The Three Songs We Sing

If your church is like mine you guys probably sing one kind of song. Everyone together. To God. Probably with instruments playing along.

At our church a “solo” is rare. And a capella? Never.

I started wondering why that is… So I did some learning. And now I have a head full of information no one else really cares about so, logically, I thought I should share this information with the entire world.

When Paul Said Sing

18Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. -Ephesians 5:18-20

The book of Ephesians probably wasn’t written to the Christians living in Ephesus, after all. (The words “in Ephesus” in the letter’s first chapter don’t appear in the oldest Greek versions.) The letter likely became known as “Ephesians” because the Church in Ephesus was probably the first to receive these words from Paul and then circulated them to the other Gentile churches throughout Asia. That’s a lot of people in a lot of different cultures getting the same advice (or is it a command?) about singing.

Ephesians is a practical letter, teaching new Christians basic doctrine (What do we believe?) and church practices (What do we do?). After talking about the need for Christians to be different from the prevailing culture around them in Chapter 4, Paul commands Christians to be “imitators of God” in Chapter 5. Christians are to live a life characterized by love lived out in generosity (5:1) and sexual purity (5:3-18).

Then music?

Seemingly out of nowhere, Paul tells Christians to sing to one another. But this advice is connected to the topic of purity, it turns out. Gentiles throughout Asia were often converts from pagan religions in which music often played an important part in worship. So did sexual acts with temple prostitutes or other worshipers. Paul tells these new converts to Christianity to be pure (stop the sexual immorality) but keep on singing…a new kind of song. Or, um, songs. Three songs.


The Greek word translated as “psalms” in our English bibles is psalmos. The word is commonly defined as “to chant or sing”. But psalmos originally meant “to touch” – as in touch the strings of a harp or lyre. Later, stringed instruments were called “psalmo.” Then, over much time, the word’s meaning evolved further to “a song sung with instrumental accompaniment.”

(Yes, my Church of Christ friends, there were instruments in New Testament churches.)

Psalms were songs with instrumental accompaniment sung by God’s people to God and about God and our life with Him.


A psalm’s lyrics could go in several directions. They could’ve payed tribute to the mercy and forgiveness of God, or thanked Him for deliverance from danger, or begged God for help in a time of need. But a hymn’s lyrics focused solely on the character of God: His inherent worth – regardless of what He has done, what we want Him to do, or what He will do.

Hymns were songs with or without instrumental accompaniment sung by God’s people to God and only about God.

Spiritual Songs

The Greek word here is ode. It originally meant simply “song.” Ode by itself could be any kind of song so Paul clarifies that the kind of song we’re to sing is spiritual. Spiritual songs are a broad genre – songs about God or any aspect of the Christian faith and experience. These are not songs sung to God but to God’s people, to remind, correct, teach, encourage…The congregation isn’t expected to sing along, but to listen.

Spiritual songs were sung with or without instrumental accompaniment by God’s people (a group or individual) to the larger gathering of God’s people about anything that benefited them spiritually.

So There

Does this make some huge difference in your daily life? Um, probably not. But it gives all kinds of creative liberty to every Christian gathering.