In a previous article, I argued that music (all art) embodies interpretation of reality—it embodies ideas beyond mere words. Scripture itself does this, not only telling us what we should believe, qualities that should describe us, and how we should live, but also showing us through artistic embodiment those things. Therefore, we Christians ought to always evaluate the embodied ideas within a work of art to determine whether or not they accord with sound doctrine (Titus 2:1).
Two Worship Theologies
This brings us to music used in worship. As I’ve argued, what worship songs do is more than just neutrally carry theological ideas expressed through words. If this were the case, then as long as the words were theologically correct, it would not matter what musical forms or performance style carries those words.
Side note: I hope you recognize here that even lyrics that are “technically” correct may already present an interpretation of biblical ideas that do not “accord with sound doctrine.” This is beyond the scope what I want to get to in this article, but just consider whether “reckless” or “sloppy wet kiss” accords with how Scripture expresses God’s love. These are not just neutral expressions of a correct biblical truth (God’s love), they embody a particular interpretation of what God’s love is like.
Music is not simply a neutral container for lyrical ideas—music embodies an interpretation of those ideas. So with worship songs, the music embodies both an interpretation of the particular words of the song and an interpretation of what is actually happening in the worship service.
So before I give some attention to the music itself, we need to briefly review the fact that Christians hold to more than one theology of worship.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll focus on what I would say are the two most dominant theologies of worship among Christians today.1A third theology of worship—or at least practice of worship—might be described as traditional free church worship in which hymns are sung to traditional acoustic instrumentation without a lot of … Continue reading
The first is what I’ll call Covenant-Renewal Worship. This is a theology of worship that considers the Lord’s Day corporate gathering to be one of covenant renewal in which God renews his covenant with his people through the gospel, and his people renew their covenant with him in responses of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and dedication. This kind of covenant renewal glorifies God because it highlights the work that he has done, and it forms his people to mature in how they live out the implications of that gospel covenant. Here’s how I describe it in Biblical Foundations of Corporate Worship:
Corporate worship is like renewing our gospel vows to Christ. Just like when we were first converted, God calls us to draw near to him. Just like at our conversion, we respond with confession of sin and acknowledgement that we have broken God’s laws. Just like when we were first saved, we hear words of pardon from God because of the sacrifice of Christ. Just like when we began our relationship with God, we eagerly listen to his instructions and commit to obey. We are not getting “re-saved” each week, but we are renewing our covenant vows to the Lord, and in so doing, we are rekindling our relationship with him and our commitment to him, and he with us.2Scott Aniol, Biblical Foundations of Corporate Worship (Conway, AR: Free Grace Press, 2022), 43.
Worship services shaped by this theology follow the shape of the gospel:
- God reveals himself and calls his people to worship through his Word.
- God’s people acknowledge and confess their need for forgiveness.
- God provides atonement.
- God speaks his Word.
- God’s people respond with commitment.
- God hosts a celebratory feast.
Corporate worship that embodies this theology is dialogical, a conversation between God and his people. God always speaks first through his Word, and then his people respond appropriately to God’s revelation.
As Bryan Chapell has helpfully demonstrated in Christ-Centered Worship, and as I demonstrate in Changed from Glory into Glory: The Liturgical Story of the Christian Faith, covenant-renewal worship characterized believers in the early church and Protestants following the seventeenth-century Reformation. Though differences certainly exist between various groups stemming from the Reformation, their theology of covenant-renewal worship was fairly consistent. Another book that very helpfully explains this historic theology of worship is Jonathan Cruse’s What Happens When We Worship.
Songs within this covenant-renewal worship serve one of two functions: (1) Often psalms and hymns serve as God’s words to us, either directly quoting from or paraphrasing Scripture itself. (2) Psalms and hymns can also serve as our response to God’s revelation.
With both cases, choice of songs depends upon how the lyrical content fits within the dialogical, gospel-shaped covenant renewal service. Songs are not lumped together into a musical “set,” but rather interspersed with Scripture readings and prayers throughout the dialogical, gospel-shaped service.
The goal of covenant-renewal worship is discipleship—building up the body (1 Cor 14:26). Every aspect of the service is chosen, not for how it will give “authentic expression” to the worshipers or give them an experience of God’s presence (see below), but rather how it will build them up, maturing them by the Word of God.
The music itself is actually not very prominent in this theology of worship. Music is important—as I’ve discussed, it provides an interpretation of the theology of the lyrics and gives expression to that interpretation. But music is secondary. The music is selected and performed to modestly support the truth with sentiments that “accord to sound doctrine,” and an emphasis is given to reverence, self-control, sobriety, and dignity in how the songs are led, accompanied, and performed.
Contrary to caricatures, this kind of worship is deeply emotional, but the music is not intended to stimulate or arouse emotion; rather, deep affections of the soul are stirred by the Holy Spirit through his Word, and music simply gives language to appropriate responses to the Word. Emotion in covenant-renewal worship is not often immediate, visceral, or flashy—rather, it is felt deeply in the soul.3I really don’t like using the term “emotion” since it is a modern term derived from Darwinian evolution. I’d prefer to use the more biblical and premodern terms … Continue reading In fact, particularly because of commands in Scripture (like Titus 2:1) that Christians are to be dignified and self-controlled, care is given to avoid music that would cause a worshiper to lose control. Christians with this theology recognized that although physical feelings are good, they must be controlled lest our “belly” (a Greek metaphor for bodily passions) be our god (Phil 3:19). Rather, since reverence, dignity, and self-control are qualities that accord with sound doctrine, music is chosen that will nurture and cultivate these qualities and the affections of the soul like compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Col 3:12) and love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:23). This theology takes note of the fact that qualities like intensity, passion, enthusiasm, exhilaration, or euphoria are never described in Scripture as qualities to pursue or stimulate, and they are never used to define the nature of spiritual maturity or the essence of worship.
Musical choices from this perspective are not about new vs. old or the canonization of one kind of music; rather, it is about choosing musical forms that best accord with a covenant-renewal theology of worship.
The second prominent theology of worship among Christians today is Sacramental Worship. That term “sacramental” might strike you as uniquely Roman Catholic, and indeed medieval worship did become sacramental. However, advocates for the second theology of worship I am describing, largely impacted by Pentecostalism, also consider their worship—especially worship music—to be sacramental.
The goal of sacramental worship is to experience the felt presence of God. In overtly charismatic forms of this theology, evidence of God’s presence will include speaking in tongues and other miraculous experiences, with extreme forms including “glory dust,” being “slain in the Spirit,” “holy laughter,” and more. But even with more moderate charismatics, or non-charismatics who have been what I describe as “Pentecostalized,” there is a certain expectation that in a worship service, the Holy Spirit of God will manifest himself in some observable, tangible way. And if we don’t feel something intense, then something is wrong. As Dan Wilt, an advocate of this perspective, explains, this kind of worship “is creating a place where God is expected to ‘show up,” to engage with his people, and to manifest his presence in beautiful ways.”4J. Matthew Pinson, ed., Perspectives on Christian Worship: Five Views (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 187.
This experience of God’s presence, in sacramental worship, is achieved primarily through music. As Michael Farley observes,
Sacrifices were tangible means of grace that God used to draw people near to him experientially and relationally, and thus they were a kind of sacrament. If worship music falls within the category of sacrifice, then it accomplishes the same broadly sacramental function, namely, to be a tangible means through which God reveals himself and enables us to experience his special presence with us.5Michael Farley, email correspondence in Hicks, The Worship Pastor, 35.
This sacramental theology of worship began in Pentecostalism, but it has now expanded to other groups who would not necessarily affirm Pentecostal theology of spiritual gifts, and has come to characterize contemporary worship. Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth masterfully catalog how this happened in Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship. Lim and Ruth are not critics of contemporary worship, but they are honest historians who demonstrate conclusively how Pentecostal theology came to form what we now call “contemporary worship.”
Lim and Ruth carefully explain how this sacramental theology of worship and music began in Pentecostalism but then spread to other non-charismatic groups, largely because the church growth methodology of people like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels recognized the potential of Pentecostal worship for attracting “seekers.” Lim and Ruth note how the importance of particular styles of music that quickly stimulate emotion rose to a significance not seen before in Christian worship. They observe, “No longer were these musicians simply known as music ministers or song leaders; they were now worship leaders, a term that began to circulate among Pentecostals around 1980.”6Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth, Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017), 130–131. The “worship leader” became the person responsible to “bring the congregational worshipers into a corporate awareness of God’s manifest Presence”7Barry Griffing, “Releasing Charismatic Worship,” in Restoring Praise & Worship to the Church (Shippensburg, PA: Revival Press, 1989), 92. through the use of specific kinds of music that created an emotional experience considered to be a manifestation of this presence. As Lim and Ruth note, by the end of the 1980s, “the sacrament of musical praise had been established.”8Lim and Ruth, Lovin’ on Jesus, 131.
Lim and Ruth explain that few non-charismatic evangelicals use the exact sacramental language of Pentecostals today (although it is receiving a sort of resurgence among young evangelicals). But they continue, “What have not waned are the root sentiments behind this theology of sacramental praise: a desire to encounter the divine through music and a sense that when God is present God is present in active power.”9Lim and Ruth, Lovin’ on Jesus, 131.
My point here is not to argue that one of these theologies is more biblical than the other, though I certainly believe the covenant renewal theology is so. My point is to demonstrate that these are two different understandings of the nature and purpose of corporate worship, and to explain how this manifests itself in two kinds of music.
Furthermore, let me stress that my audience for this article (and my article on why you should stop singing music that embodies Pentecostal theology) is conservative Reformed evangelicals. My audience is not charismatic evangelicals. If you’re charismatic, I disagree with your theology, but the fact that your worship embodies charismatic theology makes perfect sense. My aim is to challenge those who are not charismatic to recognize that when you worship with music that embodies charismatic theology, you are forming your people in ways inconsistent with your theology.
Two Kinds of Music
One of the sad results of Enlightenment rationalism was what it did to modern man’s understanding of the nature and purpose of music. Premodern thought understood a distinction between kinds of music. Some music modestly cultivates the mind, affections, and will, while other music is designed simply to stimulate the physical senses. Augustine and the Reformers used the biblical terms “spiritual” and “carnal” to describe this distinction, while music in the art world has used terms like “classic” and “romantic.”
Since the earliest days of the church, theologians with a covenant-renewal theology of worship 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.10Stromateis VI 11, 89:4—90:2, trans. in Skeris, Croma Qeon, 78.
Rather, Clement argued that the church’s hymnody should employ “temperate harmonies.”11Paidagogos 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. 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.”12Johann 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 emotions. 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.13Meisner, Collegium Adiaphoristicum, 220; translated in Kalb, Theology of Worship, 142.
Calvin, too, insisted that music used for worship fit its solemn purpose, having “weight” and “majesty” rather than being “light” or “frivolous.”14John Calvin, “Preface to the Genevan Psalter, 1542, in Hymnology: A Collection of Source Readings (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1996), 67.
Again, my point here is simply to show that what I have been arguing about music that “accords with sound doctrine” on the basis that music embodies theology is nothing new. Christians have affirmed this understanding for centuries. They sometimes disagreed over some aspects of what was acceptable, such as Calvin insisting only on unaccompanied psalms; nevertheless, since they had a similar covenant-renewal theology of worship, they all agreed that worship ought to be characterized by reverence and that some kinds of music embodied messages that simply did not accord with sound doctrine. We can see this evidenced by the fact that although Lutherans and Calvinists disagreed about whether we are permitted to sing hymns, for example, they shared tunes among their groups quite freely. They had the same understanding of what kind of music accords with sound doctrine.
The Enlightenment changed all of this. Whereas prior to the enlightenment, the purpose of music was considered to be the cultivation of noble affections and the calming of bodily passions, the goal of music soon came to be the excitement of human passion.15Quentin Faulkner explains this well in Quentin Faulkner, Wiser Than Despair: The Evolution of Ideas in the Relationship of Music and the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (Simpsonville, SC: Religious … Continue reading This impacted art music with the rise of Romanticism, and it impacted broader culture with the creation of pop music, music created by business men in order to easily stimulate excitement.
Two Worship Musics
As mentioned earlier, churches that understood corporate worship to be covenant renewal used music that modestly supported a fitting embodiment of doctrinally rich hymn lyrics and avoided music that simply “enervates men’s souls.”
Sacramental worship, on the other hand, with its understanding of worship as felt experience of God, saw pop music as the perfect vehicle for their goals. It is an undeniable fact of history that contemporary worship music was birthed in the charismatic movement. Lim and Ruth show this, and charismatics acknowledge this. For example, Matthew Sigler notes,
Many forget (or don’t know) that “contemporary” worship was inextricably linked to the Charismatic Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. This connection forged a musical style that was rooted in a particular understanding of the Spirit in worship. Specifically, the singing of praise and worship songs was understood sacramentally. God was uniquely encountered, by the Spirit, in congregational singing.
The whole point of Sigler’s article is to bemoan the fact that non-charismatics adopted the embodied theology of the music without affirming the theology itself. He says,
During the 1990’s many mainline congregations began to import the songs, sounds, and some of the sights (like hand raising and clapping) of the praise and worship style. In many cases, what got lost was the robust pneumatology behind this approach to worship. In other words, many mainline churches brought the form, but didn’t bring the theology of praise and worship into their congregations.
And again, I get Sigler’s concern. He understands that music embodies theology, and he knows that the music that emerged out of charismatic theology accords best with that theology. I fully understand why it would concern him when churches use the music but don’t embrace the theology it embodies.
This is exactly what I have been arguing, only I would point out that when this happens, the embodied theology of the music is forming that theology in the people whether or not they explicitly recognize or affirm it. Pentecostal music embodies and teaches a Pentecostal pneumatology and a sacramental theology of worship.
My plea is this: If you’re charismatic, then worship like it. If you’re not, then don’t use their music, not only because it’s “associated” with theology with which you disagree, but because it actually embodies a sacramental theology that aims at experiencing the presence of God through viscerally-intense music.
|1||A third theology of worship—or at least practice of worship—might be described as traditional free church worship in which hymns are sung to traditional acoustic instrumentation without a lot of intentional order to the elements other than perhaps a particular theme.|
|2||Scott Aniol, Biblical Foundations of Corporate Worship (Conway, AR: Free Grace Press, 2022), 43.|
|3||I really don’t like using the term “emotion” since it is a modern term derived from Darwinian evolution. I’d prefer to use the more biblical and premodern terms “affection” and “appetites.” But explanation of these ideas is beyond the scope of this article, and so for simplicity’s sake, I’ll use the word more commonly used today.|
|4||J. Matthew Pinson, ed., Perspectives on Christian Worship: Five Views (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 187.|
|5||Michael Farley, email correspondence in Hicks, The Worship Pastor, 35.|
|6||Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth, Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017), 130–131.|
|7||Barry Griffing, “Releasing Charismatic Worship,” in Restoring Praise & Worship to the Church (Shippensburg, PA: Revival Press, 1989), 92.|
|8||Lim and Ruth, Lovin’ on Jesus, 131.|
|9||Lim and Ruth, Lovin’ on Jesus, 131|
|10||Stromateis VI 11, 89:4—90:2, trans. in Skeris, Croma Qeon, 78.|
|11||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.|
|12||Johann Konrad Dannhauer, Hodsophia Christiana Seu Theologia Positiva, 1666, 511; translated in Kalb, Theology of Worship, 142.|
|13||Meisner, Collegium Adiaphoristicum, 220; translated in Kalb, Theology of Worship, 142.|
|14||John Calvin, “Preface to the Genevan Psalter, 1542, in Hymnology: A Collection of Source Readings (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1996), 67.|
|15||Quentin Faulkner explains this well in Quentin Faulkner, Wiser Than Despair: The Evolution of Ideas in the Relationship of Music and the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (Simpsonville, SC: Religious Affections Ministries, 2012).|