Reflections on the “Worship Wars,” Part Two

In the first part of my discussion of this topic, published back in November, I spent most of the space simply defining terms. After all, so many in the church debate the question of “traditional” versus “contemporary” music in worship, and yet in the absence of a standard definition of these terms it is no wonder that these discussions often generate more heat than light. Before proceeding with new material, I want to repeat the summary and conclusions to that article to provide context for what I will write today and the next time I revisit this topic. Because that piece and today’s originated as Sunday School lesson notes, I am retaining the bulleted list format of that material, though the text has been modified somewhat to be more suitable for written communication.

  • Neither the “traditional” nor the “contemporary” camps are without difficulties in their positions. Even defining these terms is difficult, if not impossible in this context.
  • To prefer the old because it is old, or to prefer the new because it is new are both attitudes which are unscriptural and unhelpful.
    • Christ warned the Pharisees about elevating their traditions to the point that they were made superior to Scripture. (Mark 7:6-8)
    • Moses admonished the people of Israel to revere their elders. (Leviticus 19:32) We would do well to heed this command, even though to do so defies the cult of youth that dominates our society.
    • There is a place for psalms and hymns that express simple concepts, and for those that cover complex points of doctrine. Both are in Scripture, and music is an effective tool for teaching both. I suspect that this is why God has called us to use music in teaching. (Colossians 3:16)
    • We must be aware of the changes that the development of commercial music has forced in our listening and perception of music, and be careful to guard against this influence in the church.
    • Brotherly love should permeate our thoughts and discussions on this matter. Too often “traditional” music advocates alienate young people and display little regard for reaching the lost, and “contemporary” advocates alienate and disregard the wisdom of their elders. This is not how Christians should behave.

I wrote in that earlier post that I thought the “traditional versus contemporary” debate was inherently misguided. Today I want to demonstrate why I think this is the case, and present a way of thinking about music in worship that is grounded in Scripture, is at least broadly faithful to the Westminster Standards, and that I think to a certain extent transcends the contemporary discussion. To do this, I need to first provide an extended summary of how I believe we should consider music in worship. While these are my opinions and thus subject to debate, I do hope that the biblical, confessional, and practical bases for my reasoning will be clear. In the third and final installment in this series, God willing, I will turn to application of these ideas.

A Summary of My Views on Music and Worship

1. God takes His worship VERY seriously.

  • “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.”  (Deuteronomy 12:32)
  • “Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the LORD has said, “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.”’ And Aaron held his peace.” (Leviticus 10:1-3)
    • God made an example of Nadab and Abihu, demonstrating that He demands that He be worshiped only in the way that he has commanded. Thankfully, He has not chosen to exercise His full wrath against this sin in a moment the way that He did with Nadab and Abihu—or Uzzah for that matter (cf. 2 Samuel 6), otherwise there would be professing Christians lying dead in sanctuaries all over this country, and many of us even would not be here. Still, just because He doesn’t instantly exercise punishment for erroneous worship practices does not mean that “anything goes.” Sin is still sin, and we will be punished for it; or Christ has been on our behalf.
  • Also consider Question 109 from our Larger Catechism, which speaks to this question. “Q. 109. What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment? A. The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and anywise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshipping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them, all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed.”
    • Some of our Dispensationalist brethren would say that these commands are “Old Testament,” and since that is no longer in effect the OT admonitions about worship are no longer in effect. Malachi 3:6 tells us that the Lord does not change, and so if He regarded uncommanded worship practices with contempt then, He still does today.

2. To my understanding, the central element of New Testament worship is preaching (1 Corinthians 1:21, 2 Timothy 4:1-2), followed by the sacraments and prayer. (WCF XIV.1, WLC 108). It is through preaching that God is most often pleased to save and to build up His people—and I say this as a Gideon that distributes God’s Word actively and prays diligently that those Bibles will reach those that can’t or won’t hear preaching. The sacraments and prayer also are very much used by God to build His church.

  • Music, on the other hand, is actually pretty far down the list in terms of importance in worship, and must not be given undue emphasis. I would go so far as to say that it is a means of assisting in other elements of worship—particularly instruction in the Word of God—as much or more so than it is an element in itself.

3. The primary purpose of music in corporate worship stated in the New Testament is instruction, not performance. There really is very little mention of music at all in the New Testament, and almost none of that instructs us how we are to use music in worship. But, we do find a prescription in Colossians 3:

  • In Colossians 3:16, Paul tells us that we are to use music not only to praise God (as the Psalms repeatedly command), but to teach the Word of God. We must choose music that teaches us about God and His Word, not about our subjective experience of God.
    • It might be worth noting, by the way, that even those Psalms which offer praise to God in light of the Psalmist’s own personal experience still speak of God’s being and attributes objectively. In Psalm 9, for example, David does speak of how God has dealt with him specifically, but immediately turns and grounds this in praise and declaration of God’s attributes and deeds objectively. We also must seek to do this. Our subjective feelings are not entirely out-of-bounds, but in corporate worship we should seek to sing about who God is, not our feelings about Him. The infamous “Jesus is my Boyfriend songs” are definitely “out!”

4. If we are going to praise God for who He and teach the congregation His Word through singing, then clearly only music with sound texts, solidly grounded in Scripture, must be used in corporate worship. Singing of the Psalms is always a welcome element of worship, one firmly grounded in our Reformed tradition. While other hymns can be used, taking the Psalms as “models” is not at all unwise.

5. This purpose also demands relative simplicity in the music used in corporate worship, lest the music itself overshadow the teaching of God’s Word via singing, or the opportunity for instruction be lost because congregants have difficulty singing the music.

  • I once had a discussion with a fellow church member who was suspicious that I brought the word “simple” into this discussion. Let me try to explain well what I mean. When I say “simple” I do not mean “childish.” I think that the music we use in worship should be of the best possible quality and even the greatest possible profundity. That said, while our church music should be good and it should be profound, it should not be ostentatious. Music should not overshadow preaching and sacrament, nor should music that is difficult for congregants to sing be used for congregational singing—this can rob church members of the opportunity for instruction and for offering praise through song because they are struggling with execution.

6. This instructive purpose further demands that the music to which a text is set be appropriate for the mood and meter of that text. If we are going to use a given hymn to teach a scriptural concept, or to offer praise to God for a particular attribute, these purposes will be best served if the music “goes with” the text. Incongruency here can cause a certain type of “cognitive dissonance” which is unhelpful.

7. Any use of music which tends toward creating a concert or performance atmosphere in corporate worship should be avoided, as this tends toward the exaltation of the performer and/or the music itself over God and His Word. **This applies to both traditional and contemporary music.**

  • WCF XXI.2: “Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to him alone: not to angels, saints, or any other creature: and since the fall, not without a Mediator; nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone.”
    • You might ask, what does this have to do with anything? It is easy to, consciously or unconsciously, make an idol out of music or musicians. In corporate worship, we must err on the side of caution, and stay far away from any hint of this behavior. Our worship must be focused upon God and His Word. Musical performances are great, but corporate worship is neither the time nor the place for music to take center-stage.
    • (It might be worth noting as an aside, that Reformed believers can also tend to grant “rock-star” status to great preachers, the way that others might do to their favorite musicians. This must be avoided, as well.)

8. Musical styles which excite the emotions to the point that worshipers are hindered in seriously considering the texts being sung or read and exposited elsewhere in the service should be avoided in corporate worship. **This also applies to both traditional and contemporary music.**

  • “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.” (Titus 2:1-8)
  • Too often we hear of churches that get the congregation all “worked up” through the use of exciting music, and then declaring the Holy Spirit to have “moved.” This charge is usually laid at the feet of those holding “contemporary” services, but a similar effect can be obtained through the use of big choirs, organs, and orchestras for those given to more “traditional” forms. Music can very easily stir the emotions, and those that think that a heightened emotional state created through the use of music is evidence of a “work of the Spirit” are naïve, confused, or maybe even blasphemous.
  • Paul admonishes us in Titus to be sober-minded people. When applied to music, this doesn’t mean that we cannot express very deep and strong emotion musically, but getting so emotionally “worked up” that we can’t think straight is not honoring to God.

9. Scripture frequently admonishes us to reverence that which is old, in terms of both people and ideas (cf. Leviticus 19:32). The idea that the church should change—in music or in any other area—in order to accommodate the fleeting tastes and desires of the young is prevalent in our society, but foreign to Scripture. Our society is obsessed with youth, with being young, staying young (or young-looking), and being “current” and “trendy” in our tastes. The church has too often followed the world in this behavior, and should repent of it.

10. That said, not everything that is old is good. I do not apologize for my preference for that which is “traditional.” However, while traditions are often good, “traditionalism” is not. We are not go to chasing after whatever young people view as “trendy,” but neither are we to accept worship music or practices just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Remember: Our Lord admonished the Pharisees sharply for holding to tradition over the Word of God (ex. Mark 7:6-13).

11. Each hymn or song must be judged on its own merits, including the fidelity of its text to Scripture, and the quality and appropriateness of its musical setting. The consideration of whether it is “traditional” or “contemporary” is a tertiary matter, if that.

12. That a particular musical song or piece, or style of music, is not appropriate for corporate worship does not mean that it cannot be honoring to God in its proper place (provided that it is not somehow vulgar or immoral).

  • Handel’s Messiah is a wonderful piece of music—basically over two hours of portions of the King James Version set to music. Would it surprise you, then, to know that Messiah was not intended for use in the church? It was intended for concert performance. Is it a God-honoring piece of music? I think so, but the concert atmosphere created by bringing a large chorus, soloists, and orchestra into the worship service is unbiblical and counterproductive.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, I know a number of people that enjoy “Reformed Rap,” where Christian rap artists expound some of the deeper points of Christian and even specifically Reformed doctrine using rap. Is this a good thing? Believe it or not, I think so. Rap lends itself to expressing lengthy and complex ideas in a way that is more difficult for other musical forms. I am wary of bringing it into the worship service, though, for the same reason that I am wary of staging Messiah in the worship service. When we gather for corporate worship, we gather to sing God’s praises, to be taught ourselves by singing the doctrines of the faith, to pray, to take the sacraments, and to hear the Word expounded. Of course, rap won’t work for congregational singing, but I think there’s a danger of the “concert atmosphere” here, as well.

13. Again, reverence for God and love for the brethren should govern and permeate our thoughts and decisions in this area. Many churches have split over the subject of music, which should be absurd to those that believe the Bible since the New Testament in particular places so little emphasis upon music. We must find a way to honor God and maintain the unity of the church in our musical choices. Young people, you have no right or place to demand that your parents and grandparents change the music in worship to suit your popular tastes. Older folks, you also should regard the young in an understanding way, acting with wisdom and discernment regarding their requests for new music, and being willing to examine newer music and even use that which is God-honoring in it. Again, traditions are usually good—“traditionalism,” doing things a certain way “because that is how we have always done it” rather than based upon Scriptural principles, is not.

  • In Romans 14 we learn that there are some matters about which Scripture does not speak to us in a comprehensive way, and music in worship is one of those matters. We are to regard one another with brotherly affection and, when possible, accommodation when differences of opinion occur. When both sides of a dispute act in this way, divisions in the Body are often avoided.

14. As part of the church spanning not only the globe but also all of history, we should delight in worshiping God by singing the same music as our forebears from earlier centuries, just as we delight in expressing our unity with this church by reciting the ancient creeds and through our adherence to the Westminster Standards. A reverence and even preference for the old is safest and, I believe, best. That said, our God has not ceased the granting of musical gifts to His people, and the careful and judicious appropriation of newer works into our services is appropriate, provided that the “new” is being appropriated upon solid theological and musical grounds, and not simply because it is new. Old and new should both be continually examined for theological soundness, musical quality, and usefulness in worship.

While I had hoped to complete my writing on this topic today, I have already extended well beyond the length in which one should indulge in a blog post. God willing, I will revisit this topic on August 30, and bring to bear some applications of these ideas as well as conclusions.

This material is derived from notes for a series of Sunday School lessons presented at Calhoun Presbyterian Church, Calhoun, Louisiana, between August 7 and September 11, 2011.

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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