Posted by: bonarlairg | September 16, 2014

A Free Church perspective on the Referendum

Free Church perspective on the Referendum – What they don’t tell you in the news

(The following article was written in the week of the Referendum on Scottish Independence, which took place on 18th September 2014)

Ask a historian and they will tell you that it is not possible to understand Scottish history properly without an understanding of Christianity and the Scottish church. Similarly it is not appropriate to envisage a future for Scotland that does not give a place of pre-eminence to true Christianity. As you are called upon this week to decide Scotland’s future in a referendum, please do so with an awareness of the obligations that Scotland owes, as a nation, to the one true and living God.

I want to take this opportunity to highlight some facts about the Scottish nation and the UK constitution that every Christian in Scotland ought to have some awareness of – especially those who adhere to the Free Church. I believe that these facts are of fundamental importance in this referendum debate and yet you will not hear them on the news or in the public discussions. Why? It seems that just like the people of Israel long ago, the people of Scotland and the UK have been quick to forget our God. We have suppressed from our collective memory the pledges previously made in the sight of God, and the blessings he has brought to us as a result.

1. Scotland and England are bound together by an international treaty

Let me begin with an observation from eminent legal expert, Prof David Walker, in an article written in 2007 to mark the 300th anniversary of the Union of Scotland and England:

The true legal nature of the Union of 1706-07 has not been properly understood, particularly in England, and there have been consequential mistakes in talking and writing about it, evidenced particularly by the way in which Scottish historians normally refer to the Treaty of Union, and English historians, and most politicians and members of the general public, normally speak of the Act or Acts of Union…That it was a treaty in international law is amply evidenced…The agreement conformed to all requisites for a treaty in international law.(1)

In the same article Prof Walker also went on to state:

There appears to be neither authority nor precedent for Parliament interfering with an international treaty, particularly where under the treaty the consenting states had ceased to be independent states and had merged their personalities in a new state by an incorporating union.(1)

The significance of this detail is that, contrary to what we are told by both the Scottish Government and the UK Government, the people of Scotland do not have an inherent right to choose independence. The sovereignty of the Scottish people is limited. We are bound to the people of England under the terms of a permanent international treaty. The only justification for Scotland to seek and declare independence is if it is able and willing to show that the Treaty has been fundamentally breached to Scotland’s detriment.

2. The fundamental terms of the Treaty of Union were first violated in 1712.

At the union of Scotland and England it was stipulated that the Presbyterian church with all its rights and freedoms should “continue without any alteration to the people of this land in all succeeding generations”. Both parliaments agreed and enacted this to be a “fundamental and essential condition of the Union without any alteration thereof, or derogation thereunto, in any sort, for ever”. It was also agreed and declared that the monarch, at accession to the throne, would “swear and subscribe” inviolably to maintain it. This is the only fundamental and essential condition of the Union stipulated by Scotland.

In 1712, just five years after the Union, the British parliament violated the Treaty by passing the Patronage Act. This Act removed the rights of congregations to elect their own minister and gave the right of nomination to land owners (patrons). This was a deliberate restriction of the rights and liberties of the Scottish church and it was a direct violation of the fundamental terms of the Treaty of Union. Every year thereafter, for almost 80 years, the Church of Scotland sent a protest to the UK Parliament, but to no avail.

3. The Church of Scotland separated itself from the British state because of fundamental breaches of the Treaty of Union.

The effect of the Patronage Act of 1712 was to plunge the Scottish church into a period stagnation. Ministers were being chosen by the patrons, not for their spiritual qualifications, but for political and social reasons. By the 1830’s, however, the evangelicals in the church had regained a majority and sought to restore the constitutional rights of congregations to elect their own minister. This was fiercely resisted by patrons and by “moderate” ministers. The result was that the Court of Session sought to enforce upon the Church and people of Scotland an even more rigid adherence to Patronage. In 1842 the General Assembly of Church of Scotland appealed to the UK Parliament for redress against this unconstitutional assault against its rights. The Claim, Declaration and Protest sent to Parliament began by making reference to the Treaty of Union,

the securities for the Government [of this Church]…and for the liberties, government, jurisdiction, discipline, rights, and privileges of the same, provided by the statutes of the realm, by the constitution of this country, as unalterably settled by the Treaty of Union, and by the oath “inviolably to maintain and preserve” required to be taken by each Sovereign at accession…”(2)

The Claim, Declaration & Protest clearly stated that if there was no redress the Church of Scotland would consider itself “compelled to yield up” its rights as an established church. This it would do,

in order to preserve to their office-bearers the free exercise of their spiritual government and discipline, and to their people the liberties, of which respectively it has been attempted, so contrary to law and justice, to deprive them.”(2)

The UK Parliament refused to even consider the Claim, Declaration and Protest of the General Assembly. The result was the Disruption of 1843. The Church of Scotland withdrew from the Establishment to continue as the Church of Scotland (Free), soon to be referred to as the Free Church of Scotland. This stand was supported by a majority of office-bearers of the church and by the majority of its members. In Sutherland and other parts of the Highlands, the adherence of the people to the Free Church was almost unanimous. Please don’t mistake what took place at the Disruption. The Free Church did not leave the Church of Scotland. Rather the Free Church is the true Church of Scotland which was compelled to leave off its connection with the British state in order to remain free. Those who chose to keep up a connection with the state and kept the name “Church of Scotland” did so in direct opposition to the Act of the previous General Assembly, in contravention of the Treaty of Union, and, indeed, in disobedience to the Scripture which declares Christ alone to be Head of the Church.

4. The UK Government considers itself at liberty to continue to violate the Treaty of Union.

The UK Governments have remained unrepentant regarding the violations of the Treaty. Indeed the current political doctrine in Westminster is that Parliament is absolutely sovereign and has no restrictions to its power.(3) It is officially asserted that Parliament can do whatever it pleases. This is, however, a view that does not accord with Scots law or the terms of the Treaty of Union. Often quoted in this regard is the opinion of Lord Cooper:

The principle of the unlimited sovereignty of Parliament is a distinctively English principle which has no counterpart in Scottish Constitutional Law . . . I have not found in the Union legislation any provision that the Parliament of Great Britain should be ‘absolutely sovereign’ in the sense that Parliament should be free to alter the Treaty at will.(4)

It is unfortunate that the current UK Government, as well as the other UK parties, have no desire to address this constitutional problem. It makes it difficult for a Christian to confidently vote to remain within the UK at this time. The Treaty requires that true Christianity be maintained and protected within our land, but for over 300 years it has been rather interfered with and suppressed. The Treaty requires that the terms of the church establishment be such that the Free Church may once again take its place as part of a national church, but we rather find the claims of the Free Church to be so far off the political agenda that the very idea of its reinstatement as the national Church would be mocked as absurd. If we remain within the United Kingdom, however, it must be with an earnest desire to reclaim these spiritual rights as opportunity presents itself. The Disruption fathers said,

firmly asserting the right and duty of the civil magistrate to maintain and support an establishment of religion in accordance with God’s word, and reserving to ourselves and our successors to strive by all lawful means, as opportunity shall in God’s good providence be offered, to secure the performance of this duty agreeably to the Scriptures, and in implement of the statutes of the kingdom of Scotland, and the obligations of the Treaty of Union as understood by us and our ancestors…” (5)

We are the successors of these men. Should it be that Scotland remains within the UK after this referendum then it falls to us and future generations to keep up these claims.

5. The Scottish Government has no desire to restore to the people of Scotland their ancient rights and liberties.

It might be expected that the Scottish Government and the Yes Scotland campaign would be quick to cite fundamental breaches of the Treaty of Union. This would surely give justification to the call for independence. Strangely, however, they make no mention of the Treaty in their publications or debates. The problem for them is that if they were to cite the breaches of the Treaty of Union then it would leave them with an obligation to rectify these in the new Scotland. Far from wishing to recover the ancient constitution and restore Christianity, the Scottish Government has indicated that it wishes to overturn it altogether and start afresh. The Government’s Guide to an Independent Scotland sets out a proposal to create a new written constitution after independence. The constitution will “set out the aspirations we have for our country and our vision for the future” and this will be done through “an open, participative and inclusive constitutional convention”.(6) One of the Scottish Government’s own aspirations is “to remove religious discrimination from the succession rules”(7). This may sound fair and up-to-date but the clear message is that the Scottish Government has no intention that Christianity be given priority in the new Scotland.

It should be remembered that, in this referendum, you are not necessarily being asked if you agree with the Scottish Governments proposals. You are merely being asked “Should Scotland be an independent country?” No reasons are stated on the ballot so you need to examine your own motives. The only legitimate reason to seek independence is because the Treaty has been violated and you believe independence will give a better opportunity for redress.

6. The Economy, Democracy, Healthcare and Oil ought to have nothing at all to do with this referendum

It is extremely disappointing that the referendum debate has focussed around so many issues that are either secondary or speculative. After months of campaigning the people of Scotland are really no wiser as to the principles that underlie the momentous decision they are called to make. In his 2008 book about the Disruption, Supreme Court judge, Lord Roger of Earlsferry observed that media coverage in our present day is “superficial”. He states,

By contrast, in the nineteenth century full reports of the judgements in four of the Disruption cases were published and there were 782 ‘distinct pamphlets on this one subject printed during these years, circulated by thousands, and falling like snowflakes all over the land.’ Clearly, at that time, a significant number of people throughout Scotland – a lot of them, presumably, ministers – were prepared to devote both time and money to following the serious and complex issues in detail.”(8)

There are some complex principles at stake in this referendum debate and they have been left entirely undiscussed by the media and the respective referendum campaigns. The various Presbyterian churches of Scotland have sought to address the key issues. The Free Presbyterians, the Free Church (Continuing), the Reformed Presbyterians and others have issued discussion papers that highlight many legitimate spiritual concerns. They make useful reading but few have known about them, few have cared and even fewer have read them.

What is absolutely certain is that issues such as the economy, democracy, healthcare and North Sea oil etc, have nothing whatever to do with the essential principles of Scottish nationhood. Don’t let these be the key issues that make up your mind. If you intend to vote Yes because you think it will bring a more wealthy and democratic Scotland, then you are voting for the wrong reasons. If you intend to vote No because you think you will be more stable and secure remaining within the United Kingdom, then you are also voting for the wrong reasons.

Conclusion

The bible says:

He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed time and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us’ (Acts 17:26-27)

Scotland is a distinct nation in the plan of God. This is true whether we remain a part of the United Kingdom or not. God knows the outcome of Thursday’s referendum and has already pre-appointed what will be. But as you go to the ballot you must not do so in order to satisfy mere earthly desires or prejudices but rather seeking the Lord in the hope that we may find him.

We must thank God for our nation and for the land in which he has placed us. It is beautiful and diverse, sometimes rugged and inhospitable, but he has provided us with all things necessary for life and godliness. We thank God especially that here he has caused the gospel to take root and flourish. We have had ancestors who earnestly sought the Lord and found him. From here, in long centuries past, in the days of Columba and others, the word of God went out into England and Europe to kindle again the gospel there. From here in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the word of God went all over world. If Scotland has excelled itself at any time and been a blessing to other nations of the world then it has been when we have known and cherished and exported the gospel. To this day many nations and churches look to Scotland as the source of their gospel privileges. They lament, and we ought also to lament, that in this land the desire to “seek the Lord” has faded. We need to lament and we need to repent, but we also need to resolve individually and together that we will prioritise the claims of Christ in our public life. The great need of our nation is not independence or union, but rather that we would seek the Lord.

Notes:

1. David M Walker, Regius Professor of Law at Glasgow University 1958-1990, The Union and the Law, Journal of Law Society of Scotland, 18th June 2007

2. General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, ACT XIX, 1842: Claim, Declaration and Protest, anent the encroachments of the Court of Session

3. “The theory of ‘continuing’ sovereignty, as explained by Professor Dicey, is that there are no limits to the legislative competence of Parliament. Each Parliament is absolutely sovereign in its own time and may legislate as it wishes on any topic and for any place. That which has been enacted by Parliament has supreme force and cannot be invalidated or changed by any other domestic or external authority. As so outlined, the doctrine has been the very foundation of the British constitution since at least the latter days of the nineteenth century.” Alex Carroll, Constitutional and Administrative Law, chapter 5, p95

4. MacCormick v Lord Advocate 1953 SC 396, 1953 SLT 255. This was a legal action on whether Queen Elizabeth II was entitled to use the numeral “II” in her title in use in Scotland, there having never been an earlier Elizabeth reigning in Scotland

5. General Assembly of Church of Scotland (Free), Act 1, 1843: Protest by those commissioners to the General Assembly appointed to meet on 18th May 1843, by whom this Assembly was constituted.

6. Scottish Government, Scotland’s Future, Your Guide to An Independent Scotland, p351

7. Scottish Government, Scotland’s Future, Your Guide to An Independent Scotland, p354

8. Lord Roger of Earlsferry, The Courts, the Church and the Constitution, p94-95

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Posted by: bonarlairg | July 17, 2013

What We Believe About Marriage

(The following statement was posted after a respondent to this website asked for clarity as to the position of this church regarding same sex marriage.)

The Free Church subscribes fully to the Westminster Confession of Faith which has a chapter on Marriage and Divorce. It states who marriage is for – “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman” WCoF 24:1. We are therefore totally opposed to so-called same-sex marriage which has now been legislated for in Scotland and in England & Wales.  It is our fear that the passing of this legislation is the greatest depth to which our nation has yet stooped in its opposition to God.  The position of our Church regarding so-called same-sex marriage would, however, be the same as our position with regard to incestuous marriages, that such marriages cannot “ever be made lawful by any law of man or consent of parties” WCoF 24:4.  Marriage between man and woman is a worldwide phenomenon that transcends the boundaries of race, nationality and language.  It is undoubtedly appropriate that civil law is used to regulate and enforce marriage but the institution itself does not trace its origins to the laws of any state or parliament.  Marriage existed before there was even such a thing as nations or governments.  This indisputable observation accords perfectly with the biblical account that God himself instituted marriage for mankind in the beginning of creation.  We do not therefore accept that civil governments have authority to redefine marriage to permit same-sex unions and can never accept the lawfulness of such laws even if they are legislated for by the state.

The Confession also states what God’s purpose was when he instituted marriage – “Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife, for the increase of mankind with legitimate issue, and of the Church with an holy seed; and for preventing of uncleanness” WCoF 24:2.  To fully understand the significance of marriage as part of the plan of God consideration should be given to the fact that marriage was the final “piece” of God’s creative work – its crowning glory.  Having joined the first man and woman together in marriage, God then observed that his world was not merely “good” but it was now “very good” (see Genesis 1:31 and 2:22-25).  The importance of marriage is established further in the New Testament when it is revealed to be the same relationship existing between Christ and his Church (Ephesians 5:22-33).  Marriage is a glorious thing and there are great benefits to husband and wife, and to church and society, when it is honoured and promoted.

It is clear from Scripture that marriage is the proper context for sexual relations.  All sexual relations outside marriage are to be considered as fornication and serious sin against God and his revealed will.  We oppose the practice, which is now widespread, of couples living together or sleeping together either before marriage or instead of getting married.  Not only does it lead to many troubles physical, social and emotional, but it is also spiritually damaging.  Such actions are not compatible with the Christian faith and, while true Christians do fall into such sin at times, it should be stopped and repented of immediately.

Regarding divorce, our position is “In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce: and after divorce, to marry another…” On the basis of 1 Corinthians 7:15 we also believe that a marriage may be dissolved in the case of “such wilful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church or civil magistrate” WCoF 24:5.

Notwithstanding all of the above we do absolutely hold out a gospel of repentance and forgiveness.  Sexual sin, even homosexual sin or adultery, is not unforgivable.  When the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth he was writing to Christians in a city renowned for sexual immorality, where homosexuality was part of the culture.  He said “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites…will inherit the kingdom of God”.  There can be no doubt that these sins, along with many others, are heinous in the sight of God.  The apostle continues, however, to say “And such were some of you.  But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).  It is clear that the Corinthian church had within their own bounds those who had once been fornicators, had once been adulterers, had once been homosexuals, but had repented and turned to a life of holiness and purity.  Have you found yourself falling into sexual sin? Know that there is forgiveness for the very worst of sexual sins but you must first acknowledge the sin to be truly sinful, then cease from the sin, repent of the sin and seek the God who forgives sinners making them holy and blameless in the sight of God.

Posted by: bonarlairg | January 31, 2010

Prophesying on Musical Instruments

A defence of the practice of avoiding the use of musical instruments in Christian worship

One of the questions sometimes asked about our church is why there are no musical instruments used in worship.  To some people it seems strange to find a congregation singing without the accompaniment of a piano, organ or praise band, and led only by a precentor.   The purpose of this article is to provide an answer to that question from the pages of Scripture.  It is true that a very good case could be made for our practice from church history, since it is widely acknowledged that the early church did not use musical instruments in its worship.  An equally good case could be made on the basis of our reformation heritage, since the universal practice of the reformed Church of Scotland was to avoid the use of musical instruments in worship and we have continued the practice now for over 450 years.  The truth, however, is that, for us, this practice is more than just a quaint historic relic and more than a mere tradition, we sincerely believe it to be a matter of biblical principle.

When it comes to divine worship we believe God has not left his people without clear guidelines.  In Jesus words ‘true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:23).  Not merely in spirit, but ‘in spirit and truth’.  By ‘truth’ it is evident that proper worship will be in accordance with God’s own revelation of what pleases him.  The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it succinctly when it says ‘…the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will…’ (WCoF 21.1).  The alternative is what is referred to in Colossians 2:23 as ‘will-worship’, or ‘self-made religion’, and occurs when fallible people, using their own earthly wisdom, decide what is best for themselves or most likely to please God.  We believe that if musical instrumentation, or anything else for that matter, is to be introduced into worship there must be a biblical warrant, either by explicit command or by an approved example.

It is often argued by those looking for a justification for the use of instruments in Christian worship that the Old Testament, especially the Psalms, gives numerous examples of the use of musical instruments in praise of God.  This is true, but it is also true that there are numerous references to animal sacrifice in the Old Testament, yet no self respecting Christian would argue for these to be introduced into the practice of the New Testament church.  The fact is that these examples must be read and understood in context.

There are, undoubtedly, numerous references in the Old Testament, and particularly in the Psalms to the use of instruments by the Levitical orders of musicians.  If we set these aside for a moment we are left with a surprisingly small number of other examples where instruments are used legitimately in the context of worship – there appears to be only three.  The first instance is found in Exodus 15:20 where it says, ‘Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.’  A second instance is found in 1 Samuel 10:5 where Saul is told that he would meet ‘a group of prophets coming down from the high place with a stringed instrument, a tambourine, a flute, and a harp before them; and they will be prophesying.’  In both instances, however, the playing of musical instruments is clearly associated with prophecy.  There is no evidence that it was an ordinary or widespread part of worship.  On the contrary the pattern that emerges is of a practice that occurred only under the direct inspiration of the Spirit of God.  A possible third example, also associated with prophecy, is that of the young David playing the harp for Saul while he ‘prophesied inside the house’ so that the distressing spirit from the LORD would leave him (1 Samuel 18:10 and 16:23).

There are also clear instances in the Old Testament where the use of instrumental music in worship by unauthorised groups is shown to be illegitimate and unacceptable.  One such example is found in 2 Samuel 6:5 and also 1 Chronicles 13:8 where “David and all the house of Israel played music before the LORD on all kinds of instruments…” as they brought the ark of the covenant on a new cart to Jerusalem.  The venture ended in disaster when Uzzah was struck down by the LORD for touching the sacred ark.  David understood that the disaster had occurred because he and his advisors had failed to consult the LORD as to the correct order (1 Chronicles 15:12-13).  The second time they determined to bring up the ark things were done differently and there were two notable changes.  First, the ark was carried by the Levites using its poles as the law required.  Secondly, the musical instruments were played only by certain Levite musicians and not by all the people as previously (1 Chronicles 15:16-24).  This was a new revelation from the LORD of his divine will.  From this time onwards the use of musical instruments in Israelite worship was formalised and highly regulated.  It was to be carried out only by the tribe of Levi and, more specifically, only by three particular families within that tribe – the sons of Asaph, the sons of Jeduthun, and the sons of Heman who were set apart to ‘prophesy with harps, stringed instruments, and cymbals.’ (1 Chronicles 25:1).  It is notable that the activity of playing music in worship is described here as a prophetic act.  From this time onwards no ordinary worshipper, not even a prophet, was permitted to use musical instruments in his own worship practices.  This is noted in the case of Elisha in 2 Kings 13:13-15.  Though he was a great prophet, Elisha was not moved by the Spirit of God to play musical instruments himself but had to call for an official musician to play for him in order to stir up the spirit of prophecy.

Another instance of the illegitimate use of instrumental music in worship is highlighted by the prophet Amos through whom God warned, ‘Take away from Me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments’ and ‘Woe to you…who sing idly to the sound of stringed instruments, and invent for yourselves musical instruments like David.’  (Amos 5:23 & 6:5, see also 1Chronicles 23:5).  There is nothing wrong per se with inventing and playing musical instruments.  The problem was that they were inventing musical instuments and songs for the purpose of worship.  That’s why the LORD said “take away from Me the noise of your songs…”.  It was something they were claiming to offer to God as worship but it was really “will-worship”; a people preferring to please themselves in their practice rather than to please God.  It is acknowledged, of course, that David had introduced new instruments and songs many centuries before, but David’s “invention” of musical instruments for worship was legitimate because he was prophetically inspired by the Spirit to do it.  What is clear from Amos 6:5 is that this cannot be considered a warrant for others to do the same.  In light of these things it is certain that the commands in the Psalms, such as Psalm 150, to praise God with trumpets, psaltery, harp, dance, organs and cymbals, must therefore be understood as commands for the Levite musicians only and not a blueprint for New Testament worship any more than is the command to ‘bind the sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar’ (Psalm 118:27).

Turning to the New Testament we then find almost a complete silence on the matter of instrumental music in worship.  Some interpret this silence as a New Testament indifference on the subject.  As if it meant, “do it if you want to but you don’t have to”.  But the significance of this silence cannot be overlooked.  It must be remembered that the church began with believing Jews, the vast majority of whom were not descendents of the musician families of the Levites and were therefore forbidden by the Old Testament Scriptures from using instruments in worship.  They would not have dared to pick up an instrument to worship God.  If instrumental music was to become a legitimate part of Christian worship then these Jewish believers would have required a clear divine command.  Even with a specific command it would have been difficult for them to break with what they were used to.  Far from leaving the matter as an open question, the fact that the apostles are silent on the subject proves that there is no New Testament mandate for instrumental music in worship.  The only New Testament references are to be found in Revelation 14:2 and 15:2 where mention is made of harps being played in heaven.  The context is so altogether different from earthly worship that no warrant can be taken even for the use of harps, far less organs, pianos, rock bands or orchestras in New Testament churches.

So in answer to the question, ‘Why do you not use musical instruments in worship?’, we respond with all sincerity that we have carefully examined the whole Word of God and have found that there is no biblical justification for their use.

Rev J C A Forbes

(Revised 15 May 2015)

Posted by: bonarlairg | December 29, 2009

Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs

A defence of the practice of singing only inspired materials of praise in Christian worship

The historic practice of the reformed church in Scotland has been to sing the Psalms in public worship rather than uninspired hymns.  Although this form of worship is continued today in many congregations like our own, it seems to be considered by many to be an unnecessarily restrictive practice and, in adhering to this position, we are sometimes accused of clinging to merely man made traditions.  In what follows it is hoped that the reader will not only find a clear biblical defence of the position of our church but also an encouragement towards a more pure and God honouring worship.

There are two passages in the New Testament that have a direct bearing on this subject and upon which the case for singing only inspired materials of praise can be soundly based.  These passages are Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16.  In Ephesians 5:19 the apostle tells the believers to be “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord.”  Similarly the passage in Colossians 3:16, following the same wording, speaks of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” The question is, what does the apostle mean by psalms and hymns and spiritual songs?  The modern evangelical mind immediately thinks of psalms as the book of Psalms, hymns as old fashioned hymns like the kind found in dusty church hymn books, and spiritual songs as more modern worship choruses like those found in Mission Praise.  It is, of course, impossible that the apostle was referring to these things.  On careful examination it is clear that what is referred to is not three different types or categories of song but rather three elements that must all be present in every act of sung praise.

Commenting on these verses Prof. John Murray wrote ‘The evidence does not warrant the conclusion that the apostle meant by “psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs” to designate three distinct groups or types of lyrical compositions. It is significant in this connection that in a few cases in the titles of the Psalms all three of these words occur. In many cases the words “psalm” and “song” occur in the same title. This shows that a lyrical composition may be a psalm, hymn and song at the same time.  The words, of course, have their own distinctive meanings and such distinctive meanings may intimate the variety and richness of the materials of song the apostle has in mind.’ (Minority Report to OPC General Assembly 1947)

What then are the “distinctive meanings” of these words?

1.  Psalms (Greek – psalmois).  The first and ordinary meaning of the word psalm is “a set piece of music” (Strong’s Greek Dictionary).  This is how the word should be understood here.  Not as a reference to the book of Psalms but to the musical or melodious nature of Christian praise.

2.  Hymns (Greek – hymnois).  A hymn is “a song in praise of gods, heroes, conquerors” (Thayer’s Greek Definitions) and thus denotes the worshipful element of a song and that it is directed towards a praiseworthy being or personage.  The apostle goes on to clarify that in Christian worship the praises must be directed “to the Lord”.

3.  Spiritual Songs (Greek – odais pneumaticais).  This relates to the origin of the songs, that they have been directly inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Not that they are songs of merely human origin that are religious or even theologically accurate in nature, but that the songs themselves are of divine origin.  Undoubtedly the apostle is referring to actual songs to be found in Scripture and which are to be sung in worship.  Understood in this way it is clear that uninspired compositions have no place in Christian worship.  Some argue that the principle of divinely inspired songs allows for the singing of paraphrases of any part of Scripture in the worship of God, but this is not what is being contemplated here.  The command is that what is used is actually a proper song given by the Spirit; not simply “spiritual words”, but “spiritual songs”.  A paraphrase of Genesis 1, for example, clearly doesn’t satisfy the criteria.  On the other hand there can be no doubt that the book of Psalms contains 150 of the Holy Spirit’s songs.  These have been collected and organised under the guidance of the Spirit in the Old Testament period and are presented to us as the songs which God specifically commands us to sing melodiously in his worship.  This collection also has the seal of Christ’s authority and, we believe, remains the Christian’s only hymnbook in this age.

There are therefore these three elements which must be present in Christian praise – melodies AND praises directed to the Lord AND Spirit-inspired songs.  The apostle couldn’t be more clear if he tried.  In Ephesians 5:19 he even clarifies his own meaning: “singing (adontes) and making melody (psallontes) in your hearts to the Lord”.  That is to say that he wants the believers to sing Spirit-inspired songs accompanied by melody, permitting them to devise these melodies themselves in order to stir their heart.  In addition he desires that the whole activity be directed towards the Lord and in praise of him.  All three elements are required and if we leave out one of the elements then our praise is improper.

Consider what happens if one of these necessary elements of praise is neglected:

If the psalm/melody element is left out then the song becomes merely a chant and loses its heart stirring effect.  God has not only graciously permitted his people to sing melodiously but he has sovereignly commanded them to do so in order to rouse their heart and stir their emotions.  He also gives grace in the heart (Col 3:16) to enable his people of every culture and time period to devise melodies that reflect and express their emotions and the sentiments of the spiritual song they sing.  “Is anyone cheerful? let him sing psalms (psalleto)”, James 5:13.   The great wisdom of the Lord is seen in that, while musical taste will vary from place to place, every nation or people group is permitted to compose melodies that are culturally significant for themselves.

If the hymn/praise element is neglected then even the melodious singing of Spirit-inspired songs becomes merely ritualistic, or professional, and empty of true worship.  This might happen when psalm singing is used merely as a performance, sung with the intention of pleasing a crowd rather than to please and praise God.  In this case the singer has no personal appreciation of the fact that his praises should be in honour of Almighty God and directed towards him only.  Christian singing must never be a performance merely for the benefit of onlookers but a purposeful and worshipful praise of God.

If the use of Spirit-inspired songs is ignored then the result is that the sung praise of the church is not truly spiritual. In this regard, an important principle is set out in 1 Corinthians 14:15 where the apostle Paul declares, “I will sing with the spirit and I will also sing with the understanding”. The context of this instruction was that some believers in Corinth were claiming to sing songs directly inspired by the Holy Spirit but their songs were in a language that many, or perhaps all, of the worshippers did not understand. A modern day equivalent would be the singing of the psalms in Latin in a congregation that has no understanding of Latin. That is, of course, unedifying to the congregation.  It is necessary that the worshipper understands the words he is singing so that his mind is actively and intelligently engaged in the worship.  Equally, however, his spirit must also be engaged in the worship. This occurs when the songs that are sung are of divine origin so that the spirit of the worshipper is brought into perfect union with the Holy Spirit in the praise of God.  Thus the apostle says, “I will sing with the spirit”. There can be no doubt from the context that what is being referred to is the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the songs that were sung. The claim of the Corinthians was, after all, that their songs were Spirit-inspired, albeit in a different language. Whether that claim was true or not is a subject of debate among theologians today.  All agree, however, that they were, at the very least, claiming divine inspiration for the words of their songs.  That is the important point reaffirmed by the apostle, as if to say “you have some things wrong but in this particular you are absolutely right, that your songs must be Spirit-inspired.”  If we abandon the use of Spirit-inspired songs then our praise may be melodious, we may even intend and desire that intelligent and theologically accurate man-devised or man-selected songs are directed towards God, but the whole activity is, quite simply, unspiritual.

It is ironic that Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 are often cited by those who wish to undermine the position of using only inspired materials of praise in worship.  It is these very passages that give the strongest and clearest evidence that such practice is biblical and ought to be normative for all Christians.

Rev J C A Forbes

(Revised 9 July 2011)

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