The Government Says We Can’t Sing! What Should We Do? (A Forum)

Article
11.19.2020

A pastor friend recently emailed me the following question:

Do you know of anyone who has navigated state mandates against congregational singing indoors? Washington state just outlawed it for the next four weeks, even though we are socially distanced and wear face masks in our (limited capacity) gatherings. They will allow one soloist and one instrument (but not singing along).

A little more background. Churches can meet outside only if it’s on their own property, and we don’t really have space. Legal action seems pointless given that it’s only four weeks. So it seems like the only two options we have for the next four Sundays are to rebel or comply.

All this feels like overreach. What do you think? Wave silent praise flags along with the soloist?

Pastor from Seattle, Washington

I forwarded his email to a number of pastors. A few of their responses are below. I conclude with my own convictions at the end.

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Rebel. That’s insane. Churches can’t even rent an outdoor property or use the farm of a member? That’s the part that tells me the restrictions aren’t in good faith anymore.

Put that in your book!

Pastor Greg from Louisville, Kentucky

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My opinion is that no praise flags are needed. 🙂 If you believe that you are not putting anyone in danger by singing, then sing because the Bible commands you to do it. If you want to sing without making an appeal to other magistrates, then you are free to do so. The apostles were told not to preach and they kept on preaching (Acts 5:28). Passive resistance (singing) to the government’s overreach in this instance is perfectly acceptable.

Pastor Matt from Sandy, Utah

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I once guest preached at an underground church in Asia where we had to arrive in a staggered way in order not to raise suspicions from the neighboring apartments. The order of service was very similar to what we do in Iowa. They asked us to sing quietly, almost at a whisper. So, a few questions: Has the state outlawed congregational readings and confessions as well? Maybe the congregation could whisper-sing almost just like reading? Or, if that was too close to singing, could the congregation quietly speak the words along with a singer up front so they don’t break the request?

Pastor Noah from Des Moines, Iowa

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We have clear commands from our Lord what to do when we gather: pray, preach, read Scripture, and sing. The regulative principle might be helpful when thinking through this. What if the government said, “No baptisms”? What if the government said you can sing and pray but you can’t preach when you gather?

Maybe there’s a way you could mitigate the risks of singing by the direction of the seats? If you decide not to sing, maybe you could do corporate readings, where you read Scripture or a creed together in unison. It’s not as powerful as singing, but does have some unifying aspects in it.

Pastor Will from Duhok, Iraq

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Here in the United Kingdom, singing with or without masks has been discouraged by the government: according to guidance, it is something which should be avoided, especially with any volume. In the recent second lockdown, in which gathered worship has been prohibited, it is obviously one of the prominent casualties. Different congregations have taken different tacks, and some of that has depended on their capacity to gather in the first place. Most churches I know were committed to congregational singing, so the idea of a soloist or small group is not satisfying. For many, the command to sing congregationally makes any kind of accommodation not just unpleasant but unconscionable. Some have been willing to go with the social distancing in the building and just sing. Since most of us felt that we had very little reliable information about the virus and its spread and impact, the challenge has been to assess the legitimacy of the risk posed by congregational singing at close range, and what that means in terms of loving our neighbour.

For churches able to gather, some have concluded that singing quietly (masked or otherwise, in a well-ventilated space) is an acceptable compromise. But they’ve also noted that the singing tends to get louder and more definite with every hymn and week that passes.

Other churches go for “congregational readings” to retain the congregational element, concentrating on the substance of what is being read. It challenges us to think about whether we are more influenced by how we sing or by what we sing; and we want to retain that emphasis on the spiritual substance of our songs. Using readings as a substitute for singings enables us to focus on the “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Eph 5:19) and also “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col 3:16). This solution is not entirely satisfactory, but there some good lessons within it. In truth, the medical risk of everyone reading aloud was probably at least as great as everyone singing quietly, but it keeps us within the letter of the law.

Some of us who are willing to accept the restraints indoors will go outside at the end of our gatherings (assuming we have the space) and sing properly, albeit remaining “socially distanced.” One advantage of this is those who feel physically vulnerable or conscientiously constrained from participation have the liberty to refrain. It has both the benefit of being a very public witness but also the risk of being seen as publicly rejecting the restrictions (whether or not those churches felt that they were singing in a way that again acknowledged the letter of the law).

Pastor Jeremy from Crawley, United Kingdom

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What do we do when we can’t sing? There are around 90 exhortations in the Bible to sing! So are we disobeying God in order to obey our governing authorities? No. Here are few reasons why:

1. We think the restriction not to sing is reasonable/legitimate given the government’s responsibility to attend to public health. We are not scientists or doctors. So, in humility, we should listen to health officials. We also want to protect the sheep

2. The ban is temporary. It won’t last forever and we should be patient.

3. When we aren’t gathering at all, we didn’t think we were disobeying the command to gather (see Heb 10:25), but were submitting to providential hindrances, just like someone who is confined to a nursing home. Likewise, we regard our not singing right now as a providential hindrance.

4. Singing is not commanded in the New Testament in a way that makes not singing in every single instance a sin. Rather, the biblical commands require singing as a regular practice. Therefore, if someone regularly refused to sing under normal circumstances, then I would challenge them.

So, while we submit to our God-ordained government and temporarily abstain from corporate singing, what do we do? Think of how God has given us five senses. We know that when one fails, the others increase. Likewise, we’ll ask the music team to sing and play. As they do, we can all work hard at the following:

1. Listen. To the words of songs as they are read out loud with fresh ears, undistracted from your own singing. “Tune your heart” and hear the truths that we sing, preach, and pray with a new perspective.

2. Look. Look around the room and make eye contact with others. Address one another. (Eph 5)

3. Pray. Pray for the Spirit to plant the truth in our hearts and minds. Pray for those around you. Pray for those leading and the moms of the crying babies.

4. Move. Clap on the second and fourth beat. Raise a hand to say, “Yes, I am in!”

5. Meditate. If you combine the previous four points, I believe you will be filled up to overflowing with praise and thanksgiving, motivating you to love God and others more!

Pastor Drew from Albuquerque, New Mexico

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I believe the mandates banning congregational singing overstep the authority God has given government. A government has no authority to prohibit corporate singing in the worship of God. Advise and counsel? Make the case medically? Sure. But command? No. When the state oversteps like this, each church has the freedom to consider how it should respond.

We have sought to consider the California state’s health orders and do what we believe is reasonable, but we won’t stop singing just because they ban it. We might reduce it or distance ourselves from one another, but we won’t remove an element of worship because the government says so. We view that as usurping our Lord’s authority in the church, and we should not adhere to this.

Pastor Robert from Sacramento, California

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A few months ago I consulted an older pastor whom I respect and have learned from over the years on this question. He turned the question on me. I quickly quoted Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:19, and Psalms 96 and 105:2. Since I feel that this is a command and part of a regulative worship principle, I said, “If faced with this choice, we will obey scripture and not comply with such a request.”

He replied, “Well brother, I think you may be more of a principled man then me.” He explained that his church would comple and not sing, yet if his congregation happened to burst out in spontaneous singing, he would not try to stop them. We laughed and agreed that it would be something indeed—to have them collectively sing even though we weren’t leading them and that we would all join in singing at that point.

Then he said, “Brother, even though this seems like a long time we are struggling through this [he held up his two hands about an inch away from each other], it is only a short time I’m comparison to all eternity.” It was refreshing to hear his perspective. And yet here we are some three months later and I am faced with this exact decision.

We have an elder meeting tomorrow night to discuss all this, and I find myself being even further “principled” on this issue. Scripture tells us that singing is not only an appropriate response but acceptable worship and necessary for the assembled gathering of God people. Therefore, we will we will comply with the requirements for masks, social distancing, and limited-sized gatherings, but we will not comply with the mandate not to sing.

This older brother helped me think critically about this and hear an opposing view graciously, and this gave me more confidence that I can lead our church with a clear conscious and conviction in the direction we are going. The truth is that I’ve been ready to answer this question since that day. It is a real blessing when pastors can interact and challenge each other as iron sharpens iron.

We will not advertise our decision to sing but we will not shrink back from answering why we have decided to sing if asked.

May the Lord be gracious to his people in the days to come. We can trust him.

Pastor Dave from Vancouver, Washington

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This is Jonathan speaking again. What’s 9Marks’ response to this question? There’s no official 9Marks position. For myself, I believe a narrow window exists in which a church can decide to refrain from singing without sinning, yet the decision to refrain may or may not be wise. To unpack that . . .

1. There’s some flexibility in obeying positive commands.

An asymmetry exists in what it means to obey negative commands and positive commands. It’s always a sin to break a negative command like “you shall not steal.” There is however at least some flexibility on how and when we fulfill many of Scripture’s positive commands. God’s command to “Be fruitful and multiply,” Paul’s instruction to “Do good to everyone,” and even Jesus’s “Make disciples” speaks to actions that should generally characterize our lives. But these commands don’t specify precisely how and when we should do these things. Doing them depends upon a host of circumstances, such that no one would say we’re sinning for not doing them every second of every day, or even upon every occasion we could fulfill them. Most Christians would not say a married couple who decides to stop having children after having several is being disobedient to Genesis 1:28. And what about the single person? Is he or she being disobedient to that command?

Likewise, the command for churches to sing in passages like Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 means that singing shouldcharacterize the general pattern of a church’s gatherings. But it’s not clear to me that a church is necessarily sinning if it refrains temporarily from singing due to various kinds of providential hindrances. To put this another way, one might decide that a government has no authority to ask churches to desist from singing, and that we are free as sons of the kingdom to disregard such mandates, but still decide to refrain from singing temporarily “so as not to give offense” to the kings of the earth (Matt. 17:25–27).

2. The government possesses some authority over publicly safety and health, but it’s not infinite.

I do believe the government has jurisdiction in matters of public safety and health. It’s therefore hypothetically conceivable that it can ask us not to sing temporarily. That said, the government’s jurisdiction in matters of public safety and health isn’t infinitely elastic and comprehensive. It’s at least hypothetically conceivable that mandates not to sing are unjust. For instance, China might have once argued for the need to control population growth and its one-child policy on grounds of public health, but that didn’t mean they were just in doing so. And different Christians are going to come to different conclusions about whether or not singing is real risk and whether the government can justly ask us to desist.

3. Wisdom cuts both ways.

Even if there’s narrow space in which a church can temporarily refrain from singing without sinning, it may still be wise or unwise to comply (see 1 Cor. 6:12). Elders should feel the weight of the patterns they are setting and the lessons they are teaching with their decision. Suppose you decide to comply with the mandate not to sing. Is there any chance the members of the church will mistakenly learn that it’s acceptable to submit our discipleship to Christ to Caesar, as if Caesar is greater? Is there any chance we would be missing an opportunity to say to the government, “You’re under King Jesus, and you seem to be forgetting that. Check out Revelation 6:15–17.” Are we missing the chance to say to our non-Christian neighbors, “Some things are scarier than diseases or the wrath of the governor, namely, the judgment of King Jesus”?

Suppose, however, you decide to sing, and the elderly member or the non-Christian visitor get sick. Or that news of your disobedience exacerbates the neighborhood’s opinion of your church—that, once again, you’ve prioritized your own interests rather than the interests of others. Questions of prudence always cut both ways. And love of neighbor does not always require the same thing.

To summarize, I’m not convinced there’s one right course of action for every church. I believe churches are free to comply temporarily with government mandates not to sing, whether or not one believes they have the right to offer such mandates. Yet every church and elder board will need to consider its own circumstances, consider whether or not they believe the government possesses such authority, ask God for wisdom, and sing . . . or not.

If the question comes to the elders of my church, perhaps I will encourage us to comply, but then conclude the service by singing the “Doxology” as our gentle way of reminding everyone who’s Lord.

Beyond all this, I hope this forum models the kind of grace-giving, conscience-respecting discussions you and your fellow elders should have as you work through these kinds of tough questions. In every instance of discussions like this, listen to the arguments both for and against, vote, and then submit to the majority’s decision, if you can.

Ultimately, each church must be persuaded by its best understanding of God’s Word.

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of Jeremy from the UK’s answer said that COVID directives there prohibit singing. In fact, they strongly discourage singing. His answer has been changed accordingly. We regret and apologize for the error .

By:
Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.