On Songs from Questionable Sources

Q

We have discovered that some of the songs we love come from churches, organizations, and songwriters with major doctrinal differences from our congregation. Some come from people whose public witness has been significantly compromised in some way. Some people in our church think we should not sing these songs. What do you think?

A

My first thoughts drift back to my early memories of the hymn “In the Cross of Christ I Glory.” In the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, churches across the theological spectrum, including very theologically conservative churches, sang its mystical lyrics: “In the cross of Christ I glory,  towering o’er the wrecks of time; all the light of sacred story gathers round its head sublime,” and “Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure, by the cross are sanctified; peace is there that knows no measure, joys that through all time abide.” While the language may seem a bit dated today, it’s a gutsy move to confess that our experiences of bane and blessing are both sanctified through the cross.

Years later, I was surprised to learn that the committee preparing the 1934 Psalter Hymnal voted against including this hymn. They resisted it for one reason: it had been written by John Bowring, a Unitarian. Awareness of that history faded over time, and the hymn was included in the Psalter Hymnals of 1957 and 1987, accepted as a hymn that was consistent with the Reformed confessions. There are hundreds of fascinating stories like this in the history of the church.

Overall, it’s crucial that we not preclude singing songs written by those whose overall theology, to put it gently, is “not consistent with our confessions.” Rather, we evaluate the merits of a given song and discern whether that song will build up our congregations in ways that are faithful to Scripture and consistent with our common theological vision.

We can be discerning as we do this work. With 100,000 or more songs readily available to all of us, we can be very selective. It’s rare that we would even need to linger over borderline songs given the rich catalog of songs to which we have access.

We should also be charitable as we do this work and resist the increasingly hostile nature of some internet discussions of particular publishers and songwriters.

To insist on the doctrinal or moral purity of the author or composer feels a lot like the early church heresy of Donatism, which Augustine worked so hard to resist. The Donatists were early church rigorists, insisting that the leaders of the church must be saintly for their prayers and sacraments to be valid. They had to be leaders who successfully resisted persecution. Augustine insisted, in contrast, that it was Christ’s righteousness and not the righteousness or purity of the leaders that made for effective and sanctifying worship. We want to hold up saintly behavior for all of us, but we don’t rule out the good work that God’s Spirit can do through imperfect people—that is, all of us.

At the same time, that doesn’t mean that every good song is equally appropriate regardless of its author’s story or tradition.

Much depends on whether those who sing the song will be able to focus on the song itself. There are times when a given song carries with it so many extra layers of meaning from its cultural associations that those layers overtake the meaning of the words that are being sung.

In the 1980s and 1990s, many worship leaders loved U2’s psalm-based “40 (How Long).” Some judged it would be fitting for use in worship. Others believed many worshipers would think more about Bono than God. Others were very aware that if they sang it, some members of their church would make all kinds of cultural connections as the song was sung while others would have no clue about those, creating a divided experience in the congregation. It’s important to honor the pastoral instincts of leaders who made different decisions here depending on their contexts.

This all assumes we are talking about individual song choices. But sometimes more is at stake.  Many churches look to a single, go-to source for most of their music. There are “Bethel churches” and “Hillsong churches” and “Chris Tomlin churches” and “Keith and Kristen Getty churches” just like there once were “Watts churches” and “Wesley churches” and “Genevan Psalm churches.” A given musical tradition thus becomes something much more than the source for a single song here and there. It becomes the source of a congregation’s worship identity.

When this happens, it is particularly important to discern the underlying theological vision of that tradition. Indeed, each of these traditions offers very different views on at least some central aspects of Christian teaching, and the internet is aflutter with intense discussions about these differences.

If a given church has a catechism from one tradition and a single-source song repertoire from a tradition with quite a different theological vision, there is little doubt which theological vision will become more influential over time. The sticking power of songs wins the day.

The best approach of all is to resist any single musical source as a marker of a congregational worship identity. It is highly unlikely that a single musical source will lead to a consistently balanced diet of theological and pastoral themes. While it’s possible to live on one food group for a while, it’s hard to thrive for decades that way. That’s as true of our spiritual diets as it is of our musical ones. “In the Cross of Christ I Glory” was and still can be an edifying choice for many Reformed congregations. But that’s something far different from Reformed congregations going out of their way to identify themselves with the rich tradition of Unitarian hymnody.

Finally, as we make our choices, realize that there is also an economic aspect to this. There really is a worship industry out there, and the royalties we pay really do add up. Many of these single-source groups are powerful players in that industry. Part of the value of discerning choices is that over time we will end up supporting faithful musicians from across a spectrum of cultures and contexts who are faithfully interpreting God’s Word through song.

In sum, it is possible to avoid an overly rigorist rejection of a given source while also being quite resolute in refusing to identify with that source.

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin College.