What makes music good? Or bad? Is there indeed such a thing as good or bad music? Are there certain styles of music that are off limits for Christians? How about for use in the church? These questions underscore the odd reality that music – and especially music in the church – has been a controversial issue for a long time.
Music is generally understood to be a language. Languages convey meaning, and verbal languages use words to do it. The language of music does not use words, but instead employs its own units of vocality to convey meaning. Some of music’s devices include rhythm, timing, melody, harmony, counterpoint, percussiveness, decay, sustain, crescendo, repetition, discord, cacophony, and other dynamics. Each of these tools invokes certain attitudes, and even moods. Yet those voicings are contextual and subjective.
Some argue that music intrinsically carries enough objective meaning, even without lyrical content, to be immoral. Proponents of this view suggest that certain styles have no place in the church, and are even incompatible with the gospel. I cannot agree with this view, as it seems to go too far in attributing objective characteristics to subjective matter. But admittedly personal philosophies are of little value here – what we need is some Biblical certainty.
The Bible never discusses the issue of the morality of music directly – whether it can be intrinsically moral or immoral, or whether it is simply a vehicle for lyrical messages (much like the internet is a vehicle for data). But the Bible presents clear principles that should govern our understanding of and use of music. These principles give us much on which to stand. And in this, we must be cautious. If we extend beyond the boundaries of what is written in Scripture, then we are in danger of the Corinthian error: pride (1 Cor 4:6).
Some Biblical Examples
There are a few notable mentions of music during Israel’s Monarchy (and temple) Period, which was during the economy of the Mosaic Law. While these passages are not prescriptive for today, they are descriptive of how music was used in worship. Notably, much of the instrumentation was developed by David, and some of the musical stylings might have even accompanied some of the Psalms.
1 Chronicles 15:16 describes Levitical singers, and players of stringed instruments (harps and lyres) and percussive rhythmic instruments (cymbals), all commissioned by David for “raising sounds of joy.”
1 Chronicles 16:5 describes the same instruments, with Asaph on percussion.
2 Chronicles 5:13 adds trumpets to the arrangement, as they and the singers “were to make themselves heard with one voice and to glorify the Lord” at the dedication of Solomon’s temple.
2 Chronicles 7:6 observes of the musical instruments that they had been made by King David for giving praise to the Lord.
It is notable that David employed different musical styles for different occasions. Sometimes he was shouting along with trumpets (2 Sam 6:15), other times he utilized much more diverse and intricate instrumentation with intense expressive passion (1 Chron 13:8).
In these passages we see clear references to orchestration, arrangement, diversity of instrumentation, the prominence of percussion, and diversity of musical styles. But there seems to be one constant: the purpose for all of this was the glory of God (e.g., 2 Chron 5:13).
Fast forward one-thousand years to the beginning of the Church Age, and we read Paul’s exhortation that everything we do is for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). The purpose for music didn’t change in that thousand-year period, nor has it been altered in the last two millennia. God’s glory is the ultimate goal and the final standard of quality for anything of aesthetic quality: if it glorifies God it is good, if not, then it isn’t.
When we apply this standard to music, we discover that if we meet the one objective standard (His glory), then we have freedom with respect to subjective elements – many of which are rooted in diversity of occasions and cultures.
It is critical to realize that just like the Bible contains no list of foods that glorify God (even no such list is found in the Mosaic Law – those clean/unclean lists were simply prescriptions without any explanation of purpose, and were later reversed [11:9]), and yet when we eat it is to be for His glory (1 Cor 10:31). In the same way, there is no list of musical instruments or styles that are glorifying to Him. I would suggest this implies a tremendous amount of freedom. Where there are no restrictions, we needn’t infer any. Still, along with that freedom comes an important principle that we should be willing to self-restrict for the benefit of others.
We see exemplified on more than one occasion in the early church the importance of sensitivity toward diverse cultures. We see it in the Council of Jerusalem, when Jews and Gentiles were to be considerate of certain cultural distinctions (Acts 15). We see it in Paul’s ministry to the Athenians (Acts 17:16-34). We see it in Paul’s example to the Corinthians (1 Cor 9:18-22), and we see it in his exhortation to the same church regarding the limiting of their own personal freedoms for the sake of others (1 Cor 8).
From these contexts we can draw at least three principles:
- Any use of music should be purposed for God’s glory. If it isn’t designed and executed for that purpose, then we need to rethink what we are doing.
- We have freedom with respect to style and instrumentation.
- We need to exercise great care when employing music in a group setting – especially to be certain we are being sensitive to others.
Understanding the principles delineated in these examples, we must be sensitive to where others are – both believers and unbelievers. Consequently, the first question we should ask is not “What can we do?” rather it is “What should we do?” As Paul elsewhere explains, “all things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything…” (1 Cor 6:12). Rather than assert our freedoms in self-interest we should be ready to restrict the use of those freedoms in the interest of others.