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Can We Use Any Form of Music to Worship God?

By Jeff Pollard

...Can we use any form of music in the formal worship of God? I do not believe that rock and roll, most forms of pop, metal, blues, jazz, or hip-hop—and subgenres—are appropriate styles for worship music. Building on what we [have] learned, let us think through the following questions: IS MUSIC A LANGUAGE?

Music is often called a language. This, like everything else about music, has been hotly debated. Musicologist Robert Greenburg says that music is “the ultimate language. A language in which our hardwired predisposition to use successions of sounds to communicate is exaggerated, intensified, and codified into a sonic experience capable of infinitely more expressive nuance than mere words alone—a sonic experience that can plumb the sublime and in doing so reveal profound truths.”1 While I have very deep respect for Dr. Greenberg, I strongly disagree that music alone can reveal “profound truth.” Truth can only be conveyed by propositions, not feelings. Nevertheless, the point is to say that philosophers, musicologists, and many others believe that music apart from lyrics is a language.

Music and language are similar in some ways.

Both language and music are means of human communication. The same part of the brain processes them and for good reason: they are similar means of communication—not identical, but similar. (1) Both show rhythm, tempo, and anticipation. (2) Both can be written and read. (3) Both can be generated internally. (4) Both are symbolic ways of communicating. We will talk about music’s symbolism a little later.

Paul saw a similarity between music and language.

As we saw in our last session, the Apostle Paul compares language and music in 1 Corinthians 14:6-8. His main theme is this: those who speak in tongues without an interpretation cannot edify God’s people. No one benefits from something that he cannot understand. Paul said, “Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine?” His point is this: if he came to the Corinthians, babbling in a language they did not understand, it would do them no good. On the other hand, if he came bringing a revelation, prophesy, or teaching in clear language, it would do them spiritual good. Paul then made a comparison between language and music: “And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped?” God’s people are edified only when they understand what it is being said.

To illustrate his point, he alludes to music. This tells us something about the way he understood music. We defined music as “sound ordered in time,” and Paul’s thinking here is in harmony with that definition. By “distinction in the sounds,” Paul means an identifiable pattern of tones, which points to melody, rhythm, time, and timbre. An instrumental voice without intervals, without melody, is unrecognizable noise, not music. It is clear that Paul believed that for someone to profit from hearing music, it would have to be “sound ordered in time.” He might not have used that precise terminology, but each point of the definition is here. When a human mind directs tones, orders melody, and defines time, another human mind can process this and receive meaning—good or bad. Paul went on to say, “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” In this analogy, Paul illustrates his point with a trumpet or bugle sounding a military signal. The word uncertain means “indistinct, unrecognizable.” Certain identifiable blasts of the trumpet mean “prepare for battle,” “attack,” or “retreat.” This is an understandable, ordered code that speaks—the mind understands the signal and the soldier prepares for battle. A random, garbled noise rather than clear notes will not alert the soldiers to prepare for battle. The point of all this is that Scripture affirms a similarity between music and language. Human voices or musical instruments in the hands of a human being can and do produce sounds ordered in time that communicate meaning.

Music is not propositional language. While we refer to music as a language, we do not mean that it communicates in the way words do. Verbal communication involves propositions, truth statements that can be evaluated. A musical piece without lyrics cannot give us the content of the Lord’s Prayer, although it might capture and convey something of majesty, serenity, beauty, and humility of that occasion. Likewise, music cannot communicate something like, “I would like to buy a new iPad with retina display.” Furthermore, we know that language is not merely a collection of syllables, randomly joined together; even so, music is not merely a collection of sounds randomly joined together. Music is the expression of a human heart as it organizes tones, rhythm, and the rest. Music expresses emotion and hearers respond to it. Monroe Stearns said, “If the existence of music in the world needs any justification, then that justification is the fact that music expresses what words cannot communicate: the essences of the universal emotions of mankind.”


Music is a language of symbols that represents feelings and moods by reproducing them in sound. What do we mean by symbols? A symbol is something that represents something else. The eagle is the symbol of the United States. A sheriff’s badge is a symbol of authority. When we speak of music as symbol, we mean music represents feelings and moods. When we listen to music, our brain makes connections between the sounds and the emotions that those sounds represent. How does music represent an emotion like sadness? We have all been sad, and we have watched others when they are sad. They usually move slowly and speak softly. Music can represent sadness with slow rhythm and soft tones. It is the same thing with anger. Angry people can be loud, intense, hasty, and explosive. Music can represent anger with loud, abrasive, harsh tones, abrupt or sudden rhythm. Music can represent happiness with a fast and lively pace with increased volume. Most people can recognize these qualities of sadness, anger, or happiness in music. So when we say music is symbolic, we mean that it represents emotions and moods by reproducing them with sounds. In fact, it might be more helpful to say that music mimics emotion. We know that music can—not always—but can powerfully move our emotions, change our moods, and trigger powerful feelings. If this is the case, and it is,


I believe that this is the wrong question. One of the most common arguments we hear today when discussing rock, metal, or hip-hop music in worship is this: “Music styles are neutral—they are amoral. The only thing that carries morality is lyrics.” With this view in mind, Christians then use every style of music in worship. The normal reply from those who disagree with this is usually an attempt to prove the morality of music. Perhaps it is better for us not to think of music in terms of being neutral or moral. As we said yesterday, because we are created in the image of God, human beings are moral; but things are not moral. Notes are not moral. A drumbeat is not moral. But the human heart is the source of emotional expression, which is moral. And that heart expresses emotions with notes, melodies, and drumbeats that become the extension of it. So “Is music neutral” does not seem to be the right question. We must ask, “Can music communicate in a way that stirs up sinful passions in its hearers?” The answer is yes. We are moral beings that communicate emotions and moods by the symbols of music. That is a moral experience. In light of this,


When we say “form and content” we mean the style of the music we use to convey the lyrical content of the song. Lyrics communicate what we are saying, and the style communicates how we are saying it. How we say something contributes to our communication and can produce powerful reactions and passions in the hearer. Advocates of rock, pop, and hip-hop worship music say that style does not matter; all that matters is the lyrics. So let us consider this example: on May 19, 1962, at Madison Square Garden, Marilyn Monroe put to rest the idea that form and content do not matter. The occasion was the forty-fifth birthday celebration of then president John F. Kennedy. Monroe was the reigning sex symbol in our country. She wore a sheer dress, made of flesh colored fabric that was so tight fitting, she was sewn into it. She then sang the traditional Happy Birthday to You to the President of the United States. She panted and she aspirated with a sensuous voice. She was able to take an innocent child’s song and turn it into one of the most astonishing displays of seductive flirtation in modern video history. Style matters. In his book, Running with the Devil, rock historian Robert Walser says, “Before any lyrics can be comprehended, before harmonic or rhythmic patterns are established, timbre instantly signals genre and affect…But I would argue that musical codes are the primary bearers of meaning; lyrics, like costume and performers’ physical motions, help direct and inflect the interpretation of the meanings that are most powerfully delivered, those suggested by the music.” In 1995, Pixar Animation released Toy Story. Probably everyone here has seen it. Can anyone remember the music that played in the background every time the evil next-door neighbor Sid entered a scene? Heavy metal. It perfectly represented evil—and without a single lyric. Because music is a language of emotions, because it represents and conveys feelings and moods, it can communicate and stir up wicked passions. Biblical music must learn to match the lyrical content with its expression of emotion.


The Christian Rocker’s Creed says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all music was created equal—that no instrument or style of music is in itself evil—that the diversity of musical expression which flows forth from man is but one evidence of the boundless creativity of our Heavenly Father.” Whether one realizes it or not, this implies a theological and a philosophical statement that contradicts the Bible. To say that God created every style of music is mistaken and confusion. The statement “all music was created equal” and is “but one evidence of the boundless creativity of our Heavenly Father” is problematic. It makes God the Creator of all music styles. A long time ago, Petra sang, “God gave rock and roll to you/ Put it in the soul of every one/ If you love the sound/ Then don’t forget the source.” But this is a mistaken assumption that confuses man’s ability to create music with the music itself. God has created all people in His image and has given some the ability to create music; but it does not follow that He is pleased with every human expression of music. Music is the product of human imagination and the expression of the human heart. Our sinful nature, our radical depravity, touches everything that we are and corrupts everything that we do. We can illustrate the problem this way: man has the ability to create words, but this does not mean that every word he creates is good. He can create and use words that are foul, filthy, crude, obscene, and vulgar. We cannot say, “God gave rock and roll to you,” any more than we can say, “God gave filthy four letter words to you.” God has given the ability; we must use it righteously. 


As with our Scriptural survey of music, we can only do the very briefest survey of the history of rock and roll. The term Rocking and Rolling originally described a ship, rocking (fore and aft) and rolling (side to side) on the ocean. By the time it was applied to the music that bears its name, it was a euphemism for fornication. Two popular myths obscure the history of rock music. The first myth is that rock began when Elvis Presley suddenly appeared on the scene, obscenely shaking his hips and making the girls swoon. The other myth is that blacks created rock and roll, and whites stole it from them and commercialized it. Both myths have enough truth in them to satisfy those who do not look past the surface. However, rock and roll music was born after more than a century of musical cross-pollination between blacks and whites. Furthermore, Jews played an early, important role in producing, song writing, talent cultivating, and record making for rock and roll. With a rich musical heritage, rock music was a cultural evolution rooted in slavery. Music was an important part of the slaves’ lives, and it helped them express their emotions in terms of their own culture, while experiencing the awful realities of slavery. They began to assimilate other forms of music around them. It was a syncretistic blend of European and African musical and cultural forms. Former Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart deeply studied the roots of rock’s heritage. Following a trip to Africa, he said, “It was my first exposure to the mother rhythms from West Africa that later mutated into my tradition becoming rock ’n’ roll.” Jazz, blues, gospel, Western swing, rhythm and blues, and jump blues, all sprang up after WWII. These musical styles began in the give and take of many cultural backgrounds, and musical blending was taking place all over the country at that time. Country musicians introduced blues tunes into their repertoires, Delta blues musicians began using electric guitars to adapt to the nightclubs in the city, jazz orchestras were adding blues vocals. Furthermore, the original blues singers rejected Christianity, seeing it as part of hostile white culture. There has been much debate over the story that Delta bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. Whether he did or not, his songs like “Me and the Devil” give credence to the story. Out of this fertile soil, the roots of rock and roll began to sprout. Some believe that the first rock and roll record was recorded on December 28, 1947 by Winonie Harris. The song was “Good Rockin’ Tonight”—which was a euphemism for partying and fornication. Rock historian James Miller said, “When Harris sang his pathbreaking song, he was simply doing what he had done for years… [making] music that would lift listeners up, put people into motion, and let them dance the night away.” Miller continues, “At the time he recorded ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight,’ he was already a minor legend. Renowned for his fast living and hard drinking, he’d been…building up a reputation as one of the wildest black showmen of his day.” The song fit Harris well. Roy Brown, who wrote the song, said, “But now, ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight,’ you know what that means. I had my mind on this girl…Listen, man, I wrote them kind of songs. I was a dirty cat.”3 Three cities were ahead of the game when it came to this new music: New Orleans, Chicago, and Memphis. Some would claim that “Rocket 88” by Ike Turner was the first rock and roll song, not ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight.” “88” was produced by Sam Phillips in Memphis, TN, in 1951. In 1952, Bill Haley and the Comets had a huge hit with “Rock around the Clock.” Back in Memphis, Sam Phillips had been telling his friends that if he could find a white man who could sing like a black man, he would make them both rich. He found that man in Elvis Presley in 1954. Presley’s first single for Sun Records was the culmination of two hundred years of musical crosspollination in the South. It changed history and the music business forever. Phillips went on to give Howling Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, B B King, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Ike Turner their first opportunities at recording. Early rock and roll blended elements of R&B, jazz, blues, boogie woogie, honky-tonk, Appalachian folk music, and religious music. Later in the 60s, the Beatles became the most phenomenal success in music history, followed by the Rolling Stones, and what was called the British Invasion. From that time to this, a steady stream of artists and bands have multiplied and expanded into numerous genres and sub-genres of rock and pop music. Pop-rock, soft rock, hard rock, punk rock, folk rock, country rock, heavy metal, death metal, thrash metal, alternative, indie—the categories are endless. But one thing has not changed: rock music’s sensuous, party life, hedonistic character. All of these genres of music were written by men with sinful hearts, to express their sinful desires and sinful lives. They chose a style of music that expressed their rebellion, their hatred of authority, their sensuality. From its beginning to the present, from three-chord rock to its most elaborate styles, “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” is what this music is about.

The apostle John wrote, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (1Jo 2:15-17).


Music is a language of the emotions and an expression of the human heart. It is therefore subject to the pollution of original and actual sin. Composing or hearing music is not an amoral or neutral experience. Let us then realize that some styles of music—rock, blues, metal, punk, etc—are not fitting for the worship of the most high God. We will conclude our thoughts in the next message. Let us look to the Lord Jesus Christ by faith and live. Amen.

Can We Use Any Form of Music to Worship God?: Text
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