6 Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? 7 Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? 8 Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? 9 So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. 10 Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11 If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me. 12 So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.
13 For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say.14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. 16 Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? 17 You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.
18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.
1 Corinthians 14:6-19
When you think about what kind of music you like to hear in church, do you think: “I like this hymn/anthem because it’s such beautiful music,”? Or do you think: “I like this hymn/anthem because it says what I believe,”?
Music in church needs to be good, in order that it not distract from the message being conveyed. But more importantly, it needs to be substantial. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul notes what he believes to be the importance of both singing and speaking in tongues. Both are spiritual activities, and if we’re not careful, both can be commandeered by the spirit to various, possibly non-christian ends.
“Well,” you might say, “what’s the big deal if we feel the spirit in the music we sing? Doesn’t that make it godly music?”
Nope. This is something that many denominations have wrestled with over the centuries– the Catholic church banned music for a time because of its power to move the spirit. They saw that power as dangerous and easily abused, and when they lifted the ban, it was very selective permission.
They were right, for the record. The power that comes with music can be easily abused, if we as Christians do not pay attention to what Paul is commanding us in his letter. We need to speak and to sing with the spirit AND with the mind. Be a discerning Christian about what comes out of your mouth. Read the words to your favorite hymns. During the time you set aside to read your Bible, study your hymnal as well. Do you know what garden you’re singing about in “In the Garden”? Do you understand the Calvinist theology behind the hymn “Rock of Ages”?
Sing what you believe, and believe what you sing. That requires a full understanding of both what you believe and what you sing, which is something that every Christian needs to strive for. Only then can the church use the gift and power of music to make spiritual, beautiful, joyful noises to the Lord, which also convey our beliefs and our faith.
What’s your favorite hymn? Do you know why it was written, and what the author is saying?