Music in the Bible

Music in the Bible and Music on the Radio:

A Biblical Theology of Music Applied to the Contemporary Music Styles Debate

[an earlier version of this paper was delivered at the 50th annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Orlando, November 1998]

(Revised January 2000)
 Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.

All Saints' Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, PA, Pastor




As an analysis of music style, this paper offers a succinct theological synthesis of the Biblical information on music. The writer summarizes a mini-theology of music and addresses a current issue relevant to evangelical worship, ministry programs, missiology, and cultural impact: contemporary music styles. The paper argues that an exegetical and Biblical theology of music and a familiarity with the issues surrounding ethnomusicology are the foundation for any specific musical-genre critique. Moreover, some reflection on the larger issue of the relationship between Christ and culture are a necessary counterpart to this discussion. To accomplish this, the paper is divided into three sections: (1) a Biblical survey of music, (2) a dialogue with current critiques of contemporary music styles, and (3) directions and recommendations for Christian musicians.

"Why should the devil have all the good music?" - Martin Luther


A Brief Biblical Theology of Music

The Scriptures (1) recognizes music as a means for praise (Acts 16:25; Rom 15:9 [originally sung]), a means of expressing joy (Jam 5:13), thanksgiving (Psa 92:1-3), sorrow for sin (Is. 16:10), a means of prayer (1Co 14:15; Psa 72:20), and a means of teaching and spiritual communication (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19). Biblical music makers are professional (1Ch 15:22; 25:7; Is. 5:11-12; Ez. 33:32), as well as nonprofessional (Psa 100; 1Ki 1:39-40; 1Co 14:26; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). There are those who direct music (Psa 4:1, 5:1, 6:1, etc.; Neh. 12:8) and teach music (1Ch 15:22). The people of the Bible overflow with music in every circumstance, including cultural uses placed in positive (1Sa 18:7) and negative terms (Eze 33:32). Music sounded in every aspect of life--work, play, celebration, and even war (Is. 16:10; Jer 48:33; Mat 11:17; Luk 15:25; Gen 31:27; Exo 32:17-18; Ecc 2:8; Jdg 11:34-35; 2Sa 19:35). Jewish musicologist Abraham Idelsohn says, "As many references in the Bible to the music performed in secular life testify, Israel enjoyed life through music both vocal and instrumental, and associated music with dance and wine in which men and women participated" (p. 21).

A study of the Psalms alone yield an impressive role for music in the life of Biblical people. The extolling of Yahweh through music is spoken of as congregational (149:1), individual (42:8) and for every situation (74:21). Music is used to praise God joyfully, loudly (47:1), melodically (98:5), and with a variety of instruments (150:3-5), from chordophones (lyres, harps, kinnors), to membranophones (timbrels), to aerophones (flutes, shofars, pipes), to metalophones (cymbals). (2) Such praise is associated with bodily movement and common expressions of joy and gladness, such as dancing (30:11, 149:3, 150:4). The psalmists command praise with skill (47:7, 33:3), to "make His praise glorious" (66:2). They frequently call the nations to make the sounds of praise (67:4, 22:27, 117:1, 108:3). A fitting close to the Psalter is the call for all that has breath to hymn the worth of their Maker (150:6).

The use of music in the worship of the New Testament church has indisputable Biblical support (Mat 26:30; 1Co 14:19, 14:26; Eph 5:18-20; Col 3:16; Heb 2:12). The primary church music texts in the New Testament (Col 3:16 & Eph 5:19) are commands, not primarily to sing or make music, but to "teach" and "speak" with "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs."

Music and Language

In the Biblical-times music, (3) there is no strong dichotomy between speaking and singing. In Scripture language is generally connected to the life of the person. For example, Isaiah confesses sinfulness by saying "I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips" (6:5). Jesus says, "You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart" (Mat 12:34). "Not what enters into the mouth defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man. . . But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man" (Mat 15:11-18). The concept of the mouth expressing the heart and the words of a person being taken as the essence or heart of a person is ubiquitous in Scripture. Likewise, it is the Word of God which is the instrument of regeneration (1Pe 1:23), the building block of faith (Rom 10:17), and the standard of sanctification (2Ti 3:16). Jesus teaches, "It is written, 'Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God'" (Mat 4:4; also Psa 19, 119). 

On the basis of what Scripture teaches about the words of man and the words of God, it is not surprising that there are no strict separations between praise and prayer which is spoken, sung, and shouted. All verbal activity manifests the heart and the Word of God changes the heart. The fruit of the lips is the result. (4) Therefore, the "redeemed of the Lord" "say so" in a continuum of verbal expression from simply speaking, to speaking loudly, to singing, to shouting. In fact in some cases it is difficult to tell exactly what act the words are referring to (merely speaking, or singing, chanting, speaking loudly, etc.). Consider the Biblical parallels:

Psalm 33:3 Sing to Him a new song; Play skillfully with a shout of joy. 

Psalm 65:13 The meadows are clothed with flocks, And the valleys are covered with grain; They shout for joy, yes, they sing

Psalm 95:2 Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving; Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms. 

Psalm 71:23 My lips will shout for joy when I sing praises to Thee; And my soul, which Thou hast redeemed. 

Psalm 75:9 But as for me, I will declare it forever; I will sing praises to the God of Jacob.

Psalm 81:1 (For the choir director; on the Gittith) Sing for joy to God our strength; Shout joyfully to the God of Jacob. 

Psalm 95:1 O come, let us sing for joy to the Lord ; Let us shout joyfully to the rock of our salvation. 

Psalm 96:2 Sing to the Lord, bless His name; Proclaim good tidings of His salvation from day to day. 

Psalm 98:4 Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth; Break forth and sing for joy and sing praises. 

Psalm 105:2 Sing to Him, sing praises to Him; Speak of all His wonders. 

The rigid distinction between singing and other verbal activity in our Western contemporary use of language was not so distinct to the people of the Bible. 



Having briefly considered the representative Biblical data regarding music. Now we shall consider the current debate. Is music style neutral? Are musical compositions and styles inherently good or bad? This issue is addressed in terms of the "neutrality of music." Popular preacher John Blanchard (1983) says, "When music is composed, it is not composed into a neutral nothing, but into a positive something--a form that is definite and meaningful, with colour and character." (p. 81). Blanchard goes on to cite an impressive number of thinkers to support the contention that "music has moved man in a hundred different ways" (p. 83). Leonard Seidel says, "The evidence is clear from history, music theory and Biblical examples-music is not neutral. Cynthia Maus has said it so eloquently: 'Music soothes us, stirs us up; it puts noble feelings into us; it melts us to tears, we know not how. It is a language by itself just as perfect in its way of speech, as words; just as divine, just as blessed.'" (p. 27)

It will be important here to define the question more sharply. The status questionis (state of the question) is not whether music, given certain conditions, "moves us" or "soothes us," - rather, the question is whether a particular music style or genre (such as rock, country, rhythm-and-blues) is intrinsically good, bad, or neutral. (5) There is no question that music creates powerful connotations, a reality continually exploited in advertising. The issue I am seeking to address is not one of connotations or associations, but of the ontology of music.

Two primary types of arguments emerge against contemporary music styles (hereafter, CM): aesthetic arguments and ethical-metaphysical arguments. Aesthetic arguments focus on the quality of the music and dismiss it as bad art, though not necessarily inherently evil. Though I will touch on this, my main concern is the ethical-metaphysical arguments. Ethical-metaphysical arguments focus on the inherent qualities of particular music genres. I am limiting my analysis to the style-genre, not the typical lyric content. The critical arguments cited have been addressed toward all forms of CM (including country and jazz genres), but especially popular rock styles.

The Natural Law Argument

Bill Gothard (1986), a well-known critic of CM says, "There is no such thing as amoral music." He diagrams an analogy between other disciplines and music. "The following disciplines illustrate how the purity of an item can be corrupted by adding even a small amount of another element" (p. 124).


H2O + CN Truth + Lie Solution +1
= Poison = Untruth = Incorrect

[What follows on the next page is the analogy to art and music.]

Figure + Nudity Rhythm + Imbalance
= Pornography = Acid Rock

However impressive this line up is on first glance, this presentation actually begs the question; it assumes what must be proven. Namely, it has not yet been shown that "acid rock" music style (whatever it is) is, in fact, evil. The illustrated argument rests on an analogy between different disciplines. "Accurate evaluation of music is only possible as we integrate it with the related disciplines of mathematics, science, history, and medicine. The laws of these disciplines act as an authoritative reference to confirm that the musical expression is either following or violating established principles....Just as there is a balance of power in the three branches of United States government, so the laws of related disciplines provide checks and balances for music" (p. 123). The perceptive reader will note that until one can prove that a music style is analogous to poison, falsehood, mathematical inaccuracy, or pornography, the indicting conclusion is fallacious. The fallacy is called the fallacy of false analogy.

There are a number of reasons why such analogies should not be persuasive. (1) Contrary to what is asserted, unless the analogies are Biblically supported they cannot be "authoritative" (sola Scriptura). (2) The analogies themselves do not really have the impact intended upon further analysis. Poison in large quantities may be medicine in small quantities; the truth or falsity of a statement must rest on the intention of the author; mathematical inaccuracies are quantitative not qualitative (as music is); figure plus mere nudity does not equal pornography, cf. medical text books and some art (e.g., David, Michelangelo). (3) "Imbalance" in the last of the series (rhythm + imbalance = acid rock) must be defined. If "imbalance" essentially means CM, the argument has not advanced beyond circularity. If imbalance can be defined so as to prove a particular music style is morally evil, then it must rest on Biblical implication.

The Bad Emotions Argument 

Garlock and Woetzel in Music in the Balance really do a much better job of arguing their case. I am especially glad that they spell-out their arguments. The issue is addressed on page three. It is given in an informal syllogism. "Since music is an emotional language, and since some emotions are wrong for the child of God, then some music is wrong for the Christian" (from Tame, 1984, p. 151). However, the syllogism, as a syllogism, is invalid. It contains four terms (rather than three, a requirement for logical validity): (1) "music" (2) "emotional language" (3) "wrong" and (4) "emotions." Therefore, the syllogism either has four terms (making it invalid) or the terms "emotional language" and the "emotions" must be taken as meaning precisely the same. Second, the inductive fallacy of hasty generalization (since the premise must be inductively proven) is evident. Unless all emotions are expressed in music, the conclusion that "some music is wrong," would not follow. It is logically possible that only the moral emotions are expressed in music. 

A better formulation of this argument in a valid syllogism, keeping the same intention as the authors, would look like this:

(1) All emotions are (in) music.
(2) Some emotions is sinful.
(3) Therefore, some music is sinful.

The substantial difficulties can be seen more clearly now. How is one to prove the first premise, all emotion is in music? An even more difficult problem arises in the second premise, a problem to which the original writer of the argument (Tame) alludes: "Hate, when directed at sin, is good and acceptable....Anger is unacceptable except when the one who is angry is not sinning. An emotion like lust is never right" (p. 3). Defining the ethical content of an emotion is difficult. How much more difficult when the emotion is represented in musical expression! The fact is, the Bible represents the same emotion, described with the same word, as in some situations good and in others evil. (See the Appendix: Emotions in the Bible

Apparently, the same basic emotions can be sinful or acceptable, given the purpose and motivation. Thus, the syllogism is incomplete until the music critic can identify the specific content of the emotion in the music. One is hard pressed to identify the specific content of a CM style (especially apart from the lyric content of a song) with a specific sinful emotion. Certainly the emotional argument has not proven that any CM style is inherently evil.

The Beat

The thrust of many CM critiques is to demonstrate the sinfulness of "the beat." Lawhead (1981) wittily titles this discussion, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

Some suggest that when the beat becomes the main focus of the music, overwhelming all other components, that is when the trouble begins. The pulsating beat assaults the mind and puts it to sleep, so to speak, opening it to evil invasion while the listener is off guard. That is the assertion. But how is such a statement to be proven? Or disproven? The argument at that point moves from the realm of the concrete to the metaphysical. And metaphysical arguments cannot be settled in the laboratory. (p. 69)

Bill Gothard has even used the exact term, "metaphysical," to refer the power of music. He says listening to Christian rock is "fellowship with demons." (6) Explaining the biological phenomenon, Gothard information on the subject asserts rock music causes "a mix-up in the alpha waves between the two hemispheres of the brain, resulting in what some researchers call 'switching.' 'Switching' is a phenomenon which occurs in adult schizophrenics to produce regression to infantile, reptilian locomotion (where crawling is done with the same, rather than the opposite, arms and legs)" (Cannon & Cannon, p. 12). This booklet comes complete with a picture of a crawling baby adjacent to an alligator.

Much of the behavioral research to which the above Gothard-endorsed authors refer is based on the behavioral kinesology of Psychiatrist John Diamond. Diamond says that the anapestic beat ("da da DA") found in some rock music causes muscle weakening, even up to a reduction of two-thirds (Cannon & Cannon; Miller, 1993, p. 12ff). An example of this beat is that fine specimen of popular music, "Southern Nights" by Glenn Campbell. Miller (1993) is right in questioning these conclusions. As for a refutation, suffice it to say that at every Golds Gym, Diamond et al is constantly being refuted. An instant autonomic reduction of strength is de facto not occurring as iron-pumping people are bench-pressing to anapestic back beats.

Garlock and Woetzel (1992) focus on the inherent immoral qualities of rhythm-dominant music (pp. 79-80). "The emphasis of most of contemporary sacred and secular music is on the rhythm. Rhythm is that part of music which elicits a physical response. Therefore, most of today's music, secular and sacred, feeds and satisfies the self-seeking, self-centered, and self-worshiping part of man" (cf. p. 67). Here is another example of demonstrably fallacious reasoning. Either the argument is invalid because of equivocating on terms "physical response" and "self-seeking, self-centered, and self-worshiping part of man" - or, the authors are guilty of serious theological error in equating the physical part of man with the sinful part of man.

Even if we overlook the fact that many of the Church's greatest theologians have taught that man is dichotomous (comprised of a body and soul, the soul including all the non-material part of man), the conclusion does not follow from the premises, unless the physical part of man is the sinful part of man. But, the physical part of man cannot be equated with the sinful nature since, the sinless Son of God was made flesh (1Jo 4:2). Further, the first man and woman were initially sinless, though incarnate. And we shall ever be sinfully incarnate after the Resurrection. Passages which use "flesh" (sarx) to refer to sinfulness (Rom 6-7, Gal 3, etc.) are not referring to merely the physical body, but the inherent sinfulness of fallen human nature which permeates every facet of man, body, soul, spirit, mind, heart, bowels, and spleen. Of the 147 times "flesh" (sarx) is used in the New Testament, only a small minority of passages have the sense of "sinful nature" (NIV). "Flesh" (sarx) is used in a number of ways both positively (Rom 1:3, 2Co 4:11), and negatively (Gal 5:17). Fatal to the argument above, is the clear teaching that the regenerate spirit of man is also sinful. "Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2Co 7:1). Finally, it is simply metaphysically false to imply that evil is to be equated with embodiment, since the devils are not physical but are evil. To connect sinfulness with physicalness is the Gnostic heresy and is a flat contradiction to the redemptive enterprise of the incarnate Jesus.

Let us suppose that Garlock and Woetzel really mean that rhythm appeals to the "sinful nature" ("flesh"). By this they would avoid a theological error of no small proportion; however, if rhythm appeals to the sinful part of man, it follows necessarily that good music should have no rhythm at all! But of course, this is not possible, since all music involves sound in time.

Note well: what the Bible almost explicitly teaches about rhythm in music is irreconcilable to the above critics of CM. Scripture does not condemn the appeal to bodily movement and rhythm in music. This is indicated by the correlation of dancing with the use of music and especially percussion instruments such as timbrels and cymbals.

  • Let them praise His name with dancing; Let them sing praises to Him with timbrel and lyre. (Psa 149:3)
  • Praise Him with timbrel and dancing; Praise Him with stringed instruments and pipe. (Psa 150:4)
  • And Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took the timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dancing.
  • And Miriam answered them, "Sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted; The horse and his rider He has hurled into the sea." (Exo 15:20-21)

It is predictable the above authors of a CM critiques do not bother with extracting Biblical principles from such passages (or even mention them for that matter).

The Origin of the Beat

If the reader tends to agree with the premise that rhythm dominant music is inherently sinful, the implications are grave - since, the music of many cultures (Latin America, Caribbean, African) is "rhythm-dominant." Perhaps someone will even be willing to argue that the "beat" is evil because it was derived from pagan tribalism and brought to America via slavery. This is what some call the African Connection. One proponent of this view says,

It is irrefutable that rock and roll music owes some of its roots to the tribes of Africa....To declare that these are the only roots of rock music is to mislead and to be less than honest. A careful study of rock music reveals it to be more complex than that; however, to deny that an African connection to the rock rhythms of our day does not exist, is to be equally misleading and dishonest. To declare that a certain rhythm or beat is 'evil' cannot be proved entirely. What is far more important is the historical revelation that demonic activity has been observed in connection with rituals where drums and rhythmic beats have been the catalyst. (Leonard J. Seidel, Face the Music: Contemporary Church Music on Trial, 1988, p. 41)

I appreciate the understated, but fatal admission, "To declare that a certain rhythm or beat is 'evil' cannot be proved entirely." In response: (1) The historical evidence that the "beat" came via demonic Africa is quite dubious. Steve Lawhead has argued the point strongly. Most were from areas where the drum (and therefore, "the beat") was not a significant instrument. After all, "Drums were almost never heard in black American music until well into the twentieth century." The rock beat actually developed more from country-western music, "The Saddlemen." "As for the charge that rock's rhythm is demon inspired, most people overlook the fact that in other places where New World slaves landed (Jamaica, Haiti, the islands of the West Indies) nothing close to rock ever evolved" (1981, pp. 57-58).

(2) Unless someone can first show that the "beat" is evil, a proponent of the African Connection is simply committing the genetic fallacy. A bad origin for something does not necessarily make it bad. The devil can make a cogent argument. In music, arguing from origins is problematic since "Jubal..was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe" (Gen 4:21). And Jubal was in the ungodly line of Cain. In fact, the reveller, Lamech was Jubal's father.

(3) If music origins are translated into ethical norms, even the music of the Bible cannot clear itself from charges. Old Testament scholar Ronald B. Allen has rightly noted the Biblical use "the devil's instruments." He explains, such instruments have "a long history of (mis)use in pagan circles before it became so dearly associated with the making of music to the Lord in ancient Israel." (7) Psalm 93 was "written with a conscious attempt both to glorify God and to debunk Baal. The manner of singing would be very similar to the manner of singing in the worship of Baal. But the point of the song was opposed to all that Baal was supposed to represent."(8)

Aesthetic Standards and Music

When a CM critic develops criteria for "good music," what is its basis? In what sense can it be Biblical? The description of good music in Garlock and Woetzel, Cannon and Cannon, and the Gothard ministry generally clearly reads Common Practice Period (1600-1900) Western art music (hereafter, WCPP) back into the Bible. It is, thus, anachronistic. This can be illustrated from the often used threefold division of music (e.g. Garlock and Woetzel, p. 55): "Music is also considered to have three primary parts: melody, harmony, and rhythm." Perhaps a starting place for evaluation is to see whether Biblical-times music could even be identified with the features of WCPP music. Certainly the descriptions of Biblical-times musical style, given by learned experts, cannot be understood as depicting "godly music," according to the standard of the authors (see the Appendix: Ancient Near Eastern Music). Consider what Vida Chenoweth and Darlene Bee explain,

Christianity has certainly influenced the course of Western musical development; some of our greatest music has been inspired by a strong Christian faith. Nevertheless, we cannot say that our Western musical tradition is the same as the Christian musical tradition. It is not the musical idiom of the New Testament; the founders of our faith would have been ill-at-ease in it. There was no musical notation at the time of Christ so we will never know what melodies were sung by Jesus and His disciples. What we do know about their musical style is that it was Near Eastern. Our modern hymns are also different from Hebrew and Greek music, even though the gospel reached us through the cultural matrix of these societies. Our Western hymns are a heritage which we rightly cherish, but they belong to our faith through our culture. (1968, see pp. 211-212) (9)

The music which emerged in the WCPP, though grand and beautiful to us, is anachronistic to Biblical-times music.

Garlock and Woetzel, et al (above) go further though. Their aesthetic turns out to be a metaphysic. They describe godly music as a hierarchy of melody, harmony, rhythm with a steady pulse (pp. 64-66). They relate their anachronistic standard, metaphysically, to a trichotomist anthropology (man is body, soul, spirit). "The part of music to which the spirit responds is the melody" (p. 57). "The part of music to which your mind responds is the harmony" (p. 58). "The part of music to which your body responds is the rhythm" (p. 59). The fact that the Bible does not teach this musical metaphysic (exegesis will not yield anything like these claims) in no way impedes the critics from developing an entire musical ethic. What follows from this? No rock, no jazz, no beat, no back beat, and I guess dancing is out too.

Even apart from the fact that Biblical-times music does not correspond to their description of Biblical music, there are more difficulties. For example, if it is true that the spirit of man (assuming the trichotomist's view of man) - responds to the melody, what are we to say for the music of percussion instruments? (10) Is it metaphysically possible to praise Him with timbrels, loud cymbals, and resounding cymbals (Psa 150) since those percussion instruments make no melody (and God is a spirit)? Percussionists are apparently doomed to the basement of the physical, sub-spiritual? I am only hinting at the ridiculous nature of these criticisms of CM. It has been said, "A little clarity goes a long way." And a little knowledge of Biblical-times music would prevent an ethnocentric standard from being disguised as a Biblical standard.


The larger issue in the entire discussion of CM is Christ and culture. How are we to see the basic relationship between the people of God and cultures in the world? To put it in Biblical terms, what are the full implications of being "in the world but not of the world" (Joh 17) and doing all things to the glory of God (1Co 10:31). Moreover, where do the Biblical principles of accommodation function - "And to the Jews I became as a Jew . . . I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some." (1Co 9:20-22)? 

For my own commitments here, I believe that Christ will largely transform culture. The Biblical support for this Calvinistic view may even be drawn in several distinct categories: 
1. Missiologically, we have both the imperative and prophetic forms of world discipleship which implies that Christ will transform culture to some extent (Mat 28:19-20 (11) & Psa 22:27).

2. Eschatologically, Christ's second advent is sequenced by reigning at the right hand of God "until He has put all His enemies under His feet," the last of which is death which is demonstrably overcome at the resurrection (1Co 15:25, 54-55). Hence those of His enemies which have cultural manifestations shall be affected in the present progressive reign of Christ.

3. Culturally, the music of the redeemed shall flow from all ethne, loosely stated, from all cultures. For example, Isaiah speaks the word of the Lord saying, "Sing to the Lord a new song, sing His praise from the end of the earth! (Isa 40:10). "Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth" (Psa 96:1). Notice that "new songs" are being commanded from other nations. The New Testament indicates that worship from other nations is a climactic hope in the drama of redemption. God desires for "the Gentiles to glorify God for His mercy; as it is written, 'Therefore I will give praise to thee among the gentiles, and I will sing to Thy name' and again he says... 'praise the Lord all you gentiles, and let all the peoples praise Him'" (Rom 15:9-11). "And they sang a new song . . .Thou wast slain, and didst purchase for God with Thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation'" (Rev 5:9-10). Therefore, we are as much as told that the nations will use their music to glorify God.

4. Developmentally, Scripture itself recognizes change in cultural mediums of communication and allows for cultural differences and changes within time. Proof of this might be developed from observing the linguistic references throughout Scripture. "And they read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading" (Neh 7:8, see also Mat 1:23, Mar 15:34). Cultural diversity and change is factually depicted and assumed throughout the Old Testament and New Testament. Moreover, the revelation of the Messiah is brought through the medium of the Greco-Roman language and culture with Judaistic roots rather than the language Abraham, Moses, or David eras - remembering their were vast differences lingustically/culturally between even these patriarchs. When this is coupled with the "sing a new song" prescriptions, linked to ethnic groups (Psa 96:1-2; Isa 42:10-11) and that redemption is intended for "every tribe and language and people and nation," the ethnomusical implications are strong. The cultures of the world will and do in fact use their languages and musical expressions for praise! Hallelujah! - this is a universal word of praise.

Culture and the Heart-Language

If music changes interactively with culture, whatever the musical heart-language of people is, is the best for expression of heart-truth. As Chenowith and Bee say, "When a people develops its own hymns with both vernacular words and music, it is good evidence that Christianity has truly taken root" (p. 212). Like it or not, a country bumpkin, harmonically impoverished with the sounds of Nashville, will not sing "I love you" to his fiance in the style of John Dowland's renaissance Lute songs (a sixteenth century court musician of Queen Elizabeth).

Adequate reflection on the issues here will prevent us from adding to Scripture our pseudo-absolutes. We will not be as quick to condemn the musical mediums of other cultures and subcultures by imposing an ethnocentric standard. Our North American culture certainly is not an authoritative standard by which we can judge other cultures. We have no more right to impose a North American or Western European style of music on other cultures than we do to make them have their services in Latin. (And we'd be probably be better off to impose Latin rather than our current cultural norms.)

As Protestants we all believe "the holy scriptures are to be translated out of the original into vulgar languages" (Larger Catechism 156) and prayer is to be "if vocal, in a known tongue" (Westminster Confession 21:3). But people also need the "vulgate," of music in their common tongue, do they not? Some level of intelligibility is required (1Co 14:7-9, observe Paul's very illustration). The irrelevance and ineffectiveness of the church is often fostered by an unreflective stance against the new. On all sides our shared concern should be for the communication of meaning and truth. Our music styles must comport with this. Calvin Johansson, though no friend of CM, has acknowledged the need for cultural and subcultural relevance in his stimulating book, Music and Ministry: A Biblical Counterpoint (1984).

Relevancy in church music is neither a matter of popularity nor of intrinsic worth, but a matter of identification with music. That is to say, the music must have something about it which is recognizable and ordinary, both in the configuration of the various musical elements and in its total impact...One must also pay attention to the peculiar musical culture of the congregation. (p. 39)

Music is a manifestation of culture, like language, which changes. Though we must not fail to distinguish Biblical absolutes from cultural relatives, this is not ethical relativism. The one individual who made the term "absolutes" part of the current Christian vocabulary, Francis Schaeffer (Art and the Bible, 1973) said, "Let me say firmly that there is no such thing as a godly style or an ungodly style" (p. 51). "And as a Christian adopts and adapts various contemporary techniques, he must wrestle with the whole question, looking to the Holy Spirit for help to know when to invent, when to adopt, when to adapt and to not use a specific style at all. This is something each artist wrestles with for a life time, not something he settles once and for all" (p. 55).

Music makers make sounds with the particular instrument-technology available. Further refinements culturally and technologically necessitate different musical sounds. Before the technology to make valves for brass instruments or hinged keys for woodwind instruments was available, wind instruments had a different sound with limitations in range and technique. It may surprise people who are fond of the "tyranny of the organ" to realize that no Biblical-times music in any recognizable way resembled the sounds they call "sacred." These sorts of technological changes alone account for vast transformations, much less the profound philosophical, religious, and linguistic changes affecting musical-stylistical developments. My twentieth century harmony professor, composer Luigi Zaninelli, used to take exception to the idea that music has "progressed." He would say it has simply "evolved" (i.e., no value judgment). Given the Biblical view of history, though, I would assert that music has progressed in the sense that it is intertwined with the unfolding plan of redemption and the advance of Christ's kingdom. Moreover, music has become more complex and intricate, being the occupation of the intelligence, feeling, ambition, and purposes of more and more people made in the image of God.

When new sounds are made and development takes place the result is change in some aspect of that music. Eventually such changes make the music different enough to warrant the description that it has become a new style. For a distinctly Christian artist, new musical styles should be molded for the glory of God. As Schaeffer (1973) has said, "To demand the art forms of yesterday in either word systems or art is a bourgeois failure" (p. 49).

Toward a Truly Christian Aesthetics of Music

The Biblical Foundations. As has been demonstrated, music in the Bible is both emotive and fluidly connected to language. Yet Scripture strongly indicates the role of music in life and ministry, even apart from the function of the propositional word. (12) The beauty of skillful music itself can remind us of the beauty of the Lord. Beauty without utility was ordained by God in worship (Exo 28ff.). In fact, the first person recorded as being filled with the Holy Spirit is not filled to give a verbal message in prophecy or teaching, but to create works of art (Bazelel, Exo 35:30ff.). The Psalmist reminds us, "Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God has shone forth" (50:2). The beauty we perceive in this fallen world is merely a dim reflection of the "perfection of beauty, God." The Psalter's term, "Selah," seems to even indicate times for musical, non-lyrical, expression. Thus, music as a non-verbal art can minister (1Sa 16:15-23) and can reflect the beauty of God (Psa 27:4).

The Aesthetic Problem. Throughout much of the history of music in the church, music has been harnessed to a mere expression of the spoken word. The watershed in church music history was when plainchant moved from being Syllabic (on note per syllable) to Melismatic (multiple notes per syllable). (13) As soon as music is freed from the constraint of directly corresponding to the spoken word (a non-intrinsic property to music), the floodgates are open. Music, like the drive of life in the film, "Jurassic Park," will find a way to transgress such boundaries. Most of church history (excluding Biblical-times music) illustrates the attempt to beat music into conformity to the propositional word (lyrics). Certainly music is a powerful transport for the propositional word and such usage is clearly sanctioned in Scripture (Col 3:16, Eph 5:19). The power of music to carry words into our memories is undisputed. But there is no Biblical reason to confine music to that role. Popular criticisms of CM and even traditional church music often focus on the semantic correspondence of music to the meaning of the text. E.g, a hymn is bad when the sense of the lyric is not (somehow) conveyed in the music. Conversely, Christians rejoice in the artful delivery of truth in music in which words and their meaning wedded musically (e.g., insert you favorite hymn here _____________). The difficulty is not with music's conformity to the propositional word - but with confining music exclusively to such a role. Evangelicals tend to relegate music to this closet.

Jeremy Begbie insists we need a "complementation" model, rather than a "conformance" model. Music, as complimentary, is freed from being merely the beast of burden for "the words." Music can, as Begbie says (in technical Cambridge language, no less), "fill in the gaps" and interact with words. Does this purpose of music have any Biblical support? Actually, I think that may very well be intended by the musical term, "Selah." The term is found 74 times in the Old Testament (71 in the Psalms and 3 in Habakkuk). Among other possibilities, it may mean "the lifting up of instrumental music in an interlude or postlude." (14) Observing its usage seems to affirm this point.

  • The Lord shall count when He registers the peoples, "This one was born there." Selah. Then those who sing as well as those who play the flutes shall say, "All my springs of joy are in you." (Psa 87:6-7, see also Psa 3:2, 4, 8)

Music's interaction with the spoken word need not merely be Syllabic or Neumatic (more than one note per word, but not florid movement). Music need not compete for the place of words. Nothing about music and words are mutually exclusive. Music, freed from its confinement to direct word-support, emerges in a myriad of relations to words - representative, illustrative, parallel, analogical, contrasting, dialogical, and who knows what else.

The Theological Solution. Upon theological reflection, Christian musicians must have a paradigm of equality for both unity and diversity. And it is the unique Christian view of God as Trinity which provides a philosophical basis for the equal ultimacy of unity and diversity. It might even be argued that non-Trinitarian world and life views will be unable to even account for the "one and the many" in thought, art, and experience. (15) The application of this truth to aesthetics is transforming, to say the least. Thinking Christianly about music and its aesthetic dimensions will provide the foundation of a non-competitive complementation model.

If music abstractly expresses the aesthetic realities which are grounded in the beauty of the Triune Lord, music is thus inherently valuable within a Christian world and life view. In my opinion, evangelicals are in great need of an aesthetic overhaul. It ought not be the case that those who have the truth of the gospel, lack a worldview inclusive of beauty and goodness - or worse, only accommodate art as a tool of shallow propaganda. The observant student will notice a larger role for music in Scripture than mere conformance. The reflective theologian will envision a grander and deeper basis for music's value. And the imaginative musician will certainly demand a greater part for their cherished art. Music, under a sovereign, supremely incomprehensible Lord, Triune and wondrous, is to be an aural prism of truth, beauty, and goodness.

Concluding Suggestions for Contemporary Musicians
What follows practically for CM? How would we recreate a 21st Century Johann Sebastian Bach musically? Remember that Bach had several advantages: (a) He lived at a time when Protestant worldview Christianity saturated his culture; (b) all his family before him were diligent musicians ("Bach" was nearly synonymous with music); (c) the music that surrounded him, from which he gained his beginning and even advanced skills, required high standards of dexterity, artistry, and robust in harmonic contrapuntal development (many melody lines woven for the harmony); (d) he was in a church which breathed Protestant orthodoxy (both in Lutheran areas and the Calvinist court of Cothen); (e) and he was personally committed to glorifying God with his musical gifts as his entire life ambition.

Since this inevitably arises, the following are a few suggestions for young and aspiring musicians who wish to be both contemporary and Christian -

1. CM musicians as Christians should make themselves accountable to Biblically sound, spiritually vibrant,s local churches in which the elders of the church can shepherd and oversee the individual spiritual growth of the musicians, ministry activities, the doctrinal content of the songs, and the effectiveness of music ministry.

2. CM musicians as ministers (servants) should develop a Biblical philosophy of ministry under the oversight of the leadership of the local church. This kind of study could yield a purpose statement for a particular CM artist/ministry, if they are to use their talent for such purposes, which would be both theologically challenging and practical in clarifying the direction of the CM musicians.

3. CM musicians as musicians should develop a Biblical theology of music, that is, the comprehensive way all the Scripture's teaching relates to music. As a result, the music, message, and purpose of the CM musician(s) could be brought into conformity to the Biblical teaching; thus, clarifying what is absolute from that which is changeable. As a Biblical study, one should work through the musical implications of the Psalms and historical church music.

4. CM musicians as visible/public representatives of the Christian community should develop a comprehensive and articulated Christian worldview, relating music and its purposes to other areas of life. A fully Christian view of music will be at least as comprehensive as our Elder Brethren in the Old Testament. Then, music's role was much larger than a vehicle for the propagation of religious sentiments.

5. CM musicians as servants of God should seek to serve in excellence, always being diligent to perform as well as possible to the glory of God. The growth of a musician in excellence is greatly facilitated by an appreciation and study of the great musicians/music of the past. Christian musicians of the highest caliber should be fluent in the great musical achievements of Western art music. Irrelevance is most often the result of historical ignorance.


Many criticisms of CM, especially in its "pop music" manifestations, may valid or even purifying. Ferreting the merits of such criticisms have not been the scope of this paper. The musical styles of the modern world are expressions of the modern world. Some kinds of expressions are rough and unsuitable for certain occasions. The Bible, a comprehensive display of human life, reminds us, "There is an appointed time for everything....[even] a time to dance.....He has made everything appropriate in its time" (Ecc 3:1, 4, 11). Christian musicians must be called to a more diligent pursuit of (1) a thorough exegetical and Biblical theology of music, (2) an adequate consideration of the cultural ramifications of music or ethnomusicology, and (3) a well developed view of the larger issues of the relationship between Christ and culture.



Allen, R. B. (1992). Psalmist (column) in Worship Leader, Vol. 1. Nashville, TN. 

Best, H. M. & Huttar, D. (1976). Music: Musical instruments. Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, pp. 311-324. In M. C. Tenny (General Ed.). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Blanchard, J. (with P. Anderson & D. Cleave) (1983). Pop Goes the Gospel. Hertfordshire, UK: Evangelical Press.

Blanchard, J. (1987). Ultimate Questions. Durham, UK: Evangelical Press.

Cannon, R. J. & Cannon, I. Striving for Excellence, How to Evaluate Music: A Course for Leaders. Oak Brook, IL: Basic Life Principles.

Chenoweth, V. & Bee, D. (1968). On Ethnic Music. Practical Anthropology 15(5), 205-212.

Friberg, T. & B. Friberg (1994). Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (ANLEX) ( in the Bible Works for Windows, Hermeneutika Bible Research Software. 

Garlock, F. & Woetzel, K. (1992). Music in the Balance. Greenville, SC: Majesty Music, Inc.

Gothard, B. (1986). Advanced Seminar Textbook. Oak Brook, IL: Basic Life Principles.

Grout, D. J. (1973). A History of Western Music. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. Inc.

Idelsohn, Abraham Z. (1992 [1929]). Jewish Music: Its Historical Development. New York: Dover.

Johansson, C. M. (1984). Music and Ministry: A Biblical Counterpoint. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Larkin, W. J. (1988). Culture and Biblical Hermeneutics: Interpreting and Applying the Authoritative Word in a Relativistic Age. Grand Rapids: Baker. 

Larkin, W. J. (undated, ca 1989) Toward a Biblical Theology of Music with Special Attention to Standards. Unpublished paper, Columbia Biblical Seminary: Columbia, SC.

Lawless, S. (1981). Rock Reconsidered: A Christian Looks at Contemporary Music. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press

Miller, S. (1993). The Contemporary Christian Music Debate: Worldly Compromiseor Agent of Renewal? Wheaton: Tyndale.

Schaeffer, F. A. (1968). The God Who is There. Downers Grove, Ill: Inter-Varsity Press. 

Schaeffer, F. A. (1973). Art and the Bible. Downers Grove, Ill: Inter-Varsity Press.

Seidel, L. J. (1988). Face the Music: Contemporary Church Music on Trial. Springfield, VA: Grace Unlimited.

Tame, D. (1984). The Secret Power of Music. New York: Destiny Books.

All Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1987, 1988, The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

APPENDIX: Emotions in the Bible


But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire (epithumia) of the flesh. (GAL 5:16)

But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire (epithumia) to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better. (PHI 1:23)

Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire (epithumia), and greed, which amounts to idolatry. (COL 3:5)

But we, brethren, having been bereft of you for a short while-- in person, not in spirit-- were all the more eager with great desire (epithumia) to see your face. (1TH 2:17)


Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger. (EPH 4:26)

[Jesus], after looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." (MAR 3:5)


Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. (REV 2:6)

Hate evil, love good, And establish justice in the gate! Perhaps the Lord God of hosts May be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. (AMO 5:15)


Then Haman went out that day glad and pleased of heart; but when Haman saw Mordecai in the king's gate...Haman was filled with anger against Mordecai. (EST 5:9)

Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, you righteous ones, And shout for joy, all you who are upright in heart. (PSA 32:11)

With their wickedness they make the king glad, And the princes with their lies. (HOS 7:3)


Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained, But happy is he who keeps the law. (PRO 29:18)

And I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him? (ECC 3:22)

So the Lord God appointed a plant and it grew up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to deliver him from his discomfort. And Jonah was extremely happy about the plant. (JON 4:6)


Sorrow is better than laughter, For when a face is sad a heart may be happy. (ECC 7:3)

[The drunkard...] Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has contentions? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? (PRO 23:29)

For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter. (2CO 7:10-11)


But refuse to put younger widows on the list, for when they feel sensual desires in disregard of Christ, they want to get married. (1TI 5:11)

I am my beloved's, And his desire is for me. (SOL 7:10)

My beloved extended his hand through the opening, And my feelings were aroused for him. (SOL 5:4)


And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love (agape) his brother also. (1JO 4:21)

Do not love (agape) the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1JO 2:15)

Woe to you Pharisees! For you love (agape) the front seats in the synagogues, and the respectful greetings in the market places. (LUK 11:43)

And they love (phileo) the place of honor at banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues. (MAR 23:6)

The sisters therefore sent to Him, saying, "Lord, behold, he whom You love (phileo) is sick." (JOH 11:3)

Appendix: Ancient Near Eastern Music

The following selections from the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible entry on "music" indicates the features of Biblical-times music as follows:

1) Modality - A mode comprises a number of motives within a certain scale, each of which has different functions. The resulting composition is an arrangement and combination of these motives.

2) Ornamentation-The modes and their motivic partials are (1), subject to ornamentation and decoration, often very florid and extended.

3) Rhythm. Idelsohn incorrectly uses the term unrhythmical to describe Jewish chant. The characteristic of Semitic music is its lack of regularly recurring meter. Nonetheless it is freely and richly rhythmic; its rhythmic structure is as complex as its ornamentation.

4) Scale. The general nature of melody is diatonic, although this is mixed with a certain feeling for quarter tones, a distinctive which is foreign to most Occidental music.

5) Monophony. Jewish music is unharmonized and depends for its beauty on elaborate ornamentation of the melody alone. Occasionally in group singing intervals of fourths or fifths appear, more out of limitation in vocal range that an inherent harmonic vocabulary. When vocal music was instrumentally accompanied, heterophony (a way of embellishing the basic melodic line; a concurrent decoration) was often employed. 

6) Improvisation. The performer and composer were the same person. The modal formulae were elaborated upon as seen in (1) and (2). A combination of long training and inherent ability were necessary to accomplish this. (pp. 315-316, note that the text above are relevant selected quotes, emphases mine)

Grout's (1973) discussion of New Testament and early Christian music:

Although we do not know much about Greek music or its history, we can say that in three fundamental respects it was the same kind of music as that of the early Church. In the first place, it was primarily monophonic, that is, melody without harmony or counterpoint....In the period when large vocal and instrumental ensembles were employed, it frequently happened that certain instruments would embellish the melody simultaneously with its plain performance by others in the ensemble, thus creating heterophony. But neither heterophony nor the inevitable necessity of singing in octaves when both men and boys took part constitutes true polyphony.

In the second place, as far as we know, musical performances in the most flourishing period of Greek civilization were improvised.....[The performer] was not playing or singing something he had memorized or learned from a score, and consequently no two performances of the "same" piece were exactly alike. Improvisation, in this or some similar sense, was characteristic of all ancient peoples. It prevailed also in our Western music up to perhaps the eighth century A. D., and the practice continued to affect musical styles for a long time...

Thirdly, Greek music was almost always associated with words or dancing or both: its melody and rhythm were most intimately bound up with the melody and rhythm of poetry, and the music of the religious cults, of the drama, and of the great public contests was performed by singers who accompanied their melody with the movements of prescribed dance patterns." (p. 4-5)


1. My presupposition throughout is that Scripture is unified in all it teaches, including that which it teaches about music.

2. For more discussion on Biblical instruments see the classic, Jewish Music: Its Historical Development, Abraham Z. Idelsohn.

3. "Biblical-times music" is intended to designate music that is Ancient Near-Eastern, Israelite, and spanning the (written) OT to NT time period (ca 1500 B.C. to 100 A.D.).

4. I am indebted to J. Frame's lecture, "Music and Salvation" for many of these concepts. See also V. Poythress, "Ezra 3, Union with Christ, and Exclusive Psalmody," Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. XXXVII, 1974-75, pp. 74-94-218-235.

5. Granted, one could define genres more sharply. However, my aim is primarily to address the popular issue (e.g., "rock music" is of the devil) and the basic issues will, be applicable to more creative, less popular, genres too.

6. At the Memphis Pastor's Conference, 3/6/95. I corresponded to Mr. Gothard about this and other assertions following the conference; for proof of his harsh accusations he referred me to his publication, How to Overcome an Addiction to Rock Music.

7. Worship Leader, April/May, 1992, Vol. 1, No. 2; 5, 44.

8. Worship Leader, No. 3, 5.

9. The authors are ethnomusicologists associated with Wycliffe Bible Translators.

10. It goes without saying, of course, that many of the church's greatest theologians have denied the trichotomist view, preferring for a body/soul, material/spiritual dichotomy.

11. It is important to note that the text says that we are to "disciple all nations" (maqhteusate panta ta eqnh) - not make a few disciples from the nations.

12. See the previous discussion on the validity of musical instruments.

13. For the substance of this discussion and the categories of "conformance" and "complementation," I am indebted to the Rev'd Dr. Jeremy Begbie of Cambridge University's "Theology Through the Arts" project and his presentation, "Thinking Theologically About the Arts" at the Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts (January 15, 2000), Grand Rapids, MI.

14. 14Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, p. 324.

15. This thought has been notably articulated in the works of the late Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. For an example of the development of this thesis see, The One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy, R. J. Rushdoony (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn, 1978).

  • A Reformed View