I noticed an article recently in a Christian publication claiming that a number of well known, much-used worship songs were actually unbiblical. The writerís arguments concerning specific songs were not particularly convincing, but it did raise an issue that affects all those of us involved in leading and participating in church worship: how much do we take care to ensure what we sing is true? And does it really matter anyway?
The Role of Songs
The first thing we must realize is that worship songs play a significant part in our lives; not only for us as musicians, but for all those who attend our services. Our congregations may hear some fantastic biblical teaching on a Sunday morning, but when they leave theyíre more likely to be humming one of the worship songs than reciting a section of the sermon.
Letís face it: songs stick in the mind in a way that the spoken word does not. And that means that in our daily lives we can recall truth when it is contained in a song. For example, I still sing the old chorus ìFor the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peaceÖî when Iím trying to remember Galatians 5!
This fact was not lost on great preachers of the past. For Luther, Newton and Wesley, the central message of their songs was the truth they were preaching in their sermons. In fact, William booth and others changed the words to popular secular songs of the day in order to better fix biblical truth in the minds of believer and unbeliever alike.
Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs
So itís important that lyrics are true and reliable if people are going to sing them and allow them to feed truth into their daily lives. So does that mean we should restrict our song content to Scripture quotations?
While thereís a strong argument for saying ìyesî, it is clear from Scripture and church history that the people of God have always benefited from contemporary expressions of eternal doctrine applied and expressed in a way that their generation can easily grasp. The meaning and content of Scripture should always be central to the songwriterís work; but there is value in moving beyond the mere reciting of Scripture in order to explore the meaning, much as a preacher might do in a sermon.
Doctrine and Experience
This inevitably opens up some ìgrayî areas for the songwriter. He/she may focus on our subjective response to a scriptural truth, or express a desire to receive experientially what we know doctrinally to be a to be already ours in Christ. At this point it would be unfair to attach the weight of doctrinal authority to every word of a worship song.
There are many examples of this in worship songs, but one of the most talked-about is Jesus, We Celebrate Your Victory. The line ìAnd in His presence our problems disappearî seems to suggest that all lifeís problems will go away with a little worship. Now, I think we all know what the song is really saying: that what seem like major problems are put into proper perspective when seen in the context of Godís love and power ñ indeed, they disappear from view when enjoying the wonderful presence of God. But itís not a doctrinal statement on how to sort out lifeís problems.
In the last Worship Together pack we introduced a new version of William Boothís great hymn, O God of Burning, Cleansing Flame (Send the Fire). It contains the line ìWe need another Pentecostî. Of course, we donít need another Pentecost from a theological point of view: the Holy Spirit has been given, He is here with us, as powerful now as He was in the early church. But most of us would agree that we need that kind of Pentecost anointing in our lives which transformed the apostles from fearful despondent follower into powerful, radical world changers.
Theology and Poetry
Another minefield of contention for the songwriter is the question of the poetic. Part of the power of lyric-writing lies in the use of phrases and images that impact the listener/singer. However, because images are so open to interpretation, it is impossible to ensure that they are theologically airtight.
For example, Graham Kendrickís beautiful image, ìHands that flung the stars into space/To cruel nails surrenderedî, is not designed to initiate a discussion on whether Jesus had hands in heaven, or to blur the issue of Jesus becoming fully man in the flesh, but to bring home to us the wonder of the Creator of the universe sacrificing Himself for sinners.
When songwriters are criticized in this way, they can take comfort in the fact that portions of the Bible itself are outrageously poetic of the Bible itself are outrageously poetic and metaphorical. If a song had been written depicting Satan in the presence of Almighty God, carrying on a conversation with Him, the image would be rejected as inconsistent with our understanding of the holiness of Godís presence. And yet, there it is in Job 2: a doctrinal statement, or picture of how a man can still trust in God in the face of extreme adversity.
Letís not overstate it. Songs do play an important part in imparting doctrinal truth; but they are not a replacement for first-hand study of the Bible, or good biblical teaching in the local church. Where these essentials are being ignored, the danger of heresy looms large, no matter how doctrinally correct the songs.