Music is one of the most difficult areas in which to apply biblical principles when developing Christian convictions and setting personal standards. The Bible stresses the importance of Christian music (Colossians 3:16) and makes allusions to the existence of worldly music (Isaiah 23:15), but it never provides outright guidance regarding musical forms and styles.
Many Christians take that to mean that music is amoral – any genre, style, or form is acceptable for any purpose. Ed Stetzer, for example, in a Christianity Today article on “7 Biblical Tests for Christians and Music“, says this:
The form of rap is no less godly than the form in most of our hymns. It is a canvas waiting for a picture. The target of the rebellion by Lecrae and others like him is the prevailing cultural attitudes that are contrary to Christ.
Did you catch the assumption he makes that music forms are a blank canvas—they are amoral? In conclusion, he states:
These tests lead us to one simple fact: God can use any form of music. He has no musical style or preference.
Sadly, Ed Stetzer uses no scriptural passages or principles to back up his assertions. Although his “biblical tests” are thoughtful and helpful, they are not biblically based. It seems apparent that he is merely mustering an argument for a preconceived conclusion. Methinks he doth protest too much. But why would Christians argue so strongly that music is amoral?
Music is Communication
Music choices are an area of contention because of one simple fact: music captures our hearts. More than almost any other form of media, music speaks directly to the heart. Music one of the most powerful—and subtle—forms of communication. For that reason, we must be especially careful when thinking through the application of biblical principles to our music choices. Exploring passages in Scripture on communication is a helpful place to start.
“Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers” – Ephesians 4:29.
Principle: communication must build up others spiritually.
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” – Psalm 19:14.
Principle: God cares about our communication input and output.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” – Philippians 4:8.
Principle: we should communicate truth, purity, and beauty in an excellent manner.
Music is Art
Music communicates with more than words – it is a specific kind of communication called art. Just as brush strokes on canvas communicate mood, values, and emotion, so the aesthetic aspect of music makes a powerful statement. You can’t say music is amoral any more than you can say that movies are amoral. Perhaps the raw materials of pitch and rhythm are neutral, but as soon as you put them together, you are communicating something. In fact, nothing is amoral because you cannot not communicate!
For this reason, we must also think carefully about the values we are communicating to ourselves and others through our music choices. Part of this is cultural, to be sure. A particular kind of drumbeat might communicate something different in Africa than it does in America. Rock music, from its inception, was the language of a specific culture and lifestyle. “Rock has always been the devil’s music. You can’t convince me that it isn’t,” said David Bowie. That’s not to say that all music pre-dating rock was wholesome. I’m simply saying that we must think about what values we are communicating through our music. It might be possible for cultural messages and associations to fade over time, but if the musician acknowledges that the values he is communicating are explicitly anti-God, we must be very cautious about allowing that message to influence us.
In addition, we must pay attention to how the words and the music fit together. Contemporary Christian music sometimes creates a jarring disconnect between words and music. Even secular writers have noticed this phenomenon. Be careful not to fall into the trap of “worshipping Jesus” and “worshipping popular culture” at the same time. It’s not possible.
Music is a Spectrum
Although it is clear that music is not amoral, it is never a matter of simple, binary moral choices. Some Christians have fallen into the trap of trying to make the music issue black and white. “All ________ music is evil!” they shout, but have a difficult time explaining why. They end up stretching passages and creating arbitrary dividing lines and completely lose credibility in the process. We have to realize that, like most types of communication, there are few hard and fast rules. Some music is obviously evil, while other songs are clearly good, but in between there is a gradient of white fading into black. As we said before, what is most important is not where you draw the line, but what direction you are pursuing. Philippians 1:11 reminds us to “approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.” Holiness is a direction, not a line!
That’s not to say you shouldn’t attempt to set your own personal standards in the area of music. You must make your own personal applications of scripture while allowing room for other’s differences of conscience. Here are some possible questions to ask yourself when making music choices.
Four Biblical Tests For Music
- Does this music glorify God? (1 Cor. 10:31) What is the song trying to promote? It does not necessarily have to have explicitly Christian lyrics. The heavens and earth declare the glory of God, and the values communicated by music can be godly even if it is not specifically worship music. I wish more Christians wrote non-sacred (no such thing, really) music.
- Does this music build me up or tear me down spiritually? (Ephesians 4:29) Over time, if you pay attention, you will notice that any kind of music has either a positive or negative affect on you spiritually. Be intentional and make adjustments to encourage edification.
- What kind of behavior does this music encourage? (Proverbs 4:23) Does it stir your emotions to want something forbidden? Does it entice you to party and please your flesh? Or does it promote positive action?
- How much of this music should I listen to? (Philippians 1:10) I enjoy listening to a wide variety of music, but some of it, while communicating a positive message, can distract me from the Lord. Just as I need to make sure to eat balanced meals, so I must have a healthy diet of musical choices. Make sure to throw a good dosage of the best sacred music into the mix to keep your heart focused on the Lord.