This Week's Focus Passage

‘Admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.’

Focus Passage: Colossians 3:16

‘Admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.’

Few deny the warrant involved in these words of Paul, that we have included in them the privilege and responsibility when we are singing the words of ‘psalms and hymns and spiritual songs’ that we are incorporating the possibilities of admonishing others with whom we are gathered. The corollary passage in Ephesians 5:19 employs the language of speaking one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs………giving thanks. It is in this parallel from Colossians that we hear the exhortative expressions of teaching and admonishing one another. This places importance upon the expressions involving what it is that we sing on a much higher plane, does it not? Is it not in the gathered assembly of God’s people that as we hear the entire congregation framing teaching and instruction from the words sung that if God the Holy Spirit is pleased to do so, understanding and even conviction might be given through those words teaching and admonishing? If this is the case, it is not therefore unimportant what the words are that we have before us to sing. Obviously, there is little or no importance attached to the words if those who are singing them imagine that this part of the worship service is only entertainment.

But if it be otherwise and the congregational singing to God’s praise is actually a means of grace rather than entertainment, it should necessarily be seen as extremely relevant what the content of the selected song is. This brings us to the rather ancient discussion between hymnody and psalmody. What did Paul intend to be understood by his chosen language of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs? There have been, over the years, many and varied conclusions reached upon this question. Did Paul intend the terms to be synonymous? In other words, when he has spoken of psalms; when he has spoken of hymns; when he has referred to spiritual songs, did he expect the reader to understand that these terms, or words, referred to one and the same thing? Did he mean to convey that the hymns and spiritual songs were simply additional terms for psalms? And if that is not the case and the hymns were not psalms, just what were they? Did they even possess in Paul’s day uninspired song? And what did he mean by the language of spiritual songs? Are there truly any psalms that would not qualify as spiritual songs? They have been, each one of them, penned under the authority of the Holy Spirit else they would not be in our bibles. And yet there are many that have, and in our day do, read these words as though they said ‘psalms and hymns and choruses.’ The psalms are in the Older Testament, the hymns are in our hymnals, and the choruses are on the screen. These are questions which we are not able to answer. But this much is certain, as one conference speaker wisely spoke, if Paul’s words here mean anything at all, they mean that we should be including psalms in our singing of the praise of our God. This we call ‘inclusive psalmody.’ In other words, being careful to include the Psalms of the Bible in our singing of God’s praise. Sadly, over the years, the Psalms have lost the place they had once held in our minds and hearts when it comes to singing to our God in His pure worship. In fact, many have lost the reality that we are to be singing unto God. We have been so inundated with ‘special music,’ choirs and solos that amount to the congregation being sung to; actually being entertained. This is the reason that it is not uncommon, in many assemblies, to hear applause following the ‘performances.’

When we review some history of psalmody in our country, we witness the perennial ‘slippery slope.’ A professor made the observation that a ‘slippery slope’ is not a valid argument. While this may well be true, there are nonetheless ‘slippery slopes’ that have caused downhill plunges. The ARP—the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church—is one of the oldest, if not the oldest Presbyterian church in the United States. They evolved from the Seceders and Covenanters of Scotland tracing their ancestry to the Erskine brothers, Ralph and Ebenezer. They were, according to Scottish tradition and usage, exclusive psalm singers. This practice was continued when the two branches formed the present-day body in this country in 1782, and did continue 164 years until 1946, when the General Synod approved the right of individual congregations to determine whether to continue the exclusive use of Psalms in the worship of God, or to use other songs such as hymns. This proved to be that ‘slippery slope,’ for many, if not most, of the congregations ceased to use psalms in their worship at all. They went directly to ‘GO’ as it were. The pendulum swung from old tradition to new pragmatism in a virtual heartbeat. At their 207th General synod in 2011 a new ARP psalter was approved for use in the denomination to encourage the increased use of Psalm singing in public worship. Amazing! Sixty-five years after abandoning the exclusive use of the Psalms in the worship of God, this body of believers has found it most necessary to do something to encourage the use of psalms at all in the worship of God. What is the historical reality that has been exposed from this fact? It seems entirely fair to submit that what has been exposed is this ‘slippery slope’ leaning toward an extremely vertical pitch. Many of the individual congregations involved virtually abandoned, not just the exclusive use of David’s psalms but, the use of these precious songs altogether.

It could be reasonably contended that the ARP was only following what others had previously done. They were certainly not the first to experience this downgrade. We read an account of such a denomination in the Dutch Reformed tradition. The minutes of a synod that met in October of 1787 record that ‘convinced of the necessity for another and better version of the Psalms of David than the congregations as yet possess in the English language…[delegates to the synod] have determined as speedily as possible to form a new versification…’ One commentator wrote of this ‘slippery slope.’ “In spite of this radical departure from the continental Reformed practice, the book retained settings of each of the 150 psalms and continued to do so in each succeeding psalter until 1869. In the edition of the hymnal published in that year the psalms had nearly disappeared among the 1007 hymns.” God help us to keep our footing while we continue to include the Psalms of David with our hymns until the day that we sing them anew in the kingdom.

David Farmer, elder

Fellowship Bible Church

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