Music in the Bible and the Contemporary Music Styles Debate (Part 1)

By Gregg Strawbridge. Posted by permission from the author.


As an analysis of music style, this paper offers a succinct theological synthesis of the Biblical information on music. The writer summarizes a mini-theology of music and addresses a current issue relevant to evangelical worship, ministry programs, missiology, and cultural impact: contemporary music styles. The paper argues that an exegetical and Biblical theology of music and a familiarity with the issues surrounding ethnomusicology are the foundation for any specific musical-genre critique. Moreover, some reflection on the larger issue of the relationship between Christ and culture are a necessary counterpart to this discussion. To accomplish this, the paper is divided into three sections: (1) a Biblical survey of music, (2) a dialogue with current critiques of contemporary music styles, and (3) directions and recommendations for Christian musicians.

“Why should the devil have all the good music?” - Martin Luther


A Brief Biblical Theology of Music

The Scriptures1 recognizes music as a means for praise (Acts 16:25; Rom 15:9 [originally sung]), a means of expressing joy (Jam 5:13), thanksgiving (Psa 92:1-3), sorrow for sin (Is. 16:10), a means of prayer (1Co 14:15; Psa 72:20), and a means of teaching and spiritual communication (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19).

Biblical music makers are professional (1Ch 15:22; 25:7; Is. 5:11-12; Ez. 33:32), as well as nonprofessional (Psa 100; 1Ki 1:39-40; 1Co 14:26; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). There are those who direct music (Psa 4:1, 5:1, 6:1, etc.; Neh. 12:8) and teach music (1Ch 15:22). The people of the Bible overflow with music in every circumstance, including cultural uses placed in positive (1Sa 18:7) and negative terms (Eze 33:32). Music sounded in every aspect of life—work, play, celebration, and even war (Is. 16:10; Jer 48:33; Mat 11:17; Luk 15:25; Gen 31:27; Exo 32:17-18; Ecc 2:8; Jdg 11:34-35; 2Sa 19:35).

Jewish musicologist Abraham Idelsohn says, “As many references in the Bible to the music performed in secular life testify, Israel enjoyed life through music both vocal and instrumental, and associated music with dance and wine in which men and women participated” (p. 21).

A study of the Psalms alone yield an impressive role for music in the life of Biblical people. The extolling of Yahweh through music is spoken of as congregational (149:1), individual (42:8) and for every situation (74:21). Music is used to praise God joyfully, loudly (47:1), melodically (98:5), and with a variety of instruments (150:3-5), from chordophones (lyres, harps, kinnors), to membranophones (timbrels), to aerophones (flutes, shofars, pipes), to metalophones (cymbals).2

Such praise is associated with bodily movement and common expressions of joy and gladness, such as dancing (30:11, 149:3, 150:4). The psalmists command praise with skill (47:7, 33:3), to “make His praise glorious” (66:2). They frequently call the nations to make the sounds of praise (67:4, 22:27, 117:1, 108:3). A fitting close to the Psalter is the call for all that has breath to hymn the worth of their Maker (150:6).

The use of music in the worship of the New Testament church has indisputable Biblical support (Mat 26:30; 1Co 14:19, 14:26; Eph 5:18-20; Col 3:16; Heb 2:12). The primary church music texts in the New Testament (Col 3:16 & Eph 5:19) are commands, not primarily to sing or make music, but to “teach” and “speak” with “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.”

Music and Language

In the Biblical-times music,3 there is no strong dichotomy between speaking and singing. In Scripture language is generally connected to the life of the person. For example, Isaiah confesses sinfulness by saying “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (6:5). Jesus says, “You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (Mat 12:34). “Not what enters into the mouth defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man… But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man” (Mat 15:11-18).

The concept of the mouth expressing the heart and the words of a person being taken as the essence or heart of a person is ubiquitous in Scripture. Likewise, it is the Word of God which is the instrument of regeneration (1Pe 1:23), the building block of faith (Rom 10:17), and the standard of sanctification (2Ti 3:16). Jesus teaches, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God’ ” (Mat 4:4; also Psa 19, 119).

On the basis of what Scripture teaches about the words of man and the words of God, it is not surprising that there are no strict separations between praise and prayer which is spoken, sung, and shouted. All verbal activity manifests the heart and the Word of God changes the heart. The fruit of the lips is the result.4

Therefore, the “redeemed of the Lord” “say so” in a continuum of verbal expression from simply speaking, to speaking loudly, to singing, to shouting. In fact in some cases it is difficult to tell exactly what act the words are referring to (merely speaking, or singing, chanting, speaking loudly, etc.). Consider the Biblical parallels:

  • Psalm 33:3 Sing to Him a new song; Play skillfully with a shout of joy.
  • Psalm 65:13 The meadows are clothed with flocks, And the valleys are covered with grain; They shout for joy, yes, they sing.
  • Psalm 95:2 Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving; Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms.
  • Psalm 71:23 My lips will shout for joy when I sing praises to Thee; And my soul, which Thou hast redeemed.
  • Psalm 75:9 But as for me, I will declare it forever; I will sing praises to the God of Jacob.
  • Psalm 81:1 (For the choir director; on the Gittith) Sing for joy to God our strength; Shout joyfully to the God of Jacob.
  • Psalm 95:1 O come, let us sing for joy to the Lord ; Let us shout joyfully to the rock of our salvation.
  • Psalm 96:2 Sing to the Lord, bless His name; Proclaim good tidings of His salvation from day to day.
  • Psalm 98:4 Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth; Break forth and sing for joy and sing praises.
  • Psalm 105:2 Sing to Him, sing praises to Him; Speak of all His wonders.

The rigid distinction between singing and other verbal activity in our Western contemporary use of language was not so distinct to the people of the Bible.


Having briefly considered the representative Biblical data regarding music. Now we shall consider the current debate. Is music style neutral? Are musical compositions and styles inherently good or bad? This issue is addressed in terms of the “neutrality of music.”

  • Popular preacher John Blanchard (1983) says, “When music is composed, it is not composed into a neutral nothing, but into a positive something—a form that is definite and meaningful, with colour and character.” (p. 81). Blanchard goes on to cite an impressive number of thinkers to support the contention that “music has moved man in a hundred different ways” (p. 83).
  • Leonard Seidel says, “The evidence is clear from history, music theory and Biblical examples-music is not neutral.
  • Cynthia Maus has said it so eloquently: ‘Music soothes us, stirs us up; it puts noble feelings into us; it melts us to tears, we know not how. It is a language by itself just as perfect in its way of speech, as words; just as divine, just as blessed.’” (p. 27)

It will be important here to define the question more sharply. The status questionis (state of the question) is not whether music, given certain conditions, “moves us” or “soothes us,” - rather, the question is whether a particular music style or genre (such as rock, country, rhythm-and-blues) is intrinsically good, bad, or neutral.5 There is no question that music creates powerful connotations, a reality continually exploited in advertising. The issue I am seeking to address is not one of connotations or associations, but of the ontology of music.

Two primary types of arguments emerge against contemporary music styles (hereafter, CM): aesthetic arguments and ethical-metaphysical arguments. Aesthetic arguments focus on the quality of the music and dismiss it as bad art, though not necessarily inherently evil. Though I will touch on this, my main concern is the ethical-metaphysical arguments. Ethical-metaphysical arguments focus on the inherent qualities of particular music genres. I am limiting my analysis to the style-genre, not the typical lyric content. The critical arguments cited have been addressed toward all forms of CM (including country and jazz genres), but especially popular rock styles.

The article continues next week.


1 My presupposition throughout is that Scripture is unified in all it teaches, including that which it teaches about music.

2  For more discussion on Biblical instruments see the classic, Jewish Music: Its Historical Development, Abraham Z. Idelsohn.

3 ”Biblical-times music” is intended to designate music that is Ancient Near-Eastern, Israelite, and spanning the (written) OT to NT time period (ca 1500 B.C. to 100 A.D.).

4 I am indebted to J. Frame’s lecture, “Music and Salvation” for many of these concepts. See also V. Poythress, “Ezra 3, Union with Christ, and Exclusive Psalmody,” Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. XXXVII, 1974-75, pp. 74-94-218-235.

5 Granted, one could define genres more sharply. However, my aim is primarily to address the popular issue (e.g., “rock music” is of the devil) and the basic issues will, be applicable to more creative, less popular, genres too.

Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D., is the pastor of All Saints Church in Lancaster, PA. He became a committed follower of Jesus Christ at age 20, discipled in the context of a University Navigator Ministry. As a result of personal discipleship he went on to study at Columbia Biblical Seminary (M.A., Columbia, SC, 1990), as well as receive a Ph.D. in education and philosophy (USM, 1994).

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There are 7 Comments

Mark_Smith's picture

I realize fundamentalists battle over the traditional versus CCM issue. But while that battle has raged, something worse has transpired in most of the evangelical church world. While you can debate whether a 2-4 beat is good, or a 1-3, or what about drums, or electric guiter, etc., another force has taken over CCM.

The primary, or at least major, influence of CCM playing on Christian radio, and being sung in churches, is music producers like Bethel Music and their associated Jesus Culture label and movement. These groups aren't just singing CCM, they are promoting their weird type of theology, New Apostolic Reformation.

Bethel Music is huge. At this year's SBC annual meeting many Bethel Music songs were sung. We sing them in our contemporary service. And do you know what the worst part is? No one cares. I have asked my pastor, the elders, and a few keys leaders at our church about it. Pastor was told Bethel is a "better" version of the Assembly of God, so he accepts it and that settles it. The rest never even heard of Bethel because they go to the traditional service, not the contemporary one where the Bethel songs are sung.

Once you have an ear for it, you can spot a Bethel song a mile away... the message is distinctive and person focused. When it turns to God, there is always something wrong with it. A non-Bethel song, but one like theirs, is called Father You are All We Need... think about that title. Knowing nothing else could you sing that in a CHRISTIAN church. Bethel songs usually focus on experience, hearing the Lord talk, things like that. Little to no mention of the Bible. There is much worse to say, I just have to get the kids off to school.

No, this is not guilt by association. It is guilt by bad doctrine promoted by ignorance.

Bert Perry's picture

I really appreciated the author's statement that in Biblical times, there was not a strong dichotomy between speaking and singing.  It reminds me of something I think is missing in a lot of our circles, an appreciation for real poetry.  Oh, we get a bit of inspirational doggerel, but real poetry--the kind where we'd start to see the huge differences between how God presents Himself in poetry (Psalms, most of the Prophets, etc..) vs. how He presents Himself in prose?  The kind where we really learn to speak to peoples' hearts where they are?  The part where we see things like depression (see the suicide thread for example) and learn to address it (yes it's in the Psalms to a degree)?

We're having trouble there.  And per Mark's comment, yes, there is also a set of theological issues that need to be addressed with music.  I'm no expert on Bethel, or whether they really are the "New Apostolic Reformation", but what I can say is that too many of the songs I hear are basically in the "love song" genre that finds little expression in the Psalms.  Oh, yes, David and others are passionate, but there is more than one subject there, and it's worth noting that God is not addressed in the same terms as a human lover.  

I personally find an "Air Supply" rule very helpful.  If I look at the lyrics, and I could make the song singable by Air Supply by changing less than a dozen words, I don't sing it.  Even more helpful would be reading and singing the Psalms to a greater extent, I think.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Kevin Miller's picture

TylerR wrote:

I did this for you, Rajesh! But, where art thou?

He's likely waiting for the second and third installment, if he's even been on the internet yet today.

Mark_Smith's picture

You are seeking a 27 page thread on the meaning of "is" in 1 Cor 11:23? Smile

JNoël's picture

Looking forward to the rest.

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

Jay's picture

You are seeking a 27 page thread on the meaning of "is" in 1 Cor 11:23? 

In the words of one of the foremost theologians in the '90s:

“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the—if he—if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not—that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement…

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

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