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To sing or not to sing, that is the question

An interesting online discussion has emerged in the past few weeks about the issue of not singing a particular song in a service when that song expresses sentiments you do not believe to be true.

The discussion began with Roger Olson, who argued that we should not sing a song when the doctrine does not fit with our own. Kevin Bauder agreed with Olson’s argument and added that it should extend also to songs in which the poetic and/or musical setting of a text undermines the truthfulness of the doctrine it claims to express (Sharper Iron discussion here). Finally, Mark Snoeberger weighed in, suggesting that “the impulse to ‘not sing’ should be weighed very heavily against other obligations of church members and especially of church leaders. Deciding “not to sing” is a serious decision indeed.”

This is definitely a conversation worth having, and I’d like to offer some comments and observations in order to further stimulate thought on this matter and perhaps add an additional consideration.

I agree with both Olson and Bauder–what we sing is (supposed to be) a significant statement of what we believe, and if either the propositions themselves or the way in which they are presented conflicts with our own convictions, to sing them would be tantamount to lying.

On the other hand, although I think Mark’s analogy was an unhelpful stretch (as addressed in the comments of his post as well as here), I do believe that his primary emphasis was an important one indeed–choosing to refrain from participation in an element of corporate worship is a weighty matter and must not be taken lightly. The unity of the church is critically important, and if I find myself having to refrain from singing in my church on a regular basis, something is wrong.

So where does this leave us? How can these two seemingly contradictory emphases be reconciled?

I think that the regulative principle was intended to answer exactly this sort of dilemma. The principle was formulated by those whose consciences were being violated by church leaders who were adding elements to corporate worship that were not prescribed in Scripture.

One might object, “But singing is prescribed in Scripture and therefore does not violate the regulative principle.”

Touché. However, I believe that we should extend the regulative principle not only to the elements of corporate worship themselves, but also to the forms those elements take.

This is certainly not as easy a matter as applying the regulative principle to the elements (as if that is always so simple!). However, since the Bible comes to us in artistic forms (literature), such forms should regulate the kinds of poetic and musical forms we use in corporate worship. As Kevin explains so clearly in his essay, forms shape content. As believers committed to regulating our worship according to the Word of God, we should strive to understand how the literary forms of Scripture shape their content and seek to use forms in our cultural context that shape the content in similar ways.

Now, of course, there will be significant disagreements over both how the biblical forms are shaping their content and how forms today do as well. However, this does not negate the point–we should be as concerned with the forms of Scripture as we are its content, and we should regulate our worship accordingly.

And, perhaps, this leads to a final consideration. If I am a member of a church where significant enough disagreements exist about how forms shape content, in order to both maintain integrity with my conscience and unity with my church, perhaps I need to find an assembly with which I share more agreement on this matter. When choosing a church with which to share fellowship, this matter should be as high on the list as what the church believes doctrinally.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.

6 Responses to To sing or not to sing, that is the question

  1. JohnC says:

    Scott, can you clarify exactly what you mean by "forms?"

  2. Scott Aniol Scott Aniol says:

    Did you read Bauder's essay? He explains it pretty well.

  3. JohnC says:

    Yes I did, but I want to know what YOU consider "form" vs "content" on a practical level. :-)

  4. Scott Aniol Scott Aniol says:

    Ok, so content is like H2O, form is like a cup.

    So, the content of "Jesus loves me" is the idea of Jesus' love, and the form includes the particular words chosen, how those words are formed into poetry, and the musical setting.

  5. JohnC says:

    So…would you consider musical style/genre an element of form? If so, how important of an element is it? As high on the list as what the church believes doctrinally?

  6. Scott Aniol Scott Aniol says:

    Yes; critically important; and yes.

    But, of course different doctrines are more important than others, and this issue (the issue of orthopathy) isn't going to be as important as some doctrines (orthodoxy). It all must be considered together.

    So, for example, I would never attend a church that denies the gospel, no matter how good the music. Saying the wrong thing the right way doesn't justify the heterodoxy.

    However, a church's musical choices may trump other secondary doctrinal issues. For example, even though I am a dispensationalist, I am a member of a church whose leadership is more reformed. I am a part of that church rather than the dispensational church down the road because I believe musical choices to be more critical than one's hermeneutic or eschatology. All things being equal, I would choose a church whose music I agree with and whose leadership is also dispensational, but I have not found that to be an option currently. If the only gospel-preaching church in town used music with which I disagreed, I would join with that church and be forced into the situation Kevin mentioned (or I would start a new church!).

    Also, just as I'm not going to call an amillenialist or even a paedobaptist an unbeliever (even though I firmly disagree with those positions), I would not call someone who uses certain musical forms I consider inordinate to be an unbeliever, either. This issue is not clear, and legitimate differences do exist.

    So yes, it is very, very important for the reasons Kevin mentioned, and I would place it on the same level of doctrine when choosing a church, but some doctrines rank higher than this issue.

    The same is true for a particular hymn choice. I am not going to sing a song because it has what I consider a good musical setting if its doctrine is errant. But neither am I going to sing a song that has good doctrine but says it in a way I consider to undermine the doctrine.

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