A Call for Training—A Biblical, Historical Perspective

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From the Davidic Court to present day, skill development has been a necessity for leaders. This is especially true among those who would lead God’s people in corporate worship. In present day practice, training and preparation for ministry has been influenced by cultural demands for utilitarian training that is quick, accessible, and inexpensive. Informal short-cuts can be helpful for many but should not replace the call for intensive training in areas of theology, philosophy, apologetics and skill development. In today’s worship environment the question of formal training requires investigation. This is not a call to abandon informal training, workshops, round table discussions, and affinity groups. This is a call to consider deeper levels of robust preparations that is supported by biblical criteria.

The Apostle Paul’s admonition to the church at Philippi is a call to all believers towards disciplines of conduct and practice. These values are particularly applicable for those who plan and guide in worship.  Philippians 4.8-9:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.  Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or, seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”

Paul places before the church the need to pursuit values which should cling to God’s people. These values reflect Christ and are more than suggestions.  One value of particular interest is “excellence.” The Greek word arete is used to denote moral uprightness and high standards (Vines Expository Dictionary, 1970).  In ancient Greek culture the word was associated with the fulfillment of purpose or function. In other words, living up to one’s potential. The application is obvious. It is a call to offer one’s best. Excellence is acquired through development and nurture. Regardless of vocation, excellence is not purchased or exchanged, but cultivated.  There are few short-cuts. In other words, excellence requires a commitment to training and continued growth.

Cultural influences, particularly seen in “pop culture” can wrongly identify one as “trained” as “elitist” or sadly—“inauthentic.” Regardless of environmental factors or worship expressions, it is paramount to be guided by biblical principles. These are the values that will carry a leader the distance. In Paul’s admonition to pursuit these Christ-like values, he offers a strong imperative to “think!”  The Greek word logozomai in this context is much more than a glancing thought as to suggest an option. The context “to think” is literally, to “reckon” or “influence action.” It is a summons to act upon the imperative. The implication is obvious. The values expressed in Paul’s letter are to drive every aspect of our Christian walk—especially those in ministry. Such standards are rarely seen in Christian practice without intentional nurture and personal discipline.

In other letters from the Apostle, one discovers other references that shed light on this matter.  In Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, insight is gained regarding standards in worship and even performance practice. In 1 Corinthians 14:8 there are references to specific instruments such as the, aulos (Latin tibia), kithara (Latin cithara), salpinx (Latin tuba), and kymbalon (Latin cymbalum). Although, there are several other references to instruments in the New Testament, what is particularly relevant is seen in the reference to performance practice. Paul states: “Even things without life, giving a voice, whether pipe or harp, if they give not a distinction in sound how shall it be known what is piped or harped? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” (1 Corinthians 14:7-8).

Joachim Braun presents an argument for discipline and training in his research: “in repeatedly emphasizing the importance of the clarity of music performance and comparing it with the comprehensibility of the spoken word, the passage suggest that the actual practice of music had perhaps become subject anew to reflection and that a focus on a certain degree of competency and quality of performance was being articulated” (Joachim Braun, Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine, 45.). Such performance if undisciplined and untrained would cause confusion and chaos. In this context, Paul is stating that such confusion and lack of preparation would have catastrophic results.

Braun goes on to present an interesting argument that perhaps this metaphor is an actual reflection into the worship practice at Corinth. Evidence is lacking to know if the church at Corinth used instruments in their worship practice. The metaphorical treatment in Paul’s letter could suggest that instruments may have been employed. Historical use of instruments in early church worship, however, presents a challenge to this argument. Debate supporting two opposing positions can be made.  On the one hand, it would not be surprising that the Corinthian culture brought more than social habits into the church. In fact, the Corinthians quickly outnumbered the Jewish converts. Paul’s reference to instruments are similar if not the same as those used in second period Temple worship. The absence of Paul addressing potential conflict over the inclusion of instruments in corporate worship could offer a different conclusion. An uproar would have likely resulted among the Jewish converts as diaspora Jews practiced a rather formal liturgical structure. Most evidence points towards a “voice only” practice. If the letter is prior to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 by Rome, the use of instruments would be a matter of debate as instruments were only used in Temple liturgy. Even if (as some erroneously speculate) Paul’s letter is from another source and after the destruction of the Temple, the use of instruments in synagogue worship would be seen as disrespectful and would certainly have caused quite a “stir” among the Jewish members as all instruments were “barred” from use as a sign of mourning over the loss of the Temple. Surely the Apostle would share insights and deal with such a controversy. Biblical and historical current evidence suggests that the music of the early church was vocal only and likely associated with music from the synagogue or Temple liturgy.  Paul’s mention of instruments, however, does provide insight to the importance of clarity and precision for understanding. Whether instruments were used or not, the application remains—preparation is essential.

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Music has a clear purpose which presents a case for preparation, clarity, and trained leadership. Once again, eyes turn to Paul and his letter to the Colossians. The founder of the church was Epaphras, a disciple of Paul from Ephesus. In Paul’s letter, he begins by offering approval of their leader from whom the believers “learned from a faithful servant of Christ” (para. Colossians 1:7). The word “learned” from the Greek is mathaino which means “intellectually acquiring doctrine and precepts through study and observation” (Spiros Zodhiates ed., Hebrew Greek Key Word Study Bible, cite 3129, p 1578). The adjective “faithful” in this context means “worthy of belief” (Key Word Study Bible, cite 4103, p 2253). Epaphras was a prepared and trustworthy teacher and leader. He had been personally trained by Paul, he had full confidence that the Epaphras was equipped to address the doctrinal challenge in the Colossae church. One of the primary methodologies would be through the church’s singing. The cultural influence of pluralism, Gnosticism, and other Greco-Roman philosophies presented many challenges for this new church. The instructional methodology would be critical for the church’s survival in the midst of such a complex setting.

Paul’s admonition to the church at Colossae (as well as Ephesus) stressed the importance of music for internalizing the “Word of Christ.” Even without the “canon of Scripture” we rely upon today, the church grew in its doctrine, theology, and understanding of Christ’s teachings through its singing. Paul’s letter to the Gentile church was received as “Apostolic” and would be read as more than mere suggestion. Coupled with Paul’s reference to the church founder Epaphras, his letter would have more impact. The singing of “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” was already an affirmed practice (as we see no evidence of attention towards defining the three forms). The church was familiar with the terms and the value placed on singing. Little is known, however, of its specific content. Some scholarship would suggest that psalms would be a “carry-over” of synagogue practice. Hymns would be described as musical expressions to God, which was also a part of pagan traditions in the Greco-Roman culture (see Paul F. Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship, 47-72). Spiritual songs could be referring to music which would be spontaneous and even ecstatic in nature. Some suggest the designation serves as a “catch all” of music which is personal in nature and something other than text based on the Gospel narrative, canticles, or apostolic teachings (Martin, Worship of God, 53.). Other scholars suggest the term actually belongs to the former two and is simply a restatement and not necessarily a third category. F.F. Bruce sees this as the emotion or attitude connecting with the didactic nature of the two rather than a third component (F. F. Bruce, Bible Commentary, Colossians, p. 1458). Regardless of interpretation, the singing of God’s people were of paramount importance for cognition and adherence to the “words of Christ.”

Paul was well-versed in Jewish liturgy. He would know the liturgical practice of the Temple as well as that which carried forward to the Jewish communities in the diaspora. “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.” The word ‘richly’ (plousios, adj) denotes value or according to Vines: “a moral value of liberality and abundance” (W.E. Vine, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary, p 534). It is significant that the priority and “abundant value” of Christ’s teachings in the life of the church is directly tied to its singing.

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In addition to Paul’s epistles which provide insight to worship practice, John’s Revelation presents a grand vision of Temple liturgy within the context of the eschaton. The singing in Revelation 5 includes antiphonal singing, elaborate instrumentation, and a theme which is Christocentric.  Alfred Edersheim compares this to the dedication of Solomon’s Temple in 2 Chronrcles 5: “Such music might well serve, in the book of Revelation as imagery of heavenly realities, where the antiphony of the two choirs combine to join in this grand unison, ‘Alleluia—for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth” (Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Service, p 54.). Such a picture would support not only the theme of worship but the excellence in its execution. There is no question of its clarity, power, order, and focus. Perhaps a look at the future would be a good starting point for earthly worship practice.

The New Testament (particularly Paul’s letters) presents a call for training and continued growth. We see this in the letters to the Corinthians, Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians as well as to his “sons in the ministry” Timothy and Titus. “Whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy—put into practice!” (Phil. 4.8-9 NIV). These values require continued growth and nurture. Such training is not optional for ministry leadership.

The Old Testament also presents a challenge towards excellence through dedicated training.  The first Temple period liturgy utilized similar instruments mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians including harps, pipes, cymbals, and trumpets. Although notation and specific information regarding practice is at best remote, scripture provides adequate descriptions of its use as well as the standards by which musicians were held. The psalmist states:

“Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre. Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy” (Psalm 33:1-3, NIV).

In ancient Israel, the leaders of music would have at least five years of formal training and would be admitted to their role at the age of 30. These “Levites” were charged with guarding the Temple and supervising its musical activity.  By the time of the second Temple, the musical leadership was trained for their service. The influence of the Temple had far reaching influence in terms of hymnody and practice. The Mishnah provides instruction and routine of the musical court. The instructions are comprehensive as it relates to instrumental involvement and singing. Rabbi Akiba observed in the Second Temple the roles of the leader, choirs and congregants in variations of antiphonal singing (Dowdy, Christian Music, p 22). We later discover hints of a similar practice in Egypt. In his work, On Ascetics (De Vita Contemplativa), Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BC-AD50) journals of worship practices among pre-Christian ascetics in Egypt. The worship included singing in a variety of ways including the use of antiphony. Philo mentions the use of a “double-chorus” in elaborate processions and services (See Braun, Music in Ancient Palestine, 2002). This suggests music for congregation that was prepared, rehearsed, and facilitated by some level of skilled leadership and reflective of Temple liturgical practice. (Nathan Corbitt, Christian Music: A Global History, p 27).

The influence of Jewish singing would certainly carry forward into early church practice. This would be particularly true after the destruction of the Temple AD 70 as Jews (including religious leaders) fled to Africa, Asia, and Europe. As the Jews migrated, their songs went with them. The early church adopted several tenants of the Jewish worship (viewing it in a Christian context) such as the Jewish calendar, Passover, ceremonial cleansing, liturgical structure, instruction, prayers, and music (Ralph Martin, Worship in the Early Church, p. 18-27). This would also involve the musical practice associated with the local synagogue which drew some degree of influence from the Temple.

Historical documentation such as Pliny the Younger’s letter to Trajan in AD 111-112 provides insight to the liturgical practice among believers in Bithynia (Betty Radice, Letters and Panegyricus: Pliny the Younger, p. 294). This is not to say that every aspect had been crystalized into a formal matrix. Mixed with the prayers, exposition, antiphonal singing, and confessions, the early-church gatherings were noted by fellowship, common meals, initiation rites including baptism, greetings, and other expressions. The letter requests clarity regarding possible crimes against Roman rule in what appears to be a refusal to worship Roman gods. It provides insight to the church’s worship practice. Pliny states:

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“They meet on a certain day before light where they gather and sing hymns alternately to Christ as god. They all bind themselves by oath, pledging not commit crimes such as fraud, theft, or adultery, and to not falsify their trust. When this was over, it was custom to depart and assemble again to partake of food which was ordinary and innocent food” (Stephen Tomkins, Dan Graves, ed, Pliny’s Letter to Trajan: Depraved, excessive superstition, https://christianhistoryinstitute.org, #102).

The gathering was planned and clearly communicated. The service included singing that focused on Christ as Lord. The music was understood by not only the Christian community but also by non-believers. The music was distinctive in message. The singing embraced alternation. So clear was the message that a Roman leader whose belief system was at the least pluralistic, found the central theme of the worship was Christ as Lord. It was so definitive it required a letter to the magistrate to determine levels of persecution which should be prescribed to the community of faith. The service included confessions and vows. The church then shared a meal which would likely be described as an agape meal. In Pliny’s letter there is no reference to a liturgical practice that was unplanned, chaotic, or lacking in clarity.  There was no confusion with this Roman official.

Application

Why should we be trained or prepared as ministers? As in Corinth, Colossae, and even Bithynia the role of music was central in its confession, instruction of doctrine, and witness to the world. Just as poor execution by a “sounding brass” (Corinth) prove catastrophic on the field of battle so too can undisciplined leadership rob the believers of the potential worship engagement.  Well-trained musicians who are conscientious of theological and doctrinal content have the potential to positively shape the church in its worship and spiritual development. If a second side of the coin is to be considered, it would suggest that musical incompetency and limited theological understanding would actually hinder the spiritual growth of the church. In addition, biblical and historical evidence would suggest that the centrality of a Christological theme in worship was a distinctive aspect of the early church. Its content was intentional and without compromise—even in a threatening environment. Cultural relevancy for the sake of personal preservation was not the priority of the early church. Acknowledgment of Christ as Lord aligned with the church’s mission to love God, love others, and share the Gospel.

If singing is highly valued in Scripture (whether Old or New Testament) then methodology should also be under review. Biblical evidence suggests the use of trained musicians including instrumental groups and choirs. Historical evidence indicates a strong emphasis of music in Temple liturgy, early church settings, and even eschatological worship. For over 2,000 years the advancement of music has greatly impacted the church in terms of its confession, societal impact, artistry, witness, and liturgical life. To resist or devalue optimal training for the sake of cultural relevancy is a sad commentary for leaders who profess to be a “people of the Book.”

Biblical and historical documentation value the use of choirs (vocal ensembles) and instrumental ministries in corporate worship. Indeed, they have a place in today’s church and should be nurtured towards the values of that which is “true, noble, right, pure, worthy, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy” (Phil. 4:8).

Choirs, instrumental groups, praise teams, bands, and other ensembles can be used for the purpose of praise, edification, and communication of the Gospel. Regardless of exegetical systems, God’s Word prioritizes the proper use of music for the church. A word of warning—such methodologies  may also be problematic. If practice promotes aesthetics over content or places more attention on the presenter than on Christ—then such practice is not Christocentric and should be avoided. In addition, the leadership should never supplant the voice of the congregation in presentation, amplification, or instrumentation. In other words, leaders should guide—not replace or “drown out” the congregation.  The first commandment will always hold today’s leader accountable in handling the holy vessels of worship. Christian worship is to be God-honoring, Christ-centered and presented with excellence, sincerity, clarity, and purpose.

“Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to God. And whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:16-17).

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