Over the years and again recently, I have become aware of some who make music the litmus test of fellowship. What I have observed does not target extreme differences, for those who have embraced musical extremes typically do not remain close enough to warrant talk of separation. Rather, it involves debatable matters. Yet for some, their view of music is held as a fundamental of the faith, and their moving beyond biblical proportion is divisive. If it is overkill (which I believe it is), it fits in the category of carnality—the divisive carnality condemned in the third chapter of First Corinthians. Strange it is . . . using carnality to fight perceived carnality.

This music litmus test is an over-prioritization of music. For many, it is assumes a one-style-of-music-only position. And any time we say “only” where God hasn’t, we are setting up an idol of our own making. This applies to many of the “only” positions that extend beyond the clarity of the written Word. Usually, such positions are three or four steps removed from explicit statements of Scripture, and when one gets that many steps away from the explicit words of God, flesh-dependence is likely as one is forced to rely on personal deductions. While it is fair to grapple, deduce and make personal applications, it is not fair to make a universal standard from conclusions drawn at this level. Personally, I enjoy a variety of music and especially an adagio classical sound, but this is not by any means the only legitimate musical style.

God created music. Satan degrades music (Is. 14:11-12). Therefore, not all music holds the same value. We need discernment in musical choices, but we can go beyond what God has made clear and become rigid where God is not. While each of us must live by our personal convictions, making a universal standard out of a personal application threatens to eclipse God’s personalized leadership in the lives of others. This is not to say that anything goes. God has a “box”—but it is larger than what some may think.

In Christian music, the music carries words of biblical principle. Music is therefore important. It is not unimportant. But it is less important than other, greater matters.

Jesus spoke of the greatest commandments and of the least commandments. In doing so, He made a distinction. While “least” does not imply unimportant (and we should never act like it does), it does imply less important. The greatest commandments (loving God and loving people; caring for them instead of mistreating them) are more important than lesser matters. To not recognize this distinction leads some to run roughshod over people over lesser matters while supposing the issue in question to be of greater importance.

For some, man’s traditions have also been lumped in with the least commandments. This is worrisome because mere traditions are not on the level of the least commandments. And in a setting where the least are deemed to carry the same weight as the greatest commandments, things really get messed up when traditions are accorded the same consideration.

People have been mistreated and slandered over traditions and, specifically, music. Many have been unfairly branded with the C of “compromiser”—the scarlet letter in Fundamentalism. It is not unheard of that one so stigmatized would become the subject of a virtual feeding frenzy of criticism and be eaten alive by adherents of “proper, biblical standards.” But in the Bible, the only group that matches such a piranha-like description is the Pharisees. Some have spoken as if they were knowledgeable on music issues. But often this “knowledge” is courtesy of a ministry-of-criticism paper and not derived from a primary source. Too many times, I have found criticism papers to be inaccurate propagators of assumptions and misinformation, especially regarding motives. Though seeking out a primary source would serve well to validate or contradict the claims being made, it’s a step too often neglected in favor of pointing a finger while thanking God that one is not as other men are (Luke 18:11).

Assigning greater importance to music than God does is the idolizing of music. Why? Because musical applications are not on the level of the indisputable fundamentals of the faith. And much of the division we’ve witnessed is not over an acceptance of flagrant styles of music but, instead, concerns elements that can be debated among those who love the Lord. But breaking fellowship over music that God-loving people view differently—is this really honoring to God?

Is it really Christ-honoring to cut off missionary support over debate-worthy music styles? The issue at hand is not something like embracing heavy metal, not even close. Yet there are missionaries that have been defunded due to music. Should missionaries be expected to subscribe to the position held by every supporting church on every debatable issue? While some might think this would be nice, it would soon prove impossible when support is offered by any more than a single church. Where God has not defined things, there will be differences among Christians and between churches. Is it Christ-honoring to break fellowship with other churches just because, in the grand scheme of things, their conservative music is not as conservative as someone else’s choice?

Sure, we must each apply what we believe in our personal life. But we must let others do the same. Let each one be persuaded (Rom. 14:5). Also, each church must apply what they believe in their own church. But they should let other churches do the same. For Baptists reading this, remember that soul liberty and local church autonomy are “Baptist distinctives.” Deny either of these, whether in principle or practice, and one falls short of being a true Baptist. Thus, it is strange when considering the present matter how that some who have spoken the loudest about being Baptist have proven not to be true Baptists at all. Their actions in the idolization of music reveal what they hold true regarding soul liberty and local church autonomy. Additionally, it is divisively carnal to separate over matters in which each individual and each church has a responsibility to obey the Holy Spirit.

Carnal separation. I must admit, I’ve been there.
In the early years of my ministry, when I was exposed to a good song from a realm of believers that I considered less than my own (this alone was arrogant), I remember saying things like, “Why take a good song out of the garbage?” But when God graciously put me on a revival journey, the Spirit showed me how grossly arrogant this thinking was. I callously referred to children of God as “garbage” only because they differed with me, and I am ashamed of such condescending remarks. Arrogance is wrong.

Sadly, in those early years of ministry, I had fallen into over-prioritizing music. But then I started traveling in evangelism.  Travel can help prevent tunnel vision and the onset of living-in-a-bubble theology. I saw believers who loved God, having evidence of the joy of the Lord and effective ministry, who used music different from the music I would employ. I had to decide what was more important—the truth I wake up to preach (like life in the Spirit) or separating myself unto a particular style of music. I decided the more important matters needed to be given priority over less important matters.

Someone might deify a particular style of music and demonize everything else, but this is a fear approach, not a faith approach. It is a one-size-fits-all (or better, my-size-fits-all) attitude toward music that condemns all but one’s own approach and inevitably condemns the innocent. But remember, Jesus condemned those who condemned the innocent (Matt. 12:1ff). Years ago, we wrote a song entitled Help Me Win the Lost. It was written out of burden as the Lord stirred me about the needs of the souls of men. I was burdened that it touch hearts, not just minds. God made music to stir a variety of emotions based on truth, as observed in the Psalms. That was the burden behind the making of the song, and many have testified that God stirred their hearts with this particular song. If this is so, to God be the glory. To my surprise though, a very few considered it offensive. In their way of thinking, it was too emotional, and they condemned it as being wrong. To not prefer the song is fine, but to call good evil is not.

Regarding music, everyone must apply what the Spirit individually persuades them to apply and must allow other believers to do the same. It is fair to seek to persuade others for what you think is best, but it is not fair to idolize music and make it the litmus test of fellowship. For those who have unwisely broken fellowship and yet, down deep, respect God more than they fear the stern faces in their group, the overkill needs to be humbly admitted and appropriate apologies offered.

“Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).

John Van Gelderen

John Van Gelderen

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