“Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Ephesians 5:19–20

There used to be a clear distinction between music that was considered “high church” and that which was “campfire music.” The focus was on the theology and congregational “singability” of the music rather than artist and performance. Of course, it has often been pointed out that the church is usually a decade behind the culture and so there is little wonder that current church performance cannot be carried in the heart in memory but must be carried with you on personal devices.

Church musicians can fall prey to a few temptations. One temptation is that, though the music worship teams are extremely talented, the ones who are doing the singing are predominantly the musicians while the congregation is merely drawn along. The congregation becomes an audience. Visitors have no way of predicting the next note or when the musicians will take off in an unsuspected direction.

The Audience is supposed to be the Lord, as our text exhorts, “to the Lord.” Worship really is not complete until the saint communes in devotion and prayer with “God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Accolades and attention syphoned off in the direction of the performance may be fitting for concerts but are misplaced in the context of a worship service.

Another temptation is repetition, “ad infinitum, ad nauseum,” as a professor of mine used to say. It strikes me that if “Holy, holy, holy,” is good enough for the angels, then three times is good enough for me. When an unsaved visitor stands in a contemporary church as music is blaring and the repetitions begin, he observes the people individually sing, or close their eyes and sway, or hold up their hands and wince, or stand silently looking at the words on the screen, or senior citizens needing to sit down. How is that visitor to know what is appropriate to do, or when to do it, or how to feel a part of it all? He is reduced to being an audience member of one.

The topic under discussion in Ephesians 5 is obedience to the will of the Lord. Instruction to “walk in love” (verses 1–7), and “walk in light” (verses 8–14) is followed by “walk in wisdom” (verses 15–21). Paul is so intent on wise living that he emphasizes “do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” Then, he proceeds to review some of the mechanisms the Lord uses to lead the saints.

The first is the doctrine of Spirit-filling, filling your day with Spirit-led decisions (verse 18). The Holy Spirit uses the Word of God as His prompter in the saint’s life. It is the Word that is sure, that is inspired, and that is the foundation of faith and obedience. Nothing else is to control the believer but the agency of the illumining work of the Holy Spirit in the Word.

The second is the subject under discussion. One of the early ways that the saints were motivated to obedient wisdom was through the music of the saints. Music was so important that it was included in the “sign gifts” of 1 Corinthians 14:26: “How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.” It is conceivable that one of the gifts exercised in the early church, until the scriptural canon was complete, was Spirit-authored psalms. Can you imagine the compounding confusion in the days before the completed Bible if people were unchecked and wrote “hymns” for worship that were not doctrinally true? No matter whether “Spirit-authored” or later psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, the same rule applies to all—everything that is done must be done for building up the saints! Anything less, or anything other, misses the mark in church worship.

Psalms certainly includes what we know as the book of Psalms, striking musical cords with “sophisticated” music. Hymns are sacred songs which give honor and praise worthy of the dignity, character, and actions of God. These are certainly metrical compositions. Spiritual songs seem to be the most informal of the lot. These are spontaneous songs of praise, matters of the moment, new, unrehearsed, if you will (Revelation 5:9, 14:3). Doctrine is everything, tune is incidental. Music and artistry should never distract from the impact of the words, or spiritual edification does not happen.

There are Bible scholars who have sought to identify passages of Scripture that stand out as early church music. Among the passages that were likely songs of our forebears are Philippians 2:5-11, Colossians 1:15-20, 1 Timothy 3:16, Hebrews 1:1-3, and 1 Peter 2:21-25. Such memorable words worthy of meditation and thought! Church music, of all things, must be memorable and doctrinal.

Music was important in the early church (Acts 16:28, James 5:13). Pliny says that when Christians met for worship they “were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a God.” Seek music that primes your thoughts, extols God alone, and emphasizes truth over all else. Treasure the songs that feed and lead your thoughts and your soul all week long! Trust and obey.