The Unity of Music

I had been warned. Her husband was the church organist, so she naturally sympathized with his views on what was appropriate church music. I was a relatively new pastor, and one day she handed me a cartoon she had clipped out of a magazine. It depicted a white-robed saint amidst fluffy clouds, but this saint, newly arrived in heaven, looked baffled and confused because he did not know where to plug in his synthesizer. And that was just the point—there would not be any synthesizers in heaven. Reflecting on the source of the cartoon, I darkly wondered where one would plug in an organ in heaven. That cartoon epitomized the ongoing conflict over music I experienced in that particular church community. Someone had said that “music is the War Department of the church,” and based on my short experience with ongoing controversy over church music, I believed it. But why couldn’t music be the Peace Department of the church? Instead of driving people apart, why couldn’t music bring people together in unity?

In Matt 5:9 Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (NASB). Jesus is the great Peacemaker, who, through his death on the cross, reconciled all—both Jews and Gentiles—to God and made both groups one in the Spirit (Eph 2:11-22). Ephesians further admonishes us to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3, NRSV). As the Spirit of Jesus lives within and leads us, we, as sons and daughters of God, are earthly extensions of Jesus’ peacemaking ministry (Rom 8:11-15). In the cultic terms of temple theology, we have been given the “covenant of peace,” originally given to the Israelite priesthood (Num 25:11-12; Mal 2:4-5) but now to the new priesthood, disciples of Jesus Christ (Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6). Our peacemaking ministry entails reconciling people to God, bringing them back to oneness and unity with him (2 Cor 5:17-21). And one of the ways in which this spiritual unification with God can take place is through music.

When I was an undergraduate student, I remember taking a course on the prophets of Israel. The topic of the prophets was taught over a period of three quarters, with one “major” prophet taught each quarter, and the rest of the “minor” prophets divided up among all three quarters. I took the course only during Winter Quarter, and Jeremiah was the main prophet we studied. One of the other prophets we studied along with Jeremiah was Zephaniah. I knew little of Zephaniah and his message before I took the course, but I remember my professor introducing it as “hotter than hell,” since fiery judgments crackled throughout his series of oracles (cf. Zeph 1:18; 2:9; 3:8), and utter devastation permeated much of the rest of the text (e.g., 1:2-6, 14-17; 2:4-6, 8-15; 3:6-8).

But there was that one, particularly amazing verse that stunned the reader after such a lengthy inferno of destruction: “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zeph 3:17 [NRSV]). I remembered that our professor told us that this verse was the only place where the Bible describes God as singing.[1]

It is an understatement to say that music was a core element in the biblical worship of God.[2] The massive collection of psalms in our Old Testament, for example, reflects the centrality of music in Israel’s worship experience. Furthermore, 1 and 2 Chronicles pay particular attention to music in relation to the sanctuary and its cultic rituals, and a few examples will suffice to illustrate this interest. First, lengthy details about the temple musicians (e.g., 1 Chron 15:16—16:38) are striking when compared to the parallel accounts in 1 and 2 Kings. Second, it is intriguing to note that at King Solomon’s dedication of the temple, priestly and Levitical temple singers and instrumentalists performed “in unison,” “with one voice,” and the phenomenal, powerful result was that the glory of YHWH came and filled the temple (2 Chron 5:11-14).[3] Such music sung and performed in unison apparently invoked YHWH’s presence in the temple.[4] Finally, after King Hezekiah later cleansed the temple after its defilement under his father Ahaz, singing and instrumental music accompanied the burnt offerings, from beginning to end (2 Chron 29:27-28).

The charismatic, spiritual experience of significant Israelites was also closely associated with music. Saul began to prophesy when he met another group of prophets prophesying while instrumental music was being played (1 Sam 10:5-11). Elisha called for a musician to start playing, and while the musician played he received a message from God (2 Kgs 3:11-15). Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthan and their sons prophesied while playing musical instruments (1 Chron 25:1-6; cf. 2 Chron 20:13-17). These examples illustrate the relationship of music to the spiritual gift of prophecy.

Such worship and praise in music continued with the early Christians. Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn before they left their supper and went to Gethsemane (Matt 26:30). Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns in jail when there was an earthquake (Acts 16:25). In a chapter dealing with the use and abuse of the spiritual gift of tongues, Paul notes that the singing of psalms was one of the gifted elements used in worship to build up the Christian community (1 Cor 14:26). As Christians sang psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with thanksgiving in their hearts, the word of Christ would dwell in the church community (Col 3:16). Instead of getting drunk with wine, Christians were to be filled with the Spirit, which was evidenced through the singing of psalms and hymns as they melodiously sang to the Lord with all their hearts (Eph 5:18-19). Such musical worship expressions were evidence of the Spirit’s infilling and unifying presence.[5]

Singing, along with instrumental music, also plays a key role in some of the liturgical portions of the book of Revelation (5:8-9; 14:2-3; 15:2-3).[6] It is fascinating to note that the 144,000 in the book of Revelation who are redeemed from the earth and who sing before the throne of God are described as sounding, in part, like the sound of “many waters” (14:1-3). Later John describes the sound of the great multitude as sounding like “many waters” (19:6).[7] These two references to “many waters” are intertextual allusions to the description of the one like a son of man in Revelation 1, whose voice sounded like the sound of “many waters” (1:15) and whose immediately following vocalized messages to the seven churches are tied to the voice of the Spirit (2:7, 11, 17; 3:6, 13, 22). Within the Johannine context, such watery vocalizations allude to the Spirit (John 7:37-39; 19:34; Rev 22:1; cf. Isa 44:3-4; Ezek 47:1-12).

With such a background, one cannot deny that the music of and in worship was understood to be inspired by the Spirit. It is the Spirit that fills God’s people with the gift of music and song. And it is this musical expression in worship that can bring God’s people into unity not only among themselves but also with the choirs of heaven and with the God who himself sings over his people.

[1]Cf. other translations like the ESV, NIV, and NLT. While some Bibles translate this particular verb in various OT texts as referring to exuberant expressions or shouts of joy, notice the use of the verb in, e.g., 1 Chron 16:33; Job 29:13; 38:7; Psa 81:1; 95:1; 98:8; Prov 29:6; Isa 42:11; Jer 31:7; Zech 2:10. On the usage of the verb, including its “singing” translation, cf. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), s.v. “רנן,” 13:515-22; and The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Phoenix, 2010), s.v. “רנן,”7:502-504. See also the use of the cognate nouns in, e.g., 2 Chron 20:22; Psa 100:2; 107:22.

[2]For recent works on music in ancient Israel and early Christianity, see Joachim Braun, Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine: Archaeological, Written, and Comparative Sources, trans. Douglas W. Scott (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002); and John Arthur Smith, Music in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity (Farnham, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011).

[3]Note that the parallel in 1 Kgs 8:10 does not mention anything about music, singers, or instrumentalists.

[4]On this translation, see the discussion in Gerald H. Wilson, Psalms Volume One, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 415, n. 9. Psalm 22:3 notes that God “is seated [on] the praises of Israel.” On this see Margaret Barker, Temple Themes in Christian Worship (London: T & T Clark, 2007), 142-43.

[5]On the relation of music and unity, see the discussion in ibid., 221-38.

[6]For a recent analysis of the hymns of Revelation, see Kendra Haloviak Valentine, Worlds at War, Nations in Song: Dialogic Imagination and Moral Vision in the Hymns of the Book of Revelation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015), 41-76, 103-37, and 164-79.

[7]Notice the earlier interplay between the 144,000 and the great multitude in Rev 7.

Ross E. Winkle is Professor of New Testament at Pacific Union College.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Most churchgoers know the answer to the questions in the quote.

I visit churches and hear the variety of “worship” music. At one place, a non denom, mega church, they provide ear plugs. The “rock” music is so loud one can feel the pressure on their skin from the loud speakers. I notice most are not singing either.

Most praise songs, at churches are ambiguous repetitive shallow religious clichés set to melodies

There will be noticeable disunity in churches because Jesus said not to yank out the tares.

With 7000 waking minutes each week, where 100-200 minutes of it are at church and the balance is spent on the world.,… disunity will prevail.

Unity and fellowship result from…
"But if we are living in the light, as God is in the light, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin."
1 JN 1:7


“Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love.” Eph 4:2

The meek shall inherit the Earth because they know how to get along. Those who aren’t meek will be annihilated.

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Sacred music styles chsnge as does other genres of the art. The early Americans used to attack organs by night and destroyed a goodly number of them which had been imported from England. Reason? Organs were considered sacrilegious at the time . The only music acceptable to God was the NATURAL, UNTRAINED human voice singing Psalms. Organs were a devil’s chest of whistles and therefore had no place in a holy place such as sanctuary dedicated to the worship of God. And to think , a Walker and Sons organ is one of my two favourite instruments … the other being a Steinway and Sons Grand. I am pleased to hear that Herbert Blomstedt is giving up to 60 concerts annually at almost 90 years old… He is my favourite Adventist , possibly of all time.


It is always Wildly Funny for me to hear people talk about what WILL BE and what WILL NOT BE allowed in heaven – EVER!
Just think of ALL the things God inspired to be invented. Beginning from early Civilizations down to 21st Century living.
Just having Steam Power.
Just having Electricity.
Powering the Waves in the universe. Radio, X-rays, Microwaves.Cell Phones. Internet connections.
Chemistry of basic earth elements.
Enjoying Sound producing things.
The human voice by itself, human VOICES in small and large groups.
Air planes. Hang gliders. Parachutes. Hot Air Balloons.
Fabrics and fibers. Weaving machines.
Optics. Magnifying. Microscopes. Telescopes. Electron microscopes.
Paper and Ink. Moveable type. Writing tools.
Rope fibers.
Various size aquatic toys.

Ha! Ha! Yes, we limit what might be in Heaven. And, LOTs, and LOTs of styles of music.
And God to join us singing and playing. God singing SOLO parts while we hum-m-m along!

Vinzent – The Psalms [written by humans] says to Make A Joyful Noise. does not say anything
about being on pitch. Or even using the “correct” set of noise in proper sequence. One is worshiping
God - Father, Son, Holy Spirit and bringing an offering of “sound waves” to them for their hearing benefit.
Perhaps you might want to get a nice set of various size drums and cymbals to accompany your vocal lauding to the Holy Trinity. I once heard a great drum solo by a person who had a 12 drum set. It was based on Jesus returning to earth [2nd coming].

FEAR of hearing the WRONG instruments in CHURCH! It has probably been close to 7-8 years ago now. We had a new pastor join us. Seemed well liked. Gave very thoughtful sermons. Had 2 nice boys 8,10 or so. He played guitar [acoustic, electric]. We had at the time about 5 others [guys] who played guitar. together it was a variety of acoustic and electric, even a bass guitar [electric]. They would get together after potluck and practice in the church. I used to enjoy sitting in the pew listening to them practice.
After several months they decided to put on a Vesper program – 6PM Sabbath Evening. [A come if you want, stay home if you want type of event.] They put on their program of sacred music . [Because I had to work at the hospital at 7pm I couldnt attend.] After they performed there was a group that complained so much about GUITARS in church, that the Pastor FINALLY had to RESIGN and ask the Conference for a different church. He went to upper E. TN and was successful there.
But it was very sad that FEAR OF GUITARS by a few would cause the dismissal of a very good pastor!


Music, at this level, appeals to our emotions. It is very personal, influenced by our culture; our experience with music; our education. In North America music is multicultural, but quite homogenous within subcultures. Adventist worship is subcultural, controlled by church governance, and changes very slowly, but it does change.

Back in the sixties, a whole contingent of the New England music elite walked out when the Heritage Singers came on the platform during camp meeting - wonder what they would do today…


Because at times the choice of music has nothing to do with unity but is more reflective of the worshipper’s psychological world.

People in general practice religion under two major groups, those who are compelled through their character to worship an authoritarian God while the other group are those who are compelled through their character to practice humanistic religion. Religion serves as a stimulus for the authoritarians, as it were an ink blot, to exacerbate or mitigate their free-floating religious anxiety and these believers will go to war no matter what cost to pay to maintain their psychological homeostasis while the other group would be more tolerant knowing that religion is an attempt by men to find a higher level of themselves. The former group would most likely respond to psychological intervention with the likes of @GeorgeTichy followed by pastoral care while the later will most likely respond best to pastoral care only. This is why ministers trained in both religion and psychology are more likely to “bring people together in unity” than those ministers trained solely in religion. Take for instance the case of Doug Batchelor and Randy Roberts.


Not just kidding: Then why doesn’t the spirit bless me with a good voice. If I open my mouth it just sounds awfully wrong :wink:

About the synthesizers; it would be unwise to think that there wont be exercise of science in heaven and its practical using which is: technology; so it would make sense to expect any kind of technological advances there like the creation of new instruments; so I don’t see the use of electricity and synthesizers out of place in heaven. ( of course, without commerce)

Perhaps it is too much to expect when we wish for uniformity in our music experience when music itself is conflicted about what it should be. For eons, music was simply about singing or playing an instrument with little enhancement other than natural acoustics, Now, however, our expectation is for digitally mastered masterpieces. We no longer gather on one another’s porches or in our kitchens to share music as we once did. The expectations are too high, for no musician or vocalist can produce something in that setting that is the equal of the highly processed sounds we hear in music videos, on commercial recordings, or even in large venues backed by a wall of sound altered by digital and analogue effects. Music has become less about simply having a good time and more about having an “experience,” and the more perfect the music, the more perfect the experience.

To our credit we will tolerate short comings in performances by children, but when they reach adulthood, we prefer the amateur set aside his or her interest in music and demure to the professionals. But should we demand or even expect perfection? One person may feel someone’s song selection is ruining their religious experience. Another might feel that the organist’s flubbed notes are ruining theirs. Still another might feel that a vocalist’s attempts to mimic a popular recording fall far short and so their spiritual experience suffers. We are all sinners. (Romans 3:10) We all stumble and make questionable choices, even about music. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could return to the time when we gathered on those porches and laughed about the flubs, but kept on singing and dancing and sharing the joy in the fellowship that brought us together in the first place?


I agree that music is meant to be a common experience among the people of God…meant to bring them together in unifying worship. So are prayer, the teaching and preaching of the word, the common table where food is shared, etc, Unfortunately, all these have been and still become points of contention, simply because people are people with different cultural, ethnic, and generational conditioning.

How often, in Adventist churches, do congregations divide over doctrinal niceties? What have we seen regarding woman’s ordination over the past few years? In light of this, the fact that people can’t agree and divide over music and worship styles, which can be so ethnic and age specific, shouldn’t be a surprise.

Adventism, like most fundamentalist churches, has also seemed to traditionally have a dynamic that nurtures this kind of climate. Salvation has always been about having "the truth,"which in our parlance means being right about everything, on every issue. Being wrong has always been equated with error…which means being lost, or on the road to being lost. Music, with it’s incredible variety of aesthetic and stylistic variations, from culture to culture, and generation to generation, cannot help but create controversy in an environment that looks for uniform answers to all the issues of life and spirituality. Maybe it’s because aesthetic values, and what constitutes experiencing true beauty and worship, do not fit into quantifiable packages of “objective truth.”

Could it be that when we see that the greatest and most central value of the kingdom, and the greatest bringer of unity, is an other centered love, that maybe then we’ll be able to accept such differences, over what amounts to worship forms, more easily?



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Thanks, Ross Winkle.

Please: What do you make of the fact that God left, to us, as you put so well, “the massive collection of psalms in our Old Testament,” but no instruction on how they were to be sung?


A time and a place for everything. Personal view… Bring in complimentary instruments (to the voice) for church worship not the drums… We have a church in my town that allowed drums and 4 years later its ‘a declared raging so-called holy ghost party’. Youth like that band stuff so give them a garage/hall/field. - But turning a sanctuary into something else will do no good for a child /youth in understanding ‘a time and a place’. Let alone sanctity, scripture appreciation, or enjoying their parents. The list grows as rock’n’roll takes the church centre stage. My kid can play abit of gospel pop on a week day. Heck I’ll even play some when I figure right time, right place.

Thank you for the observations on the “unity of music”. I wonder if King David ever had any detractors apart from his wife, Michal. His model of music found in 2 Samuel 6 and Psalms 150 sounds more like the youth tent at camp meeting than the senior tent.

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I wish Paul’s vision of the Spirit’s work to bring “one Spirit” between Jews and Gentile Christians had become Early Christian norm. However, his ideals faulted after his death. A general anti-Jewish attitude prevailed all through the Early, Middle Ages into the 21st century.

For example in the Epistle of Barnabas (Alexandria, 70-135) declares the laws of Moses, including animal sacrifices was a mistake arising from Jewish blindness and reliance upon an evil angel (9:4).

Origen of Alexandria (185-254 A.D.) Declared that Jews “have committed the most abominable of crimes, in forming this conspiracy against the Savior of the human race…hence the city where Jesus suffered was necessarily destroyed, the Jewish nation was driven from its country, and another people was called by God to the blessed election.”

John Chrysostom (344-407 A.D.) “The synagogue is worse than a brothel…it is the den of scoundrels and the repair of wild beasts…the temple of demons devoted to idolatrous cults…the refuge of brigands and dabauchees, and the cavern of devils. It is a criminal assembly of Jews…a place of meeting for the assassins of Christ…

I can’t quote the remainder of Chrysostom words, it is far too anti-semantic. It causes me emotional pain to see how far believers in Christ failed. Sadly, not even the peace making abilities of the Holy Spirit was able to change this mad direction of the Christian faith. The centuries of Jewish hostility by Christians is far greater then believers endured under Pagan or Christian Rome. Collectively where have we gone wrong?

A good site to read the Early Church Father:

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i can remember this happening in the late 70’s and early 80’s, actually…one time i’ll never forget was when the violin teacher i grew up with, and her mother, suddenly stood up in the middle of a revival meeting held in machlan auditorium at AUC because the heritage singers had walked onto the podium…i wasn’t sure what was going to happen - they were both dramatic characters, and anything could have happened - but i instinctively stood up with them, and walked out with them…i was seated between them, and was there with them, so i didn’t have a choice…what’s more, we were sitting towards the center front, and i’m positive everyone would have seen us…i didn’t want to cause a scene beyond what was already unfolding…

these were the days when listening to karen carpenter was considered quite the departure…but this was really only in my own narrow circle…people i knew from the dorm were routinely listening to music quite a bit more revved up than the carpenters…all of us were adventists, of course, but our music choices were always so dramatically different…

at this point, i can’t say i know what to think about the music i hear in the churches i visit…some time ago i was in a black church, where the music was so loud, i felt parts of my body vibrating as i sat there listening to it…when the singer suddenly soared to a very high, sustained note, i almost thought my skull was going to split…i can’t say i felt the blessing others obviously felt…i’ve also sat through white, hispanic and mixed-race church services, where the singers were singing things tame enough…yet things were so out of tune, rhythmically imprecise and emotionally dead, i caught myself squeezing my bible and bracing my back against the pew, it was so unpleasant…here, again, i likely didn’t share in the blessing others may have been experiencing…

relatively recently i’ve formed the settled opinion that the only place to carry a legitimate expectation that something will be played or sung well is in a concert hall…as far as churches go, my expectation is mediocrity…this adjustment in expectations has made a big difference…i realize now that it’s important for the majority of people to hear what they expect to hear…and it’s important for people with no skills to perform…more importantly, i’ve come to see that there is a way to listen to a musical performance that shuts out the music…it’s all about connecting to the performer on what can be sensed are his or her terms, rather than my own…sometimes i feel richly blessed, despite the sounds i hear…


Why complementary ? I recently was invited to an event - there the percussion group alone gave the musical framework - it was great !

And - you know - I am just SDA - bred and society – bred, : Introduceed into the “great music” - oh, I enjopy it ! I can - as trained sixty years ago in Viennese “Musikverein” by free atmittance - let me be wrapped up by all those classic symphonies - for example. Just now I prepare the sermon for Easter in our local church with - my meditations on Bachs “Matthaeus - Psssion” in our livingroom.

Sorry to say : My wife does not join me in these areas : She immediately turns off the 2 x 200 Watts CD STereo device in our livingroom, coming home ! She just does not stand - ANY MUSIC !

And in church the choire sings : US songs of the Thirties in horrible English ! (Thschieeeeeeesaaas ) - do you know the sweet, solemn sound of Latin texts ? - No, English texts they do not understand !!

And there are some in our church , who live ( live !!!) with the music they can reproduce in their personal life : They politely and spiritfilled ( ? ) accept the US - horror music ! And sometimes the camouflage gets a shift and their own music appears !!

Decades ago I was quite well in playing the organ at the local main SDA church.- and we also presented some fine performances - in clasic style. That was a gorgeus experience ! But now : Sometimes I wish I could express my worship - witbh kettledrums !!!

And some times ago I herad a group from the “Gold Coast” - a strage music, bit they lively played and sung it, they presented something out of their heritage, their vitality, their joiy and suffering, their whole human existence ! - Oh boy, that in worship !! (Now plese, do not say : “Well, that is pagan, occult, we prefer Beethoven !!”)


EmmyLou Harris commented on this and said “We’ve lost the living room in our music.”

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