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Agreeing on Our Disagreements

In the past week or so, we’ve seen some of the happenings at Northland expose (at least as far as the Internet can demonstrate) the fault-line that exists in Fundamentalism over music. Of course, the battle over music is by no means limited to Baptist Fundamentalists. It remains a matter of contention in Reformed, Presbyterian, and Anabaptist groups, to name just a few.

However, the comments that followed some of the articles posted here showed that, once again, people are often talking past one another, speaking to a caricature of an argument, and making assumptions about what drives a site and ministry like this one. For as I read many of the comments, I sense a kind of tired bewilderment: “You’ve got to be kidding, right? Are you still on about music?” Certainly, if the position on this site were merely one of arguing for the primacy or superiority of music more familiar to Fundamentalists, then I would share the bemused outrage. There are bigger fish to fry than placating constituencies in the church, or saluting an institutional or group distinctive.

If that’s how you view the music debate, then it’s possible that you’d view those who write here as Pharisees who strain out gnats and swallow camels, graceless elitists, hyper-separatists, uncharitable bullies who don’t respect conscience, or hirelings that use the music debate for their own gain. You might look in the mirror and consider yourself Gospel-centered, grace-driven, and unburdened by man-made traditions.

Here is perhaps where some of the misunderstanding lies. If you take for granted that your opponent agrees on what is fundamental to the faith, you can justly be annoyed when he treats a non-fundamental issue as if it were one. And I suggest that’s where the debate actually lies, and how serious the disagreement may actually be. What is essential to the faith? On this site, we believe that Christianity is more than orthodoxy: belief in or commitment to a set of doctrines fundamental to the Gospel. We believe that one can deny the faith with your actions (Tis 1:16, 1 Tim 5:8). James certainly tells us that orthodoxy without orthopraxy is no orthodoxy at all. I think many who disagree with our position on music would agree up to this point.

However, we also believe in orthopathy. We believe that fundamental to the faith are rightly ordered loves, or affections. The core of the faith is to love God ultimately (Mark 12:28-29). All that we do is to be done in love (1 Cor 16:14). If someone does not love Christ, he comes under a curse (1 Co 16:22). The goal or purpose of doctrine is love (1 Tim 1:5). Love stands at the end of all other practices or virtues (Col 3:14, 1 Pet 4:8). The deepest knowledge or the most virtuous practices are nothing without love (1 Cor 13:1-3). It turns out that orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy are a tri-unity. Remove one, and the others no longer exist.

Orthopathy means our loves are to be rightly ordered, and they are to be right responses. We are to love God ultimately, and we are to love all others as means of loving God. As we love God, others, and creation, we are to love each thing according to its nature. We are to accord to each its right value, and be affected by it appropriately. To love something more than it deserves, to love something less than it deserves, or to love it with a love that does not correspond to its nature is heteropathy.

If you believe that Christianity is a bi-unity – right belief and right practice – then you must find a place for love within either orthodoxy or orthopraxy. This is usually done by making love an act of the will flowing out of right beliefs. The affections, passions, and other manifestations of love can be put down to personal preferences, peripheral emotions, passing feelings, brain chemistry, and whimsical reactions. Art forms such as music become neutral media that can be used for orthodoxy. Music becomes a vehicle to get the worshipper where he needs to be, which is why the only concern becomes the orthodoxy of the lyrics, and the orthopraxy of the accompanying (or resulting) life. If the worshipper is sincere, and believes in orthodoxy, then different strokes for different folks, different rides for different types.

If you believe that Christianity is a tri-unity of essentials, then everything that shapes our loves must be taken very seriously, and evaluated for meaning. It is not enough that a man know the truth; he is to respond rightly to that truth: first, by valuing (or loving) it correspondingly, and then by treating it justly. For if a man feels wrongly towards God all his life, it must be the case that he believes wrongly, and on some level, behaves wrongly. If music shapes us to respond to God in a way that does not correspond to His nature or being, it is a kind of heresy of the affections.

So here is why some of the critics are so angry: they assume we agree on essentials, and feel angered by the disproportionate attention we give to this matter. I am not sure that the most hostile critics of this site have considered that this is part of the reason for the name: Religious Affections Ministries, not Your Momma’s Hymns. For us, right love is an essential. It is fundamental. It is Gospel. At the same time, heteropathy is real, and probably never more present than in our day. Music shapes the affections like no other art. We call for music which evokes affections that correspond with the act of worshipping God. We believe we are actually protecting the Gospel when we do so, precisely because we believe that as surely as heteropraxy has subverted the Gospel, so inordinate affection has the same power, over time.

No, we are not saying that an instance of inordinate affection means you are not in the faith, any more than the sporadic inconsistency between creed and practice means so. However, just as we would take the time to consider the meaning of doctrinal formulations, just as we would consider the meaning of practices, we need to take the time to consider whether affections and those cultural forms that evoke them are instances of orthopathy.

No doubt, we will convince few. Many will still vehemently deny our conclusions regarding the meaning of music. We welcome the discussion. Some will argue that Scripture teaches nothing more than orthodoxy and orthopraxy as essential to the faith. So be it, and let’s keep talking.  But with the understanding that our difference lies in what we regard as essential to Christianity, at least stop accusing us of arguing over non-essentials and not understanding priorities. Let’s agree that we both think of ourselves as Gospel-centered, and then discuss what is fundamental to the faith.

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.