I was asked today about congregational posture in congregational singing — that is, why we stand for some songs and sit for others in our Sunday morning service. That’s an interesting question, and although the nature of the song may have some influence on whether I have the congregation stand or sit while singing, what typically drives my choice is more practical in nature. On the one hand, it is generally agreed that standing while singing is a better posture for good vocalization. On the other hand, our church has chosen to project the text of the song onto the screen, and our ceiling is relatively low, so when the congregation stands, the screen is largely blocked for those who aren’t toward the front (hymnals are available, but as I would imagine is typical, few people use them when the text is on a screen in front; the text is printed in our bulletin, but the font is of necessity fairly small). So, while I personally prefer to have the congregation stand to sing, I typically have them stand for half the songs and sit for the other half. I try to have a more familiar song when we stand, and if I have a less familiar song, I tend to use it when the congregation is seated.
I allow practical considerations largely to drive my choice of congregational posture because I do not find a command in Scripture which enjoins a particular posture as the congregation sings. At the same time, it’s interesting that arguments have been made for one or the other position as more appropriate to the worship of God — and usually, when an argument is made, it favors the position of standing.
John Wesley, for instance, gives an extended contrast between the typical singing of churches in his day with the practice of the Methodists. The former, says he, are characterized by “lolling at ease, or in the indecent posture of sitting, drawling out one word after another”, while in Methodist gatherings were found “all standing before God, and praising him lustily, and with a good courage.” While not a formal argument, Wesley clearly finds sitting while singing to reflect (and perhaps to contribute toward) irreverence, and standing while singing more suited to the nature of the activity.
In 1880, J. Spencer Curwen published his Studies in Worship-Music, Chiefly as regards Congregational Singing, in which he discusses the question.
But most interesting is “An Admonition, printed by order of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, on the reverence required in Singing Psalms” from the late 18th century. It is brief and to the point, reproduced here in full:
In order to reform the custom, which has prevailed, of sitting while Psalms are sung in the Public Service of God, it is necessary to observe, that the Church has, in all ages, appointed the reverent practice of STANDING, in singing praise to God. It plainly appears from several passages of Scripture, that this was the practice of the Jewish Church*; and, whenever the Angels are said to sing praises to God (as in the visions of Isaiah and St. John†), they are represented as STANDING.
One of the Fathers (St. Basil), describing the practice of the Church in his time, says “The people, rising from prayer, STAND UP to sing PSALMS.” And as we STAND UP with reverence, in conformity to the Rubric, to praise God when the Psalms are read, we ought to do the same when they are SUNG.
* See 2 Chron. vii. 6.; Neh. ix. 5.
† See Isai. vi. 2,3.; Rev. vii. 9, 10. xv. 2-4.
A bit of Google searching reveals that this short piece was included in the preface of numerous hymnals produced thereafter. The quotation from Basil (the fourth-century bishop of Caesarea) is from his Letter 207, “To the clergy of Neocæsarea,” which was written in 375 AD in response to some who stood against him. What was the issue? “When they are asked the reason for this furious and truceless war, they allege psalms and a kind of music varying from the custom which has obtained among you.” Basil’s response is translated in NPNF as (in context, my emphasis):
Now as to the charge relating to the singing of psalms, whereby my calumniators specially scare the simpler folk, my reply is this. The customs which now obtain are agreeable to those of all the Churches of God. Among us the people go at night to the house of prayer, and, in distress, affliction, and continual tears, making confession to God, at last rise from their prayers and begin to sing psalms. And now, divided into two parts, they sing antiphonally with one another, thus at once confirming their study of the Gospels, and at the same time producing for themselves a heedful temper and a heart free from distraction. Afterwards they again commit the prelude of the strain to one, and the rest take it up; and so after passing the night in various psalmody, praying at intervals as the day begins to dawn, all together, as with one voice and one heart, raise the psalm of confession to the Lord, each forming for himself his own expressions of penitence. If it is for these reasons that you renounce me, you will renounce the Egyptians; you will renounce both Libyans, Thebans, Palestinians, Arabians, Phœnicians, Syrians, the dwellers by the Euphrates; in a word all those among whom vigils, prayers, and common psalmody have been held in honour.
So, while Basil does seem to include the idea of standing to sing as customary among the churches of God, he doesn’t seem to be emphasizing the posture as such, and if someone is resting heavily on this citation to prove that Christians ought always to stand while singing because it was common practice in the early church, then they had best be prepared to commit to nighttime corporate vigils and antiphonal singing as well!
More to the point, we should examine the biblical evidence which the SPCK piece gives:
[Standing while singing Psalms in the public service of God] plainly appears from several passages of Scripture, that this was the practice of the Jewish Church. [2 Chron 7:6; Neh 9:5]
In 2 Chronicles 7, Solomon’s dedication of the Temple is taking place, and at this time,
The priests stood at their posts; the Levites also, with the instruments for music to the LORD that King David had made for giving thanks to the LORD– for his steadfast love endures forever– whenever David offered praises by their ministry; opposite them the priests sounded trumpets, and all Israel stood. (2Ch 7:6 ESV)
Contextually, this contrasts with v. 3, where after fire came down from heaven and the glory of the Lord filled the Temple, “the people bowed down with their faces to the ground on the pavement and worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, ‘For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.'”
As well, in Nehemiah 9, during the renewed observance of the Feast of Booths, after the Israelites confessed their sins, and “stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God,”
Then the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said, “Stand up and bless the LORD your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise. (Neh 9:5 ESV)
It is interesting that in both passages, the standing to praise God follows (in one case) the reverent worship of God with face to the ground (a consistent position of homage to a superior), and (in the other case) the humble confession of sin, which contextually involved fasting, sackcloth, earth on heads, and doubtless (though unmentioned) some sort of humble posture (cf. 1 Chr 21:16; Isa 58:5; Lam 2:10; Jonah 3:6). In other words, while standing to praise God contrasts with something immediately previous, the contrast seems not to be between sitting down and standing up, so much as it is between the posture fitting for an activity of deep reverence or humble confession, and the posture appropriate for the glad praise of God.
The second line of biblical evidence which the SPCK gives runs thus:
whenever the Angels are said to sing praises to God (as in the visions of Isaiah [6:2-3] and St. John [Rev. 7:9-10; 15:2-4]), they are represented as STANDING.
The throne-room vision of Isaiah describes the angels thus:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isa 6:1-3 ESV)
It is of note here that the posture of both the Lord and his angelic attendants is specified: the Lord, exalted royalty, is portrayed as sitting, while “above him stood” the seraphim.
In the larger context of Revelation 7, and as background to that passage (and perhaps purposefully reminiscent of Isaiah 6], we find the Lord God Almighty (4:8) “seated on the throne” (4:2) and while twenty-four elders are also portrayed as seated on thrones, when they give worship to the Lord God Almighty, we find that they “fall down before him who is seated on the throne” (4:10; cf. 11:16). Shortly thereafter, we see “a Lamb standing” and this posture contrasts with the one “seated on the throne” (5:6-7), and the elders “fall down” before the Lamb as well (5:8), so that in the end they “fell down and worshiped” in response to what is said about both the Lamb and the one seated on the throne (5:14). In conjunction with this scene, we later come to the passage quoted in the SPCK piece:
9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Rev 7:9-12 ESV)
Again, we find an interesting contrast: the great multitude stands before the throne and praises God. The angels, likewise, are standing around the throne, but fall on their faces and worship God.
In Revelation 15, John sees
those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. 3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! 4 Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.” (Rev 15:2-4 ESV)
Now, these passages are not, strictly speaking, “prescriptive” (as we may think of that term); they do not command with an imperative that worshippers of God must assume one or another posture. But it is instructive that in this sampling of passages, if anyone is sitting, it is God! Worshipers—in these passages at least—are portrayed either as bowing or standing. What implications does this have for our worship services, and our singing praise to God?