- Reformation of the Arts and Music

Singing as a Symbol of Christian Unity
© 1998 by Casimir Saternos

It is proper that music be one means by which the church expresses her unity. Singing is an act which unites God's people at all times in history, on heaven and earth in the common praise of God.

"Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!" Psalm 133:1

The psalmist's celebration of the unity of God's people has been echoed by the church in her liturgy for thousands of years. Jesus prayed that His people might demonstrate a unity akin to that of Him and His Father (John 17:20-22). This corporate unity paradoxically promotes the diversity of individuals who make up the church. Paul demonstrates this in several places (I Cor. 12; Eph. 4:1-16). This unity is a divine reality which runs so deep that if one member of the body suffers, all the members suffer with it (I Cor 12:26; Heb.13:3).

Ignatius has described unity of Christians (particularly between pastors and congregations) in musical terms in his letter to the Ephesians:

" is proper for your conduct and your practices to correspond closely with the mind of the bishop. And this, indeed, they are doing; your justly respected clergy, who are a credit to God, are attuned to their bishop like the strings of a harp, and the result is a hymn of praise to Jesus Christ from minds that are in unison, and affections that are in harmony. Pray, then, come and join this choir, every one of you; let there be a whole symphony of minds in concert; take the tone all together from God, and sing aloud to the Father with one voice through Jesus Christ, so that He may hear you and know by your good works that you are indeed members of His Son's Body. A completely united front will help to keep you in constant communion with God." Early Christian Writings. Translated by Maxwell Stanifirth. Penguin Books, 1968 p. 62.

It is proper that music be one means by which the church expresses her unity. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, demonstrates this in his classic work on Christian Community: Life Together (Translated, and with an introduction by John W. Doberstein. Harper & Row, 1954.)

Singing is an act which unites God's people at all times in history, on heaven and earth in the common praise of God.

"'Sing unto the Lord a new song,' the Psalter enjoins us again and again. It is the Christ-hymn, new every morning, that the family fellowship strikes up at the beginning of the day, the hymn that is sung by the whole Church of God on earth and in heaven, and in which we are summoned to join. God has prepared for Himself one great song of praise throughout eternity, and those who enter the community of God join in this song." (p. 57)

Singing is to be an outward manifestation of ones faith and joy. It is in response to God's saving work and finds expression not in unhindered self-expression, but in humble, disciplined participation in the Body of Christ.

"'Sing and make melody in your heart to the Lord' (Eph. 5:19). The new song is sung first in the heart. Otherwise it cannot be sung at all. The heart sings because it is overflowing with Christ. That is why all singing in the church is a spiritual performance. Surrender to the Word, incorporation in the community, great humility, and much discipline-these are the prerequisites of all singing together." (p. 58)

The Liturgy of the church has historically included congregational prayers which have united all members as they speak together. Singing involves not only a common text and rhythm, but also a common melody. Harmonization allows members gifted with particular vocal ranges to contribute in a manner suited to their gifts.

"'Speak to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19). Our song on earth is speech. It is the sung Word. Why do Christians sing when they are together? The reason is quite simply, because in singing together it is possible for them to speak and pray the same Word at the same time; in other words, because here they can unite in the Word. (p. 59)

By singing, we are reminded (and remind others) of the reality of the Church's unity in Christ, her presence on heaven and earth, of our individual contribution as a member of the Body, and, preeminently, of our great God who is the subject of our praise.

"It is the voice of the Church that is heard in singing together. It is not you that sings, it is the Church that is singing, and you, as a member of the Church, may share in its song. Thus all singing together that is right must serve to widen our spiritual horizon, make us see our little company as a member of the great Christian Church on earth, and help us willingly and gladly to join our singing, be it feeble or good, to the song of the Church." (p. 61)

As we grow in our appreciation of the significance of singing in fellowship of believers, let us ever more diligently prepare, participate, and encourage musicians and congregations to cultivate this discipline to the glory of God.

"The more we sing, the more joy we will derive from it, but, above all, the more devotion and discipline and joy we put into our singing, the richer will be the blessing that will come to the whole life of the fellowship from singing together." (p.61)

Casimir Saternos is a deacon at Lehigh Valley Presbyterian Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Last updated: 12 April 2006
Updated by: Matt Bynum