Worship and Music. Music and Worship. Such hot potatoes. And something that I have been meaning to write about for quite a while. Until now I have put it off (though pausing for limited remarks here). But I think this is the perfect time to write on this subject - especially in light of some things that happened this past weekend at a conference that I attended.
Without going into a great deal of detail, or passing judgment on those involved, let me just share a brief sketch of what went on. I attended an evangelism conference this past weekend in Maine along with 175 other persons from my particular denomination. All Seventh-day Adventist pastors in Northern New England were in attendance, as well as "laypersons" from each church, and the church administrators in this region. We were all there to learn about evangelism and outreach.
Music inadvertently became one of the focuses, however, when the group that was leading out in the music chose to sing "contemprary" songs and utilized an electric drum set. To my thinking, this is probably the first time that such an ensemble has been used for a conference-wide initiative for a bunch of adults. It did not go over very well, to say the least. Each time the group got up to sing, a mass of people (numbering probably anywhere from 30-40) promptly stood to their feet and exited the gymnasium. When the music ended, they filed back into the gym, visibly showing their disappointment/disdain/frustration over the music.
It all came to a head on Sunday morning when one of the exiting individuals was granted a chance to address the whole audience for a few seconds. He did not get prior approval from administrators to do so, though he was allowed a chance to speak by an unsuspecting guest who was one of the weekend presenters. Before he could complete his talk, which revealed the fact that many attendees were upset about the music, a conference administrator took the microphone from him and politely, but firmly, thanked him for sharing, but said it would not be necessary to continue.
Unfortunately, a weekend that was supposed to be focused on reaching the lost turned into a discussion on music and worship. And, sadly, such things happen far too often.
Over the weekend, I thought and prayed quite a bit about the whole topic. The minute I sat down on Friday night and saw the electric drum set sitting on the stage, I knew that we were headed for trouble. And since I have returned home, I have spent much of the day studying the biblical witness on the subject, as well as consulting some other materials that people have written on it. And, of course, this topic has, for quite a while, been an ongoing self-debate in my mind.
And, really, the more I study and grapple with the topic, the more agnostic I become. Yes, I will admit that I am agnostic in this instance. I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with arguments from people on both "sides" of the issues. In a conversation with someone who is all about the modern "praise" music, I take the more "conservative" side. Similarly, with someone who is more traditional and conservative, I take a little more "open-minded" or "liberal" attitude. And then I find myself agreeing with good arguments that are presented by scholars on both sides of the divide. And all this lends itself to agnosticism.
With that being said, I have drawn some conclusions when it comes to this topic. And hopefully those conclusions will come out as I share my thoughts with you in the rest of this post.
But, first, I think one of the more unfortunate realities surrounding this whole discussion is that there is very little – or no – intelligent and dispassionate discussion on this topic. Usually these issues are discussed in a very emotional manner, spurned by a conflict that arises when one “side” tries to enforce its will at the expense, and without permission from, the other side.
But I think it would be very productive if we could get both sides to sit down with each other and prayerfully and unemotionally study this issue together. It seems to me that one of the frustrations that “conservatives” have is that they see this new music creeping in with very little questioning—except by their own. Liberals do not come to conservatives and say, “Hey, can we talk about the music issue?” Instead, conservatives show up to a weekend conference and there is a drum set, bass guitar, and new songs that no one knows. I think they feel that such music is being forced upon them to some degree.
Not to get “emergent,” but it would be healthy if we could come together to talk about these things in a coherent manner. That would go a long way in helping each side understand the other.
And now on to some of my musings.
A Few Conclusions Thus Far
As I’ve spent a little time thinking about this issue, I have come to conclude, first of all, that any discussion about music and worship needs to start with epistemology. Each side seems to make claims about music that could be cleared up if epistemological presuppositions were clarified. (Epistemology is, in simple terms, the study of how we know what we know.) As an example, at one of the mass exoduses during the worship time over the weekend, I slipped out and joined some of the demonstrating saints to try to get a feeling for what they were thinking. One of the ladies, when she saw me, said, "You don't like the music either?" Not wanting to take sides, I said, "Well, it's a tough issue." Without missing a beat, she responded: "What is going on in there is not worship."
What I wanted to say in response to her was, "Says who?" This is an epistemological issue. On what basis was the lady making the claim that the music was not “worship”? The Bible? Ellen White? Subjective feeling?
Similarly, when someone on the other side says that music simply comes down to personal taste, this sounds good in theory, but on what basis is he or she making such a claim? Is this what the Bible teaches?
And, while we’re on it, what does the Bible say about this subject? Surprisingly, very little that is conclusive.
I spent a little bit of time this morning studying the subject in the Bible. As one example, I looked at the 17 or so times that the Bible talks about the “timbrel” (one of the only percussion instruments that the Bible talks about) and it seems obvious to me that a person cannot make an argument one way or the other as to a timbrel’s moral position. Let’s be clear about this: nowhere does the Bible categorically and explicitly condemn drums or syncopation or rhythm. It's just not there.
Now, one could, perhaps, rightfully make the argument that a drumbeat is evil, but such a claim would not be based on the Bible. I wish people would recognize this. (Again: I want to make it clear that this doesn't necessarily mean a drumbeat is acceptable. All I am saying is that when a person makes the claim that drums are unholy, the source for their claim is not the Bible. It’s important we recognize this.)
Again, this comes back to epistemology. Are we going to simply use the Bible as the way we know what we know about music, or are we going to allow testimony from other sources (ie., science, music psychology, Ellen White, etc.).
Now, it is fine if we want to rely upon other sources. But we just need to recognize that we are doing this and not be caught making the claim that the “Bible condemns drums” or that your type of worship is “not worship according to the Bible.” I do believe that the Bible lays down principles for appropriate worship, but I am not sure that the Bible, alone, is enough for us to make black-and-white statements about whether other people’s worship is holy or not.
With that being said, I am of the conviction that there is an objective criteria by which music can be judged. I am not saying that I have discovered that criteria. It’s just that I do not buy the argument that music is a subjective art and one that is governed purely by “personal taste.” It seems to me that music is not necessarily “morally neutral.” Though I am not necessarily talking about syncopation or rhythm or the drumbeat, I think it is fairly obvious that music has the power to elicit certain emotional responses from individuals, whether they realize it or not. And when such a truth is realized, musicians must not be careless in how their music is composed, performed, or presented.
To this end, Wolfgang Stefani writes,
From a Christian viewpoint, emotions like anger, hate, fear, love, or joy are not intrinsically good or bad. However, to present the lyric, “Jesus loves me this I know” with an accompanying musical/emotional message of fear and suspense would not simply be a harmless mismatch of cognitive and affective communication. According to Christian belief it would surely be crass misrepresentation of the Gospel (especially in light of 1 John 4:18) and hence, morally wrong, not merely aesthetically poor. The same would be true if lyrics about Jesus’ love for humanity were presented accompanied by music portraying anger, violence, and aggression. Such mixed messages provide a confused communication of truth that is morally reprehensible, not just a matter of taste (“Is Music Morally Neutral,” in Here We Stand, p. 407).
But what this also tells me is that “worship wars” need not be wars at all. If the Bible does not categorically condemn certain “types” of music, this leads me to believe that music is not a moral issue, per se. And it certainly isn’t an issue worth alienating relationships over. Let me explain what I mean.
If I was at a “Christian concert,” and the musician brought his son or daughter on to the stage, took out a knife, and started slashing that child in front of the whole audience, I would be under moral obligation to speak out against this atrocity in a very vocal way. But someone playing a drum on stage is not of the same moral magnitude. And my personal obligation to speak out against it publically—even if music psychology reveals that syncopation has a mesmerizing effect—is not to the same extant.
This reality applies to all areas of ethics and informs my interpersonal relationships. (This is something that I have been grappling with in general as I think about interacting with people who may not be living the same ethical life I am.) One of my battle cries is that I try to “meet people” where they are. This seems to have been Paul’s approach. To the Jew he became a Jew. To those who were “under the law,” he became as one under the law (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Of course, on the other hand, I recognize that you can only go so far in “meeting people where they are.” And this is the whole point: where does one draw the line?
For me, I think it revolves around the moral law—the Ten Commandments. Thus, if I am trying to minister to someone, I might be willing to put up with his/her music—which the Ten Commandments do not address (some might claim that a person’s music may reflect that he/she is worshiping other gods, but a person’s heart and motives cannot be read or judged. Thus, another person’s music—assuming the lyrics do not contradict the moral law—cannot be overtly condemned based on the Ten Commandments)—but I would not be willing to sit quietly by as he/she committed sexually immoral acts on stage.
Paul seems to address this in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 when he talks about food. He starts the former chapter by saying, “Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things.” Quite simply, as the Bible does not make any clear statements on music—to the extent that it does about murder or adultery or stealing—it is, to a large degree, a “doubtful thing.” In other words, as much as “conservatives” would like to believe that music is a “black and white” issue, it is a debatable and “doubtful” topic. If it were so clear, there wouldn’t be a continual debate over it.
Interestingly, what Paul is speaking about in these chapter is “food offered to idols.” He seems to indicate that this subject is disputable. But the irony of it is that, in the Jerusalem counsel, the church leaders already said that Gentiles should not eat food offered to idols. And yet Paul seems to downplay that—much to the chagrin of the “conservatives,” no doubt, who felt they already had a “thus saith the Lord” on the subject.
This tells me that a person has no right to stage a public demonstration when “disputable” music is being performed for worship. He might disagree with that music, and he may even have good reason to disagree with that music, but he has no right to put up a childish fuss over it and march out of an auditorium, with hands over his ears (as some have done in the past), in hopes that the rest of the audience will get the message. Such actions simply alienate and divide. And they are immature. And they are not following the biblical mandate to pursue reconciliation with your brothers or sisters if you have something against them. (UPDATE: I would not fault children for acting in such a way if this is what their parents would have them do. I know of a teenager that left each time these musicians started performing because - I believe - he/she knew this is what his/her parents would have wanted him/her to do had they been there. I think this is very appropriate, since honoring one's parents is a moral command.)
Of course, on the other hand, I think that those on the other side have the responsibility to not “offend” their brothers and sisters when it comes to this issue as well. Paul advised the Romans to “not destroy the work of God for the sake of food” (Romans 14:20). I think the word “music” could be replaced for “food.” He also told the Corinthians that they should “beware les somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak” (1 Cor 8:9).
As an example, I had a dear brother come to me a little while back, after I sang a song for special music in church that had a little drumbeat, requesting that I set a better example and not sing such music. I could have verily easily said, “It was just a little drumbeat. What’s the big deal? The Bible doesn’t condemn this!” That would not have been the loving or Christian thing to do, though. Why would I want to offend and cause division over something that is not a “moral” issue? Why would I want to alienate someone who I am trying to teach the Gospel to because of a stupid drum? I could have pulled out all the arguments as to why drums are not evil, but, though I may have won the “battle,” I probably would have lost the “war.”
Unfortunately, I think too many “liberals” choose to go to war over music, when it is not a hill worth dying on. Simply put, there are bigger fish to fry.
Click here for Part 2.