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A Catechism on Judgment in Worship

How are we to worship God?
We should worship in all of life, but we have been told most explicitly to worship God corporately through the following:
– The reading of Scripture
– The preaching of Scripture
– The singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs
– The offering of public prayer
– The observance of the ordinances

How do we know which songs, what kind of music, what kind of sermons, what kind of prayers we should offer God?
We know this through exercising sound judgment.

What is sound judgment?
At the very least, it is the ability to discern between good and evil (Heb 5:14), to approve what is excellent (Phil 1:10), and to be able to recognise what is true, just, noble, pure, lovely, praiseworthy, commendable, and excellent (Phil 4:8) – and the opposites of these. Judgment can also be thought of as discernmentdiscrimination, prudence, taste, or more broadly, wisdom.

Why is judgment fundamental to worship?
1) To worship God for His excellence, we must be able to distinguish excellence from inferiority, beauty from ugliness, good from bad. We cannot admire God if we do not know what is admirable. We cannot see the beauty of God if we are poor at recognising beauty.
2) To offer God what is worthy of Him, we must be able to judge the worth of our offerings. God is worth our very best offerings, but if we cannot tell tacky from elegant, we will end up offering him what is profane. We are required to discover what is excellent (Phil 1:10) and use it for God’s glory. Moreover, since God is true, we must never offer God what is false in any way: false in statement, or false in sentiment.
3) To rightly respond to God from the heart, we must be able to distinguish between affections, and judge what is appropriate for worship. To recognise inordinate joy from ordinate, to distinguish between familiarity and boldness, between joyful exuberance and impudent flippancy, between shades of joy, fear, sorrow, requires judgment.
4) To understand how a song, prayer, sermon or other act of worship represents ordinate or inordinate affection, we need good judgment. We must understand the meaning of the prayer, song, music, or sermon, and judge its worth for worship.

Isn’t it wrong to judge?
No, judgment is at the very heart of a mature Christian life (Heb 5:14). If you cannot judge good from bad, you will never worship meaningfully, or be protected against profanity. In fact, good judgment is placed side-by-side with a holy and fruitful life (Romans 12:1-2, Ephesians 5:8-11, Philippians 1:9-11, Colossians 1:9-11, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22).
Proud judgmentalism is what is forbidden to us, which is the same as ‘thinking evil’ of another, assuming the worst, or claiming to be able to perfectly read motives.

Won’t these judgments be subjective?
Yes, that does not mean they will not be true. Judgments made by subjects can still conform to the good.

Why can’t we just be given an approved  list of hymns and songs?
If  everyone does nothing more than submit to another’s list, then no one is learning to judge, discriminate and sing with understanding. It is fine for children and beginners to trust the judgments of others, but a conscience is meant to be formed with knowledge and judgment.

Do you have to be a literary or musical critic to worship?
No, because we are all commanded to worship, and that would mean everyone on earth should be a literary critic. We should not be afraid to learn from them, though.

What about just giving simple offerings?
God loves simple offerings. He does not love cheap and tacky offerings. Discernment is learning to tell the difference.

How shall we go about learning judgement?
First, we should commit to living in the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of sound wisdom and discretion. No judgment or discernment will come to irreverent, flippant people. We must determine that we wish to revere God, whatever that might mean.
Second, we should commit ourselves to godliness of life. Discernment comes by reason of use, as we seek to know the difference between good and evil for application to life (Romans 12:1-2, Ephesians 5:8-11, Philippians 1:9-11, Colossians 1:9-11, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22).
Third, we must embrace the examined life. That is, we must seek a life in which we become thoughtful about the meaning of the various technologies, media, forms, and devices in our lives. We must become thoughtful and contemplative about meaning, if we are to grow in discernment. This is the same as Proverbs’ instructions to pursue knowledge, wisdom and understanding. We are to vigorously pursue an understanding of God, ourselves and the world.
Fourth, we should root ourselves in the genuine Christian tradition, immersing ourselves in it so that it gives us a sense of its discerning judgment by example and exposure.

How can I judge something that I already like or dislike?
First, we should make our prejudices explicit. If we like something, or dislike something, we should own that to be true.
Second, we should ask why we like what we like or dislike what we dislike. If we do not have reasons, we ought to seek them. Understanding why we love something is part of the way to learning what it means, and learning about our own hearts.
Third, we need to compare what we currently like, or dislike, with some standard of what is good, or true, or beautiful. What I like does not become good by virtue of my liking it; rather, I must learn to love what is good. What I dislike may not necessarily be bad; rather, my sinful heart may dislike things that are true. We should not defend our preferences because they are familiar; we should learn to like something because it really is good, and then make the good familiar. Sanctification is all about unlearning some loves, and learning new ones.

Where shall we get this standard?
The standard already exists in God. He is the source and standard of the True, the Good and the Beautiful. In God’s common grace, He has allowed both believers and unbelievers to produce works of imagination that conform, more or less, to God’s view of what is excellent. Therefore, we come to know this standard as we:
1) Consider what has been loved and cherished by God’s people for centuries.
2) Listen to people, who, by God’s common grace, have proven judgment – people who explain the meaning of works of imagination.
3) Compare and contrast different works, considering what they are trying to do, how they do it, and whether or not they achieve it.
4) Write poems, songs, prayers and sermons that are true, good and beautiful for God’s glory.

What shall we do with growing discernment?
We must weed out and reject offerings that trivialize God, humanity or creation. We must choose the good and the true. We must learn to write our own apprehension of God’s glory in poems, songs, prayers and sermons. We must worship God in our generation, in our words. And yet our words and works must also be true, good and beautiful.

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

10 Responses to A Catechism on Judgment in Worship

  1. One more thing, David. I think a problem for judgment is the decision of a basis of judgment. If we have no absolute truth, then we can't judge. As you know, there is an attack on truth and I'm talking capital T truth and small t truth. People are afraid of a basis of judgment, afraid that they can't really know, so they are judging based upon only opinion. They lack the confidence that they know what the Bible is, what is says, and how it applies. They are more sure about toleration, replacing sentimentalism for love and they think that certainty reflects pride. For instance, this article you've written would be elitist and shifting the doubtful into the certain, snobbery, attempting to make everybody else have the same taste as you.

  2. Kent,

    That's definitely the case with the tolerance police, who always seems to have an absolute standard of truth and goodness handy when it comes to prosecuting offenders.

    On the other hand, we have people supposedly committed to the absolute truth of Scripture, but who won't allow it to speak on any matter it doesn't explicitly address, effectively locking Scripture in a gilded cage of 'don't go beyond what's written.'

    These are evil days for truth, goodness and beauty.

  3. Pastor David,

    As usual, a challenging exhortation. Thank you.

    I couldn't help but think of Psalm 37:4 "Delight thyself also in the LORD; And he shall give thee the desires of thine heart."

    Not that He will give us what we want but that, in delighting ourselves in The Lord, we will be transformed by The Spirit (using the Word) into wanting what He wants, and so we will find our ‘delights’ fulfilled in The Lord Himself- what He is, and what He expects.

    In doing so, we will be accused of ‘pushing our preferences.’ I gladly own that charge, and consciously desire to be taught what parts of my ‘desiring’ (my preference for what God desires for His People) are still in rebellion against Him (2 Cor. 10:5).

    In those familiar words: "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me."

  4. Jim,

    That's right. Love what He loves; hate what He hates. Even though we may not like what we are to love, we will have to keep choosing it nonetheless. By grace, we trust our hearts will be renewed in the process.

  5. Yes, a wonderful summary of what the issues are. One thing, though: while you are right the a simple 'approved' list may not be helpful, I still think that a website which evaluates songs and hymns would be tremendously helpful. It would be near impossible to evaluate everything out there but if we could at least rate a large number of worship music, that could help those using the site to develop their own capacity to judge the music they intend to use. The site would not result in an 'approved/disapproved' result but would use several criteria (e.g., theological soundness, sing-ability, harmony between words and music, artistic quality of lyrics and music) to describe a piece. It would probably simply give ratings between A and D for each category. People would then still have to decide whether they accept a C in one area because of a better rating in another, etc. More importantly, if the ratings are somewhat explained, it will help people learn how to think about worship music and in the long term, there would be some convergence as to how we all look at this issue. Does this make any sense?

  6. Martin,

    Certainly a website can be an excellent place to encourage good judgment by comparing and contrasting various works, new and old. If helpful and responsible commenters chime in, a good kind of consensus can develop.

    I've thought quite a bit about how something like this might work, and maybe some of the others writers can chime in here. The technology of the web, like all technology, makes some things possible, while limiting others. It might allow for widespread participation, but introduces other problems. I'm not sure about ratings, which would probably end up like the 'Like' button on Facebook. I think some kind of written criticism is probably superior to clicking A through D. I could be wrong. Thoughts, others?

  7. David, after a long time I have taken some time today to create a rating along the lines outlines above for one of Chris Tomlin's songs:
    I'd appreciate your input. The backgrounder to explain the rating categories still needs to be written but you may already comments on whether the categories I chose appear to be the right ones.

    The idea is to be as neutral as possible, i.e. to discuss each song purely based on objective criteria. A song may fare better or worse on each but there is no overall judgment that would say 'do or do not use this song'. That is something the user of any rating database should take themselves. Yet, this could be a very good aid/instrument to prepare a worship service, for example simply by considering the first criterion, which separates so-called worship songs directed to God from such that are more along Eph 5:19 that are meant to communicate more towards the fellow worshiper than to God (i.e. a service should not have exclusively one or the other). Anyways, it's a start and I may add more evaluations if I find the time.

    Questions include whether the comments and ratings are adequate.

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