“If I held to the EP understanding of worship (a hypothetical)”
For the purposes of this article I will take the principles by which EP adherents come to EP and apply them strictly to our doctrine of worship. When we do we find that indeed no authorization for singing during corporate worship is ever given whatsoever under the New Covenant. For clarity, it is not my position that God has not authorized any singing whatsoever, but rather I am taking their position and showing that if consistent it should not allow any singing at all. Or said another way, there is no middle ground, either we are not to sing at all during corporate worship or else we do indeed have freedom to sing hymns.
In my time debating those who hold to EP, I have often brought up Psalms 150 as an argument that instruments are allowed and even commanded in worship (most who hold to EP do not believe instruments are permissible in corporate worship under the New Covenant). The answer I usually receive will inform us on some distinctions that are important for the purposes of this article. The main response to my argument from Psalm 150 that I often get is that it isn’t referring to corporate worship. The EP apologist will say that Psalm 150 is talking about feasts and national celebrations. In this way they say the command to use instruments and dance in the course of praising God is not a command we can apply to corporate worship. So on their position corporate worship is different than spontaneous praise through song and it has its own more strict guidelines. This means we cannot assume that a command to praise or worship God in a certain way is necessarily a command that applies to corporate worship on the Lord’s Day. As an example, many EP proponents would say I am free to sing a song of praise to God while painting a picture. However they would say it is unacceptable to sit up front during worship on the Lord’s Day and paint a picture during the time of song. So we see that there are things that are permissible during everyday praise that are not permissible during corporate worship.
The Regulative Principle of Worship essentially says that if God has not commanded something to be done in worship it is forbidden (I explained this more fully in my last post but it is worth looking at here. This begs the question, where in Scripture is the singing of the Psalms for corporate worship authorized? We know that God commands us to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” but don’t we need to know just like the command to dance and to play instruments if that command applies to singing psalms in corporate worship on the Lord ’s Day? Let us first look to the Old Testament to see if we can find a command for us to sing the Psalms. What we find in 1 Chronicles 15:16 and 23:5 is that the congregation was not commanded to sing in corporate worship but rather a group of Levites was chosen and appointed to sing and play instruments. So we don’t find a warrant in the Old Testament for the congregation to sing the Psalms in corporate worship and it would be quite the jump to say that a modern day choir is the equivalent of the appointed Levites (the tribe of priests whose singing and instrument playing was part of the types and shadows that has passed away).
But surely the New Testament gives us warrant, after all we just talked about the command to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. As it turns out the context of those passages is not corporate worship on the Lord’s day (keep in mind things that we may do in praise during the week on our own are not necessarily permissible during corporate worship on the Lord’s Day). In fact we don’t find one verse commanding the Psalms to be sung (or any singing whatsoever) to be done in corporate worship. Let us first examine Colossians 3
12 Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. 14 But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. 15 And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. 17 And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.
Consider the context of this passage. First there is no explicit instruction that this is in the context of corporate worship. Secondly the context does not put this as a command for corporate worship but rather everyday life. Are we only to put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, etc. during corporate worship or are those things that we should be doing all the time? The answer is clearly that we are to do these things all of the time. So we cannot find a warrant for singing in corporate worship at all in this passage.
Next we go to Ephesians 5
15 See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, 16 redeeming the time, because the days are evil.
17 Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, 20 giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another in the fear of God.
Here the context is clearly not corporate worship either. Are we to redeem the time, or use wisdom, or be filled with the Holy Spirit solely during corporate worship? Obviously those are all things that we should be doing all of the time.
Surely though there is an example of singing in corporate worship in the New Testament! Alas the examples we see of singing are not examples during corporate worship. Consider Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 where it says Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn before going to the Mount of Olives. This passage is not on the Sabbath nor is it an example of corporate worship. So we cannot use this passage as a warrant for singing corporately on the Lord’s Day Sabbath.
Finally we have a command in James 5 to sing psalms. 13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Once again we do not find that this passage is in the context of corporate Lord’s Day worship.
So to be clear we have several commands of psalm singing (I will in a later post explore whether the word “psalms” must always be referring to the book of Psalms) but none that are within the context of corporate worship. This is an important distinction because if we do not clarify what commands are appropriate for corporate worship then any biblical command may be done during corporate worship. To clarify, most EP adherents that I know of do not condone the taking of an offering during public worship. The reason for this is although we are commanded to give tithes and offerings, that command is not given within the realm of corporate worship. The same could be said with feeding the poor. We are commanded to feed the poor but that is not what were are to be doing during corporate worship. Likewise although we are commanded to sing psalms, nowhere are we commanded to sing during corporate worship. We cannot look to the Old Testament as the singing was appointed to the Levites (the priests) an office which no longer exists (these were types and shadows).
Before anyone finds me to be absurd, this is the position Zwingli took on worship as he did not allow any singing whatsoever during public worship. As I said in the intro, I believe that if we use the principles of EP we actually have to end up, like Zwingli, removing all singing from corporate worship. Again there is no middle ground, either we should not be singing at all or else we have to look at singing differently than the EP position if we are to sing in public worship. Of course it is not my position that we should remove all singing from corporate worship since I do not see the Regulative Principle applying in the same way as EP adherents. The short version of my answer is that singing is not an element of worship at all but rather a mode by which we can be called to worship, by which we pray, and by which the Word may be taught and by which we are given exhortation (a position I will flesh out in a subsequent post). If my position is correct then we by all means are permitted to sing the Psalms and to sing psalms (new psalms about God’s great deeds in the New Testament and beyond). If my position is correct singing is merely a way to do the other elements and thus is regulated the same as prayer or preaching is.