Eph 5:18-21 (ESV) And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Col 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Ask any music minister why we sing in church and one or both of these passages will be (or at least ought to be!) invoked as a New Testament sanction for music in assembled worship. Both are essential to understanding the Bible’s viewpoint on music, with a great deal of church music philosophy being built upon them. They are used to argue affirmatively for congregational and, by many (including myself), instrumental music. Some see in them an endorsement of diverse musical genres while others find only an authorization for unaccompanied psalm singing.
And that warrant-granting arena is mostly where my own application of these scriptures had rested until just recently. Yes, these scriptures are endorsements for music in the New Testament church, but Paul’s point is perhaps far more profound than had previously occurred to me: they convey the very purpose of church music! As in all scriptural interpretation context is key and the context of these passages is what opened my heart to what I see as Paul’s more extensive intent. Thus, a deeper look at the surrounding scripture is in order.
First, note that neither passage (Eph 5:18-21 and Col 3:16) emerges from the ether as Paul’s random commentary on church music. Quite the contrary, they are essential to, perhaps even the culmination of, Paul’s progression of thought up to this point in Ephesians and Colossians. Each one caps a lengthy exhortation to holiness begun respectively in Ephesians 4:1 (“walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called”) and Colossians 3:1 (“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above”). The intervening verses emphasize the before and after nature of sanctification (e.g., “put off the old,” “put on the new”) and argue for intentional, persistent, and dynamic effort on the part of the believer in its pursuit (e.g., “walk,” “set,” “try,” “look carefully,” “put to death”).
Next, and perhaps most importantly, note where Paul places the two subject passages: each occurs as Paul consummates his argument. They are, if you will, the finale with which Paul crowns his discourse on sanctification. Or, perhaps even better, they are his call for action, a means (amid giving thanks to God and submitting to one another) to which he calls the Church to implement his teaching. It’s the same rhetorical device he uses to conclude his “armor of God” metaphor just two chapters later (Eph 6:10-18) with a call to prayer. He gives the what first, and then concludes with the how. Placing the command to address “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” at the conclusion accentuates it and highlights the essential role Paul conferred on music to form believers. It’s perhaps a step too far, but one could say that Paul viewed music’s discipleship role much the same as he saw prayer’s role in spiritual warfare.
Further, it is credible to hold that Paul understood singing and making music in worship to be a heavenly gift to the church for the express purpose of forming our character. And this should not be surprising, as music’s role in developing inner character was widely recognized in ancient times, beginning with the Greeks and including the early church fathers:
. . . rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful. — Plato, The Republic, Book III
Nothing so arouses the soul, gives it wings, sets it free from earth, releases it from the prison of the body, teaches it to love wisdom, and to condemn all the things of this life, as concordant melody and sacred song. — John Chrysostom, In psalmum xli
Given Paul’s extensive education (Acts 26:24) he likely knew this philosophy. So, it is not a stretch to deduce that Paul’s intent, guided by the Holy Spirit, was to ensure that the power of music was applied by the Church to develop mature, sanctified disciples; and, while recognizing that character formation is not music’s only worship function (praise, response, witness, evangelism, etc.), the Ephesians and Colossians context persuades me that it was the principle role Paul had in mind for it in these passages. Further, Paul’s utilization of music’s formative nature here makes me think it likely that music was one of the means by which Paul anticipated we should “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2b).
This has not been a scholarly analysis of these passages, nor even a development of a doctrinal application. It is merely a recognition, hopefully correct, of a principle Paul took for granted that can be inferred from the structure and context of Eph 5:18-21 and Col 3:16: namely, our use of music, and especially music in worship, is essential to the proper development of Christian character. And hopefully, the awareness of this importance convicts you that employing songs that merely appeal, entertain, attract, or even create an atmosphere, is wasteful at best and destructive at worst. Paul’s teaching should thus convince us that our music must be, by scriptural directive, a work that forms us into Christ-likeness. Most of our services spend nearly as much time, if not more, in music as we do in preaching and prayer. That time is essential to building disciples. Let us use it:
“to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph 4:12-14) . . . so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:27).