Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Gift of Sacred Music


I do not love our Lord enough, I do not respect his will for me sufficiently by any means and my life cannot speak of exuberant, ushering or minute accessory devotion to God. But when I am not so selfish, not so petulantly preoccupied with my world and instead, am yielding in some manner and degree to God’s Spirit and find myself worshiping him in music, it is exactly that, with and by music intended for the worship of our Lord, both in lyrical and musical composition, which I desire, seek and utilize.

This gift of sacred or spiritual music is well documented in Scripture though no treatise on all of its properties and boundaries is given so that scant biblical wisdom is available, right? Au contraire, while God has given us some direct revelation on spiritual music he has also left us, as he has with so many things, the requirement that we use spiritual wisdom and sense to identify the guiding principles which help us construct a worthy theology and practice of sacred music.

The distinction between sacred or spiritual music and secular music are its objectives and its anecdotes, but primarily its objectives.

Secular Music (non-sacred)

Secular music, simply put, has every objective but one, namely that which is spiritual. Therefore, it has the primary property of human entertainment as its objective (Lest someone confuse the word entertainment with amusement you should be clear, they are not synonyms. Amusement is a form of entertainment. That is, amusement is but one facet of entertainment. Entertainment may involve intellectual exercises such as patriotic music or an opera and is much wider in its meaning). Ultimately, secular music meets a human desire or interest. Now these desires are often quite legitimate and there is no prohibition against meeting such human interests through musical entertainment so there is no argument here.

Sacred/Spiritual Music

On the other hand, sacred or spiritual music has as it objective none but one, namely to build up spiritually. It has a sole objective, spiritual edification. Notice the contrast? One has many objectives the other a single objective. God, through Paul instructs us (Ephesians 5:19):

speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord;

This seems to baffle some people and for whatever reason I do not know but it is rather plain for many others. The music we use to edify one another has a spiritual objective, not one of human entertainment.

* A note. One could use the term “spiritual entertainment” if they wish to include the word entertainment but it would require the understanding of entertainment - if one uses the novel term “spiritual entertainment” - not to be one of amusement but of edification. This is why we avoid using that word, here, because the word edification is far more superior and is without the unnecessary baggage and misdirecting implications.

“So, What if I End Up With Human Entertainment as Part Of My Experience With Sacred Music?”

There is a word which will benefit you upon learning its meaning and use; it is the word, anecdotal. Anecdotal refers to things that are related to something but are not primarily in view. Let me give you an example:

God’s church, the body of Christ, is made up of people from all nations (races, ethnicities and cultures) but these are anecdotal facts. That is, Christians relate to each other spiritually with Christ as their spiritual DNA and with the doctrines of Christ. Churches are not to be built around human cultures or DNA (race/ethnicity) but around Christ. Who and what with regard to race/ethnicity/culture is present in a local body is simply anecdotal, not primary or an objective of the church per the Word of God. As well, whatever these anecdotes may be in a church, they should serve the primary (Christ), not the other way around.

This is the way it is with music. If sacred or spiritual music possesses a property which you find humanly entertaining, this is not forbidden but it must not be primary, it should be anecdotal. But as well and again, as an anecdotal element it should serve the primary objective, not subdue it so that it (the primacy of spirituality) is lessened by its use. This requires maturity and discernment, not sincerity.


So if someone is sincere and wishes to call their music (which is designed primarily to entertain) “spiritual music”, all their sincerity in the world does not change its category. It is still what it is, primarily human entertainment and not genuinely sacred or spiritual music. You must be able to distinguish between primary and anecdotal.

“OK, but What if the Music I am Listening to, Which is Entertaining, Ends Up Having a Spiritual Element Which Evokes a Spiritual Reaction?”

Again, the principle of the anecdotes guides us. What is the objective of the music? If it is primarily to entertain then we know what its design is for, entertainment. Its spiritual element is anecdotal. That is - while as a property of the song - the spiritual considerations are not primary therefore it should remain what it is, a song for entertainment with spiritual anecdotes.

So we do not deny that a song composed for entertainment can have properties of spiritual consideration, we simply do not use such music for or categorize it as sacred or spiritual music because, as stated before, it is for entertainment purposes primarily. And this distinction must be consistently observed for any real demarcation and assignment of music in our lives and its real use.

The Example of the Comedian

Suppose you go to a comedy club where there is an entertainer. He or she is a comedian. That person is there to entertain. He or she may, in their entertainment with comedy, have a few moments of spiritual sobriety and relate something true about God’s Word. Because you have some anecdotal spiritual enlightenment do you walk away calling the entertainer a Minister or a comedian? Of course, you still categorize him or her as a comedian. This is precisely the same principle used for distinguishing between sacred/spiritual music and secular music (non-spiritual) or music for entertainment purposes.

The Challenge

Of course the problem, ultimately, with such principles is that they require maturity which normally possesses humility and honesty as its virtues. Spiritually humble and honest men and women can and will define and identify when sacred music has been hijacked by anecdotal elements and they will properly respond. The immature believer who wishes to define things with fuzzy meanings so that little is clear and liberty abounds where mature hearts know better, will argue such realities (which is just what God, through Peter, has told us. We are instructed to “gird our minds”. The word for gird refers to tightening loose and flowing clothing so it does not get caught while we work. In other words, tighten up your understanding of things, make definitions sure so you can know what is in front of you and what is not and so, in this case, you can know what the difference is when human entertainment is primary and spirituality is primary in any music you may encounter).

Healthy Spiritual Music Transcends

One thing you will discover with regard to healthy spiritual music is that it transcends race, ethnicity and culture. That is, for the believer who is maturing in the faith and is putting off “childish things” it is more than ostensibly that he or she will be drawn to spiritual music but it is a reality that he or she will be drawn to all forms of healthy spiritual music, regardless of the anecdotal cultural influence. Why? Because, just as was covered earlier, when the music itself is subordinate to the spiritual objective it is used in service to the spiritual and not the spiritual in service to the human element (the music). Therefore, whether in the form of Asian instrumentality or American orchestration and so on, the music will be arranged and the instruments chosen and played in a way that serves the spiritual expression of words, mood and tempo.

And this is the problem with so much of what is passed off as spiritual music today. Today the anecdote rules while the primary serves. That is, the music and its elements of human satisfaction and entertainment are primary and the spiritual communication, at best, serves as a peer but most often as an augmentation to the element of entertainment. The focus is on the music's human entertainment element(s) with spiritual words added to magically “sanctify it”. This is unprincipled and a reflection of spiritual immaturity which demonstrates a great void of wisdom.

The Absurdity of Secular Infusions

Many believers who are striving to infuse into spiritual music the strong properties of human entertainment often make the argument that some songs of spiritual value have, as their origins, low orders. In other words, allegedly some spiritual songs that are widely and historically accepted once were secular songs that might have been sung at a bar or as a cultural cheer – so to speak – and were later arranged without a great deal of modification and then had added, spiritual words. And supposedly these spiritual songs are now sung with great acceptance, so why can’t this still be the rule? And to that I answer with the obvious, “The exception demonstrates the rule”.

But considering this line of argument I suggest that one first review all historically accepted songs and then determine just how many fit this unique paradigm and when one is finished any such person will find it to be the very rare exception. The fact is a very high majority of the historically vetted sacred music we use today had spiritual objectives from its original composition. It is the rare sacred musical bird that had ignoble origins and was transformed into a song and melody of light.

Today’s Protestant/Evangelical/Fundamentalist World of Pleasing the "Audience"

I have little appreciation for what I call “The Crybaby Boomer” generation. They are possibly the most insolent, self-serving and narcissistic generation in the past 100 years. And along with their indulgent generation came the eventual output of an anthropocentric ecclesiology which is a stench on the historical landscape of God’s church. And following the CBB’s are the X-Geners who are hot on the heels of their parents eager to serve up an even more disastrous dish of unprincipled music which they wish to pass off as sacred or spiritual. Clearly, when I refer to these groups I refer to those guilty and not to the inclusive numbers of all born during these periods. However, from my observation and experience there is a culpable majority.

But this is our age, one of decaying spiritual perspicacity and valiance. It is led by what started as the “church growth movement” which is centered in bringing to its votary that which does not demand from them spiritual keenness or rigor or that which does not solicit spiritually elevated and deeply considerate concentration and focus of spiritual things, rather it lulls their epigones with music possessing heavy human appeal and spiritual scantiness.

The Gift of Sacred Music is…

The gift of sacred music is not a gift to be soiled like a play toy. Unlike secular music where its boundaries are only limited by its entertainment value (but for the Christian its boundaries are where it either violates clear biblical principle or our consciences before God) spiritual music is bound by its one objective, spiritual expression, and this requires its regulation and formation through the broad and thorough application of biblical principles.

God is elegant, God is high, God is eternal, God is spiritual, God is composed, God is clear, God is precise, God is certain, God is magnificent, God is orderly and God is divine.

God is not base, God is not discordant, God is not decomposed, God is not grotesque, God is not carnally appealing and God is not imprecise and unclear.

Sacred music is a gift and God intends for us to use it to edify ourselves, spiritually. You have all the abundant freedom in God to enjoy non-spiritual music or “secular” music. You need only be filled with God’s Spirit and guided by his Word to arrest such entertainment for your satisfaction which is quite legitimate. But brother and sister, sacred or spiritual music must not be treated with the same criteria because God’s Word does not treat it that way. We must begin with, even in the simplest of melodies and lyrics, an eschewing of human entertainment standards of music and instead, with begin with spiritual objectives in both the musical and lyrical composition. God has given us this gift; let’s use it as we know Scripture’s wisdom would have us do. Thank you Father for the gift of sacred music (God rest ye merry gentleman).

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