Previously published at The Helwys Society Forum.
Paul’s words in Colossians 3:16 are straightforward: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
However, this straightforward command is not always easily understood and applied…
- What does it mean to use songs to teach the Word to the church?
- How do we admonish through songs? What does admonish even mean?
- Paul is commanding the believers in this verse. As a worship leader, am I obedient to this command?
- If not, what things are keeping me from doing this?
While it is true that from church to church we disagree about how to worship, the corpus of true Christian churches agrees that the primary purpose of church music is to worship and praise the Lord.
Along the way, however, we have recommended other purposes. One is that music is to “prepare the heart for the preached Word of God.” Another is that music should be used to “draw sinners to God.” These two purposes are almost always expressed by well-intended believers who are truly trying to please God and reach their communities with the gospel of Christ. At some point, I have made both claims.
While both of these claims will be by-products of healthy church music, both lack Scriptural support as primary purposes and, if made primary, will detract from what Scripture prescribes as the purpose of worship. The goals stated above are also (in my opinion) the most basic musical-theological contributions to our worship wars and may very well be the two most common misunderstandings amongst pastors and church musicians. Thankfully, in Colossians 3:16, Paul lays out a two-fold purpose for music in what may be the most concise philosophy of church music found in Scripture.
The Purpose for Music in the Church
In Colossians 3:16 (and in the below list of other passages), Paul gives two purposes of music for an assembly of believers:
As praise unto God:
“. . . singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).
“Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25-26).
“. . . singing and making melody to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19).
To teach and admonish the listener/singer through the Word:
“. . . teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16).
“. . . addressing (or speaking to) one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19).
Teaching and Admonishing through Music
While scholars are divided as to the exact translation of Colossians 3:16, Paul is undoubtedly urging the church to use music as a means of teaching and admonishing believers through the Word. Douglas Moo concludes that “Paul wants the community to teach and admonish each other by means of various kinds of songs, and he wants them to do this singing to God with hearts full of gratitude.”
As we evaluate this verse, we should note that Paul uses this same concept apart from music earlier in his epistle: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ” (Col. 1:28). Teaching and admonishing is an essential task for the New Testament church—so essential that our music must align with this purpose.
To be clear, based on Paul’s teachings in these passages, I am suggesting that music has the same purpose in the church as preaching and teaching: to proclaim the gospel of Christ and to clarify biblical truths. Since this approach is different than what we’re used to, there may be fear that this philosophy may detract from the verbalization of God’s truth through preaching and teaching. However, this approach gives direction and purpose to our singing and unifies the goals of preaching, teaching, and singing.
As we unify these goals, we cease to have a “song service” followed by a “preaching service.” Instead, we have a unified worship service that proclaims the gospel and imparts truth to worshippers (although, from church to church and from culture to culture, these worship services will be different in form).
Teaching (διδάσκω) and Admonishing (νουθετέω)
What exactly does it mean to teach and admonish? The concept of teaching is pretty straightforward. Paul uses the verb form of “teach” (διδάσκω) nearly twenty times in his epistles. This word is closely linked to the words typically used for teacher (διδάσκαλος) and doctrine (διδασκαλία). Based on the various contexts, I broadly define teaching as the explanation of Scripture (and preaching as the proclamation of the gospel).
Paul uses διδάσκω three times in Colossians (1:28, 2:7, 3:16). Teaching, or explaining the Scriptures, is vital to the growth of both new and seasoned believers (1:28, 2:7). The church must devote itself to teaching so that “no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit . . . and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8). Just as the spoken word should impart the doctrines of Scripture, so should music.
The original word for “admonish” (νουθετέω) is used much less in Scripture. Of the eleven total occurrences (noun form, νουθεσία, and verb form, νουθετέω), ten are found in Paul’s writings. Admonishing is different from teaching, in that it comes in the form of a warning to those who are in error. Paul told the Thessalonians to patiently “admonish the idle” (1 Thess. 5:14-15). He also indicates that admonishment is advisable for the one who “stirs up division” (Titus 3:10). Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians was so straightforward, he feared it would be misunderstood and said, “I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children” (1 Cor. 4:14).
Unbelievers and the Worship of the Church
Music has not been prescribed as just a tool to “prepare the heart for preaching.” It should do this and more! Music, like preaching and teaching, should impart the Word to the listener/singer.
Neither should the primary goal of music be to “draw sinners to God,” but rather to warn and admonish both sinner and saint. This is not to say that our worship won’t sometimes be appealing to unbelievers, nor should we go out of our way to see that it is unexciting and dreary. One author scoffed by observing that “The chief contribution of Protestantism to human thought is its massive proof that God is a bore.” This must not be the case. Nonbelievers must desire the joy that we have! “The letters of Paul, which exude such joy in the direst circumstances, make clear that Christian faith rouses the deepest joy; and Christians need to express this joy in their worship of God.”
We must be mindful of the onlookers, like the Philippian jailer, who desire to know what they must do to be saved (Acts 16:25-30) and conduct ourselves in a way that the lost will not be turned off (1 Pet. 2:12, Mt. 5:16, Jn. 15:8, 2 Cor. 8:21, Phil. 2:15). But if our music is truly admonishing and teaching believers, it stands to reason that nonbelievers may find it uninteresting as they are blinded by their sin. But take heart! The Spirit is working and there will come a day when your faithfulness to do as God has commanded will reap fruit.
Joslin provides conclusions that aid in this task (which I have revised below). Teaching and admonishing by means of music means:
- Whenever we sing, we are teaching something.
- Therefore, there are songs that we will do, and there are those that we can’t do.
- Many churches and pastors need to give thought to how this portion of the gathered worship aligns with the preached word, such that both aspects of the service accomplish the same goal.
- Content is primary. There will and should be a variety of music with no one style mandated. Our primary criterion for song selection is not what meets our taste, but what best imparts the Scriptures.
- If Christ-centered worship teaches and admonishes us to love and live out the Word of Christ that richly dwells within us, then Christ-less worship also abets drifting away from the gospel.
I greatly desire to see the Word dwelling richly in God’s people! Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!
 Barry Joslin provides an excellent syntactical and grammatical breakdown of the various families of translations: Barry Joslin, “Raising the Worship Standard: The Translation and Meaning of Colossians 3:16 and Implications for Our Corporate Worship,” SBJT 17.3 (2013): 50-59; http://www.sbts.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2014/03/SBJT-17.3-Fall-2013-Joslin.pdf; accessed on July 28, 2016; Internet.
 Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 286
 H. L. Mencken, Minority Report (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), 214.
 David E. Garland, Colossians and Philemon, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 239.