Can we just sing in our hearts?

At the present time, Government guidance to churches is clear, we should not participate in congregation singing as there remain concerns about coronavirus being spread through singing and shouting. The option is there to listen to the songs. So, how are we to respond to this?  So far, I have seen three approaches to this.

  • Some churches have argued that we are commanded to sing, that the State has no right to overrule God’s law and in any case this is guidance only so we are free to choose.
  • Some have decided that we cannot sing at the moment and therefore should not have any music/singing as the purpose is to edify one another.
  • Some have argued that we can listen to sung worship whilst “singing in our hearts.”

Let’s take each of these in turn.  First, should we insist that we are commanded to sing?  Well, there are two parts to this. There is the question of whether or not we are under a legal obligation or merely guidance.  My understanding, shared by others with legal backgrounds is that whilst this particular guidance is not being enforced with regulations and fines that doesn’t mean we have as much discretion as some have suggested.  This is because of two reasons. First, health and safety law will take into account whether or not we are following all relevant guidance. Secondly, if somebody becomes ill as a result of a coronavirus incident at our building, then they have the option of a civil claim due to negligence and there may well still be criminal charges if we have acted recklessly.

So, if you choose to sing, I would argue that you are still doing so knowing that you are putting yourself on the wrong side of the law.  However, some will still do so arguing that we are under an obligation to obey God rather than man.  The basis for this is scriptures such as Ephesians 5:18-20

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ

Now, looking back at those verses in context, I would also note that these words are in the context of a command to “walk in love” (v2) and to “walk as wise” (v15).  The description of singing songs is a description of what happens as a result to be filled with the Holy Spirit.  This to me suggests that what we are seeing in this case is more an observation of what happens when someone is filled with the Holy Spirit. There is joy filled melody in our hearts and this overflows in a wise and loving way in song.  So, what we do not have here, or elsewhere in Scripture is some legalistic command to sing out loud at every church meeting. Rather, it is a description of how our heart outworks. I think there is a general point that we should be people who sing but that isn’t confined to gatherings of the church nor required at every gathering.

Secondly, we come to the question of refraining from music altogether because the purpose of congregational worship is the words as we edify one another. Well, we have provided for corporate congregation activity through saying Bible readings including Psalms, liturgy, set prayers and the creeds together.  This is not our normal practice but we wanted to find ways of giving corporate expression. However, we have chosen to have songs for people to listen to. Why? Well, first of all, if it is about word-based edification, we are still able to hear the words of the songs. Secondly, whilst it is of central importance that we get the words right, I sometimes worry that my strain of evangelicalism is a little reductionist in its view of hymn singing. To be sure the words edify but at times people treat the music as just a necessity, and the attitude seems to be that any tune/rhythm will do. The music and rhythm in their mind is just a memory aid. Yet everything we know about music tells us that this is not true. The melody itself matters. There are tunes that we enjoy and tunes that get on our nerves.  Music does work with the emotions – it is fitting to emotions and helps us with that. And guess what, there is nothing wrong with emotion! Finally, I just think about what we would do as a family together informally if we weren’t having a church service. I suspect in most cases, part of our time being family together would include enjoying listening to music together.  What if we considered our gatherings not just to be for edification, to learn truths but as family gatherings where we are meant to enjoy time in God’s presence together.

So, as you can see, my preference is for the third approach which is that we “make melody in our hearts” whilst listening to others sing.  However, some people have objected to this approach and I want to pick up on what is being said here.

This is Pete Sanlon.

 Now, I want to be clear that Pete’s a good guy, a bright theologian and a great pastor. However I think he has completely missed the mark here.  You see the analogy is awful. It’s awful because it is offensive to those saying that they are singing in their hearts and to those affected by betrayal. I’m sure when Peter looks back he’ll see that. More importantly it’s bad reasoning and so makes for bad ethics.

The analogy doesn’t work because he is comparing oranges with apples.  In one situation, you have someone who says “I desperately and whole heartedly want to do x but I cannot, however it is the heart intention that matters.” In the other situation the person says “I am claiming to wish to do x (be faithful) but I am in fact choosing to do y  (be unfaithful). I am choosing both with my actions and my heart the very opposite of what I am claiming to do with my heart.” In the latter case, we would not say that the person’s heart is at odds with their actions. We would say that their actions betray their heart.

So in my view, the best option at the moment is to provide for people to listen to and to enjoy listening to hymns and songs, singing along in our hearts.

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