Really, “Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs”?

John Sheldon in 1994 wrote for Britain Yearly Meeting:

“The acceptance of the practice of music as a legitimate activity for Friends has been difficult because of the clear view expressed by early Friends.  …our founder, George Fox, says in his Journal that he was ‘moved to cry also against all sorts of music…[for it] burdened the pure life, and stirred people’s minds to vanity.’ With such a strong lead it took Friends until 1978 before Ormerod Greenwood could name this attitude an apostasy. Now we can say that Friends do not merely accept music, but that composing, performing and listening to music, are, for many, essential parts of their spiritual lives.”

Elizabeth Fry in 1833 wrote:

“My observation of human nature and the different things that affect it frequently leads me to regret that we as a Society so wholly give up delighting the ear by sound.  Surely He who formed the ear and the heart would not have given these tastes and powers without some purpose for them.”


Thanks to our musicians, our worship today includes twelve pieces of music. This is highly unusual for us, especially on a ‘third’ Sunday that is more typically of the silent variety.  When we attended the funeral service for of son-in-law’s mother, held in the sanctuary at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, the music was astounding.  When I’ve visited worship in a Roman Catholic church the music was wonderful. The Methodists, Church of the Brethren, Catholics, Lutherans, Church of Christ, Assemblies of God and other pentecostals have their own hymnody.  Friends find ourselves singing other people’s music. But, sing we must and should.

Ephesians 5:15-33

15Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.21Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.


The Latin word from which we get the word ‘sober’ comes from ‘sobrius’ and it is defined as ‘without inebriation’.  And yet some how the Latin word ‘ebrius’ which in English is roughly translated inebriated is lost in antiquity. Do you think that maybe

‘ebrius’ originally referred to being taken up or caught us in some sort of elation?  Paul likens our state of being in worship to being inebriated but with the Spirit, not with wine. For Christians, worship is supposed to be an—well I can’t bring myself to use the word intoxicating – I don’t want to connect worship with anything toxic but quite the opposite. What ever, Paul says, don’t mistake draining the contents of a bottle of “Ripple” and confuse that buzz with the evidence of the presence of God. Instead of being filled with an inebriating libation, we are to “be filled with the Spirit [and this is especially important for today] “as we sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”.


We can be pretty flexible in our worship but when we sing Paul suggests that in our “singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, we are giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”


Paul, in this passage stops preaching and starts meddling.  The third thing that Paul associates with worship and singing is that of “[being] subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21).  A lot of times verse 21 gets cut off and allowed to float with the next section of Paul’s instructions about how to live.  But we can’t really lop the last phrase off.  Paul gives us one long sentence: “We are to be filled with the Spirit not through the intoxication of wine but the intoxication of worship, which involves the communal practices of singing to each other and to God, of singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, of making melody to the Lord, of giving thanks to God, and of submitting to one another”.


That last phrase moves Paul into one of the passages in Ephesians that continues to rankle a lot of people. The reason for all the upset is that instead of recognizing that Paul was speaking to people dealing with the normal patterns of their own lives some think that Paul is telling us in the 21st Century to adopt second century patterns of marriage, family and work.  The following passage, when heard in context with what precedes it, actually becomes meaningful for us today. So, grit your teeth if you must, but sit tight and hear it through:


18Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.21Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.22Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. 25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30because we are members of his body. 31“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

The picture Paul paints is of wives and husbands, parents and children, and masters and slaves learning how to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ as they worship and sing together. The foundational setting for building faithful household relationships is not the household itself, but the faith community that gathers for worship. If husbands and wives can sing together in worship, they may learn how to live together at home. The same for parents and their offspring: let them sing together week after week and in their worship find mutual love and respect. And despite our reactions to slavery, we can at least note Paul’s assumption that slaves and masters will worship together and in their singing learn something of mutual submission out of reverence for Christ. That is a pretty remarkable picture: the members of a household—including the young and the enslaved—singing together in worship and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.


Singing is more than making a joyful noise. God has given us singing and worshiping to help us get over divisive categories of gender, age, race and class. In singing and worshiping, we enter the life of God through the Holy Spirit. As we become one body in Christ we share in God’s eternal “singing.” Music and singing can be a means of grace that makes the Body one.


In our culture masters and slaves hardly ever worship together, and when they did, the slaves were forced to sit by themselves in the church balcony. We can only wonder if slavery in America would have ended sooner, or if its damage to our culture would have been less, if slaves and masters had worshiped together side by side, singing to one another. We know of Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings, who bore children by him. Do you suppose they ever sang psalms and hymns and spiritual songs together? All that to say, true gospel singing is a political act that challenges all human categories and divisions.


Singing can be a means of grace, when with a good dose of intentionality and consideration we become subject to one another, being truly considerate of one another’s sensitivities and sensibilities.  The gospel word is that singing and music can be a means of grace that unifies, that brings us into the life of God as we learn submission to one another out of reverence for Christ. If we sing as God intends we will empty ourselves before God, and through the Holy Spirit we will enter the singing life of God.


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