While pursuing a Worship Ministries degree from NOBTS, I had the pleasure to take a class called, Congregational Song in Corporate Worship. This course was, ultimately, a history class on how the church has worshipped God, through song, since the time of the early church. I thoroughly enjoyed this class because it opened my eyes to see how small our “controversy” is today, compared to previous, more important controversies. As one who grew up learning music during the boom of “praise and worship” music, I took a firm grip of the new movement and ran right along with it. Every church where I led music was “privileged” to run with me. My immature view was: 1. A “relevant” church sung the new songs on the radio. Why wouldn’t we, everyone knew them already? 2. A church that still held a hymnal for each song was too “traditional” and needed to change. Now don’t get me wrong, I was never anti-hymns. My problem was overly loving my personal preference. And, guess what? A hymnal-only person has the same problem. My problem was a disrespect for time-tested hymns. Their problem is a closed-minded view of “new” songs. The truth is, we both needed to repent. A study done in 2003 by George Barna revealed: “Many church people fight about music because they have yet to understand the purpose of music in the worship process. That lack of insight causes them to focus on and fight for their preferred sound, instruments, presentation techniques, or their desired order of service. Too often, church leaders get caught up in the fuss. These battles are inappropriate distractions from meaningful ministry and fruitful discipleship. Christians need to be more zealous about, and devoted to worshiping God. The Church needs to move on and focus on the One worthy of worship and the desire of His heart – which is to be worshiped with intensity and passion by His people – rather than to focus on the tools used to facilitate our expressions of love and gratitude.”
So, what is my view now? Honestly, I do not care when a song is written, if the song is in a hymnal or not, or what style. If it is doctrinally sound and easy for a congregation to learn and sing, we are going to sing it. I thank God that He has opened my eyes. Church (the Bride of Christ), corporate worship is much more meaningful for us when our focus is on CHRIST and not on us. When we make our corporate worship about our personal preferences, we are placing ourselves in bondage. There is so much freedom in focusing on doctrinally sound lyrics that are all about Christ, than to make sure we sing two “hymns” and two “praise and worship” songs each week. The rest of this blog is a list of musical controversies in church history. This list briefly explains the conflicts, how they were resolved and how the understanding might apply to the present circumstance. I pray eyes are opened, as mine were, to the silliness of the “controversy” around us. And, that the church would truly worship Christ, instead of ourselves. En Cristo Solo!
1. EARLIEST CONTROVERSY: USE OF INSTRUMENTS IN WORSHIP
Conflict: Use of instruments in worship.
Resolution: Instruments banned in worship for nearly 700 years.
Analysis: Symbolic theological interpretation resulted in restriction of their use.
Comment: Eventually instruments were accepted and used in worship. Extreme responses seem to have been an over reaction to an issue that was not a heresy.
2. THE ARIAN CONTROVERSY
Conflict: Songs used in promoting heretical views of Christ’s deity.
Resolution: Congregational singing restricted until Vatican II.
Analysis: Theological heresy resulted in restriction of congregational singing.
Comment: Restricting singing to a small group of singers eliminated congregational participation. The establishment of a process to filter theological heresy from the congregational singing and training in biblical truth might have been a more equitable solution.
3. ICONOCLASM AND MUSICAL DEVELOPMENT OF THE MIDDLE AGES
Conflict: Icons interpreted as providing an image of the unseen God.
Resolution: Though temporarily banned, eventually accepted.
Analysis: Religious leadership favorable to icons pushed support.
Comment: The use of art to aid in worship was substantiated.
4. REFORMATION CONTROVERSIES
Conflict: Need for vernacular worship and revisions in the mass.
Resolution: Division into various groups: Luther, Zwingli, Calvin. Three views on Lord’s Supper, open congregational singing (Luther), restricted congregational singing (Zwingli), and limited congregational singing (Calvin).
Analysis: Differing theological positions about the needed reform resulted in factions.
Comment: After nearly 500 years, though distinctions still exists in views and practices of Lord’s Supper, congregational singing has become more homogenous among the groups, with a limited common canon of hymnody.
5. THE COUNTER REFORMATION CONTROVERSIES
Conflict: Musical counterpoint made text unintelligible, use of secular melodies in mass music.
Resolution: Palestrina’s more refined counterpoint, use of secular melodies continued.
Analysis: Composers had placed musical elements of their compositions above the priority of textual interpretation and understanding. Contrafactum continued despite papal bans.
Comment: Compositional guidelines seemed to be more effective in dealing with musical issues than outright restrictions. The danger lies in the association of the secular melody and how powerful the association remains in a new musical context with biblical or Christianized texts.
6. PSALMODY AND HYMNODY
Conflict: Limiting the texts to biblical ones only seemed to be restriction that went further than the biblical record.
Resolution: Initially, hymns were added during Lord’s Supper, then the quality of the text was greatly improved through authors such as Watts. Watts was able to show that a Christian perspective on the psalms was necessary and that believers needed to be able to express personal experience. By the early part of the 1700s, the inclusion of hymn singing was standard practice.
Analysis: Though opposition was initially strong, worthy expressions of praise were composed and used to help break down the resistence. The idea was not to replace Scripture, but to help interpret it.
Comment: Hymn singing was not without precedent, Luther had promoted it years before, but fear of presenting an unworthy sacrifice, that is, one of “human composure” slowed the progress of personal expressions.
7. THE OXFORD MOVEMENT
Conflict: The Reformation and Evangelical revival had produced an enormous amount of hymnody, but had completely rejected anything from the past, because of its catholic roots. There was a need to reconnect with the early church worship and reclaim worthy expressions of praise and worship from the past.
Resolution: Texts from Greek and Latin sources were translated and set to music.
Analysis: Rejection of catholic doctrines had resulted in the rejection of anything related to the catholic church. Previous over correction of the Reformation led others to see the need to restore the good that was in the past.
Comment: The development of Hymns Ancient and Modern, that included old and new, set a new standard for what a hymnal as a worship tool could do.
8. “OLD WAY” AND “REGULAR SINGING”
Conflict: Congregational song had deteriorated to chaos and mumbled praise from lining out.
Resolution: Rise of singing schools in local churches to aid in teaching individuals to sing and lead song.
Analysis: Lack of training left many with a desire to help, but little enough training for both leader and congregations.
Comment: Training leadership and congregations in worship was basic to teaching and discipleship.
9. SUNDAY SCHOOL SONGS AND GOSPEL HYMNODY
Conflict: Rapid growth and popularity of a particular style led to use of songs without theological filter. Sound familiar???
Resolution: An explosion in hymnals and collections to meet demand. Only those most popular survived in later generations of collections. Songs were absorbed into the musical canon of the church. With the rise of denominational hymnals, were doctrinal issues addressed in a more systematic way.
Analysis: Popular music style took precedent over careful theological issues.
Comment: Stylized composition can be relevant culturally, but needed theological analysis to guard against doctrinal heresy.
10. MODERN CONTROVERSIES: INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE
Conflict: Gender insensitivity had alienated part of the body of Christ.
Resolution: Some groups addressed gender issues among the body of Christ, but extended their applications to include the Godhead.
Analysis: In search of new expressions of the nature of God, those addressing gender issues rejected biblical understanding and biblical descriptions of the Godhead.
Comment: There is a need to avoid alienating segments of the body of Christ, but not at the expense of biblical self-expression.
11. MODERN CONTROVERSIES: CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN MUSIC
Conflict: Rejection of more traditional forms of hymnody to the limitation of secular stylized music in worship. Rejection of organ and choral groups to guitar, percussion and praise band.
Resolution: Venue worship: developed worship services based on music styles; development of some blend between the two styles.
Analysis: Generational tastes drive decision making as to what worship is for the individual.
Comment: Failure to teach and understand biblical worship within a post modern culture has resulted in “me-driven” worship. The critical issue is the balance between being culturally relevant and spiritually reverent.