David's blueprint for sacred music required that men be set apart "to prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals" (1 Chron. 25:1 NASB). With the aid of the harp, the sons of Jeduthun "prophesied in giving thanks and praising the LORD" (1 Chron. 25:3 NASB). Although joined to music, the sacred text was dominant. The rhythms, harmonies, and melodies of the music were merely servants of a larger purpose—to fill the worshipers' minds with admiration of God.

Meaningful words should also be the central feature of music in the church. Paul wrote, "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody [that is, psalming] in your heart to the Lord" (Eph. 5:19). Why does he tell us to "sing" songs in our hearts, but only "speak" them to each other? Perhaps because some people cannot really sing at all except in their hearts. Notice that Paul does not say to speak the words of a song, but rather to speak the song itself. By treating a Christian song as equivalent to its words, he implies that its words are the only element indispensable for worship.


Songs employing words at variance with Scripture should never be used, even though the departure may seem fairly minor. We should demand from our hymn writers a respect for exact truth.

*16. Probably five to ten well-known hymns should be revised or set aside because of faulty assertions.

"The Church's One Foundation" speaks cryptically of "mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won." The reference, as we learn a few lines later, is to the dead who have gone to dwell with God. But communion with the dead is a Catholic doctrine repugnant to evangelical Christians.

The hymn "Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee" is well liked, but the liberal theology of its author is especially evident in the last stanza: "Father love is reigning o'er us, Brother love binds man to man." The Biblical concept of mankind being divided into opposing families of God and Satan is here dispensed with (John 8:41-44).

"Once to Every Man and Nation" is not a hymn at all, but a pacifistic statement written in opposition to the U.S. war with Mexico in 1845. The original words were rather demeaning of Christ since they pictured Him as one of many God-sent messiahs summoning us to a great decision. Even as they now stand, they are totally unsuitable for Christian worship. They suggest that each man can expect to hear the call of the gospel only once, whereas God may patiently woo him time after time.

Three famous hymns—"Rise Up, O Men of God," "Lead On, O King Eternal," and "We've a Story to Tell to the Nations"—have the same serious flaw. All take the postmillennial view that human efforts will gradually achieve the kingdom of God. The first says: "Rise up, O men of God! His Kingdom tarries long; bring in the day of brotherhood and end the night of wrong." The second says, "With deeds of love and mercy the heav'nly kingdom comes." The third says, "For the darkness shall turn to dawning, and the dawning to noonday bright, and Christ's great kingdom shall come to earth, the kingdom of love and light."

*17. Many contemporary cantatas are objectionable because of their nonchalant attitude toward the teaching of Scripture.

The Crimson Bridge, written by Derric Johnson and published by Singspiration (Zondervan), is unscriptural from start to finish. Some of its faults will be exhibited here to show that contemporary Christian music cannot be used without careful evaluation of its message.

When telling about the thief who mocked Jesus as he hung on a cross beside Him, Johnson says,

We're not sure what went wrong with that first man's life. Beaten and bruised as a child? Cheated and scorned as a teenager? Bought and betrayed as an adult? Who knows? But something did happen. And even there hanging on the cross, looking at Jesus, he just couldn't believe (1)!

In fact, as Scripture plainly teaches (Psa. 53:1-3), sin and rejection of Christ are not the result of being warped psychologically by some unfortunate experience, but the natural tendency of the human heart.

Johnson alleges that the darkness at Jesus' death was caused by a thunderstorm (2). Is he denying that the darkness was a miracle? No doubt he would say that there was an element of the miraculous in the storm's timing and intensity. But he would thus belittle the extent of divine intervention. Scripture treats the darkness as the first in a series of bizarre, supernatural events, including the rending of the temple veil and the opening of many graves (Matt. 27:45-54). The darkness was so unusual that it lasted for hours and covered "all the earth" (Luke 23:44). In about A.D. 50, an anti-Christian writer named Thallus argued that the darkness was produced by an eclipse of the sun (3). But he hypothesized the impossible, for Jesus was slain on Passover, the fourteenth day of a lunar month, when the sun and the moon were on opposite sides of the earth. (A Jewish month began after the first sighting of the crescent following a new moon. A full moon was seen on the fourteenth.) If the true cause of the darkness had been a storm, opponents of the gospel would not have strained so hard to find other explanations.

Besides all the inaccuracies in the cantata (at least fifteen by my count), the language throughout is tastelessly melodramatic, even hysterical.

*18. Many songs that have appeared on the religious hit parade contain nonsense and are not worthy to be sung.

Bill Gaither's "The King is Coming" says that when Jesus comes in His glory, He will be coming "for me." In fact, because I am saved, He will come for me some years earlier. Also, Gaither seems to take the postmillennial view that Christ will be greeted by a redeemed world rather than by a world under the dominion of the Beast. The song says, "Work on earth is all suspended as the King comes thro' the gate. Happy faces line the hallways, Those whose lives have been redeemed." The picture is very confused and unscriptural.

Tepid, shallow words without a good theological foundation are common in Christian songs today. Many songs sacrifice balanced truth for the sake of making people feel good. They rhapsodize ecstatically about God's love, but they fail to acknowledge God's hatred for sin, and they overlook Christ's substitutionary death on the cross as the ultimate resolution of these paradoxical divine attributes. They avoid overly candid pictures of man the sinner. (For example, in many modern hymnals, Isaac Watts's profound question, "Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?" is changed to something less cutting.) They harp sophomorically on the theme of love among men, but neglect to say that true human love is possible only through the power of God's Spirit. Worst of all, they often refrain from giving due praise to Jesus Christ. Where they should name Him and give Him the glory, instead they speak vaguely of God (in an effort to gain acceptance in liberal churches) or they cultivate worship of the Holy Spirit (in an effort to gain acceptance in charismatic churches).

Valid worship exalts Jesus Christ. "If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be dominion and praise for ever and ever" (1 Pet. 4:11). Christ, therefore, is the proper emphasis of Christian music, although He need not be the subject of every song.

*19. A song should be avoided if it seemingly sidesteps Christ or if it lacks an exalted conception of Him.

He is not just Jesus the man. Too much attention to His humanity while disregarding His full name—the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31)—may be a sign of poor theology, or of sensual religious devotion unacquainted with true faith.

Perhaps the most offensive portrayal of Christ to attain wide popularity in the professing church is Dallas Holm's "I'll Rise Again." In his attempt to reconstruct Jesus' thoughts during the Crucifixion, the writer has Jesus use the language of an alienated, uncouth teenager who wants to get even.

*20. A Christian song should not be meaningless or nebulous in meaning.

Among the older hymns, "Open My Eyes, That I May See" is notable for its lack of solid content. Its invocation of mystical illumination, its desire for secret glimpses and voices of truth, its allusions to magic ("Place in my hands the wonderful key"; what does the author mean?), and its total neglect of Christ—all these ingredients have made the song a favorite of many cultic and occult groups. I am told that spiritualists often use it as preparation for a séance.

*21. The music of the church should not be dominated by songs that convey only a few simple ideas.

No Christian can grow spiritually if he is fed just milk. His diet should include music with meat on it (Heb. 5:12). Gospel choruses are appropriate for children, but should be used sparingly with young people and adults. When a simple, informal song is needed, the best choice is a Scripture song in a folk or sing-along style.

*22. In the prayer and singing of the church, there should be no vain repetition (Matt. 6:7).

It is unwise to sing a few favorites over and over again until the words flow automatically from the mouth without engaging the mind. The songs often overworked until they become mere babble include "Wonderful Grace of Jesus," "How Great Thou Art," and "Great Is Thy Faithfulness." To prevent the most popular songs from becoming vain repetition, the song leader should used them in rotation with a large number of others. An average hymnal has four or five hundred, and a typical congregation can master two or three hundred if all are sung at least once every year. As the congregation sings, they must pay attention to the meaning of the words.

*23. The song leader should, by one means or another, encourage the people to think about a song's message.

*24. Since a frenzied tempo tends to kill all sense in the words, the song leader should set a moderate pace, allowing the words to be pronounceable, as well as distinguishable from Chinese.

*25. A song should not be sung if its words are overly hard to understand.

Many song texts are incomprehensible to an average Christian today. In some cases ("The God of Abraham Praise," "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name"), the fault lies in his ignorance of theological matters that were once common knowledge in the church. In other cases, the fault lies in difficult phrasing or vocabulary ("Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise," "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"). Yet if we sing only hymns that are easy to understand, we will trash some of the finest hymns ever written.

*26. So that older hymns employing elegant language need not be excluded from the song service, the pastor or song leader should take time to explain their meaning.

Yet some hymn texts use such extravagant or obscure imagery that they are better forgotten. One by the eminent eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope is a leading example.

Rise, crowned with light, imperial Salem, rise!

Exalt thy towering head and lift thine eyes!

See heav'n its sparkling portals wide display,

And break upon thee in a flood of day.

Now this is the first, not a middle, stanza. What is the poet talking about? The second stanza is no clearer.

See a long race thy spacious courts adorn:

See future sons, and daughters yet unborn,

In crowding ranks on ev'ry side arise,

Demanding life, impatient for the skies.

Pope seems to be saying that a throng of the unborn is, at this very moment, clamoring for early admission to heaven. How eccentric! At last, in the final stanza, we learn that the poem has been a visionary excursion to the New Jerusalem, but along the way the rhapsodic poet has spilled upon us much confusion and misconception.

*27. The words of sacred music should not imitate the cheap phraseology of popular love songs.

Yet here is what is being sold today:

In the still of the night when you draw me near

just to whisper how you care, showing me your gentleness,

how I love you.

If you heard these words sung in the secular media rather than in church, what would you think? Anyone with some sophistication would naturally assume that he was listening to a love ballad—and not an old-fashioned, sentimental piece about "moon" and "June" but a modern piece with plain erotic meaning. Yet, in fact, these words are taken from a children's song about Jesus. The excerpt comes from The Music Machine, a best-selling children's musical published by Sparrow-Birdwing.

Is Jesus being addressed here as Lord, Christ, or Savior? No, obviously not, because the text uses the words of romance, and the music behind the text is soft and dreamy. Clearly, He is being addressed as a lover. Today in the Christian world, music with romantic overtones is becoming fairly common. The voice on religious radio is often a female singer crooning, "Take me in your arms, Jesus," or, "My soul is thrilled by the touch of your hand," or other words to the same effect. Yet, Scripturally speaking, not all forms of human love are properly directed toward God. In particular, no one should view Jesus the Son of God as an object of sexual love. In his humanity He is our friend (John 15:14) and brother (Mark 3:35), but He is no one's partner in carnal affection.

Before I proceed to criticize some popular hymns, let me stop to address my reader directly. If one of these is among your favorites, please do not misunderstand me. I am not accusing you of anything wrong. No doubt you have assumed that the hymn in question expresses agape love rather than eros love. In that case, your singing and enjoyment of this hymn have been acceptable worship before God. While insisting that some hymns are not the best, I recognize that all believers are still in the childhood of their eternal lives. We are all like the little boy who draws a portrait of his father and runs to him shouting, "See, see what I made! It's you, Daddy!" Daddy says, "That's great!" Now, by all the canons of art criticism, Daddy is a liar. The head in the drawing is a bulbous blob with a jack-o'-lantern face and weedy hair, and the body is a strange contortion of match sticks. But, really, Daddy is telling the truth, because he is referring not to the picture, but to the motivation behind it. In the same way, we sometimes bring our Lord the strange offering of a mangled performance or a tasteless song, but still He accepts it if our mistakes are the natural, unwitting mistakes of a child, if our desire is to give Him the glory, and if we are receptive to His pointers on how we might improve our worship.

Unfortunately, words of fleshly love spoil several popular Christian songs. An example from contemporary music is Gaither's "He Touched Me." An example from older music is "In the Garden." Any worldly-wise person hearing the latter song for the first time would, I am sure, recognize it as the description of a lovers' tryst. The last line is the most objectionable, because it sounds like one of the sweet lies whispered by paramours. "And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known." On a spiritual level, the line has no truth in it. Our joy in the Lord, however great, is no greater than other believers have known. The author's statement that the song celebrates the meeting between Jesus and Mary Magdalene on Easter morning strengthens our doubts about the song's propriety (4). The sentiments he ascribes to Mary ("And he tells me I am his own") and the picture he draws of their encounter (lasting all day until the approach of darkness, mentioned in the third stanza) are inaccurate and in poor taste. Incidentally, in one city where I lived, the song was a favorite waltz tune at local dances for senior citizens.

I will turn now to another issue. The driving and directive force in sacred music should be the words. The words should not be reduced to secondary importance by melody, harmony, or rhythm. Of these three nonverbal elements, melody should be the most prominent because it is the carrier of the words. Consequently, a proper harmonization does not override melody, but gives melody firm support.

*28. All music dominated by harmonic texture should be set aside.

A composer exaggerates harmony if he makes it constantly close or dissonant, or if he drastically slows the pace of the melody so that the listener can savor rich chords or smooth chordal progressions. A conspicuously contemporary or lush harmonization should be avoided.

If melody should be uppermost, rhythm should never call attention to itself. A proper rhythm is normally unobtrusive. A big beat rising from drums or bass instruments detracts from the spiritual message of a sacred song. Ear-grabbing syncopation has the same effect.

*29. All music with a commanding rhythm—in such styles as jazz, rhythm and blues, rock, and swinging country-Western—is inappropriate.

Later, it will be argued that these styles are undesirable not only because they deemphasize or drown out the words, but also because they communicate worldly values.

When Hezekiah reformed Temple worship, he instructed the musicians to use exactly those instruments chosen by David centuries earlier (2 Chron. 29:25-28). From then on, only harps, viols, cymbals, and trumpets were allowed in the orchestra. Drums were not allowed, although they were well known in the ancient Middle East. In Psalm 150, the writer omits drums from the list of instruments that he recommends for use in worship. The only percussive devices that he mentions are the cymbals, cool and stately in their sound, and the timbrel, a small jangling instrument like the tambourine. It is obvious that in Old Testament times, the Lord found the beating of drums disagreeable. We may assume that He is still of the same opinion, for the Lord never changes.

*30. In our day also, because they elevate rhythm to a place of supremacy, drums are generally an unacceptable accompaniment to sacred music.

Exceptions to this rule include the use of small drums to establish a marching rhythm and of timpani to produce tension or majestic emphasis. But as drums are most commonly used—to provide rhythmic support for music in a contemporary style derived from jazz, rhythm and blues, rock, or swinging country-Western—they should be avoided.

As carrier of the words, a proper melody emphasizes the natural rise and fall of phrases and exposes the emotional side of meanings. It does not use syncopation to highlight the beat. Nor, to emphasize the harmony, does it use glides, grace notes, and other techniques favored by jazz improvisation. Above all, the melody and its underpinning of harmonies and rhythms are never an end in themselves. In sacred music, they merely assist the communication of an edifying message. Pretty instrumental playing is, therefore, worthless in corporate worship unless it accompanies a voice, or recalls the words of a familiar song, or serves in some way as a framework for thought-centered worship.

*31. Preludes, postludes, and offertories should employ tunes that hearers associate (or should associate) with sacred texts.


  1. Derric Johnson, The Crimson Bridge (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Singspiration, date unknown), 31.
  2. Ibid., 42.
  3. F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, 5th revised ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960), 113.
  4. Wallace Brockway, notes on A Treasury of Hymns, ed. Maria Leiper and Henry W. Simon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953), 325.