One of the controversies generating considerable interest
among the Lord’s people these days is the question of whether
or not the use of choirs and solos is permissible in the
worship assemblies of the New Testament church.
In numerous places the utilization of such singing
arrangements has already been implemented. Some churches have
specially named groups with coordinated wardrobes. Others are
clamoring for these special singing groups. Musical
entertainment is invading the church.
As a people who have always argued our religious positions
upon the basis of scriptural authority, it behooves us to ask:
Is choir and solo singing in the church assembly authorized by
the Scriptures? If it is not, then such cannot be condoned no
matter how popular the practice has become.
Historically, it has been quite evident to most Bible
students that the type of music authorized for church
assemblies by the New Testament Scriptures is that of
“And be not drunken with wine, wherein is riot,
but be filled with the Spirit; speaking one to another in
psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making
melody with your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:18,19 ASV).
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all
wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and
hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts
unto God” (Colossians 3:16 ASV).
There are several important things here. First, the
language of these verses is such that it involves a plurality
of individuals, entire congregations, in the obligations
enjoined. The imperatives, “be filled,” and “let dwell,” along
with the explanatory plural participles, “speaking,”
“singing,” “making melody,” “teaching,” etc., indicate the
activity of the church as a whole, rather than individual
action, or that of a small portion of the church, as suggested
by the solo/choral arrangement.
Second, the terms heautois (“one to another” –
Ephesians 5:19) and heautou (“one another” – Colossians
3:16) are grammatically classified as reciprocal, reflexive
According to noted grammarians Dana and Mantey (131), such
a usage, as in the contexts under consideration, represents
“an interchange of action” in the verbs employed.
J.B. Lightfoot (219) has noted that the reflexive nature of
these pronouns emphasizes the “idea of corporate unity.” When
the church as a whole sings, there is “speaking one to
another;” when one group is active (the choir), and another
group is passive (the listening audience), there is no
interchange of action.
Choir and solo music does not fulfill the requirements of
these contexts. Godet affirms that Ephesians 5:18ff and
Colossians 3:16 refer to hymns that are sung by “the whole
Third, the participles “speaking,” “singing,” etc., explain
the manner of implementing the imperatives (commands) “be
filled” and “let dwell.”
Consequently, if one group (the chorus) may sing and praise
God for another group (the audience), that is equivalent to
arguing that one group may “be filled” with the Spirit for
another, or the choir may “let [the word] dwell” in them as
representatives for the balance of the congregation.
The New Testament does not sanction the notion of proxy
worship. One segment of the church can no more sing for
another than it can observe the Lord’s supper for another, or
give for another. God expects faithful worship from each
Fourth, if Ephesians 5:18,19 and Colossians 3:16 actually
exclude congregational singing, and suggest solo or choir
singing, as some have alleged (DeWelt 293), then solo and
choir singing is not an option; rather, it is an obligation,
and everyone in the church must be active in this type of
This is similar to the argument that N.B. Hardeman made in
his debate with Ira Boswell. When Boswell contended that the
Greek word psallontes (“making melody”) in Ephesians
5:19 infered a mechanical instrument, Hardeman, with
relentless logic, demonstrated that since all of the saints at
Ephesus were commanded to make melody, this would surely
demand that each of them personally employ an instrument.
Boswell was devastated by the argument.
Those today who are contending for choirs or solos on the
basis of this passage are in an equally embarrassing position.
Major arguments for the choir and solo arrangements
Those who are introducing and defending the choir or solo
practice in the church assembly attempt to justify their
position by the following methods.
- Some suggest that choirs and solos ought not to be
opposed since some churches have had these features for many
A popular journalist recently argued in favor of choirs,
quartets, duets, etc., in the public services of the church
on the basis that he “grew up in a church of Christ” that
practiced these things. The writer made no attempt whatever
to defend the practice upon the ground of scriptural
argument; tradition was the criterion for justifying the
chorus arrangement (Norton).
What has become of us when we begin to argue our case in
this manner? How are we better than denominationalists when
we thus reason?
- Others contend that choirs and solos are permissible
since the Bible is silent regarding them. A cartoon in a
recent issue of Image magazine (Vol. VI No. 1)
suggested that quartet singing is just as scriptural as an
The implication was this – the Scriptures do not mention
quartets, and they do not mention “opening” prayers. We have
no problem with the latter; thus, the former should be
accepted as well.
The fact is, however, if the church is authorized to pray
in the assembly (and it is – 1 Corinthians 14:15ff), the
first prayer would of necessity be an “opening prayer.” Such
is authorized therefore.
Now where is argumentation of equal force for the
quartet? This type of reasoning has been used for ages in
attempting to justify infant baptism, rosary beads, the
burning of incense, the use of mechanical instruments of
music, and a host of other human inventions. As an
interpretive procedure, it is absolutely worthless.
- Some are contending that 1 Corinthians 14:26 contains
the New Testament authority for solos in the worship
assembly. Rubel Shelly, preacher for the Woodmont Hills
church in Nashville, Tennessee, asserts:
“The New Testament precedent is actually
clearer for solo or small-group singing than for
congregational singing (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:26-28)”
(“Lovelines” July 19, 1989).
Shelly suggests, however, that the congregation for which
he preaches will, for the most part, stay with
congregational music. Why, pray tell, if the precedent for
solo singing is stronger? This very attitude reflects a
posture that disdains biblical authority!
The late Don DeWelt of the Independent Christian Church
similarly argued that there is little, if any, authority for
congregational singing (293).
What does 1 Corinthians 14:26 actually say? In that
passage Paul declares:
“What is it then, brethren? When ye come
together, each one hath a psalm, hath a teaching, hath a
revelation, hath a tongue, hath an interpretation. Let all
things be done unto edifying.” (ASV).
This verse does not remotely provide what is needed to
justify solo singing. Note:
First, the passage does not mention singing. A psalm can
be read, or quoted, as easily as it can be sung. Further, a
psalm could be presented to the congregation for learning
without a solo being performed. It certainly could have been
introduced phrase-by-phrase, with the church joining in,
much in the same fashion as with antiphonal or “part”
If a verse does not explicitly state a truth, or at least
necessarily imply it, no speculation should be made by which
to justify some coveted practice. Imagination is a poor base
upon which to construct an argument.
Second, while it may be reasonable to conclude that a
spiritual gift, i.e., an inspired song, is in view in 1
Corinthians 14:26, the natural presumption would have to be
that once the song was given by the instrumentality of the
Holy Spirit, and conveyed to the congregation, the
subsequent use of the psalm would have been regulated in
harmony with the apostle’s instructions elsewhere (e.g.,
Ephesians 5:18,19; Colossians 3:16), and that would demand
congregational singing – not a solo performance.
In this connection we would make passing reference to the
case of the disciples as they assembled in Acts 4,
celebrating the release of Peter and John from prison. The
text states that they “lifted up their voice to God with one
Macknight, coupling this passage to 1 Corinthians 14:26,
comments that since it is said that the whole company
“lifted up their voice with one accord,” it is
evident that this utterance must have been delivered “by
two or three sentences at a time (as Paul directed the
Corinthians to do in the like cases) that all the company
might join in it” (195).
Moreover, if a psalm were sung under the influence of the
Spirit for instructive purposes, that would have no bearing
upon what the church is allowed to do today. Hodge has
“It was only so long as the gifts . . .
continued in the church that the state of things here
described [14:26] prevailed. Since those gifts have
ceased, no one has the right to rise in the church under
the impulse of his own mind to take part in its services”
Third, it appears fairly obvious that Paul, in this
context, is attempting to correct an abuse. H.K. Moulton,
lecturer in New Testament studies at New College, University
of London, classifies 1 Corinthians 14:26 as one of several
Corinthian passages which reveal “selfish individualism”
(cf. 1:12; 11:21) on the part of these saints, thus worthy
of apostolic rebuke (37).
If such is the case, this verse is hardly one to be
citing in support of the chorus-solo system. The truth is,
the New Testament is void of authority for solo and choir
music in church worship.
Why, then, has there developed this relatively modern craze
for a new form of church music?
The solo-chorus innovation
As with many other features of the early church, after the
close of the first century, gradual changes in the apostles’
doctrine began to be introduced. The testimony of history
clearly establishes the fact that for a good while
congregational singing continued to be the practice of those
The early “church fathers” spoke of that worship in song in
which “the whole congregation forms one general chorus”
(Chrysostom), and “to a man ... make up a chorus” (Ignatius),
wherein “the whole people join in song” (Ambrose) unto God.
Eusebius, known as the “father of church history,” says that
the churches’ congregational singing was so loud that it could
be heard “by those standing outside”(Frost 2-9).
M’Clintock and Strong note that:
“From the apostolic age singing was always a
part of divine service, in which the whole body of the
church joined together; and it was the decay of this
practice that first brought the order of singers into the
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church points out
that at first singing was congregational, “but gradually the
practice of having a body of trained singers was introduced.”
By the 4th century A.D., choral groups were being employed in
some of the churches. By the time of Gregory the Great (d.
604), “the Schola Cantorum [school of singers] was fully
established” (Cross 1225, 273).
Historian John Hurst writes regarding the worship of the
“The singing of psalms and hymns was an
important part of the service. It might be led by an
individual, but Paul’s advice proves that the singing by the
whole congregation was regarded as the best form of praise”
The testimony of ancient history is clearly against choir
or solo singing, and in favor of congregational singing.
The fact of the matter is, the current trend towards solos
and choirs in the services of the church reflects an attitude
that attempts to shift the emphasis from the simple message of
the gospel to an aura that smacks of sensationalism and
Such a motive is virtually conceded in a recent article by
Rubel Shelly in which this brother bemoans the fact that the
world is not “comfortable with our tradition-based services,”
hence, by the introduction of special music (choirs and solos)
and religious drama, the hope is expressed that the church
might “catch more flies with honey” than with our
“traditional” format of simply preaching the gospel (Love
Lines, March 28, 1990).
What a sad state of affairs it is when plain gospel
preaching and humble congregational worship are compared, by
implication, to vinegar!
May the Lord help us to be satisfied with the simplicity of
the New Testament plan of worship wherein each person, as a
priest of God, offers a sacrifice of praise to the Creator
Cross, Frank (Ed.), Oxford Dictionary of
the Christian Church (London: Oxford Universtiy Press,
1958), pp. 1225, 273.
Dana, H. E. & Julian Mantey,
A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (New York:
Macmillan & Co., 1968), p. 131.
“Letter to the Editor,” Gospel Advocate, May 16, 1985,
Frost, Gene, “Choirs and Solos in Worship,”
Gospel Anchor, July 1989, pp. 2-9. A number of these
sources are cited this article. It is available in booklet
form from: Gospel Anchor, PO Box 36033, Louisville, KY 40233.
Price is $1.00 plus postage.
Godet, F., Commentary
on 1st Corinthians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1890),
II, p. 281.
Hodge, Charles, First Epistle to the
Corinthians (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1857), pp.
Hurst John, History of the Christian
Church (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1897), I, p. 142.
Image, Vol. VI, No. 1, January/February 1990.
Lightfoot, J. B., The Epistles of St. Paul –
Colossians and Philemon (London: Macmillan & Co.,
1892), p. 219.
M’Clintock, John and James Strong,
Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical
Literature (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970 Reprint), IX, p.
Macknight, James, Apostolic Epistles
(Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1954 Reprint), p. 195.
Moulton, Harold K., The Challenge of the
Concordance - Some New Testament Words Studied In Depth
(London: Samuel Bagster & Sons, 1977), p. 37.
Norton, Howard, “Editorial,” Christian
Chronicle, January 1990.
Shelly, Rubel, “Woodmont
Hills Chorus,” Love Lines (weekly bulletin of Woodmont
Hills Church of Christ, Nashville, Tennessee), July 19, 1989.
Shelly, Rubel, Love Lines, March 28, 1990.