October 6, 2015

Worship Songs as Trojan Horses

Ah, the old Trojan horse. You think you’re welcoming something innocent and wonderful into your life, and it turns out to be evil and destructive. People talk about worship songs that way. I’m a part of several online forums, and this conversation always comes up. It goes something like this:

Should we, with all the other churches, incorporate [X] song from [Y] church, if [Y] church’s pastor preaches heresy?

It is said that, even if a song in and of itself is fine, it is a slippery slope. People can enjoy the song, look it up online, and find a host of other resources from the church where the song originates, including sermons from the lead pastor. To get more specific, the dialogue tends to be about songs from charismatic origins and the more prosperity-oriented preachers that sometimes fill Pentecostal pulpits (i.e. “If you just do this for God…if you just have enough faith, He will bless you with wealth and riches, rewarding your faithfulness”). Yes, this message of prosperity is the anti-Gospel. It is the same age-old works righteousness that’s been around since Adam. It just has modern clothes and a bright, toothy smile, offering you “your best life now” (over-realized eschatology) instead of “Christ’s best life imputed” (the Gospel, which is way better!). But the debate ultimately comes down to the song. Are worship songs from heretical or semi-heretical origins destructive to our congregations? Should we avoid them at all costs? Are we playing with fire? Some say, “yes,” placing a moratorium on all heretical imports, not unlike Cuba up until a few months ago. Several things, however, lead me to a different philosophy as I seek to faithfully pastor my own congregation through the ministry of worship. For me, it’s a matter of faithful shepherding and discerning baby from bathwater.

Wonderful, orthodox songs can come out of misguided, heretical churches.

This is what I mean by baby and bathwater. I am of the persuasion that we need to analyze and appropriate worship songs based on their merit rather than their origin’s. I want to analyze the theology and beauty of the song on its own. If the song holds, I’m not going to throw it out simply because it comes from a bad place. If that’s the only reason I might not incorporate an otherwise perfectly good song, I believe it is insufficient. I’ve seen, time and again, God produce great new songs and hymns out of pretty dark and broken places. (And, to be honest, my own heart is one of those places.) If I am listening to a worship song for the first time, I desperately want to start from the place of charity, “hoping all things” in love. Certainly, if I’ve got questions about the fidelity of the preaching from a given church, my antennae are up for certain things as I evaluate songs. But I want to be optimistic and charitable to my brothers and sisters.

Meaning can sometimes be “filled out” when it is re-contextualized.

The reason I think it’s okay to evaluate a song based on it’s own merit rather than its origin’s is because I’ve seen powerful ways that songs become theologically “re-contextualized.” I’m not saying here that truth is relative. What I am saying is that truth can be filled out, either for good or for ill, by a local church context. Lyrics are often “flexible” enough, that way. For instance, it’s popular in charismatic circles to sing a lot about “victory.” Matched with a certain kind of preaching, that victory could be seen in a heretical, “name it and claim it” kind of light that is more like superstition than the historic Christian faith. It can bend toward a kind of overly realized eschatology that says, “You can get heaven now if you just believe it!” My church, however, uses the word and the idea in a very different and (I believe) orthodox sense. We sing about Christ’s victory as ours. And so, if there’s a great worship song out there that would fit our context well, whose meaning can fit in the our-victory-wrapped-up-in-Christ’s category, I’m all for using the song, re-appropriating some misguided “victory” themes for better use.

(There’s a neighboring discussion in here about the difference between “theologically wrong” and “theologically incomplete” when it comes to worship songs and liturgy. Check out my post on this.)

If we’re faithful preachers of the Gospel and faithful pastors to our people, the problem gets drastically minimized.

The reality is that if I’m faithful to preach the Gospel, it acts as wonderful preventative medicine for a lot of the heresy out there. When the good news of Christ’s substitutionary work of death and life is on center stage, it creates a sensitivity in a local church that can detect even the faintest smell of prosperity-oriented heresy. But even if everyone isn’t quite there yet, if we’re the kinds of pastors that are involved in the lives of our people, we’ll be close enough to overhear the kinds of voices they’re hearing outside the walls of our local assembly. It’s only really in the environments where pastors aren’t connected to their people where heresy typically creeps in and runs amuck (think about Paul’s distance from the Ephesians and his recognition of the need to appoint good local leadership in 1 Timothy). Pastors are called to guide and guard their flocks in this way. I’ve almost always found that people come to me with questions if they’re concerned, and we’re able to talk it out and have a wonderfully edifying conversation.

Why the “not even a hint” kind of approach concerns me.

What I see as the flip side of the approach I’m advocating is the “not even a hint” approach. In this line of thinking, I often hear Old Testament passages quoted about keeping the purity of God’s people. A lot of those instances are brought up (like the “strange fire” of Phineas and Hophni) where God dealt swiftly with any large or small threat to the purity of His worship. I don’t discount all this, but I do believe that, in this conversation, the Gospel has purchased freedom to operate in the boundaries of cautious, pastoral discernment without the fear of being struck dead because we accidentally, if not ignorantly, put our hand on the ark. Frankly, in our simul-justus-et-peccator-ish existence, we all have to admit that every last one of us should be accused of offering up strange fire.

I guess what concerns me is the spirit in which this “not even a hint” approach often takes place. To me, it sounds a lot more like the fearful self-righteousness of the Pharisees than the faithful, tender guardianship of wise pastors. My concern, too, for this approach is that it seems to have no end. Sometimes, questions of the character and lifestyle choices of the songwriter are brought into these conversations, and I honestly start to get concerned that folks will eventually dig up my own sins or my own perceived theological aberrance and start to discredit the songs that I have written for the local church. When the “not even a hint” train gets rolling, it’s hard to find the end of the line. Soon, it feels like everyone is suspect except for the chosen handful agreed upon by, well, usually the same chosen handful.

When we look at Paul dealing with the invasion of heresy in 1 Timothy, it appears to be something that the whole congregation had been swept up in. We need to understand Paul’s strong rhetoric and forceful opposition in that context. Paul was not running around Ephesus pulling up every last rock to find the heretical cockroach. He was dealing with an infestation. In contexts where spurious theology had not spread like a disease, despite the fact that immorality had, Paul seems ready to encourage a spirit of charity to prevail (1 Cor 8, 13).

The “not even a hint” approach, too, ends up being sometimes ignorantly selective, turning a blind eye to some musical selections (including old hymns) that, if investigated, have equally spurious origins. Some church musicians and congregants would be shocked to find out that some of their most cherished hymns were written by Unitarians or Pelagians.

Perhaps I’m coming on too strongly. I have plenty of friends whose ministries and pastoral choices I highly respect who take a different approach than I do. I really am trying, though, to speak from experience on the ground in a local church where some of these suspect songs have been tried and found edifying. Sometimes, they’ve yielded pastoral conversations about theology, faith, and charity that I never would have had if the song had not taken root in our worshiping body. Other times, they’ve simply been received well by my congregation and, in the context of our liturgy, produced the kind of fruit that tells me that these songs can edify, yielding an energized faith, a passion for Christ, an honesty about ourselves, and a repentant heart. So maybe it is that we don’t have to think of all of these kinds of worship songs as Trojan horses. Perhaps many of them can be received as gifts to be stewarded, shepherded.

This is all just another way I’m trying to think through the worship leader as pastor.

Zac Hicks (D.Min. candidate, Knox Theological Seminary) is Canon for Worship & Liturgy at Cathedral Church of the Advent (Birmingham, AL), blogger at, and author of The Worship Pastor (Zondervan, 2016). He grew up in Hawaii, studied music in Los Angeles, trained in Philosophy and Biblical Studies at Denver Seminary, and his current doctoral work is in the theology and worship of the English Reformation. Zac's passions include exploring the intersection of old and new in worship and thinking through the pastoral dimensions of worship leading. He is a songwriter, having recorded seven albums to date. Zac has been married for over fifteen years to his wife, Abby, and they have four children—Joel, Jesse, Brody, and Bronwyn.