Many religious communities are moving away from long standing musical traditions—such as use of “gospel” songs sung with a band instead of hymns accompanied by an organ. In contrast to this, Brother Michael Ashton , wrote an Editorial in The Christadelphian entitled, “Pleasant Love Songs?” (June 1992) in which he showed that our distinctive Christadelphian understanding of the Bible has led to our choral worship being unique. Our Hymn Book is part of our heritage. Its music is a vehicle for conveying the message. The Editorial is reproduced here in full, by kind permission.

Because our community owes so much to the brethren in the last century who stood aside from the clerical errors of their day and reawakened an interest in the Truth, much of our organisation and background appears to be rooted in mid-nineteenth century traditions. It is sometimes suggested therefore that we ought to look at ourselves more closely, and not be frightened about modern ideas and methods. Young people particularly, so it seems, are impatient to introduce change. Some of them say our meetings are stuffy or boring; the hymns are old-fashioned, the message is outdated or poorly presented. They believe we are out of touch with what is happening in the world outside.

Let us make no mistake, such comments should not be ignored. If others are to accept the gospel message before Christ returns, the relevance of our preaching can play a vital part. It is therefore important to review on a regular basis the way we present the truths of scripture and not to rely only on what has been done before. The focus of this article is however on the more specific question. Are the objections valid which are raised about the type of music we use to accompany our worship?

“Sacred” Music

Our hymns have a mixed musical background. Many of them come from the established churches and from pieces specially composed by others for religious themes. Not all of their sentiments would be acceptable to us in their original form, and it is to be regretted that we have had to adapt material for our purposes rather than using only musical settings of the psalms, or material composed by brethren. But these comments apply more to the words than to the music. The musical style of our hymns is unmistakably religious. Occasionally the term “sacred music” is used to describe it, and as a general description we understand what it means.

But in other religious circles today there has been a marked move away from such types of music towards a style little different and hardly distinguishable from much popular secular music. Some young people and brethren and sisters find themselves attracted to it, and they claim that there is nothing wrong with a more modern style despite its links with pursuits wholly disconnected with religion. Our present hymns, they say, were “modern” when first composed, and we should not be frightened of being up to date. They feel any objections to modern songs display a stuffiness and obduracy that ill becomes those who follow Christ. He was not afraid to rebuke those of his day who had become bound by tradition and precedent, so nor should we be today.

Gospel Songs

The arguments seem plausible, but in reality the situation is not so simple. As we have seen, our hymns and anthems were originally composed to be associated with worship. Despite what is said, their style was completely different from the popular or folk music of the day, even though they betray the era when they were first composed. Modern gospel songs, on the other hand, deliberately copy a style of music composed with other activities in mind: only the words are different. Furthermore, these other activities are not usually ones with which we would wish to have any association whatsoever.

Beat and rhythm are important features of modern music. In popular music they are used by performers to whip up mass emotion and to create a charged atmosphere. The insistence of a throbbing rhythm at or near the rate of a beating heart has been found to act almost as a drug, dulling people’s sensations, and preventing them from reacting normally. It smothers, rather than encourages, a reasoned or rational approach. A link has been shown to exist between certain types of music and deviant behaviour—drug-taking and immorality, for example. The two are not inextricably linked, of course, but it would be foolish to deny the existence of the danger.

Music is often only one of the changes introduced by those who wish to be more up to date: a more relaxed atmosphere, personal testimonies, swaying bodies and waving or clapping hands, even dancing in the aisle—these are the currency of many charismatic services. Ignoring for a moment the words involved, there is a marked similarity between such services and secular pop concerts—in, for example, the outward behaviour of the audience in their response to the music. But even if the use of gospel songs does not bring about a move into the doubtful and dangerous area of some pop concerts, there are important principles involved which need careful consideration if we are to worship “in spirit and in truth”.

“Musical Instruments of God”

The pattern established in Bible times will undoubtedly assist us to determine what we should do. If we consider how musical worship was organised in the temple, we will immediately be struck by the control exercised over the limited range of instruments the Levites were allowed to use. David, under inspiration, appointed singers and players to lead the Israelites’ formal praise. He also explicitly mentions the instruments to be used. There were only four: “the harp, the psaltery, the cymbal and trumpets of God” (1 Chronicles 16:42;25:1–3). He made no mention of timbrels, dulcimers, flutes or pipes, even though these instruments are all mentioned in the Psalms as suitable for making music outside the Temple, and occur in the Old Testament narrative accompanying historic events (see Exodus 15:20, for example).

The lasting nature of David’s rule is shown when Hezekiah revived Temple worship. He reapplied “the commandment of David”, and even specified the manner in which the instruments should be played (2 Chronicles 29:27–30). There was a discipline and order regulating musical worship which is strikingly at variance with the frenzy of multiple instruments sometimes envisaged by those who suggest they are following the Old Testament example. One result of David’s instructions would be that the instruments specifically used in the Temple would soon become identified with the worship organised there.

We can only conjecture at the reasons for the restrictions. Some have suggested that the instruments not deemed suitable for used in the Temple were associated with pagan worship, others that they were usually played by women who were not permitted to undertake Temple duties. Yet there was nothing wrong with the instruments themselves nor any blanket restriction to their use in association with praising God. Psalm 150, for example, speaks about praising Yahweh “with the timbrel and dance, with stringed instruments and organs”. As is often the case, it is how something is used which is of primary importance. There was nothing inherently wrong with these other instruments. Yet they were not the ones chosen by God for use in the Temple. They would be unlikely therefore to become sanctified by use.

How are we meant to apply these principles today? Without having the benefit of specific instructions, it will clearly be wise to avoid the widespread use of those instruments which are explicitly associated with inappropriate secular music. Equally, it would be wrong to adopt the style of music such instruments produce or are even associated with, even if the instruments themselves are not used. And, whatever instrument is used, it must not become a means of drawing attention to the musician or his skill—worship is never a “performance”.

We must try to be discriminating in our choice both of the instruments and musical style which accompany and lead our praise. For it is easy to forget what praise really entails. Music is not praise, though it can be involved with it, and enhance it. Essentially praise is the outward expression of inward conviction. “The fruit of our lips” must speak “out of the abundance of the heart” (Hebrews 13:15; Matthew 12:34). Of course, modern music can be used to express these thoughts, and there are recent compositions which are wholly inoffensive in this respect. But it is difficult to see how a style associated with worldly or immoral practices can be appropriate for those who profess to follow Christ.

“Singing with grace in your hearts”

There is an additional aspect of the subject which arises from David’s commands about musical worship in the Temple, and we shall find it to be more important than which instruments were to be used and how they were to be played. Indeed the discussion about instruments often obscures a more serious underlying problem. Those Temple servants who played on instruments, “prophesied according to the order of the king” (1 Chronicles 25:2). The music was thus a vehicle, and only a vehicle, for the speaking forth of God’s truth – it was never to be an end in itself. It was not to overshadow the message; nor was it to have some other prime purpose, such as relaxing the emotions of the worshipper, and freeing his inhibitions. Significantly, the Lord God has not seen fit to preserve for us the music used by the Psalmists. Only the words have come down to us through the work of inspired writers. The message must therefore be more important than the music. The same idea is conveyed by the Apostle Paul’s advice to the Colossian ecclesia:

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

We are therefore caused to consider the importance of the message conveyed both by the style of music we adopt and by the words it accompanies.

While the gospel message is a joyous one, it is also serious and sober in its content. Furthermore, these qualities are not mutually exclusive: true joy can only exist in an environment of true understanding. Joy must never be confused with enjoyment, as if experience and feelings are more important that a reasoned response and commitment to the good things of God. In worshipping the God who gives to all men life and breath and all things, we must not be guilty of trivialising His majesty or His power, or demeaning His purpose. Some modern songs which rely heavily on the repetition of simple words fall far short in this respect. If the words we choose to give glory to God are banal or insipid, we are not “prophesying” or “teaching and admonishing one another”. In fact, we are not worshipping correctly.

In much modern music, this factor has been utilised by performers to promote flagrantly unsuitable messages, messages that could not otherwise be widely conveyed to impressionable young people. While it would be wrong to say that modern gospel songs are deliberately used to advance unacceptable ideas, it is the case that the insistence of modern beat music acts as a filter, diverting conscious attention from the words, but allowing them to be received subconsciously.

There are also subtle links between the words of many modern religious and secular songs. The latter almost invariably deal with the subject of love: love between boy and girl in a casual and emotional way. In many gospel songs, the subject is the same: love. But this time it is the love of Jesus. Sometimes, but much more rarely, it is love of God. But, whereas the object of love is different, the means of expressing the emotion is very much the same: it is dealt with on a shallow, sentimental level. There is little attempt to explain the reason for loving, or the responsibility of loving: emoting is everything. The ground for our love of Jesus is almost invariably expressed in terms of his dying for us. And this too is rarely explained: the concentration is upon his death, rather than on his whole life being willingly offered; upon his living presence now, rather than on his overcoming this during a life of constant temptation, providing the assurance of our salvation.

The message of our worship is to be different. When Ezekiel prophesied to the captives, they were not prepared to recognise the seriousness of the message. They thought he was “one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument” (Ezekiel 33:32, RSV).

In placing a great emphasis upon the death of the Lord Jesus Christ it is apparent that songs often concentrate exclusively on the price that has been paid, and on Christ dying for “a sinner like me”. Substitutionary teaching is being promoted by this approach. We should beware of this, for we are virtually unique in our appreciation of the representative nature of Christ’s sacrifice. Nor is it helpful to say that we know what we mean when we sing the words. This is particularly true of young people, whose maturity of understanding is still developing. Unless we are careful, the ideas behind the words will become as acceptable and easy to repeat as the songs themselves.

It is not enough to say “God is love”, or “Jesus saves”, as if the words themselves express the whole truth about the subject. Of course, God is love, and salvation has been made available through the Lord Jesus Christ, but what the love of God means and what Christ’s work of salvation entails need to be explained. Furthermore, we should rejoice to declare this teaching when we meet together to worship.

It is sometimes suggested that the words of modern religious songs are more scriptural than the words of our hymns. But the hymns explain our understanding of the scriptures, often weaving together a variety of Biblical passages in a similar way to the New Testament epistles. Simple quotation cannot therefore be necessarily described as “more scriptural”. It would be naive to suggest that it is.

Shallow and False

A careful analysis of the words of modern religious songs is rarely undertaken because the style of music diverts attention from the words. But we should not allow ourselves to be deflected, or our worship to be diminished, by concentrating on the music to the exclusion of the message. If the content of the message is not a robust declaration of the things we believe, or if it is actually a false representation of what we understand scriptural teaching to be, we are guilty of misrepresenting the Truth.

Just as our preaching should express our distinctive understanding of the scriptures, so also our expressions of praise should be characteristically Christadelphian. We have already considered that the majority of popular modern religious songs express love for Jesus. The relative absence of praise to Almighty God may well be a reflection of Trinitarian teaching, the composers believing that Jesus “is very God”. But, in addition to there being only a few songs about our Heavenly Father, there are almost none at all about other fundamental aspects of our faith—about the future Kingdom on earth, about resurrection and judgment, about the true nature of man: and, even more significantly, none about Israel, or the Hope of Israel. A few Jewish songs are popular, but an Israeli melody or folk song is not in itself an expression of the Hope for which Paul was in chains.

Distinctive Understanding

There is no need to be ashamed of our distinctive understanding, nor any advantage to be gained from suppressing it. We should not be trying to copy what the world does, but providing an alternative which makes sense. Young people are not discouraged to hear these things discussed, nor are they unintelligent. They are much readier to appreciate the deep truths of scripture than their elders will sometimes credit. We should always be aiming for the highest common factor, not the lowest common denominator! In our worship and our praise, let us teach clearly and distinctly about the joy of salvation in order that God’s name alone might be glorified.