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Colossians 3:16 & Ephesians 5:18-20 by Robert Dean
Congregational singing expresses our submission to God’s will and authority. Congregational music is a reflection of Christian culture, not an expression of society’s culture, tradition or a warm up to Sunday’s message. Culture is made up of all aspects of thinking and acting but apart from a Biblical base, it is all worldliness. To evaluate music we must embrace, separate and eliminate. The issue is embracing a standard before we can even consider our music. To embrace our music preference first is to apply an internal, subjective standard and sometimes results in leaning into the attraction of our sin nature. Learn about the source and mandates we embrace and why music is not a neutral element of worship.
Series:Colossians (2011)
Duration:52 mins 35 secs

By What Standard? Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:18-20


The topic of music we have been studying: How do we sing? What do we sing? What are the standards for what we sing? Now we deal with the question: By what standard?

When we talk about anything within the realm of the arts often we think that what makes these things good or excellent has something to do with its appeal to the audience and not some intrinsic beauty that exists within that artistic expression. True art isn't excellent because it is popular. True art isn't excellent because it resonates in the human soul. It may do both but good art is excellent because it conforms to an external absolute of intrinsic beauty which is within the essence of God.

One question that has come up constantly over the years is that we understand that there is an external standard but what are the elements of that standard? How do we sit down and look at a piece of music and determine whether or not this qualifies as something that is truly beauty reflecting the intrinsic beauty of God? Or is it just something that is popular or attractive to the audience? These are important but difficult questions.

What we are focusing on here is the music that is sung congregationally, maybe with a choir, within a local church to worship God; with the understanding that has been lost in the current generation that there is a distinction, and ought to be a distinction, between the music that is sung by the body of Christ within the congregational meeting of the church that is a distinctive reflection of the culture of Christianity, and if that is our understanding then that means that the music that we sing in church is not going to be similar to the music that we hear on the radio. For generations of the church, from roughly the first century until the late 1960s there was this understanding among Christians of all categories and denominations that secular music was secular music and then there was music that was sacred music. That was an important distinction because the music, just like everything else that we do within the context of the local church, should reflect a biblical framework of thinking and not the thinking of the world outside.

What exactly does culture mean and how does it relate to our values in terms of understanding that which is to be valued, that which is beautiful, and how that is impacted? That is particularly significant because when we think about this whole concept of the arts as a general category, and music specifically, when we use evaluative terms—that's good music; that's bad music—we seem to be appealing to some sort of universal standard by the language that we use, although what is often meant by that today is not that is beautiful music because it relates to an external standard of beauty, it is beautiful music because it stirs our emotions, we like it, it makes us feel good. It's bad music because I don't like it, it's not my taste, it's not my music, it doesn't make my foot tap or my heart beat faster or my emotions swirl. So we use purely subjective standards.

And that is brought into the church, too, because for many years people will come to church and sing and say, Oh that music was so inspirational. Is that the reason we sing, so that we will be inspired? Is that biblical? Often music is something that we think of as deeply personal and that is why there are such worship wars going on, splitting congregations and sometimes splitting families, splitting ministries; so we need to have humility and we need to have a good understanding of what the Word says, and of history, philosophy and theology. This is why it is hard for a lot of pastors. They are not trained theologically, they are not trained philosophically, and they're not trained musically to be able to address these things. Their only real criterion is what they like and what they see as popular in that it brings more people to their church.

By what standard to we evaluate music. Colossians 3:16 tells us that there is a biblically defined purpose to why we sing. It is not just traditional, not just because we like to do it, it is not just a warm-up session; it is clearly mandated an expected of the people of God in corporate worship to sing together in praise to God. "Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you," which means to take up a complete residence in the soul. The result: "with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another." We will sing "with psalms {and} hymns {and} spiritual songs" and through that we teach and admonish one another. That is not the only reason that we sing, the Scripture gives other reasons for why we sing.

What we have seen here first of all in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18, is that hymn singing is the first in a list of results that will come from a person who is letting his life be filled by the Word of God under the filling ministry of God the Holy Spirit. The next result that comes has to do with being thankful and with doing everything to glorify God. Then the next result is it changes your family life.

The first result, though, is related to singing. Why? Because we are joyful over what we have learned in the Word. We have learned about God's grace and this has given us great joy. The first primary purpose that we see therefore for hymn singing is that it is designed for us to teach one another, to admonish or correct one another. There are other purposes listed in Scripture. Scripture states that we sing to express our joy for God's work in our lives: joy because He has defended us, Psalm 5:11; 63:7; joy over His grace to us, Psalm 13:6; 59:16; joy because we remember His mighty works in our life, Psalm 30:4. There are many other verses that relate to those. We sing to declare His name among His people. There are also verses that talk about singing to the nations. But it is part of testimony, it is not the idea of witnessing or evangelism; it is specifically the testimony of Israel in those passages. In the Old Testament the singing of the psalms that we have (which is the hymn book of the temple) was in the temple.

There is no place that we can find in Scripture where the music that we sing is designed to attract people to the church. Music is not to be an evangelistic tool. But we will go out today into the wild and wacky world of evangelicalism and of we say that we will be looked at as if you just grew a third eye and a tail. You're nuts! That's why we do it in our church, so unbelievers will be comfortable! But that is not biblical at all. The purpose for singing is not for evangelism and it is not to attract people to the church, and it is not to make the unbeliever who operates on a pagan, false system of thinking feel comfortable. It is for believers to express their joy to God and to teach and admonish one another. It is not about how it makes us feel, it is about describing and declaring who God is and what He has done.

So hymns, both music and the words, must be evaluated according to some standard. Do we accomplish what the Scripture says we should be accomplishing when we sing. Are we teaching and admonishing one another? Are we declaring what God has done for us and to us, and are we expressing thanks to God for all of His mighty works?

When we come to any question like this and talk about evaluating things we run into a couple of important areas that we need to define. When we say anything in terms of evaluating whether it is good or bad, weak, poor, excellent, we immediately are bringing into the discussion some idea of a standard, personal value, and personal taste. Where do we get our personal tastes and personal opinions? Why do we like the music that we like? Why do we choose to listen to the music that we listen to? Is the music we listen to the music of our generation? Is it a part of the pop culture that we grew up with, or that we have continued to develop with along the line? Is the music that we listen to the art that we like, the drama, the movies? What shaped our taste in those things? It is suggested that our taste was developed by our culture. If we had been reared in Brazil, Japan, or in Africa our taste would be different; they would be shaped by those cultures. So we have to understand what the role of culture is in this, and in doing that we have to understand what culture means.

There are two different meanings for culture. The first is the popular meaning: a quality in a person or society that arises from a concern from interest in what is regarded as excellent in the arts, in the letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc. That is part of culture, but we would say it is more on the result end of culture rather than a cause end of culture, because the culture really relates to what we have under the second meaning, that culture describes the beliefs and behaviours that characterise a group of people—whether it is a small group such as a family or a team to a large group such as an ethnic group or national entity. Every one of these is a culture and they shape our values and ideas, our priorities, etc.

These beliefs that we have influence the values—what we think is right, good, better, best, bad, worse—priorities, actions of a group of people. It really relates to what the Bible speaks of as worldliness. Worldliness is how people outside the church believe, think and act. These values are not shaped by the Bible. So when we want to have a biblical culture, which is what should characterise a local church, then we have to go to the Bible to determine what those beliefs should be, how those beliefs in turn shape our values, our priorities, and it will affect the things that we approve and the things that we disapprove. It will affect what we will allow to dominate our thinking and to influence our thinking and what we won't.

When God created the heavens and the earth, Adam and Eve, and He created them in His image and likeness they were without sin, created perfect. He placed them in the garden of Eden and the garden of Eden had a righteous culture. There was no sin there. But when Adam sinned and he introduced a new value system everything changed. The culture changed. And the whole issue in sanctification and salvation is that God working first generally through the human race and then after the call of Abraham through the Jewish people, and now through the church, God is calling out a counter culture. It is a biblical culture, and the process of re-educating ourselves from the culture of the world to a biblical culture is called theologically, sanctification—learning how to think as God thinks, to value what God values, and to do things the way God would have us to do them.

But there are things in life that are not specifically addressed in Scripture, so we have to develop frameworks from the Scripture that we can then apply into these other areas. This is what we have to do with music because we can't go to chapter and verse anywhere in the Bible and say God likes this music and not that music. We have to make these decisions on the basis of what is revealed to us, which means we have to do one of those horrible things, and think! People don't like to think. It is hard to think, and what is really hard is when we have to think about our thinking and we know what it is going to do is tell us that maybe the way we like to do things and what pleases us ought not to please us and we really ought to spend our time and energies doing something else. That gets convicting, and then we want to react to it because God says we can't do it our way, we need to do it His way, and so we get mad at God.

When it comes to music and especially the arts people somehow get this idea that ultimately to determine whether something is aesthetically beautiful or not is a personal decision. That is why we spend time talking about the saying: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Ultimately beauty is in one who is intrinsically beautiful with an external objective standard. What we think of as beauty is merely our variations in personal taste effective to a large degree by our culture, and then all of a sudden we realise that even in these areas of the arts there are absolutes that should impact our thinking. It is not neutral. There are many who say music is neutral and you can use it just however you want to. But all of these areas of the arts vary from culture to culture. The Chinese culture could never produce the great film works that the United States produced in the 1930s. An Islamic culture would never produce that. Why? Because it is not consistent with their values. In other countries we see how they present things, and that comes out of a belief system. Tracking the connection between the belief system and the production of the arts is not always easy to do, but it is done by many people who are thinkers and philosophers. That is why it is necessary to be trained in philosophy, theology, the arts and all these other things to work this out. But no matter what culture we are thinking about that culture is all part of God's creation. Therefore anything that is part of God's creation is under God's authority. There is nothing that is neutral that is somehow distinct.

God created everything, music included, arts included, and writing included. The best literature in the world is where? In the Bible. People who are unbelievers and pagans understand and write about the Bible as great literature. People who are not Christians and don't have an axe to grind understand that the Greek of the New Testament is some of the finest literature that has ever been produced. It is because it originates from God. That in and of itself indicates a standard.

So on the one side we have God as the creator and on the other side we have the finite universe which God created. Everything in the finite universe is created by God and therefore God has something to say about it—what matter, energy, light, vegetation, animals, man, and defining man as to how he is, his purpose, his social life, including marriage, family, politics, his ethics or value systems, his aesthetics. All is part of God's creation. In God we have the absolutes of truth and beauty. That is intrinsic to God. He is the ultimate reference point for everything, not just spiritual things, because He is the one who designed and created everything. Music existed in the mind of God eternally, before He ever created an angel or a human being. Art existed in the mind of God before He created everything. He is the ultimate reference point and we have to understand that. If we are going to say anything we had better start with the triune God of the Bible or we won't get it right. We may get some things right or a lot of things right, but we won't have a correct view of whatever it is we are talking about if we don't start with God who had everything in His thinking and is the originator and creator of everything from eternity past.

Which leads us to the statement that some people think is a little radical. God either speaks to everything, including music and art, or He speaks to nothing He creates. He either speaks to everything or He doesn't speak to anything. He either is the creator of everything or He is the creator of nothing. The conclusion from that when we apply it to bibliology or the study of the Scripture is that the Word of God, which is designed to teach us how to think like God thinks so that we can glorify God, means that the Word of God must reveal to us a framework for establishing standards of excellence. We have previously talked about beauty because beauty is a word that has been used in the history of human thought to express that standard of excellence. Other words we have talked about are also used as synonyms with that in the Scripture: words related to the glory of God, His magnificence, He is majestic, splendid excellent. The ultimate reference point for all these standards for beauty and excellence is God, and He possesses intrinsic beauty which then becomes our standard.

We look at many different types of music and we don't understand why that person says this isn't very good and that one of very good, they both sound great to me. That is the difference between an untrained ear and a person who is uneducated in music and someone who has a trained ear and is educated in music. A trained person sees things that you and I don't see, unless we have taken a lot of time to be educated in it.

2 Chronicles 20:21 NASB "When he had consulted with the people, he appointed those who sang to the LORD …" The king is appointing a choir and he is not asking who wants to volunteer, he is choosing the best in Israel because God gets only the best. The best is some groups is better than in other groups but we need to have the best and always push towards excellence. " … and those who praised {Him}…" Singing to the Lord is the same as praising, so here praise means singing. They are glorifying and praising the essence of God. "… as they went out before the army and said, 'Give thanks to the LORD, for His lovingkindness is everlasting.'" It is not just praise the Lord. What has God done? His mercy had delivered them.

Job chapter 40 is a section where after Job has gone through all his suffering and his three friends saying that if he suffers it is all his fault, you must have done something because if you were really righteous God wouldn't have let you go through this. Finally when Job has resisted that and has affirmed his uprightness all the way through he turns to God. He just wants an answer for why he is suffering. Then God begins a whole series of rhetorical questions, all designed to make Job feel (He is not belittling him) like he is the size of a tiny ant in comparison to God and that if He told Job everything Job would still be dumbstruck and wouldn't have a clue what God had told him. In our finite minds we just can't grasp the totality that is in God's plan. Goid just kept hitting Job with all these questions.    

Job 40:9 NASB "Or do you have an arm like God [are you as powerful as God], And can you thunder with a voice like His? [10]  [If you can then] Adorn yourself with eminence and dignity, And clothe yourself with honor and majesty." God views Himself as the ultimate standard of majesty and power and splendour and glory and beauty.

Psalm 27:4 NASB "One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the LORD And to meditate in His temple." Here is a different word for "beauty." This word noam means beauty in the sense of ultimate graciousness. God is the picture of ultimate grace, and for that He is said to be beautiful.

Psalm 104:1 NASB "Bless the LORD, O my soul! O LORD my God, You are very great; You are clothed with splendor and majesty [honour and beauty]." So again and again and again the Scripture reaffirms that God is the standard for excellence, virtue and beauty. He is the ultimate reference point for all ethical absolutes as well as aesthetic absolutes.

At the very beginning of creation at the end of the six days of creation God said: "Everything is tob." At the end of the seven days He said: "Every thing is tob [good]." It is not a moral evaluation at this point, it is an aesthetic evaluation. Why do we know it is not moral? Because He is talking about the earth and the stars and the plants and the beasts of the field. They can't be moral or immoral. He is making an evaluative judgment based on the fact that this is exactly what He intended and everything is excellent according to a standard. It is beautiful. All creation was beautiful, but something happens. It was corrupted by sin. When we get to Genesis chapter three Adam sins and it corrupts all of creation. It no longer can be said to be absolute beauty. It was once but now it is under the corruption of sin. How do we know that? Romans 8:20-22 NASB "For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now." That means that living on this side of the fall with a sin nature that has an attraction to that which is corrupt and human cultures that act independently of God and produce corrupt results—corrupt literature, drama, music, everything. That influences everything and we grow up with a corrupted taste that is consistent with our corrupted culture.

What is the standard of excellence? God wants us to be constantly pushing towards A+, not saying what is the minimum I can do. We can do the best that we can do and push ourselves as individuals to do what is best. This does not mean that a congregation should attempt to sing like a professional singer or choir but we should sing congregational songs that are designed for congregations to sing, songs that we can sing, and sing them to the best of our ability. When we settle for less than the best what we read in the literature by knowledgeable musicians is that we are trivialising the music. Does that honour God to sing trivial music? Anther terms that is used is "banal," something that is tediously commonplace or unoriginal. How does that honour God to write music that really isn't very original and it isn't that great, but it is popular and commonplace.

An article written in a theological journal on Christian aesthetics stated: This aesthetic vice [that which is banal or trivial] deadens the sensibilities of the lay person who is not aesthetically keyed enough to recognise it but is nonetheless harmfully affected by it." What he is saying there is that you may not be very sophisticated in your understanding of music but if all you ever sing is trivial stuff then that is what is going to shape your taste. If you sing great stuff it is going to have an impact of bringing up your level of music appreciation and value.     

Madeleine L'Engle quote: "If it is bad art, it is bad religion no mater how pious the subject." In other words, no matter how good your intentions are, if it is not good art it is not good religion. And so much of what Christianity produces today is trivial, banal. But most Christians are so poorly trained in music that they don't say anything or know any different. And that is a sad commentary.

In our next verse in Colossians we do have a standard. Colossians 3:17 NASB "Whatever you do in word or deed …" That would apply to everything we do, but immediately in the context he is talking about singing. "Whatever you do in word [singing] or deed [music], {do} all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father."

1 Corinthians 6:20 says something similar: NASB "For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body." When we look at what we sing and how we sing it we need to think that we are doing this to glorify God. We want the best we can produce.