Music, praise and edification

©David Peterson (2010)


Why was Rachmaninov given only a short paragraph in a textbook on musical greats that I read?

Why do passionate rockers believe that pop music is pathetic?

Sadly, the snobbery about music that exists in the world at large can govern our attitude to church music and cause unhappy divisions amongst Christians.

Most people are used to thinking about music in quite selfish terms: ‘this is what I like and every other kind of music is unsatisfying and inadequate for me.’

Sometimes, secretly, we even say, ‘I am not willing to listen to your kind of music, let alone sing one of your silly songs!’

This is an area where Christians can be quite unrestrained in expressing their sinfulness.

If music is to be a meaningful and effective part of our church life, we need to apply the Scriptures to this ministry in a rigorous fashion and do so publicly from the pulpit.

But what biblical teaching?

Some false trails

It might surprise you to hear this, but I do not think that ‘worship’ theology (as normally defined and understood) will get us very far in this matter.

Worship theology is usually applied in one of two ways:

You must present the very best music to honour God

But this requires us to make value judgements about styles of music and the Bible gives us no clear guidance about this.

The principle of ‘the best to honour God’ could be applied to all sorts of music, from folk through to classical: do whatever you do well.

You must present music that will lift us up to God and help us to encounter God

This implies that worship is all about ‘verticality’ [1]: so church music must be ‘elevating’!

Worse still, it can imply that music is a way to help us experience more of God/get closer to God [2]: so church music must be affective and emotionally engaging.

The New Testament teaches that there was a three-way movement in the early church’s meetings: from God to his people, from the people to God, and from the members of the congregation to one another.

‘The primary element is the God-man movement, downward rather than upward, in which God comes to his people and uses his human servants to convey his salvation to them, to strengthen and upbuild them.  He bestows his charismata in order to equip the members of the church to serve one another.  Of course, the effect of such service by God to his people will be to move them to praise, thanksgiving and prayer, but the point is that this is response and is secondary to what is primary, namely the flow of divine grace.’[3]

Music can be a significant contributor to each aspect of our gathering. Congregational songs or items from individuals or groups can (at one and the same time):

Convey God’s truth to us;

Be a means of mutual encouragement or challenge;

Be a vehicle for reponding approriately to God.

Some biblical clues

Colossians 3:16-17 brings the threeway movement to clear expression (cf. also Eph. 5:18-20):

God ministers to us as his word dwells richly among us (God’s truth begins to inhabit and control every aspect of our lives together as his people as it is taught and applied in different ways, even through singing);

We minister to one another as we ‘teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit’ (TNIV);

We respond to God collectively but also personally as we sing to God with gratitude in our hearts (Eph. 5:19 ‘Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.’).

Edification is the missing factor in much of our thinking about music and corporate worship.

The biblical theology of edification found in places like 1 Corinthians 12-14, Ephesians 4 and here in Col. 3:16 is our best guide in evaluating ‘psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit’.

Indeed, every aspect of our music ministries should be evaluated by biblical teaching about the edification of the church.

So a good hymn or song will be:

God-centred revealing God’s character and will to us afresh;

Encouraging us in our Christian lives – written in clear and understandable terms, teaching, admonishing and inspiring us to serve the Lord more faithfully;

Easily sung by the majority – if more than a few are struggling with the tune, it will not be possible for the congregation to be edified (ie. to respond to God appropriately together and, in effect, to say/sing ‘Amen’, as in 1 Cor. 14:16-17).

This last point is so important that I am going to spend the rest of this article developing it.

Edification and music ministries

Here are some biblical principles to apply:

Encourage believers to welcome the contributions of others (if they are honouring to God and are able to build up the body of Christ), following the teaching on the variety of gifts and how you exercise and receive them in Romans 12;

Teach people how to share their insights, preferences and contributions for the welfare of the body and not just as a means of self-expression (applying 1 Cor. 14:26-32);

Remind everyone that speaking the truth in love is an essential part of the process of edifying the church (following Eph. 4:15-16) – giving appropriate feedback.

Here are some specific ways of applying biblical teaching about edification to the issue of music style in a congregation:

In the first instance, choose music that is appropriate to the particular culture or sub-culture you are trying to reach – especially if this is a church plant or a new service.

I do not think there is anything biblically wrong with the homogenous unit principle for evangelism and church growth.  It is a recognition of racial, cultural, educational and experiential differences. However, it is clear from Scripture that the glory of the gospel is to unite all nations and peoples of every language and culture under the lordship of Christ (e.g. Eph. 2:11-22).

As we grow to maturity in Christ, individually and corporately, we should be looking for ways to express that unity – in combined services, united gospel action, exchange of ministries and gifts, and the sharing of resources like music (across cultural boundaries).

Congregations should be encouraged to learn music which may be unfamiliar in style and even outside their comfort zone, for the sake of Christ and the edification of the church on a wider scale.

A healthy church, with a healthy music ministry, will include the old and the new, the familiar and the foreign – not for the sake of novelty but in order to experience the richness and variety God has provided for his people.

1 Peter 4:10 applies here: ‘Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.’

Leadership of such a church, with such a music ministry, will only be possible when:

Pastors and music directors are working together in harmony (modelling biblical teaching about edification amongst themselves!);

When there is good teaching from the pulpit about the relevant biblical principles;

When music directors or song leaders have the right approach to congregations – warmth, confidence and humilty, being able to inspire confidence in the congregation about learning new songs and enjoying new music.

Striving for quality

‘There are many cultures; the very word itself tends to confuse because it can have many applications.  But there is one common denominator, that of quality, which is no more exclusively a pop, folk or rock gospel culture, any more than what we think of today as “classical” represents one exclusive culture.’[4]

‘Those who suggest that music in worship should preferably be spontaneous and unrehearsed, no only adopt a soft option which conveniently offloads any effort, but also fail to take into account that many people nowadays are musically educated through records and tapes, radio, television and the concert hall.’[5]

Why should we accept poor standards in church if the musicians can do better?  The demands of modern music are sometimes greater than those of traditional hymns and so adequate preparation is needed.

‘Good music will just as certainly help to draw people to church as unworthy music will in the end alienate.’[6] But quality and style are not to be confused.

[1] So P.F.M. Zahl, ‘Formal-Liturgical Worship’, in P.E. Engle & P.A. Basden, Exploring the Worship Spectrum 6 Views (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 23, says ‘There is nothing like it for taking you outside your problems and also bringing you back to them a renewed person, better able to cope and to endure.’

[2] J. Horness, ‘Contemporary Music-Driven Worship’, in ibid, 109, says ‘God’s deepest desire is that we would bring our whole hearts to him in worship and that he would be free to move in us.’

[3] I.H. Marshall, ‘How far did the early Christians worship God?’, Churchman 99 (1985), 227.

[4] L. Dakers, ‘The Establishment of the Need for Change’, in Spirit and Truth (ed.) R. Sheldon (London: Hodder, 1989), 72 (my emphasis).

[5] Ibid, 77 (my emphasis).

[6] Ibid, 87.


2 thoughts on “Music, praise and edification

  1. Overall, I find this document helpful, and I think points us in the right direction, but it has some serious omissions and oversights. I would consider them to be “false trails”.
    First, these statements:

    Sadly, the snobbery about music that exists in the world at large can govern our attitude to church music and cause unhappy divisions amongst Christians.

    Most people are used to thinking about music in quite selfish terms: ‘this is what I like and every other kind of music is unsatisfying and inadequate for me.’

    While it’s true that ‘people like what they know and know what they like’ in music and many other things, I don’t believe that’s the key issue with church music and CCM. Rather, it’s concern for appropriateness. We live in a fallen world, and that fallenness certainly extends to the world of music. It is the church’s responsibility under the Holy Spirit to determine its song to God and one another, particularly in our day when popular culture is decadent. The worship wars are not merely about taste – they are about meaning and different interpretations about what contemporary styles mean. Christians who have the experience of years don’t necessarily agree with the value that popular music is relative and by changing the words, you now have some cool “worship” music. It may be worship alright, but worship of something quite apart from God.

    2. Next, the statement:

    It might surprise you to hear this, but I do not think that ‘worship’ theology (as normally defined and understood) will get us very far in this matter.

    This is true in a sense, but incomplete. I believe we need to keep in mind the larger picture indicated in Colossians chapter 3. Verse 3 – ‘we have died and our new life is hidden with Christ in God’ and verse 5 –‘put to death whatever is earthly in us’ and verse 17 – ‘whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus’ (all quotes ESV) Also, Romans 12:1 as key in our worship theology – ‘presenting our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship. (verse2) We are not to be conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewal of our minds, that by testing we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.’
    I think these filters need to be stated and restated – there are excesses and problems in our world of music and worship, real decadence in the larger world of our popular music. As the Holy Spirit interprets His Word to the local church, we are able to fulfill the significant job of ‘singing the new song’. Yes, the church has a new song, the song of the gospel. Every person participating must put to death earthly agendas – whether the rocker or gospel –music- stuck mentality. Now it becomes the Spirit’s work, without whom we can’t worship anyway. The vision of our worship needs to come from heaven (Revelation 4 and 5), thus allowing us to participate in worship that transcends mere earthly experience.

    3. Next, the statement:

    But this requires us to make value judgements about styles of music and the Bible gives us no clear guidance about this.

    Well, as you indicate, Colossians 3:16-17 tells us to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs and Paul repeats it in Ephesians 5:19-21, thus giving this tremendous significance. By the way, for a great explanation of this, see Robert Webber’s Complete Library of Christian Worship, the 4th volume, p.193.

    The church has been interpreting these passages for almost 2000 years, which ought to give us a great deal of insight and direction. (worshiping in spirit and truth certainly includes ’the truth’ of history) In fact, the songs and music of the church past are a great gift – will we ignore them and replace with the sounds of contemporary culture or will we use as a guide to ‘the new song’ going forward? Tragically, as many churches started down the road to a “blended approach”, the contemporary snuffed out the past.

    But to return to the psalms, it is no small commitment to sing them and most musical approaches use chant. This is a good thing, because the music becomes very secondary at that point. And yet song that truly admonishes isn’t about the music. If a congregation is serious about the psalms, there are musical options to do so, written in a limited range of styles. (see Robert Webber’s Complete Library of Christian Worship, the 4th volume, 6th chapter for a good discussion of this) We could say the same about hymns – they are in a range of styles in hymnbook form, from there may be adapted to various stylistic situations, limited somewhat by textual constraints.

    Above all, psalms and hymns are significant symbolically as an alternative to lascivious or pagan songs. They are the New Songs singing the message of Christ and the gospel.

    4. Again, the statement:

    But this requires us to make value judgements about styles of music and the Bible gives us no clear guidance about this.

    The’ filters’ indicated in number 2 above most would agree certainly apply here, but the suggestion that Christians ought not make value judgements about musical style is highly problematic. There is much confusion here, though, because the evangelical church in past century has emulated the music of the secular popular culture since the 1950s (they church tended to discern against jazz).

    However, the response of the early church needs to be part of the discussion, because they had a very different message than today’s church. The early church did NOT copy the musical culture around them; rather they replaced it with psalms (based on chant from their Jewish roots) and hymns. They sang a New Song! And they did it privately as well as in gathered meetings. The psalms and hymns were to replace the pagan songs of the day. (See A New Song for an Old World by Calvin Stapert ).

    Thus when talking about making value judgements about music, we might say – do make value judgements! Listen to the Spirit of God and refuse the lascivious songs and pagan music! And the church, by the way, needs to start saying no to popular music culture! Persons in spiritual authority ought be very careful about diminishing the flock’s sense of ‘no’ on matters of conscience – this statement feels very misguided to me. Though the evangelical church seems to have this value that popular styles are fair game these days, a careful study of popular culture and the history of music suggests that Christians have every reason to be cautious about music and meaning. As always, we are in significant need of the Spirit’s discernment. The principle of eating meat sacrificed to idols applies very well here, in spite of the music industry’s rather wide acceptance of popular music styles.

    Well, I’ve addressed a few issues, but could say a lot more. With David Peterson’s Experiencing God, receiving wide acceptance, I wondered how some of his theology might look practically applied. I see some definite problems. For a different view, try John MacArthur – see He reflects a much stronger value re: church unity the on the music issue as well as recognizing the reality of offensive music.

    Thanks for the opportunity to reply.


    1. Thanks for these insightful comments. I totally agree with you that Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 are biblical foundations for evaluating the style and content of what we sing. For example, I wish there was more use of psalms in our churches today and that more contemporary songwriters gave themselves to writing musical forms that move us beyond chanting them. But when all is said and done, the Bible does not give us detailed guidelines for evaluating the quality and style of the music we employ. Obviously, the words come first and these must be biblical in content and intent. Melodies, arrangements and methods of accompaniment must enable us to understand and identify with the message of the lyrics. Christian hymns and songs must be vehicles for glorifying God, proclaiming the gospel and edifying the church. I personally have a great love of Bach’s cantatas and believe they are a model for setting biblical texts to music. Even though they continue to be a source of encouragement to people like me, I recognise that they are outside the comfort zone of many Christians today. I agree that Romans 12:1-2 is a good place to start thinking about the world’s musical values and how contemporary churches have been influenced by them. While our desire to edify the church should include providing music that is appropriate to the culture represented in that church, that does not mean uncritically adopting the world’s values and styles.


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