Why Acapella Matters

Sometimes etymology (a study of word origins) reveals historical truths that modern speakers may have forgotten. Take for example the word acapella. Most people know that acapella refers to music produced by human voices rather than instruments, but do you know why it means that? Acapella is a borrowed word from Italian and literally means “in the style of the church/chapel.” The word points to a time when Christian music was exclusively vocal.

In the denominational world, it is rare to find churches which feature exclusively vocal music. This stands in stark contrast to literally hundreds of years of a practice so uniform that it fashioned a word in our language. Musicologist James McKinnon describes the history of music in the early church as follows:  
The antagonism which the Fathers of the early Church displayed toward instruments has two outstanding characteristics: vehemence and uniformity… The attitude of opposition to instruments was virtually monolithic even though it was shared by men of diverse temperaments and different regional backgrounds, and even though it extended over a span of at least two centuries of changing fortunes for the Church.[1]
 According to McKinnon, the early church was united in the practice of singing without instruments and spoke strongly against any other practice.

 So, what did early Christians see that modern religious people sometimes don’t? I’m going to suggest that they saw clarity, specificity, and exclusivity in the New Testament’s instructions. Let’s have a closer look at the two key passages of Scripture that establish our practice in worship.

 And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord (Ephesians 5:18-19).

 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord (Colossians 3:16).

Grammatically, the Ephesian and Colossian churches were both given just one imperative command in these readings, and, perhaps surprisingly, neither command features the word “sing.” The Colossians were commanded, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you,” which points to an important goal in singing which we’ll discuss in a moment. The Ephesians though were commanded, “Be filled with the Spirit,” and this speaks to something that ought to be at the heart of this study. At its heart, worship ought to be about yielding to God and drawing Him near (cf. James 4:8). It isn’t about what we want to do or experience, it's about what He “is seeking” (John 4:23). As we’ll see, God was very clear about what He was and is seeking in these two passages.

Surrounding these two imperative commands are a series of participles (verbs used as descriptive words) that show how one might go about achieving these commands: “speaking… singing and making” in Ephesians and “teaching and admonishing… singing” in Colossians. “Singing” of course is the part almost universally understood by those who would follow Jesus, but what do the other words reveal about Christian worship?

First, let’s consider the word “speaking.” Remember, early Christians were united in their practice of acapella worship. This word forms part of the reason why they were. Singing was to be about “speaking,” i.e., the communication of human voices. “Speaking” isn’t a word that describes what someone does with an instrument and can’t be achieved through an instrument. In fact, I’ve heard more than one visitor experiencing acapella worship for the first time say afterwards, “Wow, you can actually hear the words to the songs!”

“Speaking” in Ephesians is given an aim by the words found in Colossians, “teaching and admonishing.” Singing isn’t merely about making vocal noises or saying just anything. It isn’t even merely about speaking praise to God. Though “to the Lord” is found in both passages under consideration, there is nothing more God-honoring, nothing more Spirit-filling than taking God’s communication seriously and learning it to the point it dwells in us “richly.” God designed this act of worship not just to please Him through our praise or obedience, but to help us to know Him and His will for us better.

While speaking, teaching, and admonishing all build a case for acapella singing, possibly the strongest case for exclusively acapella singing is found in the word “making.” Though the five words we’re considering – singing, speaking, teaching, admonishing, and making – are participles rather than verbs, they still have some of the same features that verbs do. One such feature is that, whether in English or Greek, verbs and participles are either transitive or intransitive. A verb or participle is transitive when it requires an object to complete its action and intransitive when it doesn’t. Singing, teaching, speaking, and admonishing are all intransitive; the thought the words communicate is complete without any additional thought (e.g., “I was singing,” is a complete thought). “Making” on the other hand is transitive; it leaves you asking the question, “What is being made?”

To be fair, an argument could be made that the Greek word translated “making” is intransitive in some ancient readings and simply is a synonym for “singing.” However, the earliest uses of the Greek word show that it meant something more like the words “pluck” and “twang,” which would make the word transitive and also seemingly require some kind of stringed instrument as an object. You’ll note the word is almost universally translated as a transitive verb in English. Note though the object the following translations supply: “making melody” (ASV, ESV, KJV, NASB, NKJV, RV); “making music” (CSB, NLT); “make music” (NIV). Why doesn’t anyone translate it “pluck a stringed instrument,” or something similar? They don’t because an instrument is actually specified in the text: “in/with/from your heart(s)” in the above cited versions. God is literally calling us to pluck or twang the strings of our heart as we sing in worship.

Why did acapella matter to the early church, and why should it matter to us? It matters because God wants our musical praise to communicate His message through singing, speaking, teaching, and admonishing. Further, it matters because the only instrument God desires is the one He specified: our hearts. Let’s follow the lead of early Christians and seek to render to God in worship only that which He desires.
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org
[1]  James McKinnon, The Temple, the Church Fathers, and Early Western Chant (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1998), 69-70.

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