“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
And the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.
And God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.” GENESIS 1v1-5
We begin with God, in the book of Genesis; in more ways than one! From “formless”-ness, emptiness (“void”), and “darkness” God spoke and light was! God, the Great Physicist and Mathematician, and the Great Architect and Designer of all things. Have you noticed His creation is not merely functional? God also made things breathtakingly beautiful. The LORD, Who created all things, is also the Great Artist!
The natural, physical world, and all of life and creation, we must surely have thought deeply about and admired in wonder. Consider this too, that from the same emptiness and silence, from absolute nothing-ness, the LORD created sound. Sound – vibrations in the air, of the air around us. He purposed that sound should exist in His creation; sounds with relevance to each other and to Himself. Some have a richer profile than others, but all of them are meaningful. We call some precise pitches, or ‘notes’. When they come together as willed by God or man, fuse with other elements, and are then given birth through expression, they give us that most wonderful revelation of melodies, rhythms, timbres and textures known as ‘music’.
Everything the LORD has placed upon the Earth at our disposal has the intrinsic, amazing quality of being the most beautiful of raw materials. For just one example, consider the food we eat. He deemed it a fitting thing that we should decide how it is to be prepared. And look at the menu put on by the human race! It is wonderful to me that God is so overwhelmingly generous. He has created all things, given us life, and “richly supplies us with all things to enjoy”. (1 TIMOTHY 6v17, see also ACTS 14v17.)
“The earth is the LORD’s, and the fullness thereof.”
The natural world around us, and everything in existence belongs to Him in the deepest spiritual and literal sense – every grain of sand, every breath of wind, every blade of grass, every living thing, every atom, every molecule... even every sound! How wonderful of God to allow the things He has made to be explored, shaped, and utilized by human hearts and minds! He was willing that people like you and I could know the pleasure of creating something with the raw materials from His created world.
Music is one of those ‘raw materials’ too. The LORD was pleased to allow us to make music; that we should discover singing, invent musical instruments, and find ways to express the creativity He has placed within us. For me, all musical creativity and the different forms of music really just underline the goodness of God. The raw ingredients – He has provided. The understanding and ability to create – He has endowed. The desire to express ourselves – He has placed within. The freedom to create – He has bestowed!
It is sad, but not everyone sees this. Most people would see music as something enriching and marvelous; given to us by God. Some, however, see it only as a worldly thing, and incompatible with Christian life and faith except under very strict and narrow guidelines. These guidelines are, at best, an unworkable attempt to compromise (in the good sense). At worst, they are a denial of our Christian faith, because they represent a rejection of the grace of God and of our liberty in Christ Jesus.
Do you think God would create music, generously give us musical and artistic talents and gifts, but not give us the freedom to use them? It seems plain that the answer should be: “No, of course, He would not.” Yet sadly we see a Church history that, up to and including today, is filled with much controversy about music. Indeed, such can be the degree of criticism levelled against Christian musicians and their music, that even the validity of music itself is doubted by some, let alone anything we may create.
Of course, we should not expect our music to be liked by everyone, but for Christian musicians and artists it has meant that our very lives and ministries have been called into question. It has been difficult for some of us to even go on. If we are faced with a struggle of this magnitude, we will have to prayerfully think it through. We’ll need to go back and ask ourselves what our reasons are, and there will be much heart-searching as we seek answers from God.
The best place to begin our consideration is in Genesis; in understanding the nature of music and it’s existence in God’s creation. What is music? It is firstly a raw material supplied by God, without any intrinsic impurity or corruption. It is essentially organized sound, rooted in physics and mathematics; yet it is soars beyond the laws that govern it. We can feel it in our bodies, yet it has power beyond merely that of sound energy. It is able to touch our hearts and move us. It is something which can express our hearts, and communicate to, our very souls; and it can do this with or without words. In this sense it is really a spiritual language; a unique and beautiful one.
The fact that music exists in the creation at all is already a problem for the champions of bondage. It presents them with a reality check they somehow have to ignore, or explain away! For those of us who are blessed with God’s wonderful gifts of music, this same reality (it’s nature, and place in God’s creation) should be a great comfort to us, and a powerful affirmation of what God has called us to be.
Of course, one must understand the difference between the existence of music and, for example, that of the opium poppy! Man has discovered opiates; their use originally being a noble one, for pain-relief in extreme cases of suffering. Using the same line of reasoning as I have above, some may dare to extol the virtues of heroin or other drugs! Of course we should know this is a man-made perversion. We are flooded with mankind’s’ corruption and distortion of God’s handiwork.
Using my argument in reverse, some may say: “Yes, you are right, and music has been corrupted and distorted by man as well.” Yes, there is such a thing as the corruption and distortion of music. What some would like this to mean is that they are justified in their opposition to music, and their criticism of anything which they themselves do not like or understand. But the argument is not as simple as that; it goes way beyond simply the sounds we hear. (In other articles I have argued that even commercial motivation is an abuse of music!) The musical sounds themselves cannot be impure, and the musical dialect being spoken is not at the heart of any corruption of music. Any misuse or perversion of music has nothing to do with the music itself. It has everything to do with the people who are making it.
So the reality is that music exists. If we contemplate this existence, and the nature of music for any length of time, the folly and futility of fighting a war against it seem strange indeed. However, as musicians who face the battles we need to address these objections for our own understanding and peace of mind. If we look carefully into the nature of the arguments, into the heart and essence of the debate, we will see that the roots of most of the problems are cultural.
Since the creation, music has grown up in different ways in different places around the world. It has continued to develop slowly over the course of history; from very simple rhythms and ‘songs’, to symphonic masterpieces and works of immense beauty and complexity. Personally I believe it is absolutely correct to say that the music of the West, deeply influenced and shaped by the freedom inherent in the Christian faith, reveals the most profoundly developed concepts of music. This is not a coincidence.
How sad though, that it has often not been made in honour of Him who created music and gave it to us! There has not been, on our part, proper place given to God and to His Law. Beyond the natural laws evident in creation, the LORD has also revealed His moral Law through the Scriptures. He has revealed His character, declared His will, and declared what pleases or displeases Him. All men, including musicians and artists, have fallen short of the glory of God; we have failed to meet the standard of His character. This shows in everything that man has touched; even from his very nature and outwards – our music and art included.
We know also that the origins of our cultural diversity are shameful. But God did not stop the earth from turning did He? Our hearts did not stop beating did they? God was willing that life should continue after the fall, after the tower of Babel, and after innumerable other events since. He is long-suffering, not willing that any should perish. His plan remains the same, to ultimately restore all things to Himself through Christ Jesus our Lord. Praise be to God!
As His Word has gone forth in the earth, people have “believed the report” and obeyed the Gospel. Christians throughout the world and down through the ages have inevitably expressed their faith using the language of their own culture – their spoken languages, and the universal languages of art and music. This should not be surprising! In every corner of the world, believers are free to communicate in their own language, within cultural norms.
Yet unfortunately there are many Christians who do not understand this. We, the Christians, have to know that our faith is the only true, universal faith! Yet some Christians aspire to be Jewish! Others cling to the beliefs and customs of their race or nationality, or mix them in with their Christian faith. Similarly, some will argue fiercely as to why only this music, or that music is acceptable in God’s kingdom! The folly of this position is plain, as I hope we will see. On a lighter note, some feel that wearing Western suits and ties shows maturity in the Lord!
It is a shame, but we have to add an ‘etcetera’ here, for there is a long and sorry history of all kinds of cultural and extra-biblical agendas being added to the pure and glorious Gospel of Christ. We are so fond of our own familiar culture that we insist others embrace it too, even though God does not ask us to do any such thing! It has led to conflict and problems of all kinds, including problems with music.
There is clarity however, when we view things through God’s ‘big picture’ – the Scriptures. It is highly significant that there is no reference anywhere in the New Testament to the Lord commanding our allegiance to any culture, or cultural practise; be it language, diet, dress, or whatever. None, not even Jewish culture! On the contrary, the apostle Paul was persecuted for minimizing the importance of what the Jews held so dear – their cultural pre-eminence as God’s chosen people. Through the work of our Lord Jesus Christ, it was now not necessary to be Jewish, and be circumcised, etc., to be ‘saved’. The Gentiles were now also the heirs of salvation through faith!
Our cultural backgrounds do not hinder our coming to God for salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ, because it is all about repentance and faith in His finished work. It is no longer about a cultural identity. Thanks be to God! However, we must also know that this is true not only at the time when we first believe and are born again into new life in Christ. It is also true for the remainder of our lives, as we walk with God. We are warned that religious or cultural ‘additions’ will be useless in our faith. The apostle Paul says this to the Galatian church who were being duped into trading their faith for religious legalism:
“Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are
you now being perfected by the flesh?” GALATIANS 3v3
In short, trying to please God by external religious or cultural factors is foolish! We need to be confident that God has, in Christ, not only liberated us from salvation by works, but also from any kind of ‘please God by works’ mentality thereafter. We are commanded to walk by faith! Even though we may understand that we are ‘saved’ by faith, many are somehow persuaded to live by seemingly good religious rules, such as the familiar: “don’t do this”, or “don’t do that”; or “you must listen to this”, or “don’t listen to that”. This leads people away from walking by faith, and can eventually result in serious error. It is erroneous in two respects: firstly, one is trying to dominate another with rules God has not made, and secondly, it essentially suggests a kind of sanctification by works; and there is no such thing as sanctification by works! These legalistic practices are unscriptural, and we are warned of the dangers.
(I am hoping that the reader will understand that there is a proper place for ‘works’ in the New Testament. Our actions should definitely support our professions of “faith”, and our lives should definitely exhibit the character and holiness of God. I am not saying we shouldn’t care about our behaviour, or that we shouldn’t obey the law! But we must understand this important spiritual principle, that being acceptable and pleasing to God does not come from what we do. This is only possible by faith, through the precious shed blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.)
In his book ‘The Church At The End Of The 20th Century’, Francis A. Schaeffer says something that I have found helpful to remember: “God could have added one more chapter to the book of Acts and given us much more detail. He did not. We surely cannot say the Bible is mistaken. We must believe not only that what is said is – by God’s will and inspiration – final, but also that where there is silence we are granted freedom under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.”
The exciting reality is that God does not command us to speak a certain language, eat certain food, wear certain clothes, or say certain words. (“Hallelujah!” :) Specifically here, in the context of this article, the LORD does not command us to play or listen to a certain kind of music either. He gives us freedom in these things, because they are not the essence of it. They don’t really matter in a critical sense. The kingdom of God does not consist of rules about such things!
“For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness
and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” – ROMANS 14v17
Know this though, that the many cults and religions of the world are all filled with the commandments of religious men in error. There will be many things for you to do, and many things not to do. They are highly concerned about such things. These teachings are actually the doctrines of demons, and the evidence is that people are caught up in confusion and bondage of all kinds.
Even within the Christian faith some fall prey to legalism and ritualism, because it is taught to them. Of course some of these ‘teachers’ want you as a slave for their own ends. Others may actually believe they are helping you. However, rule-making or following only serves to accentuate the weakness of the flesh, not overcome it; the exact opposite of what the proponents of all the rules tell us will happen. This is because legalism actually only serves to highlight our sinful nature, as we become focused on our weaknesses. Rule following cannot overcome the sinful nature any more than religious works can lead to salvation. COLOSSIANS 2v20-23 asks us why are we so willing to be subject to legalistic teachings when they are of no use anyway against the weakness of the flesh!
Why am I saying all this? Because this is really the essence of the problem. The fact is that the root of much church conflict, including music-related conflict, is cultural in nature. (e.g. I don’t like your music and you don’t like mine.) These cultural conflicts inevitably result in legalistic teachings, and the stumbling blocks we have probably all experienced at some point. Man makes rules and puts them in place with the aim of keeping out unwanted culture from the pure, more-perfect faith he himself possesses!
However, as Peter was shown by the Lord in the vision recorded for us in Acts 10, each one of us must strive to avoid interpreting the Christian faith with our own culturally-coloured glasses on. We must take stock of our attitudes and our beliefs about things which God Himself has declared “clean”! ROMANS 8v33-34 says: “…God is the one who justifies. Who is the one who condemns?” According to Acts chapter 10, God has declared each of us clean. Who are those then, who say our music is unclean?!
Some expressions of our various cultures are most definitely abominable; we are certain of this, and we may not continue in sin when we become Christians! The ‘culture of sin’ (an interesting phrase!) is not what I refer to here. This has got to go! But expressing our faith with the means (i.e. culture) that we have to do so ought not be a problem. Yet it often is, because we mistake our own culture for God’s culture. (e.g. I don’t like your music, but I’m sure God like’s mine!) Yet musically speaking, the result of our redemption and liberation in Christ is that we are free to create our own special music; a ‘new song’ unto the LORD that is uniquely ours. But then so are our brothers and sisters, and herein lies the potential problem of cultural differences.
Here then, in these two areas of cultural intolerance and legalism, we find the heart of most criticism faced by Christian musicians and artists. As this culturally-based opposition worsens, it tends to become legalistic in nature. For example, if my criticism doesn’t deter you, then rules will be found or formed to marginalize or outlaw you. Despite the overwhelming scriptural guidance given to us, many choose (one hopes in ignorance) to repeat this exact scenario. Someone openly expresses their unhappiness about music they think is unacceptable. When this fails to silence the musicians, then the rules and many hurtful stumbling blocks will be placed in the musicians’ path. Worst of all is that, rather than defend our Christian liberty, church leaders are often at the forefront of enforcing this legalistic response. It seems that the LORD God Almighty, who created everything in all of it’s mind-boggling abundance of diversity, is rather conservative when it comes to music!
Though musicians are not responsible for these kinds of problems, they are accountable to God for their response to them. I believe that if Christian musicians and artists can understand these things (i.e. the exact nature of the opposition against us, and the reasons for it) we will be better able to deal with these struggles when they arise; and they surely will. We’ll be able to more easily forgive the folly of others, and get on with the appropriate response: one of patient, life-long endeavour in our creative ministries, and one of teaching and example.
It is so important for Christians in creative ministries to understand this if we are to be unshackled from the foolish and damaging rules of men; those swirling winds of doctrine which beat upon us from all directions. We need to recognize these false standards for judgement, when they’re being used against us. Again let me stress, that sin is in no case acceptable. The need for personal holiness is not in any doubt. However, if we do not recognize and understand it when mere cultural differences are being used to condemn us and our music, we may be crippled with uncertainty; not sure of whether we should even be playing music at all.
Music has been a target for the rule-mongers and the legalistic throughout the history of the Church. Perhaps we should not be surprised that it is still a problem today; and I stress that it is still very much a problem. There are many struggles going on right now in the lives of Christian musicians everywhere. The problems range from a basic lack of understanding and support from fellow Christians, to outright hostility and rejection. Though literally banning music is rare, there are some attitudes so rigid that music of any creative merit or actual musical integrity is decidedly unwelcome anyway.
Despite the problems we face, we can look at God’s creation and the existence of music therein as a strong testimony to the legitimacy of our creative pursuits. To argue against music per se would be to argue against the reality created by God. We may as well argue against the sky or the sea, or the air we breathe! Further affirmation is found as we move on from Genesis to the Psalms, and to King David; to the instruments he invented and to the great worship. The scriptures reveal the astonishing creative freedom in David’s life and work, all of which was blessed and approved by God!; Who of course gave the musical gift to David and annointed him in the first place.
Can we not see that if such creative freedom in music and the arts was enjoyed by God’s people even in the Old Testament, how much more should this be the case now in the New? To me it’s incredible that we can preach Christ one moment, and espouse teachings which all but ban music the next! Christ and legalism are not compatible! How can God’s people be so misinformed and uneducated about something as wonderful as music? How does music get such bad press in the Church? If confusion does not come from God (1 CORINTHIANS 14v33), where does it come from? It is disappointing that there is little, if any, clear teaching and guidance in the Body of Christ about these issues. This makes it all the easier for errors to perpetuate. We cannot ignore the fact that Evil One has also been at work, provoking conflict wherever and whenever possible; even as he takes advantage of a lack of knowledge.
Thank God there has always been a remnant of His people who have not bowed down to Baal, or to whatever was the god of the day. (Another interesting phrase!) Thank God also, there are those who have not yielded even an inch to legalism; like the Apostle Paul in those wonderful verses in GALATIANS 2v4-5. What courage! What conviction! As Christian musicians and artists, we need to study these things and take them to heart. The scriptures give to us that strength we need to go on, even as they set us free from the half-truths and clever lies.
Thank God too, that throughout history a remnant of His people have not bowed down to mediocrity simply because it was easier and less offensive. Along with the controversy and conflict, there has also always been some great Christian music. History shows that Christian artists and musicians will excel in all kinds of artistic endeavour for the glory of God when the rules of men and a climate of fear don’t prevent it from happening.
In fact, where the Gospel has flourished, that entire culture has excelled in it’s cultural achievements; a supreme example of this being Reformation Europe. What liberty, and what glorious music and art! It won’t surprise you then, when I conclude musicians and artists will be liberated by the Spirit of God, when Jesus is truly ‘Lord’ in His Church. (i.e. When we do what He says.) Of course the opposite is also true; there will be little or no liberty when legalistic teachings prevail.
Let us, in our times, beware of burdening people with our useless prejudices. We urgently need the truth of God’s word and an accurate exegesis of the scriptures. What we do not need is an abundance of rules and restrictions put upon musicians and music itself in Jesus’ Body, the Church! Especially if all they really are is just a reflection of someone’s cultural preferences, and a window upon narrow-mindedness.
Consider that the sect of the Pharisees were originally the ‘good guys’. It was they who taught purity of devotion and obedience to the Law of the LORD. But by the time “The Lord whom they were seeking” had “come to His temple” (MALACHI 3v1), they had become the despised “brood of vipers” so loathed by God, and the frequent objects of scathing rebuke by the Lord Jesus.
What about rules then? Are any rules about music valid, or necessary at all? Every church has it’s own rules and guidelines. If you are in a particular church, you have to accept and adapt to the culture of that church. Order and discipline are necessary of course, and there will inevitably be rules of some kind. However, we need to know the difference between acceptable, localized church culture and the more dangerous and harmful problems of ignorance and/or legalism. In legalistic cases the rules will take away creativity and self-expression, and impose a cultural sameness on everyone. Most musicians with a heart for God will try to be co-operative, and comply for as long as possible in the hope that things will change. More often than not however, it eventually leads to frustration and heartbreak for musicians. The reality is that culturally narrow or steadfastly legalistic churches will ultimately kill any creative ministry.
They who put music and artistic endeavour in the Lord under these heavy weights of cultural bias or legalistic rules are indeed greatly mistaken. They minimize, restrict, or in effect ban music because they are ignorant of both the reality and significance of God’s creation, and of our precious liberty in Christ. May God help us not to read the scriptures so selectively, or with those culturally-coloured glasses on, unaware of the prejudice that may be guiding our thinking.
It would be especially wonderful to see musicians set free from the often unnecessary and damaging limitations placed on them. Within the context of church life and worship there are undoubtedly unresolved frustrations; a problem being ignored for now. Outside the context of church meetings the rules are less apparent, but the unacceptance, criticism, and lack of support faced by Christians musicians who minister or play outside the church is just as real, and just as big a problem.
It is not my place to tell Christian musicians what they should do, or where they should go, but I sincerely hope this article may help all of us to be better equipped to understand and overcome the problems we are up against. My earnest hope is that Christian leaders will teach about music and other cultural issues more meaningfully. What we have now is an emphasis on the fact that we are not of the world. I believe there needs to more teaching about the fact that we are, nevertheless, in the world. It’s as if the title of Francis A. Schaeffer’s great book cries out in our stead: ‘How Should We Then Live?’
© 2001, by Bernard McDonagh
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