True. Centuries ago Calvinists resisted establishing choirs in their churches. Seems that in looking for a reason to abolish popish abuses, Calvinists, Puritans especially, adopted a strict regulativist view of worship: whatever is not commanded in Scripture is strictly forbidden.
We are regulativists too, but less strict. If Scripture speaks of it, clearing a space for it in worship, it is reasonable and appropriate to include it. For example, if choirs are mentioned at various points in the Bible—assumed in the Psalms, on the move in accounts of Jehoshaphat and Nehemiah, and present and active in Revelation—choirs are, in effect, normative in God’s worship.
The spirit of the Reformation was, among other things, a recovery of the authority of scripture in church life and practice. To some extent, the Reformation rejected those practices that effectively rehung the partition between God and His people. In medieval worship, the singing, if there was any, was done by trained choirs, not the congregation. Recovering the “priesthood of all believers” (1 Peter 2:5), resulted in giving duties formally assigned to priests (i.e. serving God in worship), to everybody, and thus, congregational singing was restored.
Now that singing and music arises from the assembly of saints, does this mean that choirs are abolished and are now unnecessary?
The short answer, “no.”
The church choir provides skillful music in worship that is impractical for the congregation to do on its own. Where scripture commands skillful praise (Psalm 33:3), the choir is able to fulfill this requirement. It is impractical or impossible to have the congregation to do so.
At Christ Church, we value musical skill highly, and particularly the ability to read music. Whereas these skills will be more prominent in the choir, there is no reason to expect that they be uncommon in the congregation. But an honest assessment leads us to conclude that, since God is to be worshipped with our best, and in fact, makes His demands plain,“Your lamb shall be without blemish” (Exodus 12:5), the congregation’s offering is not as good (putting it bluntly) as it could be. And so, a church choir can help fill the gap.
The skill and ability a choir brings to worship is extraordinary compared to the ordinary worship provided by the congregation. In his book The Supper of the Lamb, Robert Capon applies similar categories to food. Capon calls everyday food “ferial” and special food “festal.” For him, the distinction is not inferior food vs. superior. All the food he talks about is more than fit for human consumption. The division lies along the lines of “honest frugality and generous expense,” food our pocketbooks can afford and that we have time to prepare day by day as compared to special and extravagant food. How great it would be to enjoy expensive dishes all the time, except that we’d soon eat ourselves out of house and home. And besides, we tend to devalue extravagance if we have it around us every day. On the other hand, we look forward to special occasions, budgeting time and money in the planning.
So, there is a hierarchy to our priorities. In the church year, we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection each Lord’s Day. (Why else is it called the “Lord’s Day” if not for the Resurrection?) But only one Lord’s Day out of the year is called Easter. To have egg hunts, Peeps, jellybeans, and white lilies every Sunday would be too much. Once a year is a whole lot of fun and worth preparing for. Only one day in seven is a Sabbath. If every day were a Sabbath, where would the working be?
This digression is all to say that if we like the separation between the special and the ordinary when it comes to observing time and meals, why not music too? A church choir can give more time and attention to preparing music than a congregation can. A choir can provide vibrant and glorious meditations on God’s Word that the congregation simply can’t do. A choir can bless the congregation with performances of say, Messiah, that deserves to be rehearsed and celebrated regularly. The congregation ordinarily cannot do these things on its own.
Finally, just as we look forward to special occasions to mark times and seasons, we look to role models for how we ought to live. In church, the congregation looks to the choir to set a standard of glorious praise of God and how to do so joyfully.
So yes, if the church choir truly presents an obstacle to the authentic worship of God, we agree with our Calvinist forefathers that the choir’s got go. But insofar as choirs, organs, and instruments enhance praise and help us worship our glorious Lord in the beauty of holiness, we ought to continue to use them. We should encourage those in our midst that are willing and able to help our sacrifice of praise ring out more faithfully each Lord’s Day.
I’ve made the claim that the church choir is more skilled than the congregation and fills a niche that the congregation can’t. But understand that the choir’s skill is not inherent skill but is mostly learned skill. Singers in the choir are not necessarily better singers than ones in the congregation. The difference is quantity of time in preparation. The choir practices. The congregation is not expected to, at least not to the same degree. If any in the congregation are intimidated by the choir, thinking I could never do that, hear this encouragement: yes you can, it just takes time. The invitation to join extends to all. You just need to be willing to commit time to learning. We certainly want our best singers to use their talent in the choir. They are the most qualified. But those who are willing to learn and commit the time to it will not be turned away. With time and instruction, they will become better singers.
Lent A.D. 2022