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tobyMac and the state of Evangelical piety

Paul’s Words to the Ephesians

The beginning of Ephesians 5 is striking. Paul writes to former idolaters and fornicators, reminding them of their new life in Christ. He opens with a call to holiness. Believers must “be imitators of God,” walking “in love.” To walk in love means that believers must live making personal sacrifices to build up others spiritually. But there is more. The Christian life is not simply “Yes” (it is a ‘yes’), but there is also “No,” for some things are so opposed to divine love that they must be completely avoided. In the same way that a father who loves his children will necessarily refuse to mock and abuse them, so the Christian who truly “walks in love” (v. 2) will refuse to embrace practices that inherently unloving. This is the unbreakable logic behind the next paragraph, Ephesians 5:3-14. The Christian who walks in love will live so that “sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness” is “not even … named among you, as is proper for saints” (v. 3). Such a life abstains from “filthiness,” “foolish talk,” and “crude joking,” because thanksgiving to God fills his lips (v. 4). Indeed, such an immoral life is not only incompatible with true Christian love, but those who live in such a way have “no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (v. 5). There will be folks who minimize sexual immorality and try to promote it–even to Christians. They may minimize God’s anger against such sins. But believers must not be deceived “with empty words,” “for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the children of disobedience” (v. 6).1

Moreover, the Christian should be so committed to abstaining from sexual immorality that they make no partnership in the debauchery of the sexually immoral. “Therefore do not become partners with them,” Paul says. This life of sin is “darkness,” and though the Ephesian church had formerly lived in this way, “now you are light in the Lord,” the Apostle tells them (v. 8). So Christians should walk, “as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true)” (vv. 8-9). As Calvin observes, such walking in light is done “when [Christians] do not live according to their own will, but devote themselves entirely to obedience to God; when they undertake nothing but by his command.”2 Christians should utterly avoid “darkness” and prove what pleases God with careful discernment. Instead of involving ourselves in such “unfruitful works of darkness,” we should expose them for the emptiness and iniquity that they are (v. 11). Again, Calvin helpfully explains, “It is not enough that we do not, of our own accord, undertake anything wicked. We must beware of joining or assisting those who do wrong. In short, we must abstain from all fellowship or consent, or advice, or approbation, or help of any sort; for in all these ways we have fellowship.”3 By calling such works “unfruitful,” Paul rightly identifies them as destructive in nature. In verse 12, Paul’s words are especially poignant as they call the Christian to avoid all association with the immoral culture of the world:

“For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.”

Paul is likely referring to what we would call “orgies” today.4 Think “night life” and “clubs” and the libertine immorality celebrated all around us in the urbane and sophisticated alleys of the world. Paul says we don’t have to participate or even know what the world is doing in its sin. Our lives of holiness are adequate in themselves to expose the wickedness of the world: “But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light” (vv. 13-14). We are totally to abstain from such lives.

Exhibit A

In light of such a passage, I submit to you this evidence that the contemporary worship scene of evangelical life is now utterly secularized (if you need the words, go here):

Now, in all honesty, I had never heard of tobyMac (sic) until I heard him badger me with various ads on Spotify to “check out his new playlist” which purported to be Christian and of which he now had control instead of some other fellow who must now be out of fashion or something. So I decided to look him up. Mea culpa. But you will have to forgive this middle-aged fundamentalist for saying something about this. Doesn’t this grieve you? This, evangelical Christian, is the state of your piety. This is where the contemporary music movement has taken us. This is the state of its “art”.5

tobyMac (that’s how he’s decided to “style” his name) is nearly 51 years old. His real name is Toby McKeehan. If you’ve followed the Big Christian Music scene for a while, you might remember him from DC Talk. He has won 6 Grammy awards. The album this single was released with (“This is Not a Test”) is No. 1 on Top Christian Albums and No. 5 on the Billboard 200. McKeehan makes no apology that “Feel It” is “grounded in … [the] message of loving God and loving people well.” tobyMac explains what the song is after this way:

I don’t want to overthink faith because I want to know God’s work. I want it to be passion and spirit more than knowledge, so the lyric is really simple ‘I feel it in my heart, I feel it in my soul. You take our brokenness and make us beautiful.’ That’s how I know. Let’s just focus the fact that we are broken and somehow He puts us together and makes us beautiful.”

Some Thoughts

One could say a number of things about this allegedly “Christian” song. My point is not to address them all, but to lament the state of contemporary Christian worship music. It is one thing for us to continue to advocate for something better through our writings here and elsewhere. At times, we must expose the actual state of affairs.

Let me list some elements to this that are genuinely amazing for someone so far out of this movement as I am. I think it’s sad and petty that tobyMac so apes Justin Timberlake.6 I find it astonishing that a Christian song does not mention God. I object that this Christian song could be sung to a lover without changing a single syllable. Moreover, I lament that anyone would even sing this song in particular to any human lover or even his or her own spouse. I lament that God’s existence and redemption is reduced to a state where the believer simply “feels it.” The ambiguity is unhelpful at best; “it” is never named. But more to the point: Christianity is not a feeling; it is firmly rooted in doctrinal content. See 1 Corinthians 15:1ff. Christianity is not something where we “feel it,” but receiving and standing in the foolish message that Jesus Christ was crucified for sinners and was risen again. The music carrying the words is more fitting for an orgiastic dance hall than the worship of a believer who knows with a heart’s faith the one sovereign God who exists eternally in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The video itself clearly intends to inordinately glorify tobyMac. And how is that this man who is over 50 years of age is not ashamed to prance around like a child, doing things that I would have been ashamed to do when I was 19?

And this is where I am most strongly disapprove of this video. So many aspects of this video lamentably violate the words of Scripture in Ephesians 5. The setting for the video–a night club–is known for the very things which Paul decries in the passage I outlined above. Here is a man purporting to sing about what he “feels” about God at a night club filled with booze and dancing. Pardon again my traditionalism, but most Christians I know would never go to one of those, let along perform at one so as to encourage dancing among the clubbers. The setting and set pieces glorify alcohol and drunkenness, which Paul later in the chapter says that Christians must reject (v. 18). The women present are all young and attractive, which is both unrealistic and chosen deliberately above their less attractive, older counterparts. The dancing itself, by tobyMac and the rest of the “cast,” would have been decried by almost all professing Christians just 40 years ago. The bridge “crushin’ it” is used to show two young people dancing shamefully. As a pastor, the dancing party is not something I would ever encourage Christian young people (let alone fifty-year-olds) to take part in. I know that saying such things today makes a person sound horribly old-fashioned and out-of-date, but I believe Christians must still say such things. You’re only lying to yourself if you think this kind of dancing encourages chastity and Christian purity between the sexes. If Paul would even prohibit us from “crude joking” (see Eph 5:4), then what of this dancing? That something like this is now indicative of mainstream “Christian music” ought to grieve us as believers. Instead of not speaking of the things they do in secret, this video reveals those things, and all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Perhaps saddest of all is that the CCM project (is it still called CCM?) is empty. This song is not going to do what tobyMac hopes. If he wants to reach people for Christ, this song fails woefully. Unbelievers are not going to be impressed with this schmaltz, especially once they realize it has been put out by a Christian. The only people who get excited about worldly Christian music are Christians who still want to listen to worldly music. Unbelievers, in their rebellion against Christ and the gospel, will recognize it for what it is and scoff at both the message and the music. If we are going to see unbelievers receive the Gospel, we don’t need worldly clubbing and dancing and funk, but we need to preach Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:23). Ephesians 5:13 says, “But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light.”

As for Paul’s ideas about the shape of genuine Christian worship, he addresses such matters just a few verses later than the ones we looked at earlier in this post: “Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 5:19-20). How is it that evangelical worship now looks more like “darkness” than this description of the worship of those who “walk” in “light”?

Remember the words of Ephesians with which I began this article. Believers are to “walk in love.” To walk in love is to walk “as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Those who walk in love abhor the way of life that undermines and contradicts that love (cf. Eph 6:23-24).

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

  1. Peter O’Brien comments, “It is all too easy for believers to be influenced by the surrounding world and to succumb to its ways of thinking and behaving. The result is that what is acceptable to the culture of the day becomes acceptable in the church. This is particularly true in contemporary Western society in the area of sexual morality.” The Letter to the Ephesians, PNTC (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999), 364. []
  2. Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1965), 200. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. See F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1984), 375 and O’Brien, Ephesians, 371. []
  5. I’m tempted to claim that the much maligned “slippery slope” arguments against CCM are now proven right after all, but that would assume that those making such an argument actually saw these depths. []
  6. I don’t know a great deal about Justin Timberlake, but even someone with a modicum of knowledge of pop culture makes the connection. Compare these comments by tobyMac himself. []