Whose Hymns?

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?

9 comments on “Whose Hymns?

  1. I’m a middle aged worship leader who’s still a rocker at heart, but I understand a preference to hymns. You can make the argument that old songs don’t make any new mistakes.

    However I believe that the church is blessed by new works and fresh perspective.

    In the case of Fee and Guglielmucci I think you’re comparing apples to oranges. The charismatic slant of “Healer” vs. the anthem “Rise and Sing” by Fee is a stretch. I agree with you about “Healer” being theologically thin while lyrically and melodically it’s popular for a reason. I grew up in a charismatic setting and know well the dangers of that theological black hole. But when I examine Michael’s casting of that song, I almost see it as a cry to God for healing things in him that were at the time unseen.

    On the other hand, there isn’t a thing “trite” about Fee’s songs. They’re clever, substantive and push the envelope of congregational worship built around big sound and vertical initiative. When King David was called out for his sin with Bathsheba, he was broken, repentant and contrite. I genuinely believe these guys are, as David was, sorry for that. and I for one don’t discount the tone and message of a song written by a sinner when I as one who leads am just as dirty and in need of God’s immeasurable grace. I believe these men will find in their repentant journey, the immeasurability of God’s immeasurable grace. I genuinely loved Fee’s music but thats not why I’m commenting.

    It’s about Tradition John. There are songs sung in denominations that I have no communion with that I’ll never know nor appreciate. That doesn’t keep them from being sacred and loved. Same with todays music. The hymns that will be sung from our generation 100 years from now will ultimately be the ones that have touched this generation the deepest. And so on…and so on. I personally feel blessed to be living in the age of the new hymns of the church, and I believe a diversity of expression is a good thing.

    thanks for writing this, enjoyed reading and writing with you.

    • John Gardner says:

      Thanks for the comment. Like I said, these are things I’m working through myself, and certainly not anything which is settled in my spirit one way or another. I appreciate feedback from other worship leaders very much!

      While it’s true that my preference is for “older” hymns, I do highly value many new worship hymns and anthems as well. I think a well-balanced worship service incorporates both (in fact, we sang a Fee song this Sunday). You’re definitely right about needing a fresh perspective as well as the perspective of history.

      I share your belief in the genuine repentance of these men, and look forward to seeing how God may yet use them for His glory!

  2. lmallred12 says:

    great blog. these are some of the questions i have been asking and i feel very uncomfortable in my home church because they now have a rock and roll band that gets paid to rock out on stage and sing gateway/hillsong/bethel worship, which of course bethel church is completely heretical, and gateway has too much Word of Faith mumbo jumbo. Yikes! Check out this lady’s blog who came out of the charasmatic movement. It’s quite a testimony! http://mkayla.wordpress.com/

  3. Josh Brahm says:

    Excellent article with some great questions to ponder. I agree with what Scott said above. I don’t think Fee’s lyrics are that shallow. They’re certainly not as substantive as “Crown Him With Many Crowns,” but I don’t think every song we sing on Sunday needs to be.

    I think we need to be very discerning when choosing the songs we’re going to sing. I lead worship for a small church, and my pastor approves all the songs we introduce based on what they’re saying lyrically. I disagree with some of Hillsong’s theology, so that means we take an extra close look at the lyrics of their songs that I want to add. We definitely haven’t boycotted all their songs because some of them have value. “From the Inside Out” is an obvious example, but even their arrangement of “Awesome God” is one I’ve mimicked.

    In the case of song selection, we get to screen every word that will be communicated by the author before the congregation sees/hears it. That’s different from letting a pastor preach from the pulpit, which would automatically be an implied endorsement of just about everything he believes. Not to mention the fact that you wouldn’t really know what that guy is going to say. He’s in the driver seat. On the other hand, I can read every line of a Hillsong song and find no issue with it, and instead it’s very helpful to the congregation. I see them as different. (I don’t use “Healer” for the same reason as you. If the lyrics or a worship song even sound like warped theology, it’s no longer helpful, in my opinion.)

    You mentioned King David’s past, but I think considering the apostle Paul is relevant too. A careful read of First and Second Corinthians implies that there were at least two other letters written by Paul that are not in our Bible, presumably because God wasn’t inspiring every word of those other letters. Yet we still read the other letters Paul wrote that we have solid reasons for believing are inspired by the Holy Spirit.

    I think Steve Fee’s songs prove that wretched sinners and hypocrites like you and me can write and say some spiritually meaningful things that are helpful to other Christians.

  4. John Coleman says:

    As mentioned there are many of the heroes of the Bible who had various shortcomings. I simply refer to those and Galatians 6:1, in loving people regardless of the issue. All the while not being acceptant of the issue.

    Secondly, I would point to 1 Corinthians 12 in regards to what we refer to as charismatic. I find it curious that the apostle Paul, inspired by the spirit, lists the various spiritual gifts. He then goes on to talk about the Body of Christ. He is careful to talk about bodily function. In context, first comes the gifts and then how they are used to make the body faintly formed and functional. True churches that I refer to as charismatic will warn you that there are flakes out there, and not to believe everything you see. Having seen healings firsthand, I’m a believer. To dismiss the gifts is a tragic mistake. Simply put, I know what I know. I also know how I was taught. I was raised and saved under Independent Baptist preaching.
    In conclusion, how do we know anything about hymn writers of the past?

  5. John Coleman says:

    Sorry for the typo. It was fitly joined, not faintly. Have to love the iPad thinking for me.

    Let me also add that I have been involved in music for 30 years and have seen it all. I’ve played hymns, southern gospel, bluegrass gospel, and now contemporary. My experience has allowed me to see more true worship with the contemporary music than any other. I believe all of it has it’s audience and God will use whatever we offer, with a right heart. My view is that the hymn book songs sing about him. While worship music sings to him. Kari Jobe of Gateway and the revelation song are prime examples of singing to him. Maybe we should scrutinize the preaching, instead of the singing.

  6. John Coleman says:

    I hope awaiting moderation is not screening what you perceive to be right. I’ll be glad to examine the scriptures with anybody breathing regarding doctrine.

  7. Carlin Lusk says:

    I am a young worship leader in a church that leans more traditional but does enjoy contemporary music. I grew up hearing and singing hymns and I love many of them, though I must say that I find many of them theologically lacking as well for the simple reason that people are people. We like good melodies and lyrics that make us feel good, whether they have any spiritual depth or not. I find a good blend of old and new, with much prayer and use of good discernment, is the best way to go in this day and time for most churches.

    Also, I have always been in a Pentecostal church. I am not one to swallow everything I hear preached. I rely on the Bible and the enlightenment on a subject that God can bring through prayer and fasting. Which leads me to say that I see nothing wrong with the “Pentecostal definition” of healing. It is, in fact, quite Biblical in pretty much every way I have heard it used in the Pentecostal denominations. If there is something I’m missing (from the Bible, not a theology book or a person’s opinion) I would love to see what it was.

    I am very grateful there is someone out there with articles such as these to talk about praise and worship music, among other things. Many people seem to have this strange idea that leaders in the church should only give and never receive. Thanks for your writing.

  8. benjycox says:

    I’ve always used this logic when picking songs; I look at the content of the lyrics rather than the character of the writer. We have ALL sinned and fallen short. Unless Jesus himself wrote the song while He was on the big ball of dirt He created, it was written by a sinner. I really struggled with Healer when I first heard the full story. I still struggle with it. It is very rarely used at our church. Fee’s songs were used quite a bit before everything came out. We still play Glory To God every once in awhile.

    We have played Katy Perry, Tom Petty, Pearl jam all as our opening song when people are walking in. That’s REALLY a hard selection process. We are a seeker friendly church and try to catch people’s ear as soon as they walk in with something they’ve heard on the radio. Or do a christian contemporary song that sounds like a secular radio song. My goal is to get Susie’s dad that hasn’t been to church in 20 years to say, “that wasn’t too bad, I might come back”. We want the gospel to be proclaimed and taught to as many non-christains as possible on Sundays. If that means we play some “questionable” songs that other churches wouldn’t dare play, so be it. Susie’s dad needs Jesus! We cast a large net first then funnel people to the cross, point them to Jesus, and what He did for all of us. All the while making sure all the lyrics are heading in that direction.

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