One of the biggest contributors to fuzzy thinking around the exclusive use of psalms in worship is, I think, inadequate terminology. I’ve lost count of the times that discussions have got hopelessly muddled because people got so hung up on defining “public” worship as opposed to “private” worship. So, the conundrum goes, if you think it’s okay to sing hymns in “private” worship, what suddenly changes to make hymns unacceptable in “public” worship.
But the scenario leads you up two separate garden paths. One is that the distinction isn’t really public vs private. It’s nothing to do with the numbers of people involved or what kind of building you’re in or how widely advertised your meeting has been. In fact, you could just about plausibly imagine somebody having morning devotions with their family of seven (“private” worship) then going off to church in some rural congregation of six (“public” worship). The numbers have nothing to do with it.
The distinction behind the public/private terminology is actually more like private vs corporate, or individual vs ecclesiastical. It’s the difference between what you do as an individual (or as a family) and what you do as the church. Christian believers are meant to gather together to worship God together – ‘meant to,’ in the sense of divinely required to: it’s what God expects his people collectively to do. A worship service doesn’t exist to let people socialise, or let people keep up a weekly routine, or give people the chance of a religious experience, or or or. Instead, it’s the church assembling as such to worship as such. It’s the church meeting as the church to do churchly things. That means confessing what the church confesses, submitting to the church’s authority, and benefitting from the church’s ministry, oracles, and ordinances, as these have been instituted there by Christ.
The other false scent in the “Well, you sing hymns at home” scenario is that it assumes that what you’re doing when you’re singing hymns at home really is worship. This is the murky, foggy, shapeshifting outcome of the principle piously formulated as “all of life is worship”. This assumes that anything you do, and especially the more overtly religious it is, should be regarded as worship (and affirmed and respected as worship). But the principle is too pious to be true – the kind of thing that’s designed to dissolve you into a little puddle of gloopy sanctimoniousness before you can direct so much as a critical thought towards it. All of life (eating, drinking, whatever you do) should be devoted to the glory of God, but not all of life is worship. All of life includes doing the dishes, doing the photocopying, going for messages, being on Facebook, changing nappies, taking phonecalls, and all the endless trivia of the everyday. All of these can and should be done to the glory of God – but they are not worship. It doesn’t matter how many Christian graces you exercise in these activities or to what degree – your devotional input, or the devotional impact they have on you, is never going to make them into worship.
That also means that doing an everyday thing in a religious context also doesn’t make it worship. Toilet cleaning doesn’t become a worship activity just because it’s the church toilets. Writing poetry doesn’t become worship just because it’s poetry about some theological proposition or some religious experience. Singing a song doesn’t become worship just because it includes the words “Jesus” or “grace”. In fact, the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and limited by his own revealed will in such a way that he may not be worshipped according to human imaginations and devices, or any way not prescribed in Scripture. That means that strictly speaking, if God doesn’t prescribe it, it doesn’t count as worship. Including singing hymns plus or minus instruments, on your own or with your family. Direct extrapolation from ‘good thing to do’ to ‘legitimate in corporate worship’ is wholly inappropriate. If you’re going to call it worship, it needs divine prescription.
Public worship is church worship. Rather than things being okay in “private worship” which aren’t okay in “public worship,” it might actually be more accurate to think of ‘private worship’ as including only a subset of things which belong to ‘public worship’. It’s only in a corporate, church, context that the element of worship called preaching can ever be experienced. Ditto for the administering and receiving of the sacraments. On your own, in private, as an individual, or in your family, the most you can do by way of worship is read the Scriptures, not preach from them – you can pray, and sing psalms, but receiving the sacraments privately is an irregularity at best. Armed with the twin convictions that ‘public worship’ is church worship, and that anything needs scripture warrant before it can properly be regarded as worship, people would be in a much stronger position to withstand the slushy, subjective, individualistic approach to “worship” that continues to harrass the church scene.