from “Contemporary Music: A Confessional Perspective” by Rev. James Judson
In today’s LCMS a struggle is taking place concerning music within the Divine Service. This is not a debate over whether or not music belongs in the Divine Service but rather a debate about what kind of music is proper for a Lutheran church body to allow and indeed support and encourage congregations to make use of in the Divine Service. There has been much discussion among the clergy of the LCMS on this subject but many questions and concerns remain among the laity. These may include questions such as “What is wrong with contemporary music?” “Why does it matter what we sing in church?” “What’s the purpose of all this ‘fighting,’ can’t we just agree to disagree?” These questions and concerns deserve to be addressed. What follows is a relatively short treatment of the subject from a biblical and confessional stand point. I hope that what I have written helps to address the questions and concerns that you may have.
“Worship Service” or “Divine Service?”
The proper place to begin any consideration of music within the life of the Church, especially as it relates to the Divine Service, is to firmly establish an answer to the question “What is the Divine Service and what makes it different from a worship service?”
The Divine Service is a liturgy, a style of church service which the Christian Church has used since the earliest days of Christianity. Even though the form of the liturgy has changed over the centuries, the basic structure has remained the same. The liturgy is comprised of a set form with distinct parts which remain the same from service to service. This to allows the congregation to become familiar enough with the form to truly concentrate on and understand the words of prayer and scripture that are read, spoken, chanted and sung through the course of the service. Thus, the congregation is spiritually fed by the Word of God found in the liturgy and is taught by the repetition of key verses of Scripture which emphasize key points of doctrine.
This is in keeping with the confessional Lutheran understanding of worship and in this we find the heart of the answer to the above question. While many other denominations look at a church service as a “worship service,” or an act that we the Christians do for God, confessional Lutherans view the church service as a divine service, or what God does for us, the Christians. We believe and understand that God serves us through the service of Word and Sacrament and that every part of the liturgy is part of that service. This is why confessional Lutherans have traditionally been extremely careful about what we allow to take root within our church services.
Every part of the liturgy is part of God’s service of Word and Sacrament to us. This includes music. Music is not simply a frilly “add-on” that serves no other purpose than a sort of window dressing that makes the service more interesting. Rather, it must be understood that music is a vital and vibrant part of the service that can, will and does teach, enlighten and serve for better or for worse. Richard Resch explains:
The true faith is not only expressed in the sermon but also prayed in the prayers and sung in the hymns of the Church…through the Church’s practice people learn without even knowing it. In this way the practice of the Church serves the Church as a holy weapon of defense and offense in the Lord’s battles.[i]
This is, of course, of particular importance given that a person’s resistance to persuasion is lowered when music and or other arts are used to promote a particular idea or teaching.II
Therefore, having established this understanding of a church service and the importance of music in the services of the Church, let us now turn our attention to understanding what determines whether or not a certain piece of music is appropriate for use in the Divine Service.
The Text of the Hymn/Song is Primary
When judging music to determine whether it is proper to be included in the Divine Service, the first and foremost rule that must be followed is that the text is primary. It is in the words of the hymns/songs in question that we find open theological and doctrinal messages. Therefore, when evaluating a piece of music, one must first consider what the text is saying. Any music that is to be considered appropriate to be included in a Divine service must stand up against a test of its doctrinal content. Any hymn/song which includes lyrics that teach poor or false doctrine must be rejected outright. The words of a hymn/song, as mentioned above, can and will teach the hearers/singers whether they are conscious of its teaching influence or not. As Dr. David Scaer, a professor of mine at the seminary, was fond of saying: “Gentlemen! Be careful of the hymns you choose, your people don’t leave humming the sermon!”
In order to be found proper for use in a Divine Service, confessional Lutherans believe and teach that the text of the hymn meet certain requirements. A summary of these requirements is as follows: the hymn must be directed to God and be God centered, theologically sound, Scriptural, “truthful and clear in interpreting the Word,” and without double meaning, exaggeration, or being overly sentimental. Rejected, thus, are all hymns that include text that runs contrary to good Lutheran, hence Scriptural, theology, hymns that focus on the work of man over the work of God, hymns that are unclear in their meanings and thus lend themselves to false interpretation and hymns that find their sole purpose in pandering to human emotion rather than edifying the spirit with the Word of God.