sing psalms

The Free Church is a force for good in Scotland. There can’t be many Free Presbyterians who don’t have dear friends and relatives in the Free Church, and even if our official and publicly displayed attitude to the Free Church is one of frowns and disapproval, there are still plenty people who respect the Free Church, value the Free Church’s testimony, appreciate the fellowship of believers in the Free Church, and wish the Free Church well. There are some of us who, on seeing a negative comment in the magazine, cry a little bit inside every time. We share the same fathers of the Scottish Reformation, we honour the Disruption testimony, we are grateful for every point of agreement in doctrine and every point of agreement in practice.

Right now, the Free Church is being featured in the news, both secular and Christian, for raising the issue of whether to continue with the practice of singing only inspired materials of praise unaccompanied by musical instruments, or whether to allow uninspired materials and/or musical accompaniment in addition.

The historical reasons in favour of the status quo are shared and endorsed by Free Presbyterians, who sing psalms only, a cappella. We sing the Psalms, because that’s what the Book of Psalms is for, and we don’t use instrumental accompaniment, because we have no mandate for it. This is consistent with scripture; it is required by scripture; it imposes nothing on the conscience of worshippers but what the scriptures allow; it is borne out by centuries of practice in the New Testament Church; it was the universal position of the Scottish Church at the Reformation and for hundreds of years thereafter; it is built into the ordination vows of our office-bearers. It is, in short, a warm-hearted commitment to  purity of worship. We are thankful to share this with the Free Church.

Needless to say, the general reaction to the hot news of the Free Church’s exploration of the worship issue is one of mass incomprehension – even among the Christian commentariat. Thus wild criticism comes from those who think that the practice is Hebridean, that it’s unbearably old-fashioned, that including uninspired hymns is a modernisation essential to the survival of a denomination, and that restricting yourself to the Psalms means you won’t be singing about Jesus. All of this is pitifully wrong (and when delivered in tones of scorn, says quite a lot about contemporary commentators’ grasp of the issues and disregard for what, even if quaint, is still a perfectly respectable Christian tradition in its own right; yes, trendy popular postmodern evangelical blogger who graciously spent some time in a Highland congregation and speaks from vast experience, I’m looking at you).

By having this debate, people in the Free Church have the opportunity to rediscover or reaffirm the principles involved. It’s not a question of clinging resolutely to outdated and offputting worship styles: anyone who prefers the unaccompanied singing of untutored congregations as an aesthetic choice is wide open to criticism; anyone who prefers it as an expression of cultural heritage is verging on the patronising and missing the scriptural point. If the Free Church doesn’t know why they exclusively sing inspired songs a cappella, there could be an argument that they might as well abandon it. But a return to the whole-hearted conviction that our historic practice truly equips us with what we are to praise with and how we are to praise would be an excellent step forward for the Free Church and the wider Church more generally.

O come, let us joyfully sing to the Lord;

To the Rock of salvation let us raise our voice.

Let us come before him expressing our thanks;

Let us with loud singing praise him and rejoice.

27 thoughts on “sing psalms

  1. Sure there’s a mandate for the use of musical instruments in worship – a mandate of the “good and necessary consequence” type. Instruments were used in the Old Testament; there is no positive evidence that instruments were NOT used in the New Testament (just because mentions of musical instruments are rare doesn’t imply that they were not used), and there will be instruments used at the end of history/final state (see Revelation). See? No problem.


  2. Loving this article! I have been toying with the idea of writing to the Free Church on this subject this week although it seems a bit crazy from someone who was an irregular attender of meetings and youth events with a good friend over ten years ago.

    I think the Free Church should DEFINITELY tread carefully before introducing more instruments, etc into their services but for somewhat unorthodox reasons.

    I can’t honestly see how there is no scriptural mandate for the use of instruments as the Psalms themselves make reference to their use in worship.

    HOWEVER. On Sunday mornings while I am getting the kids ready for church on my own while dear husband has gone to the church nearly two hours ahead of the meeting to set up PA and various other bits and bobs I do sometimes ponder the Free Church :-). Then while I sit in church and manage two little ones on my own while he is involved in providing the music for worship I have to admit I do SOMETIMES think longingly of the Free Church services!

    Not needing lots of extra paraphanalia for at least one serivce (I know they use instruments in more informal meetings) means there is less hassle on Sunday mornings. Less to prepare for and families are more likely to be able to sit and worship together as they really ought to at least once a week. The requirement for large bands and sound equipment does rather add more distraction to the whole proceedings from my limited experience :-). It requires a lot more people to get involved and if there are complications with setup can cause upset and worry which really has nothing to do with the original reason for meeting together!

    So that’s why I think they should be slightly cautious. Purely practical :-)


  3. Elspeth,

    Found your blog via the good John Maclead’s facebook page. John and I have reacquainted ourselves after 25 years or so via the internet!

    I find myself taking the pro-psalms viewpoint quite clearly in my own mind for two reasons. Yes, unaccompanied praise is probably spritually purer, but that is not to say that accompanied praise may not also be spritually mandated too (I know that sounds like fence sitting)

    However, as a Skye boy getting older and replanting my Highland Presbyterian roots,I simply prefer unaccompanied praise! So what if it is traditional, Scottish, Hebridean etc, That is what the Free Church is (John, you may wish to argue on historical grounds here!), and there is nothing wrong with that.

    I think the FC should be very wary of changing something which aint broken. Although a (gasp!) COS member now, I thoroughly enjoy visiting the folks in Skye and soaking in our very special Presbyterian culture in the FC. And for those that say the FC is on its last legs in the islans, perhaps they need a wee trip in Portree to hear my old chum Donnie G MacDonald, who has brought great blessing into that congregation.

    Keep up the good work


  4. Thanks and welcome Alastair, thanks and hi again to Elspeth and Richard!

    There is definitely something to be said for holding on to a practice which is distinctive — as I think R Scott Clark has said, when conservative churches give up their distinctive characteristics in order to attract newcomers, it often backfires because the “evangelical” church down the road does the same thing better and without any qualms.

    There is also a host of practical difficulties of the type that Elspeth points out. What type of band, whereabouts to locate them, what sort of sound system, what amount of air time — when we have a prior commitment to the primacy of preaching, meaning that the preacher is THE “worship leader” and worship responses are supposed to be evoked primarily through and during the sermon as the congregation listens and believes together. Then, what sort of uninspired materials, given the need to retain both doctrinal purity (no Arminianism, thanks) and something putatively approximating the theological, christological, and experiential depths and richness of the psalms everyone has up to now been used to.


  5. On the “mandate” – this is sort of a shorthand for “the principle that you shouldn’t offer anything by way of worship that you can’t derive from the scriptures”. So as we know, in the Old Testament there were highly detailed and specific regulations for all the different ceremonies. But the ceremonies existed for a purpose, namely to paint pictures of who the coming Messiah was like and what his work was going to involve. In the New Testament, as we know, now that the Messiah has come and accomplished his saving work, we don’t need the ceremonies to give us an idea of what it’s going to be like – we know as a matter of historical fact what actually happened. Now we share the spiritual “basics” with the OT believers (prayer, praise, etc) but without the extra “pictorial” elements which aren’t needed in the NT.

    So every time musical instruments are mentioned, there are two issues to bear in mind. One is, the actual use which the instrument had in the OT worship. As it turns out, every time something like a trumpet was used in the temple worship, it was tied to some aspect or another of a particular ceremony. They blew the trumpets for the duration of the burnt offering, for example: they *had* to use a trumpet, but they could *only* use a trumpet *for that purpose*. So the question for us in the NT is, if we don’t offer burnt offerings (which we don’t, in church; in the kitchen it might be different), that means we don’t need animals in our worship any more, we don’t need the altar, we don’t in fact need any of the accompanying paraphernalia: why would we continue to use the trumpets? The same reasoning applies to all of the (actually quite limited number of) musical instruemtns which were required for the Old Testament worship system.

    Then the second issue is: not all the insturments mentioned in the Psalms were actually used in the temple worship. There was no possibility that an OT worshipper could have taken one of these instruments into the temple worship – they were for use in everyday life outside of the specific worship setting. The psalms obviously exhort us to praise the Lord using a wide variety of equipment – like Psalm 149 – praise him with timbrel, harp, and … a two-edged sword! Simply the fact that a psalm mentions “Praise him with X” does not make the case that X is legitimised for use in worship. (You don’t have to be in church to glorify God, in other words – glorify him in eating and drinking, doing the housework, etc, etc.)

    See also


  6. Ah, my darling Cath! If Psalm 149 (and 150, for that matter) calls for praising God with instrument X – and, since to praise God is to worship Him – does that not make instrument X an instrument of worship? Also, as to the instruments used in Temple worship, don’t assume that the instruments used in the Temple worship are tied only to that type of worship. As you say, some of the same instruments are mentioned in the psalms. And, again, there is no prohibition (expressed or implied) in the New Testament against using instruments.


    • Nice. Cos if you’re going to abandon a cappella psalms, you might as well do it in style. Why mess about with Shine Jesus Shine when you can have the truly beautiful, majestic, awe-inspiriting liturgical artistry of the experts. Tis all a popish plot, I tell ye.


      • er, they ARE a capella psalms. That was rather the point. Um. (well, okay, the second Tallis is from the acts of the apostles (and they began to speak in different tongues).


        “send forth Your Spirit, o Lord”

        Happy Definitely Not Pentecost But Just Another Sunday :)


        • Yes, sorry, got that, & jumped ahead of myself. Also got those millipedes incidentally. A sneaking fear that sober Gadsby to a sedate organ won’t be the upshot of any change of policy in this controversy, but more of, perhaps, a “missional” “incarnational” “Reformed rap” “holy hip-hop” model or some equivalently mortifying travesty. For more like What We’re Used To –


  7. Dear Richard … :) It makes X to be something that you can use to worship with, but that’s not automatically the same as prescribing it in a congregation’s worship. Does glorifying the Lord in eating and drinking mean that dinnertime should be incorporated into a worship service? Praise him in the dance – ditto. Worshipping at Sion his own holy hill, ditto. Etc. The Psalms are full of concepts, terminology, symbolism, drawn (naturally) from the OT ceremonial system: that doesn’t unfit them for use in the NT, just to forestall any objection on that front, but it does mean that you have to be discerning about what is and what isn’t still literally relevant for NT worshippers.


  8. Where “worshippers”, i should add, engage in two types of “worship” – sense 1, where they go about their daily life in a spirit of devotion to the Lord, or should do anyway, their whole lives a consecration, a thank offering, a reasonable service, giving thanks at every remembrance of his holiness, calling on his name 7 times a day aka without ceasing, etc etc. And sense 2, where they consciously and deliberately set aside time to worship him, either individually, or in their families, or with their congregation.

    Not everything that is appropriate in everyday life (worship sense 1) is appropriate in corporate worship (always sense 2) — Dorcas no doubt made those coats and garments to the glory of God, but that doesn’t mean that corporate worship ought to include sewing sessions — a Christian engineer does whatever engineers do to the glory of God, but whatever that is, it’s not for inclusion in the congregational worship — etc.

    The “Lutheran” or “Anglican” view, that if a thing isn’t forbidden it must be okay, has always been in conflict with the Reformed principle, that unless it’s prescribed in Scripture it can’t be okay. WCF: “the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will that he may not be worshipped according to … any … way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.”

    What we have with the current controversy is not, after all, a need to justify an existing practice which has come under criticism. We know from our friends in Baptist churches, eg, that having a little organ squawking away at the front to help a congregation along with their Gadsby doesn’t, in fact, necessarily entail liturgical chaos and the destruction of all that is good in a Christian worship service – although we still wish they could see more clearly that it’s a sub-optimal type of praise, both as to content and form. (If you’re going to have hymns and instruments at all, the question necessarily becomes one of damage limitation, and some congregations/denominations are better at that than others.)
    What we have, rather, is some regrettable and weak attempts (strong in pressure, weak in argument) to justify changing from the status quo. We have centuries of principled practice behind us, as articulated and defended by theological giants from the Reformers onwards, through repeated controversy (1700s, 1800s, 1900s) (and indeed during all sorts of social changes, of which the 21st century’s are just one more ripple in the tide of human history, dramatic, demanding, and intensely unique though they may seem to us). That’s the historical and pragmatic defence. On the principled defence, the practice is the clearest possible outworking of what the Confession states to be the Bible’s position on what is and isn’t admissible in public worship. It’s not just being against “innovation” (innovation being what’s not scriptually prescribed, of course, not some sort of resistance to change for it’s own sake) but it’s being for “purity of worship” — obeying ‘whatsoever I have commanded you’ — that much, and no more.


  9. Two more thoughts, while I’m on a quick break from soaking in the sun on a remarkably lazy Saturday …

    1) It isn’t really a solution to allow congregations within a presbyterian structure to take their own decisions about psalm singing. Different congregations doing different things isn’t a presbyterian solution.

    2) A reduction in ‘purity of worship’ isn’t a reason for splitting a church. It might well be a reason to move denominations, but defects in practice (of this nature) aren’t grounds for ecclesiastical separation.

    Afterthought – in case “purity” has connotations of an unattainable ideal – purity of worship refers to the simplicity and scripture-groundedness of the forms that are used in a worship service, free from extraneous additions that aren’t required/prescribed by Scripture.


  10. I must admit that I’ve always had a problem with the logic of the regulative principle – that something must be actually, positively commanded for it to be legitimate. For instance, if I place an apple and an orange in front of you and tell you that you must eat the apple, does that automatically and necessarily mean that you must not eat the orange? I don’t think so. If I say that you must eat the apple, but say nothing one way or the other about the orange, it seems to me that the implication is that, once the apple is eaten (in obedience to the instruction), then you may either eat or not eat the orange, as you choose.

    So, applying that to music: the New Testament does not mention, either positively or negatively, musical instruments in worship (they are mentioned but rarely and that only in passing). In other words, there is no “doctrine of musical instruments” in the New Testament. So, does that automatically and necessarily mean that they must not be used in corporate worship, as the regulative principle would say? I don’t think so. In fact, the very opposite is implied: the use of instruments is considered a “thing indifferent” by the New Testament, and so may be used (decently and in order, as all things in worship must be used) at the descretion of the congregation.

    The Lutheran or Anglican principle actually makes more sense logically, it seems to me, and avoids the possibility of making unnecessary impositions on the New Testament that may not actually be there.


  11. I am all for unaccompanied singing (a capella). We have no authority for instumental music whatsoever in the N.T. Full stop. To sing praise to God there must be grace in the heart, i.e. one must be regenerate.

    I appreciate the exclusive psalmody position. If worship is not regulated then we open the floodgates to the singing of such inane, vapid, nonsense as ‘Shine, Jesus Shine’ and ‘Majesty, worship His Majesty’ or worse still Christian Rock , so-called.

    However I remain to be convinced that the interpretation of Ephesians 5.19 and Colossians 3.16 should be twisted to read ‘Psalms and Psalms and Psalms,’ restricting us to Psalm 1 – 150.

    I read of no song in Genesis and no wonder for it is the Book that declares the ruin of man and ruined, unregenerate man cannot praise God.

    The first song we read of in the Bible is on Redemption’s ground, Exodus 15.1-21, ‘Then sang Moses………’ Can we exclude the singing of it in worship ?

    Can we exclude the Song of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5.2-31 ? What about the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2.1-10 ?

    What about that Song of David in 2 Samuel 22.1-51 ?
    Can we exclude that superlative Song, of Solomon, namely ‘The Song of Songs’ ?

    Is there not instructive teaching and admonishment in these Hymns and Spiritual Songs too as well as our beloved Psalms ???

    I could go on with further OT and NT examples but I’ll hang fire to give you time to think ‘out of the box’ of received tradition.


  12. Hi Seceder,

    The passages from Eph and Col are at least open to the interpretation that they specify different types of psalms within the Book of Psalms as they were referred to in the Hebrew and in the Septuagint translation, namely a type called ‘psalms’, a type called ‘hymns,’ and a type called ‘songs’.

    The Book of Psalms (1-150) doesn’t, as you point out, include every song that occurs elsewhere in Scripture – it includes some, and not others. Since the 150 are bundled up and presented to the Church (OT & NT) to sing, it would seem that this very set of psalms/hymns/songs should be sung, to the exclusion even of other inspired songs. I don’t know if many people would strenuously object to inspired-songs-not-in-the-Book-of-Psalms in the same way as they object to uninspired materials, but it still raises the same old question about the sufficiency of the Book of Psalms itself. I have no idea why the psalm in 1 Chron 16 is duplicated in the Book of Psalms when the song of Hannah isn’t, but since that’s how they are actually given, we should try and recognise the distinction between them.


  13. Hi Richard,

    Surely the OT evidence shows that musical instruments are not a “thing indifferent” in worship — as we’ve agreed, only some instruments were included in the temple worship out of all the ones that were available, which suggests that instruments are not something which the worshipper can use or not use at their own discretion. Since the NT is perfectly clear that the ceremonial rituals have been abolished in their entirety, it hardly seems necessary to specify that the musical instruments which were tied to specific rituals are also abolished, along with, I don’t know, the priest’s garments for glory and beauty, or the laver, or whatever else.

    The purpose of the rediscovered Regulative Principle right from the start was, not to make impositions, but to safeguard the conscience of the worshippers from unscriptural impositions. The Reg Princ is stated in various ways, “teaching all things whatsoever I commanded” (no more and no less), “make it according to the pattern you were shown in the Mount” (no more and no less), etc. Nobody’s conscience can be offended by singing the psalms of scripture, but many people throughout the Church’s history have had scruples about the content and the style of things which were introduced “because they weren’t forbidden”. Larger Catechism 109 – both adding to and taking from the worship of God is forbidden in the 2nd commandment, whether in a way invented by ourselves, or received by tradition by others, even when excused by claims of antiquity, custom, devotion, or good intent.


  14. Seceder: “We have no authority for instrumental music whatsoever in the New Testament. Full stop.” Can you prove that to me, from Scripture?

    There is no positive prohibition of the use of musical instruments whatsoever in the New Testament. Full stop.


  15. Richard,

    As an Ulster born adopted Scot I’m going to answer your question with a question. You show me where we have such authority in the NT for instrumentation ???

    Follow your line of thinking to a conclusion then we may as well bring in choirs, trumpets, Levitical sacrifice, altars, lavers, candlesticks, the table of shewbread, the altar of incense, rails dividing the priesthood from the laity and the ark of the covenant, etc. etc.

    You will see combinations and permutations of these ‘shadows of heavenly things’ in many branches of Christendom to this day.

    What they do not realise is that material shadows have to give way to spiritual substance. The old types, figures and models which were instructive up to a point have to make way for the new.

    Cath is spot on in all the answers she has given you to date on this topic. I concur with her and to be honest albeit we differ on one or two things she’s never far off the mark.


  16. Cath,

    Thankyou for an honest fair minded answer.

    I appreciate that psalms, hymns and spiritual songs could well have reference to the headers of many psalms.

    Apart from there being other hymns in the OT, your point about the distinctiveness of the collection we have in the Book of Psalms is a good one.


  17. Cath,

    Thankyou for an honest fair mined answer to my post.

    The point you raise about the distinctiveness of the Book of Psalms itself is a good one despite there being other hymns etc. in the OT.


  18. Cath,

    John Macleod, pure genius ! Yet again he has ably summed a whole issue up in a number of paragraphs.

    I think he may yet be a FP in making !


  19. I see it as simply this, the psalms being GOD breathed are a great deep, hymns of human composition are as deep as person who wrote them . Which is best used to praise the Lord of Glory?…..end of story


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