Censorship of Christian Songs -- replies: Ferguson, Jacoby, and Oakes 

It seems that many modern evangelical songs stress blessings and grace, with little emphasis on discipleship or repentance. Some song leaders will not permit songs written by members of other denominations, unless they first “approve” the lyrics. One brother also insists that worship songs must be balanced – not too many on victory and grace, and not too few on holiness and judgment. But he goes further: Some of these hymns and choruses were written by people who aren’t even real Christians, so they are censored. Even though I agree that we need to take care not to be superficial believers, this strikes me as unnecessarily strict and judgmental. What about Christian freedom? And what should I do (speak up)? It’s not a very encouraging atmosphere.

(1) Douglas Jacoby (Atlanta) responds:

Sometimes staying quiet about something that deeply disturbs us may slowly erode our faith. We need to speak up; whether change takes place or not, we are healthier. We can now leave it with God, without feeling conflicted. I would certainly express my view if that would be productive. Yet be sure to speak at the right time, and in a spirit of love. I’m sure you don’t want to be judgmental. Whether you decide to speak up or not, hopefully you set an example of patience and being supportive as things begin to change.

Yet I agree with you: it is sad that people think this way in the first place! Legalism can run so deep. Immature believers seek rules. Guidelines become laws. Unity is undermined. By the logic of some people, Jesus and his disciples shouldn’t have sung a psalm (the hymn at the Last Supper in Matthew 26:30, per Jewish tradition), since some of the Psalms encourage ill feeling towards one’s enemies, or maybe because the Jews on the whole weren’t faithful to the covenant. And yet when Paul encourages us to use Psalms, he fails to include provisos. The critic can always go further: maybe we shouldn’t take any chances with inaccurate translations, and instead sing only in Old Testament Hebrew or New Testament Greek. And who gets to decide what songs are legal?

We must be honest and authentic, but also discreet. If we aren’t sure where the balance point is—when to say something, when to bite our tongue—look at Jesus, our model. He was full of grace and truth (John 1:14, 17). Wisdom, discretion, and balance are one thing; censorship and an inquisition are another.

(2) John Oakes (San Diego) replies:

I am very sorry this is happening to you and to the fellowship of believers there. This is very unfortunate.  I believe that the perspective of church history can be very helpful. History is riddled with stories of probably-sincere people who made a condition of faith out of non-essential matters, such as the subject matter of the songs. The spirit of “phariseeism” is rearing its ugly head here.

In my own fellowship, I often react to songs that are unbalanced in their focus. A few even promote dubious doctrine. However, I disagree with a controlling mode of dealing with the issue. Setting up strict formulas is over-the-top. How does any group of believers arrive at and agree on such a book of rules? Arguments over musical instruments, how often to do the Lord’s Supper, what kind of songs to sing, whether the church should hire female ministers, the role of deacons and the like have been the reason for churches to divide and for Jesus to be dishonored time and time again in the history of Christianity. There are wise, good and loving ways to deal with this kind of issue and there are unwise, unloving ways of dealing with such issues, and it appears to me that someone has chosen the legalistic path to solving the problem. I hope someone will be able to help him to see a wiser path.

Let me propose a way of dealing with the question of the kinds of songs sung in worship. Let us say that we conclude that there are too many individual-honoring songs, as opposed to God-honoring songs; there are too many songs about grace and not enough about repentance; we sing too many songs with secular (as opposed to biblical) lyrics. How do we handle this? What we could do is decide as a local ministry to simply move in another direction.

We could simply put a stop to some of the songs we have been using, use others less, and introduce some new and better ones. We could even explain to the local church why we are doing this. Unwise would be to totally refuse to use the old songbooks, announcing publicly that the old songbook is sinful and unchristian and previous worship leaders ungodly. Unwise would be to initiate a campaign among sister churches to eliminate the ungodly songbook and enlist soldiers in an anti-old-songbook campaign. The wise and loving approach would be to explain to our sister churches why we have made a shift, rebalancing our songs, and let them decide if they agree.

Eventually we might even publish a new songbook, with a few of the questionable songs removed and a few of the preferred ones included. Who knows? Through wise and loving influence we might move our fellow churches in a healthy direction. Making strong doctrinal pronouncements, declaring all others as out of step with God (unlike us) is ungodly and arrogant. However, changing the style of singing and types of songs used locally, praying to God for wisdom and humility, and influencing through relationship, is a great idea.

If the brother you mention adopts healthy means to achieve his worthy end, he will have a positive influence in the area of worship. If, however, he continues along his current tack, it’s more likely he will cause a backlash, and defeat the purpose of helping us to worship in a more God-honoring way.

(3) Gordon Ferguson weighs in:

Coming from my background in a very legalistic part of the Churches of Christ, rife with divisions over what should have been minor issues and non-issues, it hurts my heart to read about what is going on in the situation you describe. The whole issue of music in the church is connected to many opinions, most all of which boil down to personal preferences and taste. Thus, they are matters of opinion and not faith—and that is the realm in which they should be kept.

For example, whereas I enjoy many of the old hymn-like songs that I grew up with, I realize that many in the younger generation find them boring, and prefer more upbeat or contemporary songs. I just try to enjoy and appreciate whatever types of songs are sung in the many different worship settings that I attend in my travels (and in my home group). I visited Brazil several years back, and was told that every song was based on Scripture and had been composed by local members. Even though I didn't understand the words in Portuguese, I thought as a trained instrumental musician that the melodies and harmonies were beautiful. In my home in Los Angeles, we sing a mixture of song types, but many of them are contemporary. I really enjoy them as well, and they lift my heart and spirit as I participate. Bottom line, I have learned that we all have various tastes, and rather than expect people to adjust to my tastes, I adjust to the choices of whatever group I am with. That seems to me a part of how we build and maintain unity.

As a rather doctrinally based teacher and preacher, I am not quick to be critical of the wording of our songs. From time to time I may notice some wording that could be interpreted two different ways, one of which would be questionable—but not too often. As to the matter of balance, I'm not convinced that the song service itself has to be balanced in content and emphases. I am convinced that the overall service should have balance in several different ways, but even these issues of balance have to be viewed over a period of time and not viewed critically in each service. From my perspective, I prefer the songs to be mostly positive, since I think the song service should be primarily uplifting. As a preacher, I think such a song service sets the stage for my preaching, which hopefully over time will also be balanced. Each part of the service doesn't have to be perfectly balanced, but the services as a whole should be—but even then, balanced over an overall flow of time and not necessarily in each individual service.

I am afraid the brother who is pushing for the songs to be done a certain way is moving (or has moved) in the direction of violating Romans 14, and ruling out differing opinions and tastes based on different backgrounds. Honestly, if something like that started moving in that direction in my home church, I would take a strong stand against it—both because I think it violates passages and principles like Romans 14, and because it leads to division. In our travels, Douglas and John and I hear many different types of musical approaches in worship. If we started making strong points about these types of things, we would limit our effectiveness and undermine our goal—to help people know the Word of God better, love Jesus, and serve God and his people.