In Old Testament times after the reign of Solomon, the center of divine worship was the Temple in Jerusalem. There, as the priests presented offerings according to the law, a vocal and instrumental choir stood off to the side, lifting up music that enveloped the congregation in an atmosphere of praise. Guidelines for the choir had been set down by King David. As "the sweet psalmist of Israel" (2 Sam. 23:1), he understood that God wants to hear beautiful and edifying music. He therefore appointed certain families among the Levites to provide music for public worship (1 Chron. 24-25). Centuries earlier, Moses had set the Levites apart for full-time service to God. Besides caring for the tabernacle, they had to know and teach God's law (Deut. 31:9-13). So, it is likely that a godly character distinguished the Levites assigned to the Temple choir. Some among their leaders were notably spiritual in motivation—men like Asaph, who wrote twelve psalms now incorporated in Holy Scripture.

Also today, the musicians who perform in church or furnish the church with music should be true servants of God rather than servants of fame, money, or false religion. They should not be unbelievers. Nor should they be nominal Christians with dubious motives. Why should any stranger to Christ be invited to preach the gospel or edify the flock? It is the church that has been given the Great Commission to carry out these tasks. Permitting the unsaved or doubtfully saved a place in the work of Christ is unwise for two reasons.

  1. Although the Word of God never returns unto Him void (Isa. 55:11), the pious mouthings of a hypocrite are an inferior instrument for spiritual ministry. Words proceeding from a heart devoid of the Holy Spirit lack the power to accomplish anything good. Moreover, the speaker's own sin and unbelief discredit the truth in what he says.

    Christ has entrusted His work to believers because, by abiding in Him as a branch abides in the vine, they can bear fruit. According to credible observers, the singing of Ira Sankey in Moody's evangelistic meetings brought thousands to salvation. How many have come to a true and permanent faith in Christ as a result of hearing today's musical performers? Yet the big names in contemporary Christian music have been heard by millions more than ever heard Sankey.

  2. The result is an alliance between the unsaved and the saved, and as Scripture says, "Bad company corrupts good morals" (1 Cor. 15:33 NASB). Christians cannot link arms with hypocrites living for self without being touched by their ungodly priorities. For example, the Christian musician who goes to work for a secular publisher or recording company will find himself under great pressure to round off some of the sharper doctrine, evangelism, or holiness in his message and to sweeten his music with a popular sound. But Paul says, "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers" (2 Cor. 6:14). He is urging true believers at Corinth not to attempt Christian ministry in league with mere pretenders. Earlier in the same epistle, he describes insincere ministers of the gospel as men who "corrupt"—literally, "peddle" or "huckster"—the Word of God (2 Cor. 2:17). In one of his epistles to Timothy, he instructs the young evangelist to "follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart (2 Tim. 2:22).

Yet Christian music today has been overrun by musicians outfitted with a bogus Christianity. Their purpose is simply to exploit the vast markets within organized religion. The insincerity of these wolves in sheep's clothing may become evident in either of two ways.

  1. They may abandon any claim to be Christian as soon as profits grow thin. Remember the big splash made by the conversion of Bob Dylan? Many Christians embraced him warmly, only to be embarrassed when he later decided that he was not born again after all.
  2. Their unregenerate lifestyle may come to light. Certain Southern gospel quartets have become infamous for their lechery. Also, the media have alerted the public that some stars of gospel rock are drug users. The less sensational but no less reprehensible sin of divorce is prevalent in the world of high-paid gospel entertainment. If a Christian musician lapses into serious sin, the church must not patronize or support him in any way. Indeed, the church must exclude him from Christian fellowship, and individual believers (outside his own family) must break off all social ties with him (1 Cor. 5:11-13).

But what constitutes serious sin? Paul provides a list of sins requiring disciplinary action by the church. These include not only such obvious violations of moral law as adultery and drunkenness, but also greed (1 Cor. 5:11-13). Scripture inveighs against greed, or covetousness, in stern language (Eph. 5:3) and insists that any greedy man be barred from leadership in the church (1 Tim. 3:3). But because the church today gullibly refuses to notice and denounce greed, so-called Christian music continues to deteriorate. Now we have gospel rock and sacred disco. If the musicians responsible for this music want it to be accepted as the outpouring of a pure heart, let them give away their profits. Unless we see a meaningful act of self-sacrifice to prove their sincerity, we will suspect that they view the born-again bandwagon as an express vehicle to big money.

On Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered the Temple, He forcibly expelled the merchants and money changers who were parasitically extracting profits from public worship. Since He condemns them for making the Temple a "den of thieves" (Matt. 21:13), some argue that He was offended by their dishonest ways of doing business. Presumably, if they had conducted their business in an ethical manner, He would have tolerated their presence in the house of God. In John's record of an earlier occasion when Jesus cleansed the Temple, however, our Lord says simply, "Make not my father's house an house of merchandise" (John 2:16). Jesus' example teaches us that we should react to commercialism in Christian music by taking a scourge and driving it out of the church.

Profit seekers disguised as servants of God may fool the church, but their insincerity is obvious to discerning people of the world. When cynical worldlings spy an opportunist in the forefront of Christianity, they feel vindicated in their opinion that religion is the exploitation of the simple by the unscrupulous. Hypocrisy in the church gives them an excuse for denying the gospel a fair hearing and for heaping reproach upon the gospel.

To protect his ministry from discredit, Paul made every effort to demonstrate that his root motives were unselfish. Sometimes he went so far as to refuse aid from Christian brothers. He preferred to support himself through the trade of tent-making (Acts 20:34; 1 Cor. 9:1-23; 2 Thess. 3:8-10). But although he wanted future ministers of the gospel to be men of manifest sincerity (1 Tim. 6:10-11), he did not mandate self-support. He recognized that "they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel" (1 Cor. 9:14).

Today, however, when money overflows the coffers of Christian musicians, the question is whether the right of making a living can be stretched so far as to legitimize making a fortune. Again, for the sake of appearances, the answer must be, no. The unsaved world is less apt to attribute base motives to a Christian worker if he receives only a modest income in exchange for his ministry.

The temptation to be greedy is not a new problem for Christian musicians. A hundred years ago, the songs of Sankey, Bliss, Stebbins, and others involved in the evangelistic campaigns of D. L. Moody became extremely popular. But these men had enough moral courage to donate the royalties from their best-loved songs to philanthropy and the cause of the gospel. The money they refused for themselves came to over $350,000, enormous wealth in those days (1). In reward for their unselfish spirit, the Lord made their music the backbone of modern fundamentalist hymnals.

But today, many Christian musicians who start off with a true desire to serve God fall into the snare of commercialism. Perhaps they are corrupted by the example of others, or they find a cool reception for Christ-centered music, or they simply discover that compromises make it easier to earn a steady income. The current market for Christian music is crowded with buyers whose musical tastes have been spoiled by a lifetime of listening to the contemporary styles heard constantly in the worldly media. Since these buyers crave a popular sound, they find old-fashioned gospel music dull. So, a maker of Christian music cannot sell his product to thousands or millions of customers unless he gives it enough worldly glow.

The following are some remedies for the spreading cancer of commercialism.


We must distinguish between entertainers and Christian workers. An entertainer, like any other professional, works only if he can expect to receive a prearranged fee, reimbursing him for the value of his services. But a Christian worker is willing to work for small compensation, or without compensation. A dedicated missionary stays on the field even when the churches at home have failed to meet pledged support. A spiritually minded pastor or Christian school teacher continues his ministry even when financial straits have forced the church to reduce his salary. Similarly, those serving the Lord as musicians persevere in the same work even when it earns little money.

If a gospel musician is simply an entertainer, Christian people should avoid him.

*1. The church should not secure music for its worship services by employing professional musicians who otherwise, aside from their paid performances, make no contribution to the work of the church.

*2. The church should not invite a musician or musical group for special services if they demand a set amount of compensation.

*3. Christians should not attend gospel concerts that charge admission rather than take an offering.

Since all the famous performers of contemporary Christian music participate in such concerts, they are properly called entertainers, and the church should sever all ties with them. The sin of exacting a fee for a sacred ministry is known as simony, after Simon Magus, the sorcerer who desired apostolic powers for personal gain (Acts 8:9-24). Simony is a sin because it is a form of greed; also, because it dispenses divine grace only to those who want it and who are able to pay for it, whereas God may desire to bless someone who is indifferent or poor.

Imagine for a moment that recording equipment had been available in the time of Paul. So far as we know, Paul was no musician. But suppose he had made a CD of his gospel preaching. Would he have entitled it, The Best of Paul: Recorded Live in Crusades throughout Asia Minor? Would the front of the case have shown Paul standing before the Philippian jail with his arm about the converted jailer, their faces beaming as the jailer's little children danced all around? Would the booklet inside have offered an enthusiastic review by Priscilla and Aquila? Would Paul have signed an exclusive contract with Corinthian Enterprises, parent organization for a chain of religious bookstores operating throughout the Grecian world? After selling a few million CDs, would Paul have retired to a mansion in Macedonia, limiting his further presence in the church to occasional interviews and guest appearances?

No, the real Paul would have behaved differently. If he had wanted to spread good preaching by means of tapes and CDs, he would have started a recording company as a faith ministry, supported partly or wholly by the voluntary contributions of Christian people. Moreover, he would have distributed materials wherever they promised to be most effective. The money he sought from recipients would have depended on the circumstances. Sometimes he might have given them the materials free of charge. At other times, he might have asked for a donation in return. At yet other times, he might have required fair payment as proof of a serious interest in the materials. Yet the earnings of an enterprise with so little concern to charge a high price would not have been lavish, and Paul would not have come into sudden wealth. Whatever money he received, he would have kept only a modest living for himself, and the rest he would have given away. At all times he would have guarded himself against the sting of greed.

Our fanciful picture of what Paul might have done is, I think, helpful in showing strategies for chasing commercialism out of the contemporary church. Some must be implemented by musicians, others by the church itself.

*4. A Christian musician should not associate with profiteers.

Rather, he should ally himself with enterprises in which the reigning monarch is God rather than Mammon. He should not assume that a formally nonprofit enterprise is noncommercial in motivation. Some ostensible Christian ministries are merely business ventures that have found a nice way to dodge taxes.

*5. A Christian musician who is vulnerable to the suspicion that he is getting rich through Christian work should be willing to make some public disclosure of his financial status.

Out of respect for the command that charity be done in secret (Matt. 6:2-4), he should perhaps report only the amount of income retained for himself. Total income and charitable outlays need not be specified.

The practice recommended here would infringe on his privacy, but he should gladly do anything to disarm enemies of the gospel. They can do great harm if they can plausibly accuse Christian workers of running a racket or a con game.

To hinder opportunists from posing as Christian workers, churches must favor enterprises untainted by commercialism.

*6. The main suppliers of music for the church should be publishers that take an uncompromising stand in favor of good fundamental music.

In a choice between two sources with consistently good output, the church should give the nod to the one that offers greater value for the price.

*7. Strictly money-motivated publishers, especially those who profess to be Christian but who publish anything that will sell, should be used as secondary sources only.

They cannot be avoided altogether, for they hold the copyrights to much good music. Also, they are the most economical source of much good music in public domain.

*8. Millions of churchgoers love the music of Bill Gaither and John Peterson, but, unfortunately, the spiritual quality of their work went downhill as their success went uphill. Therefore, the later work of either man should be purchased only with great caution.

Even his earlier work should be examined closely for doctrinal and musical soundness and should not be used if the effect is to set a halo over his later work.

The Levites who provided music for Temple worship were regarded as prophets, and their ministry was called prophesying (1 Chron. 25:1). Prophesying is the forthtelling, or preaching, of God's Word. Also in the church today, special music is a form of preaching, and the musician himself is a kind of preacher. Thus, he needs a divine call to his ministry. Just as God appoints the men who deliver sermons in plain words, so God appoints the men and women who offer sermons in song. A musician within a local church should demonstrate that his call is real by, first, his growth in grace and, secondly, his good judgment in matters of musical content and style. A person who fails to show either credential should be excluded from the music program until the deficiency is overcome. We may draw two practical inferences.

*9. The church should not use a musician if a serious sin mars his testimony.

The sin may be a vice, a stubborn refusal to join the church, or some other significant lapse in spirituality.

*10. Pieces and performances should be reviewed before they are presented in church, especially if the performer is an unknown quantity.

Anyone who proposes to do offensive music should be taken aside and given kind instruction on what is acceptable. If he resists instruction, he should not be allowed to perform until he undergoes a change of heart.

Ideally, the church should embrace only those authors, composers, and performers of sacred music who clearly have received a divine call to their work. There is, however, an insurmountable difficulty in applying this high standard to published material. A recording or a piece of music carries no information about its creators except perhaps their names. How then can we determine whether they are godly people? Even if they are well known for their musical accomplishments, we frequently lack conclusive information about their spirituality. It is hard enough to judge the men we know. To accept or reject the work of men we do not know on the basis of scanty data must be an arbitrary and unjust procedure. Therefore, we should evaluate every musical composition or performance on its own merits. As a practical matter, we need not weigh the character of the composer or performer unless, of course, he has an ungodly reputation. The church certainly should have nothing to do with music created by a notorious heretic, scoundrel, or compromiser.

A number of concrete proposals follow from these general considerations.

*11. When evaluating a piece of music, a church musician need not demand positive evidence that it comes from a godly source.

He would exclude too much. But he should set the music aside if he finds positive evidence that the music comes from an ungodly source.

*12. It is especially important that the words of our songs be taken only from authors of spotless reputation.

Yet in the leading hymnals there are texts by rank heretics, the most notable being Henry Emerson Fosdick, a crusading liberal (author of "God of Grace and God of Glory"), John Newman, a man who in his youth abandoned evangelical faith for High-Church Anglicanism, eventually becoming a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church (author of "Lead Kindly Light"), and John Bowring, a Unitarian whose deeds as governor of Hong Kong included imposition of the opium trade on China (author of "In the Cross of Christ I Glory," written back when Unitarians still used Christian terminology). Texts from these writers and like sources should be suppressed (2).

*13. In determining whether a piece of music comes from an ungodly source, a church musician must look at practice rather than profession.

He should reject any music from a source tainted by immorality. In this category belongs the output of certain publishers like Word (at one time owned by that merchant of filth and mayhem, the ABC television network; now owned by Warner Music, a purveyor of much that is decadent) and of certain composers like Andrae Crouch (who, at the height of his fame, was arrested on a drug charge).

Using the music of Crouch or of anyone else with a conspicuously unseparated lifestyle can be very harmful to young people in the church. It is a truism that young people have unbounded admiration for performers of the music they like. The revelation that a Christian musician has his fingers in flagrant sin may cast his youthful fans into faith-corroding disillusionment. Since they have already accepted him as a role model, they may decide to imitate his backslidden behavior.

A rule excluding the work of unsaved musicians from the church should not necessarily be applied to music of great intrinsic value (3). Among the greatest composers, the only one who clearly affirmed his trust in Christ alone for salvation was J. S. Bach. It is possible that Handel, Mendelssohn, Bruckner, and a few others were also truly saved. But just as we rely upon the expert skills of ungodly men in medicine, law, and other fields, so may we use the music of great composers who were not Christians.

Although man is now in a fallen condition, he retains his likeness to the One in whose image he was made (Genesis 1:27). He still possesses some remnant of the abilities that originally fitted him for dominion over the earth. With his God-given mind, he can still discover truth, both practical and academic, and he can still conceive beautiful things. Yet his achievements are a credit not to his own cleverness, but to divine grace—grace operating through Creation, Providence, or the direct influence of the Holy Spirit. But sinful man can abuse grace. He can darken or distort what grace has taught him. So, we must be very careful when selecting human works of art for use in the church. Perhaps the best guideline is the following.

*14. The church may use all sacred music of high excellence even though its source is an unbeliever.

But there are limits. A composer with a scandalous reputation recalled by mere mention of his name should not be honored with a place in the hymnal.

Tchaikovsky was a tragically disturbed man because of homosexuality. Not many years ago, it was established that he committed suicide. Robert Schumann, another case of death by suicide, was a man who confessed to having a familiar spirit and who eventually fell into a permanent madness that bore all the marks of demon possession.

We may, without exhaustive research, confidently label some musical materials as ungodly in origin. For example, we know that a secular, profit-motivated maker of recordings employs musicians without regard to their religious beliefs, and that unsaved musicians furnish at least some of the background in these recordings. We must therefore observe the following rule:

*15. Recordings and accompaniment tapes from a secular source should not be used.

A recorded performance by an unsaved musician is no more appropriate in church than a live performance. There is no meaningful difference. In either case, a child of the devil is conducting a ministry that belongs to a child of God. Notice that in David's plan for music in the temple, the Levites were responsible not only for writing and singing the words of sacred song, but also for playing the musical instruments. The reason is that an instrumental accompaniment effectively ministers to the hearts of people only if the musician is controlled by the Holy Spirit.


  1. William R. Moody, The Life of Dwight L. Moody by His Son (repr., Murfreesboro, Tenn.: Sword of the Lord Publishers, n.d.), 174.

  2. A number of famous hymns come from writers whose theology was modernistic. These hymnists include Maltbie Davenport Babcock ("This Is My Father's World"), Washington Gladden ("O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee"), and Frank Mason North ("Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life"). A particularly sad instance of a churchman who came to embrace evolution and Higher Criticism is William Walsham How, author of many popular hymns ("For All the Saints," "O Word of God Incarnate," "O Jesus, Thou Art Standing").

    The great poets Alfred Lord Tennyson ("Strong Son of God, Immortal Love") and John Greenleaf Whittier ("Dear Lord and Father of Mankind," "Immortal Love, Forever Full") have been given a place in many hymnals, but neither owned a Biblical Christianity. Rather, each asserted a merely intuitive and sentimental belief in God and the afterlife.

    When Newman joined the Catholic church, hundreds of Englishmen followed him. Several participants in this movement later distinguished themselves as hymn writers. Among them were Frederick William Faber ("Faith of Our Fathers," "There's a Wideness in God's Mercy") and Matthew Bridges ("Crown Him with Many Crowns"). Newman's influence was limited to a small segment of the upper class. The Catholic revival under his leadership produced much spurious piety, rooted in the horror and anxiety of the upper class as it beheld the social changes that were eroding its traditional privileges.

    Other Unitarians besides Bowring have contributed hymns to modern hymnals. Sarah Flower Adams ("Nearer, My God, to Thee") was an actress and the wife of a political activist. Edmund Hamilton Sears ("It Came upon the Midnight Clear") was a Unitarian clergyman. Oliver Wendell Holmes ("Lord of All Being, Throned Afar"), the famous literary figure, was widely reputed to be a freethinker.

    For further information concerning the religious beliefs of the principal hymnists, see Albert Edward Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns: Backgrounds and Interpretations (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950; repr., New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., n.d.).

  3. We cannot embark here upon a long discourse on the philosophy of aesthetics. We will merely state that in the Christian world view, values are anchored in absolutes. There is perfection in the aesthetic realm as in the moral realm. Hence, all music may be compared with an absolute standard and graded as relatively good or bad. The only competent judges are expert musicians. The music they would regard as the best is what we have called "music of great inherent value."