Thoughts on Music not Being a Controversy When It Really is
Several days ago, I watched a posted video of a previously streamed chapel service at an independent Baptist school located in the deep woods of Wisconsin. (The video from this chapel seems to have since been removed.) The chapel opened with a word from the president of that school. After a few pleasantries, he proceeded to apologize to some of the students for what apparently had offended them in the then recent past.
Although he did not clearly state the crux of the offense, this leader alluded to the problem being one of the music recently played at that institution. Again, for someone with very little knowledge of what goes on that institution, it is hard to make out exactly what happened from what the administrator said. I deduced (perhaps wrongly) that some students had left the service.
The focus of my post today is something that this administrator said that I found puzzling. Among his comments was something along the lines of:
“Music is not going to be a controversy at [this institution] in the future. We are not going to let it be. We are not going to fight over that.”
I find this statement nearly incomprehensible.
What I am going to say has nothing to do with what side of the music debate anyone is on. It is impossible for someone responsible for making decisions about the music used in corporate worship, who is both (1) progressive in his preference for the songs and “style” used in corporate worship, and (2) determined to force those preferences upon those more conservative, to say something like “Music is not going to be a controversy here.”
You see, the principle is simple. The more conservative Christian looks at progressive music (Pm on the chart) as irreverent. For the sake of my discussion, it does not matter if the conservative believer has good reasons or bad reasons. It does not matter if he is right or wrong. The point is that he has concluded that progressive music actually dishonors God. He favors traditional music (Tm on the chart). When someone decides to force progressive music on him, he is forced with an unhappy dilemma: either to offer to the Lord what he deems blasphemous and untrue, or to somehow distance himself from the “congregation” (I use the word loosely) of which he is a part.
Now, it is possible that the person with more progressive tastes in music (Pm) is making the right decisions about which songs to include in corporate worship. But that fact, if true, is beside the point. By choosing what another believer finds irreverent, he is, by definition, making music an issue. There is no escaping this. One cannot simply wish it away.
Sometimes leaders think that they can, as it were, perform a “Jedi-mind trick” on those who follow them. Sometimes they believe that they can remove issues by saying they are not issues. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” they say. That is the way this administrator’s statement appears to me; it is no more than an unconvincing attempt at mind control.
Of course, for leaders who are progressive in their attitude toward music, they can, in fact, ensure that music is not an issue. How so? By choosing what they and their more conservative followers agree to be suitable and reverent hymns or by playing those hymns in a manner that both consider suitable and reverent (NIm). This would provide no stumbling for either the more progressive or the more traditional. No one would find music an issue, for music is at that moment good in the minds of both parties, despite their divergent philosophies.
Let me illustrate it this way. If a fellow walked up to me at Walmart, and said something like “You must now curse Christ’s name or I’m going to hurt you,” I would object, and for good reason. For me to curse Christ would be tantamount to my denying the faith. The sanctity of Christ’s name should be more important to me than bodily harm. Even if I could find reasons to justify my curse, those reasons should not be sufficient for me to yield to his threat. But, I ask you, how ridiculous and outrageous would it be for this base fellow then to say to me, “Listen, you’re going to curse, but this is not going to be an issue. What’s the big deal anyway? We’re not going to fight about it.” Of course we must. For my potential attacker, cursing Christ is obviously a matter of no consequence. He is forcing me to do something I have determined not to do. Whether or not the administration of this Wisconsin college is forcing people to curse is subject to debate. But the more obvious issue is the foolish way of denying that it is going to be a controversy when they ask people to sing to the Lord in a manner they consider to be irreverent.
Some may respond to my point here by noting that the students are welcome to leave the “worship” setting when they regard the music to be blasphemous. Of course, this is true. But this does not make music any less of a controversy. If anything, it heightens the controversy. The administration is asking those who object to distance themselves publicly and outwardly from the rest of the students and faculty. If this isn’t making a controversy out of music, I’m not sure what is.
By deliberately choosing irreverent songs or by playing otherwise reverent songs in an irreverent manner, the progressives force music to be an issue. They force a fight. They may be right to do so, but it is (if I may be so bold to say it) far better for leaders to be honest about what they are trying to do rather than wishing issues away by verbal fiat.
This is a call, if anything, for Christian leaders who are more progressive both to be honest about what they are doing and, if they are intent not to make a controversy out of music, to think once again about the consciences of those whom they lead. Genuine Christian love might, in some cases, move them genuinely to not make a controversy out of music.
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).