Congregational Worship Music: Old & New

In recent years, there are few things that have caused as much controversy in the Lord’s church as music. Thankfully, I have not personally seen much of the controversy that exists other places. But in my (limited) experience, when it erupts, there seems to be a lot of emotion attached to this issue but often not a lot of substantial thought.

Since I have been asked questions about this topic in the last couple weeks, I thought I would give a couple of thoughts here.

First I should say that I don’t agree with the perspective that says only Psalms or other inspired biblical texts are appropriate for singing in congregational worship settings.

Without taking the time to defend this conviction thoroughly, I will make one general comment. If God had given us his word to merely read, then I could see the point of only singing Scriptural songs. But the Bible itself tells us that we are not only to devote ourselves “to the public reading of Scripture,” but also “to exhortation” and “to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). In other words, we are not only to repeat God’s words, but we are also to reiterate God’s words, in our own words. Faithfulness to the gospel requires that we express and explain God’s words using our own words. And Scripture requires that we do this in every generation, and in every cultural context in which the church exists.

But debates over music are not limited to singing inspired vs. uninspired songs. There is also disagreement about whether it is appropriate to sing old or new songs. In our congregation, we have often described our view here as “balanced.” In other words we see value in singing both old and new. With this said, here are two different resources that address two different contemporary tendencies:

The first one is the book by T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns. He is writing in order to address the common contemporary tendency to disregard the older time-tested hymnody of the faith. 

This book helpfully points out the weaknesses that are involved in the tendency of pop culture to drown out the singing of the church from days past. It is an interesting observation that at every point of church history up to the present era there has been a conscious desire by the church to reach back and to sing the songs of the faith that have been sung by prior generations. By this, the church has always given witness to its timeless unity in the gospel of Christ.

Next, is an insightful book by John Frame, Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defense. Good observations about the value of older music are sometimes taken to unbiblical extremes and then the pendulum swings the other way and contemporary music, instead of older music, is abandoned.

It is certainly true that a large portion of contemporary music that is written and promoted under the label “Christian,”  has very little in it that is distinctively Christian at all. In fact, I have occasionally been amazed by the amount of heresy can be crammed into a single song playing on a “Christian” radio station.

Nevertheless, Frame points out that while it is right to recoil from the abuses of contemporary worship music, it is wrong to go to the unbiblical extreme of choosing to abandon anything written in our own generation. Similarly, it is wrong to make an unbiblical prohibition of a certain genre of music.

I would imagine that even the brief summary that I have given here could excite strong feelings in some, both negative and positive. But I trust that a recognition of Christ’s lordship over his church will govern our responses and also help us to posture our hearts in a way that we will continue to recieve greater light from God’s word. In this way we can be learners together trusting that God will further guide us in paths that are pleasing to him.

May God recieve glory for himself from his people as we live out the admonition of the Apostle:

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Col. 3:16)

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