“When sophisticated members of the church insist that worship employ only the most sophisticated music of their own culture, what has happened to their love for those who are poorly educated or of a different cultural stream? Or, from the opposite side of our musical wars: when advocates of contemporaneity want to set the traditions of the church completely aside and replace them with something largely meaningless to the older generation, are they acting in love?”
The conflict over music and songs in the church has come to be known as the “worship wars.” There are many reasons congregations have a subtle or, at times, an outright conflict over the songs sung during the worship service. Some regard the issue to be over content. They maintain that newer songs or choruses simply do not communicate enough doctrinal information. Therefore, they are shallow and superficial. Others see the issue as one of music. Those who are younger and unchurched have difficulty with traditional hymnody because the music is far removed from that which they are familiar. Yet at the same time, those who commonly are older, along with those who have been raised in the church, find themselves quite at home with the old, familiar hymns and have difficulty with new songs to which they cannot relate. Still others see the issue in more moral terms—there is a kind of music that is pleasing to God and there is a kind of music that is sinful. They maintain that music is not amoral (non-moral). One type of music glorifies God, while other types are worldly, they would contend.
I hope to accomplish two things in writing this article. First, I want to lift high our doctrine and conviction of worship. I want us to have such a God-entranced view of worship that the issue of music simply becomes incidental. Music merely is a tool that facilitates our worship as we sing and teach each other in song of our great and wonderful God. I want us to be mindful of our worship music, but not consumed with it. And then second, I want us to see what the Bible says about church worship music. What does the Bible say we should sing? What kind of emphasis does the Word of God give to singing and music in the church? We should be just as narrow and just as broad in our convictions of church worship music as is Scripture.
I want us to specifically look at five things. First of all, I want us to revisit and regain a God-centered doctrine of worship. Second, I want to examine what the New Testament says concerning singing and music in the worship service. Third, I want to go back to the divinely-inspired Old Testament hymnbook, the book of Psalms, and examine the songs and themes contained therein. Fourth, I want to discuss the issue of worldliness and how that does or does not relate to music. And then last, I want to review Dan Lucarini’s book Why I Left the Contemporary Christian Music Movement: Confessions of a Former Worship Leader, which seeks to deny the use of any form of contemporary music in today’s worship services.
What is Worship?
John Frame has said, “Because God is who He is, worship must be God-centered. We worship God because He supremely deserves it, and because He desires it. We go to worship to please Him, not ourselves. In that sense, worship is vertical, focused on God. We should not go to worship to be entertained, or to increase our self-esteem, but to honor the Lord who made and redeemed us.” As we can agree with what Frame has said here, this is not to deny that worship is also beneficial to the worshippers as well. There is a vertical emphasis as well as a horizontal aspect in worship. The God-centeredness of worship and the benefit that provides to the believer is not contradictory, for it is the very God-centeredness of worship that blesses, encourages, and edifies us.
Since God is the focus of worship, it is no wonder then that He is the One who directs His worship service through His Word. In our corporate worship (as in our everyday Christian lives), God’s Word must take precedence over our own creative and innovative ideas. When we plan worship, we want to sit down and ask ourselves, “What pleases God?” And the only place to find the clear answers to that question is to go back to the Word of God. Terry L. Johnson writes, “What ought we to do in worship? What has God promised to bless? The reading, preaching, singing and praying of the Scriptures, along with the sacraments (ordinances) biblically explained and ministered.” Our church’s confession of faith, the 1689 Baptist Confession, spells this out in detail in Chapter 22. It is the Scriptures themselves that give us clear direction as to what God would have us to do when we gather in His presence.
The question we find ourselves faced with when contemplating the structure of the worship service is: What is the role of human planning? After all, there is no chapter and verse in Scripture which specifies what text is to be preached each and every Sunday, what songs (and how many) will be sung (along with page numbers), nor what specific things we will pray for or how long those prayers will be. The Bible does not tell us what time our services will start and end, when we will sit down and when we will stand up during the service, or how long we must fellowship one with another before and after the service. Scripture’s principles are always to some extent general; God leaves us to work out the details by our own Spirit-led wisdom within the general guidelines of the Word of God. God governs worship by His commands, but we are to apply those commands to our particular circumstances.
Music is certainly one of those areas in which God seeks to use the creative abilities of His people. Music in the church should be a very purposeful endeavor. Harold Best writes:
The main reason why musical appropriateness is such a weighty subject for the church is because the subject cannot be disconnected from central matters of faith and practice. The consequences of music making, therefore of choice and appropriateness, have eternal value. Everything done musically must be defended or critiqued theologically and biblically. Church music does not exist for its own sake; nor is it, as some would have it, just a tool. Nor is it part of a setup—half behavioral and half spiritual—for the allegedly more important activities of worship. Music is, in its own way, proclamation and as such is completely accountable. Musical appropriateness, therefore, is more than stylistic conjunction (or disjunction) or some sort of aesthetic politeness and propriety. It is first of all an issue of faith musically put to work, shown through discerning choice.
Scripture does not prescribe the use of any particular tunes for hymns, or of any particular musical style. However, we may conclude that music used in worship should be of good quality, appropriate to the texts being used, and meaningful to the worshippers. Other aspects of Scripture may be relevant to our choice of music, but we must make the specific decisions ourselves within those parameters and guidelines.
General Observations about Singing in the New Testament
Singing did not play a very important part in the New Testament Church. When we scan the pages of the New Testament, we find very little information concerning singing. So, what do we find about singing? Well, we have the command in Ephesians 5:19 that we should be “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord;” and we also have the parallel of this verse in Colossians. Also, there is a single verse in 1 Corinthians 14:26 describing a worship service where “each one has a psalm.” Now to my knowledge, concerning the corporate worship of the new covenant church, this is all the biblical data we have. And think about this: In the letters of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, Paul writes these to two young pastors, Timothy and Titus. In these letters, he instructs these young pastors in their priorities for the churches—right government, sound teaching, congregational prayer, the reading of the Word of God, and the care of widows and the needy. These are the things that the Apostle Paul considers vital in the life of the churches. And in all three of these pastoral epistles, there is not a single word about singing. As Jim Elliff has said, “For all the millions of dollars spent on buying equipment, paying music leaders, crafting multi-level music programs, training choral leaders, and building buildings that accommodate elaborate musical presentations, these verses comprise a very tiny pedestal upon which to rest such a large elephant as the music program of the church.”
Has the modern-day church and the “worship wars” given music an unbiblical emphasis in the corporate gathering of the saints? Would to God that we would be more concerned about prayer—at least, it seems Paul was. In every one of his letters, Paul urges the saints to pray. He urges them to pray for missionaries, to pray for leaders, to pray for authorities, to pray for the progress of the gospel, to pray for particular needs and problems, etc. Compared with praying (or preaching, or teaching, or caring for needy saints), singing just doesn’t have a high profile at all. And there is another thing that we must keep in mind. There are four major sections in Scripture that address the topic of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12-14, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, and 1 Peter 4). These gifts cover all sorts of areas: miraculous gifts, gifts of teaching, gifts of leadership, the gift of “helps,” the gift of giving and being able to contribute financially. And not once does he refer to musical gifts. We search in vain for a spiritual gift of hymn-writing, or composing, or singing, or playing an instrument, or conducting. Sure, individuals can have a natural talent in these areas that can be used for God’s glory, but we have to understand that it is natural talent and not spiritual gifting. When the Apostle Paul has listed out all the gifts he considers vital for the life of the body of the church, not a single one of them is connected with music.
Another place we might expect to see much made of singing and the corporate worship of the church is the book of Acts. Acts is the history book of the first-century church. In it, we see the explosion and dispersion of the early church by the sovereignty of God. The electricity and excitement and enthusiasm of the early church almost leap off the page as we traverse the pages of this book. So therefore, it’s striking that Dr. Luke never mentions the church singing. We have the account of Paul and Silas in jail singing a hymn, but Luke never refers to congregational singing. He tells us what were the key features of the Jerusalem church and the things they saw as vitally important. These key elements are summed up in Acts 2:42: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” There’s not a word about singing. As we step through the pages of Acts, we read about open-air meetings, prayer-meetings, “breaking of bread” services, a great inter-church conference (the Jerusalem Council), late night seminars, a commissioning service for missionaries—and yet there is no mention of singing!
Now please don’t misunderstand my point. I am not saying that singing is unimportant—far from it. We do have those commands in Ephesians and Colossians to which we must be obedient. In addition, we do have the example of the Lord Jesus Christ who sang a hymn with His disciples at the Last Supper (Matt. 26:30). And scholars and commentators tell us that there are hymns quoted in the New Testament. It’s crystal-clear that the New Testament church did sing. Also, the book of Revelation teaches us that we’ll sing in heaven! We must, shall, and will sing! However, my point is simply this: Singing clearly did not have a high profile in the New Testament churches. It was seemingly not a priority for the apostles.
The reason I have labored so much to point this out is because it cuts across so much of the thinking in evangelical churches today. In many churches, there is far more time given to singing than to preaching and teaching. Even when Christians use the term “worship” these days, they usually mean the singing part of the service. I’ve heard people say in the past, “Well, we did think about going to such-and-such church. The Bible preaching was really good and the teaching ministries of the church were good, but we found the worship was a bit boring.” What they mean is that the singing wasn’t to their taste and preference. And let’s face it—for many Christians this is a “deal-breaker.” The single most important factor that decides their choice of which church to go to this: “Is the worship (i.e., the singing) lively and contemporary? Is it the kind of music that I like and enjoy?” Contrary to this notion, I would submit to you that singing has been given a place of importance that is completely disproportionate to the New Testament teaching.
The Two Main Passages about Singing in the New Testament
I want us now to examine briefly the verses in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. These are parallel passages whose wording is very similar. First, Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Ephesians 5:18-21 state, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” Four points arise from these passages.
(1) There is to be singing within the corporate worship service of the church. God has commanded that we sing “to one another.”
(2) There is to be a diversity and variety in what we sing. In both passages, Paul speaks of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” What is interesting about these terms is that Bible scholars, linguists, and commentators are divided as to how Paul is using these terms. No one is quite certain as to how he employs those different names and where one is to draw the lines of demarcation between them. However, of what we can be certain, he is clearly suggesting that there is going to be a wide variety within the singing. Of the possibilities, I think that the best option is that when the Apostle Paul is speaking of the “psalms,” he is probably referring to musical pieces that modeled the Old Testament psalms (and probably some of the actual psalms). And musically, these were probably in more of a Jewish style. When he mentions “hymns,” he may be specifying musical pieces which were modeled on the hymns that were used in non-Christian worship in the Gentile world. In other words, probably musical pieces which were more Greek in style. And when he mentions “songs,” I think he is making reference to musical compositions that were modeled on the secular songs of the day—however now, written and sung with a God-centered, Christ-exalting focus, hence “spiritual songs.” So Paul expects there to be a wide variety of styles of music and songs in the churches. Elliff points out, “Whatever is meant by ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs,’ we may at least note that this was not a ‘hymns-only’ church, or a ‘psalms-only’ church…I take the view that these represent varying forms of music found in the church. Who would argue that an emotive Scripture praise song done by memory is usually more appropriate during a heartfelt prayer-time, than the singing of even such a great hymn as ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’? We need variety.”
Why is this relevant and important for us today? How can we bring this text forward and apply it to our lives today? I think the principle here is this: We must not restrict ourselves to what is familiar or fashionable to us. The majority of the people in the churches to which the Apostle Paul was writing would have been Gentiles brought up in the Greco-Roman culture of Asia Minor. And in that society, there would be certain styles of music and poetry that would be very familiar, normal, and up-to-date (i.e., contemporary). And Paul is saying in these twin passages, “Yes. You can take the recognized music of the culture in your day and age and adapt that music for Christian worship in your worship gatherings.” However, the Apostle Paul is also saying, “But you must also be singing the psalms.” In other words, you must not only relish and sing the music that is familiar to you, but you must also sing music that is unfamiliar. For most of Paul’s audience in the churches at Ephesus and Colossae, the style of the psalms would sound remote and old-fashioned; however, it’s vital (and commanded) that they should learn to sing those songs. The point here is the maintaining of the historical continuity of the people of God—the connection between themselves and God’s people, spanning all the way back to the times of the Old Testament.
For churches who sing only contemporary worship songs, they find themselves restricted to the poetic and musical style of a single generation. The songs have all been shaped by the fashions of the popular culture of the last forty years. Therefore, there is a “sameness” to the musical and lyrical themes that are handled. I believe this runs head-long against Paul’s exhortation here. On the contrary, leafing through the pages of an eclectic, traditional hymnbook, one will quickly and easily discover styles of poetry and music that span the last several hundred years. Just making a cursory perusal, I quickly and easily found old Lutheran chorales, psalms from Genevan compositions, songs which were adapted from popular music in the 18th-century, along with Victorian-type songs by Dwight L. Moody’s revival song leader, Ira D. Sankey. Maybe we get Paul’s injunction right in the best way when we have both a God-centered songbook containing the great hymns of the faith that link us up historically with the people of God and a God-centered songbook that keeps us current with regard to the music our surrounding culture is utilizing.
(3) There is to be much content in what we sing. In Ephesians 5:19, the Apostle Paul exhorts us to be “speaking to one another” in our singing. In Colossians 3:16, he says we are to be “teaching and admonishing one another.” Implicit in these two injunctions is content. Notice in Colossians 3:16 that he begins his exhortation, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you.” The songs that we sing are to be a setting forth of the message of the gospel of Christ in all its different emphases. When Paul is describing the worship service in 1 Corinthians 14:26, he says, “When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.” In other words, the elements of the worship service must be done with a view to edification; and this includes the songs the church sings. And the church is edified when the truth of God’s Word is brought to bear upon the heart, mind, will.
Take note of the strong theological content that’s implied in the words Paul uses in Eph. 5: “Be filled with the Spirit,…singing…making melody…giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father.” Notice that even our singing is to be Trinitarian. In the repertoire of songs we employ—whether they are centuries old, years old, or days old—there must be an acknowledgement of the Father as the source of every blessing. There must be a giving of thanks to the Father. There must be the recognition and proclamation that Jesus is the one and only Mediator, and our worship is acceptable only as it is offered through Him. We must acknowledge the Holy Spirit as the One who works in our hearts to lead us into worship, and we seek to be filled by Him. In our congregational worship music, we must always reflect this rich Trinitarian understanding.
So whenever we sing in corporate worship, though the singing is directed to God in worship, every believer should also have an expectation of being taught. Now, that does not mean that there will not be a dynamic with the amount of doctrine that each song contains. One song may contain more total doctrine than another song. One song may teach more content than another song. However, every song must teach truth. This is the litmus test for a song. The song must teach. Though a song that repeats the phrase “Give praise to the Lord. Hallelujah” fifty times may reflect the heart of a believer who loves his or her Lord, it fails in teaching or admonishing the congregation. The key here is content, whether in larger or smaller amounts. However much doctrinal and theological content is in the song we’re singing, it must be to the degree that it can be correctly said of us that we are “teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”
(4) There is to be the experience of the believer in what we sing. It is clear that our singing must reflect authentic Christian experience. Earlier in Ephesians 3:14-19, Paul gives us a glimpse of what the old Puritans used to call “the experiential life of the Christian.” He writes: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,…that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.” Again, there is this Trinitarian emphasis. Paul prays to the Father that the Ephesians may be “strengthened with power through His Spirit,” experiencing the indwelling of Christ in the heart through the continual exercise of faith; laying hold of the greatness of the love of Christ—knowing it’s “breadth and length and height and depth,” and filled with all the fullness of God. Paul is telling us that this is what the normal experience of the believer should be. The Christian should be one who knows what it is to experience our Triune God, to have intimate and continual communion with an indwelling Christ, to be filled with His love and fullness. And so now in context, when Paul comes to Ephesians 5, he tells us that when the believer experiences such blessings from God, their natural response is to sing! He commands us to “be filled with the Spirit” and then we will be “singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.”
What does it take to write a great Christian psalm or hymn or spiritual song? Well, to be a song, there must be at minimum some type of poetic ability. This is self-evident. Also, it requires a clear grasp of the Word of God and biblical and systematic theology. If these are lacking, then the teaching content we spoke of earlier will be lacking as well. But then also, there must be the great realities and experiences of the Christian life, where the great themes of redemption make their applications in our lives. That’s why we need to sing songs written by believers—both past and present—who know the depths and the heights of spiritual experience. It teaches me what I must aspire to and it allows me to get a glimpse of the glories of Christ through the experience of those who know and knew Him so much better than I do. My heart and soul resonate with their devotion. The songs we sing must come from and lead to a deep, spiritual experience in the Christian life.
The Psalms: Songbook of the Old Testament
The book of Psalms was ancient Israel’s hymnbook. Within the Scriptures, God has given to us an example of what a worship songbook should be. Though I don’t believe in singing the Psalms exclusively (as some church groups do), I think it will be helpful for us to examine and understand that the book of Psalms is given to us as an inspired model songbook.
The psalms were compiled just like any other songbook. Some of the songs in it would have been written as songs to be used in public worship. Other songs were originally written by individuals out of their own circumstances to express their own concerns. But then later, they were adapted to be sung by the whole congregation who were worshipping God in the temple. The psalms were gathered together in small collections—a group of psalms on the kingship of God and a group of psalms of ascent for pilgrims processing up to Jerusalem for worship. These smaller collections were then gathered into five small books of psalms. And then last, the five books were brought together to make up the one canonical book of the Old Testament, Psalms, probably around 450 B.C.. Upon completion, the songbook (or “psalm-book”) was used by God’s people for centuries to come. It would’ve been the songbook from which the Lord Jesus Christ Himself sang.
Now in our observation of the psalms, first of all, the psalms are magnificent. They contain magnificent content written in magnificent poetry. As I’ve heard someone remark, “Many of them could easily be listed in any collection of the world’s greatest poems.” As literature, they are stunningly brilliant. In terms of the language—the construction and the imagery—they are sheer works of genius. There is nothing shoddy or clumsy or second-rate when it comes to the musical and literary quality of the psalms. Before we give any consideration whatsoever to the theological and spiritual aspects of the song, as of first importance, a songwriter must be a great poet. As we step from the mists of church history to the present, we see those who are gifted in taking words and putting them together in such beautiful forms of poetry—such as Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, William Cowper, Augustus Toplady, James Montgomery Boice, Keith Getty, and Stuart Townsend.
Second, we must be honest in our observations and admit that many of the psalms are complex. There are some that are fairly easy to grasp and understand (e.g., Ps. 23). However, the majority of the psalms are difficult. Because of the language, poetry, and the level of historical and theological understanding they require, they are not easily and effortlessly accessed. Take Psalm 68:15–18 as a random example:
A mountain of God is the mountain of Bashan;
A mountain of many peaks is the mountain of Bashan.
Why do you look with envy, O mountains with many peaks,
At the mountain which God has desired for His abode?
Surely the LORD will dwell there forever.
The chariots of God are myriads, thousands upon thousands;
The Lord is among them as at Sinai, in holiness.
You have ascended on high, You have led captive Your captives;
You have received gifts among men,
Even among the rebellious also, that the LORD God may dwell there.
I seriously doubt that the average young person in Israel would have immediately understood what this psalm was all about. There is an entire foundation of biblical theology that underlies this passage. There is Eden, there is the holy mountain of God, Mt. Sinai, which bridges heaven and earth where the law is given and where God expresses Himself in earthquakes and thunder and lightning and fire, and forbids His people to come near; there is Mt. Zion, the mountain of grace, where God comes and dwells among His people in His sanctuary. As I look at Psalm 68, I don’t think the average person would immediately understand the great themes captured in this text. They would need a preacher who would teach them these things so that each time they sing that psalm, they would understand it a bit better. And they would have their entire lifetimes to study and learn and pick up on all the references in the psalm and unpack all the poetic imagery.
Great songs can sometimes take an entire lifetime to understand. Whenever we sing a great hymn by Newton or Toplady, and we think we have mastered the truth contained therein, we still find ourselves discovering a new richness of truth every time we return to it. Great hymns may be difficult at first, but they are infinitely rewarding. We must cultivate a culture of worship singers who give effort in their singing to wring out every single drop of doctrinal and spiritual truth a song may have to offer.
Third, the psalms are extremely diverse. They obviously vary enormously in terms of style. Some of the psalms are simple, and some (as we’ve stated) are complex; some are as brief as Psalm 117, others as lengthy as Psalm 119. Also, the psalms vary in terms of the person being addressed. Some psalms are addressed to the Lord (e.g., Ps. 15), some to fellow-believers (e.g., Ps. 37), some to unbelievers (e.g., Ps. 4), some to the wider creation (e.g., Ps. 148), and still others to the singer himself (e.g., Ps. 146, 42:5). Some psalms emphasize a person’s individual experience; therefore, they use the first person singular pronoun “I.” Others are more collective and corporate in emphasis, so they use the plural pronoun “we.” Concerning doctrines and themes, there is a tremendous variety in the range that is covered. Here is a sample list that is far from exhaustive:
the wonders of nature and God’s care for all his creatures
a royal wedding
the Messianic king and His worldwide kingdom
a conspiracy by foreign enemies against God’s people
the destruction of an invading army
the final judgment
God’s care for His people throughout their history
the disobedience of God’s people throughout history
the shortness of human life
those allowed access to worship God
the promise of redemption
man’s dignity and destiny
As I mentioned above, our singing must reflect real, authentic spiritual experience. However, the spiritual experience of the believer in the Christian life is so varied. But what we discover is that the psalms cover the whole breadth of spiritual experiences and emotions. Here is a brief list of the spiritual experiences reflected in the psalms:
Ps. 3: peace of mind in the midst of danger
Ps. 6: physical and mental anguish while waiting for God’s intervention
Ps. 8: wonder and amazement at the Creator’s care for man
Ps. 22: bewilderment because abandoned by God
Ps. 23: quiet confidence in God’s care throughout life
Ps. 32: relief and joy because of forgiveness
Ps. 34: relief and joy because of deliverance from trials
Ps. 42: desperate thirst for God
Ps. 47: triumphant joy because of God’s kingship
Ps. 51: conviction of sin
Ps. 69: misery because of dreadful trials
Ps. 73: doubt because of the injustices of life
Ps. 88: hopeless depression
Ps. 98: overwhelming excitement because salvation has come
Ps. 131: quiet submission to God’s mysterious ways
Ps. 133: delight in the fellowship of God’s people
Ps. 137: heartbreak at the state of God’s people and anger against God’s enemies
In my observation, this has been overlooked with many modern praise and worship choruses. There seems to be such a limited range of spiritual experience—they’re always only praising God! There are songs of praise, adoration, and worship to God (and they are great and wonderful!), but we also need songs for the times when our praise is lacking, when our adoration of God is waning, when our assurance is at low tide. There are plenty of songs about loving God, but what about the times in our life when we don’t desire God (to use the title of a John Piper book)? We need songs for those times. We need songs to sing when our hearts are overflowing with love toward the Lord and songs for times when we are wrestling with the Lord in our hearts over an issue.
Another related issue when discussing the diversity of the psalms is the chronological variety. The psalms display a great amount of diversity in regard to their age. The psalms that were collected to make up the one book of Psalms that we have in our Bibles were written over a great period of time. The earliest psalm was written by Moses probably around 1500 B.C. Many of the psalms which were written by David were written around 1000 B.C. And then there were some which were written after the Jewish people returned from their Babylonian exile in 500 B.C. So we need to realize that when the book of Psalms was finally compiled as God’s songbook for Old Testament Israel, the psalms displayed a great age variance, from the really old to the really contemporary. The “compilers” did not feel that they had to go all the way back to the early years of Israel’s history and stick with the more traditional songs; nor did they feel the need to only include the most modern and recent songs. Instead, under the sovereign providence and direction of God, they looked throughout the entire span of Israel’s history to compile Spirit-inspired and inerrant worship songs that spanned the entire age of redemptive history.
I love the hymns because they are a great tool for connecting us back with those who came before us in church history. When we sing a hymn on Sunday mornings that may be hundreds of years old, there is a vital link established with other believers who have worshipped the Lord Jesus Christ before us down through the centuries. When we sing the words of great hymn writers such as Bernard of Clairvaux, John Newton, Martin Luther, Isaac Watts, or Charles Wesley, we realize that these believers have stood where we stand, held the same truths as we hold, and struggled with the same temptations with which we struggle. But even more than that, they worshipped the same Christ we worship. But then the newer compositions help us to understand that we, today, are connected with the past. And just as they wrote songs to sing to their Lord in worship, so we write songs today to worship Him.
So which is it going to be—new or old? Contemporary or traditional? I think Michael Horton helps us strike the right balance:
Many of the older hymns are just as contemporary as they ever were because they are richly scriptural, and the psalms that we use are divinely inspired, after all. But many of the older hymn texts as well as psalm texts, not to mention the music, need revision. In addition, we need new hymns altogether,…For many of us, “traditional” verses “contemporary” no longer serves very well as a way of setting up the debate. We do not want to be “traditional” if that means nothing new, and we do not want to be “contemporary” if that means poor imitations of American Top 40 tunes with vacuous, repetitive lyrics. Furthermore, a growing number of Christians are impatient with a reactionary conservatism that refuses to utilize any instrument but the organ, even while accepting folksy gospel songs sung by soloists. Evidently, “traditional” for some means nostalgic, holding on to the “contemporary” songs of the yesteryear that are often just as sentimental and us-centered as more recent ones.
So what are we to do, whether young or old, when we sing a song during the worship service for which we are not specifically fond? First of all, we must constantly search our hearts for evidence of selfishness. We must love one another and defer to one another in the selection of church music. Ephesians 5:22-6:9 lays out the pattern for loving reciprocal relationships—wives submitting to husbands, husbands loving wives, children obeying parents, parents not angering their children, slaves obeying their masters, and masters not threatening their slaves. In similar fashion, the great musical generation gaps (and sometimes cultural gaps) that exist in the church should be addressed with loving, mutual deference. The younger should submit to the older (1 Peter 5:5), but like prudent parents, the older should not provoke the younger to anger. The elders are not to lord it over God’s people, but, like Christ, are to be their servants (Matt. 20:20-26; 1 Peter 5:1-4). All in the church are to seek not only their own interests, but those of others (Phil. 2:3). To seek the interests of others is the opposite of selfishness. We must ask ourselves: Are we seeking to have the music in the church our way or are we seeking to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ? To cast aside selfishness is to seek to honor the preferences of others as much as we can. We must be very clear concerning what are issues of orthodoxy and doctrine related to music and what are simply issues of taste and preference. And it should be our heart’s desire that if anybody is going to be offended over a matter of taste as it regards music in the church, it should be us rather than someone else.
Worldliness in Music?
People like Bob Larson, David Noebel, Bill Gothard, and Frank Garlock have been riding the “evil beat” hobby-horse since the mid-1960’s. They, as well as others, have been quick to label certain kinds of music as “worldly.” A simple, cursory perusal through cyberspace will inform you that those who preach against an “evil beat” tend to be extremely militant concerning other areas of the Christian life where the Word of God is absolutely silent. What is interesting is that this kind of activity of denouncing certain kinds of music is nothing new, and it certainly is not unique to this generation. The spiritual ancestors of these people once held that the waltz was a crude and vulgar version of the minuet, a 17th-century social dance in France. Even a few generations before, they accused ¾ time signatures of mocking the Trinity, and found major seventh chords too arousing and sensual for use in church music. They dubbed the pipe organ “the devil’s little box of pipes.”
It’s real easy to dismiss something by simply stamping it with the label of “worldly.” Some believers today have redefined “worldly” and “worldliness” in ways that don’t correspond to the biblical use of the terms. Therefore, they end up disapproving and censuring what the Bible doesn’t necessarily condemn, and failing to condemn what the Bible actually does denounce when it condemns worldliness. In light of the imbalanced and unbiblical definitions that are put forth today and the potential damage they cause—specifically when certain forms of music are labeled as “worldly,” it is imperative we develop a biblical understanding of “worldliness.”
The premiere passage in the Word of God concerning worldliness is 1 John 2:15–17. It reads:
Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.
In its most basic sense, worldliness may be defined as an excessive or immoderate love for the world. To gain a fuller understanding of the concept, however, we need to demarcate clearly what worldliness is not and tease out from the text a fuller description of what worldliness is.
So what is John forbidding when he gives the prohibition, “Do not love the world nor the things in the world?” I want us to note three things from John’s instruction here that gives us a clear idea of the sin which John is discouraging.
(1) John depicts “the world” and “all that is in the world” not primarily in terms of “things” or even “deeds,” but in terms of attitudes and heart affections. We see this in two ways: First, John’s prohibition is directed toward the heart, not toward a particular activity or object. He doesn’t command, “Don’t touch such-and-such” or “Don’t drink such-and-such” or “Don’t listen to such-and-such.” The Greek word translated “love” refers to an affection, attitude, or inclination of the heart. Second, John’s description of “all that is in the world” does not refer to human activities or material objects per se, but instead to the way in which we consider and regard such objects or activities. Objects or activities such as movie theaters, electric guitars, drums, sports cars, drinking alcohol, dancing, smoking cigars, and playing cards are not the real problem; the real perpetrator is the human heart: “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father, but is from the world” (emphasis added). This does not deny that worldliness evidences itself in “worldly” behavior; v. 17 implies that behavior is a component of loving the world. However, John zeros in on the fundamental nature of worldliness and defines it primarily as a matter of the heart.
(2) John’s description of the worldly heart bears a remarkable resemblance to Eve’s consideration of the illegal fruit in Genesis 3:6. Eve responded to the serpent’s temptation by judging the forbidden fruit as “good for food, and…a delight to the eyes, and…desirable to make one wise” (Gen. 3:6). The phrases “good for food” and “a delight to the eyes” suggest a somewhat parallel and serve to support one another. Interestingly enough, God Himself had already described the fruit trees in the Garden in similar language (2:9), making Eve’s assessment technically accurate. The fruit was genuinely delicious, nutritious, and beautiful. However, Adam and Eve assumed the right and prerogative to transgress God’s divinely revealed limitations for human faithfulness and devotion, and to take what did not lawfully belong to them. In essence, our first parents attempted to assume and overtake the role of God. In similar fashion, when we think of John’s description of “the lust of the flesh” and “the lust of the eyes,” we need not restrict the objects of desire to things that are sinful in-and-of-themselves. In other words, John is not simply thinking of clear perversions of the moral law of God (such as prostitution or homosexuality or murders or robbery). On the contrary, according to the Apostle John and Genesis, a person may inordinately desire that which otherwise may be harmless and part of God’s good creation. Jobs, housing, cars, clothing, and sporting events may be legitimate in themselves; yet a person may desire them in a way that reveals a discontented, covetous, and rebellious heart.
Not only did Eve judge the fruit of the Tree as “good for food” and “pleasant to the eyes,” but she also assessed it as “desirable to make one wise.” Again, her assessment was technically accurate. In the Old Testament, “the knowledge of good and evil” is synonymous with “wisdom.” So the fruit held out the promise of obtaining wisdom, which in turn held out the expectation of a higher kind of life (i.e., access to the Tree of Life). But if eaten without God’s authorization and in disregard of God’s prohibition, the Tree of Knowledge could only provide humans with a counterfeit wisdom—what the New Testament identifies as “the wisdom of this world” (1 Cor. 3:19), and would result in God’s curse of death (i.e., barred admittance to the Tree of Life). What does this have to do with John’s expression “the pride of life?” I believe John is referring to a kind of human pride that displays itself in an independent attempt to find fulfillment, purpose, and meaning in life apart from God.
So when John uses the expression “world,” he’s not considering the created world as such. Nor is he contemplating human beings as such. Nor is John condemning all varieties and forms of human culture that do not derive from the Church or Christians. Rather, he is referring to a worldview or philosophy in which God is not present—or if God is present, He’s domesticated or marginalized to serve our agenda.
(3) John not only defines worldliness by telling us what it is (i.e., sinful attitudes, desires, and affections), but also contrasts it with obedience to the revealed will of God. V. 17 says, “The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.” Loving the world is the opposite of doing “the will of God.” What does it mean to do the will of God? Doing God’s will is not merely refraining from what the Bible tells us is sinful behavior. It’s not enough to say, “I haven’t dishonored my parents, or lied in court, or cheated on my taxes, or murdered someone, or committed adultery.” Sure, it’s possible to have an outwardly moral life and yet be as worldly as the Devil on the inside! In fact, it’s possible to conform to a long list of personal standards and abstain from certain taboos and yet still be worldly. In a blog article titled “Dog Holiness,” Pastor Jim Savastio emphasizes this point:
There’s a problem with having a view of holiness that merely focuses upon outward elements. By the typical fundamentalist view of holiness, Amish people and even many Muslims can lay claim to holiness and, in fact, have attained a superior holiness. In point of fact, my dog (a wonderful fellow to be sure) has attained an even great degree of holiness. He has never smoked, he never watches television, has never darkened the door of a movie theatre, he does not walk around with headphones zoning out with an MP3 player. His traits are such that he is quite often praised. He hears, “Good boy!” as much as any other phrase. But is he truly holy? Is he godly? Far from it! Though my dog is good, he is not holy!
Doing the will of God is not merely just refraining from scandalous sins. Nor is it outward conformity to a non-biblical, man-made list of “dos and don’ts.” Nor is it merely engaging in rituals, routines, and religious activities. The Pharisees of Jesus’s day may have been decent outwardly, may have held fast to a long list of man-made traditions, and may have regularly attended the synagogue and participated in fasts; but they were probably the worldliest people this world has ever known!
So, what is worldliness? Worldliness is a failure to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength (Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:27; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). Worldliness is choosing the riches and pleasures of this world as our deepest delight and chief satisfaction above God and going against the revealed will of God in His Word. To the extent that we fail to give God our highest devotion, and to the extent that we substitute earthly treasures and pleasures for God—to that extent, we are worldly.
So how does this relate to us? Well, for some, there is the problem of labeling something as “worldly” which the Bible itself doesn’t identify as worldly. This isn’t just evidenced in branches of fundamentalism; it can also be found among Reformed believers. E.g., the pastor of Spurgeon’s former church, the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, Peter Masters, has recently criticized and reprimanded a number of well-known Calvinists for promoting “worldliness,” largely because they don’t share his narrow viewpoint on what kind of music is and is not appropriate for Christian lyrics. But as I’ve noted above, worldliness is primarily a matter of the heart (Prov. 4:23; Matt. 15:19). True, a worldly heart will eventually manifest itself in worldly behavior (Matt. 7:15-19); but even here, we must be careful to define worldliness as a nonconformity to God’s will as revealed in His Word, and not necessarily a failure to conform to what we personally don’t prefer or like. If it cannot be demonstrated from the Bible that a given practice is sinful, then we should refrain from dogmatically classifying it as “worldly.” To do so is to endorse and encourage a kind of unbiblical legalism that confuses rather than clarifies true holiness.
For other people, there is a liberty of the Christian conscience. The Word of God may not condemn your favorite food or drink. They may have the freedom of conscience to listen to a wide variety of music or watch some of the latest movies. Perhaps God has blessed some believers financially so that after giving generously to the cause of Christ and advancement of the gospel and after providing for the basic needs of their family, they have money left over to buy a luxury car or a fishing boat or a summer home. All of this is well and fine. However, these folks must beware of assuming that they’re not worldly simply because the Bible doesn’t condemn engaging in that specific activity or owning that particular material possession. Having a strong conscience in-and-of-itself is not the essence of godliness. In fact, the Apostle Paul warned that a sound conscience can sometimes lead to pride—and pride is certainly worldly! The real question is not whether we’re free to play an electric guitar or to attend a movie theater or send a text message via a cell phone. The real question is: “Does this activity or this possession have an unhealthy grasp on my soul?” “Can I engage in this recreation or buy and acquire this thing for the glory of God?” “Does this liberty I’m enjoying hamper and obstruct my enjoyment of God?”
The point is that John’s words should be convicting to all of God’s people, regardless of whether you’re more or less conservative, or whether you have a strong or weak conscience. The possibility of loving this world in sinful ways is a danger for every believer, because every believer still has remaining sin in his heart (1 John 1:8). Therefore, (1) let’s carefully define worldliness biblically, (2) let’s recognize it when it shows up in our hearts, and (3) let’s repent of it when it begins to direct and govern our lives (1 John 1:9).
A Critical Review of Dan Lucarini’s Why I Left the Contemporary
Christian Music Movement: Confessions of a Former Worship Leader
Dan Lucarini, a former worship leader, has written a book titled Why I Left the Contemporary Christian Music Movement: Confessions of a Former Worship Leader, which has become quite popular. When I read the book, I must say that it was not as incendiary and nasty as some other books that I which read which sought to address contemporary worship music. In my opinion, Lucarini never had an attitude of mean-spiritedness or vindictiveness. However, I do think he is misguided in his argumentation in the book.
On the whole, much of the book is not about music specifically, but instead concerns mainly “guilt-by-association.” Because many churches which have incorporated contemporary worship music into their worship services also are guilty of being superficial in their preaching and teaching, not emphasizing the doctrine of sin and sanctification, utilize immodestly dressed praise team members and musicians, and engage in other things that are inappropriate, then the music style itself is wrong, according to the author. Although I stand in hearty agreement with some of Lucarini’s assessments about other issues, I am perplexed as to how these things can be directly linked to certain music styles. I’m sure that certain improprieties have taken place in houses of worship where only pipe organs are used. I have seen on television Southern Gospel artists dress in ways that could easily be considered immodest.
Lucarini’s primary argument against contemporary musical styles is that those styles are somehow associated with sin. Though he points out some situations in his own life that would lead him to that conclusion on a personal level, he takes it further and superimposes his struggles and difficulties with contemporary music onto everyone else. He says, “I had to admit that I too was deceived by my own lusts and selfishness” (p. 46). Furthermore, he refers to himself as “a person who was full of pride in the area of music ministry” (p. 47). Lucarini takes his shortcomings and sin and then transfers them onto anyone and everyone else involved in contemporary worship music. Unfortunately, he has committed the error of taking an object that is not forbidden in Scripture and then superimposing his own worldliness upon it. In Christian circles, it is often that someone has an issue engaging in a certain activity, which leads him or her to believe that all Christians have the same sinful issues when engaging in the same activities that are not forbidden by Scripture.
Lucarini’s use of Scripture to “prove” the wrongness of contemporary worship music leaves much to be desired. With nearly every scriptural evidence he attempts to put forth, there is a clear demonstration of eisegesis (or reading one’s own tradition or ideas into the text). With the way Lucarini handles the Word of God, one could take the same passages and texts and vilify practically anything new or different.
Near the middle of the book, Lucarini gives this confession to those who hold a more traditional view of church worship music. He writes: “We…portrayed our new music as evidence of greater spiritual awareness on our part, and made you appear, and perhaps feel, out of touch and out of date.” If he did that, I believe he should apologize. Everyone’s music should be heard in worship—all demographics, all cultures who are represented in the church body. However, though the author engaged in this musical and generational bias, that does not make it a universal, all-encompassing fact that everyone who utilizes contemporary worship music will do the same. Much more than a music issue, this is a heart issue.
The author discusses the sinful associations within the early beginnings of classical music, a style which he claims is perfectly acceptable. Lucarini states: “…classical music today is so far removed from any of the supposed immorality of the original composers or performers, that no one can honestly claim it is generally and closely associated with evil” (p. 97). The author offers up an invalid argument here. If you follow his statement to its logical conclusion, he is contending (whether he intends this or not) that as long as enough time has passed, then sinfulness in relation to music is no longer an issue. That’s an incorrect assumption and a flimsy foundation on which to build a case. According to the Word of God, the only thing that takes away sin is the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ; neither time nor distance makes any difference. So if it could be proved that a certain style of music was sinful at its inception, then it would still be sinful today. No amount of the passing of time will change that. However, the simple truth is that there is nothing in Scripture to suggest that a certain style of music is inherently sinful in and of itself.
Worldly lifestyles. From my brief survey of the history of music, it seems that any music that was contemporary to its time was considered “worldly;” even Luther’s hymns were dubbed “worldly” by the Roman Catholic Church. Since we have discussed the biblical doctrine of worldliness above, I won’t belabor this point. Suffice it to say that we live in a fallen world and anything—music or otherwise—that is considered popular or contemporary has the potential of being associated with a worldly lifestyle. However, if we impose our view of music on other things—e.g., our speech and clothes, then would it not be consistent for those who insist that the church sing older music also insist that we speak in old English and wear outdated clothing or hair styles that were connected to a time in the past? Where specifically should we draw the line with this mode of thinking? The Word of God does not give us the exact place, so we cannot draw that line for one another either. If the author wants to reject using a certain style of music, that’s fine. However, for him to tell everyone else not to use it goes beyond Scripture.
Splits churches. First of all, there are a number of issues that split churches. I have heard of churches that actually split because there was a disagreement concerning which Sunday School curriculum to use. Does this mean that we get rid of Sunday School because it splits churches? Obviously not. I think it’s clear that none of these three arguments are valid.
Later in the book, Lucarini discusses how a typical worship service should look (p. 127). From his perspective, if it is done correctly, here are some elements that you should see and hear:
An organ and a grand piano
An orchestra complete with woodwinds, brass, and strings
A well-rehearsed, enthusiastic choir
Soloists who sing accompanied with live instrumentalists
Let me say first of all that there is absolutely no scriptural warrant or basis for the use of an organ or piano. However, this does not mean that to use them is wrong; but it is wrong for the author to declare that they are essential. Second, we need to understand that the average church in America has fewer than 100 people in attendance. A church of that size simply cannot support Lucarini’s model; these smaller churches have neither the personnel nor the financial resources to make this list a reality.
In the very same section, Lucarini also suggests that lyrics without “real music” should never be projected onto a screen. But what is the basis for making such an assertion? Scored music—especially music accessible to average people—is a relatively new occurrence in the church. If making scored music accessible for those in our worship services is mandatory, then for thousands of years, the people of God have done it wrong. Throughout centuries of church history and for centuries before in Jewish history, songs were learned by ear. Why is it that suddenly in our day and age, that is a bad idea?
Near the conclusion of the book, the author offers a chart (p. 120) contrasting the way “traditionals” do things with the way that “contemporaries” do them. And of course, the objective here is to show how much more superior is the “traditional” way compared with the “contemporary.” Some of this is just plain silly. One question Lucarini asks is: “What is the primary motive in selecting music?” The answer he gives from the “contemporaries” perspective is: “Do the people like it?” The answer he puts forth from the “traditionals” is: “Does God like it?” That is simply amazing! With absolutely no biblical data in regard to time signatures, music scores, pitch, melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, meter, articulation, dynamics, timbre, and texture, Lucarini can boldly state that he actually knows which style of music God prefers!
I believe Lucarini offers some worthwhile cautions to those who incorporate contemporary worship music into the musical repertoire of the church. We must give careful attention and seek to avoid pride, selfish heart concerns, and self-centered performance issues, while all the time keeping the focus upon the One who is to be worshipped—God. However, I do believe that the author has allowed his own polluted experience to color and bias his thoughts against contemporary worship musical styles. He has allowed his current focus to drive his biblical interpretation of certain passages in order to square the Bible with his own extra-biblical convictions.
 John M. Frame, Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defense (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1997), 25.
 Elliff, “Music in the Church,” online.