“Jesus loves me this I know. For the Bible tells me so.” While many of us can probably recite the words to this familiar little tune, I suspect fewer of us can with the same confidence recall where we first heard it. This is usually the case with any song you may have learned as a small child. You cannot begin to remember the circumstances under which you first learned the words to a song, but you can recall it with little effort, even to this day. That is part of the power of music.
It is no wonder that God would utilize music and song in the discipleship of his people. One of the largest books in the Bible is the book of Psalms. The 150 chapters of this book served as the songbook for the old covenant people of God. In fact, some Christian communities still utilize the Psalms as part of their corporate worship.
When we turn to the pages of the New Testament, the emphasis of music and song in the practice of the gathered assembly is no less prominent. Although the New Testament does not contain a songbook on par with the Psalter, it still recognizes the importance and need for music in the life of the church. One particular passage that comes to mind is Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (ESV).
Paul, writing to the Christian church at Colosse, commands the Christians there to “let the word of Christ dwell in [them] richly.” The “word of Christ” is the word that is about Christ and from Christ, which is none other than the gospel (cf. 1:5, 25). Paul goes on to describe the way in which the word of Christ is to dwell among the gathered community. He does so by way of three participles. The gospel dwells among the people of God richly through teaching and admonishing one another. While it may be tempting to take the first two participles separately, it is best to keep them together as they collectively describe how the gospel is to dwell richly among the saints. The particular way in which teaching and admonishing one another fulfills the command to have the word of Christ dwell among them richly is through “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” The list of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs notes the importance of song and music in the life of the church. While the three are not synonymous, they should be understood together to reflect the varied kinds of singing that would have been part of a typical worship service. These would have included songs from the Psalter, contemporary Christian hymnody, Spirit inspired singing, and Spirit enabled songs that spontaneously came to mind. All singing was ultimately directed “to God” and done in a spirit of wholehearted gratitude.
What may we learn from this passage about Christian education (discipleship) and worship? I offer the following lessons. First, nowhere in this passage or its surrounding context is it implied that the teaching and admonishing is solely the responsibility of a professional clergy. While a pastor (or better yet, pastors according to the New Testament model) is to be the head discipler of a local church, it is also the responsibility of every member to be engaged in discipling others.
Second, the way in which all members may engage in teaching and admonishing one another is through lifting their voices in praise to God. One does not need to lead a Sunday school class or small group to teach and admonish other brothers and sisters in Christ. Raising one’s voice in heartfelt thanksgiving to God is one of the means Scripture reveals that teaching and admonishing is to happen.
Third, this passage and those like it (cf. Eph 5:19–20) indicate that discipleship and worship go hand in hand. The link is found in the participles: teaching, admonishing, and singing. The use of music and song was particularly necessary in the life of the early church, since “prior to the invention of printing, hymns and songs were a necessary and invaluable means of implanting Christian teaching—and even after.” Discipleship is not something that merely happens in one-on-one meetings, or in small groups, or in one’s home with one’s family, but it is something that also can and should take place during corporate worship, which includes singing to God.
Fourth, because of the link to teaching and admonishing, one ought to take great care in singing gospel rich songs, songs whose lyrics are full of rich biblical truth. Remember, the Colossian Christians were to let the “word of Christ,” the gospel dwell in them richly. One of the ways this is done is through the songs of the gathered believers. This means we should take the time to use the best songs available to us. There are many songs that may be orthodox, but do not posses the richness of biblical doctrine found in other songs. Are we to strive for mere orthodoxy, or are we to look for and embrace what is best, particularly what is best for transferring the deep things of God through song to others?
Fifth, the leaders of a local church should take the time to think through the song selection for their corporate singing. They should evaluate the songs they sing. When we evaluate a song, we should ask questions like: What biblical doctrines or themes does this song teach? What biblical doctrines or themes are being overlooked or under appreciated through our song selection? Are their other songs that may better address a particular biblical doctrine of theme? Is this song intended for congregational singing?
Sixth, one should consider the many ways in which music and songs can be utilized in training others as disciples of Jesus Christ. Congregational singing is certainly one way, and perhaps the most natural way songs and discipleship go together. But there are other areas one may wish to consider. For instance, one may want to supplement one’s children’s education with doctrinally rich songs. One could take a particular biblical theme and find corresponding music that teaches that truth. Currently, we (my wife mostly) are teaching our girls some foundational biblical doctrines (Scripture, Trinity, Creation, Salvation, Church, and Second Coming) through Scripture memorization and hymns. Some of the hymns we are using are quite old, others are adaptations of older hymns, and one is a hymn composed within the last ten years. The reason we are using hymns as opposed to choruses are that hymns are almost always easy to sing, they are usually time tested and widely used in different church traditions, and they are far more doctrinally and biblically rich than traditional choruses. Our hope is that these songs will stick with our girls and inform their understanding of God and his Word and aid them in their Christian journey for many years to come. I can certainly attests to retaining many of the songs I learned in the church of my youth, and the way they continually assist me in my walk with Christ.
 James D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, NIGNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 237.
Keith Marriner joined LifeSprings in 2009 and serves as executive editor of all IPHC Sunday school curriculum. Prior to that he served at Emmanuel College in a variety of roles, including admissions counselor and adjunct professor in the School of Christian Ministries. He received a B.A. in Christian ministries from Emmanuel College and an M.Div. and a Th.M. from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is currently pursuing an Ed.D. in Christian Education from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Keith resides in Franklin Springs, GA with his wife Jennifer and their two daughters, Cora and Eleanor.