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Music – can’t live with it, can’t live without it (at least in the church, right?!)

In the past few months I’ve had many conversations with various people about the ins and outs, the ups and downs and the pros and cons of certain kinds of music in the context of the local church.  I wanted to get some of my thoughts on ‘paper’, hence this post.  I thought it would be a good idea to write this in a Q & A format in hopes that my position(s) will come across clear.  Here goes nothing –

Q.  Is there any music that is completely, non-debatable, off limits for both private and corporate use?

A.  Yes.  Music that blasphemes God, teaches false doctrines, makes light of sin or promotes immorality is flat out wrong, evil and should not only be rejected by Christians but preached and taught against to expose it’s dangers.  It is never acceptable to use artistic expression to seriously or in a jovial way dishonor God, his word, his truth or his people.  Any art and obviously music, that makes light of sin or promotes the breaking of God’s law, whether done blatantly or insidiously is evil and is to be exposed for what it is – an idol that leads people astray from the true and living God.

Q.  Is there any music that is morally neutral?

A. Yes.  Now, I fully realize that I may have made some of my readers close this window and storm off.  I completely understand why they would do that.  There was as time in my life as a believer when I would have done the same.  However, I can’t now, in good conscience, say that a certain type of music is immoral purely based on how it sounds or associations it may or may not carry.  Some music simply is just music.  A certain song to some may be terribly troubling because of all the “baggage” it brings to the table for that particular believer.  That exact same song, to another person, means absolutely nothing and gives rise to nothing negative when they hear it.  The music is neutral.  I would actually argue that the following things, pertaining to music, are in themselves neutral:

  1. Key
  2. Style
  3. Volume
  4. Tempo
  5. Chord progression
  6. Instruments used
  7. Amplification
  8. Distortion

Let me be clear.  What I’m not saying is that there is some music that is off the hook (no hip hop pun intended there) from being carefully analyzed, listened to in a discerning way and set side by side with the Scriptures at all times.  We must handle all forms of media this way.  I’m also not saying that if one person is fine with certain music, then everyone ought to be fine with it and listen to it all the time.

What I am saying is that we can’t call certain music intrinsically good or intrinsically evil purely based on the list of eight things above that may trouble us.  We all bring certain backgrounds, biases and experiences with music into the church with us.  Even if we grew up in the church, we bring that experience, and the messages we heard about music all of our lives, into the context of our current local church situation.  We can’t deny or get around this reality.  What we need to do is get better at realizing where the line is between intrinsically evil/off-limits music and the realm of personal preference.

Let me give you an example.  As a non-Christian, I grew up listening to rap music.  I know there has been an emergence of a new Christian rap scene in the church over the last few years. Personally, I do not really like rap music.  It has a lot of associations from my upbringing (There are not a few rap songs that I wish I could still get out of my head!) that I don’t like and I don’t really like the style of it as a type of music either.  But – I am not allowed, purely based on these personal preferences, to write off all Christian rap music as evil or ungodly.  It’s simply not.  Now, if the lyrics are ungodly or blasphemous, then I could condemn it.  But much of the Christian rap is not only theologically sound, but actually reformed in nature as to its lyrical content. There are people who have no negative memories or ‘baggage’ connected to hip hop or rap music and could actually be edified by hearing the Heidelberg Catechism put to a rap beat.  I say, ‘praise God!’ for that.  I cannot condemn a brother who enjoys something his own conscience allows him to enjoy (read Romans 14).  As long as its not evil, go for it.  Sadly, we think that because it ‘feels’ evil to us, it must be evil.  We ought not to think that way when thinking about what others can and cannot do.  If your own conscience restrains you from partaking because of this ‘feeling’ of evil, then don’t.  By all means, don’t go against your conscience.  But that principle doesn’t apply when another Christian wants to partake in something that is morally neutral.

Q. Should all different styles of music be used in corporate worship in all local churches?

A. No.  Each church is different.  Each individual is different and these individuals make up individual churches.  Preferences for different types of music will be diverse in any group of Christians.  This is actually a good thing and should be celebrated.  But – this diversity in personal preference cannot always translate smoothly into corporate worship.  And this is OK too.  I happen to love 90’s Vineyard Worship music.  But I completely understand that our local body wouldn’t all love every one of those songs.  I don’t even like every single one of them :).  The point is that we can’t take each of our personal preferences for music and assume that because we think the music we like is great, everyone else is missing out if we don’t start singing that music together as a local church.  That’s not how it works.  We each will have our personal tastes, but when we come together as the church, we set those personal tastes aside.  You see, the gospel, Christ, the Lord is bigger than musical styles.  The Lord is bigger than A Capella or drums.  The Lord is all and all else is small.  We ought to fight to maintain this unity among ourselves.  Too often we are fighting for uniformity and not unity.  Diversity within our unity is a wonderful thing.  That’s why the four living creatures and the 24 elders fell down and sang,

“You are worthy…because you …purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation…”   –Rev 5:9

In conclusion I would say this.  Music ought never  to divide us.  Unless that music violates one of the moral issues I’ve raised above.  On the flip side however, music also ought never to unite us.  At least not the style of music.  We are not united by a music style, a genre, a volume or instruments used to create music.  We are united In Christ and this is the unity that trumps all else.  This is the unity we should fight to maintain while we all gather to sing a new song to the Lord who has put it in our heart.