Parameters for the Christian music debate, part 2

In the previous post, I explained the problem with each of the different approaches to teaching music in the current Christian music debate.  In this post, I’ll explain the problem with the interpretation of Scripture in the Christian music debate.

 Unfortunately, many people do not properly interpret the Scriptures, even those who accept it as entirely authoritative.  It is very important for you to recognize the difference between a principle and a precept.  When someone takes a principle and turns it into a precept, they have violated the warning in Proverbs 30:6, “Add thou not unto His (God’s) words, lest He reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.”

I’ll illustrate.  Fundamental Baptist preachers have, for years, used Deuteronomy 22:5 to teach that ladies should not wear any kind of slacks.  They have turned the principle into a precept.  The fact is that it was written exclusively to the nation of Israel.  Though the command was not written to the New Testament Christian, the principle is clear, “God’s design is that there is a distinction between men and women.”  The proper attitudes of masculinity and femininity can be observed in this verse.  But, since Paul’s words in 1st Timothy 2:9 were written to a church pastor in order to teach to a local assembly, they apply as a precept to New Testament church ladies.

Another example would be in Deuteronomy 6:7.  The Israelites were commanded to teach the law diligently to their children, talking of it when they were sitting, walking, lying down and getting up.  I have seen this verse on many homeschool websites as a defense for homeschooling and as a proof that neither Christian nor public schools are acceptable for believers today.  Again, this can (and should) be interpreted by New Testament Christians as a principle for good parenting – but not a mandate to homeschool.  However, Ephesians 6:4 and Colossians 3:21 are mandates to New Testament, Spirit filled men who are risen with Christ!

(For the record, my family lives by the two principles: we practice a clear gender distinction and we are passionately committed to the discipleship of our children!)

Principles are multi-dispensational, but precepts are restricted to the recipients.  Interestingly, principles allow for much more individual soul liberty than precepts do.  Principles also give more opportunity for one to demonstrate a willing love for Christ than do precepts, which can be obeyed with no love for Christ.  (I’ll write more about this at another time.)

The reason that I bring this up in relationship to music is that there are many principles regarding music that can be observed throughout the entire Bible, but the reality is that there are very few passages of Scripture in the New Testament writings which present precepts regarding music and its practice in the New Testament church.

Now, as an example that relates to music, the book of the Psalms has regularly been referred to as the Hebrew Hymnal.  The book is an invaluable resource as it relates to learning principles of corporate worship.  The Hallel portions especially, 113-118, 120-134, and 145-150, are a fascinating study.  For Israel, this was their hymnal, but the various commands for Israel in their worship would serve only as examples by which we build principles, not precepts.  The instructions in Psalm 47:1 “clap your hands all ye people” and in Psalm 134:2 to “lift up your hands” are not mandates for New Testament Christian believers who are participating in a regular worship service.

Because of the importance of the subject, I’ll elaborate on the rarity of commands regarding N.T. church music.

The Psalms are quoted in the gospels, but these are not songs relative to N.T. church worship.  Instead, they are generally demonstrating the fulfillment of prophecy.

The first place where one of the Epistles uses the idea of singing is Romans 15:9. This verse is a quotation from Psalm 18:49 in which Paul is proving that the gospel has been designed to go to the Gentiles.  In fact, Paul quotes a whole bunch of O.T. Scriptures in a row to prove the point of the universality of the gospel.  Contextually, that verse has nothing to do with N.T. church practice.

James 5:13 gives instruction to the one who is merry to “sing psalms.”  Here, you must remember that the book of James was primarily addressed to Jewish believers – so their worship would have still had the O.T. connection to nationalism and patriotism (though the precept for them should translate into a principle here).  I’ll explain the nationalism and patriotism of Israel in my 3rd post of this series.

The book of the Revelation has three references to singing: 5:9, 14:3 and 15:3.  The latter two (14:3 and 15:3) are impossible references for the church, it has already been raptured.  The 14:3 reference is the song that only the 144,000 Jewish witnesses knew.  The 15:3 reference is the song of those who survived the tribulation – that eliminates anyone who is a believer now.  5:9 refers to the 4 and 20 elders who probably are representatives of the raptured church, but since that is future and in heaven, that reference can’t really be used determinatively for the music of this dispensation.   The object of the worship and the holiness of the participants, are certainly displayed and creates an awe inspiring picture, but the book of Revelation is hardly prescriptive of N.T. church practice.

Amazingly, that leaves the careful Bible student only 3 passages of Scripture that directly relate to the practice of music for N.T. Christians.  Those are found in 1st Corinthians 14, Ephesians 5, and Colossians 3.  I’ll explain each passage in the 4th post of this series.

The point is that you must be careful to make sure that your interpretation of Scripture is correct.  There are principles that can be learned from the Old Testament, but you only have the authority to say, “God said” where God actually said something.  The warning of Agur bears repeating, “add thou not unto His words, lest He reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.” (Proverbs 30:6)  Furthermore, when preachers misuse a passage of Scripture, they have essentially emptied the Word of its inherent power.  When the Word of God is used according to the original intent of the Holy Spirit, it is “quick and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword . . .”

Part 3 will be posted in a couple of days.  Check back soon!

Parameters for the Christian music debate, part 1

Several years ago, I learned a valuable lesson from Dr. Surrett, a professor from college.  He and I, along with Alton Beal (then the Dean of Men, now the President) were selected as the judges for a contest deciding who – on the Ambassador Baptist College staff – had made the best homemade ice cream.  Dr. Surrett taught logic and he practiced it.  Alton and I huddled in a corner with Dr. Surrett, and though no one was chosen to be the chair of our little committee, Dr. Surrett just immediately stated, “now, we need to judge the ice cream based on 3 criteria: taste, texture, and consistency; and remember that flavor may be somewhat subjective!”  I almost think he had been planning on judging that contest for days.  I was so amazed by his analytical approach that I almost forgot about the ice cream.

The lesson I learned was this, “define a problem before trying to solve it!”  Or in the case of the ice cream, set the standards before just yelling, “this one tastes the best!”  What if Dr. Surrett liked peach, I liked Heath, and Alton liked chocolate?  There had to be objectivity and Dr. Surrett lifted us beyond our favorite flavor.

By the way, based on his criteria, it was pretty easy for us all to agree on which ice cream was the best.

Where am I going with this?

In the Christian music debate, people are yelling “this is the best flavor” or “I can’t stand that flavor” because the whole debate is lacking in objectivity.

My purpose in this writing is to help set some parameters by which Christians can judge music.  I intend to speak (write) the truth in love!

First, there is a problem with the approach used in the debate.

There are three problems that I see with the typical approaches to teaching on music.  Here is each one and a corresponding example of a phrase that illustrates it.  By the way, these are not straw men; I have heard each of them.

1.  The personal approach . . . “that music is just too sweet” (subjective) – who defines sweet? Who is the authority?  Is that not just personal preference?  What one person likes, another may not.  One may say it is too loud, or too peppy, or too slow, or too fast, or too quiet . . . etc.  In a subject as emotionally charged as music, not many thinking people are going to be persuaded to change or accept a musical style just because the pastor or teacher says, “I don’t like it.”

2.  The philosophical approach . . . “is music moral or amoral?”  While I do have philosophical opinions regarding whether music is moral or amoral, that particular question makes the issue of music an ongoing debate.  Whoever can craft the best argument and state it the most eloquently or persuasively seems to be the de facto winner.  The problem with a debate is that it is usually a rhetorical war between two sides which have no intention of ever changing positions; the goal is not to listen to the merits of an opposing side with an open mind, but to listen with the intent of finding the weakness of his opponent’s argument in order to be able to undermine it!  Sometimes, the wrong side is able to destroy the assertions of the correct side because of superior debating abilities, but it doesn’t make his position correct (just reminisce about a couple of our last presidential campaign cycles and debates).  In the philosophical method, it is too easy for the wrong side to look like the right side; human rationale is the persuader instead of the Scriptures.

3.  The technical approach . . .  “a syncopated beat appeals to the flesh.”  The majority of people do not know enough musical theory to be able to determine what is technically good or bad.  I agree with the assessment that certain kinds of music are theoretically and technically incorrect.  Most Contemporary Christian Music will manipulate chords and harmony as well as rhythm and beat in order to affect a person’s senses.  Again, most believers, including preachers, do not have the musical training to determine what is good or bad according to music theory.  For the sake of illustration, I probably have more musical training than most pastors – including college level music theory, but I cannot immediately analyze complex timing, harmonic surges, and chordal resolutions (or lack thereof).  How many church members could?

In reality, the technical approach is almost the spirit of Gnosticism because it leaves the common person at the mercy of the trained musical analyst.  The following is a true story of which I’m a firsthand witness.  A preacher said that he didn’t understand what good music was and wasn’t.  So, his daughter, who was a musician, was able to help him determine what was acceptable Christian music.  In fact, he testified of finding some music, purchasing it, and enjoying listening to it until his daughter came in with shock and said, “Dad, what are you listening to?”  I was grieved at that conversation and thought to myself, “that is not right!  There must be principles by which any Christian, musician or not, can use as a filter to determine what is acceptable and what is not.”  You do not have to be a musician to know what kind of music either pleases or displeases God – you need to know the Bible and the character of God.

Pastors and leaders should recognize the failures of these three approaches, either too much subjectivity (which makes the teacher/preacher seem silly and shallow), too much philosophy (which makes the teacher/preacher seem like a debater who has lowered himself to the humanist’s level), or too much technical theory (which makes the teacher/preacher seem aloof and the listener ignorant and dependent).  I will present a fourth approach, which is the proposition that the Bible sufficiently empowers believers to determine what is good and what is not good regarding music, apart from undue dependence on subjectivity, philosophic assertions, or theoretical acumen.  I’ll call this the Simple approach.

4.  The Simple approach . . . regardless of skills in musical theory, “every believer has the potential to discern that which is good and that which is not.”  There are two tools which play into this potential.  One is the Word of God, the other is the Holy Spirit which convinces of sin, righteousness and of judgment.  This will be filled out later.

The teaching approach must be determined!  Will the topic of music be addressed personally and subjectively, will it be addressed philosophically and rhetorically, will it be addressed theoretically and academically, or will it be addressed simply, Scripturally, and Spiritually?  Granted, the first three approaches may be utilized and are not necessarily wrong, but the last must be the primary and the others used only for very limited support.

Having determined the teaching approach, we are prepared to move to the next problem.  Check back soon!