Should We Have Choirs in Our Protestant Reformed Church Services (negative)

Since this article presents only the negative side of the question in what was originally planned as a pro and con discussion, the opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the writer. The affirmative will appear next month. – ed.


In order to find the place of a Choir in the church service it would not be out of place to gain some information on the nature of worship as found in the church service.

Worship is the primary and eternal activity of redeemed mankind. Worship needs to be vitalized and intensified by that most spiritual of all arts of self-expression, namely, music.

Worship may be simply defined as the offering of all our faculties to the glory of God, according to Winfred Douglas, Canon in the Episcopal Church.

Let us see why music enhances the act of true worship. Music expresses human life. Music is the art of expression which directly voices the human soul in tone governed by rhythm. So in its combination of the sensible and the spiritual it corresponds to the nature of man, and to the sacramental idea characteristic of the religion of Jesus Christ. This is true moreover because both religion and art are qualitative expressions of the nature of being as opposed to science which is a quantative expression of an approach to reality.

Pursuing our subject further, we find that there is a double source of music in the individual. In the first instance an impulse of emotional self-expression produces tone or sustained sound. This is a manifestation of life as a personal feeling. The second source is an impulse of law relating the individual life processes to the universe. This impulse is the basis of rhythm; the combined result can be seen as personality in action.

With this general knowledge in mind, we can see that church music expresses the life of the Church as the body of Christ. The Catholic life of the first Christian centuries was not the sum total of individual human lives organized for government or administration, but was the life of the mystical Body of Christ, a living organism. The church music of the early Christian centuries expresses this organic life.

A study of the music of the early Christian centuries gives us these principles:

  1. Since the object of redeemed life is the praise of God, the music was sung only to the praise of God.
  2. The music was an integral part of each service and was sung as the voice of the whole church, not as individualistic prayer.
  3. Provision was made for each and every member to join in the active praise to God. 4.The music was purely religious, never secular, and always subordinate to the Word of God.

The common practice of modern-day churches pertaining to their choirs would seem to violate these ancient principles of church music.

The progress and growth of the church from very early times to the Reformation is on a parallel with the progress of church music. Early church music was a blend of Hebrew, Greek and Latin elements. The Hebrew element was characterized by its impressiveness due to its grandeur and power. The Greek element was one of refinement and perfection of detail. The Latin element was one of organization. Since the Greek element was much the stronger in all phases of the church life and every day life, the trend in church music was one of refinement. As the church became larger the service grew more elaborate and the music became more complex. Another contributing factor in this connection was the common practice of using choral music to provide the setting and background of Greek drama. This was carried over into the church as the service became more dramatic and ritualistic. The result of the process was the monopoly of church music by the choir. This monopoly was made official by the Council of Laodicea, which declared in 367 A.D. that only recognized, artistic music was that given by trained choirs.

The Council set up schools for training choirs whose influence and power lasted until the 16th century.

The dawn of the Reformation accomplished a return to ancient and true principles in church music. The personal nature of the Reformation doctrine of salvation by faith required participation by the whole congregation in the service. In addition, the active participating by the whole congregation required the use of the vernacular and the use of simplified music. Besides all this, there was no need for elaborate ritual and its accompanying choral renditions. It was a firm principle of the church at Geneva under John Calvin that only congregational singing was permissible in public worship. And this congregational singing was limited to material taken accurately from the Bible, so that for all practical purposes only the metrical versions of the Psalms were used.

The next step in the historical process as relating the church services and the choirs is the decline of the true Reformation spirit. The Romantic movement in England influenced church music in various ways. There was a chance from religious music to sentimental or dramatic. Again, there was a shift from active vocal worship to passive listening. Lastly, there was an awakening interest in instrumental music as opposed to choral music both by the composers and the people. The result again of these changes was a shift from congregational singing to the use of the choir. In fact, the ritual of the Established English church – once Reformed – required the use of trained choirs.

On the European continent the rise of Pietism accomplished the same changes for the worse. This phase of religious activity emphasized emotional feeling and enthusiasm in worship. Again, to bring about these ends, the choir was introduced and the famous composers of the day competed to produce elaborate music for these choirs.

From those days until the present, the decline continued. There was the rise of Independents in England whose music was formulated by the Wesleys and Isaac Watts. There was the growth of these and other churches in the United States; always accompanied by great use of the choir and small congregational singing. Modernism flourished along these same lines from its beginning in the seeds of the French Revolution.

From this elaborate historical background, we can only draw the conclusion that the use of a choir in the church service is detrimental to the worship of the church. There is a two-fold action involved here. The use of a choir detracts from the rightful individual participation in the worship service and the choir has a tendency to draw interest which should center on the Word which is preached.

We think it significant that among us as Protestant Reformed Churches the usage of choirs in our church service is not common.