Loving God with All Your...Music?

GuitarDetermining 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.

Conclusion

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.

Notes

1 For much more mature and well-written pieces on differences between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, see Kevin Bauder’s timely posts—”Now, About Those Differences“—here at SharperIron.org.

2 Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1986.

[node:bio/jeremy-larson body]

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There are 45 Comments

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

I think Scott's point is that all human actions are either moral or immoral, not because of an intrinsic value, but because they are performed by human actors. The moment a human acts, morality enters the picture. So, yes, the circumstances indicate the morality of the situation - though perhaps he would point more at the circumstances within the actor (thinking, attitude, intention, etc.) than the circumstances around the actor.

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Philip's picture

Actually, songs have uses. A song is a sheet of paper with blobs of ink on it that we interpret as music.

A song is an object just like meat is an object. Both have uses.

Or further, meat is a physical artifact, while a song is a social artifact. And both are socially constructed. Butchering is something of an art: we don't make cuts of meat like all the ancients. Same with songs.

So both can be regarded as artifacts.

Wayne Wilson's picture

I agree that musical style is not addressed in the Bible, but I can't quite accept the idea that style is morally neutral. Some music actually sounds tawdry and sensual.

Let me ofer as an example something removed from the Rock n Roll beat so strong feelings on that score don't get in the way of our thinking.

My example: David Rose's music "The Stripper" written for the film Gypsy. It has become associated with sleazy strippers, but, you know, it actually sounds like sleazy stripping. It sounds like it in a way that Mendelsohn's Reformation Symphony does not. It is hard to imagine it as music for any decent use. I think I heard it in a shaving commercial once years ago, but even there it was meant to convey stripping as a kind of joke. One secular source says that it "featured especially prominent trombone lines, giving the tune its lascivious signature..." It is all music. No words. But it is recognized as "Lascivious."

Putting Christian lyrics to it doesn't help...still sleazy.

My only purpose in bringing this up is that music, in and of itself, does seem capable of taking us to places we shouldn't go.

I am not comfortable telling other people exactly which music they shoudn't listen to, but I do think it is wise to say that music in and of itself influences our feelings and thinking in ways that may have destructive ends. If that is true, it probably does say that in some important way, style does matter in worship as well as in life.

Just food for thought.

Shaynus's picture

Jeremy,

HAHAHAHAHA

Best,

Shayne

PS

I also appreciated how our teacher repeatedly debunked the argument against rock music that it's somehow easy (and therefore lower quality). That was an argument he new he couldn't win, and disabused of it. He taught us to respect jazz musicians (even if you thought their music was wrong) because many of them are technically incredible.

DavidO's picture

According to Mirriam-Webster online, "ambivalent" means:

1: simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action

2 a : continual fluctuation (as between one thing and its opposite); b : uncertainty as to which approach to follow

I don't think that's how the OP was using it. More later.

DavidO's picture

Well, I somehow missed that Aaron had already attempted (to little apparent avail) to clarify the use of "ambivalent". Sorry about that.

As far as the shoelace question. I think the OP asserted that all of life is worship. From what I've read from Bob H and Greg L, I think they'd agree with that.

So that has to include the tying of shoes, no?

I understand we're down in the minutiae here, but that's where reductio ad absurdum questions probably end up getting answered.

Anyway, the inference that I've always taken from the "all of life is worship" assertion is that we must then do everything to a certain level of properness and quality and with a certain amount of care. You know, heartily, as unto the Lord. So the question becomes: is a careless approach to something that ought to be worshipful a moral issue?

And as far as the scenarios involving shooting of people with guns, how about this one--

You want to go squirell hunting. You have a trusty shotgun (the only gun you've ever used), but want to try out the new .22 rifle you were just given. You go out to your 5 acre woodlot and find a squirrell, take aim and shoot. You miss. The projectile leaves the woodlot, falls through the window of a neighboring farmhouse, and injures a woman in the kitchen.

Is there a morality involved here? You intended somthing good. You accomplished something bad due to ignorance of or carelessness about the difference between what the two firearms do. Is your use a moral issue?

By the way, the Bible is absolutely silent on the fact that a .22 will far outrange a shotgun.

gdwightlarson's picture

Many of us pastor medium sized churches that have grown in size and health because we've allowed our people to think more for themselves. The discussions above are fine, but I despair of it impacting churches "out there". I'm concerned about those who are considered "experts" and are the church and conference speakers we usually hear. The more they are feted and quoted, the more they influence this whole discussion. The "experts" who speak at schools and conferences seem to become the "litmus test"-and the schools and pastors then set the tone a great deal for what is "acceptable". Colleges that send out music groups have to major on the most "safe" and "acceptable", lest the word spread that their school just "isn't what it used to be"(!). First infraction: the college gets questioned (raised eyebrows, exchanged "looks" by the listeners). If it continues to happen, the college gets criticized (rarely face-to-face). If they fail to "repent", they are condemned (even THEN it may just be bombs dropped from afar). All over differences in music preferences! There are still too many who can't tolerate change, including music styles. Makes me glad our church is far enough removed from the spotlight that it isn't sitting under the microscope. We try to practice Romans 14 (the Liberation of Learning) with Romans 15 (the Limitations of Loving) and somehow we're getting by with a blend of the best of many music styles.

gdwightlarson

"You can be my brother without being my twin."

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Got a ways behind on this thread. Some thoughts on morality...

Quote:
"Anything a moral human agent does is either good or bad."
Tying my shoes comes to mind. How can I do that in a good or bad way?

Several are confusing the ability to see the morality of act with the reality of its morality. God is pleased or displeased. He is glorified directly or He isn't (i.e., glorified only ultimately as He works all to an ultimately good end).
But our ability to identify the moral significance of act is a separate problem.

In no way does the inability to identify the morality with certainty alter the fact that it's there.
To use a rough analogy: you can't see atoms either (usually). Nonetheless they are there.

As for the morality of things. I can accept that no "thing" is moral in a box by itself. But no "things" are experienced that way so... there's just no relevance to that. The neutrality of isolated things isn't a useful information in any effort to figure out the morality of uses.

About Romans 14: also a case where folks often confuse the difficulty of discerning right from wrong as a case where there is no right or wrong. This is not the message of the passage.
The message is that there are matters about which we lack sufficient revelation--or sufficiently clear application--to identify with total certainty what's right.
But an option is still right and one (or several) is still wrong (or perhaps "better" and "inferior," but that's really a more nuanced way of saying the same thing).

That doesn't rule out the possibility that the same behavior can be right for one person and wrong for another or right under some conditions and wrong under others, etc. It can be complex. But we need to accept first that there is a right answer before we can claim we're doing due diligence to discern it.

Rom.14 refers repeatedly to conscience and faith, meaning that the kinds of questions it addresses are supposed to be taken seriously. That would be a waste of time if they were simply "neutral."

There are many behaviors that are morally unclear. There are none that are neutral.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Seems like folks miss some whole categories of morality-shaping factors in the music debate as well.

Motivation. Everybody seems to get that if you do something with evil intent, it isn't right.
Effect. What an act does to others and to the doer is obviously a factor. Since lots of acts involve trade-offs (good for you in some ways, not so good in other ways) the balance can be hard to identify. But--to use Rom.14 again--what causes another to be harmed is identified as something to avoid.
Meaning. This one is very controversial because where we are in the flow of cultural history happens to be a place where folks have stopped thinking about meaning for quite a few decades. So often folks are making aesthetic judgments based on meaning and finding that their hearers are dumbfounded. What they are hearing doesn't make any sense to them. But it's still there. Artistic styles have meaning for many reasons, but one is that they develop in an ideological framework. There is reaction to philosophy that was accepted at the time and the art expresses new philosophical directions and values. That kind of conventional meaning (meaning based on shared understanding) doesn't last forever but it is there.

Wayne's example above is an excellent case in point:

Quote:
My example: David Rose's music "The Stripper" written for the film Gypsy. It has become associated with sleazy strippers, but, you know, it actually sounds like sleazy stripping. It sounds like it in a way that Mendelsohn's Reformation Symphony does not. It is hard to imagine it as music for any decent use. I think I heard it in a shaving commercial once years ago, but even there it was meant to convey stripping as a kind of joke. One secular source says that it "featured especially prominent trombone lines, giving the tune its lascivious signature..." It is all music. No words. But it is recognized as "Lascivious."

Putting Christian lyrics to it doesn't help...still sleazy.


The sleaziness was widely understood by a kind of conventional meaning (but you also have effect mixed in with--maybe as a result of--the meaning). Trombones used that way conveyed a tawdriness--probably not because the sound has that inherent meaning but because it has that conventional meaning, based on a history of some sort shared by a majority in our culture.
It would be a fascinating experiment, but I'll bet even children today could be asked to listen to some of it and tell whether it sounds like music that goes with doing something good or like it goes with doing something bad, a majority would say bad. Could be wrong. Eventually, it would no longer work.
In some parts of the world, there has probably never been a time when that kind of trombone sound would convey any naughtiness.

But styles always happen in cultural contexts where they have meaning. This is why Kevin Bauder talks about the shifts from the middle ages to other ways of thinking--value and meaning systems--eventually going to romanticism, enlightenment, jazz age... and counterculture.

You have lots of casual music makers. But Artists are always trying to say something with the stylistic elements they use, something independent of words.

Sorry for the long ramble. The subject interests me a great deal.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Joel Shaffer's picture

Quote:
My example: David Rose's music "The Stripper" written for the film Gypsy. It has become associated with sleazy strippers, but, you know, it actually sounds like sleazy stripping. It sounds like it in a way that Mendelsohn's Reformation Symphony does not. It is hard to imagine it as music for any decent use. I think I heard it in a shaving commercial once years ago, but even there it was meant to convey stripping as a kind of joke. One secular source says that it "featured especially prominent trombone lines, giving the tune its lascivious signature..." It is all music. No words. But it is recognized as "Lascivious."

Putting Christian lyrics to it doesn't help...still sleazy.

One of my friends who grew up on the mission field in Pakistan gave an illustration about cultural associations with music. Music played slow and in a minor key with certain instruments in that culture was considered sensual, so the Christians in Pakistan utilized music that was more upbeat with lots of drums. When he came back from the mission field to America, the upbeat music with lots of drums was considered sensual and worldly by the church, while slow songs played in a minor key played in the church that seemed similar to the sensual and worldly music in Pakistan (think of the tune O Come, O Come Emmanuel)was considered worshipful here in America.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Joel Shaffer wrote:

One of my friends who grew up on the mission field in Pakistan gave an illustration about cultural associations with music. Music played slow and in a minor key with certain instruments in that culture was considered sensual, so the Christians in Pakistan utilized music that was more upbeat with lots of drums. When he came back from the mission field to America, the upbeat music with lots of drums was considered sensual and worldly by the church, while slow songs played in a minor key played in the church that seemed similar to the sensual and worldly music in Pakistan (think of the tune O Come, O Come Emmanuel)was considered worshipful here in America.

This is a great example that demonstrates just *how* much even what we can imagine is affected by our culture, history, and how we grew up. It's really easy to pronounce that a particular type of music is sensual, sleazy, worshipful, or whatever, and that it will *always* be such when we just grew up way differently from some others who don't see what we are talking about at all.

Dave Barnhart

gdwightlarson's picture

Almost lost sight of the original article by Jeremy during all this discussions! Sorry, Jeremy, if we've run down too many rabbit trails--but there is SO much controversy to this topic.
Yes, cultural backgrounds of writers and listeners are factors. Yes, music has (usually) a connotation that can be good or bad or neutral-almost universally so. I don't know how to explain my love for classical music. No family background or history. Never played anything except the guitar--once it became safe for Christians to play them. Ha. And as a pastor, as I began to use it in church--there was a definite period of adjustment by my congregation even to that. Again, ha.
I made the comment earlier/above about Romans 14 and 15. As I've studied it and applied it to those things on which Christians differed, I've pointed out that (1) they are things that are unclear in scripture, (2) believers are supposed to seek the Lord's guidance for themselves personally, and (3) no believer ought to ever judge or look down upon another brother who may come to a different personal conviction in these issues . I'm amazed at how many times we may have been "right" on the issue and terribly "wrong" in our spirit c. the issue. There's much more-and this is not the place to exegete the entire passage-but I've been heartened to observe more practice of Romans 14:1 and 15:1 in fundamentalist circles. Such humility and grace is long overdue.

gdwightlarson

"You can be my brother without being my twin."

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

When I preached through Romans last year (and part of this year), we spent some time stopping to note what category of questions Rom.14 is really about. They are issues that a) matter (otherwise, he'd just say "drop it and move on"), b) issues folks tend to be passionate about (otherwise, why would it be necessary to address the "problem"?), c) issues that seem to have spiritual significance (both those who participated in the activities and those who didn't seemed to have spiritual/theological reasons) d) issues about which God had not chosen to reveal a clear "one rule for all" standard.

I do think that use of music styles belongs in this category. However, there is a complication that is not directly spoken to in Rom.14 and that is the matter of leadership responsibility and how that factors in.

For example, there are many matters of conscience (that is, the Rom14 category if issues) that I as a husband and father decide for our entire family. And several I do not. Why do I decide any at all? Because within the "matters of conscience" category, not all questions are equally unclear or equally inconsequential. Nor is my conscience persuaded to an equal degree in every case.
So there are matters of judgment a leader--with legitimate biblical responsibility--must carry out for those under his care.

There are analogous expressions in pastoral leadership. The result is that when it comes to the music we use for worship at church, the congregation is free to collectively decide where it would like to draw lines, but I am not free as a pastor to support every possibility.
So the way it works out is that there are some matters that must work a certain way as long as I'm in leadership. People are not required to agree, but are expected to cooperate. It's not a matter of exerting my will but of doing what my conscience requires. There are worship options I am not free to participate in even though I recognize that my conclusions are not absolutely the only way to understand the principles involved.

So my point is that there ways that conscience intersects with different kinds of responsibility so Rom.14 has to be harmonized with other passages and carried out with that complexity in mind.

Sometimes leaders seem to be "adding to Scripture," when they are really just leading. But unfortunately, there are many cases as well where they either don't recognize the true nature of the issue or use unfortunate language to express their convictions.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

jimcarwest's picture

Listening to one and then to the other is a little confusing. For every reasonably sounding argument, there is a counter-balancing argument. I guess it's like "iron sharpening iron." To simplify the question, we might recur to the biblical admonition:
Whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God." We won't all agree on even this test, i.e. whether what our brother does is to the glory of God or not. But each one must be persuaded in his own mind (guided and controlled by Scripture) that whatever he does meets that test. He will want to take into account how his activity affects himself, his brother in Christ, the local church, and the testimony of the Body of Christ. Where there is diagreement, the test of the "weaker brother" must come into play. Music, along with many other things, must comply with the high goal of "glorifying God" not merely satisfying man. Above and beyond the gratification that we might ourselves get from the music, there is the greater objective of pleasing God, worshiping God, and reflecting our submission to His Lordship. Whenever we have the choice, we might congregate with those whose taste and convictions in music meet our own perception of what is best.

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