November 21, 2017

A Biblical Foundation for Music

by Doug Bachorik Jr.

Many churches that are sound in the Scripture, doctrine, theology, and practice have changed the foundation upon which musical decisions are made. This shift in musical philosophy is sometimes defended by statements such as, “The Bible has nothing to say about musical styles,” or “There is no abominable praise.” These bold, sweeping remarks go beyond music towards deeper, more fundamental issues and should be examined in the light of God’s Word, and then accepted or rejected.

The primary question seems to be “Does the Bible speak about styles of music?” If by this question we mean “Does the Bible mention rock music? How about the baroque style or folk songs?” then the answer is no.

Nowhere in the Scriptures are any of these styles addressed by name. But the same can be said of books, magazines, newspapers, the World Wide Web, theater, television, movies, and videos. Although music, literature, and drama appear in the Bible, not a single statement refers to a current trend or style in any of these mediums. However, if by the question we mean “Does the Bible outline any principles or precepts about music? Does it give any guidance in this area?” then the answer is an unqualified yes. Psalm 119 and 2 Timothy 3:16 and 17 bear testimony to the fact that God’s Word was given for our instruction in how to live and glorify Him. It is pure folly to claim that any part of our life lies outside the purview and authority of the Scriptures.

What has God established as standards for music, and all else, for His people? Perhaps the answer could be summarized in the words “different” and “better.” The evidence for these distinctions is clear from both the Old and New Testaments.

In Leviticus 10, after God had established the ways and means of acceptable worship, Nadab and Abihu departed from 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.” Israel, living in the promised land and surrounded by Gentile nations, is expected to sing a new song, a different song. What is this difference based upon? It is based upon the reason for the song. The verses following the initial call to praise in both psalms give the causes for the call: The Lord is great; other gods are idols, but the Lord created the heavens; He is coming in judgment; He has done marvelous things; He has made known His salvation and righteousness; He has remembered His mercy and truth toward His people, and all the world has seen it. The true child of God can hardly restrain himself from exclaiming “Praise the Lord” after reading such a list. The heathen people around Israel could not understand such glorious truths. Their religions and philosophies were filled with hopelessness. One can imagine what the music borne of such a state must have been like; but the psalmist cries out, “O sing unto the Lord a new song,” a song from the hearts and minds of a people chosen by the one true God of all creation to be His own. What similarity or commonality could the songs of Israel have with those of the heathen?

The New Testament maintains these distinctions and heightens them. It is as if a hazy, overcast morning has turned into the burning brilliance of noon. One need only think of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount to understand the sharp contrast of the regenerate life compared to the unregenerate.

The apostle Paul continues the theme in Ephesians 4 and 5, where commands for a separated life abound: “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 reaches a culmination in verse 18, where we see drunkenness (the indwelling of the world) contrasted with 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.” Can we really claim that all the previous references to and implications of the new life end when we reach verse 19? Does not the work of Christ on the cross 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? Christ and the Christian life are stumbling blocks to the world, but to the believer they are precious; 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.” Any music that turns the hearer toward the desires or goals of the world has no place in the worship of the Lord Jesus Christ. Other privileges and responsibilities of the Christian life, such as liberty and evangelism, are completely valid and important, but they do not negate or overshadow 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.”

If it is true that the Bible does have something to say about the music sung and heard by God’s people, then one may well wonder how solid, Biblical churches have come into such turmoil over music and what can be done about it. It seems that the problems have arisen due to two factors, which can only be summarized here. First, music has been released from Biblical and theological underpinnings. Second, the world has been allowed to have a say in how God’s people worship and serve Him.[1]

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 shifting waves of this world. The question remains—how is music secured to a Biblical mooring? Although the answers may seem myriad and complex, I would suggest the following: (1) treat music as a ministry and (2) 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 as well as on musical abilities. Mature spiritual discernment must be the primary criterion. A “young” Christian, no matter how talented, trained, or enthusiastic, is in no position to be asked to make judgments about the music to be used in the public, corporate worship of the church.

Since music is a ministry and a vital aspect of worship, pastors must end the trend toward less involvement and influence. 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 professional musicians, many of whom lack serious theological training or spiritual understanding. It is time for pastors once again to take up the pen to write texts and to guide their churches into a Biblical philosophy of music.

With the retreat of pastors there has been an increase in the world’s influence on the musical choices of the church. Rather than allow publishers and record companies (secular and sacred) to dictate the standards, the church and individual believers must exercise their right and fulfill their responsibility to examine everything in light of the Scriptures (Acts 17:10, 11).

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 Biblical roles are worship and teaching. Even if evangelism were a primary use of music, that would not justify the abrogation of the principles found in Ephesians 4 and 5. God never contradicts Himself.

Thus we have come full circle. 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, but by everything that is 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 Minnesota, is a missionary with GFA to the Philippines. This article was first published in a slightly different format in the North Star Baptist, January/March 1998, and is used here with permission.

  1. Berglund, Robert, A Philosophy of Music (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), p. 12. []

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