When Not Singing Is Worship

We were leaving a morning chapel at Biola when my friend Daniel asked, “what do you think that line from the worship song we just sang meant?”. He was referring to the song “I am Set Free” and the climatic line, “it is for freedom that I am set free”. Daniel was right, it’s an odd sentence when you think about it. Thankfully it’s not an unwarranted worship lyric but one that comes straight from Scripture (Gal. 5:1). Still, what does that mean? We are gifted freedom for the purpose of freedom? What is this relationship between freedom and my response?

Recently I have felt this conviction to reexamine my understanding of freedom in Christ. This past week the governor of California made a decision to ban churches from congregational singing as the corona virus continues to spread rapidly. Now, I’m thankful for working at and being a part of a church that has made the wise decision to discontinue gathering together in an effort to keep people healthy.

Yet, in the past few days I have seen many Christians decry this order as a violation of religious freedom and our right to worship. I think this disagreement with the new order stems from multiple reasons but there are two major themes I see from this outcry. The first has to do with an American Christian misunderstanding of “freedom”. We read the word in our scriptures and assume the definition of freedom for Paul is the same American definition of “rights” and “liberty”. While I am personally grateful to live in a country that has constitutionally made efforts to give us freedom, I recognize that when our governmental documents say “freedom” it does not immediately equate to the Bible’s definition.

So if we go back to my friend Daniel’s inquiry, what does it mean to be set free for freedom? For the disciples of Jesus and the many devout Jews before them, the most important story in their Bible was the Exodus. God had rescued his people out of slavery and set them free. Quickly after, while still stuck in a desert, God made a covenant with them. They were free and yet they were called to obedience. Their freedom was a movement into a greater calling. Their freedom was not an opportunity to simply continue about their lives and seek their own desires away from slavery. They were to become a light to the nations, a beacon of hope to their neighbors.

Therefore, when the disciples and early followers heard Jesus and Paul speaking of freedom, this is the story that would be their framework. When it was said that Jesus’ death and resurrection set us free, they knew that meant a greater Exodus had arrived. Jesus had freed us from the slavery of sin so that we could become a light to the nations, a beacon of hope to our neighbors. This means our freedom in Christ is a freedom FROM something. From the very things that enslave us. We are no longer slaves to our own desires, wants, and the things that bind us. Our freedom in Christ is meant to enable us to serve. It’s quite the paradox! It’s why Paul can praise his freedom found in Jesus but also call himself a servant to Jesus. In Galatians 5:13, Paul warns the believers about misusing freedom. Paul says we use our freedom for the service and expression of love to others. In this moment, we are called to use our freedom to do something, by loving others and not putting them at risk. This is a unique time in our history. We’re in the midst of a pandemic! We use our freedom to ensure that others stay safe and if that means we must not gather to sing, then we are expressing our freedom rather than having our freedom suppressed.

The second reason I see for the outcry at the governor’s order is connected with where we place worship through singing in the list of what’s most important to Jesus. Singing is an important expression of worship (Eph. 5:19) but worship is not limited to just singing. If we limit worship to just singing than of course when someone says we cannot sing then yes, we might think “worship” as a whole has been banned. That is not so! Worshipping is more than singing. In fact, if worshipping is about bringing glory to God then NOT singing right now IS worship. Let me explain.

When Jesus was asked the most important commandment, he said it is about loving God and loving people. Jesus gave two answers to a one answer question. That means loving God and worshipping him is intrinsically connected to loving people. It is quite impossible to worship God while so clearly putting neighbors in danger. We are loving people by not putting them at risk. In Amos 5, God tells the prophet that when justice isn’t happening, when people are being hurt, put endangered by the very people singing hymns to him, God will plug up his ears. He won’t hear our songs. In God’s list of most-important, singing to him is certainly below caring for others. Therefore, we do worship God by not singing in congregation right now.

And I get it. This an insanely weird time where nothing feels normal. Each time something gets taken away it hurts. I long for the day we can gather together and sing aloud again. I trust that day will come soon. In the meantime, we find creative ways to worship and reshape our box for what church can be. Historically, the church has sought new ways to love neighbors, spending brain power, resources, and setting up ministries to love its community. We’ve been gifted with what might be the easiest way to express love. Wear a piece of cloth in front of our face and don’t sing in a congregation. This is love. We are expressing our freedom in Christ. Our freedom isn’t based on what a governor says or what a piece of paper declares but what Jesus has done and asks us to do: to love our neighbors and take care them and thus show love of Jesus. 

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