The Zwinglian Option

You will have heard of the "Benedict Option" for coping with the culture wars. I would like to propose to Reformed Protestants the "Zwinglian Option" for ending the worship wars: eliminate all music from our public services. Zwingli, the outstanding musician among the Reformers, removed all music from the church in Zurich. We wring our hands over our worship divisions. The two ends of liturgical spectrum endlessly annoy each other. Think about it. Take away the music and we have little left to fight about. No more arguments about instrumentation. No more fights about types of songs. No more conflicts about the amount of time spent singing. Take it all away. No more music. No more songs. No more singing. This would be a very painful option for me personally. I love metrical psalmody. What is better than worshipping with a congregation that knows the Trinity Hymnal version of Psalm 51 to Redhead ("God Be Merciful to Me") or Psalm 146 to Ripley ("Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah") or Psalm 23 to Crimond ("The Lord's My Shepherd")? It would be an equally painful option because I love classic hymnody. What is more moving than a full house of worshippers singing "Holy, Holy, Holy" to Nicea, or "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" to Hamburg.

The loss would be significant, yet the gains would be abundant. No more heartburn for traditionalists when the bongo drums and tamborines are unleashed. No more inward groans when we sing a mediocre modern tune with mediocre lyrics as led by unordained "worship leaders." For the other side of the spectrum, we'd have to give up today's favorite contemporary praise songs and modernized hymnody. But think of what we'd gain: no more dreary old hymn tunes to dampen the spirit. No more funeral dirges to inflict on otherwise celebratory services. Remove all music and nothing is left to distress anyone.

Unity in worship

What would be left? Only that upon which we can all agree. Reformed worship in all its beauty and simplicity would remain:

  • a full-diet of biblical prayer (praise, confession, thanksgiving, intercessions, illumination, and benediction)
  • lectio continua readings of Scripture, or at least substantial readings
  • expository preaching, hopefully of sequential texts, taking congregations through books of the Bible, but at least of texts selected topically
  • regular administration of the sacraments

Who possibly could object to these slimmed down services? Can you not envision the happy result for those who move from one community to another, or those on vacation, as hither to unknown Reformed churches are visited, and nothing is found to complain about at the services?

Let's walk through such a service. A strong opening prayer of praise might be offered, followed by a chapter read from the Old Testament. A prayer of confession of sin with thanksgiving for pardon might come next. Perhaps a baptism might follow. Then the sermon text might be read followed by the sermon. Prayers of intercession followed by the benediction might end the service. What do we have? A simple, substantial, spiritual service. No one is jockeying for "their" music. No one is upset because the service is too light and frivolous or too heavy and serious. No one is uncomfortable because of the emotional restraint and staid postures of the old-schoolers or the emotional excesses and bodily movements of the new-schoolers. Our congregations are unified and at peace. Our denomination is unified at that most vital of times, the hour of worship. Everyone knows what to expect when he or she visits one of our Reformed churches. The solution to the worship wars easily is solved by the Zwinglian Option. No more music. No more singing. No more songs. Nothing remains to divide us. Music has become an idol that divides the church. Let us then smash it.

Genevan option

Is the "Zwinglian Option" too severe? I suspect many will consider it so. Let me then modify my solution to the worship wars by offering a second option, a tweaked version of the first: the "Genevan Option." The Genevan Option would be less stringent and more palatable for many. Let's restore the singing. However, we'll continue to eliminate the instrumentation as in the Zwinglian Option. No more musical instruments. All singing would be acapella. There, isn't that better? Don't for a moment think that this is unworkable. Reformed Protestants worshipped without instruments for nearly 300 years, which, by the way, is longer than we have worshipped with them. Our friends at the RPCNA will assure us that unaccompanied singing is the most beautiful of all church music. The human voice, after all, is the most beautiful of musical instruments. We'll get used to it, and for most people it will beat the Zwinglian Option. Unconvinced? You are thinking that we'll still fight over the types of songs that we'll sing? My answer is, yes and no. Without instruments to carry the song, the two extreme ends of the musical spectrum will quickly be eliminated. The contemporary music that is more suited to performers will prove unsingable for congregations without instrumental support, as will overly complicated classical music. This will push our song selection into the middle of the spectrum where consensus is more likely.

Or, we could go a step further with the Genevan Option and eliminate hymns along with instruments. This would not be my preference. Yet if we're going to argue about whose songs get sung, let's settle the issue by limiting our songs to the Psalms, metrical psalms. Again, this is not unprecedented. After all, this is all that Reformed Protestants sang in their public services until Isaac Watts and his contemporaries gained widespread acceptance in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Surely it would not be onerous merely to return to the dominant practice of our forefathers for the better part of 300 years.

There. We've done it. We have a way forward. We can reunite our divided churches by one of two paths, the Zwinglian Option or the Genevan Option. Plenty of latitude remains: we may or may not utilize the Creeds and the Ten Commandments ("lawful oaths") in our orders of services; we may administer the Lord's Supper weekly, monthly, or quarterly; a wonderful variety continues in our prayers, readings, and preaching. Plenty remains in our services to thrill the heart and feed the soul. They will continue to be God-centered, gospel-structured, word-filled, church-aware, and Spirit-dependent. The path ahead for us is clear. All we need do to restore church unity is give up our songs or at least our instruments, or at least our instruments and hymns. Surprisingly easy, isn't it?