Why We Need The Worship Wars

Tug of War

For some Christians, the worship wars are much ado about nothing. They regard these conflicts as the dying thrashes of hide-bound traditionalists, raging against the waning popularity of those songs most familiar and nostalgically precious to them. Such Christians think that debates over worship reveal only the immature clamor of people who do not understand the Romans 14 principle, and want to elevate their preferences to the level of orthodoxy.

If you believe that it is possible to have correct or incorrect affections towards God, appropriate or inappropriate responses to God, acceptable or unacceptable worship, then the worship wars are a natural, and indeed, essential part of church life. While no Spirit-filled Christian delights in conflict, no Spirit-filled Christian doubts that some conflict is inevitable and necessary. Consider how important doctrinal conflict has been.

We should be very thankful for the heretics and their heresies. Without them, we would not know all the ways that Christian orthodoxy can be denied and twisted. Before heretics come along, orthodoxy is assumed, without clear definition. Through the heresies of Gnosticism, Ebionism, Apollonarianism, Eutychianism, Nestorianism, Arianism, and Sabellianism, the church hammered out orthodox Christology and trinitarianism. The Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds represent early responses to heresies, and defining points for orthodoxy. The creeds represent points of definition. After these definitions were in place, deviations represent deliberate heterodoxy. A certain amount of vagueness or imprecision is expected before the point of definition that becomes intolerable after the point of definition.

For that matter, we can be “thankful”, so to speak, for the heresies of transsubstantiation, indulgences, baptismal regeneration, Mary as co-redemptrix, and others, for leading to the Reformation with its five solas. In many ways, our propositional statements of faith, as ornate as they now appear, partly represent a kind of timeline of doctrinal combat. Our liturgies, polities, and ministry philosophy represent a practical version of the same.

What has been true in the area of orthodoxy, has also been true in orthopathy. The affective domain of the faith, which is not merely what we have said, but how we have felt, how we have responded to those truths, has had its heresies, and its turning points of definition. If we are orthodox in doctrine, we should expect that we will respond to the truth as other orthodox Christians in history have, in our prayers, songs, and sermon. We will not expect an identical reaction, but an equivalent one for our place and time. Alongisde two thousand years of doctrinal development, there has also been two millennia of affective, aesthetic development.

Steve Miller, in his book The Contemporary Christian Music Debate, surveys the worship wars of previous centuries, in hopes of persuading us that, sooner or later, the critics of CCM will get with the times. He enlists the critics of Watts’s hymns, or the critics of the organ, or the critics of a liturgy in the vernacular as examples of the traditionalists who merely need time to thaw. 

That these debates existed, we do not doubt. That the modern worship wars are contemporary instances of these discussions, we do not dispute. That they represent nothing more than initial alarm to what will become standard and accepted worship in the future, we vehemently dispute.

Certainly, in the history of disputes over worship, there have been overreactions and over-corrections. Certainly, novelties, innovations, or changes are often regarded with suspicion. Once they become normative, the previous objectors seem amusingly alarmist. But what we often miss is that through the debates over appropriate worship, such as conflict over polyphony, original (that is, non-psalmic) hymns, or the gospel song, the church was doing in the affective domain precisely what it had done in the doctrinal domain. Doctrinal controversies said, “We speak of Christ like this, and not like that.” Affective controversies said, “We respond to Christ like this, and not like that.” And before the nearly wholesale abandonment of traditional worship forms in favor of entertainment at the end of the 19thcentury, Christian worship represented an inheritance of hundreds of years of corrections and refinements.

We should not be surprised that there exists in our era contention over proper sensibilities toward God. The truly alarming thing would be if there were none. What is somewhat different in our era is the post-modern mood that despises debate and clear definition. This pseudo-tolerance has long ago compromised the doctrinal integrity of professing Evangelicals. The same worldly mood that abhors necessary conflict and clear definition in doctrinal matters, is even more incensed at the thought of anything similar in the more subjective realm of orthopathy. In some ways, the most problematic people are not the combatants in the worship wars, but those who insist there should be none.

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Author Tug of War

David de Bruyn

Pastor New Covenant Baptist Church, Johannesburg, South Africa

David de Bruyn was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he now pastors New Covenant Baptist Church and resides with his wife and three children. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). David hosts a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa, serves as a frequent conference speaker, and is a lecturer at Shepherds Seminary Africa.