, this singing continues on and yet somehow this is not worship because the “Call to Worship” has not been read? What then is the purpose of these hymns if not to worship? What biblical justification is there for God’s people being gathered for worship and singing to God, but somehow this is not worship? If we were to gather for worship at 10:00 am and at 10:01 we read the Call to Worship, I can understand how we might say that worship begins when the Call is read. At the same time, I cannot understand how after ten minutes of singing we are not already worshiping in the presence of God.
The Call to Worship is a formal recognition of something that has already happened. By declaring God’s Call to Worship we are in fact worshiping God by the very fact that we have gathered together as one body in His presence. I do not think it is wise for the leaders of the church to give the impression that we can do as we please before the Call to Worship, as though this particular period of time is somehow unobserved by God or that it is outside of the governance of the Regulative Principle.
Reason #2: The singing of both hymns and Psalms presents a confusing message to the people of God. As an elder of the church, by singing both hymns and Psalms I am teaching the people certain things by my actions. First, I am teaching the people that it is acceptable to compose and sing hymns, an act that is not authorized by Scripture. Secondly, I am teaching the people that the hymns chosen have inherently greater value than the inspired Psalms because these hymns have taken the place of Psalms that could have been sung in their place. Thirdly, I am teaching the people that we are not really worshiping until after the Call to Worship. Fourthly, I am teaching the people that my convictions about Psalmody are really not that important, after all, since I am willing to sing hymns along with them. Fifthly, I am teaching the people that God is not really that concerned about how we worship him or that the Regulative Principle is simply a “technical” rule that we can work our way around by shifting certain elements within our worship gathering.
These may seem like harsh statements, but children and newer Christians do not understand the fine distinctions that we are making when we talk about what is allowed before or after the Call to Worship. They simply see that we are singing hymns and they understand them as being acceptable to God. Most seminary-taught ministers do not understand these distinctions, so I would be wrong to expect the congregation to understand such things. Simply put, I do not want to teach the items listed above as a part of my teaching ministry. My understanding of God is that He is very concerned about how we worship him. The leaders of the church should be very concerned about how they communicate to the weaker members with their actions. A wise and godly leader will should approach the matter of worship with great reverence and a knowledge that every man is naturally inclined to profane worship. Let us not confuse our flocks in such an important matter as approaching God in worship.
Simply put, this concession presents a very confusing message to the people of God. It is an effort to take a position between two opposing views. But in the end, instead of teaching the best of two opposing views you actually remove the essential meaning of both.
We also must mention that the very suggestion of the compromise presents the assumption that there may be some validity to the exclusive Psalmody argument. This is implied by the desire to exclude hymns from the “formal” worship service. If this is done simply to appease a certain portion of the congregation who may be convinced of exclusive Psalmody, this is not a healthy compromise for elders to offer for the benefit of these church members because of the reasons listed above. If the compromise is instead to “hedge our bets in case we’re wrong”, again the reasoning is flawed. An elder who takes this second approach needs to invest more time in the study of biblical worship. We should not develop confusing blended worship scenarios to cover the fact that we as elders have not studied an issue as much as we should or even to cover our own indecisiveness on matters of worship.
Reason #3: The singing of hymns before the Call to Worship fails to consider if hymns ought to be sung at all. If singing hymns while gathered for worship is in itself displeasing to God, it matters not that they come before the Call to Worship. The Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) states that we are to do that which is commanded by God in public worship. We are commanded to sing Psalms but we are never commanded in Scripture to compose hymns or to sing them. I understand there is debate over this point among Reformed people, I am simply pointing out that the singing of the hymns at all assumes that the position is settled and that their composition is allowed.
Reason #4: The singing of both hymns and Psalms assumes there is little value in distinguishing between the two. If we are willing to do both, it must mean that the Exclusive Psalmody debate is a “tempest in a teapot” and not a meaningful discussion for us to have in our churches. It also seems to devalue those who have given their lives in the history of the Reformed Church for the right to sing Psalms. I, however, do think the discussion is worthy of our time and effort. If God desires us to sing Psalms, it is our duty to obey. If others perceive us negatively because of our obedience, then we wear the badge with honor.
Reason #5: The singing of hymns together with the Psalms presents a moral dilemma for those who are convinced that only Psalms should be sung in worship. By approving the singing of hymns, people like myself are forced to choose in a public setting if we are willing to violate our consciences or not. The elders of the church should not put their people in this position. No one is put in a moral dilemma if the Psalms alone are sung. If someone in the church is convinced that both hymns and Psalms are to be sung, they do not have their consciences violated by singing only Psalms. Everyone [assumed] permits the singing of Psalms. Many may be irritated by not singing hymns, but this is not a violation of conscience. Instead, the irritation would be only a sign that their personal preference has not been realized. There is a great difference between our personal preferences and the violation of a person’s conscience. With the subtle distinction that is made with the singing of hymns before the Call to Worship, you actually are creating a more precarious moral dilemma. For someone who is convinced that only Psalms should be sung, they are actually singing hymns that are displeasing to God and they don’t realize it because the elders have given their approval of the worship order.
Reason #6: As a minister, the singing of hymns and Psalms would be teaching my children contrary to my beliefs. Reason 2 above mentioned that it would present a confusing message, but even if I conceded that somehow this was not true, I still have a higher responsibility to teach my own family. I could never convince my children of the importance of singing the Psalms if I allowed them to sing hymns in or before worship every week. By the very singing of them they are learning them. I grew up singing hymns and I don’t want my children to learn them any more. I want them to have their hearts and minds filled with the Psalms when they grow up and start their own families. Singing hymns at all for our family is not an option. I realize others may not have such convictions, but they have the option of teaching their own children whatever they wish outside of the church setting. It is not my business if hymns are sung in the homes of others, but it is my business what my own children are taught. I do not wish to be placed in a position where my children are taught something at church that I do not allow them to be taught at home.
Reason #7: The singing of hymns in general has always been a means to bring false doctrine into the church. Even when we go to great lengths to allow only “good” and doctrinally sound hymns into the church, we still are constructing and supporting a system that perpetuates the production of new songs. As long as this production continues the church is threatened by those who do not share our confessional moorings. We must confess that all songs do not have bad content, but the very existence of modern popular hymnody is a threat to confessional Reformed theology. Most of the songs that we may consider to be “good” were written by men (or women) we would not allow to preach in our pulpits (Isaac Watts, John Newton, Charles Wesley, Fanny Crosby, etc.). The elders of the church are charged with the responsibility of guarding the people from falsehoods that creep into the church, no matter how subtle. It is wisdom that recognizes how subtle heresy can be.
Reason #8: The singing of hymns before the Call to Worship can be seen to violate the Reformed understanding of the Sabbath. For those who are convinced of the EP position, the singing of hymns before the Call to Worship is not a valid proposal because the hymn is not only disallowed in worship, it is disallowed on the Sabbath. EP worshipers who hold to a confessional view of the Sabbath might also insist that hymns are a violation of the Lord’s Day because there is no authorization for their composition and they could be seen as a form of entertainment rather than a form of praise. Hymns are man-made compositions that replace God’s compositions, a proposal that seems undesirable on any day of the week, but especially on the Day that belongs to the Lord. Not all EPers would suggest this, however, but for many this is a valid concern.
Reason #9: The proposal to sing only Psalms is more pastoral because it takes into consideration the spiritual well being of the congregation, while the compromise view does not.
To disallow the “compromise” position may appear to some to be harsh. I would say that these conclusions are simply consistent with a biblical understanding of worship. I also understand that the motives for allowing the compromise position are often genuine, I just don’t think they accomplish what they desire to accomplish. For the health of the church, it seems to me that it would be better to choose one way to worship instead of trying to merge together two opposing views. (Obviously I would be opposed to singing only hymns, but I am suggesting that I dislike the assumption that somehow the compromise position has “solved” the Exclusive Psalmody vs. hymnody debate. It hasn’t)
I am sure there are other reasons to list, this is just some rambling for the sake of discussion.
The best way of worship, of course, is the way that God has commanded, not the way that man prefers.
Dear Pastor Mark,
I am in a church that does both. I submit to my elder and pastor who allow both, but thank you for explaining your exclusivity. Somehow I am sad about what I perceive as the defensiveness of this post, although I am sure you meant to come across very constructively.
Worship will be perfect one day when we all proclaim “worthy is the lamb”. Won’t it be grand! Sort of wonder if that phrase is in a Psalm.
All of life can be worship. When my husband and I were in a serious crash recently, we worshipped. We thanked God that He spared us for whatever reason He has for us to still be here. This will be part of our thoughts in and out of church for months to come. Hopefully He will be pleased to accept the gratitude of our hearts.
Thank you for your comments. There is no defensiveness intended, for that I apologize if it comes across that way. Some of the things we discuss on this site are a little hard to discuss without bringing offense of some kind. I was trying to be direct and to list some of the less-than-obvious dangers that reside within a position with good intentions. I believe this approach to worship (what I’ve called the “compromise approach”) is trying to do something that it cannot do. It cannot bring together two opposing views. One is right, one is wrong.
There really is no way around the fact that I believe the issue of exclusive Psalmody is a matter of obedience vs. disobedience. I state that in the kindest way possible, though I regularly fellowship and love fellow Christians who disagree with this. If I believe someone is disobeying God by singing hymns, it would certainly be negligent and even unloving myself if I were to keep silent. The gospel itself is of a similar nature. It is offensive. It implies someone is heading in the wrong direction and that the end result is very bad. We dare not keep silent on issues that affect the soul, the conscience or the preservation of the church.
I hope to promote frank but profitable discussions here. I am not always good at that, but I am always willing to try harder for the sake of unity. I certainly agree that we are all looking forward to that day when our worship will be free from the sinfulness that we bring into it. None of us worships as we ought. This is why I place our worship under the intense light of the Scripture. Sometimes it burns a little, but it always exposes what it ought to.
Another thing to note is that this site exists specifically for these types of difficult exchanges. I don’t really feel the debate over EP vs. non-EP is appropriate within the context of most church gatherings. For example, I would not come into a church that does not practive EP and attempt to create a scene or some sort of debate. That would not be profitable for the cause of biblical worship. Instead, I am thankful that a medium such as this exists to promote further study, publication, research and cordial debate. These are matters of utmost importance.
On another matter, I heard about your recent accident. We were thankful to also hear that you were all ok. God is indeed merciful to us in situations such as this. I am so thankful that God protected you and brought you through it all for His glory.
Excellent thoughts, Mr. Koller. I particularly like the distinctions drawn out between the before/after of the Call to Worship.
What do you think of the listening of hymns, theologically accurate of course, and the permissibility thereof simply for the enjoyment of it (i.e. not on the Lord’s Day, not for ‘worship’), just as you would any other acceptable genre of music?
I hope Josh Hicks and I can listen to hymns. Josh, what music does your daughter listen to?
I am tracking down Larry Hurtado’s book, “At the Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion” when I can spring for the cash. I want to know if the early Christians only sang Psalms, or if this was a WC convention. Pastor Mark, do you have this book or similar ones?
I want to make clear that I was making a distinction between the listening of hymns in a non-worship setting, as I believe that the Psalter is the only authorized hymn-book for the church in its worship, or the family in its worship, or the individual in his worship.