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The Case Against the Choir.


The Case Against the Choir.

James Dodson

[extracted from the Free Presbyterian Magazine, June, 1896.]

The Church Choir is such an invariable feature of the present day religious service, and such an apparent necessity to public worship as now conducted, that all controversy respecting the rightness of the institution might seem to be put out of court. A bad choir will have many detractors, but a good choir is esteemed to be a good thing in every way.

If, however, religious persons were content to have regard only to New Testament rules in the conduct of New Testament worship, they might, we believe, find it needful to exclude the choir, having in that case come to see that it is an unspiritual device, not suitable to the glory of the New Dispensation.

In presenting our case against the choir there are four points which we will endeavour to prove. The first of these hardly needs proof. It is that in the New Testament there is no warrant either formally or by implication for setting up a Choir. The favourers of instrumental music have been fain to derive some countenance for their device from the Book of Revelation where they find music made by harpers with their harps, but neither there nor in any other writings of the apostles or evangelists is there any suggestion of a choir, and this surely is a significant omission, and might be held to prove the whole case. But we go on to our second point, which lies in the essential character of the New Testament dispensation. It is this, that in the erection of a Choir there is an infringement of the priestly honour which pertains to all believers. Under the old dispensation the functions of priesthood were vested solely in the tribe Levi. For this tribe were reserved the honours and privileges of the public service of God in His temple. The Levites alone were entitled to wait at the altar, to burn incense, to keep the doors of the holy house, and theirs also was the right to offer the public sacrifice of praise: "For the Levites which were the singers, all of them of Asaph, of Heman, and of Jeduthan, with their sons and brethren, being arrayed in white linen, having cymbals, psalteries, and harps, stood at the east end of the altar."—(2 Chron. v. 12.) It was a high offence for the common Israelite to intrude upon any of these sacred offices. Here, therefore, was a distinction made between secular and sacred persons, and an election of the consecrated tribe to dignities and duties which inferred a corresponding denial of privilege to the great body of the people. But this was only imposed till the time of reformation, for now in Christ this distinction is done away, and all His people are placed on one platform, not by levelling down the privileges of any, but by elevating all the sons of Israel to equal rank, and this thing the Holy Spirit testifies in these grand words, "Unto Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and hath made us to be kings and priests unto God and His Father."—(Rev. i. 5,6). And like as the apostle in his vision of the New Jerusalem (which is but a vision of the Gospel Church) saw no temple therein, for the place was all temple, so also he heard no choir therein, for the worshippers were all in the choir.

They therefore deal injuriously with His people’s honour, and thwart (so far as mistaken creatures can) the gracious intention of Christ, who revive this relic of Judaism, and erect upon the forefront of Christian worship this device of an unspiritual and restricted dispensation. But some patrons of the choir may say, "We meddle not with such a high matter as the priestly function of believers, we only set on foot a common sense method for the cure of bad congregational singing." But it is not possible so to limit the scope and significance of things done in the worship of God. Innovations made by the will of man upon the Divine order have meanings and issues far beyond what the innovators seemingly innocent and pious proposal of circumcision for the Galatian converts. On the contrary he wrote an epistle showing what weighty consequences hung upon this act, and that if they would be circumcised, Christ would profit them nothing. And the searching and powerful argument of his epistle to the Galatians has a valid bearing upon all carnal Judaistic devices whatever which men would introduce into the Church.

We pass to our third point, viz., that the Choir is at variance with the family character of Christian worship. The church is God’s household, and the redeemed are all His sons and daughters by faith in

Christ. Under the old Testament this kindly filial relation was obscured, and a formal, ceremonious, burdensome worship was prescribed. But now this darkness is past, and the true light shineth. The fact of adoption is revealed, and the Spirit of adoption is poured out, and the only worship that befits this new relation is a worship characterised by the utmost simplicity of form, and the utmost sincerity of spirit. His people are commanded with "one mind and one mouth to glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." When Aquila and Pricilla had family worship in their household we cannot think that two or three of the younger members, more musical than the others, were set forward to do the singing owing to their superior mastery of the art. This would offend both the eye and the heart of the master of the house, and he would by no means suffer it. But now, when the "church that was in their house" met—when the family of which the condescending omnipresent Christ is the head was assembled, would the choir be any more suitable there? Surely not! If Aquila would be offended by this invidious distinction made among his sons and daughters, much more would Christ be offended.

Neither will it avail to object that what is unfit for a small gathering may yet be suitable and necessary in a large assembly, for the gift of song is diffused in a competent measure throughout the visible church, and if the spirit of gratitude were present, the sacrifice of praise could rise as readily from a thousand worshippers as from ten. The Church is but a collection of families, and if family worship were observed in every household, the familiar song that was sung by each family apart could as easily be raised by all the families together. The decay of congregational singing is directly due to the disuse of family worship.

But however we may reason for or against the choir, we shall find, we believe, that the Spirit of God has decided the controversy long ago, and plainly set forth what at least is the Divine ideal of congregational praise. For in the 148th psalm He calls all creatures, both animate and inanimate, to praise the Lord, and thus He summons human society in all its relations.

"Kings of the earth, and all people, princes, and all judges of the earth; both young men and maidens, old men and children, let them praise the name of the Lord."

The modern choirmaster sets little store by the praises of old men and little children. None are eligible for his purposes but the young men and maidens, but the Spirit of God plainly declares His disapproval of this partiality shown for the more artistic it may be, but often least spiritual part of the congregation, and intimates that His will is to have all ages and degrees put upon one footing in the matter of the public service of praise—that is, He declares for congregational singing as against choir music.

Our fourth and last point is that the Choir is a failure. Whatever be the case in isolated instances here and there, we scruple not to affirm that the choir has quite failed to accomplish the end ostensibly aimed at in its erection. viz.—the improvement of sacred song. We confine our view to the Presbyterian province of the Church. The choir is an institution alien to Presbyterianism. The more spiritual minds among us have always been suspicious of it. Our fathers, we believe, received spiritual light to cast out many inventions and devices of men from the worship of God, and among others they cast out the choir.

Degenerate Presbyterian Churches who have admitted choirs have, therefore, had to rebel against the light, and the Divine disfavour has visited their rebellion in various ways. One token of the divine disapproval has been that the management of this innovation has usually been abandoned to the most uns0piritual and unpromising members of the congregation. Very few seekers or fearers of the Lord would ever meddle with it, but if there were any of the thoughtless youth of both sexes, who had never strived to enter in at the strait gate, and who wished to diversify the Sabbath with a little recreation, them you would find forward to go into the choir. The choir, we say, has failed to mend the bad congregational singing. The pews have become more dead and songless. And then when the artistic sense of some persons demanded satisfaction, they have been fain to mend the matter by the introduction of instrumental music. The organ has been set a-blowing, but still the pews have sunk into deeper deadness, and then, perhaps in the interest of high art, paid singers have been imported from the concert room into the choir. Music of an elaborate and classical character has been performed.

This is the case in some of the more debased churches in Britain and America, and in them the worshippers have finally given up the idea of congregational singing, and have transformed themselves into a mere concert audience. What message do these dead songless pews carry to dwellers in heavenly places? "We have not been made kings and priests unto God, and we care not for it." This is the desolation that has overtaken those churches who have in this and in other matters strayed form the path of the Divine commands.

It is written that he that "loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver," and in like manner those professing Christians who dote on mere music shall not have the music they desire. Their churches shall become dead and songless in spite of their devices to produce music. For indeed the springs of church melody lie deep, and cannot be moved save by God Himself. Not till He Himself has tuned the heart, and put the new song into the mouth of the worshipper can that music be heard which is acceptable to heaven, and pleasing to the ear of right thinking men. When the day of Pentecost is fully come, and His salvation is made known to multitudes of renewed souls at once, then will the sound of the Divine praise flow forth as a torrent, and it will be seen how clu8msy, froward, and superfluous were all the devices of choirs and organs to accomplish this end. The only cure for death is life, and songless churches are dead churches. When, therefore, the reproach of a dead formal worship becomes a burden to any, let them set their hearts upon the more excellent way of remedying that, viz.—to importune the outpouring of the Spirit of God, whose excellent power can move young men and maidens, old men and little children to praise the Lord God of Israel, who alone doeth wondrous things; and whose glory shall one day fill the earth.

J. M’N.