Music in Worship: An Historical Sketch and Theological Appraisal

Music has occupied an important place in the Christian life down through the centuries. Musical expression itself is part of the common human experience, a natural response of the soul to the sufferings and the joys of life. The use of music in religious worship is likewise universal. In the Bible, the Old and New Testaments, music is everywhere present. In fact, the goal of humanity’s redemption is depicted in the Bible as the singing of a “new song.” The particular focus of this article is the use of music in corporate worship: what form(s) should music take and how should it be performed? (When all is said and done, music is performance. More on this below.) Before turning to these questions, however, we take up a brief historical survey of music in the church, beginning with Old Testament practices.


Life and worship in the old covenant was closely regulated by the express command of God given to Israel through Moses. A proper assessment of these ancient practices is dependent upon recognition of Israel’s status as a nation of priests and kings. Ancient Israel was God’s holy nation, a theocracy, chosen and set apart from all the other nations of the world. Once Israel had settled in the land of promise and (in the time of King Solomon) had completed construction of the Temple of God on the Mount of Jerusalem, she had, in symbolic terms, entered into God’s (sabbatical) rest. God had granted His cho~ sen people physical rest from all the enemies around her. Israel enjoyed the typological realization of the promise previously made to Abraham. (The full eschatological fulfillment would await the fulness of times, Christ’s coming into the world. The period be~ tween the two advents of Christ is that of semi-eschatological realization of the ancient promise of salvation by grace.)

The performance of music in the Solomonic Temple was under the supervision of the Levitical priesthood. Choirs and instrumentalists were part of the symbolism giving expression to the awesome majesty and glory of God’s presence among the people at the site of His holy sanctuary. Solomonic worship was an earthly replica of the heavenly sanctuary, God’s true dwelling place in the Spirit. (Quite frequently in the Bible the term “Spirit” refers to the theophanic “glory-presence” of God. Its first appearance is found in Genesis 1:2, the occasion of the Spirit’s hovering over the waters at creation in order to fashion the earth, humanity’s habitat, as one of several replications of God’s cosmic glory.) Prominence is given to the Book of Psalms as Israel’s hymnbook of praise, confession, and supplication. In divine providence, the Book of Psalms comprises part of the Old Testament canon of Scripture. All of this indicates that worship in the old covenant was tightly regulated. Every facet of worship in the temple was carefully prescribed by God. Such was part and pareel of the burden of the Mosaic law which served as Israel’s tutor or pedagogue until the coming of Christ. The new covenant would open up a new and better way of spiritual worship and witness in the world (see John 4:24). Turning to the pages of the New Testament, we find infrequent references to music in corporate worship and even less express instruction as to how music is to be employed on such occasions. What we do find is a dramatic contrast between liturgical (cultic) worship under the two covenants. Clearly, the ceremonial (ritual) and sacrificial elements have been abolished by virtue of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the fulfiller of all these things. (Shadows have given way to reality.) At the same time, new covenant worship is characterized by a degree of liberty and freedom to the people of God as part of their transition from the status of childhood under the old covenant to that of sonship under the new. But is this new freedom unrestricted? This question has once again become an explosive issue among Reformed churches today. Which songs or hymns are to be sung? What role, if any, do instruments and choirs play? These questions, however. take us ahead of our story. Over the course of the history of the Christian church, one finds an impressive array of musical styles and complexities. The story of music in the church is not a simple one. There is no single line of development, but rather a variety of artistic and philosophico-aesthetic considerations which have influenced the composition and performance of Christian music down through the ages.

Part of the difficulty in summarizing the history of music used in the service of the church lies in the nature of music itself as an expression of the human soul giving praise to God and crying out for help and deliverance. It is the difficulty of distinguishing between worship as life-service to God encompassing all Christian endeavor and worship as corporate witness (see Romans 12:1–2 and Ephesians 5:15–20). Music sung in homes and out in the fields and marketplaces inevitably worked its way into the meetinghouses, the homes of the saints gathered for worship. The prayers and songs of God’s people were shared in the context of everyday life and worship.



Music was simple and from the heart. The songs of the faith were sung either unaccompanied or accompanied with instruments of various kinds. From the beginning, instruments facilitated singing. The Ephesians text to which we have already referred speaks of hymns and psalms and spiritual songs. Biblical commentators are uncertain whether this text refers to three distinct types of musical composition or whether the terms are synonymous (as suggested by the ascriptions given to many of the Psalms). Presently, we lack precise knowledge of the musical terminology employed in ancient times. I suggest that these three terms hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs — though distinct, nevertheless overlap one another. Hymns are poetic compositions, carefully crafted; psalms are those contained in the Book of Psalms or similar in kind; and spiritual songs characteristically find their origin in spontaneous utterance. Whatever the form, musical song was highly effective in the spread of the Biblical faith, an important and exceedingly useful tool in Christian education and catechesis.

It was not until the time of the monastic movement that music began to take on a far more complex idiom, what is called chant. Since the early church, many “schools” of chant have developed, for example, Gregorian and Anglican. Common to the tradition of chant-singing is the exercise of a distinct priestly office (whether served by monks or priests), including the formation of liturgical choirs functioning in many instances as a type of “priestly” caste. By the close of the sixth century church music was closely tied to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. In the Roman church the Mass had become a spectator event for parishioners. Only the ordained priesthood could fully participate in the Lord’s Supper. And music served to adorn this “mystery” of the Christian faith and further the great chasm between clergy and laity.

By the eve of the Protestant Reformation, what began as simple vocal chanting became complex polyphonic singing requiring intense training, skill and virtuosity. In effect, music was taken away from the people in the pews. Corruption in doctrine and in worship prompted some branches of the Calvinistic tradition to abolish choirs and instruments altogether. In its attempts to reform worship according to the light of Scripture, some Reformed churches practiced exclusive psalm-singing (Calvin in Geneva, and the Puritans in England, Scotland, and colonial America). It was one aspect of their application of what has come to be called the “regulative principle of worship.”

Both the Lutheran and the Anglican traditions occupied a middle ground between the practices of Catholics and Puritans. In the world of art and music, the Renaissance movement climaxed in the age of the Baroque. By this time the Lutheran church had produced its greatest church musician in the person of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach did for church music what the Westminster Divines did earlier for Reformed theology in their composition of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, the epitome of Calvinist teaching during the age of the Protestant Reformation. These were culminating figures and events in this historical epoch. After Bach (1685–1750) and the Westminster Assembly (1648). the church entered the modern era. Protestant scholastic orthodoxy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, both Lutheranand Reformed, served to consolidate the theological gains of the Reformation movement.Comparison has often been made between the intricacies of Protestant scholastic theology and the detailed nuances of Baroque art and music.

It was only a matter of time, however, before many Reformed congregations, nurtured in the singing of the Psalms, began to write new texts for sacred music through the introduction of scriptural hymns and oratorios based upon Biblical narratives. The composers of such music are far too numerous to name, but the best known include Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts, George Frederick Handel and Felix Mendelssohn. Their work has forever transformed Reformed hymnody into the rich collection of Biblical texts and musical compositions known the world around. And with the proliferation of hymnwriting, in particular, came the need for trained choirs to assist the congregation in learning new music. Choral anthems became an extension of congregational song, another manifestation of the universal priesthood of believers. Music sung by congregation, choir, or vocal soloists was deemed appropriate in corporate worship (see I Corinthians 14:13–15, 26).

The danger, however, is that music can all too readily become an occasion for churchly “entertainment.” The cure, however, is not found in the elimination of choral and instrumental music, but rather in its careful use. Although the Protestant reformers may have responded appropriately to the abuses of the Roman church at that juncture in the church’s history, the practice of exclusive psalm-singing was not sustainable over time. It had neither the express warrant of the New Testament nor the support of the people of God.

Protestantism has developed a rich array of musical tastes and forms. Among congregations of the Reformed tradition, Welsh Calvinists are noted for their unaccompanied four-part harmony, the English for the development of “cathedral” anthems and hymns (suited to the architecture and the acoustical space of their houses of worship). The employment of new varieties of musical styles were not welcomed in all places, at all times. The story of music in the Christian church includes many accounts of conflict and unresolved tensions between congregations and within congregations. That legacy continues down to the present.

The Christian Reformed Church and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church exemplify two very different approaches to art and music. Whereas the churchly edifaces of Christian Reformed congregations are noted for their architectural design and aesthetics, as well as their appreciation for the pipe organ and the literature composed for it, Orthodox Presbyterians favor plainness in their places of worship and in their liturgy. In most instances, the simpler, the better. And a minority of OPC ministers favor exclusive psalm-singing. The primary factors shaping the distinctive ethos of each of these two Reformed communions are twofold: (1) financial resources, or the lack thereof, and (2) cultural and socio-theological considerations. With respect to the latter, the Genevan and Puritan practice of exclusive psalm-singing (accompanied or unaccompanied) serves to define the ecclesiastical identity of some members within the opc. Interestingly, it is the Christian Reformed, not the Orthodox Presbyterian, who have shown greater appreciation for music and the fine arts. In contrast to both of these communions, the Presbyterian Church in America adopts a more eclectic approach to architecture, art, and music in the church. That reflects in part the diversity of its Reformed/evangelical heritage.


Among the most prominent church musicologists of our day are Donald Hustad (Southern Baptist) and Paul Westermeyer (Lutheran). Though helpful and discerning in many respects, their work fails to articulate a Reformed philosophy of music and the arts. In this second part we offer a theological appraisal of issues important to the contemporary church, especially in the context of present-day social and religious upheaval in America. We begin by asking: what is the nature of corporate worship on the occasion of the weekly gathering of God’s people? What did the Westminster Divines intend by adopting the “regulative principle” as that which governs weekly observance of the Christian sabbath, the Lord’s Day? (Here we must carefully distinguish between theological doctrine and the practical application of it in Puritan England, Old and New).

First, the saints of God are not at liberty to worship as they see fit. Rather, Christian worship is prescribed by God in the New Testament, just as worship was prescribed by God for Israel under the old covenant. Christian worship includes such elements as prayer, confession of sin, the singing of hymns, the presentation of offerings, the reading of the Scriptures, the exposition of the Word, and the (occasional) observance of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Greater liberty is granted on occasions of “informal” worship of the gathered congregation or small groups meeting in homes or elsewhere for various purposes (for example, Christian weddings and funerals, prayer and Bible studies). Liturgical forms and musical styles may vary at the discretion of the session which has been charged with the oversight of congregational worship and ministry. Prayers may be extemporaneous or prepared, liturgical or musical. The nature of Christian worship is doxological, the praise and service of the living and holy God present in the midst of His people who have gathered in the name of Christ. The observance of worship is distinctively trinitarian: the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are present and they alone are to be worshiped. The people’s role is one of response to the Word of God read, sung, and expounded. That response includes the recitation of Scripture and creeds in prayer and in song.

Second, Christian worship, unlike worship under the old covenant, is characterized by a greater degree of liberty and spontaneity, though all is to be done decently and in good order (see I Corinthians 14:40). Music belongs to the people of God; they have the right as well as the privilege to render their voices in response to God’s Word. And there is genuine room for cultural and artistic diversity in the church worldwide. Church architecture must reflect the prudent use of the congregation’s financial resources, which is itself a spiritual exercise of godly stewardship. The use of music and the arts depends in large measure upon the cultural advance of the assembled congregation. Included here is the skillful, professional training of musicians and artisans employed in the service of the church. (This circumstance does not blur or obscure the Biblical distinction between “holy” and “common” gifts bestowed by God upon creatures made in His own image and likeness.) Over the centuries Biblical Christianity has manifested a variety of traditions which have produced many creeds, hymns, written prayers, and artistic symbols, all giving concrete expression to the living reality known as the people of God, which is the body of Christ. To the extent that a particular congregation or ecclesiastical communion is cut off from this ongoing tradition, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to that extent its worship experience will be impoverished. The Book of Revelation anticipates peoples of every kindred and tribe worshiping together the Lamb who was slain for sinners. Christian worship must presently strive to attain the unity of the faith. What does it mean to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness? To be sure, there is a marked difference between the old and new economies of redemption. Formerly, outward symbolism and ritual had characterized worship among the Old Testament saints. Now that outward display has given way to the inner realities of spiritual communion with Christ. The historical-covenantal transition from old to new covenants, however, does not necessitate the elimination of choirs, instruments, and artistic symbols. At the same time, the worship of God in the beauty of (His) holiness is not dependent upon any outward manifestation; true worship is an exclusively spiritual apprehension of the living God. Nor is there any particular virtue in plainness and austerity. Needless to say, the size, education, and cultural awareness, as well as the affluence of a given congregation will have a direct bearing upon worship practices. In sum, there is liberty within limits Music and aesthetics are not for the purpose of creating a worshipful “mood.” but rather of presenting our best in the worship of God, as in all other things. This requires the prudent and wise use of time, talent and finances.

Third, the history of Christian worship (including music and the arts) has its roots in Old Testament religion. Here we must carefully discern both the continuities and discontinuities between the Old and New Testaments. The slow transition from old covenant to new covenant worship begins with the teaching ministry of Christ and continues on through the New Testament writings and well into post-canonical times (down to the present). Musical styles and forms will inevitably change within human cultures. Whatever virtue and grandeur are to be found in former days, corporate worship always and necessarily reflects the culture and times in which the people of God live. Maturity in the faith requires that we bear one another’s burdens — the prayers and cries from the heart conveyed in musical song (see Galatians 6:2).

Dr. Karlherg received his doctorate in Reformation, Post-Reformation studies from Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. He has served for thirty years as organist and choir director, and has taught at Chesapeake Seminary and Philadelphia Seminary.