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Do past music controversies prove that it’s just a matter of preference?

It is fairly common in music debates for progressives to cite examples of music controversies throughout church history as proof that since the conflicts have always been around, there’s really no point in fighting the battles any longer. Let’s just get along, stop defending our personal preferences, and show tolerance to those who want to use pop music in church.

A recent example of this kind of thinking may be found on Ed Stetzer’s blog: “Church Music Conflicts: Have We Really Always Done It ‘That Way’?” He opens the post this way:

Music can be one of the most controversial issues in the body of Christ. Each person has his or her own unique taste in music. Christians listen to, enjoy, and are edified by all of these kinds of music. But should they?

In seeking to determine what is the right music for a church, it is important that we apply biblical principles to evaluate our music. That is not always easy, as the Bible contains no music notes and God indicates no musical preferences. Though, as I’ve written before, I do believe there are seven tests based on biblical principles that can help determine the suitability of music.

This evaluation is not a new thing. Music has always been a struggle within the church. It seems odd to hear Christians today insist that a certain style of music is best or act as if the recent “Worship Wars” were an anomaly in church history. Any Christian who knows our past would know that neither of those is the case.

He then cites from the book he wrote with Elmer Towns, Perimeters of Light (a book, by the way, that I critique in my dissertation), examples of such controversies about music through history. He lists things like the church fathers rejecting instruments, resistance to harmony in the middle ages, and the hymn/psalm controversy of men like Isaac Watts.

He conclude his post,

As you can see, music has played a central, but contentious role through out church history. There is no reason to believe the disagreements will stop any time soon. Being aware of the changes and movements of the past, however, should encourage us to be more humble about our own preferences and more open to other styles of music used to worship God and point people to Christ.

The implication1 is that the prevalence of music debates throughout history should move us to realize that it’s all really preference, the Bible doesn’t say anything about music, and so we should let everyone do what is right in his own eyes.

So does this comparison hold up? Are the controversies of history properly used in defense of contemporary worship today?

I would argue that such a comparison is not tenable (or at least does not prove what Stezter and others say it does) for several reasons:

1. The argument is rooted in an assumption that the debates are simply over resistance of “new” music, instruments, or practices. “New” in the progressive’s mind is the same as “pop.” However, there wasn’t such a thing as “pop music” prior to the Industrial Revolution.

Pop culture exists only with mass media, which did not exist then. The only forms of culture that existed with most of the examples Stetzer cites were high culture (the culture of the concert hall) and folk culture (the culture of common people). Most hymn tunes (then and now) are written in folk traditions. So even when people did compose new tunes, they were still in the same tradition of tunes that came before. It is only in the last 50 years or so that people have begun to adapt pop forms for use in worship.

Therefore, if one wants to make a comparison between the controversies of then and now, he must at least acknowledge the vast difference of cultural situations.

2. Furthermore, neither were the controversies those of old vs. new. The controversies were not based upon when a particular song text was written or on the fact that “we’ve never done it that way before.” It wasn’t as if they favored old over new or anything like that.

Rather, most of the debates had to do with whether particular instruments or styles or practices were fitting with biblical precedent and were intrinsically fitting with Christian sentiments and worship.

For example, consider why Clement of Alexandria rejected some instruments in worship:

When a man occupies his time with flutes, stringed instruments, choirs, dancing, Egyptian krotala and other such improper frivolities, he will find that indecency and rudeness are the consequences.2

The reason clement rejected certain instruments had nothing to do with the fact that they were new; he rejected them because he thought that they intrinsically “enervat[ed] men’s souls.,3 creating “indecency and rudeness.” Whether or not he was right about that is certainly open to debate. But the point is that his concerns were not trivial or based simply on “newness.” They were based on intrinsic meaning and affects of styles and instruments.

This is the same for debates over polyphony, harmony, organs, pianos, and a myriad of other conflicts that Stetzer and others cite. These church leaders were primarily concerned with the intrinsic qualities of the music itself and whether it was fitting with Christian worship.

3. Other controversies were about texts only (not musical style). For example, men in Watts’ day argued over whether is was permissible to sing texts (old or new) written by mere humans, or if they were constrained to sing only the Psalms written under the Inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The common thought in England at that time (following the teaching of John Calvin) was that we must only sing inspired songs, that is, we may only sing Psalms. Of course, they weren’t singing Hebrew; they were singing English translations of the Psalms (something defenders of hymnody would later bring up). But nevertheless, they argued that we may only sing adaptions of inspired texts. Watts (and others) came along and argued that we should be permitted to sing non-inspired texts (old or new) as long as the truth contained therein was compatible with the Bible.

In other words, music debates of the past were not about rejecting new in favor of Old. Rather, they concerned with (a) whether certain music or practices were biblical and (b) whether particular instruments or musical styles were intrinsically fitting for Christian affections and worship.

In fact, if one has more than simply a cursory understanding of the historic controversies over music, he will realize that these controversies actually support those today who argue that music inherently communicates and should be judged as suitable for worship based on its intrinsic meaning. They also support those who insist that all musical styles and worship practices should be weighed by Scripture, and some styles and practices are simply out of line with what the Bible teaches about the Christian life and worship.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. It’s really more than an implication since this post is in the context of an interview with Lecrae concerning debates over Christian hip-hop []
  2. Paidagogos 2, 4 (GCS Clem. I 184 Stählin) in Johannes Quasten,Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (Washington, D.C.: National Association of Pastoral Musicians, 1983), p. 61. []
  3. Stromateis VI 11, 89:4—90:2, trans. In Skeris, Croma Qeon, p. 78 in Quentin Faulkner, Wiser Than Despair: The Evolution of Ideas in the Relationship of Music and the Christian Church(Westport,CT:Greenwood,1996),p.69. []