Applications of Sound Doctrine in Music Ministry

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Introduction

Music is one of God’s most unique creations in the world. Similar to a language, it can be written down or performed, and then transferred from person to person. But like the precision qualities in mathematics, each note, chord, and key can be structurally and definitively measured. Similar to painting, it is a “fine art” that allows each individual to possess and even refine his/her own skills to produce beautiful masterpieces. Yet, like the natural sciences, all of beauty is truly derived from the handwork of God Himself. As the psalmist reflects, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4). God is worthy of worship and praise, so much that music and singing ought to be directed to His glory, particularly in local churches. But as it has been described already, music is mysteriously complex and seemingly paradoxical. It is no real surprise, then, that music is an oft-debated subject in local churches. The two issues main issues up for discussion are usually the following: (1) Whether content in the songs are theologically sound (2) Whether the style is appropriate. In reality, both of these issues are doctrinal questions. For in truth, the question we are asking is, “How should we then worship”?[1] If Christians are to provide answers to these questions, then there is only one place to go: the Holy Scriptures. Upon establishing biblical principles and guidelines for music ministry, several contemporary challenges will also be addressed in order to arrive at appropriate conclusions about sound doctrine in music ministry. In this topic, as well in all aspects of “life and godliness,” God’s Word proves sufficient (2 Peter 1:3).

 

Applications from the Old Testament on Sound Doctrine in Music Ministry

            One of the most obvious difficulties of applying Old Testament teaching to ecclesiastical music ministry (at least among Dispensationalists) is in the fact that the nation of Israel is distinct from the Church. But an additional challenge is in synthesizing the vast amount of material to arrive at certain conclusions. Still, despite not being able to cover the Old Testament teachings exhaustively, there are some general principles that will be addressed. The starting point is by observing where the Bible introduces music, and that is in the book of Genesis. But before evaluating the earliest mention of music, it would be helpful to go back to the story of creation. Genesis 1:31 states, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” A doctrine of creation leads one to recognize that God made all things, including that which can be utilized for creating music, “good.” Milo Thompson notes, “[A]ll musicians work with the same principles of music that God designed, such as melody, harmony, rhythm, major and minor keys, and pitch.”[2] Now, the major dilemma for theologians and ministers is in deciphering how the introduction of sin affects the nature and outworking of music. Ironically, the first musician ever mentioned in the Scriptures was a man in the line of Cain named Jubal (Genesis 4:21). It is possible to conjecture that Jubal, considering his family heritage, did not use His music to glorify God, but that cannot be verified. Nevertheless, the Old Testament does give examples of music being used in ungodly ways: (1) Israel’s worshiping of the golden calf (2) Israel’s drunken feasts (3) Music for bowing down to King Nebuchadnezzar.[3] There does not appear to be any indication that the music is inherently wrong, but rather that it is used in a way that promotes a rebellion against God. Thus, in applying the Old Testament to music ministry, it is conclusive to denounce that music has the potential to be wielded for ungodly purposes.

Although music can be used for purposes that are detestable to God, it can also be used for magnificent intentions, namely, to praise and glorify the Lord. First, the Pentateuch and historical books will be observed. Upon praising the Lord for Israel’s safe exodus, Miriam proclaimed, “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:21). In Deuteronomy 31:19-22, God commands Moses: “[W]rite this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel.” Verse 21 states why this song was important: “And when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring). For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give.” First Samuel 16:14-23 describes how David’s music calmed King Saul’s soul, but in First Chronicles 15:16-29 it was David who commanded music to be played—not for his own pleasure, but for worshiping the Lord. And in the following chapter (1 Chronicles 16:8-36), a magnificent song by David is recorded, which is followed by a call of “Amen!” by the people (vs. 36). A final passage to consider from these narrative books is Second Chronicles 20:27-29:

Then they returned, every man of Judah and Jerusalem, and Jehoshaphat at their head, returning to Jerusalem with joy, for the Lord had made them rejoice over their enemies. They came to Jerusalem with harps and lyres and trumpets, to the house of the Lord. And the fear of God came on all the kingdoms of the countries when they heard that the Lord had fought against the enemies of Israel.

In these passages, music composed of both singing and instrumentation is used in a variety of contexts, but all place a high focus on the Lord’s power and mighty acts. Oftentimes music was a response to God’s work in a situation, but other times it was catechetical or even therapeutic. Drawing from the lyrics that are recorded in Scripture, the utmost emphasis is placed on truth. Therefore, one can apply these Old Testament texts to music ministry, committing one’s self to producing music that is beautiful, God-centered, responsive (to what God has done), based on truth, and is profitable for teaching multiple generations.

The next section of Scripture, the poetic books, is simply too vast in content to cover even half of what can be potentially applied to sound doctrine in music ministry. However, some foundational principles will be drawn out. James E. Smith notes the following concerning the book of Job: “The Book of Job contains examples of almost every kind of literature which appears in the Old Testament. The author has incorporated (1) laments (e.g., ch. 3), (2) complaints (e.g., chs. 6–7), (3) hymns (e.g., 9:4–10), (4) proverbs (e.g., 5:2), and (5) rhetorical questions (e.g., 4:7) in abundance.”[4] While this observation is not primarily concerned about music ministry in a local church, one can see how poetry (and inferentially, songs) can be used to express a variety of emotions and statements. The next book, Psalms, is inherently applicable to music ministry. Perhaps the subtitle for the book, The Psalms, edited by Schmutzer and Howard Jr., describes this book most effectively: “Language for All Seasons of the Soul.”[5] Although differentiating between the types of psalms is a debated issue among scholars, Roger Ellsworth submits the following categories: “wisdom, confidence, individual laments, communal laments, pilgrimage, individual thanksgiving, communal thanksgiving, general praise, descriptive praise, imprecatory, indirectly messianic, explicitly messianic, enthronement.”[6] With prayer and great consideration, a church should think discerningly how to implement both the categories of these songs and even the biblical psalms themselves in congregational worship. Proverbs, though less focus on music and song, has a particularly relevant passage. Proverbs 25:20 states, “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.” Thus, one must show wisdom and concern during the occasions of which music is played. To play celebratory music in the presence of one who is depressed and heavy-hearted can lead to a volatile response. A church, therefore, must keep music in proper perspective—it must use wisdom. Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon are both valuable books, as are all of the Scriptural books, but what has been noted already in the poetic books is sufficient for music ministry application. All in all, while the poetic books are certainly beneficial for the type and content of music for church ministry, possibly the greatest application from this section of the Old Testament pertains to the utilization of wisdom. Not every dilemma that a church encounters in music ministry has an explicit imperative in Scripture, but the poetic books are filled with treasures of wisdom that will be an incalculable resource for any church, both to its leaders and laymen.

The prophetic books likewise provide application for sound doctrine in music ministry. The book of Isaiah is filled with allusions to music, singing, and the like. One of the chief reasons for music is worshipping the Lord for His salvation, usually in an eschatological context (e.g., Isaiah 12:2, 42:10, 51:3 [see also Jeremiah 30:19]). Walter Kaiser Jr. provides an exceptionally insightful look into the book of Lamentations: “Lamentations as a biblical form of communal lament encourages that every detail should be systematically (if not alphabetically) reviewed. Repeat the story—five times over if necessary. After all, evil is not inexhaustible; it is finite and it does not have an end (‘z’)—just as the alphabet has not only a beginning, but also a sure end as well.”[7] Another musically focused book is Habakkuk, which concludes as being addressed to the “choirmaster: with stringed instruments” (Habakkuk 3:19). Habakkuk and many other prophetic books once again testify that music is an important part of life. Ultimately, it can be used for godly or ungodly purposes. Although the book of Zephaniah is an unfamiliar book to most Christians, Zephaniah 3:17 declares an astounding truth about God: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (emphasis added). Since God rejoices over His people, then surely His people ought to sing for joy.

Applications from the New Testament on Sound Doctrine in Music Ministry

            The Old Testament actually has more references to music than the New Testament, but that does not discount the importance of the books of Matthew through Revelation. Rather, since the New Testament is often more direct in imperatives to the institution of the Church—revealed as a mystery in the present dispensation (Ephesians 3:2-3)—it is even easier to draw ecclesiastical conclusions for how local churches ought to operate in the twenty-first century. Overall, three passages will be observed in order to understand what the New Testament has to say concerning sound doctrine in music ministry: Ephesians 5:18-19, Colossians 3:16, and the Revelation texts (Revelation 5:9, 14:2-3, and 15:3-4).

The first text, Ephesians 5:18-19, Paul starts with a warning: do not be made drunk with wine. Paul refers to this kind of living as ἀσωτία, which gives “the idea of profligate or licentious living that is wasteful. In this verse the literal sense of incorrigibility seems best, for a drunken man acts abnormally. Rather than controlling himself, the wine controls him.”[8] The contrasted lifestyle that Paul exhorts the Ephesians to live is in being “filled with the Spirit.” Paul provides a picture for how the church can know they are spirit-filled, in that they would be communicating (λαλοῦντες) to one another in “ψαλμοῖς” (psalms), “ὕμνοις” (hymns), and “ᾠδαῖς πνευματικαῖς” (spiritual songs). Harold Hoehner notes, “Much discussion has surrounded these words and it is difficult to make a sharp distinction.”[9] Thus, one must use caution in making dramatic exegetical claims. However, it is plain to see that Christians are to be so influenced by the Holy Spirit that their response to God in congregational gatherings is in worshiping the Lord (τῷ κυρίῳ) through singing and instrumentation.[10] There is both a responsibility to encourage one another in music, but to also keep the focus on God: to the Father, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and with the filling of the Holy Spirit.

The next passage, Colossians 3:16, repeats just about the same message of Ephesians 5:18-19, though there is an additional emphasis on how the music itself influences the church. Paul instructs the Colossians for the “word of Christ” to dwell in them “abundantly/richly.” The next phrase appears to clarify what this means, as the text also says, “ἐν πάσῃ σοφίᾳ διδάσκοντες καὶ νουθετοῦντες ἑαυτούς” (in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing them). As what was surveyed in the poetic books, wisdom is necessary in how one uses music. And it would seem to follow that if a song is teaching and admonishing others, then it is congruent with wisdom. Furthermore, since the “word of Christ” is to be richly dwelling in believers, then a New Testament church should be especially sensitive to songs that promote Christ-centered themes. And finally, music should be sung with “χάριτι” (ESV: “thankfulness”; lit.: “in grace”) “in your hearts to God.” As much of the rest of the Scriptures have declared, music should be made as a response to who God is and what He has done. A thankful heart is an excellent description for any Christian.

The final passages in Revelation are a bit different in terms of who is singing and how they apply to the church, but they are important to consider, nonetheless. Revelation 5:9 tells of the “four living creatures” and “twenty-four elders” who sang to Christ, the slain Lamb who was able to open the seals of the scroll, and who ransomed people for God by His own blood, making them priests and citizens of a kingdom to God. The two themes of praising God for what He has done and in Christ-centeredness are especially noticeable. Revelation 14:2-3 speaks of a remarkable event when the 144,000 on earth heard a “new song” coming from the heavens, performed by singers and harpists. There is a bit of mystery surrounding the meaning of this verse, but one cannot deny the glorious nature of the music itself. Finally, Revelation 15:3-4 mentions an amazing song performed by seven angels. As Walvoord notes, “These may be two separate songs, the first referring to God’s faithfulness to Israel and the second referring to their present situation in the Great Tribulation.”[11] After all the text states that there are two songs: “the song of Moses” and “the song of the Lamb.” Overall, both the faithfulness of the Lord and the work of Christ are especially highlighted.

Conclusion

After taking into account the different passages presented in this research, there are several principles one can derive from the Scriptures for promoting sound doctrine in a local church’s music ministry. (1) Music was created by God as a “good” gift, but with the entrance of sin into the world, it can be used for either godly or ungodly purposes. (2) Music should be played and sung as a response to what God has done, including the magnification of His faithfulness. (3) Music should teach others. (4) Music must be grounded in truth. (5) Music can (and should) be an expression of worship by a Spirit-filled Christian. (6) Music, that is, its lyrics, should be cognizant of the work of Christ. (7) Music should be performed with a thankful heart to God. (8) Music should be demonstrated as beautifully and skillfully as one is able.[12] (9) Music should be used with great wisdom. If a church seeks to operate under these nine principles, then it would most assuredly be applying sound doctrine to music ministry.

In order to produce a vivid picture of what applying these principles would look like in a local church—and to further substantiate the claim that sound doctrine is necessary for a healthy music ministry—two contemporary issues will be addressed in light of the nine principles that have been presented. The first “case study” pertains to the selection of new music for congregational worship (which would likewise be relevant for special music, choir specials, etc.). By filtering music through these nine principles, one will possibly find their selections a bit limited based on the content itself (e.g., if the song presents content that is not clear or downright false, if the song is focused man-focused instead of God-centered, etc.). Meanwhile, the pastor or music leader must also use wisdom on the style and instrumentation of the song. Would the song promote exhortation and help teach the congregation, or would it be a distraction by the difficulty or unfamiliarity of the genre/style? Certainly, each situation possesses peculiar nuances that are distinct from one another, but the importance of wisdom and care should never be downplayed.

The second example considers the challenges of a multi-generational and/or multi-cultural church, especially as musical style/genre is concerned. When it comes to content, usually a pastor or music leader (if he has had at least a decent amount of theological training) can easily discern between biblical and unbiblical lyrics. Unfortunately, many congregations do not even get this primary foundation of music right. But once the content is deemed as being sound in theology, the style/genre should also be considered with great concern. The ninth principle is that wisdom is a necessity when it comes to music selections. Many churches are divided over what is acceptable in church music, mostly in terms of style. Oftentimes, churches “reconcile” this dilemma by offering two different services, a contemporary and traditional. But this is a far cry from obeying biblical commands to be unified.[13] Therefore, some alienate the “traditional”-minded individuals (usually of older generations) by intentionally incorporating music that suits the contemporary crowd. Whereas the opposite occurs in some churches, where the “traditional” members do not even attempt to listen to what the younger and/or contemporary generations have to say. The key in these types of situations where potentially volatile outcomes seem to be on the horizon is for the church leaders to use wisdom. For example, is it really worth it to cause an outrage by introducing drums and electric guitars to a congregation that is predominantly uncomfortable with these instruments? Perhaps it would be much wiser to introduce a contemporary song, but to retain a more “traditional” genre of instrumentation. In all honesty, it is impossible to please every church member. But by incorporating these nine biblical principles, which includes selecting songs by using wisdom, a church will be on a much more stable foundation than by simply acting within the methodology of tradition or preference.

This research has submitted principles that have repeated by many other Christians, such as having music that is glorifying to God and that emphasizes truth (see the nine principles above). But perhaps the most unique contribution to the conversation of music ministry and sound doctrine is in the regard for wisdom. One way that a church can utilize wisdom is through obtaining that wisdom, first and foremost, by studying the book of Proverbs. The starting point is to “fear the Lord” (Proverbs 1:6), and if a congregation can arrive at this standard, then wisdom is at least able to be dispersed to its members. Likewise, if one fears the Lord, humility would naturally follow—a much-needed characteristic among all Christians, especially when in the midst of a controversy. Subsequently, if a church is wise, then the rest of the principles that have been considered will also be priorities. It is important to also notice that these principles are grounded in sound doctrine. Thus, in order for a church to be truly faithful to God and His Word, it must do two things: (1) It must first understand these marvelous doctrines (2) It must also practice the implications of these doctrines. And in all things, a church ought to use wisdom so that God would receive glory.

Notes:

[1] This phrase was admittedly influenced by Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1983).

[2] Milo Thompson, “An Old Testament View of the Ministry of Music,” JMAT 3:1 (Spring 1999), 9.

[3] Exodus 15:15-25, Isaiah 5:11-12, Daniel 3:5-15; see also Ibid., 10.

[4] James E. Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms, Old Testament Survey Series (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co., 1996), Job.

[5] Andrew J. Schmutzer and David M. Howard Jr., The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2013).

[6] Roger Ellsworth, Opening Up Psalms, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2006), 19.

[7] Kaiser, “The Laments of Lamentations” in The Psalms, 131.

[8] Harold W. Hoehner, “Ephesians” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), Eph 5:18.

[9] Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002), 708.

[10] See Ibid. on the strong probability that “psalms” refer to string-playing (and possibly with singing as well).

[11] John F. Walvoord, “Revelation” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), Re 15:3–4.

[12] This latter point was not explained very deeply in the research presented, but as Psalm 33:3 declares, a Christian should “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts” (emphasis added). One might assume that only a uniquely gifted musician should be allowed to participate in congregational worship—after all, music is supposed to be played “skillfully.” But it would probably be better to understand this imperative as being proportionate to the musician. In other words, every musician ought to play with the intention of using one’s own gifts to the utmost of his/her ability.

[13] See, for example, First Corinthians 1:10, Ephesians 4:3, and First Peter 3:8.

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