The third passage I use to explain my biblical foundation for a worship ministry is Ephesians 5:15-21:
“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 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.”
This section takes place in a context where Paul is reminding his readers that they used to walk in darkness, but now because we are children of the Lord, we’re commanded to walk in the light, “and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph. 5:10). That sets the tone for this section, where Paul begins with the theme from the last 2 verses I mentioned: make the best use of the time. Do you know how we do that? By worshipping every moment of every day. We are always worshipping someone or something, so let’s ensure our attentions and energies of worshipping the right One!
Paul then commands us to “understand what the will of the Lord is.” While that’s fleshed out a bit in the following sections, we know that God’s will for all of is our sanctification (see 1 Thessalonians 4:3). As John Piper has famously quipped, “Missions exists because worship doesn’t.” I believe that can apply to everything the church is called to do and be. Discipleship exists because worship doesn’t. Counseling exists because worship doesn’t. Small groups exists because worship doesn’t. Missional communities exists because worship doesn’t. All of our lives need to be brought under the lordship of Christ, which means all of our lives need to be brought to worship God. That’s the process of sanctification: slowly becoming more like Christ by worshipping him with more and more of our lives. Our goal and focus should be the same as John the Baptist in John 3:30, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” This is how we make “the best use of the time,” by worshipping all the time.
I’ve always loved how Paul compares worshipping to being drunk. Now, he’s saying we should NOT be drunk, but the idea remains: our worship services should have some element of exuberant joy to them, uninhibited worship of our creator and sustainer. This brings to mind the apostles in Acts 2 after they have been filled with the spirit where those watching think they’re drunk. Grant Osborne, in his commentary on Ephesians says, “When you are filled with the joy and singing, may it be that it is the Spirit – and not the spirits – at work!” (181)
We then see the outworking of being filled with the spirit: talking to each other. This is one of the reasons we sing on a Sunday morning because we’re commanded to address each other! Do you realize that every week we have this command to address each other? Every time I read this verse I think of the Sunday we introduced Not for a Moment (After All) when someone sitting in the front row was trying to adopt a baby, another couple was struggling with infertility, another couple was wrestling with cancer, and we got to remind each other that God never leaves us or forsakes us, that he is always good. It was an incredible opportunity for us as a church to come alongside those who were struggling to remind them of the truths we believe. This is the horizonal component to our singing.
Paul goes on to share how we should address one another: in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. There seems to be a trend recently, at least in reformed circles, to advocate for exclusive psalmnody, which goes contrary to this verse! Yes, I do believe we should be singing and reading Psalms because they’re the only inerrant and authoritative songs we have, but we’re not limited to just Psalms! Again, Grant Osborne helpfully states, “’hymns’ would have been less formal, probably written more recently, and sung regularly in services… ‘spiritual songs’ likely refers to spontaneous, charismatic singing that emanated from the Spirit’s leading” (182-3). I’ve been encouraging my leaders to being thinking through how we can incorporate more of these “spiritual songs” into our corporate gatherings and are still trying to work out how it all works while still being faithful to Scripture and the planning that takes places earlier in the week! The point remains the same: we can and should use a wide variety of songs from a wide variety of styles and from a wide variety of times (both historical and brand new) to remind our people of the truths of the gospel. And all these songs are an opportunity to reinforce the truths that we claim to believe. As Gordon D. Fee has said, “Show me a church’s songs and I’ll show you their theology.” I’ve said that most people won’t leave church humming the sermon, but many of them will leave humming the song we just sang: therefore let’s use music to reinforce the theme of the message!
We then get to the vertical component of singing: “singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” There is both a horizontal and vertical component to our corporate worship that we must not miss. We sing “to the Lord” but also “address one another.” That’s why we sing out loud and why I encourage people to sing loudly so that those around them can be reminded of the truths that we believe. And the way we do this is with thankfulness. Paul says we should be thankful always and for everything because it’s all an undeserved gift from God. The fact that we can use melodies to easily remember truths about who God is should drive us to thankfulness and be an opportunity to worship God. We also see the reminder that our worship is done through 1 mediator: the God-man Jesus Christ. The author of Hebrews says it this way, “Since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus…let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” One common refrain worship pastors get is “thank you for leading us into God’s presence.” And our correct response is, “I can’t! But I know the one who can!”
The last thing these verses remind us is that even music should not be about our preferences because we’re called to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Music seems to be one of the most contentious issues in the church because everyone has their own preferences about styles and songs that they like. The problem is when people bring those preferences into the corporate gathering. There are songs that we sing at church pretty much every week that I don’t like. And I pick the songs! The reason we continue to sing them is because they’re good songs that remind of biblical truths that are easy to sing and remember throughout the week, and at the end of the day the corporate singing isn’t about what I want, but what I need. What we should be looking for on a Sunday morning is edification, not necessarily enjoyment. Just because a song is more difficult for me to use as an opportunity to worship doesn’t mean we should stop singing it, because we’re commanded to not consider our own interests as better than those around us. So me singing a song I don’t like for the sake of my brothers and sisters in Christ is actually an opportunity for me to better worship because it’s taking the focus off myself. I also have 6.5 other days where I can listen to any music I want that I find easy to use as an opportunity to worship, it’s helpful for me to be reminded of music I don’t like but helps me take the focus off myself and onto God and those around me. At the end of the day, that should be our goal as Christians, to have the same mind that Christ had, who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself. We too can humble ourselves to encourage one another to pursue Christ through what we sing.