December 11, 2017

Should Sacred Music Swing?

Dwight Gustafson

The choice of church music is intensely personal, something about which the Scriptures say little. Right? Wrong! God’s Word has a clear standard for sacred music.

[Editor’s note: some of the terms in this article are dated, the article comes to us from 1975. We hope our readers will not be distracted by old terms but will instead profit from the wisdom the article still communicates.]

A sign of shifting standards among conservative Christians today is the use of faith-for-the-familychurch music in popular styles, such as rock-and-roll and its derivatives. “Liberal’ and New Evangelical” writers and even some Fundamentalists have defended the (rend and have attempted to smooth over the resulting controversy and confusion with three basic arguments: (1) Music of itself has no inherent moral character — it is amoral; (2) The giants of the faith put sacred words to popular tunes of their day to teach and admonish the saints and to reach the lost; and (3) In order to spread the Gospel message and to achieve results, you must use music and text that your hearers understand and to which they can relate, In other words, choice of music is simply a difference of taste between young and old, city and country, uptown and downtown.

Strangely absent from these arguments is reference to the Scriptures as the standard for practice as well as for faith. We are not surprised to see this in “New Evangelical circles where the flexibility of situation ethics provides relief from a literal application of Scripture to the Christians conduct and the possible embarrassment of being different from those around him. Two articles in the October 1972 issue of Moody Monthly, for example, encourage older church members to tolerate the unsettling church music of the young people because it is just another manifestation of the ‘generation gap.’ One article advises that songs and hymns should 1. safeguard the body of truth we have about Jesus Christ and His glorious redemption as it is revealed in His holy Word Yet, the authors do not apply the same Scriptural authority to Christian conduct as they do to Christian doctrine, but instead provide a human guideline, stating, “Let us inform musicians that there is a time and place for all kinds of music and it is important that the selection fit the audience, occasion and purpose (“That New Sound in the Church,’ Warren H. Faber, Moody Monthly, October, 1972).

An increasing number of Fundamental Christians have developed this same Scriptural blind spot” where music is concerned. To maintain that the Scriptures are the only immutable basis for both faith and a Christian standard of conduct and then to ignore that standard in one important area of life is to live by a double standard. Regardless of philosophical arguments about the morality of musical sounds and rhythms, the practices of Christian leaders in bygone centuries, or the cultural background of our congregations, we must look first to Scripture for our standard of practice, even in music.

A standard for content

Unquestionably, the words of a song communicate ideas. Thus, we should examine the texts of our church music in the light of Scripture to determine their vanity. On the basis of words alone the majority of religious music in folk-gospel, gospel-rock, and other current styles should be eliminated from our churches. The texts often say the wrong thing or say almost nothing. In Colossians 3:16 a standard for content is established: ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord,’ Emphasized here is the rich indwelling of the Word and the resulting saturation of spiritual songs with Biblical truth, making them vehicles for teaching and admonishing.

Numerous contemporary texts fail short of this standard. For example, a very popular chorus tells us that Gods love warms others like a fire and grows like the flowers in spring, then urges us to pass it on. This earthy, casual description of divine love is comfortable for anyone, saved or lost, It ignores the Scriptural conditions by which we receive Gods love through the sacrifice of Hs Son (John 3:16, I John 4:9-10).

Bland generalizations and philosophical musings without reference to Biblical truth are typical of many contemporary songs. One such song tells us ‘Truth is like a river, Flowing full of life, And truth is like a bright bulb, glowing full of light. Truth is a computer showing probability, And the truth shall make you tree”(text by Roger Ortmayer in The Word Is, Summerlin Music, 1968), A chorus need not be a theological treatise, but at the same time it should clearly point to Scriptural truth, not lead to error or confusion.

One of the first “Christian’ folk musicals to be written exclaims, ‘Hear that beat? Feel it man! Like it? What’s it mean? It means Good News.” This equating of physical response with religious experience is typical of this style of church music. The piece later explains that the Good News is the “Christ life.” This is certainly an unscriptural definition of the Gospel, if we can attach a literal meaning to Good News” in this upbeat vocabulary.

Popular texts also demonstrate the pervading influence of existentialism. The expression of the feeling of the moment, the emphasis on physical sensation, and even the deliberate incompleteness of the songs with their predictable fadeout” endings carry us into a physical and emotional euphoria that is not anchored on Scriptural principle and doctrine. It is true that the Gospel hymn usually expresses the Christians personal testimony and his present joys and sorrows, such as Charles Weigle’s familiar text, “I would love to tell you what I think of Jesus, since I’ve found in Him a friend so strong and true; I would tell you how He changed my life completely, He did something that no other friend could do’ (No One Ever Cared for Me Like Jesus,” Hall-Mack Company, 1932). However, beware of the contemporary religious song that reaches easily for descriptions of physical or emotional sensations without reference to Biblical truth or without defining the true position of sinner and born-again believer, For example, “If There is a Holy Spirit by Richard Avery and Donald Marsh, authors noted for their song collection titled Hymns Hot and Carols Cool,” makes the plea, “Take away the doubts that toss and turn in me, Give me answers I can use right now. Let the brilliant flame of passion burn in me, God, descend or rise in me somehow. If there is a Holy Spirit, If there is a Heavenly Dove, I would like to see or hear it, changing this cold world with love” (“If There is a Holy Spirit” from Songbook for Saints and Sinners, Agape, a division of Hope Publishing Company, 1971). Among many references to physical or emotional sensations in Otis Skilling’s rock musical “Life” is a text with apparent allusion to the drug culture: “Take a new trip and go God’s way; Colors will be flyin’ in your bright, new day” (“Try It” from Life, Lillenas Publishing Company, 1970). In these songs physical sensations are equated with spiritual experience, a futile and completely human effort when God’s Word is not the foundation or is contradicted in the process.

The “New Evangelical” break from the moorings of Scriptural inerrancy not only has created a new generation of humanized theologians but also has led some writers to equate human and divine inspiration. When questioned about the theological in- COfli8teflCie8 of his song; “The King is Coming,” Bill Gaither replied through the letter of a secretary that he did not attach any specific theological meaning to the words. He said the Lord had given them to him and his wife, and the interpretation was left to the performer and the listener. To quote from the letter, “In fact, they feel that to dissect the song would be tampering with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit who inspired the song.” However, the text of church music, whether new or old, must harmonize with the Scriptures. Neither error nor confusion come from God’s hand.

The music fits the message

What about the music? Is there a Scriptural basis for judging a certain style of music as wrong for the Chris tian? A few random pitches and rhythms in our musical test tube may not suggest evil to us. However, you cannot deny the clear association of the sounds and rhythms of much popular music with the nightclub, discotheque or rock concert. God’s Word prescribes the associations for dedicated Christians when it states, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:2). Are we determined to be conformed to the world or dedicated to the Lord?

The average Christian young per– son knows well what music is currently “in” with the worldly crowd, and he knows what message that music typically carries. Its insistent rhythms evoke a physical response that makes it difficult for him to say with Paul, “I keep under my body” (I Corinthians 9:27). Its blues-like melodies, sung with a deliberately intimate and breathy quality, produce a sensual response that is in opposition to the command, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world” (I John 2:15-16).

“New Evangelical” apologists are quick to reply that the church leaders of the past, such as Martin Luther, set their hymn texts to popular music to give them a more direct access to the hearts and minds of their congregations. Some writers have climbed so far out on a historical limb as to call Luther’s melodies barroom tunes. Luther’s own words about his songs written for the young refute this notion. “These songs were arranged in four parts to give the young—who should at any rate be trained in music and other fine arts—something to wean them from love ballads and carnal songs and teach them something of value in their place, thus combining the good with the pleasing, as is proper for youth” (Luther’s Works: Liturgy and Hymns, Ulrich S. Leupold ed., Fortress Press, 1965).

A thorough study of the music for Luther’s hymns and that of other Reformation writers reveals that it comes from two basic sources, chosen because of their familiarity to the congregations. First were well-known melodies borrowed directly from the Roman liturgy with its large body of century-old chants These melodies were often altered so the new text would fit them, syllable for note, providing a steady pulse for congregational singing. The second source was the great heritage of Northern European folk songs or composed “part songs,” also more than a century old. In both cases these melodies were considered in that day and are considered now to be among the best of musical materials. To call this music “popular” as the term is used today would be the same as labeling ‘Greensleeves” or ‘Silent Night” as “popular” songs. The Reformation hymns are prime examples of the Scriptural balance described in i: Corinthians 14:15: “What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also,” They became the foundation for more than 100 years of Baroque church music. Their texts are rich in Biblical truth, songs of praise, worship, repentance, and devotion.

Changing styles

A final argument for popular songs says that the older music communicates in a musical language that is outdated. Since we communicate in contemporary terms in all other areas of modern life, why not do the same in music? Nowhere do the Scriptures delineate a certain musical style as being spiritual. The Jewish chants that were an essential part of the worship of first-century Christians would be strange to our ears and obviously not as effective for us as they were in the catacomb services.

Musical styles do change. There is a place for new sacred music, but it must meet Scriptural standards. God’s Word not only prescribes our associations, but it also prescribes our appetites, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8). Here we are told to be selective in satisfying our spiritual appetites. We are to choose what is best in every aspect. Our sacred music can be simple, but it should rise above the shallow sentimentality of typical popular songs. It can be familiar, but it should possess qualities of virtue and beauty. It must remain “honest,” never self-important and never sublimating its message to its music.

Such music will provide blessing and inspiration or challenge and conviction. It will honor the Lord Jesus Christ. It will perform a spiritual work and will prepare hearts for the preaching of the Word. There is sacred music both old and new that meets these Scriptural qualifications, but today’s church musician must often search long and patiently to find it. The cheap and frivolous are currently in large supply and are easily found. May Fundamental church musicians determine to do what is right, not what is popular and expedient.

Sacred Music That Glorifies God

(1 Corinthians 10:31)

    1. Its message is Scriptural (Colossians 316).
    2. It avoids the distraction of worldly associations (Romans 12:2; I John 2:15).
    3. It balances spirit and understanding (I Corinthians 14:15).
    4. Its text and its music are not cheap or tawdry (Philippians 4:8).

The late Dwight Gustafson served for many years as dean of the School of Fine Arts at Bob Jones University.

This article first appeared in Faith for the Family, January / February 1975. It is republished here by permission.


Although Proclaim & Defend is the blog of the FBFI, the articles we post are not an expression of the views of the FBFI as a whole, they are the views of the author under whose name they are published. The FBFI speaks either through position statements by its board or through its president. Here at Proclaim & Defend, we publish articles as matters of interest or edification to the wider world of fundamentalist Baptists and any others who might be interested.

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