Music and theology

by Russel Cairns -M.Th.


How has song and music been used overtime to express Christian theology and faith?

Music and song are a God created means of expressing our deepest emotions, feelings, faith and praise before God. The people of God throughout all time, regardless of location, have always expressed their faith through music and song. As Gelineau writes, ?The Christian liturgy was born singing and it has never ceased to sing.?? Yet long before the birth of Christ song and music was regarded as one of the most fundamental constituents of worship and has continued through the history of the church. Song/music was seen as a rite in the same way as prayer and communion to the point that Augustine remarked, outside scriptural reading and bishop praying,
? there any time when the faithful assembled in church are not singing? Truly I see nothing better, more useful or more holy that they could do.?
Indeed in Psalm 96:1 we are commanded to sing new songs of praise to the Lord. However, music and song have remained issues of great controversy and division as well. Church music is an incendiary topic, which is best illustrated in the debates surrounding the emergence and subsequent domination of today?s contemporary worship styles/songs that feature, to a greater or lesser degree, in the majority of churches throughout the land. The new styles that have swept through the church bring with them some major theological questions not least, has big business concerns hijacked the authentic worship of Christ?s church? Are we using song/music and singing to God in a way that he wishes to be worshipped? In order to assess this and the significant theological issues raised one must start with an understanding of how song and music has been used in both the Old and New Testament eras and how the principles laid down here influenced how their use developed through church history to the present dilemma.

From such passages of scriptures as Amos 5:21-24 or Psalm 98:4-9 where the Lord commands ?Take away from me the noise of your songs?to a disobedient, hypocritical people,? we see that not all music is appreciated by God. Indeed, as Christopher Hayward argues, music can be misused yet the Bible clearly welcomes musical praise to God.? The Book of Chronicles contains detailed instructions for music use in the Solomonic temple, and the Psalms are a continuous book of praise in sadness and in joy.? As Hayward suggests, this raises the question, what kind of music or song pleases God? To answer this we must turn to the Old Testament, then the New, where we find both an overwhelming positive view of music and a number of different characteristics that music should contain.

Obedience and Integrity
Throughout the Old Testament there is a principle that songs and music must be matched by obedience and integrity. In Amos 5:21-24 we read of God?s revulsion at the ?noise of your songs? that come from a disobedient heart. Indeed, the intention of the heart seems crucial to worship. In 1st Chronicles 13 and 15 David tries to return the ark to Jerusalem, ?dancing before God with all their might with songs lyres and harps.? However, David in failing to follow the instructions for the arks transportation in Numbers delay?s the arks proper return. We see later in chapter 15 that when the correct procedures are adhered to, God is satisfied. As Hayward argues, ?David?s music, well prepared and executed, is acceptable when in its accompanied by obedience to the Lord?s stipulations.?? While this obedience is crucial, I would also argue that this example also teaches us a valuable lesson about integrity. I think it is safe to presume that David initially chose to return the ark as he wished, no doubt with the, pomp, circumstance and performance that he believed fitting. However, worship through song and music must be based on an honest heart that seeks glory and praise to God and is not self-promoting performance. This facet of worshipful songs becomes very important when we analyse contemporary songs later.

Praise and Participation
In Exodus 15 Moses, and the children of Israel have just miraculously escaped their Egyptian captors by crossing the Red Sea. They respond with praises to God, ?I will sing to the Lord for He is highly exalted (15:1).? In verse 20 we read that Miriam encourages this praise by dancing with tambourines. In this passage as is the case in the Old Testament, we see the engagement of emotions through the means of song, instruments and dance together with ?propositional content? recounting the salvific deeds of the Lord.? It seems that all participate as they raise up praise to the Lord their God who has delivered them. As the people participate in the praise there is also a proclamationary aspect to the music an song. Just as the songs attest to God hurling the Egyptian horse and rider to the sea in Judges 5, the song of Deborah, praise is offered to God for the judgment that He wrought on Israel?s enemies and the surrounding kings and called to take notice of this.? From the outset song and music are given a missional use. Indeed this coupling of praise and missional or evangelistic proclamation occurs throughout scripture.? For example, in Psalm 96 singing to the Lord is paralleled with proclaiming his salvation and declaring his glory amongst the nations. (Ps96:1-3) As we shall see later the participational and missional aspect of song use continues throughout time

Songs use in Teaching
In Deuteronomy 31 and 32, we find a different use of song. Here Moses commands the people to write a song on their hearts so that it ?may be a witness for me against the Israelites.?? The song reminds the people of their fallenness by contrasting the greatness and faithfulness of the Lord with the unfaithfulness of his chosen people.? This song was to be passed on to each generation to remind and instruct them of their faithlessness. Song is used here as a teaching device that utilized its nature as an aid to memory. As Hayward notes, one of music?s greatest values, over and above the spoken or preached word, is in the memorisation of truth.? Here we see the beginning of a valuable use for song that would be used, to a greater or lesser degree, throughout church history.

New Testament use

Unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament does not provide the same quantity of musical allusions. That is not to say that the New Testament does not deal with the use of song and music, but it does so in a different way. This is partly because, as Gelineau explains, music is regarded today as discipline clearly distinguished, and with a separate existence, from speech.? During the New Testament period, the distinction between singing and speaking was far less marked. However, Gelineau argues that the early church was marked by a lyricism evidenced in the canticles of the early chapters of Luke and passages of Paul which are hymnic, bearing witness to the creativity of the early Christian communities. Indeed, we learn that Silas and Paul spent their time in prison praying and singing hymns to God (Acts 16:25). Singing is as important an expression of faith and praise in the New as it is in the Old, however, the context and use of music and song has crucially changed.

Change in Context
As we move from the old to new covenants, the context of worship moves. The old familiar ?religious? or cultic concepts of the Hebrew Bible are transformed as the temple, the place of worship, is replaced by person and people/church of Christ. As Hayward argues, the special individuals have been replaced by a special people so that the Old Testament priesthood, open only to Levities, has been superseded by a ?priesthood of all believers? with access to God through Jesus Christ.? It is now the Christian gathering, the church, which is the location for singing and music. In the Book of Acts we see that ?praise of God? is described as part of the corporate life of the church along with teaching, fellowship, prayer etc.? However the rest of the New Testament contains very little explicit reference to the use of music and song in the church gathering. What evidence we do posses shows us that the principles found in the Old covenant continue.

Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 are two of the very few clear references and directives about music and song in the church:
?Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.?
As Harold Best argues, the importance of this passage lies with the role of the text and the role of music.? In these verses we are told to teach and speak to each other with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Clearly, the song has retained its use as a teaching and memorisation tool. Best argues that we are commanded to teach truth, yet music alone cannot teach truth. As he puts it ?only truth can teach truth,? therefore it is the text, the Word of God that teaches and admonishes. Therefore, what we sing must bear witness and attest to truth of scripture.? Best describes this as the horizontal feature of song/music that continuously goes back and forth through the congregation edifying and admonishing. There is also a vertical plane present when we sing praise. We are instructed to sing and ?make music in our hearts? to the Lord.? Thus as we sing the music direction is always vertical to the Lord first and foremost. As Best explains,
?Music is not truth telling and God does not need truth, he is Truth but he wants to hear us use his truth prophetically even while we make music to him lovingly and praisefully.?
From the biblical material, it is then vital for music and song to be subject to the authority of the Word of God in our Christian gatherings. With these biblical principles and practices laid down, I now wish to highlight how the use of song and music evolved over time. I will give a brief overview of use up until the contemporary period, by way of background before setting out to evaluate how songs and music are used in today?s church and the theological implications of these particular practices.
Brief Historical Overview of use
Although it is impossible to recreate the music of the early church since musical notation had not been invented, we do know that for the first 100years or so the church generally sung with no accompaniment as a symbolic move away from associations with the pagan instrumental use.? However, as Dunston notes in the first 300 years of the church, there is much reference to singing during gatherings and a large number of hymn texts. He states that there is much evidence from, ??Africa, Egypt and the East that the church of the martyrs was rich in song.?? Interestingly, unlike many commentators, he argues that after the split with the synagogue, Christians no longer sung but read the Psalms. Unfortunately, he provided little evidence to support this claim. In any case, there is evidence of the continued development of a hymnology. Indeed, White argues that when Christianity gained legal status and respectability under Constantine, worship in general and music especially became more sophisticated and complicated.? Musical instruments were tolerated if they were free from pagan associations, and the fourth and fifth centuries witnessed the organisation and elaboration of the liturgy.

Music and song continued to be used in teaching capacity but more often over points of theological dispute. Ambrose of Milan composed many hymns as did Venantius Fortunateus and Augustine all to support, explicitly or otherwise, a matter of theology.? With the advent of musical notation in the Middle Ages, it was the monks who led musical development. Hence, a very distinctive style of church music developed that reflected monastic life. White notes that this was heavily communal but also focussed unsurprisingly on individual contemplation and edification.? Songs that developed throughout this period focussed on the singing of liturgical texts, especially the Psalms as hymns written for specific events throughout the year.

However, it was not until the Reformation that the teaching aspect of music and its participational value would be fully exploited. Luther was amongst the first to realise the potential for church music. Theologically, music and song could enable, ??the full participation which belongs to the priesthood of all believers,? for which he longed.? Certainly, the Reformation saw the beginning of hymn singing as we now recognise it. Dunston argues that until then it was generally restricted to those who sang the offices and the Mass. Now it became an essentially congregational activity, and the only active participation in the service.? Luther, the author of some 37 hymns, placed music second only to theology as a gift from God. Those that followed him also found that hymnody provided an ideal means for teaching the demands of the Christianity. As White notes, eventually a ?hymn of the day? was designated for Lutheran churches to complement the Gospel lesson.? However, not all reformers shared the Lutheran enthusiasm for hymnody. Zwingli, although a musician himself, believed that unconditional obedience to scripture meant no music while Calvin argued that only psalms and direct words of Scripture should be used. Isaac Watts, an English Congregationalist who pioneered vernacular hymns based on scriptural themes or quotations, did not share such compulsions.

A similar vein was pursued by the newly emerging Methodists of the late eighteenth century. They rediscovered the proclaimatory/missional potential of music with Charles Wesley writing some 6000 hymns on the basis that, ?Hymns were not only to give praise to God but to teach doctrine.?? With the dawn of the nineteenth century, hymnody underwent a significant transformation with simple texts produced for the illiterate converts and hymns increasingly moved away from the objectivity of Wesley and Watts to a more subjective, individualistic approach of like of Fanny J Crosby.? As the church sought to evangelise the American frontier, the missional dimension to music was further developed and found helpful. Music was as an important part in preparing people to be receptive to preaching intended for conversion, a practice that was continued by many of the ?stadium preachers? of the middle and late twentieth century.

Perhaps the most significant change in use of songs and music, and the one which I will now focus on, would come as the church, in the middle twentieth century, moved to what has become known as contemporary worship songs. In this period which continues to the present, we would see a sidelining of the psalm and hymn in favour of what one might call the spiritual song.

As Pete Ward notes in Selling Worship, contemporary, charismatic, worship has become the default setting in most evangelical churches in Britain, as churches seek to express their faith in culturally relevant forms. However, the growth and significance of contemporary worship takes us, ??straight into a world of religious entrepreneurs, evangelical businesses and a world of spiritual marketing.?? In this world songs and music have become products which are sold leading some to accuse big business of controlling worship. I wish to look at this allegation and examine how these new breed of songs have been used and subsequently influenced the church?s theology.

The 1960s saw a desire to evangelise the young, and use song to bridge the gap between church and popular culture. As Ward writes, ?[the]cocktail of evangelical Christianity and a new youth style was mixed with the spreading charismatic movement,? and contemporary worship music was born. Church music would be clothed and then critically shaped and mediated through popular media culture. In the 1970s this was given a new impetus with the emergence of Christian record companies, record studios and alike to the point that, ?What began as a theological and evangelistic imperative was to result in an economic reality.?? What would later be referred to as a ?worship scene? (or more accurately market) developed with worship songs and music being marketed as a consumer product and package. For example, since the 1970s the Christian music business, although in its infancy, realised the potential saleability of Christian music events and conferences. Hence, we see the advent of Spring Harvest and more recently the summer youth event Soul Survivor, the Christian equivalent to Glastonbury. With each event, materials or ?resources? are available featuring new worship songs, songbooks and notation. This raises a number of theological questions I will deal with later, but suffice to say, such influential cannot be considered neutral.

While one may expect differences in theological emphasis over time, when one charts the rise of contemporary worship music one a definite, unwelcome evolution is noted. Ward argues,
?In the lyrics of the songs we can detect a shift from an emphasis upon teaching doctrine to songs which are meant to be used as a vehicle for a more experiential charismatic worship.?
As the new songwriters tried to express faith in popular culture terms, unsurprisingly, a contextualisation took place. However, it seems that the need to be relevant to the cultural expression outweighed the need for gospel relevance. With mission in mind accessibility was key, but during the 1970s and 1980s the missional aspect was less explicit and yet accessibility remained. According to Dave Fellingham, these new songs have a simple non-controversial ?middle of the road musical style? that meant they were easily learned by a congregation? This period also saw a great increase in the number of songs produced and distributed. The new songs were not only accessible but mass-produced with worrying consequences. With this new production mentality, Christian songs like everything in popular culture became disposable.? With more songs to choose from, worship songs became a product to be consumed and expended with the result that worship looked increasingly temporal and less genuine. One has to question this practice in the light of the stress on obedience and integrity we find in scripture.

This ?selling? of worship also had a detrimental affect on how the church participated in the act of worshiping God through song and music. Ward warns that worship is in danger of becoming an end in itself. This is a view supported by Graham Kendrick who believes that often we are in danger of adopting new expressions of worship uncritically and mistakenly assuming that they are true worship in the sight of God.? Worship as an end in itself is a real possibility considering the contemporary stress on performance over participation. It seems that worship leaders have a tendency to perform not lead worship. It seems that the lessons learned in Chronicles 13 and 15 regarding David and integrity/obedience have been neglected. Pilavachi states that he personally witnessed that in his church the congregation and leaders became, ??connoisseurs of worship instead of participants,? with the quality of worship being related not to matters of the heart or praise to God but to a specific performance or individual song.? Indeed, many of the aspects that make performance attractive like repetition can often do little to aid congregational participation and are done for musical not for worship?s sake. According to Westermeyer, the needs of the congregation must take precedence as we realise that church music and worship are not spectator sports. Rather as White comments, ?The concert hall may be purely detached performance; the church is participation.?? It seems in the contemporary scene the participation and communal aspect of song, stressed through time, have been replaced by the product and consumer. According to Ward, the Christian worshipper is seen less as a participating equal in the body of Christ and more as a fan and potential consumer.

However, not all commentators are critical of the effects of this new development. Nigel Scotland hails such music as, for the first time, being in touch with the culture and ethos of the time.? He argues that previous styles reflected a hierarchical and authoritarian ecclesiology. He and the likes of Carl Tuttle seem satisfied to overlook the lack of doctrine, stressing instead that participation is achieved through the accessibility of the lyrics which allow all to express their feelings to God. While this seems a worthwhile argument, as Ward notes. this kind of participation treats the worshipper as a consumer rather than an active member in the creation of worship. Worshippers are encouraged to express their faith very much in the industry?s and artist?s terms. With this in mind, I wish to turn to what the industry is producing for the church to sing and analyse the theological effect it has on the church itself.

The church has adopted many different styles of songs and music throughout the ages, but with the contemporary worship songs we see a shift both in how songs actually function within the service and a very important theological innovation that lies at its core.

Unlike the hymns of old that were used to create a group feeling and bond the congregation together or teach doctrine, the new charismatic worship songs function in a totally different way. While they may generate a feeling of togetherness, this is not their primarily function. Rather, as Ward notes, like the charismatic spirituality that informs them, songs are used as a means of personal encounter with God.? As Webber notes, this theology has been adopted, at least in part, by much of the church consciously or not. He records one worship leader who represents the view of many who regard song and music today as the chief means of encountering God.
??for the first 1,500 years of Christianity, it was taught that the presence of God was in the Eucharist. The Reformers moved the presence of God from the Eucharist to the Word. Today, the new revolution in worship is locating the presence of God in music.?
Although this is quite a good summary of church history, its conclusion is inaccurate. Whereas the Roman Catholic Church hails the sacraments as the central act of worship, the churches of the Reformation switched this influence to the sermon and preached the Word. Today, ??encounter with God is located primarily in the singing of songs and the intimate times of prayer?often the result of a time of worship.?? Intimacy and encounter with God is received through the contemporary songs that we sing.

From Wards detailed research, we can see that unlike the past, scripture is sidelined in favour of a ?narrative of encounter?. The new belief that song brings encounter is not simply expressed in the lyrics, but rather the songs are themselves individual narratives of encounter. These songs are often not about God but instead are meant to be sung to God making them very personal. While this may appeal to the individualism of today?s society, it is not without its theological problems. These songs represent a shift away from the objective (an account of biblical theme or event) and the subjective (biblical theological content but include reference to implications of this for the worshipper) towards the more reflective song that is focussed on the act of worship itself.? Indeed, the focus on an emotional encounter with God in the present has led to songs that focus upon the worshipper and what is happening in the present moment, not who is worshipped. This interest in the present act of worship has come at the expense of interest in the traditional theological content of hymnology and in the psalms. This is a problem as many new songs have very little specific gospel content but speak instead about what is happening between God and the worshipper at that moment. As Ward stresses the emphasis, ??upon a relational encounter with God is a key distinctive of this worship.?? The conviction is that intimacy in worship is normal and a regular part of Christian spirituality not the occasional mountain top experiences of past tradition. Under this theology problems appear. For example, the language in these songs is often very explicit and dare I say prone to hyperbole. Singing that you are ?desperate for God? or that ?you surrender all? demands a sense of intensity that may be present at a Christian festival but on a cold, damp Sunday morning can seem dishonest and inauthentic if one is not spiritually healthy. Indeed, Ward raises this pastoral concern.? In contrast to the psalms and liturgical worship, there is little room to accommodate those experiencing the darker corners of spiritual experience and trial. Furthermore, it raises questions about how we are to encounter God in the everyday life outside the singing of songs.? Clearly, the new songs do not have the complexity or allow a worshipper to communicate and express feelings of anguish, pain and suffering in the way that Psalms and some hymns historically offer.

Whereas the contemporary worship scene was birthed with a missional outlook, commitment and drive to singing songs as witness of the faith, has been eroded. It now seems that the main event of modern music worship is worship itself.
This provides us with an unhealthy diet of only reflexive material to the point that one could argue that instead of worshipping God, we are worshipping worship.? This imbalance leads to a kind of idolatry which cannot be tolerated. Rather, as Best suggests, we need to rediscover a balance that incorporates all forms of expression from psalms, hymns to the best of the new reflexive songs, otherwise we risk continuing to trivialise worship by viewing it as a product. We need to shift our focus back to the vertical aspect of worshipping God through song and in a manner that he wishes to be addressed. That means a striving for authentic, honest and heart felt worship that includes, but is more than a focus on the act of worship and encounter.? We need to develop songs that are more theologically sophisticated and represent a more balanced view of the Christian life. We need to encourage the new artists like Keith Getty and Stuart Townend that seek to continue our hymn tradition not as a rival to contemporary songs but as another note in the cantata of praise that should rise from our hearts to God. As Psalm 51:7 states our worship sacrifice should come from a broken spirit and contrite heart not dictated to by market forces. While God certainly has a special role for music in worship, it is by no means in no way the only way to encounter God. Indeed as the Quakers have shown the absence of sound, silence, when done corporately and reflectively can be edifying, communal, uplifting and useful as many songs.
Russel Cairns -M.Th.


Best, Harold M., Unceasing Worship, Leicester, IVP, 2003

Bolinder, Gareth, ?Traditional/Contemporary: Finding your Worship Voice? in Leadership: A Practical Journal for Church Leaders, Spring 1994, p26-33

Dunston, Alan ?Hymnody in Christian Worship? in Jones, C Wainwright, G., Yarnold, E., The Study of Liturgy, New York, Oxford University Press, 1978

J. Gelineau, SJ ?Music and Singing in Liturgy? in Jones, C Wainwright, G., Yarnold, E., The Study of Liturgy, New York, Oxford University Press, 1978

Harrell, Daniel M., ?Post-Contemporary Worship? in Leadership: A Practical Journal for Church Leaders, Spring 1999, p33-37

Hayford, Jack., ?How God evaluates Worship?? in Leadership: A Practical Journal for Church Leaders, Spring 1999, p29-31

Hayward, Christopher, ?Music and Worship and the Church?, Cambridge Papers, Vol. 12. 1. March 2003

Keller, Tim ?What it takes to worship well? in Leadership: A Practical Journal for Church Leaders, Spring 1994, p16- 23

Scotland, Nigel., Charismatics and the Next Millennium: Do they have a Future?, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1995,

Ward, Pete, Selling Worship: How what we sing has changed the Church, Milton Keynes, Paternoster, 2005

Webber, Robert., ?Reducing God to music?? in Leadership: A Practical Journal for Church Leaders, Spring 1999, p32

Westermeyer, Paul ?Music poured out for the World? in Thomas H Schattauer, ed, Inside Out: Worship in the Age of Mission, p125-50

White, James F., Introduction to Christian Worship, Abingdon: Nashville, Third Edition, 2000

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