Are Choirs and Solos Authorized for the Church Assembly?

By Wayne Jackson

One of the controversies generating considerable interest among the Lord’s people these days is the question of whether or not the use of choirs and solos is permissible in the worship assemblies of the New Testament church.

In numerous places the utilization of such singing arrangements has already been implemented. Some churches have specially named groups with coordinated wardrobes. Others are clamoring for these special singing groups. Musical entertainment is invading the church.

As a people who have always argued our religious positions upon the basis of scriptural authority, it behooves us to ask: is choir and solo singing in the church assembly authorized by the Scriptures? If it is not, then such cannot be condoned, no matter how popular the practice has become.

Congregational Singing

Historically, it has been quite evident to most Bible students that the type of music authorized for church assemblies by the New Testament Scriptures is that of congregational singing.

Paul wrote:

And be not drunken with wine, wherein is riot, but be filled with the Spirit; speaking one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord (Ephesians 5:18, 19 [ASV]).

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts unto God (Colossians 3:16 [ASV]).

There are several important things here. First, the language of these verses is such that it involves a plurality of individuals, entire congregations, in the obligations enjoined. The imperatives “be filled” and “let dwell,” along with the explanatory plural participles, “speaking,” “singing,” “making melody,” “teaching,” etc., indicate the activity of the church as a whole, rather than individual action, or that of a small portion of the church, as suggested by the solo-choral arrangement.

Second, the terms heautois (“one to another” [Ephesians 5:19]) and heautou (“one another” [Colossians 3:16]) are grammatically classified as reciprocal, reflexive pronouns.

According to noted grammarians Dana and Mantey (1968, 131), such a usage, as in the contexts under consideration, represents “an interchange of action” in the verbs employed.

J. B. Lightfoot (1892, 219) has noted that the reflexive nature of these pronouns emphasizes the “idea of corporate unity.” When the church as a whole sings, there is “speaking one to another”; when one group is active (the choir) and another group is passive (the listening audience), there is no interchange of action.

Choir and solo music does not fulfill the requirements of these contexts. Godet affirms that Ephesians 5:18ff and Colossians 3:16 refer to hymns that are sung by “the whole Church” (1890, 281).

Third, the participles “speaking,” “singing,” etc., explain the manner of implementing the imperatives (commands) “be filled” and “let dwell.”

Consequently, if one group (the chorus) may sing and praise God for another group (the audience), that is equivalent to arguing that one group may “be filled” with the Spirit for another, or the choir may “let [the word] dwell” in them as representatives for the balance of the congregation.

The New Testament does not sanction the notion of proxy worship. One segment of the church can no more sing for another than it can observe the Lord’s supper for another, or give for another. God expects faithful worship from each Christian.

Fourth, if Ephesians 5:18-19 and Colossians 3:16 actually exclude congregational singing and suggest solo or choir singing, as some have alleged (DeWelt 1985, 293), then solo and choir singing is not an option; rather, it is an obligation, and everyone in the church must be active in this type of singing function.

This is similar to the argument that N. B. Hardeman made in his debate with Ira Boswell. When Boswell contended that the Greek word psallontes (“making melody”) in Ephesians 5:19 infered a mechanical instrument, Hardeman, with relentless logic, demonstrated that since all of the saints at Ephesus were commanded to make melody, this would surely demand that each of them personally employ an instrument. Boswell was devastated by the argument.

Those today who are contending for choirs or solos on the basis of this passage are in an equally embarrassing position.

Major Arguments for the Choir and Solo Arrangements

Those who are introducing and defending the choir or solo practice in the church assembly attempt to justify their position by the following methods:

(1) Some suggest that choirs and solos ought not to be opposed since some churches have had these features for many years.

A popular journalist recently argued in favor of choirs, quartets, duets, etc., in the public services of the church on the basis that he “grew up in a church of Christ” that practiced these things. The writer made no attempt whatever to defend the practice upon the ground of scriptural argument; tradition was the criterion for justifying the chorus arrangement (Norton 1990).

What has become of us when we begin to argue our case in this manner? How are we better than denominationalists when we thus reason?

(2) Others contend that choirs and solos are permissible since the Bible is silent regarding them. A cartoon in a recent issue of Image magazine (Vol. VI, No. 1) suggested that quartet singing is just as scriptural as an opening prayer.

The implication was this: the Scriptures do not mention quartets and they do not mention “opening” prayers. We have no problem with the latter; thus, the former should be accepted as well.

The fact is, however, if the church is authorized to pray in the assembly (and it is [1 Corinthians 14:15ff]), the first prayer would of necessity be an opening prayer. Such is authorized therefore.

Now where is argumentation of equal force for the quartet? This type of reasoning has been used for ages in attempting to justify infant baptism, rosary beads, the burning of incense, the use of mechanical instruments of music, and a host of other human inventions. As an interpretive procedure, it is absolutely worthless.

(3) Some are contending that 1 Corinthians 14:26 contains the New Testament authority for solos in the worship assembly. Rubel Shelly, preacher for the Woodmont Hills church in Nashville, Tennessee, asserts: “The New Testament precedent is actually clearer for solo or small-group singing than for congregational singing (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:26-28)” (1989). Shelly suggests, however, that the congregation for which he preaches will, for the most part, stay with congregational music. Why, pray tell, if the precedent for solo singing is stronger? This very attitude reflects a posture that disdains biblical authority!

The late Don DeWelt of the Independent Christian Church similarly argued that there is little, if any, authority for congregational singing (293).

What does 1 Corinthians 14:26 actually say? In that passage Paul declares:

What is it then, brethren? When ye come together, each one hath a psalm, hath a teaching, hath a revelation, hath a tongue, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying (ASV).

This verse does not remotely provide what is needed to justify solo singing. First, the passage does not mention singing. A psalm can be read or quoted as easily as it can be sung. Further, a psalm could be presented to the congregation for learning without a solo being performed. It certainly could have been introduced phrase by phrase with the church joining in, much in the same fashion as with antiphonal or part singing.

If a verse does not explicitly state a truth, or at least necessarily imply it, no speculation should be made by which to justify some coveted practice. Imagination is a poor base upon which to construct an argument.

Second, while it may be reasonable to conclude that a spiritual gift, i.e., an inspired song, is in view in 1 Corinthians 14:26, the natural presumption would have to be that once the song was given by the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit and conveyed to the congregation, the subsequent use of the psalm would have been regulated in harmony with the apostle’s instructions elsewhere (e.g., Ephesians 5:18, 19; Colossians 3:16), and that would demand congregational singing—not a solo performance.

In this connection we would make passing reference to the case of the disciples as they assembled in Acts 4, celebrating the release of Peter and John from prison. The text states that they “lifted up their voice to God with one accord” (v. 24).

Macknight, coupling this passage to 1 Corinthians 14:26, comments that since it is said that the whole company “lifted up their voice with one accord,” it is evident that this utterance must have been delivered “by two or three sentences at a time (as Paul directed the Corinthians to do in the like cases) that all the company might join in it” (1954, 195).

Moreover, if a psalm were sung under the influence of the Spirit for instructive purposes, that would have no bearing upon what the church is allowed to do today. Hodge has noted:

It was only so long as the gifts . . . continued in the church that the state of things here described [1 Corinthians 14:26] prevailed. Since those gifts have ceased, no one has the right to rise in the church under the impulse of his own mind to take part in its services (1857, 300-301).

Third, it appears fairly obvious that Paul, in this context, is attempting to correct an abuse. H. K. Moulton, lecturer in New Testament studies at New College, University of London, classifies 1 Corinthians 14:26 as one of several Corinthian passages which reveal “selfish individualism” (cf. 1:12; 11:21) on the part of these saints, thus worthy of apostolic rebuke (1977, 37).

If such is the case, this verse is hardly one to be citing in support of the chorus-solo system. The truth is, the New Testament is void of authority for solo and choir music in church worship.

Why, then, has there developed this relatively modern craze for a new form of church music?

The Solo-Chorus Innovation

As with many other features of the early church, after the close of the first century, gradual changes in the apostles’ doctrine began to be introduced. The testimony of history clearly establishes the fact that for a good while congregational singing continued to be the practice of those professing Christianity.

The early “church fathers” spoke of that worship in song in which “the whole congregation forms one general chorus” (Chrysostom), and “to a man . . . make up a chorus” (Ignatius), wherein “the whole people join in song” (Ambrose) unto God. Eusebius, known as the “father of church history,” says that the churches’ congregational singing was so loud that it could be heard “by those standing outside”(Frost 1989, 2-9).

M’Clintock and Strong note:

From the apostolic age singing was always a part of divine service, in which the whole body of the church joined together; and it was the decay of this practice that first brought the order of singers into the Church (1970, 776).

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church points out that at first singing was congregational, “but gradually the practice of having a body of trained singers was introduced.” By the fourth century A.D., choral groups were being employed in some of the churches. By the time of Gregory the Great (d. 604), “the Schola Cantorum [school of singers] was fully established” (Cross 1958, 1225, 273).

Historian John Hurst writes regarding the worship of the primitive church:

The singing of psalms and hymns was an important part of the service. It might be led by an individual, but Paul’s advice proves that the singing by the whole congregation was regarded as the best form of praise (1897, 142).

The testimony of ancient history is clearly against choir or solo singing, and in favor of congregational singing.

Modern Motives

The fact of the matter is, the current trend toward solos and choirs in the services of the church reflects an attitude that attempts to shift the emphasis from the simple message of the gospel to an aura that smacks of sensationalism and entertainment.

Such a motive is virtually conceded in a recent article by Rubel Shelly in which this brother bemoans the fact that the world is not “comfortable with our tradition-based services,” hence, by the introduction of special music (choirs and solos) and religious drama, the hope is expressed that the church might “catch more flies with honey” than with our “traditional” format of simply preaching the gospel (1990).

What a sad state of affairs it is when plain gospel preaching and humble congregational worship are compared, by implication, to vinegar!

May the Lord help us to be satisfied with the simplicity of the New Testament plan of worship wherein each person, as a priest of God, offers a sacrifice of praise to the Creator (Hebrews 13:15).

Sources/Footnotes
  • Cross, Frank, ed. 1958. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. London, England: Oxford Universtiy Press.
  • Dana, H. E. and Julian Mantey. 1968. A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament. New York, NY: Macmillan & Co.
  • DeWelt, Don. 1985. Letter to the editor. Gospel Advocate, May 16.
  • Frost, Gene. 1989. Choirs and Solos in Worship. Gospel Anchor, July. [A number of these sources are cited in this article. It is available in booklet form from Gospel Anchor, P.O. Box 36033, Louisville, KY 40233. Price is $1.00 plus postage.]
  • Godet, F. Commentary on 1st Corinthians. Vol. 2. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark.
  • Hodge, Charles. 1857. First Epistle to the Corinthians. New York, NY: Hodder & Stoughton.
  • Hurst John. 1897. History of the Christian Church. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Eaton & Mains.
  • Image, Vol. VI, No. 1, January-February 1990.
  • Lightfoot, J. B. The Epistles of St. Paul – Colossians and Philemon. London, England: Macmillan & Co.
  • M’Clintock, John and James Strong. 1970. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. Vol. 9. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Macknight, James. 1954. Apostolic Epistles. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate.
  • Moulton, Harold K. The Challenge of the Concordance – Some New Testament Words Studied In Depth. London, England: Samuel Bagster & Sons.
  • Norton, Howard. 1990. Editorial. Christian Chronicle, January.
  • Shelly, Rubel. 1989. Woodmont Hills Chorus. Love Lines (weekly bulletin of Woodmont Hills Church of Christ, Nashville, Tennessee), July 19.
  • Shelly, Rubel. 1990. Love Lines, March 28.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.