A Short Treatise on Round Pegs and Square Holes…

There is a time and place for everything. This little profundity is missed by the masses. Apparently it takes the wisdom of Solomon to teach us this simple truth. The Preacher says to us in Ecclesiastes 3, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven…” In poetic fashion, He reminds us that God never intended for us to dance the Tango at funerals.

Don’t misunderstand, the Almighty isn’t opposed to fleet feet with a Latin beat. Solomon actually says (contrary to most fightin’ fundamentalists), “…there is a time to dance…” Wisdom is learning when to shuffle and when to sit still.

This is the place where the modern evangelical Church really seems to have some difficulty. She has a hard time making distinctions where they matter. The struggle is really over the meaning of the word propriety, and this inability to make distinctions is right at the heart of our problems in the “worship wars.” What kind of music should we use in our worship of the Most High God?

Rejection of a particular kind of music for worship is not the same as a rejection of that kind of music. I have very eclectic taste in music. As I sit typing just now Pandora is playing in the background. In the last ten minutes I have heard everything from Bach to Bachman-Turner Overdrive…and I like it. I like jazz, I like rock and roll, some of it, I like classical, I like the blues, I like classic country, and I love the Psalms. Now given this hash of musical interests and appreciations, you would think that I would be arguing that we should employ all of it in the worship of God. The assumption is that anything we like ought to be hauled into the worship service. Not a bit of it, and the key word is propriety. I like Guinness too, but it would be sacrilegious to have a pint in the pulpit. It would not, however, be sacrilegious to have a glass of water there.

The problem with many modern evangelicals who automatically insert the kind of music “they like” into their worship of God is the fact that they haven’t studied the direction and use of their own music. The problem is not that they like their music too much, the problem is that they think so little of the music they like that they refuse to study what it is for.
Music is teleological; it is designed to perform certain functions, to arrive at a certain end. It is not true that any piece of music can be performed for any function, and have the results be at all reasonable or normal. When Saul was in a blue funk, David’s music would soothe him (I Sam. 16:14-17). When the musicians of the Temple came to prophesy they did it with musical instruments (I Chr. 25:1). When certain children wanted a jig, they played a pipe (Mt. 11:17). When the prodigal son returned home, the residents of that household broke out the instruments that were conducive for a bit of lively dancing (Lk. 15:25), dancing and music, incidentally, that could be heard down the driveway. Music must suit the occasion, and because the tone and mood of occasions vary considerably, the kind of music we play must vary considerably. As we study the subject of music we see that God has given us an impressive range of musical options to accompany us through our lives. The problem with contemporary worship music is not the kind of music it is, but rather the kind of occasion everyone seems to think the service is.

“Wherefore we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may worship the Lord acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29). Let those words, reverence and godly fear, roll around in the mind and heart while you sing through some inane song, with all the hand motions. The difficulty is not the music, but rather the incongruity of the music and what the Bible says the occasion of formal worship should be like. The music itself, that song itself, might be perfectly fine at a birthday party for someone’s kindergarten class. But in the worship of the God of Abraham, it is a wretched insult.

Ragtime is not suitable for a wedding march. Complicated operatic music is not suitable for congregational singing. Conversely, swing is suitable for a particular kind of dancing. It might therefore be suitable for a wedding reception, but not during the wedding itself. The Preacher tells us that there is a time to mourn and a time to dance (Eccl. 3:4). We have music for dancing, we have music for funerals, we have music for military parades, we have music for lovers, we have music for a peaceful evening at home, we have music to pump up a crowd at a football game, and we have music to write articles like this by.

Music can be evaluated in two ways. One is pure aesthetic evaluation, with teleology forgotten. Considered in this sense, Brandenburg Concertos are vastly superior to anything in the world of rock and roll—Chuck Berry made this point, perhaps inadvertently, when he said, “Three chords and eighteen great albums.” This “abstract” evaluation is important but should not lure us into forgetting the teleology of music entirely. Despite the abstract superiority, a performance of the Brandenburg Concertos would not be appropriate in a worship service, anymore than some song by Big Fats O’Toole and his Ragtime Seven would be. Superior music is inferior in some settings. Inferior music is inferior in some settings. Music that is poorly done within the constraints of each genre is bad music and shouldn’t be tolerated anywhere. Thus, we have good and bad superior music and good and bad inferior music. And surrounding all such distinctions we have the category “appropriate music.”

When the role of teleological function is remembered, we see that inferior music can be superior. For an “inferior” social event, that is to say, an informal social gathering, inferior music is better. Blue jeans are better than Armani suits if you are chopping wood. Put another way, when chopping wood good clothes are no good. Failure to recognize this can result in serious social weirdness.

The music of Bach and Mozart are the equivalent of a great cathedral. And we all recognize the vast architectural superiority of such a cathedral over the typical suburban house. But it would be a drag to have to make your breakfast or watch Monday Night Football in a cathedral. The fact that it is a superior building does not mean it is superior for every function.

In the same way, congregational worship has a particular function; our corporate goal should be to hallow God’s name. This is what we are doing. This is where we are wanting to go during worship. We want our music to take us there. If this is true, then we should ask what music is fitting.



  1. I think you nailed the issue with this statement… “The problem…is not the kind of music it is, but rather the kind of occasion everyone seems to think the service is.”

    The “conservative” side of the worship war spends most of their energy telling people what kind of music to have, and fails to give a biblical case for the kind of worship service that should be had in the first place.

    You mentioned the solemness of a wedding…
    If you want your wedding to be a “let your hair down” event, you do this:
    If you want your big day to be a solemn occasion, you do this:

    Bottom line–the kind of music we have in our services is a direct reflection of the type of service we think God wants.

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