Does God really care what words I sing in praise to him? Where does the line between artistic license and heresy fall? Isn’t it enough that my desire is to worship him?
Let me take a moment to clarify that this is not a discussion about salvation. I am not saying that singing theologically poor lyrics disqualifies you from the kingdom of God. Jesus will judge if he knows you or not. This blog is an attempt to warn and teach for our edification, not point fingers.
“God is spirit, and those that worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” – John 4:24
We are in a time when the number of “worship songs” are numerous and shared across culture and denomination. We even sing songs written about a man or a woman but direct them towards Jesus in public worship gatherings. Is there anything wrong with this?
Worship is not synonymous with singing. Worship is something that happens in the heart and comes out directed towards something or someone. Worship is constant, but the direction may change. Communal sung worship is a focused direction that aligns our hearts together in worship of the same something or someone, much like the call to prayer does for Islam or a chant of MVP at a sporting event. I use quotation marks around “worship songs” because we are always worshiping. Our worship is not confined within a song.
What is the key factor then for communal sung worship to be something God delights in? Is it that it unifies us? You may notice that the other examples I used, very deliberately, very much create unity. The Islamic call to prayer is communicating the same theology everywhere. It both forms what they worship, and calls them to worship.
On the way to the airport in BC recently for an early morning flight, my Uber driver was tuned in to the Call to Prayer. It struck me that the experience was much like the casual way I might put on a playlist while I drive somewhere.
For many, sports are a religion. Some are more faithful to their team than anything else. The chant of MVP is the elevation of a player within the sport they worship, almost like Zeus being praised on the throne of Mount Olympus. I say this only to illustrate that zeal and unity are not enough for worship to please the heart of God. Our words matter.
“Worship songs” play a huge part in the formation of our theology. Studies show that melodies added to words make retaining and recalling information easier. It is why we sing the ABC’s with children. Even I can’t remember the colors in the rainbow without singing them. Have you noticed that most children’s battery-run toys contain insanely catchy melodies as a learning tool? I still have songs running through my head from my young nieces’ toys from my recent visit.
“Worship songs” do this for Christians. With biblical illiteracy rates increasing, worship songs more than anything else have become the grounding source of theology for the average believer. As much as we love a good teaching, a song will be remembered more frequently than the content of the sermon. We are in a similar situation to the time before the Gutenberg Bible, where the main role of singing in church was to teach theology.
False theology creates false gods. When we call on these gods, it falls on deaf ears, much like it did when the Israelites called on the golden calf while waiting for Moses to return from communing with the living God. Singing words that depict a false god is worship, but not to the living God. A false idol replaces the true God.
In some worship expressions, leaders go off script and begin singing spontaneous verses. This can be a wonderful experience, but requires a level of maturity and theological discipline. The singer is singing from a heart of desire which has the potential to conflict with scripture, potentially moving from worshiping God to what the singer wants in their God, and bringing everyone else into that desire.
God repeatedly reminds the nation of Israel of His holiness in His walk with them. “There can be no other gods,” he tells them. His rebuke and discipline is often for adding other gods alongside Him. Similarly, Jesus scolds the Pharisees for elevating their own requirements to the same importance as those the Lord gave them and ultimately disregarding some from the Lord, even missing Jesus himself.
“I am the Lord, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God;
I equip you, though you do not know me,
that people may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the Lord, who does all these things.”
– Isaiah 45:5-7
Is it hard to comprehend why God who is both gracious and compassionate would care so much about the words we sing to him? Why would it matter to God if we get a partially wrong idea about him if he is so gracious?
To gain some understanding into this, let us look at the early church’s struggle to accept that God would include the Gentiles in his redemption plan (Acts 15). Many believed God required conversion to Judaism to be received into his kingdom. We know this to be false. What if their songs praised a God who came to save the descendants of Jacob alone and held to the law of Moses? Trust me, some wanted these songs. Would they be worshiping the one true God? Where would this worship lead the church?
Did a church exist that worshiped a god who wanted death to the infidels, leading to crusades and all manners of horrors? Would this be God or a false god they worshiped? Would God truly be worshiped and glorified? Would those words matter?
Let us look now at songs we sing that don’t explicitly teach false theology, but are received as such. How must such a scenario be stewarded?
“You are never going to let me down” are lyrics widely sung. Does it create a belief that God will uphold me no matter how sinful I am? How are we stewarding those lyrics to be sung in spirit and truth? Or the line referring to Jesus, “you are a man of your word”. Does it suggest that Jesus was both of flesh and nature (man’s nature being fallible) man in his time here? These are both examples of poetic license which I believe come out of a theologically correct heart but can potentially mislead those who do not have a biblical foundation.
Then there are the songs that depict potentially false circumstances. “It may feel like I’m surrounded, but I’m surrounded by you.” What if we have sin that has caused separation from God? Will praising God while ignoring our own posture, and his words do anything? Is it an enemy you are surrounded by or just the result of a sinful life? Does this song lead us to repentance or potentially just falsely passing blame to the enemy?
Some songs are written to a false God but the words are used to worship the true God. What do we do with that? Does singing those songs encourage those under our care to go home and listen to the rest of the album, or maybe even a sermon from the church that spawned it?
This may sound like a lot of work. You may be thinking that songs may become stale if we are required to so diligently screen everything we sing. I believe this diligence is an act of love and service to both God and those under our care. Some of your worries may be well founded, but how does that compare with the task the Lord has given the leaders of his church to fend off wolves and false teaching?
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.” – 1 Corinthians 15:1-2
The zealous protection of God’s name for his glory is a reflection of his jealously wanting the best for us. Not every false teaching is sourced by a wolf seeking to devour the sheep but is often a confused or misled individual. At times, however, God will inform us of wolves that need to be removed for their hearts are like their god, the devil, who seeks to kill and destroy. Coming to the defense of who God is must be done with His same compassion and mercy. We do this because we love and because God has asked it of us.
Examining the corporate words we sing is an act of love for those under our care as it protects them from turning their eyes away from Jesus and looking to a false idol. It can impact their eternal salvation and their immediate need. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.
Stewardship is a word I use often. It describes the role every man and woman has to understand what is tasked of them by the Lord in a given season, like Adam and Eve were tasked with ruling over creation. Stewardship questions a worship leader might ask include: When worshiping through song are you, and those you are leading, elevating the one true God? Are the words sung in Spirit and in Truth?Do any of the lyrics create confusion or false theology?
I believe poetry and creativity has a place within the realm of worshiping God. God is the Creator and made us in his own image. We must discern, however, what pushes the boundaries of what is beneficial in a corporate setting, what is outright false, and what should only be used as a part of our worship in private, or in mature company.
Why not gather with some mature believers and work through the songs you sing and listen to? Assess together the conclusions formed through the lyrics. Ask: Is God being worshiped, or a false idol? Use scripture as your grid. Look at the entirety of scripture rather than conclusions formed from a single passage. Take time. Don’t rush it. Use the results to steward the flock well. Confess to others if you have contributed to forming false idols and lead them into truth. Remove the songs that are misaligned with who God is. Shelve those that are misleading a few due to ambiguity, even if you love them the most.
Do what is needed to worship God in your community in Spirit and in Truth. If you are not a church elder, do this for yourself. If you have a family, do it for them. Suggest it to your elders as something for them to use as a discipleship tool with the church musicians. Be good stewards.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)