The Beam in the Eye of the Beholder

It may not seem important right now but Abigail was a beautiful and intelligent woman. Keep that somewhere between whatever is on the back of your mind and whatever is on the front burner right now. Please and thank you.

Christians are good at fighting relativism when it comes to matters of truth. Those who reject a fixed standard of truth are soon engaged in debate by capable Christian apologists. Believers also do well when the subject at hand is ethics. Those who want moral standards to be set, or set aside, according to the dictates of the current situation are also quickly challenged by Christians. But in the realm of aesthetics we all tend to behave like atheists. Christians are almost as relativistic as the world outside the Church. Whenever an aesthetic judgment call is made, inside the Church or out, the chorus of protests from Christians starts in: “But who is to say?” In this, we sound just like the people we debate in matters of truth and ethics. The reason we sound like them is that because, on this issue, we are like them. We are seeking to function as though atheism could be true in a limited way, at least on the question of beauty and loveliness.
As a result, we choose churches on the same principle used in choosing a department store or a gas station. In this choice, the criteria are convenience and suitability to our tastes. We function as consumers, and the church is thought of as a service in which religious products are produced, in order to be consumed by us. And, because tastes vary, we drive down “church row” expecting all kinds of worship services—liturgical, traditional, contemporary, odd, bizarre, and so forth.

Beneath this is the assumption that every consumer has a constitutional right to his particular tastes. Some people like contemporary music, and some don’t. Some people like complicated music played on a church organ, and some don’t. Some like landscapes painted on saw blades, and some don’t. All such debates are resolved, at the end of the day, by our free market solution to this dilemma, which is to get in the car and drive around looking for the product which suits you.

Coming from the church, we ask whether we liked the music, and not whether it was any good. We ask whether the service met our felt needs, and not whether God was honored in what was sung. We do this because we are relativists, and we might as well say so.

So then, back to Abigail. The fact that the Bible tells us that she was attractive means that such a thing as attractiveness in women exists. The idea that everyone is equally good-looking is consequently unscriptural. Extending the point, the fact that a psalm can be played skillfully means that it might not be. it might be played poorly (Ps. 33:3). The musicians selected for the worship of the Temple were talented. Apparently this mattered, but my point here is a more fundamental one. Apparently, musical talent exists—in just the same way that truth and goodness exist. The Bible says that musical ability exists and is to be preferred in the worship of God.

This is not to say that aesthetic judgments are easy, or that we could flippantly make them without hard thinking and good training. The subject of aesthetics in the light if the Bible’s teaching has been long neglected among us, and we cannot expect to recover what we have lost in short order. We cannot throw away a legacy for several centuries and then expect to get it all back in fifteen minutes. But the fact that the task is difficult does not make it somehow optional.

Given this difficulty, it is not surprising that we are all confused. In our debates about worship music, we frequently miss the central point. For example, the issue of first importance is not which side is right in the debate over contemporary forms or traditional forms. The things that really matters is that a true debate be acknowledged to exist. For example, I sometimes jokingly describe the worship at our church to be “seeker hostile.” We do not exactly have what could be described as a contemporary service. This is not because we do not know how. It is a deliberate choice. But if someone were to challenge what we are doing because he believed we were not honoring God, I would hail him as an adversary well-met.

This is because the Bible says that an honest answer is like a kiss on the lips. If privileged to debate a brother who said that what we were doing was aesthetically inferior, I would be delighted, because we would share a belief that some standards exist. A man in error will pick up the wrong side of the debate. But a relativist says that all such debates are silly and unproductive. There is no debate, because there is no answer. And this is what we tend to hear from most Christians. What we hear is a poor substitute for for honest debate, and is, in the final analysis, the counsel of despair. “Who is to say what good music is?” If the question cannot be answered, what shall we sing in heaven?

Our motive for all that we do is to be the glory of God—even if it is something as mundane as eating or drinking (1 Cor. 10:31). How much more, then, should we be seeking the glory of God when we are in the act of, well, glorifying Him? Now, of course, Christians would agree that we should sing to glorify God—but the snares come when we assume that whatever we like is suitable as an offering to God. This was the error of Cain, of Nadab and Abihu, and of those guilty of “self imposed religion” in Colossians 2:23. When we ask what glorifies God, we must seek the answer through careful study of Scripture. Our motive must be to glorify God in our singing, according to the pattern found in His word. An essential part of this is the necessity of beautiful music.
Of course, church music must not be evaluated aesthetically alone. Men and women express themselves to God through music. This is why it is important for those who sing, whether individually or congregationally, to have hearts prepared to offer the sacrifice of praise. “By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name” (Heb. 13:15). If we do not prepare ourselves spiritually for worship, God is not pleased with our musical offerings. “I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies. Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts. Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream” (Amos 5:21-24). God takes a dim view of musical hypocrites.

Having said this, we must also add that the aesthetic poverty of much church music really proceeds from our irreverence. Through the prophet Malachi, God protested the blemished offerings given to him. “Offer it now unto thy governor; will he be pleased with thee?” (Mal. 1:18). Invited to sing at the White House of Buckingham Palace, how many of us would sing the way that we do in our church? The flippancy with which some churches address God is truly frightening. “The LORD reigneth; let the people tremble: he sitteth between the cherubims; let the earth be moved. The LORD is great in Zion; and he is high above all the people. Let them praise thy great and terrible name; for it is holy” (Ps. 99:1-3). We should note the translation here—His name is terrible. And this requirement to be God-fearing was not some bygone, Old Covenant thing. Paul taught the Philippians to work out their salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). But because we do not fear God, we do not worry at all about what kind of music we offer Him. This is folly of the highest order. God has killed men for less.

Our music must be well done, and the Bible says that such beautiful music exists. What is beautiful and what isn’t is not simply a matter of personal taste. In Colossians 3:16, we are required to have the word of Christ dwell in us richly, and the result of this rich indwelling is to be music. The music that comes forth should reflect the richness of our faith, not the poverty of our faith. If the faith is rich, then the music will be rich as well. Scripture teaches a correspondence between tree and fruit, fountain and water.

Not only must the worship of the congregation be good, it should be good and loud—Scripture does not require the people of God to come before Him in order to mumble. “Sing…with a loud noise” (Ps. 33:3; 150). In another place it says, “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise” (Ps 98:4). Of course instruments are a hall here. “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. Sing praise unto the LORD with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm. With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the LORD, the King” (Ps 98:4-6).

Because the lyrics must have Christ at the center, the lyric must also be worthy of Him. “Saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing” (Rev. 5:12). An important aesthetic attribute is symmetry; and, in order to be symmetrical, our lyrics must effectively focus on Christ (Rev. 5:9,12), the One in whom all things hold together. They must do so not only in content, but also in form. In order to glorify God as He deserves, the lyrics must be well-written. If they are not, then they will only confuse, distract, mislead, or stumble the saints as they sing to Him. How words go together is not irrelevant to the effectiveness of the communication, and certainly not irrelevant in their effectiveness in giving God honor and glory.

Biblical symmetry results in aesthetic balance. The lyrics should express the doctrine of God’s people in a clear, balanced way. This is simply another way of saying that the lyrics should be creedal and systematic (Phil. 3:16). Further, the lyrics should express God’s truth with the same aroma as found in Scripture (Ps 95:1-2). Our joy and thanksgiving may not be pro forma, but rather an expression of gladness and simplicity of heart. In short, beauty in our music and lyrics is necessary for one overriding reason—He is worthy.
Beauty with a Bayonet…
To many Americans though, this just sounds like a total drag. We are a breezy lot; we like things casual. Whether we are flipping burgers in the backyard or approaching the throne of the Almighty God, we want to wear shorts and flip-flops. The problem is nearly universal; the only thing that varies from church to church is the extent of the damage.

The one thing needful, as C.S. Lewis once argued, is represented by a Middle English word solempne, which expresses something which is desperately needed in our worship. On either side of this solempne, we have this error or that one. Either we are right out there on the cutting edge with worship teams, a thumpin’ band and all the rest of it, or we are content with our lazy afternoon orthodusty. If the preacher were ever to whack the congregation with one of those things you use for cleaning rugs, the cloud of dust would look like it had been raised by Jehu’s chariot.

Like our word solemn, solempne represents the opposite of casual, but unlike solemn, it carries no connotations of austerity, moroseness, or gloom. We moderns have come to associate spontaneity with innocence and virtue, fresh and unsullied. Our adoption of unbiblical criteria means that we frequently overlook those things which the Bible associates with a healthy church, dismissing them as dead simply because they have more formality in the liturgy than we like.

Solempne is out of reach because we simply assume that formality is deadness. But many different scriptural arguments against the spontaneity assumption could easily be brought up—Christ’s worship in the synagogue, the elements of worship required by Scripture, etc. But for our purposes here, one argument should suffice. God prohibits spontaneity in worship.

In 1 Corinthians 14:40, Paul requires, among other things, that everything be done according to taxis, according to order. He is not just discouraging pew-jumping and chandelier-swinging, he is requiring something else, of a different kind, in its place. The word means “arrangement; order; a fixed succession observing also a fixed time; orderly array (in a military sense).” God requires that everything in the Church should be done according to a set arrangement. Far from “quenching the Spirit,” these are the instructions of the Spirit. He tells us that our worship service should be planned and, dare I say it, predictable. This means that a preset order of worship printed in the bulletin is the result of the Spirit’s leading. It is not spiritually stifling but rather, spiritually stimulating.

Paul uses the same word in Colossians 2:5 when he rejoices at what he hears about that church. “For though I be absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit, joyful and beholding your order, and the steadfastness of your faith in Christ” (Col. 2:5). How many of us would write to a smilier church today, rejoicing to behold their regimentation? A vast difference exists between quenching the Spirit, which the Bible prohibits, and being quenched by the Spirit, which is a result of hearing and obeying His word.

Of course a worship service may very well be formal and lifeless. This is disobedience. “Wherefore the Lord saith, ‘Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men” (Is. 29:13). In the opposite corner, a worship service may be informal and lively. We have no Scripture for this one, other than the implication that the absence of taxis did not unchurch the group of saints at Corinth. They in turn, were sternly rebuked for it.

A worship service may be informal and spiritually chaotic, meaning that lifelessness is just around the corner. “Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better, but for the worse” (1 Cor. 11:17). If the disorder evident in their worship went unaddressed, the end result of their activity would be final, lasting spiritual inactivity. The activity in a church can simply be a form of pandemonium.

Obedience requires that a worship service be both formal and lively. To say it again, “For though I be absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit, joyful and beholding your order, and the steadfastness of your faith in Christ” (Col. 2:5).

We should therefore see that there are two types of order. When a formal church is unhealthy, it is because their arrangement is the order of china figurines on a shelf. When a formal church is obedient and healthy it is because their arrangement is that of well-disciplined troops preparing themselves for battle. An opposing general would not look at their calvary, wheeling as though one man, and dismiss them as a bunch of heartless statues.

The worship of the Church accomplishes work in the world. Battles are won or lost as a result of how our churches worship God. Too often we act as though our differences over liturgy were simply difference over decoration, instead of differences over effective strategy in the midst of a fearful war. There should be no disagreement over whether the warfare of an army should be coordinated or not.

And as the Scriptures declare, when the choir in militant joy goes out as the advance guard of the army, then God’s name is glorified, and His enemies are scattered. The worship is formal but formidable; it is alive but it is also deadly.

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