When Christ was asked about the great commandment in the Law, he answered without hesitation: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37). True worship of God is centered in our affections for him. As Jonathan Edwards rightly observed, “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” Indeed, a purely intellectualized worship is no worship at all.
This is one reason God has commanded that his people sing in corporate worship. Singing, Paul explains, allows believers to express their hearts to God, particularly thanksgiving (Col 3:16, Eph 5:19). The inspired songs of Scripture are filled with heart expression such as lament, contrition, thanksgiving, love, and praise.
However, the role of emotion and music in worship today has departed considerably from biblical precept and example. In fact, I would suggest that the relationship of emotion and music to worship in contemporary Christianity has shifted to such a significant degree that it hardly resembles what Scripture models.
This reality is clearly evident with recent events like the faux revival at Asbury University, the global popularity of worship music of groups like Hillsong, or, frankly, the entire contemporary worship movement. It is almost impossible to engage in thoughtful, biblical conversation with contemporary Christians about worship, music, and emotion due to fundamental shifts that have come to characterize contemporary evangelicalism.
In each of these cases, intense emotional expression has come to define the essence of true relationship with God. “The students at Asbury are so passionate about God!” So we dare not question the validity of what’s happening. “I can feel God’s presence in that worship!” So why wouldn’t we promote that music? If the nature of true worship is love for God, why would we question whether these movements are biblical?
John MacArthur summarized the reason well in the recent Shepherd’s Conference Q&A session when he described what happened at Asbury as “chords over Christ.” “Shut off the music and see what happens,” he challenged.
MacArthur put his finger on the issue I have been identifying for many years: music has taken on an unprecedented and, indeed, unbiblical role in contemporary evangelical worship today, in which music is used to create what modern Christians assume to be “feelings of spirituality,” “the felt presence of God,” and “revival.” And because this function has become so intrenched in contemporary evangelicalism, to question the music, the feelings, or the experiences is to question the very work of God in many evangelicals’ minds.
No wonder I get so much hate mail.
Nothing More Than Feelings
Yet carefully defining the true nature of spiritual experience based upon the Word of God is critical. And, in particular, we need to recognize how modern notions of “emotion” are not the same thing as what the Bible calls praise, joy, or love.
The category of “emotion” is a relatively recent term, only entering common discourse about 200 years ago. Prior to that, people didn’t use the term, and consequently, they had a far more nuanced understanding of human sensibility.
Thomas Dixon traces the creation and evolution of this idea in his very helpful book, From Passions to Emotions. He demonstrates how the idea of emotion “is little more than a hundred years old. Darwin’s Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (1872) and William James’ “What is an Emotion” (1884) are the first studies of the emotions using scientific methodology.”1Thomas Dixon, From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 8.
The category of emotion, shaped as it was by Enlightenment rationalism and Darwinian evolution, is defined primarily by effects upon the body, what we might call “feelings.” Then, with this more recent category firmly entrenched in modern thought, Christians read biblical descriptions of worship and relationship with God and define such realities also primarily in terms of feelings. Consequently, exhilaration, euphoria, and other merely chemical affects upon the body have come to define Christian worship and spirituality for most Christians today.
However, the biblical concept of affection was something entirely different. The fruit of the Spirit, for example, are by definition affections not inherently defined by physical feelings. Since God is a Spirit and does not have a body like man, affections like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are fundamentally spiritual. Though each of these affections certainly may affect the body, they are not defined by physical feelings.
Furthermore, even the nature of how spiritual affections affect the body or what kinds of feelings may accompany them differ from the nature of physical feelings typically associated with worship in contemporary evangelicalism.
For example, Michael Brown recently tweeted the following:
Immediately you can see his assumption that the modern category of emotion is inherently an essential part of worship. And so I responded to his tweet by listing many passages that do, indeed, caution against unbridled physical feelings:
- Romans 12:3 – Think with sober judgment
- Gal 5:23 – The fruit of the Spirit is self-control.
- 1 Thess 5:6, 8 – Be sober.
- 1 Tim 2:9 – women should be self-controlled.
- 1 Tim 3:2 – An overseer is to be sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable.
- 1 Tim 3:8 – Deacons must be dignified.
- 1 Tim 3:11 – Deacon’s wives must be dignified and sober-minded.
- 2 Tim 1:7 – God gave us a spirit of self-control.
- 2 Tim 3:3 – The last days will be characterized by lack of self-control.
- 2 Tim 4:5 – Paul commands Timothy to be sober-minded.
- Titus 1:8 – An overseer should be self-controlled and disciplined.
- Titus 2:2-6 – Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women are to be reverent in behavior. Younger women and younger men are to be self-controlled.
- Titus 2:12 – Renounce ungodliness and worldy passions, but be self-controlled.
- 1 Peter 1:13 Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
- 1 Peter 4:7 – The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.
- 1 Peter 5:8 – Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
- 2 Peter 1:6 – Add to your faith self-control and steadfastness.
Unbridled emotion is actually a mark of spiritual immaturity, while true spiritual affections have more modest affects upon the body. Religious affections will be characterized, not by intense euphoria, but by what Jonathan Edwards calls “the lamb-like, dove-like spirit or temper of Jesus Christ.” Truly Spirit-formed religious affections, according to Edwards, “naturally beget and promote such a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness, and mercy, as appeared in Christ.”2Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, New Ed. (Banner of Truth, 1978), 272.
Instead of cultivating true biblical religious affections, contemporary evangelicalism has become what a former professor of mine called a “glandular religion.”
With the secular category of emotion thoroughly impacting Christian interpretation of worship and relationship with God, Christians in the nineteenth century began to look for means to cultivate the kinds of feelings they assumed to be essential characteristics of conversion, spiritual growth, and worship.
They found the perfect tool in pop music.
Charles Finney was among the first to urge those leading his revival services to use music to create “feelings of spirituality.” Believing it was the preacher’s responsibility to create the proper conditions for revival through raising excitement, a kind of music designed to quickly manufacture such excitement was the ideal stimulant.
And stimulant is exactly what that music is. Pop music is specifically designed to produce immediate gratification through direct stimulation of bodily feelings. After Finney, this kind of music began to replace the substantive hymnody of church history past that was carefully chosen to give expression to biblical religious affections.
Since the earliest days of the church, church leaders had cautioned against using music in worship that was simply designed to stir up feelings. Clement of Alexandria, for example, insisted,
But we must abominate extravagant music, which enervates men’s souls, and leads to changefulness—now mournful, and then licentious and voluptuous, and then frenzied and frantic.3Stromateis VI 11, 89:4—90:2, trans. in Skeris, Croma Qeon, 78.
Rather, Clement argued that the church’s hymnody should employ “temperate harmonies.”4Paidagogos 2, 4 (GCS Clem. I 184 Stählin) in Johannes Quasten, Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (Washington, D.C.: National Association of Pastoral Musicians, 1983), … Continue reading In A New Song for an Old World, Calvin Stapert notes how uniform this understanding of music was among early pastors and theologians.
This emphasis was renewed during the Reformation. Martin Luther and other German reformers insisted that worship music embody reverence. For example, Johann Konrad Dannhauer required that music be “sacred, glowing with love, humble, dignified, the praise of God sung by the voice of men and instruments with becoming grace and majesty,” contrasted with “profane music, which is unspiritual, frivolous, proud, irreverent.”5Johann Konrad Dannhauer, Hodsophia Christiana Seu Theologia Positiva, 1666, 511; translated in Kalb, Theology of Worship, 142. Likewise, Balthasar Meisner insisted,
Let all levity, and sensualism be absent [in worship music]. On the contrary, let gravity and a pious intent of the mind prevail, which does not contemplate and pursue bare harmony but devoutly fits and joins to it the inmost desires and affections. For unless a ready spirit is joined to the turns of the voice and a vigilant and fervent heart to the varied words, we weary God and ourselves in vain with that melody. For not our voice but our prayer, not musical chords but the heart, and a heart not clamoring but loving, sings in the ear of God.6Meisner, Collegium Adiaphoristicum, 220; translated in Kalb, Theology of Worship, 142.
John Calvin, too, insisted that music used for worship fit its solemn purpose, having “weight” and “majesty” rather than being “light” or “frivolous.”7John Calvin, “Preface to the Genevan Psalter, 1542, in Hymnology: A Collection of Source Readings (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1996), 67.
These theologians understood the proper place and function of music in worship. They knew that biblically, emotion and singing come as a result of the Spirit’s work through the Word of God in a believer’s life, not as a cause of the Holy Spirit’s work. Calvin Stapert helpfully makes this point with reference to Ephesians 5:18–19 and Colossians 3:16:
“Spirit filling” does not come as the result of singing. Rather, “Spirit filling” comes first; singing is the response. . . . Clear as these passages are in declaring that Christian singing is a response to the Word of Christ and to being filled with the Spirit, it is hard to keep from turning the cause and effect around. Music, with it stimulating power, can too easily be seen as the cause and the “Spirit filling” as the effect.8Calvin R. Stapert, A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), 19–20.
“Such a reading of the passages,” Stapert argues, “gives song an undue epicletic function and turns it into a means of beguiling the Holy Spirit.” He argues that such a “magical epicletic function” characterized pagan worship music, not Christian.9Stapert, 20.
In other words, in Scripture, it is Christ over chords. True spiritual affections are created within us by allowing the Word of Christ to richly dwell within us; singing then helps us to express those affections that were created by the Spirit of Christ filling us with the Word of Christ.
The Pentecostalization of Evangelical Worship
The evangelical expectation of intense feelings manufactured by music as the essence of spirituality was only exacerbated by Pentecostalism in the twentieth century. Charismatic theologians argue that the Holy Spirit’s primary work in worship is that of making God’s presence known in observable, tangible ways such that worshipers can truly encounter God. This theology places a high emphasis and expectation in worship upon physical expressiveness and intensity, resulting in what is sometimes called a “Praise and Worship” theology of worship. The goal, in this theology, is to experience the presence of God in worship, but praise is considered the means through which Christians do so.
This change in theology of worship led to a new understanding of worship music perhaps best described by Ruth Ann Ashton’s 1993 God’s Presence through Music,10Ruth Ann Ashton, God’s Presence through Music (South Bend, IN: Lesea Publishing Co., 1993). raising the matter of musical style to a level of significance that Lim and Ruth describe as “musical sacramentality,” where music is now considered a primary means through which “God’s presence could be encountered in worship.”11Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth, Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017), 18.
Musically Manufactured Emotion is No Work of God
The use of music to manufacture “feelings of spirituality” is exactly why Hillsong and the whole contemporary worship music movement are so popular—take away the music, and you eliminate the “feelings of spirituality.” In fact, the Hillsong documentary that came out last year made this very point:
The use of music to manufacture “revival” is what drove the events at Asbury—take away the music, and you eliminate the “revival.” Since when is a bunch of college kids swaying to music for multiple consecutive days revival?
MacArthur was right: in most of evangelicalism today, it is chords over Christ.
True religion does consist in the religious affections, and music is a wonderful gift from God that helps to give expression to the affections created by the Spirit through his Word.
But we must be careful to define spiritual affections biblically and put music in its proper place. Otherwise, we risk worshiping chords instead of Christ.
|1||Thomas Dixon, From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 8.|
|2||Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, New Ed. (Banner of Truth, 1978), 272.|
|3||Stromateis VI 11, 89:4—90:2, trans. in Skeris, Croma Qeon, 78.|
|4||Paidagogos 2, 4 (GCS Clem. I 184 Stählin) in Johannes Quasten, Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (Washington, D.C.: National Association of Pastoral Musicians, 1983), 68.|
|5||Johann Konrad Dannhauer, Hodsophia Christiana Seu Theologia Positiva, 1666, 511; translated in Kalb, Theology of Worship, 142.|
|6||Meisner, Collegium Adiaphoristicum, 220; translated in Kalb, Theology of Worship, 142.|
|7||John Calvin, “Preface to the Genevan Psalter, 1542, in Hymnology: A Collection of Source Readings (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1996), 67.|
|8||Calvin R. Stapert, A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), 19–20.|
|10||Ruth Ann Ashton, God’s Presence through Music (South Bend, IN: Lesea Publishing Co., 1993).|
|11||Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth, Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017), 18.|