There is incredible freedom in the New Testament Church. We are not bound to a certain style of music nor a particular type of worship service. Our brothers and sisters overseas are not required to use page five in The Lutheran Hymnal or page twelve in the Worship Supplement. Nor are we.
But what is permissible is not always profitable, and could be detrimental. The apostle Paul addressed issues of Christian liberty in 1 Corinthians 8-10. His conclusion? “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify.” (1 Corinthians 10:23) When it comes to choosing songs for public worship, here are a few questions to consider:
Is its theology correct?
Luther loved music because it conveyed the Word in a way that nothing else can. Next time you’re feeling down, open your hymnal and sing some of your favorite hymns. Before long, your faith will be bolstered and your mood lifted. Such is the effect of music plus the Word.
But what if a tune is connected to false doctrine? If a song’s theology is suspect, then the last thing we should do is sing it, especially in church.
This is not a knock against all groups in this musical genre. This is a reminder to be vigilant. Most Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) groups are not confessional Lutherans. That doesn’t make them bad. It just means that their theology warrants examination, and at some point, false doctrine may show up in their songs.
Does it point to me, or to Jesus?
Some songs are very subjective. That, in itself, is not the problem. The problem is that songs don’t always point us away from ourselves to Christ. The greatest news this world will ever hear is based on the objective nature of justification. Jesus paid for our sins when we were still His enemies. Our salvation was a completed product before we were ever brought to faith. Any song that diverts attention away from the objective work of Christ and toward me is dangerous and wrong.
Does it edify the group?
Congregational worship is corporate worship. The word corporate comes from the Latin corpus, meaning “body.” What is done in the worship service affects the whole body. From infant to elderly, from teenagers to fifty-somethings, from singles to married couples—we gather in worship as ONE. Decisions about liturgy and style rightly belong to the whole congregation. The Bible lays down two important principles: “Let all things be done decently and in order.” (1 Corinthians 14:40) And, “Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being.” (1 Corinthians 10:24). Disregard these, and any song can become “a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal.”
(1 Corinthians 13:1 ESV)
Doing things in good order does not lock us into the wheel-ruts of what we’ve always done before. God gives special musical abilities to each generation. The choir concerts at our Immanuel Lutheran College reflect a masterful mix of traditional and modern arrangements. Both edify the body because both direct us to Christ alone. The key is to find balance between what is well-known so that everyone can participate, and what is fresh so that people don’t daydream or lose interest.
Few denominations can rival Lutherans in their passion for church singing. This is largely due to the theology our hymns convey. Few things engage heart and voice like the message of God’s grace to us in Christ. Whether traditional or contemporary, our hymns should always be profitable and never detrimental.
As always, if you have further questions on this topic, or would like a more complete discussion, please talk to your pastor. He’s called as your spiritual shepherd and will be happy to study and apply Scripture with you in these matters.
James Albrecht is pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Okabena, Minnesota.