Biblical Principles for Music

–March of 2002

Biblical Principles for Music

By Michael Avery and Rodney Sones

Music is one of the most powerful forces both in our culture and in our personal lives. Every kind of music that we choose to enjoy affects our lives in some way. Music has the power to inspire, encourage, and lift our souls to ecstasy. It can make us weep with sadness, passionate for romance or blind with anger. Such a powerful medium must be used with wisdom. Our choices regarding its use should be guided by good principles. We should choose music because we know it is good. For the Christian, the Bible is our guide and standard. What principles can a Christian use to discover good music?

Because music and the arts are inherently subjective, it is difficult at times to clearly identify what does or does not glorify God. But while the Bible does not describe the technical stylistic traits of good or bad music or give explicit rules on what music is acceptable, it does give us principles that we must apply to all of our lifestyle choices – choices such as the media we consume, the entertainment we enjoy, and the music we listen to.

In giving us principles, God has intentionally allowed a degree of freedom and variety in our musical expressions. This freedom gives us room to change and to grow. A wonderful variety of expression is seen between and within cultures. But with this freedom comes responsibility and opportunity.

Our responsibility is to honor the One who gave us these gifts and granted us these privileges of choice. It is to reflect His holiness in the choices we make. And the opportunity is to discover the joy that such choices bring, if we are willing to reach that level of living. This freedom allows us to grow as we orient our desires toward things that are of greatest value. The choice of our music reflects our inner values and mirrors our soul, just as the other outward expressions of our culture like clothing, language, and entertainment reflect our inner selves.

How, then, shall we discover and apply principles of godly living to our music? How shall we orient our lives toward pleasing God above all others? We must begin where God has spoken. We must saturate our soul with God’s Word. This will produce what we call a “Biblically-conditioned discernment” – a discernment that reflects God’s viewpoint, because it springs from Biblical principle. There is no substitute for Biblically-conditioned discernment if we desire the clear leadership of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Without this discernment, Christians often make life choices that are harmful to them spiritually without sensing any wrong in doing so. Many feel free to choose whatever music they like, because the Bible doesn’t directly identify a particular style as sinful. This approach to making lifestyle choices will lead to spiritual decay, because it naturally fills one’s life with things of lesser value.

But while discipline in our lifestyle choices is necessary and foundational to a life of joy, the choice of a disciplined lifestyle does not relegate us to boredom and starch! One of the things that God has put into our very soul is the conviction that whatever is good should bring with it a deep sense of satisfaction. So making careful choices in music does not mean choosing distasteful music over what we like. Rather, it means choosing what satisfies us most deeply at the center of our being, while we reject illegitimate or less worthy music in favor of finding this deeper satisfaction. The music we choose should be godly, interesting, and enjoyable!

The Biblical principles that govern our freedom to choose, then, spring from two balancing concepts: exaltation, which is the need to make choices that honor God; and edification, which is the corresponding need to fill our lives with things that are inherently wholesome and good. Please examine the following brief list of principles we can reference when applying these concepts. You may be able to list more.

Principle 1: EXALTATION

If the music is Christian, do the music and lyrics exalt God? We begin with God, because He is first. While not all music will be objectively focused on God Himself, the music should not glorify people, their talents, and experiences, etc, above God.

If the music is secular, do the values expressed glorify God? Even music that is not about God or Christian living should be in harmony with what is right and true. (I Cor. 10:31; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16.)

Supporting Principle: Harmonization

Do the lyrics express truth I believe is in harmony with God’s Word? (1 Tim. 1:10; 2 Tim. 3:15-17.)

Principle 2: EDIFICATION

Does the music edify me spiritually and mentally? We should choose value over immediate pleasure. We get satisfaction from choices made to simply gratify our fleshly desires. But this kind of satisfaction is shallow. It pales when compared to the deeper joy one can find in things of enough worth to be accepted by our Father. (Col. 3:1, Phil. 4:8, Col. 3:16.)

Supporting Principles: Transformation, Separation, and Sanctification

Can I take delight in this music and at the same time be conformed to the mind of Christ? Does the culture that surrounds this music conform to the mind of Christ? Does it reinforce the lifestyle that I believe best reflects principles of godly living?

The culture in which this music is born, packaged, and promoted should reflect Christian values and culture. (I Thess. 4:3, 7, 5:23; Col. 3:17; 2 Cor. 6:14; Psa. 139:21; 1 John 2:15-16; Eph. 5:11-12; Rom. 12:1; Col. 3:10; Matt. 7:17-18; 2 Cor. 6:14-15.)

What about CCM?

The very concept that anything is contemporary assumes that things have changed over time. All modes of culture are subject to change: styles of dress, styles of speech, and styles of musical and artistic expression. In each generation godly people must assess the new expressions of culture and apply the principles by which they live to the decisions these new expressions present.

Changes in musical style have often been a challenge for the Church. As a conservative institution, the Church is naturally wary of change, especially when new musical styles are influenced or created by those who are secular in their purposes or not trained Biblically or theologically. The danger is evident when changes are not driven by godly purposes but by the desire for innovation or personal pleasure.

Yet there is a natural need for refreshment in the expression of our worship to God. Development and change in music are good and wholesome, since our creativity reflects the image that God, our Creator, imprinted on us. Church music has reflected these changes over the centuries. Musical styles have progressed from Gregorian chant through metrical psalms and Wesley’s hymns to the amazing variety of choices at our disposal today. So there is a healthy tension between the need to preserve our heritage and the need to express ourselves in a new way.

Also the nature of music itself ensures there will be constant change in its forms and styles. Music is a cultural expression. Therefore it reflects the changes in values that are a part of its creators’ culture. And music is creative, so it is constantly being transformed by its creators as they seek new ways of expression. These natural forces ensure that there will always be – as there always has been – contemporary (or new) Christian music (CCM). All of what we sing today was new music in its own day. So new is not necessarily bad! We must be careful, in our enthusiasm, not to consider all new music to be worldly! God is not stuck in history.

There are at least three major criticisms leveled toward CCM:

(1) The evident influence of secular pop music in its musical style.

(2) The reflection of popular culture in that culture that surrounds the music (style of dress and speech, general atmosphere at concerts, etc.).

(3) The shallowness and theological emptiness of the lyrics in some CCM.

The first of these differences may be the one most evident to the uninitiated listener. The influence of secular popular music is evident in the restlessness of the musical style. This restlessness is produced by relentless rhythmic drive and harmonic stress. While there is great variety in pop musical styles, these traits are fairly consistent in the various styles we lump together as CCM. The question on which much philosophical debate hinges is whether or not that musical structure can carry a cultural message that conflicts with the message of the Gospel and the values of holiness. The definitive answer to that question is beyond the scope of this short article. But it is our opinion that all products of a culture reflect the values of that culture, and therefore carry its influence in some way.

The second of these criticisms – the reflection of popular culture in the culture that surrounds CCM – is of particular concern to people who have chosen careful disciplines of lifestyle.

The third of these criticisms is perhaps the one we have the most difficulty applying with equal honesty to our favorite styles. It is unfortunate that much of the criticism of CCM has been based on dislike of the unfamiliar, rather than on application of principles!

While there are obvious differences between today’s CCM and yesterday’s new music, the criticisms we level against it could often be leveled equally against some of the music styles of the recent past. Examples of shallowness and trite musical style are found within all styles of music, including the camp meeting music of the early nineteen hundreds, Southern gospel, and the “inspiration and praise” music of today. Some styles, however, seem to easily lend themselves to triteness.

Many people who are shocked by CCM readily accept other music marked by doctrinal carelessness, cheap grace, me-focused lyrics, and which is focused more on style or performance value than on godly values. It is hypocritical to apply a more severe standard to music we do not like than we apply to our favorite style.

What are some characteristics that may mark music as worldly?

(1) Music that seeks to conform me to this fallen world’s values. Music that expresses the attitudes and values of this fallen world’s music or that exhibits degenerate patterns, the rhythm and beat of a fallen world.

(2) Music that contains poor theology. Popular Christian music often emphasizes cheap-grace theology and fails to encourage holy, victorious living.

(3) Music that reflects packaging and marketing techniques that mirror a fallen secular music society. Today’s CCM often glamorizes a lifestyle contrary to Christian values. It is marked by secular, sensual marketing techniques like that of the music produced by a fallen world.

Fortunately, time has proven that most of yesterday’s froth and most of today’s CCM will fade away and be forgotten. The church has a way of purging itself of all but the best. The great hymns and other solid gospel songs have survived the test of time. The best of the new songs will surely find their place alongside the old.

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