August 22, 2017

A Biblical Foundation for Music

Doug Bachorik

Throughout the history of God’s people there have come times when a person, a church, or a group of churches must throw off some practice established by previous generations. Many reasons justify such a step, the primary one being a lack of Scriptural authority for said practice. The church is always bettered—indeed, revived—when its people continually weigh their actions and philosophies in the balances of the Bible.

Performed in a spirit of love and devotion to our Lord, this process of evaluation ought to touch every area of our lives and of our churches’ ministries. That includes the important but volatile realm of music. It seems that some people have reexamined this aspect of our worship services and private devotions with the goal of bringing about a change. Many churches that are sound in the Scripture, in doctrine, in theology, and practice have seen fit to change the foundation upon which musical decisions are made.

Those who seek to justify a shift in musical philosophy sometimes make statements such as “The Bible has nothing to say about musical styles” or “There is no abominable praise.” These are bold, sweeping remarks that stretch beyond music and encompass deeper, more fundamental issues. To either accept or reject such declarations requires an examination of God’s Word.

Digging into the Scriptures

Some basic questions immediately arise: “Does the Bible speak about styles of music?” or “Is God concerned with how we link notes and rhythms?” If by these questions, we mean, “Does the Bible mention rock music? How about Baroque styles, or folk songs?” then the answer is no. The Scriptures do not refer to these styles by name. The same can be said of literature (books, magazines, newspapers, the World Wide Web) and drama (theater, television, movies, videos). Although music, literature, and drama all appear in the Bible, no statement in God’s Word refers to a current trend or style in any of these media.

However, if by the original questions a person is asking, “Does the Bible provide any guidance for principles or precepts about music?” then the answer is an unqualified yes. Psalm 119 and 2 Timothy 3:16, 17 underscore that God gave His Word to instruct us concerning how to live and glorify Him. Clearly, then, it is folly to claim that any portion of our existence lies outside the scope and authority of the Scriptures.

What standard, then, has God established for music and everything else for His people? Perhaps the answer could be summarized by the words “different” and “better.” Clear evidence for these distinctions exists in both the Old and New Testaments. For instance, in Leviticus 10, after God had established the methods of acceptable worship, Nadab and Abihu saw fit to disregard God’s ordained order in their effort to make an offering. Judgment followed swiftly and severely.

Psalms 96 and 98 open with the command “O sing unto the Lord a new song!” The children of Israel, living in the Promised Land and surrounded by Gentile nations, were expected to sing a new song, a different song. The reason for the song also provides the reason that it should be different. The verses following the initial call to praise in both Psalms lists the causes for the call: The Lord is great; other gods are but idols; the Lord created the heavens; He is coming in judgment; He has done marvelous things; He has made known His salvation and righteousness; and He has remembered His mercy and truth toward His people and all the world has seen it. The true child of God can hardly refrain from saying, “Praise the Lord!” after reading such a list. In contrast, the heathen people surrounding Israel could not comprehend such glorious truths. Their religions and philosophies were riddled with hopelessness, and their music doubtless reflected that. However, the psalmist cries out, “O sing unto the Lord a new song”—that is, a song from the hearts and minds of a people chosen by the one true God to be His own. After all, what similarity could the songs of the heathen have with those of Israel?

Similarly, the New Testament maintains these distinctions and heightens them. It is as if a hazy, overcast morning has yielded to the burning brilliance of noon. The life and teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ exemplify the uniqueness and sanctified nature of the Christian walk. One need only ponder the Sermon on the Mount to glimpse the sharp contrast of the regenerate life compared to the unregenerate.

Later, the apostle Paul continues the theme in Ephesians 4 and 5, where commands for a separated life abound. Those commands include the following: “walk not as other Gentiles walk” (4:17); “put off concerning the former conversation the old man” (4:22); “be renewed in the spirit of your mind . . . put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (4:23, 24); “be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children” (5:1); you are “light in the Lord: walk as children of light” (5:8). This emphasis on the holiness and higher calling of the Christian life seems to culminate in verse 18, where we see the stark contrast of drunkenness (the indwelling of the world) and the Spirit (the indwelling of God). It is in this context that we next read, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (5:19).

Can we really claim that all the previous references to the new life end before we reach verse 19? In other words, was the work of Christ on the cross not sufficient to radically alter and conform our worship and our lives to the standards of God? Shall God’s people continually cry out for the leeks and onions of the old life, when He commands that milk and honey be served?

Called Out of Darkness

Christ and the Christian life are stumbling blocks to the world, but to the believer they are precious, and it is with joy and dedication that we should affirm 1 Peter 2:9: “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” That being true, any music that turns the hearer toward the desires of the world merits no place in the worship of the Lord Jesus Christ. Other privileges and responsibilities of the Christian life—such as liberty and evangelism—are valid and important, but they do not negate the foundational truths of the previous passages. There is no limitation on the glorious change summarized in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”

Addressing the Problem

If it is true that the Bible has something to say about the music of God’s people, then one may well wonder how solid, Biblical churches can experience such turmoil over music. Equally important, what can be done about that turmoil? It seems that two main factors have created the problem. First, music has been severed from Biblical and theological underpinnings. Second, the world has been permitted a voice in how God’s people worship Him.

Music, as with anything in our lives, is like a ship whose anchor should be lodged on the rock of the Scriptures, not left to be tossed upon the ever-shifting waves of this world. The question remains, how can music to be returned to (or maintain) a Biblical mooring? Although the answers seem myriad and complex, this author would suggest the following as a starting place: treat music as a ministry and re-engage pastors.

Music, according to Colossians 3:16, is a ministry. Perhaps those responsible for decisions about special music, choir numbers, special services, and congregational singing should be selected on the basis of 1 Timothy 3, not just on musical abilities. Mature spiritual discernment is the primary criterion. A “young” Christian—no matter how talented, trained, or enthusiastic—is not ready to make judgments about which music to use in the corporate worship of the church.

Because music is a ministry and a vital aspect of worship, pastors must end the trend toward less involvement and influence. Sadly, the men with the greatest amount of Scriptural knowledge and wisdom have, for the most part, abdicated their role of shepherd in this area to musicians, many of whom lack serious theological training or spiritual discernment. It is once again time for pastors to take up the pen to write texts and music, and to guide their churches into a Biblical philosophy of music.

Simultaneous with the retreat of pastors, the world’s influence on the musical choices of the church has increased. Rather than allowing publishers and recording companies (secular and sacred) to dictate the standards, the church and individual believers must exercise their right and responsibility to examine everything in light of the Scriptures (Acts 17:10, 11).

Likewise, the church must also be careful not to substitute musical entertainment for the preaching of the Word as a way to evangelize. Although music can be used to aid in spreading the gospel, its primary roles are worship and teaching. But even if evangelism were a primary function of music, that would not justify the abrogation of the principles found in Ephesians 4 and 5. God never contradicts Himself.

In the final analysis, music, like every other practice or tradition, must be weighed in the balances of the Bible and not in the world’s false balances. Our music and our lives must be characterized by our spiritual rebirth, not by the old man. Every facet of our lives should be true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report. “Think on these things.”


Doug Bachorik Jr., former head of the music department at Fergus Falls Community College in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, is now a missionary appointee with GFA to the Philippines. This article originally appeared in the North Star Baptist, Jan/Mar 1998.

(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 2004. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


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