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The Unproven Premise Strikes Again

The Gospel Coalition recently published an excerpt from a new book by Brett McCracken in which he makes a very common argument about music in worship that may sound pious at first glance, yet has a fatal flaw.

Here is the core premise of McCracken’s argument summarized in two pull quotes from the post:

“We shouldn’t let our worship preferences get in the way of our worship participation.”

“Putting aside personal preferences and embracing common, unified, God-centered worship, however uncomfortable it may be, is part of what it means to follow Jesus together.”

To both of these statement, I give a hearty, “Amen!” Who would disagree with this premise? Who would defend dividing over mere preferences? No one would.

However, that is not McCracken’s full argument. He gets his readers to immediately agree—of course we shouldn’t divide over preferences—but his whole point of this premise is a specific conclusion he has in mind: Since we shouldn’t divide over preferences, surely we shouldn’t divide over music. He shares the fact that he prefers classical music and organ, but his current church is more charismatic and sings things he doesn’t prefer. His argument is that we shouldn’t divide over preferences; therefore, we shouldn’t divide over music.


The important thing to recognize here is that the argument is formed as a traditional syllogism:

Major premise: We shouldn’t divide over mere preferences.
Conclusion: We shouldn’t divide over music.

“But,” an observant logician will interject, “A valid syllogism draws its conclusion from a least two premises.”

Exactly, and herein lies the problem.

The argument presented above does draw its conclusion from two premises, but the second premise is assume and unstated:

Major premise: We shouldn’t divide over mere preferences.
Minor premise (assumed): Music is a mere preference.
Conclusion: We shouldn’t divide over music.

As far as it goes, this syllogism is perfectly valid. If both premises are true, then it logically follows that the conclusion is also true.

However, the second premise is not only assumed and unstated in this argument, it is also unproven.

In order for the conclusion ‘We shouldn’t divide over music” to be true, McCracken must prove that the second premise, ‘Music is a mere preference” is also true. Problem is, he has not proven it.

Not only has he not proven that music is a mere preference, the burden of proof clearly lies with him since the vast majority of history has insisted that music is not a mere preference.

It’s one thing to assume a premise without proving it because it is axiomatic or generally accepted. But this is certainly not the case with this second premise. It is only fairly recently that people have come to assume that music is neutral, amoral, and merely a matter of preference. Philosophers, theologians, and people at large have for most of history, on the contrary, assumed that music is moral, powerful, and a matter of significance.

No, this assumed premise must be proven first before anyone can assert that we shouldn’t divide over music.

Scott Aniol

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.

19 Responses to The Unproven Premise Strikes Again

  1. Thank you Scott. I hear and read this faulty premise all the time. Question for you, if this is a recent premise that is assumed to be true, from who/where/what did it stem? Is it just people suppressing God’s truth? Is it the continued bombardment of pop-culture, or secular culture? This is a huge issue. I’m sure you have addressed it elsewhere, but this is where the major battle is. If this premise can be proven untrue, then that leads to a whole new set of philosophical notions that must be embraced. Thanks.

  2. Hi, Taigen. I have suggested that it was Christians who wanted to use rock music in church who first began to deny the morality of music. Even the secular world initially objected to rock on the basis of its core sexual and rebellious meaning.

    But it is also a symptom of an increasingly secular, post-Enlightenment culture. Even in the secular music philosophy world, absolute formalists such as Edward Hanslick began to argue in the mid-nineteenth century that music’s meaning is only musical; i.e., only within itself.

    However, while this philosophical view dominated for about 100 years, more recent secular musicologists like Susanne Langer, Leonard Meyer, Peter Kivy, and Stephen Davies have reached a general consensus that music does contain universal meaning. Whether it is “moral” or not, of course, depends upon deeper spiritual presuppositions, but they at least agree it carries meaning and affects people.

    I would suggest that the dominant Christian book that most significantly impacted Christians in its argument that music lacks meaning and is amoral is Harold Best’s Music Through the Eyes of Faith. That is without doubt the most influential and most cited book by those who continue to deny music’s morality.

    And again, I don’t think Christians even argue it any more; they just assume it to be true.

  3. I agree that it is assumed. And when that false assumption is challenged, words such as “legalist” start flying, passages such as Romans 14 start being touted, and emotionalism soon reigns.

    I would propose, without anything to really back up this claim, other than experience, that emotionalism is the unseen root. Because music is such an emotional thing, what people like is quickly elevated to a place of authority. Could we even say that a form of idolatry takes place because of this? We idolize what we like and therefore do not like our idols to be challenged? I am more and more convinced that emotions make great servants, but terrible masters.

    I think another problem is that the vast majority of Christians take for granted what they hear from respected leaders whom they admire and trust. If that leader says it, then it must be true. However, not only pastors, but every Christian needs to be growing in theological pursuits as well as applying theology to daily living, including music/entertainment choices. But because we are living in a more secularized culture, in a more technology-driven culture, and a less cognitive culture, this kind of study, thinking, and reasoning is falling by the way side – unfortunately.

    Thanks for your reply.

  4. It’s also a matter of being both willing and able to recognize that “objective” and “subjective” have no final bearing on truth. People who retreat behind the argument “someone needs to prove that music has an objective moral message” are simply devaluing their own humanity.

    Much of what we’re arguing for is a matter of a well-trained conscience long before it is a matter of accepting scientifically quantifiable statements.

  5. Right, Chris, I agree. Would you say that God has built into humanity this notion of the meaning/morality of music, and that over time, in man’s depravity, he has chosen to disregard God’s creativity in man and replaced it with his own version? I’m thinking of the Romans 1 principle of exchanging God’s truth for a lie and worshipping the creature rather than the Creator. Christianity, from the 1800s yes, but perhaps in a more rapid pace since the 1960s, has chosen to do this, exchanging what is right in God’s eyes for what is right in our own eyes.

    Someone ought to write a definitive paper/book on this subject, chronicling this slow, but steady shift, for this is where the crux of the music issue rests, it seems. And if someone already has, I’m sorry I have not read it, but please direct me :-).

  6. Since the commanded default position of Christians is unity. The burden of proof would be on the person suggesting we can/should divide over something. I understand your argument against their unstated minor premise but I think the logic doesn’t flow with the heart of Scripture. I’d like to reframe the original idea– We are commanded to work for unity in the body therefore division should only happen based on clear & warranted reasons. I would then argue that Music is not a clear and warranted reason (some might call it a preference) and thus division would be illegitimate. (And no, i don’t think that being in different churches is division. i’m simply saying division would be illegitimate.)

  7. David, I would question your assumed “default position” being unity. Historically, throughout church history, especially modern church history, there has been two general “default positions” within greater Christianity: that of unity, or that of purity. If unity is the overarching thing that all Christians are to “work for” then, that brings with it a lack of purity within the church, as has historically been proven. Unity is important, yes, but not at the expense of truth or purity.

    In this context of music, I would argue that we should work for unity around a Christian ethos and affection within our musical choices that most accurately reflects the glory and holiness of God, not just that it is within the “Christian” genre of music. Scott’s post here is (if I understand him correctly) merely pointing out the illegitimacy of saying that all music, no matter the genre, or style, can effectively promote and reflect the glory and holiness of God.

  8. This brings to mind Ron Horton’s excellent little paper “Christian Taste And The Art Entertainment World” which you pointed to some time ago, Scott.

    Favorite quotes therefrom:

    Frank Burch Brown: Music, most
    clearly of all the arts, “reflects and engenders values” (Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian
    Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life, p. xvi). No poet, painter, or musician does his art in a moral
    vacuum. Oddly this widely recognized fact is fervently contested by some evangelicals . . .

    A Christian university graduate studying music in Austria on a Fulbright scholarship shared with his father a startling observation. Music, he said, is the only domain in which his atheist fellow students accept transcendence and the only one in which his evangelical friends do not.


    This conundrum extends beyond music. A BJU professor of religion I happen to know very well was in conversation with a young evangelical friend involved in cinema about some objectionable elements in a film. “Don’t you know you’re just looking at pixels?” the friend said.

  9. Alison, Yes:

    I agree that unity is central; it’s what Christ prayed in his High Priestly prayer (John 17). However, it seems to me that you are begging the question. Refusing to divide over preferences for the sake of unity is no proof that music in worship is a mere preference. You’re still making an assumption that few in church history have ever made.

    Yes, unity is a goal, but we share unity to the degree we share agreement on important matters of truth. Biblically and historically, the way we worship has always been seen as one of these important matters.

  10. Scott, I haven’t said its mere preference. I am saying you need to build biblical arguments to warrant dividing over anything because unity is commanded.

    The way we worship has always been important and will always be. Music can be important, without being as important as unity. Musical choices matter but they matter less than clearly commanded Scriptures. This is why i think a clear case that Music is as important as unity would need to be made before you can justify dividing over it.

    For another day, I believe this debate matters far more than preference–I believe it radically impacts the church’s understanding of and faithfulness to the Great Commission.

  11. I agree, David. I’m only concerned in this post with the glib categorization of music in worship as mere preference with no defense. No doubt there is a lot more conversation to have before agreeing on the extent to which music affects worship, cooperation, etc. Thanks for the interaction.

  12. Scott, I just downloaded the Kindle edition of Wiser than Despair, and it includes only 14 pages, including Cover page and title page.

  13. Hey, Jon. I checked, and everything looks fine from the backend. I put in an inquiry, and they said it would take up to 72 hours to check from Amazon’s end of things. I’m not sure if whatever they do will automatically correct your version or not. If in 72 hours your kindle version is still not correct (probably you’ll want to delete it from your device and re-download it), I’d recommend requesting a refund from them and then repurchasing it.

    I’m not sure why you’re having this problem! I haven’t heard of anyone else. Hopefully it’s just a one time thing.

  14. Thanks, Scott. I wondered if maybe I got an incomplete download or something. I’ll see what I can do from my end, too. Thanks for checking!

  15. Of course music is a preference. Have you ever heard someone say, “I like [music type], I do not like [other music type]”? I think the question is not “is music a preference,” but “is my music preference a doctrinal issue?”

    By the way, here is something “moral, powerful, and a matter of significance” that is also a preference: Marriage. I am not claiming that marriage and music are equivalent in significance (music is obviously much more important… smh), but I did want to offer a counterexample to that argument.

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