Exclusive psalmody is the practice of singing only the Psalms in a church worship service. Some churches use the book of Psalms as the one-and-only hymnal for church congregations. Exclusive psalmody allows no extra-biblical songs. Churches ascribing to exclusive psalmody draw all lyrics to all their songs straight from the scriptural psalms. Various Reformed groups such as the Free Church in Scotland and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America adhere to this standard.
Christians are a people of song. One of the characteristics of being filled with the Spirit is to sing: “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:18–19). Music is a beautiful way to relate the gospel and teach fellow believers: “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Colossians 3:16). Christians express their joy in the Lord in song: “Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise” (James 5:13).
So we see that singing heartfelt, grateful songs of praise is a command for the New Testament believer. A Christian’s song reflects his joy and is a vehicle of truth in imparting wisdom to others. The issue in exclusive psalmody is not whether a church may sing biblical psalms in their meetings (of course they are allowed to sing Scripture), and it’s not whether a church must sing the biblical psalms. The issue in exclusive psalmody is whether a church must sing only the biblical psalms.
Churches that teach exclusive psalmody view their position as biblical—since their songs are all inspired Scripture—and in keeping with tradition. By singing only the psalms, they believe they are better able to please God in their worship. It is proper, they say, for worship of God to be directed by the inspired book of Psalms rather than by the uninspired words of men. God gave us a hymnal with 150 songs in it, and the church should not look elsewhere for their music. (We should note here that the exclusive psalmody position does not forbid the use of hymns and other songs altogether; it is only during times of corporate worship as a church that psalms should be used exclusively.)
While there is nothing wrong with singing from the book of Psalms in church—in fact, there would be a lot right with it—exclusive psalmody has some problems. First, there is no verse in the Bible that commands the exclusive use of psalms in worship. In fact, Ephesians 5:19 lists three types of songs that are proper for the Christian, with no restriction on using any of the types during corporate worship services.
It seems that the early church used music other than the psalms. Many commentators believe that early Christian hymns are found in the New Testament, e.g., Ephesians 5:14; 1 Timothy 3:16; and 2 Timothy 2:11–13. Also, the use of songs other than the biblical book of Psalms has been common throughout church history. Reformers such as John Calvin included uninspired hymns in the psalters they compiled. Some Reformers wrote hymns themselves—Martin Luther wrote several, including “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”—as did Puritans like John Bunyan.
Exclusive psalmody restricts the exercise of musical talent and writing ability from church worship services. A musician, gifted by God, is not allowed to use his or her gift in a church worship service, according to exclusive psalmody. Barring such talents from edifying the Body of Christ runs contrary to the purpose of the gifts.
Those who espouse exclusive psalmody seem to confuse what J. I. Packer calls the “essence” of worship with the “circumstances” of worship. The essence of worship is defined in the Bible, which commands the church to pray, teach the Word, sing, maintain fellowship, etc. The church has no right to change the essence of worship. However, the circumstances of worship are flexible. There is nothing in Scripture to dictate what kind of building a church must meet in—or even whether it must have a building. Churches have freedom in Christ to decide on the use of pews, stained glass, vestments, offering plates, musical instruments, and song type. When a group of people takes a circumstance of worship (e.g., the singing of psalms) and tries to make it an essence of worship, trouble starts.
Is a church free to sing only psalms? Absolutely. Is a church free to choose other songs, too? Yes. Rather than limit worship to the songs of David, Asaph, and others in the book of Psalms, we should allow the church to also “sing to the Lord a new song” (Psalm 96:1).