May 19, 2021
In a recent meeting with local pastors, one brother lamented that some of the hymns that were sung in his church had some really bad theology. He did not want to offend the person who picked the songs, but neither did he want his people being instructed by poor teaching. We were discussing the regulative principle of worship and whether or not it was biblically required or more like a guideline. What is the regulative principle of worship? Glad you asked.
John Calvin, the French reformer and theologian who ministered in Switzerland, taught that the only elements that were to be in a worship service of the church were those that were prescribed in the Bible. These would be things such as: Singing, praying, preaching, observing the ordinances and greeting one another. Martin Luther, the German reformer and theologian taught that these should be in a worship service but other things could be included as well unless they were forbidden in Scripture. This approach is often called the non-regulative principle in worship.
The advantage of the regulative principle is that it protects the church from trendy stuff that seems cool at the moment but really is not all that helpful. It also tends to minimize many of the opinions and debates that churches face when deciding what will be and not be included in a worship service. It’s not just what you do, it is how much you do what you do? Should the congregation sing as long as the preacher preaches? Good question, right? Does the Bible say anything about that? Hmmm, not really. Someone asked Voddie Baucham that question recently and he said that it depends on how good the singing is and how good the preaching is. A good singing church with a younger pastor learning how to preach, may want to sing more. A church where the music is not as well done, but where there is a gifted communicator of the Word will give more time to preaching. I thought that there was some good wisdom in that answer, except, who wants to tell the younger brother that his preaching isn’t that good yet, or the music people that their contribution is “so-so.” Oh the joys of figuring all of this out!!!!
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) only sings the Psalms. I am not sure what they think when they sing, “Oh sing to the LORD a new song” (Psalm 96.1a, 98.1a), but this practice does have the benefit of not having to figure out which new songs to sing and not sing. Even the great old hymns of the church were contemporary at one point and were written by imperfect people. One of those was written by a man who abandoned the faith. He wrote a great song and it is right and true and encouraging. Do we keep singing it? I’ve never told you the story because I don’t want to "ruin the song" for you. What about some of the newer songs that have a suspect pedigree? The answer is not as easy as it may appear.
Take for example the Hillsong group. Hillsong produces some really good music, but they have some squirrelly beliefs on a few things. The Bethel group is worse. Elevate? Very suspect. Keith and Kristyn Getty? Now, they are solid and we love them but, what if someone, who used to write for Hillsong or perform for Bethel, now collaborates with the Gettys? What if Hillsong does a great arrangement of an older song? Can we do that arrangement? What if a movement is associated with a major public defection from the faith? What if someone from a questionable association writes one verse of one of the songs that otherwise has a good pedigree (at least at the moment)? If we do a song with a musical license from one of those groups aren’t we supporting them? What about the Christian music publishing companies that make great choral and orchestral arrangements but were bought out by secular organizations? Are we supporting them when we buy orchestrations? Trying to come up with consistent rules for all of these scenarios seems to me to be almost impossible. Maybe that Psalm only thing is not so bad after all.
As a related example, I appreciate the ministry of Tim Keller. I do not agree with his view on Genesis 1-2. I think that some of his remarks on social justice are not helpful. However, I think he is spot on about the gospel and has contributed some very helpful things related to that and we sell some of his books in the bookstore. I take a similar approach to the parameters for the selection of music in our church. Is it theologically sound? Is it substantive? Is it clear? Not every association is something that we fully embrace or would recommend. Certainly, there are times when something really bad happens and it just seems wise to not do those songs for a while or if ever. My point in all of this is simply this; We have yet to identify a policy that fits all of those scenarios beyond the obvious one of: Is it theologically sound? Beyond that, we seek to exercise wisdom and what we believe is helpful for you to instruct you, encourage you and lead you in biblical worship of God. I do not pretend to have all of this figured out, but am trying to be faithful and consistent.
Grace and peace,
Sunday’s text: 2 Peter 1:16-21