Determining what music is or is not appropriate for the Christian is a hard nut to crack. We’ve all heard of the “Worship Wars” that have been going on for decades (and, it could be argued, even going back to the Reformation), and the rise of fundamentalism this past century has really escalated the issue.
In separating from the world, fundamentalists have taken measures to build a defense of their music standards, but sometimes that defense comes across as somewhat abrasive. Instead of shooting other sheep in the flock, is it possible to reach a level of cordiality among Christians of different backgrounds? Here are a few principles that I believe can help us determine what kind of music is appropriate for the personal lives of Christians.
1. Be committed to whatever the Bible requires
If all of our thoughts are to be brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5), then there’s not a square inch of real estate in our lives that is available for rent. Even in our private lives, we need to be concerned about what God wants in worship, because every act is to be an act of glorifying God (1 Cor. 10:31). There’s no time that is truly “me time” during which we can unplug ourselves from our dedication to Christ.
Having made that somewhat obvious point, I have a hard time deriving many specifics from the Bible regarding musical choices. I hate to rain on the I-get-my-personal-music-standards-from-the-Bible parade, but the truth is that the Bible has more than 600 vague references to music, and none at all to musical styles. We know that some music can refresh our spirits (1 Sam. 16), and maybe the case can be made that some music can make sounds similar to that of war (Ex. 32). But does any of that information give us guidance for particular styles? I would say no, though there are several other points that can guide our thinking on this issue.
2. Recognize music’s ambivalence
A professor at the University of Bordeaux, France, once wrote about the ambivalence of technology. Technology is not neutral or amoral, he said, for it is always used for good or bad. In and of itself, it is ambivalent—it can go either way. He used a knife analogy to say that a knife could peel an apple or kill a person.
Similarly, music is not neutral or amoral, but it is ambivalent. No one can jot down an inherently evil rhythm or play a sinful chord progression, though many artists have combined musical elements (including lyrics and video) that feed sinful desires. There is no question that God’s gifts can be perverted. However, just because certain rhythms, etc., can be physical, they are not necessarily wrong. An upbeat, driving piece of music played before a basketball game can be an appropriate way to provide an athletic, physical atmosphere, just as a composition with heavy, predominant percussion can set the tone for a battle scene in a movie.
Christian leaders have made an honest attempt to protect young people from worldliness, but in doing so, some of those leaders have unfortunately alienated young people by preaching against styles of music that are intrinsically ambivalent.
3. Don’t add to the Bible
Christians must give each other a large degree of latitude when it comes to defending a biblical position on music. Some Christians take the “ready, fire, aim” approach—blast anyone who’s not like them, and then figure out a semi-plausible case. But Christian leaders would do well to remember that unbiblically binding the consciences of other Christians is a sin (1 Tim. 4:1-5). If music is a gift to be enjoyed, then every restriction on that gift needs to have an airtight argument. The Bible says much about music in general, but nothing about style specifically, and Paul, in 1 Timothy 4, is remarkably hostile to the idea that someone would dare to legislate morality on an issue about which God has been largely silent.
One passage that is sometimes used in an attempt to justify extra-biblical prohibitions is Acts 15. Verses 20 and 29 include restrictions that don’t seem related to the moral law, and Paul’s response to dietary (and other) restrictions is that such restrictions are demonic (1 Tim. 4:1-5) and a sign of worldliness (Col. 2:18-23). It appears that whatever the Jerusalem Council did in Acts 15 is not appropriate now, and perhaps wasn’t appropriate then either.
The two familiar passages on Christian liberty—Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8—provide pictures of interaction between Christians who disagree on non-doctrinal issues, and the picture is vastly different than the picture in Galatians 1. Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 talk about living peaceably with Christians who differ in interpretation. Paul’s cursing the wolves that are destroying the foundations of the gospel (Gal. 1:8-9) is perfectly legitimate, but our cursing of sheep that bleat differently from us must certainly grieve the Holy Spirit.
An oft-quoted statement attributed to Augustine goes like this: “In essentials, unity; in things indifferent, liberty; in all things, charity.” Maybe it would be nice to have every Christian be as conservative as we are, but if God’s Word has not put specific boundaries around music styles, we are epitomizing legalism—not to mention adding to Scripture—in our attempts to be devout.1
4. Use a food analogy
One of the most helpful things for my thinking on music has been to compare music choices to food choices. Before anyone cries “Foul!” because music is an act of worship and food is just food, remember 1 Corinthians 10:31—even our food choices should glorify God.
Some food is healthier than other food, and some food may have no health benefit whatsoever—it just tastes good. John Piper has done the body of Christ a lot of good in reminding us that the pursuit of pleasure—far from being inherently sinful—can be a very biblical endeavor. One of the most recognized statements from Desiring God is that “God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him.”2 Smart young people hear the argument that “certain music caters to the flesh” and translate it into “if you like something, it’s bad.” But is it really a moral lapse to like something because it makes me feel good? Greasy food may harm the temple of the Holy Spirit to some degree, but how far should we go in saying that greasy food is sinful? Sometimes I just want a cheeseburger.
Some music might be healthier (there’s more artistic quality to it), but the other stuff isn’t necessarily sinful. And if children are trained to appreciate “finer” music, they just might end up choosing healthier music because they recognize its higher quality (and not just because they’ve been brow-beaten into feeling guilty any time a drum kicks in).
5. Cultivate your musical taste
Speaking of food, Christians should develop a taste for high quality music. Just as some foods do better things for the body than others, so too does some music do better things for the mind. Just as great books reward careful reading and other books are nothing but entertainment, so too is great music something that can be studied and appreciated on an intellectual and artistic level.
I don’t have anything against “fun music,” just as I have nothing against cheeseburgers, but children need to learn how to eat good things, read good things, and listen to good things too. Many young people, having been reared on a strict diet of only fundamentalist-sanctioned music (and having been taught that “fun music is bad music”), are reaching the age where they can make their own decisions, and when that door of freedom cracks open, they kick it down and leave the old music in the remaining rubble.
Some music is definitely harmful (because of its emphasis on rebellion, illicit relationships, or other sins), but one of the biggest ways to make sure that our families are not swept away by the draw of harmful music is by inculcating an appreciation for fine music at an early age. If possible, children should take music lessons and be involved in solos and ensembles with instruments and voice, and we should play classical music in our homes.
I have a broader appreciation of music because of the priority my parents, church, high school, and university put on it. I still listen to music from SoundForth and The Wilds from time to time, and often I’d rather listen to Rutter’s Gloria than something by Josh Groban. During the Christmas season, I’d much rather hear Handel’s Messiah any day of the week over the goofy stuff on popular radio stations.
Of course, other intelligent Christians may disagree with me. My degree was not in music, but I’ve been heavily involved with music my entire life, including the privilege of singing for several seasons with a community chorus—not to mention substantial involvement in quality high school, collegiate, and church music programs.
A clear and present danger is that our looks of scorn towards those who are less musically conservative (“those worldly Christians”) might be noticed by our children, and when they start making their own choices, they might cast those same looks back at us and all the rest of the people who “still believe that stuff.” However, if we relax the white-knuckled grip on our children’s music choices, maybe, just maybe, they’ll start making wise choices on their own and love God with all of their heart, soul, mind, strength, and music. (Uh oh. Did I just add to the Bible?)
Certainly, just as rules alone won’t stop people from making bad choices, neither will a relaxing of rules necessarily promote good choices. But as more decades pass, I think that we will find that we were much like the medieval geocentric Christians—we were well-meaning in our attempt to be devout, but over time, we’ve come to discover that the heliocentric Christians weren’t as worldly as we thought.
Jeremy Larson earned a BA in creative writing (English minor) and an MA in English, both at Bob Jones University. He has taught high school and college English for several years, and he and his wife and daughter recently moved to Waco, TX, where he will begin PhD studies in English at Baylor University (with a dual concentration in religion and literature). He blogs occasionally at The Mundane Muse.