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A Singing Woman is a Preaching Woman

Introduction

When one considers the often-debated question of leadership roles in the church the

idea of hymnology does not usually come to the forefront. The typical theological literature

surrounding the topic of women in ministry tends to drum up the same old proof texts to

defend a particular position of the writer. The arguments tend to center on either the idea of

the submission of women (typically tied to a cultural setting and the questions arising from

it), the biblical creative sequence (i.e. whoever was created first is in charge) or to some

general principle of freedom. Instead of rehashing arguments that have not had adequate

closure for centuries this essay seeks to look at the role of gender and leadership from the

common perspective of the church’s practice of singing hymns.

John Stackhouse states, “…women frequently have sung solos from the pulpit or

platform of the church, leading some to wonder if they would have been allowed to preach de

facto if only they would have set their sermons to music.” 1 Stackhouse has hit on a key

element of church praxis, and one this composition will explore: singing as an act of

preaching. First, a discussion of the biblical phrase, “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” will

be offered. Secondly, an examination of theological themes in both biblical and classic

hymns will be presented. Third, an argument will be presented demonstrating that the

practice of singing hymns places women in the role of preacher. Finally, some concluding

remarks will be made regarding the implications this study has on the idea of women being

permitted to preach in the church.

A Study of the Biblical Terminology, “Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs”

“Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. 2

1 John Stackhouse, Evangelical Landscapes: Facing Critical Issues of the Day (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 124.

2 See Ephesians 5:19a and Colossians 3:16 (Emphasis mine)

A literal look at this passage may bring the reader to assume there are three types of

songs mentioned by Paul. The first song is referred to as a “psalm.” Psalms were already a

standard Jewish form of offering worship to God. 3 Paul uses the Greek noun ψαλ µός, which

is a derivative of the verb ψάλλω that means to “pluck or pull out.” 4 The action of plucking

or pulling out seems to refer to a use of a stringed instruments, likely a harp. Therefore, a

psalm was likely sung with the accompaniment of a harpist.

The second type of song referred to are, “hymns” or quite possibly songs for liturgy. 5

Paul uses the Greek noun, µνος that carries the meaning of a song sung to “gods, heroes, or

conquerors.” 6 Some scholars view the idea of a hymn as a New Testament invention. The

New Testament church was born out of Jewish roots and psalmody. The church’s Jewish

converts brought their traditions into the fledgling church. As the church began to push

forward in its mission to reveal the kingdom to the world, Gentiles were converted. Gentiles

also brought into the church their own traditions of singing songs to the various deities in the

Graeco-Roman world. 7 A popular example was the “Hymn to Zeus” extolling his nature as

“Father” and the one who created all. 8 As the Jewish and Gentile church began to take shape

and form its own identity as the Christian church new hymns were written and sung in praise

to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The early church had drawn from its

3 Solomon Andria, “Colossians” in Africa Bible Commentary, ed. Tokunboh Adeyemo. (Nairobi: Word Alive Publishers Zondervan, 2006), 1456.

4 James Dunn, “General Guidelines and Practical Exhortations (3:5-17),” in The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 237.

5 Ibid

6 Blue Letter Bible. "Dictionary and Word Search for hymnos (Strong's 5215)". Blue Letter Bible. 1996-2011. 8 Nov 2011. <http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G5215&t=KJV >

7 Ralph Martin, “Hymns, Hymn Fragments, Songs, Spiritual Songs” in Dictionary:

Paul and His Letters. (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1993), 420.

8 Colin Brown, “Revelation,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Pri-Z: Volume 3. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 331.

sacred and secular roots in order to form its own contextualized form of hymnody and

psalmody.

The last song type recorded by Paul is, “spiritual songs.” Scholars seem to be a little

divided over the meaning of this terminology. Paul links πνευ µατικός, or “spiritual,” with

the act of singing a song implying the possibility of an “inspired song” or a spontaneous song

of praise. 9 Others scholars think these may have been songs articulated in tongues as the Holy

Spirit moved upon a believer. 10 Whether these songs were in tongues, or spontaneous

outbursts of praise in a known tongue, is secondary to the praise uttered from a redeemed and

thankful heart. 11

Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs became an element of edification and

proclamation. When someone sang a psalm, the fledgling church was reminded of its great

heritage. The writing and singing of hymns helped to give new expression for believers who

had found freedom in Christ. The spiritual song modeled a life of overflowing joy in the

Spirit. Not matter the style, songs became a vehicle to refresh the saints and pass along

Christian theology.

Theology In Song?

In reference to Colossians 3:16, N.T. Wright asserts the ministry of teaching and

admonition are to “be a part of a life of thankfulness that overflows into song.” 12 Paul seems

to connect the idea of teaching and admonition with the act of singing. This might imply Paul

was aware of the mnemonic nature of songs. When writing to the church at Philippi, which

consisted mainly of converted Romans, Paul employed song to express his Christology that

could be sung and easily put to memory:

9 Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, 239.

10 Andria, Africa Bible Commentary, 1456.

11 Cf. Ephesians 5:18

12 N.T. Wright, “Colossians and Philemon” in Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1986), 144.

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 13 14

No doubt this song, extolling the virtuous nature of Christ, was not lost on the Roman

influenced Philippians who had probably heard the “Hymn of Zeus.” However, this song

differed because it demonstrated a personal God concerned about the dilemma of His

creation. The song of Paul was unlike the “Hymn of Zeus” because it extolled the virtue of

the “all-governing law” of the universe and not the rule of Christ. 15 Therefore, within this one

song there is much theological material helping the reader or singer to glorify God and place

in his or her heart a proper Christology.

This letter is addressed to the church at Philippi, and there is no reason not to believe

it was also distributed among other churches in the region. Wainwright and Tucker affirm

that during the first two centuries of the church, forms of “ministerial chants” and “public

readings” would have had a “musical element” to them and a response from the congregation

(i.e. amen or maranatha) at the conclusion of the reading. 16 Consequently, one could deduce

the song of Paul would have been sung in other places assisting believers to inculcate a

proper theology of Christ. The idea of using song to teach theology evolved through the

history of the church and found its apex in the hymns of the Methodist movement.

13 See Philippians 2:6-10 (NIV)

14 See also Colossian 1:15-20 as an example of a Pauline hymn fragment

15 Brown, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 332.

16 Geoffrey Wainwright and Karen Westerfield Tucker, The Oxford History of Christian Worship (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 770.

Benjamin Crawford categorized a century of Methodist hymns by topics of church

doctrine. 17 His categories include the doctrines of God, of Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. He

also lists hymns that demonstrate the doctrines of man, the church, salvation and the

sacraments. All in all he lists eighty hymns of the Methodist faith that teach doctrine. Many

of these hymns have cross-pollinated to other Christian communions. Even the father of the

Reformation, Martin Luther, understood the value of preaching theology through song. His

hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” was written in 1529 B.C. and is still being sung to

this day and teaching the church that God is a “bulwark never failing.” Few would argue the

great hymns of the Christian church or the psalms of the Old Testament do not contain

theology. Most Christian churches in the world use singing as a consistent element of their

liturgy. Styles and forms of singing may be culturally varied, but there is singing nonetheless.

In the Pentecostal communion women are allowed, even encouraged, to sing songs from the

pulpit, the congregation and the platform.

An Argument From Praxis Demonstrating the Hypocrisy of Permitting Women to Sing

But Not Preach

Singing has been and still is part and parcel of the Christian liturgy. Frequently,

during the liturgy, women are called upon to sing hymns or other songs. One might infer the

singing of Christian songs is also an act of Christian preaching. Random House Dictionary

defines preaching as, “to proclaim or make known by sermon (the gospel, good tidings,

etc.).” 18 If, the song selected and sung contains the good news of Christ’s salvation, then by

definition the song is also a sermon. Consequently, if a woman is permitted to sing the song,

she is also by definition preaching.

17 Benjamin Crawford, Our Methodist Hymnody (Carnegie: Carnegie Church Press, 1940), 178-80

18 preaching. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/preaching (accessed: November 09, 2011).

Paul’s exhortation to the church to make use psalms, hymns and spiritual songs does

not contain a gender bias. The implication is that when the whole church comes together the

whole church worships together as well. That is, men and women equally offer praise to God.

In the case of “spiritual songs,” one might argue that supernatural gifts were being

manifested. Since no gender bias is apparent then not only are women singing but perhaps

participating in exercising spiritual gifts.

If one adheres to the Pauline statement, “it is a shame for women to speak in the

church,” then those evangelical churches that let women sing, but not preach, are walking in

hypocrisy. 19 Stackhouse asserts, “…the apostle’s apparent silencing of women should have

forbidden public singing of any kind.” 20 The tone of his statement is one of sarcasm, not an

endorsement of silencing women. His point is well taken and correct. He also seems to imply

the act of singing is also an act of exercising authority by women in the church. 21 If a local

congregation or denomination holds, as a fundamental truth that women must not preach,

then it should follow through completely and silence women in every area. On the other

hand, the congregation or denomination could (and should) recognize that even in song

theology is being presented; and as such, admit preaching is being accomplished.

Conclusion

The Apostle Paul encouraged the church to speak, teach and admonish one another in

“psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” By doing this Paul intended the entire congregation be

participants - without exclusion. Songs written in the Bible and through history have

contained much theology that edified the Church. Throughout history women have been

permitted to sing these theological songs. Because these songs proclaim the good news of the

kingdom, they are by nature and definition an act of preaching. Therefore, women who are

19 See 1 Corinthians 14:35b

20 Stackhouse, Evangelical Landscapes: Facing Critical Issues of the Day, 125

21 Stackhouse, Evangelical Landscapes: Facing Critical Issues of the Day, 124

permitted to sing songs should not be restricted from also speaking theology from any point

in the church.

Bibliography

Andria, Solomon. 2006. “Colossians” in Africa Bible Commentary, ed. Tokunboh Adeyemo.

Nairobi: Word Alive Publishers Zondervan.

Blue Letter Bible. "Dictionary and Word Search for hymnos (Strong's 5215)." Blue Letter

Bible.1996-2011.

<http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G5215&t=KJV >.

(accessed November 8, 2011).

Brown, Colin. 1971 “Revelation,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament

Theology, Pri-Z: Volume 3. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Crawford, Benjamin. Our Methodist Hymnody. Carnegie: Carnegie Church Press, 1940.

Dunn, James. 1996. “General Guidelines and Practical Exhortations (3:5-17),” in The Epistles

to the Colossians and to Philemon. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing

Company.

Martin, Ralph. 1993. “Hymns, Hymn Fragments, Songs, Spiritual Songs” in Dictionary: Paul

and His Letters. Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press.

preaching. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc.

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/preaching (accessed November 09, 2011).

Stackhouse, John. Evangelical Landscapes: Facing Critical Issues of the Day. Grand Rapids:

Baker, 2002.

Wainwright, Geoffrey and Karen Westerfield Tucker. The Oxford History of Christian

Worship. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wright, N.T. 1996. “Colossians and Philemon” in Tyndale New Testament Commentaries.

Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans.