Gluten-Free Music — When Standards Clash

I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:1-3).

Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind (Romans 14:5).

And he that doubteth is damned (condemned) if he eat (or sings), because he eateth (or sings) not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin (Romans 14:23).

Two Baptist seminary professors had a sort-of disagreement on music last week.  It certainly wasn’t a fight, but they weren’t, shall we say, singing from the same hymn sheet (I not only rely on bad jokes, I rely on OLD bad jokes — pity my poor wife).  I don’t know that I’ll be “sorting the two of them out”, but I wanted to comment on their posts because both provided valuable perspective, and it should help clarify music standards for those in our church.  Perhaps it will also help others.

When Singing is Sin

We’ll start with Kevin Bauder, of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with On Not Singing.  I read his article, and said to myself, “YES!  I’ve been thinking that way for years!  Finally, somebody besides little old me is saying it.  I’m going to post on that.”  I was delayed on it last week, but here it is.  Please read what he has said, and then I’ll break it down a little bit.

Dr. Bauder’s article could perhaps be summed up in this way:

  1. “What we sing is a confession of what we believe” and therefore “to sing what we do not believe would be to bear false witness.”
  2. The meaning of poetry (and songs are poetry) goes beyond the mere words.
  3. The meaning of poetry set to music is impacted by the actual music, for good or ill.
  4. Implied meaning can contradict verbal meaning, to the point where the way we say something causes the message to be completely reversed (Dr. Bauder provides a good example of this).
  5. While evaluations of music and poetry can be subjective (not everyone may agree on these), if we believe that a song’s implied meaning is false, we should not sing it, any more than we would sing words that are explicitly false.

This is the paragraph that really got my attention, because it is a key part of my understanding of how we should respond in the church to differing standards on music:

Therefore, when our brethren judge a hymn to subvert sound doctrine through its musical or poetical communication, we must not pressure or coerce them to sing. For them to confess what they do not believe would be a sin. For us to pressure them to sing what they do not believe would also be a sin.

This, in a very brief paragraph, addresses one of the biggest problems in church music today.  If someone sings that which they believe to be wrong to sing, they are sinning.  To pressure someone to sing that which they believe to be wrong is also sin.  Sadly, far too many ignore these truths, creating conflict in many churches.

Not About Musical “Taste” 

Please note that we are NOT talking about musical “taste”, the music that one prefers.  We use music and songs in our church that are not within the parameters of what I prefer.  I actually dislike the music of some songs, including a couple we sing frequently.   No, I’m NOT telling which ones 🙂 — my preference is irrelevant.  Dr. Bauder has made it clear, I hope, that we are talking about music that a person believes to be sin, which is a far different question.  I have listened to music in the past, music which I liked and still like if I hear it, that I believe to be wrong, because it sends a contradictory message.  We are not talking about whether I like or dislike a song, but whether I believe it is wrong — those two things are not related.

I’ll give two brief examples.  I believe you cannot sing the words, “Praise the Lord,” and set it to music that draws the attention away from the words and attracts attention and praise to the musicians.  If the words are great but the music says something completely different, it makes a mockery of the lyrics.  You aren’t praising the Lord, you are praising the musicians, and you’ve twisted the meaning into a form of idolatry.  Do you finish with praising the Lord, or with applauding the musician?  If the latter, things have gone badly wrong somewhere.

Similarly, you cannot put Christian words to Mick Jagger’s music.  If I did that, I would be saying that Mick Jagger’s approach to music is good and right in God’s eyes.  It would be a lie to affirm that.  Even if you don’t think there is anything inherently wrong in the music, it has another connotation for anyone who knows anything about Mick Jagger.  To affirm Jagger’s musical philosophy is to deny Christ, and I am convinced that to use his music is to affirm his philosophy.  (In addition, at least some people would probably leave with his corrupt words running through their minds.)

Now, someone reading this may disagree with those last two paragraphs, but I hope that at least it will help you understand my thinking, and why some of your brothers and sisters in Christ are “fully persuaded” that some music is not just a matter of preference, but wrong.

Romans 14:5 says, “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.”  The rest of the chapter deals with how we respond to one another when someone else’s “full persuasion” is different from mine.  While the focus of Romans 14 is not on music, the principles certainly apply to music in some important ways.

I cannot do that which I am persuaded is wrong, nor can I expect or pressure others to do that which they are persuaded is wrong.  We may need to teach, to search the Scriptures, to examine our own hearts as to whether what we claim to be “conviction” is merely “preference”.  But we cannot just go ahead and do that which we believe to be wrong.  If we do, we are acting not in faith, but in sin (Romans 14:23).  If we pressure others to just go ahead and do, we are pressuring them to sin, which is sin on our part.  This is the opposite of “forbearing one another in love.”

In matters of taste and preference, all believers should gladly set aside their preferences.  We don’t have to “like” the music we sing together.  Good music is a blessing, and music that we enjoy is a gift from God, but we should not be so selfish as to expect music in the church to be tailored to our tastes and preferences.  This also is opposed to forbearing one another in love.”  Where there is conflict over musical tastes and preferences, there you will find selfish and sinful attitudes.  However, when we come to music which someone in the church believes to be sinful, this cannot just be set aside in the same way we can and should set aside our tastes/preferences.

The Key Question

Dr. Bauder asked in a later discussion, “Would it alter our worship if we determined to offer only those expressions that the entire congregation could agree were glorifying to God?”

His article does not get into the question of defining music that we cannot sing, and other than just a couple of examples above, I’ve not addressed that, either.  He and I would probably reach some different conclusions.  I’m not trying to define the line between appropriate and inappropriate music.  That’s not my purpose today.  My purpose is to give one important way to define the line for corporate worship in the church.  Where musical standards clash (not preferences, but standards of appropriateness), we should “offer only those expressions that the entire congregation” agrees is glorifying to God.

Dr. Bauder is right.  Until….

In Praise of Hamburgers

Mark Snoeberger of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary responded with a superb article, “On Singing in Church, Or, Why My Wife Is Justified in Occasionally Feeding Me Unhealthy Food“.  (He’s probably been reading the Puritans, some of them liked really long titles, too. ;))

Dr. Snoeberger ably demonstrates why, sometimes, we need to sing something that we wouldn’t necessarily choose to sing.  He illustrates his point with his wife’s willingness to cook hamburgers (unhealthy, fattening, on white bread, with mayonnaise).  Every Sunday, she prepares food that she A) does not like and B) which she considers to be unhealthy and at best unwise.  Why?

But she does it because she has a covenant relationship that trumps these concerns. In just the same way every believer has a covenant relationship with the church that is necessarily forwarded by the corporate singing of songs for mutual edification.

Dr. Snoeberger rightly notes that we have mutual responsibilities in a covenant relationship.  We are to be singing “to one another” (Colossians 3:16), and when you join a church, you implicitly (explicitly if it is included in a church covenant) commit yourself to join with the fellowship in singing together.  Furthermore, though Dr. Snoeberger does not emphasise this point, there is authority in these relationships.  It is not merely a mutual relationship where two people do things to please one another — Mrs. Snoeberger is under authority, and is not a free agent.  So also in the church:  when we join a church we place ourselves under authority, and that means when the church sings, we should join.

As with any human authority, there are limits, and Dr. Snoeberger rightly addresses that, but closes with this:

That being said, however, the impulse to “not sing” should be weighed very heavily against other obligations of church members and especially of church leaders. Deciding “not to sing” is a serious decision indeed.

Dr. Snoeberger is correct.  They both are.

  • Dr. Bauder is approaching the question from the perspective of a church music decision-maker.  Those who decide which music will be used in the corporate worship of the church should choose music which all can sing in good conscience.
  • Dr. Snoeberger presents the perspective of the person in the pew.  When we gather as a congregation to worship together, to refuse to sing is a very serious matter.  Even if we are not members of the church, when we enter a meeting and take our seat, we have effectively submitted to some measure of authority for this next hour.  If we can’t sing, it is highly doubtful whether we should remain under that authority.

My only real objection to Dr. Snoeberger’s article is that his example doesn’t quite get to the heart of what Dr. Bauder was saying.  He provides an illustration of someone who believes a course of action is not the best, who believes that the decision to cook hamburgers each Sunday is not the wisest one.  There is a significant difference between “not the best” and “sin”.  I’d like to propose a different example.

Spiritual “Gluten”

One person in our church has coeliac disease, and has to have a gluten-free diet — any gluten in the diet causes significant problems.  You wouldn’t give gluten to someone with coeliac disease — that would be cruel.  If such a person were under your authority, you could never use that authority to require him or her to eat anything that isn’t gluten-free.  That would be a horrible abuse of authority.

Dr. Bauder is talking about sin, singing that which you believe to be false, bearing false witness (to use his words).  Sin is a destructive force, deadening our sensitivity against further sin.  It grieves the heart.  No person who has been pressured to join in music which they believe to be sin will find it easy to receive the Word gladly in that same context.  When someone sits in the pew under authority, he is not a “free agent” to choose the music he likes — but he is certainly affected by the music.  In assenting by singing (even by listening), he states that he believes this message in song is honouring to God — if he believes it is not, this outward assent is corrosive to his soul.  It is comparable to sitting and listening to a preacher who teaches heresy, and being expected to say, “Amen!”  Sitting there is hard enough, but to move on to explicit assent with the “Amen!” is something no one should ever expect other  believers to do.

To do that which we believe to be against God is corrosive and deadly, the spiritual equivalent of eating gluten for a coeliac sufferer.  No one should expect the coeliac patient to eat gluten, and no one should expect, or pressure, someone to do that which they believe to be sin.  This would be a grievous abuse of church authority.

Forbearing in Love

I’ll give another link, this from Kevin DeYoung, who gave Ten Principles for Church Song.  While some of his principles are excellent, perhaps some could use some modification.  I’m linking to his article because I like where he starts — his first principle is love.

There are more important things than the kinds of songs we sing. Music should not be the glue that holds us together–the cross, the glory of Jesus Christ, the majesty of God, and love should. But even churches centered on the gospel disagree about music. So love is indispensable when we sing and when we are trying to discern what is best to sing.

Being reformed, DeYoung naturally has a quote from John Calvin (with those reformed guys, it’s always Calvin or the Puritans 🙂 ), and this one is excellent.  Calvin discusses the fact that as customs and nations change, practices may also appropriately change, and closes with this:

Indeed, I admit that we ought not to charge into innovation rashly, suddenly, for insufficient cause. But love will best judge what may hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe. (emphasis added)

Love will judge, and choose, that which is edifying to all the congregation and hurts none.  Dr. Bauder has given us an excellent instance of one way in which leaders need to be carefully loving in their musical choices for corporate worship in the church.  Dr. Snoeberger, by emphasising the covenant relationship within the church, has reiterated just how important Dr. Bauder’s point is — those within covenant relationships can’t just act like the “Lone Ranger” and do what they want, so those in authority need to protect them.  Loving leadership will never want to put people in a position where their covenant responsibilities are driving them to do that which they believe to be sin.  That is the opposite of being guided by love.

All Will be Safe

We make gluten-free communion bread for our church.  Nothing else would be “safe”.  Of course, all but one person in the church could eat gluten.  It isn’t just a majority that could eat gluten, it is everyone but one person — but that doesn’t change the fact that we all eat gluten-free communion bread.  As far as I know, no one in the church has yet been damaged in any way due to gluten-deprivation ;).  We take communion safely together, rejoicing together in what Christ has done for us.

When we meet together for a meal, we try to make sure that we have gluten-free food available.  We certainly don’t want to create a situation where a coeliac sufferer is either excluded or expected to eat food containing gluten.  It wouldn’t be “safe”.  What kind of church would we be if we behaved in that way?  Jesus said our love for one another is the test by which people will know we are His disciples.  Love and gluten don’t mix when someone can’t eat it.

All should be safe in the church.  It should be a spiritual refuge, not a place where we grieve one another by our choices, pressuring others to assent to that which they believe to be sin.  Love demands that those of us who make musical choices for the church use gluten-free music — music to which all in the congregation can assent.  It may mean we exclude music that many, or most, could use — but then, we don’t refuse to love someone just because they are in the minority.  Love and “the majority rules” are not compatible.

This post isn’t really about music, it is about love.  If love is our guide, it will kill the so-called “worship wars” that many churches suffer.  We can’t feed “spiritual gluten” to those who will be made ill by it, and if pastors and worship leaders push a type of music on those who believe that music to be sin, they are themselves sinning, no matter who is right and who is wrong about the music in question.  By God’s grace, we strive to keep our music “gluten-free” — spiritually safe for all.

If we let love be our guide,
all will be safe

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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