Typically, when people use the term “worship wars” they are referring to arguments over the style/genre of music used in worship services. I, for one, hope that those who have made the declaration in recent years that the worship wars have ended (or at least reached a truce) are correct. Of course I have stylistic preferences of my own, but this has never been a high priority for me in choosing where to worship, or what songs I select when I lead worship. There are much more important considerations! See, for example, these comments from Ed Stetzer and Mike Harland and this blog post by Jason Helopolous.
Today I’m going to let you in on a related question that has me a bit puzzled, because there probably isn’t a “right” answer. If there is, I certainly don’t have it! But here’s the question:
To what extent should the personal beliefs or conduct of a hymn writer weigh into the decision to use a hymn in corporate worship?
In other words, should the personal life of the composer of song be a factor in our evaluation of its appropriateness for worship, or do we simply evaluate the work on its own merits? How much theological unity should we have with those who write the songs we sing? Does conduct matter?
There are two main Scripture passages that I keep going over in my mind as I think about this. The first is Colossians 3:16 — “Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.“
The second is Philippians 4:8-9 — “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.“
Here’s what I know for sure: all “hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs” are not created equal. There are some that are truer, purer, lovelier, and more worthy of commendation than others. I believe there is room for different interpretations of what the standard should be, but this is something worth thinking about. Philippians 4:8 leads me to want to accept or reject songs for corporate worship based on their own merit. Does a hymn fill my mind with the Truth of God? Does it inspire me to worship? Is it beautiful? Then let’s use it.
But in verse 9, Paul follows up his exhortation to think about the excellence of things by telling the Philippians to follow his example. They were to learn how to discern which things were excellent by following a trusted leader. The New Testament writers frequently connect the authority to teach and lead a congregation with the conduct of the leader.
The passage from Colossians 3 identifies corporate singing as a primary component of the teaching ministry of the church. So here’s where the water gets a little murky for me. Who exactly is teaching the congregation when we sing a song? The Holy Spirit, of course, and the song leader. But what about the song writer? Assuming he/she has at least some role in teaching through the lyrics we sing, is there a standard by which we should judge hymn writers before using their music to teach our congregations?
This question has been a little heavier on my mind recently, in light of my recent review of Robert Morris’ book The God I Never Knew. His book contains some blatantly heretical teachings — in addition to the standard charismatic doctrines with which I so strongly disagree — yet our church frequently sings songs written by members of his church’s worship team. I’ve selected many of them myself. Is this a problem? Are we implicitly endorsing the teaching of Gateway Church when we sing songs by Gateway Worship (or other Pentecostal/Charismatic churches like Hillsong and New Life)?
I lean toward saying no. I think by nearly any objective standard, many of their songs (and certainly most of the ones we have used at Stevens Street) are perfectly acceptable. Many of them are simply Scripture songs or tasteful re-arrangements of older hymns. Still, I want to be cautious about relying too much on songs from Charismatic writers, lest their teaching on the areas in which we find agreement lead us to uncritically accept their teaching on the areas in which there are serious differences.
Of course, churches have a long history of incorporating hymns written by those with whom they disagree. It’s not uncommon to see hymns by Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts in the same hymnal, and they had vastly different understandings of salvation. Augustus Toplady (who called John Wesley “the most rancorous hater of the gospel system that ever appeared in this Island“) wrote “Rock of Ages” as an explicit condemnation of Arminian theology, yet the hymn is beloved by Wesleyans and Methodists everywhere. Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” has even begun appearing in some Catholic hymnals!
So I think it’s relatively safe to say that we don’t hold songwriters to the same standard as we hold elders. We can sing a hymn written by someone we wouldn’t let preach in our church. Perhaps of greater concern, though, are hymn writers who have fallen into sin. Do extramarital affairs, fraud, and other moral failures disqualify the works of hymn writers? Perhaps two recent incidents will illustrate the point.
The hit song “Healer” was written by Michael Guglielmucci, an Assemblies of God pastor in the Hillsong network of churches in Australia. He wrote it as an anthem expressing his faith that God would heal him from cancer. The problem? He never had cancer. (Here’s a news report of the story.) The entire thing was a fraud (like many Pentecostal “healing” ministries), yet many Christians continue to use the song, accepting it despite its author’s dubious intentions in writing it.
The second example is singer/songwriter Steve Fee. His band stopped touring suddenly in 2010 when his four-year affair came to light. Basically, he was involved in sexual immorality for pretty much his entire performing career. What are we to do with the songs written during that period?
Two points from Scripture come to mind. First, Philippians 1:18 — “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” Paul seems to say that it is possible for Christ to be proclaimed and glorified even when the motive behind the proclamation may be only pretense.
The second — and more obvious — point is that the primary author of Scripture’s hymn book was an adulterer and murderer, not to mention his profound failures as a father. Are the situations different?
Both Guglielmucci and Fee, like King David, have expressed repentance for their sins, and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of that repentance. (Incidentally, I would be very interested to see one of them write something like the equivalent of Psalm 51; we don’t see many Penitential hymns being written today!) But what are we to do with the songs they wrote in the midst of their sin?
All I can think to do at this point is to examine the songs themselves. This task is relatively simple, at least. Unlike many songs from those with major doctrinal differences, the works of Fee and Guglielmucci don’t have much going for them. I was on record long before learning of Fee’s adultery as finding his songs lyrically trite and musically bland. And while the lyrics to “Healer” may not be wrong per se, I could never use that song in worship knowing what he (and his church) believes and teaches about healing. When Pentecostals use that word, it means something very different from how I use it (and how the Bible uses it), which is enough for me to stay away.
Thankfully, this is one of the benefits of preferring older hymns, which I do. It isn’t at all about stylistic preferences; in fact, most of the arrangements I choose or write when leading worship are stylistically very contemporary, though the lyrics are often centuries old. We have the benefit today of a long history of discernment by Christians who have come before. The songs that last are the ones that have been affirmed over and over again. They are the “best” of their era. All are written by sinners, of course, but these “best” hymns tend to have been written by men (and women) whose faithfulness and purity were evident throughout the course of their lives. There is probably not a direct cause here, but there is certainly a correlation.
There are some hymns being written today that will still be sung in 100 years. Most will be forgotten. That doesn’t mean they don’t have any worth, but I try to intentionally choose songs with more objective merit. For this I rely heavily on my own discernment, but when I can rely on the discernment of a few hundred years’ worth of Christians, it’s even better!
So after all that writing, I’m still basically where I was at the beginning. What do we do with all this? I have no idea. What say you? Am I overthinking this? Are these legitimate concerns?