Read Part 1.
How to Judge Worship Music
At this point someone will certainly raise the objection that judging music is terribly subjective. For example, some musicians have taken traditional hymn texts and reset them in a contemporary style. Who is qualified to say whether the older or the newer style better accords with the truths in these texts? If serious and devout people cannot agree on these issues, is that not an indication that these are merely matters of opinion? There are several answers here.
Sustained disagreement, even among sincere believers, is far from an adequate reason to declare a matter to be mere preference.
Surely we realize that in matters of doctrine and practice, Christians of tremendous intelligence and piety have unresolved differences. The fact that such disagreements have not been settled—and show little prospect of ever being settled before the return of our Lord—does not justify our concluding that there is no truth of the matter. While reasons may exist for thinking that music is a matter of preference, a lack of consensus alone is not one of those reasons.
Scripture itself calls us to make exactly these kinds of judgments, and our progress in them is a decisive mark of spiritual maturity.
Consider here two passages from Philippians. The first is Paul’s prayer for that church: “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:9–11). Learning to love with discernment, giving our approval to that which truly is excellent, is sanctification. In an important sense, we make progress in Christianity, not merely when we believe the right things and do the right things (out of a sense of duty), but when we come to love what is truly worth loving.
Paul makes a similar point in a familiar passage: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:8–9). I am not going to make the claim that you might expect. I am not going to tell you why I think traditional music is honorable and pure and lovely and excellent, and then tell you these verses mean that I am right and you need to love what I love.
No, all I want to say here is that Philippians 4:8 means something. Whatever Paul is saying, he simply cannot be admonishing the Philippians to embrace the notion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. He is not telling the Philippians to think on whatever things they think are beautiful or they think are lovely. His language explicitly rejects the supposition that value judgments are purely subjective: if there is anything worthy of praise, he says, think on it. Such a statement presumes that some things are indeed worthy of praise.
Again, I am not making an argument for what is lovely; I am only saying that these verses (among others) make clear that loving specific things rightly is an aspect of Christian discipleship. Christian duty is not exhausted in merely knowing God or obeying God, for delighting in God and His good gifts is a core component of discipleship and progress in maturity. This goal cannot be accomplished without making “subjective” judgments.
Those who argue for contemporary worship recognize distinctions in music that undercut their own claim that musical meaning is esoteric.
Even within contemporary music, there are genres and stylistic differences; everyone recognizes these differences and takes them into account when choosing songs and planning worship services. Indeed, much of the rejection of traditional worship music takes the form of critiquing what that music communicates: stiltedness, formalism, a distant God. It cannot work both ways: musical meaning cannot be waved off as a mere subjective interpretation on the one hand and then employed as an objection to traditional music on the other. Advocates of contemporary worship cannot claim that their music communicates the very same emotions as traditional hymnody while simultaneously disparaging what traditional hymnody communicates.
In defending traditional worship, I am compelled to defend one last claim.
The style of traditional worship best expresses the proper affectional responses to the truths of Scripture.
I have suggested some reasons that we cannot simply call this whole thing a matter of opinion. But if I am correct in my larger argument, I must give some account for why so many sincere Christians believe that contemporary music is not only an adequate but indeed a superior expression of Christian affections.
Pastor Mike Augsburger and I agree that no musical style is uniquely Christian in the sense that it has been produced and used only by Christians. But this does not mean that all musical styles that “the world” produces are therefore interchangeable and express the same range of emotions. Every human culture has characteristic virtues and vices when measured by Scripture. Paul recognizes this, for after quoting the proverb “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons,” he says, “This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:12–13). As cultures express themselves in the arts, we expect them to be displaying their virtues and vices.
In the panel discussion that Mike and I participated in at the 2015 Midwest Congress of Baptist Fundamentalists, Mike argued that American popular music has indisputably changed meaning. There was a day, he contended, in which rock (and related genres) intentionally and successfully communicated sexual liberation and aggression against authority. But now that our bank commercials employ the same music—and what is more staid than a bank?—how can we deny that this music has been emptied of its rebelliousness? From one perspective, Mike’s point is irrefutable: the people to whom we minister no longer see rock music (or other contemporary genres) as expressing sinful values.
My contention in the panel discussion was, and remains, that this music no longer seems to communicate what it once did, not because the music has changed, but because we have. The antiestablishment won the day; the counterculture has become the prevailing culture. I do not think this is seriously contestable. From a broad historical perspective, we do not live in a uniquely depraved culture. But the common grace restraint of lawlessness is certainly less evident in our day. The sexual libertines are increasingly running out of boundaries to transgress. Only darkened minds deny obvious realities, yet denied they are.
To put it bluntly, while our culture may indeed have laudable features, reverence and honor and sobriety and self-control are not high among them. Self-indulgence and strife and disrespect are. Therefore, I see no reason to trust that the popular artistic expressions of our day are likely to express the virtues we want them to express. This has absolutely nothing to do with the origins of any musical genre; it has to do with where we are right now.
Regarding books, C. S. Lewis wrote, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” I have found that the same is true for church music. The music of Luther and Bach, the Genevan Psalter, and the American folk hymn tradition are not saying the same things as contemporary American popular music. The errors to which we are particularly liable are reflected in our contemporary hymnody. The prior ages had their errors, but they understood reverence and judgment and deliverance from judgment, the central themes of worship and the gospel. On this, they are the more trustworthy guides.
From Baptist Bulletin, May/June 2018, with permission. © Regular Baptist Press, all rights reserved.
Michael Riley is pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Wakefield, MI. Before coming to Wakefield, he served at Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minnesota and International Baptist College of Chandler, Arizona. Pastor Riley received his undergraduate education in Bible from Bob Jones University, his Master of Divinity from Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in apologetics from Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, PA.