The Right Kind of Music: Why May Women Sing If They May Not Preach?
This is part of a series about my research on fundamentalist Christian music. Read the others here: Can Hymns Be Prayers?, Musical Form in Piano Hymn Arrangements, and Should Church Services Include Classical Music?
Many fundamentalists talk about solo singing in a church service as a kind of preaching. But even though fundamentalist women are not allowed to preach, they are allowed to sing solos in church services.
What’s up with that?
First, how is solo singing a kind of preaching?
Here’s what a few authors have to say about it:
[T]he same principles that apply to preaching apply to the way in which truth is sung. Both methods of presenting truth are important to the life of the Church, and with both presentations we must be concerned with form. In reality, sacred music is a form of preaching; it preaches to the heart through the head.” —Scott Aniol in Worship in Song
“First of all, the style of music will preach something. … Secondly, the words will obviously preach something. … Thirdly, the singer will preach something through his or her dress, mannerisms, body movements and vocal style.” —Mike Foster in The Spiritual Song
Second, what spoken leadership may women have in fundamental churches?
They are not allowed to preach. In most churches, they are not allowed to lead prayer (I’ve been told by a couple interviewees that they’ve seen this happen once or twice, but I’ve never observed it). In some special cases, they might be allowed to give a presentation, as might happen with a single missionary—but a presentation about mission work is qualitatively different than a sermon.
However, women can have speaking leadership roles in women-only spaces like a Sunday School class or retreat.
So, if women aren’t allowed to preach in the usual sense of the term, why are they allowed to sing solos in church services with both men and women in attendance?
Fundamentalist literature on music doesn’t address this conundrum.
When I asked interviewees, most acknowledged that, yes, it is a puzzle. But most folks seemed to have never thought about it before and could offer no reasons why. One person suggested that the singing kind of preaching doesn’t carry pastoral authority—for example, vocalists don’t usually tell people to repent— and that’s the material difference. But in most churches, women don’t even pray from the pulpit, so I think there’s more at play here.
If this were a different church group, I might think it has to do with the *sung* word being less examined, less thought-about than the *spoken* word. But fundamentalists DO think about music. A lot. (See my dissertation, forthcoming.)
I was talking with a friend about this, who suggested that songs are vetted beforehand, such as through the selection and editing processes of hymnals and sheet music. Sermons and prayers, on the other hand, are mostly or completely extemporaneous. So even if a woman is singing a song (or writing song lyrics), her words can still be subject to pastoral approval because she's not extemporizing them.
To me, that's the only compelling answer I've heard.
What do you think?