Last March I had the privilege to go to the Shepherds’ Conference at John MacArthur’s church in southern California. This was an experience that was overwhelming at the time, and it has taken much time to absorb what I learned there. I am looking forward to attending it again in this coming March.
Everything that they did there was done with excellence. It is hard to explain the feeling that you experience when you see Christians that go above and beyond to serve the Lord. As a musician, I tried to do my best to take in all the excellence of the varied types of music ministry that they provided for us. The choirs, the orchestra, the pipe organ and piano, the soloists, and even a contemporary worship team; all being done with a view towards excellence. Great music, great preaching, and great teaching from the Word of God!
In the seminar that was presented by Clayton Erb, the church’s music director, I was shown how the music department strives for excellence to focus on the crescendo of the worship service: the exposition of the Word of God. It was interesting that Dr. Erb’s attitude was that Dr. MacArthur was the worship leader, and he was just the guy that led the singing. What an attitude from an incredibly accomplished musician. This is an attitude not found in many modern American churches. Too many churches have their focus on the music instead of the verse by verse exposition of the Holy Scriptures.
Another important definition that was presented at the conference was the biblical truth that the pastor was a shepherd, not a CEO. Again, many American churches have adopted the unbiblical CEO model, maybe even going to the point that they view the pastor as the “hired gun.” We pay him to be good, so that we don’t have to be. No! No! No! Biblically the pastor is the shepherd under the direct authority of Jesus Christ the Lord; Who is the Good Shepherd. Jesus is the Shepherd, and the pastor is the under shepherd. We need to get back to the pattern of church leadership in the Bible.
But I must return to my main topic: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs. The Bible says that if a Christian is filled with the Spirit, that the result will be addressing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs according to Ephesians 5:18-19. The same three results are attributed to having the Word of Christ richly dwelling in us, according to Colossians 3:16. But what is the difference between these three types of music. I like the definitions that Dr. Erb gave us in the church music seminar that he taught. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that I also found these same definitions in my MacArthur Study Bible.
A Psalm is Scripture set to music: Principally from the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament. But this could also include other Scripture set to music. It could also refer to vocal music in general. The early church sang Psalms.
A Hymn is a song of praise which exalts God. This type of music focuses on exalting our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The early church sang hymns.
A Spiritual Song is a song of personal testimony expressing the truth of the grace of God expressed in our salvation in Christ. The early church sang spiritual songs.
Let me add to this the next phrase from Ephesians 5:19, “Singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” The term Making Melody, literally means “plucking a stringed instrument.” Thus, instrumental music is included, as opposed to just vocal music. Although I often sing specials in church, I am a lot more accomplished at playing my trumpet or flugel horn. When I play my horns I am “making melody.”
From Ephesians 5:19, we can see that music in the church can be both vocal and instrumental, and it should consist of music that sets Scripture to music, focuses on exalting Christ, and expresses the truth of our salvation by God’s grace; His undeserved favor. (Music that does not fit these criteria does not belong in the local church.) As a choir director and musician, this is the kind of music that I need to bring to my church, so that the worship leader, my Pastor, can open the Scriptures to evangelize sinners, edify believers, and equip the body of Christ in my local church by the word for word exposition of the Holy Scriptures. (By the way, I am not the worship leader either; I’m just the guy who leads the choir and occasionally does special music!)