Without a Song

It is hard to imagine a church without a song to sing, but for many years in history that was virtually the case. In the year 590 Gregory I came to the papal throne in Rome. And one of the things he did was to ban congregational singing in the churches of that day. It was thought that the official clergy was better qualified to do it. So, the priests sang, and the people became mere spectators.

But that is wrong. Singing is not just the province of some official group. For one thing, through Christ, each and every Christian has the status of a priest before God. Scripture says, "You...are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (I Pet. 2:5). "Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name" (Heb. 13:15). God's people need to sing! To Christians Paul writes, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs..." (Col. 3:16). We're to sing to one another. Singing the praises of God is to be an activity in which God's people can fellowship together, testifying to their mutual faith. The psalmist says the Lord has "put a new song in my mouth" (Ps. 40:3). How sad to silence that song. "Let the redeemed of the Lord say so" (Ps. 107:2)!

But congregational music was muted for nearly a thousand years, until the time of the Reformation. One of the major leaders of reform was an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther (1483-1546). He called theologians to debate with him whether the beliefs and practices of the church of his day were truly biblical. One thing that especially fueled the fires of his anger was the work of John Tetzel. Tetzel was appointed to raise money for a new basilica in Rome. To do it, he developed a fund-raising ploy that took many people in. Donate money and you will help to get your dear departed ones out of purgatory. (Tetzel gave them a letter of "indulgence," claiming this was so.) "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs," he chanted. Sad to say, many naive and gullible people believed him.

Not Luther. He called on others in the Church of Rome to debate with him. His list of issues to dispute were called "theses" (the plural form of thesis). He wrote up a list of 95 of them, and nailed it to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. (The church door was used as a bulletin board for church events.) The 95 Theses were posted on October 31, 1517, and that date is generally looked upon as the starting point of the Reformation. From there, it quickly gathered force, in spite of opposition. In 1529, at the Diet [Assembly] of Speyer, an attempt was made to silence Luther by force. Some evangelical German princes sympathetic to his cause stood to protest. It is their defense that gave the name "Protestant" to the new movement.

At this time, troubled on every side by his enemies, Martin Luther turned to the Word of God and found special comfort in Psalm 46. From his meditation on that psalm he composed words and music for a song that became the battle cry of the Reformation. "Ein' Feste Burg" became, in English translation, A Mighty Fortress. It begins, "A mighty fortress is our God, / A bulwark never failing; / Our helper He, amid the flood / Of mortal ills prevailing. "One of the great hymns of the church "A Mighty Fortress" has been translated into nearly every written language on earth--with over 60 different translations in English alone! Because of the courageous work of Luther and others, the church has not been left without a song.