The church is in trouble when plainly presented “sound doctrine” through modest Scripture reading, humble preaching, simple singing, and unassuming praying is not enough.
This is an important question because many earnest believers desire to worship on the Lord’s Day in form and content the same way that Christ and the Apostles worshiped. The New Testament is very clear about the purpose of music for the church, but it does not give explicit indication as to what the form of church music was like. This may lead some to conclude that “style doesn’t matter,” but such a conclusion is unsatisfactory for those who believe everything in the life of a Christian matters and should fall under the lordship of Christ. Observing music’s role in early church worship, the early church’s view of pagan music, the tune of early church music, and the text of early church music will aid in understanding what musical form was like among the earliest Christians.
Music’s Role in Early Church Worship
In his book, Music in Early Christian Literature, James McKinnon has helpfully collected every reference to music from the extant writings of the early church fathers. A fair amount is said in the writings of the church fathers about music in general, but not much is said about music within the gathered assembly. A detailed description of what an actual worship service was like is found in the writings of Justin Martyr (c.100–c.165). This is very important because Justin was born around the same time that the Apostle John died, so Justin’s record is just one generation removed from the practice of the Apostles. In this very thorough description of a Lord’s Day meeting (go here to read Justin’s description), Justin describes a service as consisting of preaching, teaching, praying, reading Scripture publicly, taking of the Lord’s Table, saying “Amen,” and collecting the offering. This service is led by a pastor and it results with the deacons carrying out service during the week. But understanding music’s place in the assembly is all the more complicated by the absence of music in this detailed description. Why would Justin omit this important aspect of worship?
The sparse references to music within the earliest writings and Justin’s omission may actually be a clue—perhaps these believers didn’t place as much emphasis on music as American churches do today. Imagine a worship service in a twenty-first-century American church with such little music that when someone described the service they might just forget to mention the music. In this same service, the Scriptures are read, to quote Justin, “as long as time permits.” Such a service would be viewed as boring for Christians and ineffective for keeping “the young people engaged.” This would be unheard of since “music” and “worship” are often used interchangeably in the modern church vocabulary.
That Justin’s congregation never sang during Lord’s Day worship is not likely; in fact, Justin suggests that believers should “offer thanks by invocations and hymns.” Justin may have so closely associated singing with the public reading of Scripture, that he failed to mention the music aspect. In order to understand how Justin would have made this close association between singing Scripture and reading Scripture, the church’s use of tune and text must be understood. But before doing so, how the church viewed the music of pagan culture should be evaluated.
The Early Church’s View of Pagan Music
The early church’s view of pagan music is best seen in their abolition of instruments in worship. It is often suggested that the early church chose not to use instruments within their worship because of fear of persecution. While this theory may have some merit, it is often overstated. It seems more likely that the believers chose not to use instruments in worship because of an early polemic against pagan music and the association of instruments with pagan music. This polemic appears as early as Theophilus of Antioch (d. c.185) and Tatian the Assyrian (c.120–c.180) who are both agitated by the snobbery of Greek music culture. By the time of Clement of Alexandria (c.150–215), the formal opposition to pagan music was in full swing. Clement spoke of those people who sing music within the church, and then sing “trash” accompanied by instruments outside the church. Tertullian of Carthage (c.160–220) viewed the music of the theatre and the circus as directly connected to idolatry and bad morals. Novation (d. c.258) suggested that pagan music would still be worthless even if it were not morally corrupt.