Are We Commanded to Sing?

Is every scripture stated in the imperative mood (“You do this”) automatically a command for all people of all generations to follow? I don’t think so, or we’d all be going into Jerusalem to look for a man with a donkey’s colt, drawing water for Jesus at a well near Sychar, and taking a little wine for our stomach’s sake and our frequent illnesses.

Is every scripture stated in the imperative mood even necessarily a command at all?

Here are the two that have generally been identified as commands to sing. I’ve heard a cappella-only advocates describe them that way; I’ve heard accompanied-praise advocates describe them that way. I’ve probably even described them as commands myself.

But I’m reconsidering:

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.~ Ephesians 5:18-20

This instruction does seem to address gathered worship (“speaking to one another”; “to the Lord”), but not necessarily exclusively gathered worship. Yet what begins the imperative of the instruction is a call to sobriety. Being filled with spirits “leads to debauchery”; being “filled with the Spirit” leads to something quite different. And “be filled with the Spirit” is the second imperative, modified with the result of it. The third imperative is double: “Sing and make music from your heart”. If one sings to the Lord, it should come from a grateful heart that prays such praise through Christ. Plus, if there is some reason that a worshiper is prevented from singing, he/she is still heard by God for the music of the heart. No one is excluded (as some – many – were from worship under the Old Covenant).

Should the New Covenant be known and characterized by commands which, by their very nature, exclude certain things, practices and people? Or should it be seen primarily as instruction, encouragement, mentoring, promise, blessing – and, yes, very few but very important commands (like loving God wholly and loving others as one’s self)?

What about the second imperative:

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. ~ Colossians 3:16-17

This also seems to describe a situation of gathered worship (“teach and admonish one another”), though again not exclusively.

Here, the imperative is to let the gospel enrich the believers – modified by “as you teach and wisely admonish one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs AND “singing to God with gratitude”.

How often do we describe “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly” as a command to be followed? Or “teach and admonish one another”? This is not just a question of emphasis – though I’m trying to point out Paul’s emphasis in phrasing these instructions – but a question of intent. Are these all commands, or are they more accurately described as instruction, encouragement, mentoring, promise, blessing …?

Are they intended for all believers for all time? Or for those who couldn’t/can’t remember how to behave in gathered worship … what and whom/Whom to remember while worshiping … or even that worship and mutual encouragement is supposed to be taking place?

Do we miss the point of both of these passages by classifying them as “commands”? Something to be done and checked off our order of worship in church, having done it in some way “correctly”?

Isn’t the point of both of them that we lift up each other in our musical worship and do so through Christ? That we should not forget each other nor Him?

Now, where I think we really miss the mark is when we re-classify passages which are examples as being “commands,” thereby promoting them to new prominence in our hierarchical CENI (command, example, necessary inference) hermeneutic. Because Jesus or Paul did something, are all people of all generations commanded to exactly repeat and imitate it? I don’t think so, or we’d be riding donkeys into Jerusalem and having all of our Timothys circumcised (but not our Tituses).

What are the examples of singing in the New Testament? (I list only these because there would be too many in the Old and too many who do not accept what they do not wish to accept from the Old anyway.)

And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord …” ~ Luke 1:46

His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: ~ Luke 1:67

When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. ~ Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Acts 16:25

For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written:
“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles;
I will sing the praises of your name.” ~ Romans 15:8-9

So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. ~ 1 Corinthians 14:15

Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. ~ James 5:13 (Okay, not strictly an example, but an imperative in the singular – bear with me for the reason it’s here.)

And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. ~ Revelation 5:9

And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. ~ Revelation 14:3

And I saw what looked like a sea of glass glowing with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and its image and over the number of its name. They held harps given them by God 3 and sang the song of God’s servant Moses and of the Lamb: ~ Revelation 15:2-3a

I think that’s it. I believe that’s all. If I’ve missed any, I apologize and will add them if you’ll point me to them.

But I think what these ten examples reveal may explain why they outnumber the imperatives five to one.

Let me cut to the chase. In each of these examples, was there anyone singing who had to be commanded to do so? Was there anyone who was not deeply motivated in some way – joy, sorrow, challenge, need, awe, reverence, thanksgiving, missional enthusiasm – to sing? Did they have to wait for someone to show up with a bound book of New Testament scripture bookmarked to the first two imperative passages above?

My point is simply this: Believers who recognize the kindness and severity and justice and mercy and grace and all-consuming love of God the Father expressed exquisitely in Christ confirmed powerfully by the Holy Spirit through the church throughout all generations do not have to be commanded to sing their fellowship and brotherly love and mutual encouragement and praise and gratitude and adoration and submission and petition and joy and sorrow and reverence.

Those who don’t always perceive these things might need to be reminded to remember each other and Christ when they do sing. They might need to be urged not to let their gatherings cease worshiping and get out of hand when they worship in song. They might need to be persuaded to stay grateful.

But the believers who don’t need those nudges; people who are literally and figuratively inspired … you don’t have to order them to sing.

You can’t stop them.

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