Joycelyn Chng

Standard for Congregational Music Established

Two issues ought to be addressed in light of the differing viewpoints and practices concerning congregational music that arose from the Reformation: (1) whether congregational songs should be limited to the psalms, and (2) whether congregational singing should be accompanied by musical instruments.

Should Congregational Songs Be Limited to Psalms?

It must be noted that Calvin’s Genevan Psalter included materials other than the psalms, such as the Commandments and Nunc dimittis (i.e. the song of Simeon recorded in Luke 2:29-32). Furthermore, he has been attributed as the writer of the hymn, Je te salue, mon certain Redempteur (“I greet thee, who my sure Redeemer art”). While his authorship of this hymn has been disputed, it is notable that this hymn of human composure is said to have been included in the Genevan Psalter. Taking these into consideration, it is reasonable to conclude that Calvin’s view concerning psalm-singing was more a matter of preference, rather than principle.

Of greater importance is the fact that the Book of Revelation records songs with words that are not the words of the psalms. Some examples of these songs are found in Revelation 5:9-10; 11:17-18; 19:1-3. Tellingly, hymnologists have coined them “doxological (praise) hymns”, and these passages describe worship that shall be in heaven as God had revealed to the Apostle John.

Peter Masters rightly observed in his defence of hymn-singing, “At the very least we must ask – if it is right to sing such songs in Heaven, how can it be wrong to sing them on earth?… We are the Church of Jesus Christ, and He must be extolled by name in our songs.”

Should Congregational Singing Be Accompanied by Musical Instruments

Music and musical instruments in particular, had their place in Old Testament worship. King David first organized musicians for worship when he instructed for the Levites to be appointed as singers with instruments of music (1 Chronicles 15:16-22). Their duty was to minister before the ark of the LORD (1 Chronicles 16:4-6).

The use of instruments of music together with the singing of praises to God continued in the Temple worship during the time of King Solomon (2 Chronicles 5:11-14), as well as King Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29:25-28). In post-exilic days, musical instruments were also mentioned at the laying of the foundation for the rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra 3:8-13), and the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 12:27).

In light of these examples in the Old Testament, there is biblical basis for the use of mu-sical instruments in the accompaniment of singing in the worship of God. However, it must be emphasized that in the Old Testament, only four kinds of instruments were allowed to be used in the house of God for worship. The four instruments permitted by God were the harp, the psaltery, the cymbals and the trumpet. Furthermore, the trumpet was employed only for special purposes and was not used for the normal accompaniment of singing (see 1 Chronicles 25:1-7). Evidently, the use of musical instruments was strictly regulated in the worship of God.

This does not mean that the church today should use the harp, the psaltery, the cymbals and the trumpet to accompany congregational singing. One must be mindful that this stipulation was given to the nation of Israel, and the church is not a nation but a spiritual body of Christ. It does mean however, that the same general principle of restraint must apply when it comes to the use of musical instruments in worship today. Peter Masters noted that “the standard of God remains in this Gospel age – that musical instruments should be modest in character, limited in number, and never allowed to rival or overwhelm the attractiveness of intelligent worship.”

In addition to having biblical basis, musical accompaniment serves a practical purpose as well. Many fundamental churches today employ the organ and/or piano in their worship services. When played modestly and reverently, these instruments do aid the congregation in singing praises unto God. It pays to take heed to what had happened to the state of psalm-singing in Colonial America by the latter part of the 17th century:

Since instrumental music in church was anathema to the Puritans, and because many people could not read or were too poor to own psalters, a deacon was appointed to “line out” the psalm, reading aloud a line or two, after which the congregation would join in singing the text that had just been read. In many churches, a precentor … would lead the singing through the strength of his own voice. The tunes were also subjected to increasingly slow tempos and to ornamentation by individual singers. (Reynolds and Price)

This resulted in “a free-for-all in which the notes and rhythms of the original tune were often buried in a cacophony of sound”, and at times, even changed into another tune mid-song (Ibid).

Notwithstanding their usefulness, musical instruments can turn into tools of distraction as well as detraction from the glory of God if not played in an appropriate manner. Firstly, the music must give off a sound that is decent and orderly. God’s Word says, “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints. … Let all things be done decently and in order.” (1 Corinthians 14:33, 40). Secondly, the musician must not draw attention to himself through his playing. God alone must be the focus of worship, and all glory is to be given to Him alone. God declares in Isaiah 42:8, “I am the LORD: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images.”

(Editor’s note: Based on the above biblical principles, we beseech musicians in worship services to play according to the music score as far as possible. The hymns were written with much prayer to draw attention to God and His Word in worship. We must give glory to God and not man.)

It is therefore of utmost importance that the instrumental accompaniment for congregational singing in the worship of God be modest and reverential in its presentation and arrangement. Only then will it be befitting the worship of the thrice holy God.


The wonderful privilege given to Christians to participate in the worship of the Almighty God through congregational singing—snuffed out by the Roman Church—was providentially restored during the days of the Reformation. May the Lord impress upon all who love Him, to praise Him in song with renewed zeal and fervour.

Joycelyn Chng is currently Tutor of Church Music in the Far Eastern Bible College. She has kindly given the editor permission to edit and publish part of her course syllabus notes.