Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'The Church of Christ Cannot Be Bound'

History of Hymns: 'The Church of Christ Cannot Be Bound'

By Carolien Tantra

Adam Tice 72px
Adam Tice

“The Church of Christ Cannot Be Bound”
by Adam Tice
Voices Together, 392

The church of Christ cannot be bound
by walls of wood or stone.
Where charity and love are found,
there can the church be known.*

*© 2005 GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Christians in some countries, especially those in the Global South, where Christianity is a minority faith, may not have the privilege of having church buildings. These Christians may experience persecution or difficulties in building and worshiping in a church building. The hymn, “The Church of Christ Cannot Be Bound,” penned by Adam Tice, may become a powerful pastoral encouragement for those congregations.

A Mennonite minister of the Mennonite Church USA, Adam M. L. Tice (b. 1979), was born in western Pennsylvania and grew up in Alabama, Oregon, and Indiana. He was named a Lovelace Scholar by the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada in 2004 and was a text editor for the 2020 Mennonite hymnal Voices Together. Currently, Tice works with GIA Publications, Inc. as an editor for congregational song. His hymns have appeared in many recent hymnals, supplements, and choral settings. Several hymns have also been translated into Spanish, Japanese, Dutch, and Swedish.

A quotation by Mennonite leader Menno Simons (1496–1561) became the primary inspiration for this hymn text. Simons’ statement in 1539 declared that the true evangelical faith could not lie dormant. True evangelical faith must be revealed to those who need it—the homeless, the hungry, the wounded, the sorrowful, and those in poverty. Thus, faith becomes all things to all people.

“The Church of Christ Cannot Be Bound” won the 2005 Macalester Plymouth United Church hymn-writing contest, which called for texts dealing with homelessness and poverty.

The words “The church of Christ cannot be bound” in stanzas 1 and 5 recall I Peter 2:5-6. Tice gives a broader understanding of the meaning of a church in these stanzas. A church does not only mean a church building; the church here also refers to a holy people (1 Peter 2:9), the Christians who belong to Christ. Thus, the meaning of the church cannot be bound by any place but is known by its presence in the world.

The impact of the church’s presence can be known when the church lives and practices charity and love. The Latin chant, “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est” (where there is charity and love, God dwells with us), became Tice’s second inspiration, alluded to in stanzas 1 and 5. This chant was used for the early Latin office hymn in the Maundy Thursday liturgy and is associated with the ritual of washing the feet.

Stanza 2 echoes the pastoral message in James 2:17–18, stating that true service to those in need becomes the genuine witness of the true Christian faith. This kind of service was exemplified in Jesus’ ministry when he washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:6–15).

Stanza 3 points out that true love is integral to the practice of justice. The words “true love and justice” may allude to Micah 6:8, which says that love and justice are the Lord’s requirements for each Christian as God’s church. A Christian should show mercy, hospitality, and compassion by welcoming and receiving those in need—the homeless.

In stanzas 2 and 3, the author repeats the word “true” four times (anaphora) as an adjective for four virtues—faith, service, love, and mercy. These define and provide a clearer understanding of the calling of the church of Christ and that Christians are not bound by a building. The church shows its true virtues by loving, opening its doors, serving, and sharing with others.

Stanza 4 differs in form from the other stanzas, emphasizing the Mennonite Church’s ministry and practice and the goal of all Christians—ministry to others. The church becomes a neighbor to others through selfless deeds. Thus, the church of Christ can be felt and known when it shares with and cares for others.

The hymn employs Common Meter (, a concise meter requiring the poet to address a topic succinctly. In most hymnals, this hymn is primarily paired with McKEE by African American composer Harry T. Burleigh (1866–1949), although a few hymnals use ST. PETER by Alexander Reinagle or AZMON, a tune composed by Carl G. Gläser and adapted by Lowell Mazon. The hymn follows a typical strophic form with four-part composition. McKEE employs simplicity in rhythm (with the lively addition of syncopation near the end), melody, and harmony to serve as a vehicle of expression for the feelings of the faith community. MCKEE’s engaging melody sounds pentatonic in the opening two systems but becomes Mixolydian by the final cadence. Contrary and oblique motion is favored between the outer voices, while the engaging and singable inner voices are employed.

McKEE is Burleigh’s most well-known congregational hymn, which he adapted from an unnamed African American spiritual. Burleigh was a singer, composer, and the second fellow of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada in 1944. He composed 250 songs, several festival anthems, and compositions for violin. McKEE was named in honor of Elmore M. McKee (1896–1984) in 1939, a rector of St George’s Church, New York City, where Burleigh served as a baritone soloist in the choir. This tune was first published in J.B.T. Marsh, The Story of the Jubilee Singers with Their Songs (London, 1876) and adapted for use in The Hymnal 1940 (New York, 1943).

Concerning the hymn’s reception, Tice noted, “It has delighted me to see Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Reformed hymnals include words inspired by Menno Simons. Congregational song is really an ecumenical mixing bowl.” This hymn was first published in the author’s collection Woven Into Harmony (2009). The first hymnal that included it was Celebrating Grace (2010). In addition to Voices Together (2020), additional hymnals include Lead Me, Guide Me, 2nd ed. (2012), Glory to God (2013), and Total Praise (2011). An arrangement for choir and congregation by Marty Haugen (GIA Publications) is available at The Church of Christ Cannot Be Bound | Arr. Marty Haugen - YouTube.


Carl P. Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).

Brian A. Moon, “The Old Songs Hymnal: Harry Burleigh and His Spirituals During the Harlem Renaissance” (Ph.D. thesis, Graduate School, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, 2006).

Teresa L. Reed, “Harry T. Burleigh,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/h/harry-t-burleigh (accessed December 29, 2022).

Adam M. L. Tice, “Biography,” blogspot, https://adammltice.blogspot.co... (accessed January 10, 2022).

Adam Tice, Woven Into Harmony (Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2009).

Lester A. Walton, “Harry T. Burleigh Honored To-Day at St. George’s” (reprinted from the clippings file at the Schomburg Library, New York, 30 March 1924) in The Black Perspective in Music 2, no. 1 (1974): 80–83, https://doi.org/10.2307/1214153.

Jack Zavada, “Mennonite Beliefs and Practices,” Learn Religions (posted September. 3, 2021), https://www.learnreligions.com/mennonite-beliefs-and-practices-700041, (accessed January 18, 2023)

Carolien Tantra teaches at Seminari Alkitab Asia Tenggara (Southeast Asia Bible Seminary) in Malang, Indonesia, where she is a lecturer and coordinator for the church music program. She is a candidate for the Doctor of Pastoral Music degree at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, where she studied hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.

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