The Great Worship Music Question Part Two: The Sword and the Smith
October 19, 2023 | Kevin Perry
The Poet and the Preacher
The Poet’s eyes were ever skyward as a boy.
Enraptured by the stars and the weather, he wrote some of the most beautiful poetry the world had ever heard. His works were even read in the presence of nobles and the courts of kings.
But the poet was deceived. Face turned toward the heavens, he counted the sky’s wonder as the work of false gods. He sang of being a child of Zeus…and so his life’s song tragically missed the true Creator of the heavens and the earth.
Many years after the poet, a preacher had his eyes opened.
The preacher travelled to and fro telling of the One True God. On a hillside one day he found himself surrounded and confronted by the wisest minds in the land. As he searched for words that would help them hear the truth….the songs of the Poet came to mind. He quoted and used the old lyrics, with hopes the gathered crowd would hear, believe, and repent. That day the Poet’s words would be bent not as praise to Zeus, but as a beacon to the lost to become children of the God they didn’t know.
If the story sounds familiar, it’s because it’s true. Many years after that day on the hillside, the Holy Spirit took hold of the words of the Poet and the Preacher- breathing them out on paper. For the poet was a Greek named Aratus…..and the preacher was the Apostle Paul.
The first and most important consideration of any song we sing, proclaim and put on the lips of our people is this: the words and how we can wield them as a church. We sing songs to God, to one another and to our own hearts - just as scripture models and commands. No other qualification gets more emphasis and weight than what the lyrics actually say. For all my stock market loving friends, if our song choice criteria was a mutual fund, the primary stock holding would be lyrical content- heavily weighted. Some songs are rather straight forward in what they say….while others are more rich in metaphor and imagery. Diversification in a fund is a good thing. Songs are both poetry and doctrine intertwined. We need both Romans and Psalms in our life of faith so to speak.
“Wielded in OUR CHURCH.” We don’t sing songs in a doctrinal vacuum at Fellowship. We have a doctrinal statement (www.fbcrc.org/about/beliefs). We do the verse-by-verse thing on Sunday morning. We are a bible church…if you throw a dart at a month on the church ministry calendar, you’ll be hard pressed to not hit a day where there isn’t some kind of bible study, class or discipleship group going on. That is our church context we sing in. And here is a little secret: the songs we sing don’t define what we believe…they express what we believe. So, the sword is either fit to be used in battle or it isn’t.
On that note, A funny thing happens with worship music lyrics…we transpose meaning. What I mean by that is we sing songs different from what the writer intended. For example, there are many old songs rife with bad theology from the author that we simply sing with different or ‘upgraded’ meaning now. Why do they get a pass? Tradition...time gone by...naïveté to the original meaning...the writer isn’t on Instagram. I don’t know. Meanwhile in the opposite way, we sometimes come across a loaded metaphor in a modern song that we strongly object to based on an assumed meaning that the author doesn’t intend or hold to. We need to recognize we transpose meaning all the time when we sing….sometimes in ways that are helpful but other times reckless.
We wield the words…we define what we believe in song. It’s why I bring up the story of Paul and the Greek poets like Aratus in Acts 17. It fascinates me when scripture appropriates or repurposes words and practices from ‘outside’ sources. Only God has the monopoly on the truth. God is the source of all truth. Words of truth we sing were true yesterday, today and forever regardless of who put the pen to paper on earth.
Nothing gets greater consideration for songs we sing than the lyrics and how we can wield them as a church. But I bet you already knew that. After all, the great worship music question usually isn’t about the crucial role of the sword...but of the smith who forged it.
The first thing to say about smiths is that there are no subscriptions to smiths. Meaning no songwriter, no organization, no author, no band nor famous preacher gets an automatic pass for content. We don’t subscribe to anyone or anything besides scripture and Jesus- the Smith of Smiths. There are gospel centered, bible believing Christian denominations that our church clearly disagrees with on certain matters of theology and practice. In turn, there many of these same denominations and streams of tradition that disagree with our church theology and practice. I’ve never heard a quote in a sermon by some famous preacher or theologian who we would agree with on 100% of everything they have ever written or spoken. Even the most popular of them will surprise you sometimes with some of their views. And yes, the same goes for worship songwriters. We don’t seek to align with a smith- we seek to wield the sword if it aligns with our belief.
But the question does come up about what kind of support is expressed or realized for a smith when we use their songs or material. Again, the weight and priority of navigating song usage falls heaviest on everything mentioned in this blog thus far. But when we talk about ‘support,’ there is a tension I want to tease out via a little thought experiment
Did ya hear the story about the preacher who said it’s okay to eat take-out from a demonic restaurant? Sounds scandalous…but I’m talking about Paul again in 1 Corinthians. We are given a freedom of conscience to participate in the marketplace among some very tangled issues living as a Christian in this fallen world. We are on mission….we are to be IN this world but not OF it. And in this world there are many entities that do bad things with our monetary support. Banks, taxes, grocery shopping, sending a child to college, supporting a sports team……one will be hard pressed to do any of these things in our world without it involving giving money to an entity that supports things like abortion, same-sex marriage, transgender affirming care, etc.
These cultural issues are absolutely important, and we don’t take them lightly or silently. But Scripture gives us a freedom from ‘absolute guilt by monetary support’ based on what service/product we are actually extracting from an entity in a transaction. This isn’t a freedom to be taken for granted or lightly because these are grievous issues in our day that are sometimes life and death. But again, without this freedom we are given, the world would be practically unlivable for a believer and the church would become a walled monastery. Most of us would have to quit our day jobs, cancel our home loans, and grow our own food. More importantly, the mission to go into all the world as salt and light would be severely hindered.
And now back to worship music. To be clear I do not think this is exactly analogous to what goes on with worship songs. As best one can know, almost every song we have ever sung has been written by Christians- those who believe the crucified and resurrected Jesus is the only hope for salvation in a sin wrecked world by grace through faith. I say ‘almost’ because specifically, there is one old hymn that makes its way into our diet of songs that I believe to be written by a heretic. It’s universally loved and over 100 years old. I imagine if we deemed it ‘un-singable’ the reaction would range from indifference to meltdown. If you don’t already know the beautiful and comforting old hymn I’m talking about, I’d be surprised if you could guess it without googling it.
So, do we reject theologically true and fruitful songs written by flawed and fallible Christian smiths while continuing to live, work, play and shop among entities supporting some of the most demonic and harmful ideas our world is offering up? Please forgive the method of asking in this short space. I really dislike ‘what aboutism’ lines of argumentation and I’m sure there is a better way to put that…but I think the tensions are worth thinking on.
I’m not saying some of these smiths don’t have (in my opinion) some sloppy or error filled theology. Some smiths have an orthopraxy or church practice I strongly disagree with that I think can be detrimental in a life of faith. I’m not saying these aren’t important issues anymore than I would say the Corinthian church sounds like a lovely church body to have raised a family in. (Hint: It does not and most of us would have transferred churches with due haste.) But speaking of the Corinthian church, I fully believe you can have a lot of theology wrong and still be a Christ follower bound for eternity with Him. PRAISE GOD….coz I’m sure I need a lot of correcting. But for all its craziness, Paul looked at the Corinthian church and acknowledged the Spirit of God at work in them. I wonder if we would do the same.
But what DO we do in the messiness? I think the first and foremost thing is to continually speak…converse….discern….teach….equip….grow. We continue to learn more and more to think Christianly about life and doctrine - but God help us in a loving and charitable manner. Talking through this with Monty a few weeks back, I love a term he brought up - “charitable orthodoxy”. God, please grow us in that. And woe unto us if we bring this world’s ‘cancel culture’ mentality into and among the larger body of Christ. That feels like vomit in a gourmet kitchen.
From the universities of Europe to the hills of Navajo nation I’ve worshipped in somewhere over 400 churches in my life of ministry. The body of Christ is beautiful, diverse, messy and passionate. Sometimes crazy feeling. Like a family….even a good family at that. To be honest about our own little church, I am less worried about us becoming a theologically sloppy and messy people than I am a disaffected people in worship for whom church is a spectator sport of cultural convenience on the calendar. I think that is the greater threat and thereby greater opportunity for growth….especially in the mere 20 minutes we spend singing together each week. Oh God, help us to be a people more characterized by hand lifted prayer and praise than arm-crossed criticism. The Bible clearly exhorts one of those. I’ll have a sword ready to sing about it together soon.