One of the greatest dividers in both society and in the church over the centuries has been music. Most people love music. It has become an almost essential part of our worship gatherings. It has become such an integral part of our services that when people perceive that it is not done properly it divides congregations, and denominations, and even households. My goal, here, is not to rehash the harsh history of worship wars. That can easily be found elsewhere. What I want to do is observe, as best we can in a short time (without an expository series or intensive systematic expose on the subject), what the Bible says about church music.
Since music is such a controversial subject in churches, I want to take a moment and mention, briefly, the biblical view on controversy. We find a key text regarding controversy in James 3:13-4:5:
Who is wise and has understanding among you? He should show his works by good conduct with wisdom’s gentleness. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t brag and deny the truth. Such wisdom does not come from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where envy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every kind of evil. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who cultivate peace.
What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from the cravings that are at war within you? You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your evil desires.
Adulteresses! Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? So whoever wants to be the world’s friend becomes God’s enemy. Or do you think it’s without reason the Scripture says that the Spirit who lives in us yearns jealously?
A simple exegesis of this verse reveals much about the human heart in the midst of worship wars. Most often, worship wars are not a point of contention regarding doctrine. Most often they are a matter of preference. Whereas there is much need to defend truth, most often the complaint regarding church music is not about doctrinal truth. People don’t like a style or the way something is done. It’s not only that, defense is made of the chosen music or the chosen way of doing things based on either the preferences of the musician or what the musician believes to be the preferences of the society that the church is trying to reach.
The wise man, both in the midst of the congregation and from the stage, will conduct himself with wisdom and gentleness while selfish ambition on either side (pursuing personal preference) is itself enmity with God. So, biblically, there is no reason for worship wars in the church. On any basis other than that of sound doctrine, worship wars reveal our own heart condition and are likely the fault of the hardness of people’s hearts (both in the midst of the congregation and from the stage). The beauty of the Gospel is that we get to decrease- serving both the glory of God and the good of God’s people; and all of God’s people are called to be suffering servants with one another and to bear one another’s burdens. In our entertainment-driven culture, the fight over preference has revealed, again, the great depth of our depravity. When churches adopt the method of entertainment (even developing multiple services to please different groups), we fail to preach the message of the Gospel in the way that we do music.
Ironically, there is not much about musical stylings in the Scriptures. So, we must develop Biblical principles for church music inductively from the principles and examples given in the text.
In Deuteronomy 32, Moses is instructed to sing a song after the reading of the Law and to teach people this new song in order that the people might remember the Law, realizing the depth of their depravity through the singing of the song. It was to be a testimony against the people. The song was poetic, contained imagery, was intelligent, and made the gospel clear. The song promoted the humility of humankind and the glory of God. We might go forward to the Psalms, and look simply at Psalm 136. The 136th Psalm is repetitive in an artistic way. It is a song of thanks to God for His lonvingkindness. The words are intelligent and meaningful. They declare God’s story, the lowliness of humanity’s estate, and the glory of God. This Psalm is longer in verse (though not the longest) in contrast to Psalms like Psalm 150, which again glorifies God, proclaims the subjectivity of the creation to God. Because of our subjectivity, we are to praise God. No genre or style is ever listed. The hymns we have did not exist. Everything that has breath praise the Lord, with all sorts of instruments and even with dancing, in church and out according not to our preferences, but according to His excellent greatness.
It means something that our praise is according to the greatness of God rather than our own preferences. Do we see how church music sneaks in and causes us to commit idolatry? It is one of the easiest things to get caught up in and one of the most prominent forms of idolatry in the church today and for centuries past on this earth. When we are paying careful attention to how we walk in Christ, being filled by the Holy Spirit, we will “speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with our heart to the Lord, always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God.” (Ephesians 5:15-21). Our singing is part of the evidence that we are filled by the Holy Spirit. So, we can arrive at some principles for godly worship:
- Proper church music is a response to God’s excellent greatness, not our preference.
- Proper church music professes the humility and insufficiency of humankind.
- Proper church music professes the glory of God.
- Proper church music incorporates a variety of instruments and techniques.
- Proper church music serves the good of God’s people in declaring the Gospel again with gentleness.
- Proper church music is selected without regard to selfish ambition.
Much more about church music can be discovered through good exposition. This is merely a starting point as we seek to honor God in all things. Soli Deo Gloria.