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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).

Ryan Martin

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. []

12 Responses to tobyMac and the state of Evangelical piety

  1. Ryan,
    Appreciate your thoughtful article. I hope it will call all of us in the Church to evaluate where we are, and what the ramifications will be if we continue on this path.

  2. It’s sad to me that you choose to be the judge of someone who sincerely reaches other with God’s message and love.

    Toby has spent a greater than normal part of his time and resources helping others to spread the Gospel in a way that reaches a diverse audience of believers and non-believers.

    Embrace your the efforts of your brothers and sisters in Christ.

  3. David,

    It’s sad to me that you choose to be the judge of someone who sincerely reaches others with God’s message and love.

    Ryan has spent all of his adult life, and has willingly sacrificed the opportunity to gain wealth, helping others to spread the Gospel in a way that reaches a diverse audience of believers and unbelievers while being faithful to the sensibilities required by God’s Word.

    Embrace the efforts of your brothers and sisters in Christ.

  4. Ryan, I actually google searched ‘What’s wrong with TobyMac’ to try and see if he is involved in false doctrine or something. I read your article and watched the video on mute, (I know the words, my son Isaac really likes him, but hasn’t seen any of his videos). I would like to point out a few things, in all honesty and sincerity, your description of the video doesn’t really match what I saw, in the following ways; you said it was a ‘night club filled with booze and dancing’, but unless I missed something it was more like an upscale restaurant with a band (there was a nicely dressed waiter), 2) I didn’t see any booze or reference to booze, I saw some clear glasses but no inference to alcohol, again unless I missed something, 3) the dancing only started ‘contagiously’ when the patrons ‘felt’ what Toby was saying, that’s at least my interpretation of what is being communicated. On a side note I noticed that no woman was dressed immodestly which I was very happy to see, again unless I missed something. Also, I think it’s very intentional in the video that Tobymac and his group are ‘separate’ from the patrons, but in the end influence them, and the idea is, toward Christ (I know it’s not explicitly said).
    On another note ‘feeling’ has a great deal to do with Christianity, feelings and affections are very closely related.
    To conclude i pray you would consider what I have said, I’m not writing to dissuade you from such articles only that there would be righteous judgment and objectivity.
    Also, if I am wrong in anyway in what I have described in the video please correct me.
    Godspeed brother

  5. Carolyn: The saints will judge the world. It is not wrong for the Church to discern and discuss among themselves, whether the object or person of question is truly reverent to the Lord. Yes, there is absolutely no contention that Toby’s style derives from the world and its hip, pop, and “cool” culture, which has no reverence for the Lord. And while God is the only being who knows all hearts, the lifestyle of anyone reflects their heart. (Prov. 27:19) I charge (and I think, rightly so) that Toby is oblivious to the existence of songs like: the “Hallelujah Chorus”, “The Old Rugged Cross”, “It Is Well With My Soul”, and many more with their deep reverence to the Lord.

  6. Why am I not surprised. It’s different so let’s judge it. TobyMac is spreading the gospel in his own way. I know it’s different but I have had this discussion with my PPR committee. Why cant we attract younger members. I said because you are too proud of being set in your ways. If something is different, you always vote no. We got new hymn books and you were up in arms about old rugged cross missing from the book. I said it’s a great song but it’s old. The hymn books have newer hymn because overtime compressors wrote new music. New doesn’t mean it’s a sin. Christ spoke in a way that the people in his time would understand. We should do the same. My church’s attendance has really dropped over the summer. That was brought up at service and the pastor talked about doing things different. She is our first female pastor so it has worked out with her. She has been a blessing but when we brought her in we lost some old timers but gained more than we lost. Your attitude is why younger Christians don’t want to give church a chance. Maybe since you wrote this you have changed your stance. No saying change yourself for others but try to understand there is more than one way to be right.

  7. It really seems weird to associate fully-dressed humans with orgies, but maybe that’s just me. But you do realize that the Bible literally says that people worship God by dancing, right? Your judgments about it aren’t just old fashioned – they’re actively contrary to what the Bible says.

    Ecclesiastes 3:4 “A time to weep and a time to laugh; A time to mourn and a time to dance.”

    Jeremiah 31:3-4 “The LORD appeared to him from afar, saying, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore I have drawn you with lovingkindness. Again I will build you and you will be rebuilt, O virgin of Israel! Again you will take up your tambourines, And go forth to the dances of the merrymakers.”

    Psalm 30:11 “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; You have loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness”

    Psalm 149:3 “Let them praise His name with dancing; Let them sing praises to Him with timbrel and lyre.”

    If you look at that Jeremiah 31 passage, you’ll note that God Himself is saying that dancing will be a natural cause of His love for them.

    By the way, there’s no rule that every single song that a Christian artist makes has to be about God. There are other things in life, from God, that are worth celebrating. And if you don’t like things that could be written to a lover instead of God, you must REALLY hate the Song of Solomon…

  8. The problem I have with articles like this is that they tend to be based off of the author’s personal prejudices and preferences instead the reality of the situation. TobyMac gets up at the 2019 Dove Awards, quotes the Psalms and thanks God, yet people think he’s somehow not a real Christian. At the same awards ceremony, Lauren Daigle barely mentions God in her acceptance speech, is openly wishy-washy about Biblical doctrine, yet she isn’t nearly as scrutinized and dissected. But TobyMac is somehow the bad guy here? Really?

    Also, you might want to research the history of Christian music. Martin Luther would set Biblical truths to the tunes of drinking songs because he knew it would be an easy way for people to internalize the messages he was trying to impart. J.S. Bach, for all intents and purposes, was the first worship band leader because as the music director at his church, he used a full orchestra in services, which was unheard of at the time. For TobyMac to utilize modern music styles is certainly nothing new. Does it make him any less Christian? Certainly not.

    And about the music being Christian: When I was with the Continental Singers, we had a couple of sayings. One was, “There are songs you sing to God and songs you sing about God.” The other was “Praise God intelligently.” In other words, don’t treat mentioning God as a quota and think about the intent of a song and its writer.

    In that light, let me ask you something. Why is it that no one ever questions “Amazing Grace,” which mentions God by name twice in five verses? I’ll tell you why: Because the intent of the song is crystal clear. In “Feel It,” Toby wrote this:

    “Well, you can’t see the wind, but it moves the leaves
    From the bottom to the top of the tallest trees
    You are everything I will ever need
    And they can’t take that from me”

    Does that sound like something that’s meant to be sung to a lover? Uh, no. It’s clearly talking to God and the sum total sounds like a Psalm. If you don’t believe me, read the rest of the lyrics here: https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/tobymac/feelit.html

    It’s fine to be cautious about something you don’t understand. However, the problem comes in when you place yourself in a seat of judgement based on your own ideas instead of what God has put forth. That’s called being a Pharisee. Don’t go there.

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