How Singing Together Rehearses Mutual Submission

Zac HicksWorship Pastoring1 Comment

As I’m writing my book, I’m enjoying the disciplined privilege of dialoguing with old friends and mentors who sit on my shelves, reminding me of their ministry to my life. I was cracking open one relatively recent “old friend,” Resonant Witness: Conversations Between Music and Theology, edited by Jeremy Begbie and Steven Guthrie. I opened up Steven Guthrie’s amazing chapter, “The Wisdom of Song,” to discover fierce underlining. Many of the ideas I had interacted with in those pages were forgotten, and rediscovering them was like finding an old tool that I thoguht I’d lost. I’d like to share an insight from that chapter which should inspire worship leaders struggling to figure out just how their work actually pastors people. It will encourage you.

Ephesians 5:18-21 is one of those hallmark passages that we often forget when we talk about worship and being “Spirit-filled.” Often times, we can get pretty narrow in what we think “Spirit-filled” worship looks like. (I address some of that in detail here.) Ephesians 5 helps us broaden that out. In teaching Greek, some professors will point out that this passage is one of those places where English translations have done a poor job in connecting the ideas of the Greek. In the original language, we have an imperative (a command), followed by a string of participles (“-ing” words) which help flesh out what that command looks like. In Greek, the command is “be filled with the Spirit,” and the “how” gets described in the participles, “speaking…singing and making music…giving thanks…submitting.” We can observe several things here.

First, as we probably have all experienced, speaking/singing/making music are all ways we embody being filled with the Spirit. Second (probably more surprising), submitting to one another is another one of those ways. And third, look at how closely singing and submitting are linked in this passage. Now let’s sprinkle a little musical reflection on top of this and hear what Steve Guthrie has to say:

What kind of mutual submission happens in song? For one thing, singing words together involves synchronicity–staying in time with one another. The singers submit themselves to a common tempo, a common musical structure and rhythm. In addition to this, those who sing surrender to the constraints of a particular melody and harmony, a common key and tonal hierarchy. As they submit in this way they discover limits that are not oppressive; limits that do not frustrate but facilitate the participants’ intention to sing. If this mutual submission entails the loss of one sort of freedom (the freedom to sing whatever notes one wants, in whatever way one chooses), it also enables freedom of another sort–the freedom to sing this tune; the freedom to be part of a chorus. …

Even in the midst of our bickering, we all would have affirmed the wisdom of Paul’s command: “submit yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ.” With each week’s opening hymns, however, we’re forced to rehearse this mutual submission, and as we did, we learned how such submission is enacted in song.*

Did that blow your mind like it did mine? In singing, we “rehearse” our Spirit-filled mutual submission. That means that we, as worship leaders, are pastoring this Spirit-filled virtue into our flock when we lead them in song. Perhaps even without us knowing it, we are contributing to the positive shaping of the Body of Christ into the image of Christ by the power of the Spirit. Worship leaders, you are pastors.

*Steven R. Guthrie, “The Wisdom of Song,” in Resonant Witness; Conversations Between Music and Theology, ed. Jeremy S. Begbie and Steven R. Guthrie (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 400-401, 407.

One Comment on “How Singing Together Rehearses Mutual Submission”

  1. Zac – glad to know about Guthrie's treatment of Ephesians 5; much to consider!
    How would the idea of mutual submission in song speak to the contrast in volume between congregation and platform singers? Also wondering if improv on the melody by lead singers works against the submission concept. Is the submission concept best realized when the congregation alone can be heard? I always learn from your thoughts!

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