The songs of the Levitical choir at the Temple in Jerusalem were called songs of the Lord (1 Chron. 25:7; 2 Chron. 29:27), no doubt because they differed markedly from all the other songs known to the people of Israel. In content, they were filled with the praise of God. In character, they were written in a style appropriate for worship.

Today also, our sacred songs should be distinctive. The test of whether our bodies are an acceptable sacrifice to the Lord applies also to our songs. "And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God" (Rom. 12:2). In character, therefore, the music of believers must not be worldly.

What does "worldly" mean? The Bible enjoins us: "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world" (1 John 2:15-16). Of these three fundamental evils, lust of the eyes is rarely a degrading presence in music, which is nonvisual. But music is extremely vulnerable to both pride of life and lust of the flesh.

Pride of life can touch both the musician and his audience. The musician falls into pride if he accepts adulation that is rightfully God's. The audience falls into pride if it glorifies a man who is essentially a projection of themselves.

Lust of the flesh easily enters a song through its words. These can aggravate romantic longings, love of ease, or any other carnal sin. Every musical element of a song can also express lust of the flesh. The melody can wail passionately or croon seductively. The harmony can, through such devices as the blue note, convey a sense of naughty pleasure; or, through repetition of simple progressions (I-V-IV-I, for example), create a hypnotic, sensual rhythm; or, through iteration of open figures with little tone color, make a psychedelic sound beloved by drug users or a heart-of-space sound beloved by New-Agers; or, through emphasis on lush dissonance, produce an experience of tension and release at almost a visceral level. But without question, the musical element most easily perverted is rhythm. A steady beat, for instance, is conducive to primitive dancing, self-display, and sexual awareness. Another sensual abuse of rhythm is syncopation. Jerky interruptions in the melodic flow highlight the foundational beat as a necessary frame of reference and invite imitation by bodily movement.

Every form of carnality is common in popular music. Yet fans of this music generally mock claims that it is morally harmful. They cannot see the danger in something so familiar and so entwined with good feelings. Yet they can hardly deny that popular music is worldly. Where does it come from? It comes from ungodly, immoral men outside the church and outside the grace of God. What is its purpose? Pleasure. What kind of pleasure? The kind that is most fully enjoyed in night clubs, rock concerts, and other vice-ridden gatherings. Plainly, if popular music is so companionable to carousing, it must be worldly. That is, it must express the ungodly lusts of men in a fallen world.

Putting a Christian veneer on worldly things does not save them from Biblical condemnation. "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this. To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27). The Christian mind should contemplate and enjoy only those things that are absolutely unworldly. Thus, sacred music should stand on its own feet without leaning on popular music as a source of ideas. The Christian musician should strive to worship the Lord with a "new song" (Psa. 96:1; 149:1), excluding all devices that give popular music its worldly character.

He should shun not only those devices that are unquestionably carnal, but also those innocent devices that are nevertheless reminiscent of leading popular styles. The listener should not come away with a greater appreciation and craving for the wrong kind of music. For example, although morally neutral in itself, the saxophone has a peculiar throaty sound that has limited its use almost entirely to jazz. Thus, to bring this instrument into the church involves certain dangers. If Christian people hear it often enough, they may learn to like it. But fondness for a leading jazz instrument may prime the ear to accept the sound of a jazz band. Also, someone who begins by playing the saxophone in church will find that he must study jazz if he wishes to become proficient.

Some argue that church music has always been a sanitized synthesis of popular idioms and styles—in other words, that the source of all musical invention is the world. But the implication that the world surpasses the church in creative vitality is a devilish lie. A proper view of history leads to rather different conclusions.

Between 1500 and 1900, Western musical art evolved dramatically. Serious composers made great progress in charting the possibilities of form and substance. The modestly conceived works of the sixteenth century led to the much more intricate works of the Baroque, and from there music traveled an upward, spiraling course to the gigantic, sprawling symphonies of the late nineteenth century. During this time, sacred music was not deaf to the larger trends. It too was undergoing development. But the notion that throughout this development it was just a mirror of popular styles is far-fetched. Most of the new sounds in sacred music were borrowed from classical music, which, as we argued earlier, should be viewed as one of the benefits of divine grace. Other new sounds were introduced by sacred musicians who extended and elaborated their tradition without relying on secular influences, or by towering figures like Bach who stood astride both sacred and secular music. Only to a minor extent did sacred music rely on popular and folk styles for inspiration (1).

It must be remembered, however, that much of the popular music during this period was unstained by worldly lust. In nineteenth-century America, the favorite songs were "When You and I Were Young, Maggie," "Home, Sweet Home," and others of the same type. If such music left occasional echoes in sacred music, no harm was done. Much of the popular music of America and Europe was at one time the unobjectionable music of a culture resting upon a Christian heritage. For centuries, all classes of society had held the Bible in high esteem, and divine truth had been working its salutary influence upon every realm of culture. Biblical values and beliefs had become the cornerstone of all thinking. The Christian valuation of man as a creature made in the image of God had prompted the development of humane laws and republican institutions. The Christian view that the universe is constructed on orderly principles had spurred tremendous advances in art and science.

But every achievement derived from Christianity came under the systematic attack of Satan, and the tide of battle turned in his favor after 1900 (2). Since then, evil forces have been relentlessly hammering away at the intangible monuments of Christian culture. The goal of justice for all men has been stolen as a rationale for endless causes at enmity with true justice. The precious institutions of the American republic have been disfigured by the overreaching power of the judiciary, the cynical largesse of the legislatures, and the grasping demagoguery of aspirants to executive leadership. Science has moved ahead in discovery of details, but in its larger conceptions has become bogged down in allegiance to false theories like evolution.

The same deterioration is evident in Western music, both serious and popular. Each element of musical structure is dissolving into either formlessness or oversimplification. Poetry has disappeared from the words of a song, and in its place there is crude rambling or constant repetition of a single thought. In place of a subdued and varied rhythm, there is chaotic free expression or an aggressive big beat. In place of sonorous and lawful harmony, there is noisy discord (as in modern serious music and jazz) or a mindless routine of chord changes (as in country-Western and in much rock 'n roll). In place of complex and beautiful melodic development, there is senseless wailing or a tireless rehashing of dull, insipid tunes.

Since 1900, Christian music has, sad to say, increasingly imitated popular music. As a result, Christian music has not continually enriched and renewed itself, as some would imagine. Rather, it has gone downward in a mad rush toward utter worthlessness as a medium for the worship of God.

Nevertheless, some argue that updated music draws people into church. But so also would free booze and a stage show. Carnal methods merit no consideration.

Some say that Christian music in an idiom familiar to the unsaved makes them more receptive to the gospel—that just as the missionary Hudson Taylor put on Chinese dress to win a sympathetic hearing among the Chinese, so the church should employ contemporary styles of music to gain the attention of people living today. But this reasoning is flawed. Chinese dress is not intrinsically wrong, whereas church music in a contemporary style is wrong on many counts. In origin, it issues primarily from greed rather than from piety. In message, it teaches a cavalier disregard for exact Biblical truth. In method, it strains to copy the world and promotes admiration for worldly music. In relation to aesthetic values, it joins the devil's campaign against order and meaningfulness in art. In relation to the young, it encourages their disdain for the "old" and applauds their preference for the "new." In relation to the church, it promotes carnality in worship. The steady beat, the intimate sound (when a singer puts a microphone in the ready-to-swallow position, a listener can almost feel the singer breathing in his face), and the emphasis on smooth or lively instrumental effects rather than on the words—all appeal to the flesh.

Of the many Biblical principles relating to music, the most important derives from the often stated command that we should sing unto the Lord (Psa. 81:1; 89:1; 95:1; 96:1; 100:2). In other words, the main purpose of sacred music is not to entertain, edify, or even evangelize, but to offer the Lord something He enjoys. Standards for sacred music should articulate the Lord's own likes and dislikes. The defenders of contemporary sacred music say that since elements of style are inherently amoral, it is enough when our music has the right words and motives—that if these are godly, the Lord can find pleasure in music of a contemporary style as well as in music of a more traditional style. But here is Cain's fallacy—to suppose that the vehicle of praise is irrelevant.

Unlike man, who has a short memory, God never forgets. The primary reason He hates a contemporary style is that He remembers where every stylistic device comes from. He is supremely aware that the distinctive melodies, harmonies, and rhythms of popular music were invented in the haunts of iniquity by men of reprobate mind seeking to create a sound expressive of carnality, sexuality, and rebellion. He instantly recognizes everything men have invented at the bidding of their father, Satan. Should we worship God with Satan's music? "Shall the throne of iniquity have fellowship with thee?" (Psa. 94:20). "And what concord hath Christ with Belial?" (2 Cor. 6:15). "And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them" (Eph. 5:11).


*32. All music with a recognizable affinity to jazz, rhythm and blues, rock, swinging country-Western, New Age, and other contemporary styles of popular music should be excluded from the church.

*33. All music associated with performers of worldly Christian music should also be excluded from the church.

The church cannot hold the line against contemporary styles if it uses music either composed or popularized by such figures as the Imperials, the Cathedrals, the Oak Ridge Boys, Andrae Crouch, Evie, Keith Green, Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Larnelle Harris, Carman, John Michael Talbot, Take 6, Twila Paris, Sandi Patti, Steve Green and a host of others who have risen to popularity in recent years.

The alternative to a contemporary sound need not be an austere classicism. Any modern fundamentalist choir that specialized in Palestrina would soon drive away the congregation. High-Church music is incompatible with the informal service of a fundamental church and is incomprehensible to the average person in the pew. Even Bach and Handel must be used sparingly, if at all.

*34. Music by classical composers is generally unsuitable for modern fundamental churches.

Instead, such churches should present music that is simple and transparent without being simple-minded and trite.

*35. Congregational singing should, in the main, be restricted to hymns and gospel songs in a traditional, uncomplicated style.

*36. Special music should employ songs similar to those sung by the congregation, but not necessarily the same songs, nor necessarily in plain settings. A composed arrangement is entirely appropriate.

Any church that sincerely desires good music will, with the Lord's help, find an ample supply. Publication of good music continues even today, despite the relentless coarsening in what is conceived as good music. Much of the good music published in the past can still be found in cupboards and attics.

A music director may feel that he is too busy to search for music of high quality. The easier course is to buy contemporary music instead, because it is everywhere within reach and because many people in the church want to hear it. But principle must not yield to pragmatism. Church leaders have a responsibility to practice and preach the whole counsel of God, even as it applies to music.

*37. Effective preaching on music standards requires a two-pronged strategy.

  1. On the negative side, a pastor should point out the flaws and dangers in worldly Christian music. Also, he should tell his people which publishers, performers, radio stations, and stores to avoid.
  2. On the positive side, he should identify and commend any enterprise that seeks to furnish the church with acceptable music. One encouraging development in recent years has been the emergence of several ministries devoted to producing Christian music of high quality.

A pastor who feels unqualified to teach others about music may choose to bring in speakers from outside. But he should not imagine that his lack of musical expertise will, at the Judgment Seat of Christ, be an acceptable excuse for poor music standards in his church.

Pride of life is another worldly lust that endangers Christian music. If a musician has outstanding ability, he readily becomes an idol to his audience, and their adulation can arouse self-deifying pride within his old nature. Christian leaders who work with a crowd-pleasing singer or pianist must be careful not to make him a cult figure. In any public commendation of his work, they must not be overly warm and glowing. In private, they must straightforwardly exhort him to stay humble. Yet they must not treat him with coolness. Someone highly skilled in what has been defined as the language of emotion is, after all, a very sensitive person—a person who needs to feel appreciated. But having an ardent nature, he must work doubly hard at managing his affections so that they do not turn inward upon himself. He must discipline himself to fight back the surgings of pride. When he performs, he must think about the message he is giving rather than about the impression he is making, and he must look upon the audience as brothers to be served rather than as fans to be entertained. Furthermore, he must do his utmost to stop others from worshiping him. If admirers fill his ears with praise, he must gently remind them to give all glory to God.

If a Christian musician offers his work for sale, he must see to it that he personally has a low profile in all content, packaging, and advertising. He must not lie to the public by showing them glamorized and unreal images of himself. He must identify himself as merely God's servant.

*38. As an antidote to the idolatry of musicians, everyone connected with the production and performance of Christian music should direct all glory to God rather than to men.

In Christian bookstores today, many book covers and recording cases furnish no clue whatever that the contents have something to do with Christianity.

*39. All packaging and all notices of items for sale should be Christ-centered.


  1. The old saw that Luther took his tunes from the tavern has often been refuted. See especially Robert Harrell, Martin Luther: His Music, His Message (Greenville, S.C.: Majesty Music, 1980). See also Friedrich Blume, Protestant Church Music: A History (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1974), 35-44. Only one of the melodies to Luther's thirty-seven chorales is demonstrably based on a secular song.
  2. The last great revival to sweep the Christian world fell in the period 1904-1906. See J. Edwin Orr, The Flaming Tongue, 2d ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975).