This post will deal with biblical, historical, and theological perspectives regarding training and skill development. In addition, I will share some biblical and historical insights why I believe choirs were utilized in the early church and are still important for the church today.
From the Davidic Court to present day, skill development has been an essential element for the people of faith. Paul’s admonition to the church at Philippi presents values that should guide all worship leadership. Philippians 4:8-9: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”
The word “think” in the Greek (logozomai) suggests more than a glancing thought. The context “to think” is literally, to “reckon” or “influence action.” The implication is obvious. The values (highlighted in bold) expressed in Paul’s letter are to drive every aspect of our Christian walk—especially those in ministry. Such standards are rarely seen in Christian practice without intentional nurture.
Training with Purpose
From a biblical standpoint there is strong support for well-trained musicians in the service of worship leadership. In ancient Israel, the leaders of music (Hazzan or cantor) would have at least five years of formal training and would be admitted to their role at the age of 30. These “Levites” were charged with guarding the Temple and supervising its musical activity.
The early church also utilized music as a staple of their worship. Paul’s admonition to the church at Colossae and Ephesus stressed the importance of music for internalizing the “Word of Christ.” Without a “canon of Scripture” the church grew in its doctrine, theology, and understanding of Christ’s teachings through the instruction of the Apostles. Paul advocates that it is through singing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs that the believer internalizes “the word of Christ.” The word for us today is to make sure we are not only singing but that we are intentionally singing “the word of Christ.”
Christianity began as a small, persecuted Jewish sect. Although there is debate relating to the level of influence of Jewish tradition in early Christian worship, there is no argument that such relationship did exist. The early believers still attended the synagogue and the Second Temple. With the occupation of the region by the Romans, many Jews dispersed to Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece, and other areas. They also brought with them their traditions—especially as it related to worship. From the letter of Pliny the Younger (a Roman magistrate who investigated the church in Bithynia) we discover that the church not only sang hymns but sang them in the Jewish tradition of “alternation.” This practice would involve a cantor or Hazzan and possibly one or more choirs. “They (church) would gather before light and sing a hymn to Christ, as to a god, alternately” (Letters and Panegyricus: Pliny the Younger by Betty Radice, Harvard University Press, 1969, p. 294.) Pliny’s description of the music is of particular interest. As was the tradition of Judaism to use various groups to sing antiphonally it is then likely that some form of this practice would continue in the Bithynian congregation. In Acts 16.1-7, Paul instructs Timothy to be circumcised in order to be received by the Jewish leadership in the region which includes Bithynia. Although the “Spirit refused them to enter” it was obvious their preparations gave evidence of Jewish influence which would most notably include worship practice.
This practice is also seen in Egypt among early church Christians who lived among the Therapeutae community. The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (20-50) provides insight to the singing of hymns in these settings: “They rise up together and form themselves into two choirs, one of men and one of women, the leader chosen from each being the most honored and musical among them. They sing hymns to God set to many melodies, sometimes chanting together, sometimes antiphonally.” http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/philo.html
Historical evidence points towards a Jewish influence in nearly every aspect of early church worship including music, reading of Scripture, prayer, teaching and even baptism. This proved to be influential in the Christian communities as these early believers “Christianized” their liturgical practices. If it was common to use choirs and sing antiphonally in their Jewish worship, the practice (at least in some settings) would no doubt carry forward. Paul’s Epistles are hardly silent on worship practice yet mentions no condemnation of any Jewish music influence in the early church. In fact, his writings only encourage its usage. Historical evidence would suggest that the early church was less primitive in its worship liturgy than one would think. There is no documentation I have found to forge an argument against the influence of Jewish hymn-singing in the early church. Although there is no evidence of music notation, the level of training, or the specifics of influences the Jewish training had on the early church we can attest with some level of credibility that these musical forms would have found some level of expression in the early church.
These historical records seem to dovetail with biblical references to hymn singing as essential to faith development. The singing in Revelation 5 is a picture rich in antiphony and instrumentation. Alfred Edersheim compares this to the dedication of Solomon’s Temple in 2 Chonricles 5: “Such music might well serve, in the book of Revelation as imagery of heavenly realities, where the antiphony of the two choirs combine to join in this grand unison, ‘Alleluia—for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.” (The Temple: Its Ministry and Service by Alfred Edersheim, Hendrickson Publishing, Peabody, Mass., 1994)
If singing is highly valued in Scripture (whether Old or New Testament) then methodology should also be under review. Biblical evidence suggests the use of trained musicians including instrumental groups and choirs. Historical evidence indicates its usage in first century practice. This practice moved forward for the next 2,000 years. Although the training would look quite different in a western mindset, a case can be made that musical training was highly valued in the Levitical order. Since biblical record speaks of no condemnation of such practices, then perhaps at the least, an argument could be made which supports training as an important value by today’s church.
Biblical and historical documentation value the use of choirs (vocal ensembles) and instrumental ministries in corporate worship. Indeed, they have a place in today’s church and should be nurtured towards the values found in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. Choirs, instrumental groups, praise teams, bands, and other ensembles can be used to point towards biblical worship but can also hinder God-honoring worship. If practice promotes aesthetics over content, separates the congregation from engagement, displays arrogance, or places more attention on presentation than the Resurrected Lord, then such practice is not biblical. It is idolatrous. Real worship is clearly centered on Jesus Christ and driven out of biblical values including truth and excellence. Finally, such musical offerings must be presented with a sincere heart. “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.”