A time not to sing?

04 May

I have recently had conversations with several people about the propriety of choosing not to participate in the singing of certain songs in public worship. More specifically, those of us who have embraced the arguments for ordered affections and conservative worship believe that some of the songs sung in our churches, or at other churches or conferences, have texts or tunes that misguide the affections; that is, these songs teach people to feel the wrong way about God (or about some Christian truth). In such cases, some of us choose not to sing those songs.

Is this an acceptable choice?

The argument for singing everything on the order of service is often very simple: certainly, it is claimed, these songs are not so far outside the bounds that we’re really violating our conscience to sing them. Instead, our refusal to sing is merely public demonstration, and is almost certainly rooted in condescending arrogance (elitism, if you will). The imperatives of pursuing unity (over petty preferences) and submission to one another in love trump our concerns about the merits of these songs.

It seems to me that the validity of this line of argument hinges entirely on the initial premise: these songs are acceptable. This is, of course, just the point under dispute.

For purposes of this post, I’m going to write as though we have little hope of resolving that issue (that is, whether these songs are appropriate). However, I think for many readers (even those who are not sympathetic to where we’d draw our lines), the idea that some music is either textual or musically inappropriate for worship is not utterly crazy.

If so, I think we can change the topic slightly, and in doing so draw some useful parallels. Suppose that you’re visiting in a church service, and as part of their liturgy, they recite a creed (which is helpfully printed for you in their bulletin). Suppose further that this creed is not one of the standard ecumenical creeds, but one which has been drawn up specifically for use in their assembly. And suppose finally that one line in their creed is as follows: “I believe that God equally intends all people to be saved, and that only their own free will keeps them from salvation.”

Do you recite this line of the creed? (Obviously, the dilemma presents itself only to those who are Calvinistic; if you are not, change the illustration to fit your theological persuasion.)

The point of the illustration, for me, is this: I would not recite the creed with this congregation, because I could not do so in good conscience. My refusal to join them in this creed, however, does not in any way imply that I think they are all pagans, or any such similar nonsense. It merely means that while they believe that this statement reflects the teaching of Scripture, I do not.

In the same way, I believe that certain songs do not reflect the mood of Scripture. This is not to say that my understanding of Scripture is absolute; I may be wrong about my judgment of the song, just as I may be wrong about my judgment of the Bible’s teaching on election. (Of course, I happen to believe that I’m correct about both.)

In either case, however, to join in the public use of these devices, when I believe they are not supported (and are instead actually contradicted) by Scripture is, in the words of Luther, “neither right nor safe.”


Posted by on May 4, 2010 in Fundamentalism, Music, Worship


10 responses to “A time not to sing?

  1. Andy Efting

    May 5, 2010 at 7:10 am

    I’ll tell you, though, this issue gets complicated quickly. What if you are the church pianist and the pastor or song leader changes the order of service on a whim and asks the church to sing a song such as your describe? Or a choir member and you discover that the choir is scheduled to sing such a song? Or if you have kids and you find out half-way through the practice schedule for a major children’s cantata that there is a song or two like that in the program? It’s one thing to silently not participate – no one really has to know. It’s another thing altogether if your convictions end up conflicting with church leadership in a more visible manner, especially when you know that not everyone has the same conviction and you don’t really want to cause problems for people, but you do feel very strongly about the issue.

  2. Larry

    May 5, 2010 at 8:05 am

    So how would you address the issue of corporate worship, that we all sing the same thing because of the nature of corporate worship? Corporate worship is not individual worship, and it is not merely a collection of individuals who happen to be worshipping in the same room. It is one body worshipping as one body. Opting not to sing a particular song because of tune or text would seem to have some impact on that, would it not?

  3. Todd Mitchell

    May 7, 2010 at 11:49 am

    Well said, Michael. Andy, you are right that we face complicated situations, but the principle remains simple — and sound. There comes a point at which each of us simply cannot violate our conscience, no matter how much that upsets others. That doesn’t mean we stop being ladies and gentlemen in declining to participate. We don’t have to storm out in a huff. But we must draw a line and say, No further. If we don’t — if we’re ready to do anything just to make others happy — then we have bigger problems.

    Most folks are fine with this. I am still in fruitful fellowship with one choir director whom I once had to risk offending — I had just begun singing with his choir for a concert, but when I encountered some irreverent music, I quit, explaining to him that I couldn’t sing it. And for several years I got along just fine as a Sunday School teacher, despite the fact that I remained (rather obviously) silent every single Sunday morning while the leaders led the children in singing the typically absurd songs of Fundamentalist Sunday Schools. And during that five year sojourn in Fundamentalism, I remained silent during some singing in almost every worship service, yet remained in fruitful fellowship with the body.

    Larry, you raise a good question about the effect this has on corporate worship. It certainly does affect worship to introduce irreverent songs, in more ways than one. Not only does the congregation treat God with irreverence, but the individual who remains silent is struggling to worship God and love his brethren despite his grief — and perhaps even his vexation.

  4. J.N. Olmstead

    May 30, 2010 at 11:50 am

    There is 1) the parishioners, and 2) the music director/compliation for worship. Let us not forget the third party involved in our decisions: the Lord Himself. He knows the heart and he alone is the Judge. Each believer, while participating in corporate worship, will experience individual judgement / reward for his individual decisions. Let the chips fall on this point.

    However, being a part of the assembly, a corporate body, is a point not to be dismissed by my above reminder. As for the pianist or associate pastor who might be a part of the conscience-laden song selection: they are in a form of leadership under another form of leadership, all of which are under the highest Leadership (again, the oft ignored Third Party in discussions of subjective preference). There are principles to get us underway in discussing, “What about the pianist, etc.?”

    The principles of submission and servant leadership, and imbibing the humility and obedience of Christ, (ought to) all play into this complex and emotive decision. This decision does not happen in a vacuum. In other words, the leader under another leader might not like song X but, in submission, etc., he/she chooses to go forward. The Lord knows this leaders heart and the variety of loyalties and principles causing tension in the heart. Here is a caution to lead pastors: to cause and ignore this tension is not to love them as ourselves and not place their interests above our own. It is sinful to dismiss this internal struggle of a brother/sister in Christ. Ultimately, on one hand, it is only the Lord who can determine the final rightness or oughtness of each decision not to sing. It is our concern, on the other hand, to inform our consciences as best we can so that our God-given tool of caution (conscience) is in line with what the Lord would say about the decision.

    Lastly, we must acknowledge the grey. There is an undeniable subjective element to this and we must take heed lest we fall, that to not accept another’s Biblical conviction on the basis of someone else’s Biblical conviction is not a rebuttal to the former, but merely an assertion of the latter. The Lord knows the state of spiritual maturity of the decision maker, his/her purity of motive (or lack thereof), and so on. As long as our brother or sister in Christ is straining at loving God rightly with all of their heart and mind and strength (orthopathy, -doxy, -praxy) then outsiders to the decision ought to extend Christian acceptance while speaking the truth in love if their own conscience drives them to believe otherwise.

    Disclaimer: I’m not advocating relativism, which I think should be an obvious given. I am, however, attempting to highlight what must be considerations in our search and practice of objective affective truth.

  5. Chris Ames

    June 4, 2010 at 9:14 am

    I echo Pastor Mitchell. Not everyone believes that you can both affirm and demean something simultaneously, especially those who have a significant stake in the industry. The difficulty is compounded because most people in the church have a “don’t think” button, and church music pushes that button. They sing away obliviously.

    On the other hand, I don’t suspect that a godly music leader would demand that one violate his conscience and thereby commit sin, even if that music leader happened to disagree with the particulars of the stance taken. I’ve had conversations with the music fellow in our church: he happens to think that some of the janky gospel ditties are OK and some are not. In conversation, I demonstrated that my default position is to not sing anything that sounds (for example) like a waltz or a commercial because neither form (musical or literary) is appropriate for any kind of worship. They were not designed to appeal to God, and I do not think that God finds them appealing, so I stand there and wait.

  6. Scott Cline

    June 19, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    I’ll qualify from the outset that I’m a newcomer to this arena. I have roots in Fundamentalism, followed by a season in popular Conservative Evangelicalism, and now a growing appreciation for those ideas which undergird aesthetic and ecclesiastical Conservatism.

    Thus far and on the whole (and with some exceptions), I’ve found Conservatism more compelling than conservatives (to be fair, I must say that, on another level, this could be said of us all: Chesterton said that the one good argument against Christianity is Christians).

    In this particular instance (judge for yourselves whether my lateness to the Conservative conversation affords me perspectival advantage or disadvantage), I wonder if your suggestion involves aesthetic-conservatism-turned-aesthetic-positivism. I imagine that this question will seem sensible to the degree that we treasure Christian unity in the way and to the extent that Jesus does: the degree to which we treasure Christian unity (specifically and especially unity within a local assembly) determines both the degree of importance a thing must have, and also the degree of certainty which we must have about a thing, before we let it destroy that unity. I am referring, of course, to the latter when I suggest that aesthetic positivism may be involved in your suggestion.

    To get to the point, how certain are you that this or that particular song is unfit for worship? Or, more applicably, let’s assume that the song in view is unfit in some way and to some degree (an assumption that is more or less safe in connection to any of our music); how certain are you that it is unfit enough (“enough” being most operative, here) to demand the destruction of Christian unity (I’m presupposing that a refusal to sing with those to whom you are covenanted is a serious thing indeed)?
    I might suggest that, by virtue of the nature of aesthetic epistemics, positivism is more likely to “be all wet” in the aesthetic arena than in others.

    Having said that, I confess that I do not know what exactly you refer to. You may refer to instances about which we would be in perfect agreement. Perhaps you refer to a lead guitarist leaping wildly across the stage and flailing his arms in an obvious fit of something other than worship while screaming incomprehensibilities to caucauphony. I, too, would refrain from participation!

    In fact, I have “bowed out” on a couple of occasions (and this before any conscious affirmation of Conservatism). I may have to do so again, in a couple weeks, if my church sings to or about a country during a time which is set apart for singing to or about God.

    In any case, I do sympathize with those who would say that “it certainly does affect worship to introduce irreverent songs,” implying that the onus lies with the one who selects music and not with the one who must refrain from it. This is certainly true, but it is true to varying degrees which are not addressed in this post (of course the author is under no obligation to clarify every possible misunderstanding). Should we not assign a different value to the one who means to subvert ordinate worship than to the one who sincerely attempts to worship within the milieu an alternative to which he has never known?
    I suppose that the responsibilities of the musician and the congregant are at two ends of a seesaw, and a number of different factors may lay more weight of responsibility on one end than the other in any given instance. The congregant who sits in a huff while everybody else stands and sings a song which contains one immodest note between two lines each time the refrain comes around is probably self-righteous. The lead guitarist described in a previous paragraph is likewise guilty.

    Well, I’ll quit my rambling by circling back to my central question:
    How certain are you that any given song is unfit enough to demand the destruction of Christian unity?

  7. Todd Mitchell

    June 19, 2010 at 7:39 pm


    Thanks for the thoughts, Scott. I’d like to address the last part of your question before addressing the first part.

    Remaining silent while others sing does not necessarily destroy Christian unity any more than a “nay” vote in a business meeting. We can remain in unity despite some disagreements; otherwise unity would be practically impossible. We can even demonstrate solidarity by worshiping alongside those with whom we disagree in part.

    But even if this is a matter of unity, I could never further true unity by singing or doing anything else in violation of my conscience. If it is a matter of unity, then the division exists whether I sing or not. All I could do by singing would be to further the appearance of unity, a banal end at best, and a deceitful end at worst — and like all ends, it does not justify the means.

    As far as how certain I am about a particular song? That depends upon the song. Like you, I can be certain about some songs. Others I’m not quite so certain about. But I’d like to be more certain about all songs, and I am confident that by God’s grace we can grow in this kind of discernment. If we can’t, then we can’t be certain about any song to begin with. Once we’ve acknowledged that there are some songs that we are sure about, we’ve acknowledged that we could be sure about other songs, too. I think Paul had this kind of discernment (not just music, but other things, too) in mind in Php 1:9-11, c.f. Php 4:8.


    P.S. Often the question over certainty in music is coupled with ideas about the sufficiency of Scripture. Suffice it to say that Scripture says absolutely nothing about the particulars of music, but we’re still expected to worship with reverence and awe. We can still say a great deal about music, even though the Bible does not offer us any guidance in the particulars. FYI:

%d bloggers like this: