Ask anyone about the meaning of a capella and the answer will probably be something like this: “A capella means singing without instrumental music.” It may surprise some to know that a capella does not mean unaccompanied or without instruments and that it is not necessarily about singing.
However, when properly understood it does apply to singing and the most common application is to singing. The present essay is not to be a treatise on instrumental music, how it was used in the Old Testament dispensation and whether or not it is authorized for use under the New Testament. That of course is a relevant and important study on its own, one frequently addressed in sermons and in print. But that is not the point here. This study will be simple and direct, focusing upon the meaning and application of a capella.
Incidentally, it may appear in several different forms – a capella, acapella, or accappella – but the meaning is the same. The principal word is capel or capella, referring to a chapel or church. So a capella means “as in chapel, as in church,” that is to say, in a way that is appropriate and suitable for use in the church. Some view the building or meeting place of Christians as the chapel or church, so for them a capella would mean suitable for use in the “church building.” This is not correct. The church is the people, the Christians who are members of the spiritual body of Christ. This concept leads some to think a capella means suitable for use in a congregation or assembly of Christians in a “worship service.” But Christians are the church even when not meeting, congregating or assembling in one place, even when not worshiping together. So we may see a capella as meaning suitable for the church, suitable for Christians as members of the church, proper for members of the church both individually and collectively, both privately and publically.
SOME VALID APPLICATIONS
Singing of hymns and spiritual songs should be a capella – as in chapel/church, once universally understood as unaccompanied vocal music. But now it is has almost universally lost its meaning of as in church and is used only to mean unaccompanied.
There are two purposes for singing of religious or church-related songs. First, as meaningful expressions directed to God. Songs can be an activity of worship to God, to offer praise to God, to thank God or express gratitude and devotion to Him, or otherwise declare His glory and praise-worthiness. Worship is a contraction of worth-ship, indicating and acknowledging that the Lord is worthy of praise and devotion and service.
The second purpose of Christian singing is to teach and admonish one another (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). Only songs that can be directed to God or used to edify each other can be a capella, suitable for use in and by the church. Songs that are not directed to God or not for edifying others but instead are for entertainment, mood control, or merely for expressing personal feelings cannot be a capella, suitable for the church – not even when they are unaccompanied, when no instruments of music are used.
The fact that most people assume a capella means without instrumental accompaniment reflects the truth that for several hundred years after Christ, people understood that singing a capella, as one would in the church, required using the voice only. Church music was only vocal. When did that change, and by what authority was it changed? It may have been authorized by a corrupt church and may be widely accepted by corrupt churches, but it has never been authorized by God and cannot be a capella, suitable for use in the church of the Lord.
Let us go further with the application. Preaching should always be a capella – suitable for the church of the Lord, and for any others who may hear it. False doctrine or anything “contrary to sound doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:10) could never be a capella.
Platitudes and words that give false hope, invalid approval, permission, or even implied tolerance of something God does not authorize and accept could never be considered a capella. But words that inform, instruct, edify, and encourage in righteousness are a capella. Words that rebuke, warn and correct those in error can be a capella too, suitable for use in and by the church (2 Timothy 2:15, 3:16-17, and 4:1-4).
The partaking of the Lord’s Supper should be a capella – done properly for the church. The use of bread and fruit of the vine as a memorial to the sacrifice of Jesus, a proclamation of the participants as members of his body in fellowship with each other and with him is proper for the church (1 Corinthians 10:16-17 and 11:23-29). Replacing bread and fruit of the vine with elements that seem more relevant to modern minds is not a capella. Re-sacrificing or offering up Jesus as some claim to do is impossible. He was offered in sacrifice once for all, not repeatedly (Hebrews 9:27-28). Using some alchemy to transform apparent bread and wine into the same or similar substance as the literal flesh and blood of Jesus – called transubstantiation by Catholics and consubstantiation by their episcopal cousins in several denominations – can never be a capella.
It is a travesty of spiritual things and can never be suitable for the church. We should note that conjoining the communion of the Lord’s Supper with simultaneous singing, preaching, praying, a visual depiction of crucifixion, or other such activities may not be a capella either.
Honest prayers of Christians would be a capella, suitable for church. Insincere prayers, dramatic performance prayers, rote or ritualized prayers are never appropriate, either in an assembly of people or in private expression. There are certain prayers God will not accept or respond to positively, nor will He accept and bless those who pray them (1 Peter 3:10-12, James 4:3). Just like singing, and perhaps even more to the point, prayer must be “with the spirit and with the understanding also” (1 Corinthians 14:15).
It should be added that our giving should be a capella, an indication of our appreciation for the Lord as participating members of his church. Giving to support a church budget, giving to support a preacher or ministry, benevolent gifts to meet unscheduled or unbudgeted needs as they arise, and many similar things may or may not be done a capella but they certainly should be. A capella giving will be purposeful and planned, according to one’s ability (prosperity means what one has, and not merely what one has received recently), freely and not of constraint. Our giving should be to God; our gifts to God are part of our worship of God. We may give to the church and to other persons or works, but it is still first to God and then to others according to our understanding of the will of God (2 Corinthians 8:5).
All our activities of worship – singing, praying, communion, giving, sharing of God’s word, and everything else that can properly be called worship – must be a capella. If they are not a capella, they will not be accepted by God, not pleasing to God.
Things done to entertain or patronize or please the people can never be a capella – suitable for church. We are instructed how to conduct ourselves in the house of God, not only when assembled in a meeting place but everywhere, as members of the church of the living God (1 Timothy 3:15). One’s behavior at all times and in all places – one’s entire life and way of life (Philippians 1:27) – should be a capella, suitable for and becoming to Christians in the church of the Lord.