13 Jun 2016

Solos & Singing Groups: Examples of Invented Issues

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Hermeneutics, Music, Patternism, Restoration History, Sectarianism, Unity, Worship

SoloGreetings from sunny Alabama. For the last month I have been asked by various people about solos and special music (a singing group) being used in the “corporate” gathering of God’s people. This matter is an example of an invented issue pure and simple.

I have no axe to grind on this particular issue except to show that it is a nonsensical issue and to cause dissension over it is to assume a sectarian posture.  Many years ago I felt that singing groups/solos were quite unbiblical (just entertainment!) so I set out to prove them so (this was around 1995ish).  I read every piece of information I could get my hands on. I divided my research up into four areas of pursuit:

1) What does the Hebrew Bible say and assume on this matter?

2) What does the NT say about the matter?

3) What did the early church understand the scriptures to teach and how did they implement such?

4) What have leading lights in the Stone-Campbell Movement understand on this matter?

I published my findings in a short booklet of about 20 pages under the title “I Will Call Upon the Lord.”  My research convinced me that my previous position had been based upon ignorance and based upon prejudice.

Grammar Matters

I have read Dave Miller’s work and found it wholly unconvincing.  His argument falters (as does most others that I have seen) on the basics of Greek grammar.  There is basic confusion on the action of a reflexive and a reciprocal pronoun and the difference between the two.

Wayne Jackson, for example, says that “eautois” in Ephesians 5 (“one another”) demands congregational singing.  That is a fundamental error.  “eautois” is a reflexive and is not be confused with a reciprocal.  According to standard grammars, like Blass and Debrunner’s, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, pp. 147-148 and 150 (this is the standard grammar) says that a reflexive simply involves a mutual exchange: not necessarily the same thing or at the same time.

We see that this is quite true in a number of passages in the Greek NT that involve the reflexive: “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving EACH OTHER (eautois)” (Ephesians 4.32).  Is forgiveness to be practiced only collectively and all at the same time?  “Encourage ONE ANOTHER daily . . .” (Hebrews 3.13) Must all Christians encourage each other at the same exact time and in the same way to obey this command?  “EACH ONE should use whatever gift he has received to serve others . . .” (1 Peter 4.10)  These examples could be multiplied, but it is obvious that the reflexive does not mean everybody and all at the same time.

In Ephesians 5 the reflexive action can occur in a variety of ways.  The one singing (as in 1 Corinthians 14.26) edifies those gathered in the presence of God.  That mutuality is the reflexive action.

Kurfees, Jividen, Whiteside on Solos

Those who have a grasp of the syntax of the Greek have always recognized this.  M.C. Kurfees for example — that legendary opponent of instrumental music and author of Instrumental Music in Worship, wrote directly on this subject:

“[Paul’s] admonition for the Christians to sing in the following words: ‘Speaking one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs’ (Eph. 5:19).  He uses the reflexive pronoun, ‘speaking to one another,’ or by ‘one another.’ He does not say whether this speaking in psalms and other kinds of musical compositions shall be done by all in concert or by one at a time: hence either is correct.” (M.C. Kurfees, “Is Solo Singing Permissible in the Public Worship of God?” Gospel Advocate 55 [May 15, 1913], pp. 464-465).

Along the same lines Jimmy Jividen writes in his Worship in Song,

Nothing is said as to the number or organization of singers in the ‘one another singing’ of Eph. 5: 19 and Col. 3:16.  Whether one, four or an hundred sing is incidental. Nothing more is being done than singing.  In four part harmony one might say that there are four choruses responding to one another in song.” (p. 163, see also p.52).

R. L. Whiteside was the subject of my thesis and I have read everything the man ever published that is known to exist.  Whiteside is definitely a “conservative” (nothing pejorative intended in that) but this is what he had to say when asked about the issue of solos and quartets in worship:

One definition of ‘special’ is: ‘designed for a particular purpose, occasion, or the like.’  If that is what is meant by special songs, then I am in favor of special songs . . . To the Corinthians, Paul said, ‘When ye come together each one hath a psalm’ (1 Cor. 14:26).  A solo is sometimes very effective; so also is a quartet . . .”

At this point Whiteside wants to ensure that the congregation “gets” to sing too.  He continues, “Let the congregation sing, even if a quartet has charge of the singing.”   On another occasion he says:

There does not seem to be anything wrong in singing a solo, if the singer puts his heart into the singing and sings so the people can understand what he says. But if he sings for show he should not sing the songs of Zion.”  (for ease of location these two RLW quotes can be found in Reflections, pp. 372-373 and 379)

RLW is not “promoting” these things but he clearly says they are biblical and he even says they can be edifying.  He warns of abuse — something to be heeded in all things I think.

Final Words

On the basis of the grammar of the NT, solos are in fact “authorized in worship” and our folks have recognized this in the past.  The early church, as stated before, did not sing congregationally as we experience it.  This can be demonstrated as well. In fact exclusive congregational singing is a tradition and not a command anywhere in the Bible as a whole or the New Testament in particular.  Neither of the two passages most commonly associated with singing (Eph 5 and Col 3) specify.  Thus as Jividen correctly noted, but brethren completely ignore, either is correct! Further the one text in the entire NT that actually gives a command is solo singing (1 Cor 14.26). Thus to demand what the Scripture clearly does not (exclusive congregational singing) and to forbid what the NT explicitly allows (solo singing) is the very essence of sectarianism.

Debates over solos and “special” music are simply examples of invented issues.  God’s people often have a track record of invented issues … it is zeal without knowledge.  These invented issues divert us from the real issue of unity, love, compassion, justice and mercy.

This blog started by identifying “traditions” and made up issues. Some border on the proverbial sacred cow, exclusive congregational singing is one of them.   But men who knew the Greek well enough have recognized that such things as solos and singing groups are biblical and thus never made an issue out of them.

Perhaps we can learn from their wisdom.

9 Responses to “Solos & Singing Groups: Examples of Invented Issues”

  1. Dwight Says:

    If singing to one another as in congregational singing or more than one singing is the argument, then this would mean that singular singing would be sinful. I cannot sing to God when at my house or on the road.
    Because singing is an “issue” we have further defined issues in regards to singing.
    This would also, technically, mean that if just the women are singing, then because it is not the whole congregation, then this is also wrong. We are often in the issues publication business and have a full subscription to where we condemn ourselves.

  2. Steve Hopkins Says:

    Thanks for the excellent post.

    I have a question about the Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 passages. I have always heard that these verses are talking specifically about corporate worship. Why do we think that? What in the context leads us to believe that?

  3. David Allen Says:

    Bobby, are copies of “I Will Call Upon the Lord” still in print? If so, where could I get a copy?

  4. Dwight Says:

    Paul and Silas, in jail, did exactly what Eph.5 and Col.3 express and there were only two of them, before others in other cells. This was not what we call “corporate worship”, but it was worship and teaching none-the-less. I have heard arguments about not singing before others in a choir in a mall, because it is “entertainment”, but this is a chance lost to freely express Christ and teach others due to mislabeling.

  5. James Thrasher Says:

    Thanks, Bobby. Our prohibitions on solos or group singing have never made sense, in English or Greek.

  6. Profile photo of Jos Wheatley Joe W Says:

    One argument I have heard used against solos and quartets is that it is entertainment and since entertainment is somehow always evil, solos must be evil. The same argument is used against praise teams – it is entertainment and they can lead to choirs. Choirs are held to violate Paul’s rule that every Christian must sing every song or be in danger of an eternity in hell. “The church isn’t here to entertain people” and “it might lead to something else” are two frequently used arguments.

  7. Jeff Moberly Says:

    I couldn’t agree more, that the many debates in the church about “what is “appropriate” music, is more often than not nonsense. Nonetheless, for many christians the issue is very real. Therefore, the issue must be addressed with respect, because to disrespect the issue is to disrespect the person.

    So with this in mind, I would like to paraphrase Paul’s advise to the Roman church in the Book of Romans. The Roman church was concerned about eating meat that had been used as sacrifices to idols. Paul didn’t think the issue was important. Paul’s advise to the Romans was to respect the person who takes issue with the practice, and if it causes that person to stumble, then don’t do it.

  8. Dwight Says:

    I think it is important to note, our Western love of entertainment that is almost in line with the Roman love, that wasn’t as sought after in the Jewish world. When the Jews sang they sang of God and/or towards God…see Psalms. It wasn’t overtly mindless and/or self-serving. They actually sought to teach and inspire one another, even while it pleased another.

    We go to movies and football games to be entertained, despite not having any real value pulled it from other than being entertained. And those in the church, as I used to think, don’t know how to see past the entertainment value, even when the content is useful and Godly.

    It could be argued that we, as in we (me) aren’t hear to entertain people and I (we) are the church. We are supposed to help others and the scriptures never include help and entertain others in what we are supposed to do towards others.

    Entertainment with out Godly value is like sugar, sweet to the taste, but empty to the soul and it robs us of the good things.
    We as a people should be less entertainment oriented and be more Godly oriented and it can be and sometimes should be pleasing to see and hear.

Leave a Reply