Should Christians sing hymns/songs they don’t agree with?

Should Christians sing hymns/songs they don’t agree with? September 9, 2011

Recently I was in a worship service where we were asked to sing the hymn “Be Still My Soul.”  Here are the troubling lyrics:

“Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away.”

I don’t know the theology of the author (Katherine von Schlegel, mid-1700s), but to me the message of the song is very Calvinistic.  It at least implies that every evil and instance of innocent suffering is from God.  (Start from the last line above–“all He takes away” and go up, interpreting the previous lyrics from that line.)

I couldn’t sing it.  I’ve come to believe it is wrong to sing lyrics that express theology with which you strongly disagree.  It seems dishonest–IF you think that singing a hymn or song is something serious and not frivolous.

Another one I cannot sing is “We’ve A Story to Tell to the Nations.”  The underlying theology (not even hidden) is postmillennialism; it more than implies that WE, humans, Christians, will bring the kingdom of God in its fullness to earth by our own efforts.

Some years ago I attended a Sunday morning service where the guest preacher spoke passionately about the imminent return of Jesus Christ.  He said that all prophecies of the second coming of Christ had been fulfilled and Christ could return “tomorrow.”  Immediately after the sermon the minister of music had us stand and sing this hymn–“We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations.”  After the service I went to the minister of worship and mentioned the cognitive dissonance between the sermon and the hymn.  His response?  “Only you would notice that.”  He might be right, but that’s an indictment of the sorry lack of theological knowledge and awareness in our churches–even among many church staffs.

I too often ministers of music and others who are involved in planning worship do not consider the theologies of hymns and songs they choose for congregations to sing.  And too often congregants do not even think about the words as they sing them.

When my father was alive and pastoring (these are some of my earliest memories) he would frequently stop in the middle of a hymn or gospel song and explain the message to the congregation.  He was determined to make sure that the people knew what they were singing and he wouldn’t allow hymns to be sung that contradicted his or his congregation’s theology (e.g., “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations”).

Occasionally I will ask people around me (after the service is over) about a hymn we sang during the worship service to find out if they have any idea what the theological or spiritual message of a particular hymn might be.  Almost always I get blank looks and quizzical smiles that convey the thought “Who cares?”  I think they are thinking “So long as the hymn made me feel good, what else matters?”

Don’t get me wrong; I try not to be too picky about this.  If it is possible to interpret a hymn or song in a way that does not contradict my beliefs, I will sing it and with gusto.  (I’m a Baptist; we sing loudly, you know.)

But I think congregants and worshipers should object when they are asked to sing hymns or songs that clearly, unequivocally contradict the predominant theology to which the church or the majority of the church are committed.  And ministers or music and worship should avoid choosing such hymns.  When they do choose them, I wonder how much thought they’ve given to their messages or if they are simply choosing them because they make people feel good.  That, of course, feeds folk religion.

 

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I’m SO there. For a while I penned some original songs for corporate worship because at least I knew I’d agree with them and they might be more helpful than the usual Sunday morning jukebox.

    I’ve lost heart since then, and now attend a church with totally rockin’ worship, dude (light show, guitar solos, video screens, even a fog machine sometimes) and these days I can’t even stay in there during the “worship”. Great programs for the kids, but it’s all negative self-talk songs or Vicarious Penal Substitutionary Atonement as the ONLY perspective, with some Calvinism sprinkled in for those who don’t consider themselves Calvinist…

    I’m jaded, and skeptical I’ll find anything any different out there. Unless, of course, it’s people who “love their hymns” and condemn the “Jesus my Boyfriend” music while not realizing that the church as “Bride of Christ” has ALWAYS sung “Jesus my Boyfriend” songs. They also fail to recognize so many conflicting, dissonant, man-made messages in their cherished hymns.

    It makes me strongly doubt this is what Jesus had in mind for those called out of darkness into light, into his glorious kingdom.

  • K Gray

    Much grace is called for in the area of music, as you mentioned, but…the words are more important than the ‘worship style.’ I share your concern with that — although not on this particular hymn, which seems sufficiently broad to cover several Biblical interpretations. (e.g. “takes away” is not much different than “prunes” or “disciplines” or suffering all as described in the NT, but that’s not my point).

    My point is: music ministers, please please teach the congregation, not just the musicians! Teach about God, not just music!

    We were recently asked what would make our congregation participate more in worship — meaning active participation, not just attendance. Ok, make it about God instead of talented people. Briefly comment about the song’s meaning. Relate it to the Bible, especially if it basically IS a psalm! Relate it to one of God’s immutable characteristics. Tell us the hymnist’s purpose, or why it was written (e.g. the famous Amazing Grace story). Even better, relate it to the upcoming sermon/message if possible. Teach! Share!

    Help us to be discerning.

  • Joe Canner

    I tend to agree with you. As an occasional fill-in preacher at my church, I have considered doing a series on the theology found in hymns and worship songs. In some cases the references are just obscure (“here I raise my Ebenezer”) and it’s instructive for people to dig into Scripture and find out what they’re singing about. In other cases, as you mention, the theology is questionable, which also provides a teaching moment, as well as an opportunity to suggest avoiding the song (or stanzas) in question.

    Here’s an example of a modern worship song that is good fodder for theological discussion. The last few lines of “Above All” say “…like a rose, trampled on the ground/he [Jesus] took the fall/and thought of me/above all.”

  • Tim Reisdorf

    “Only you would notice that.” What a terrible indictment on the rest of the congregation. Does this person think that the others don’t pay attention?

    While I agree with your general point, I like the song and the lyrics. So often for me it’s the “God says it, I believe it, that’s good enough for me” songs that I can’t bear to sing. I don’t believe in the sugar-coated, cotton-candy kind of God that some songs refer to, so I am silent.

  • This isn’t a hymn, but falls in line with what you are saying . . . and what has been bothering me for years.

    Matt Redman, “Blessed Be Your Name” goes off the biblical track when it says, ‘You give and take away . . . blessed be your name.” This is taken from Job, but it is part of Job’s misguided theology of which he later repents. It is part of Job’s all-too-human wisdom that God is arbitrary in what he gives and takes (1:21). And, although this did not count as sinning (1:22), it does form part of his incorrect theology. (Lesson on this is that ignorance is not necessarily sin, not that what he said is validated because it was not sinful.)

    After God speaks in the narrative Job replies (in epic-poetic waxing, of course) that he has come to see a new and divine wisdom which is superior to his own: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6). What he thought he knew about God (ears had heard) was not what he had experienced of God (eyes have seen), thus leading him to replace all of his previous theology with the words from God.

    Job is not primarily a book about pain, suffering and evil. That is the vehicle for the discussion about wisdom. The give-and-take-away sentiment is included here in order to be implicated as poor theology – God does not arbitrarily give and take away, but works within a free universe. When we pick-and-choose our passages we create a big mess.

    (PS – Our worship leader has rewritten that verse since we believe the remainder of the song is alright. “You live and love today . . . blessed be your name.” The Bible is clear that we cannot understand all of the reasons of why the world works as it does, but it is definitive in God’s loving care which is available to us at all times.)

    • rogereolson

      Wonderful! It reminds me of E. Frank Tupper’s axiom that “the world is arbitrary but God is not.” It’s so easy for people to sing (or say) that some tragedy is from God (“God knows what he’s doing”) UNTIL it’s their own son or daughter or husband or wife OR until you show them a documentary about the holocaust or the Asian tsunami with piles of dead bodies including little children. Sure, much in our lives that feels bad is the Lord’s discipline, but it’s wrong to extrapolate from that to every tragedy is God’s judgment (or whatever). Some years ago I heard C. Everett Koop preach a chapel sermon entitled “God killed my son.” Very stoic. Then I met and had conversation with Lewis Smedes who told me (and wrote) that when he stood by his little boy’s grave weeping he swore he’d never tell another grieving parent that God took their child. Tragic death, disease, cruelty, genocide…these are not from God; they are the consequences of human forgetfullness of God. As Tupper says “In every tragic situation God does all that God can do” (to prevent innocent suffering). But God has limited himself to allow for our free decision of autonomy with all its deleterious results.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Michael,

      I can almost agree with 100% of your statements concerning Job, but Job is actually being consistent in the narrative portions of the story. It is the “poetry” thinking that Job later repents of. What really makes my theological head spin is when someone uses a quote from Bildad or Eliphaz as a basis for their overall point. You are right in that all the participants need major correction by the end. But Job’s thinking and disposition is not wrong until Chapter 3 – when the poetry begins.

      To me, “You give and take away” is an absolutely correct response to a God who says of himself “I will be who I will be” (or “I am who I am”). The narrator speaks of this approvingly in 1:22. Consider what happened to Job. His family (sparing his wife) was killed by a windstorm. This wasn’t by chance or human choice – it is attributable (correctly) to God. The invaders who slaughtered and plundered his wealth, and the fire from heaven – was that just a coincidence, the unplanned synchronization of people’s choices? No, the way the story is told makes it clear that some invisible, powerful hand is at work. It was all coordinated. Job attributed it all to God and he was right to. God takes responsibility for it all in 2:3. Job responds to his wife (really, a foil in the story) in a way similar to his previous response: “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (The answer to the rhetorical question is “Yes, we shall”.) Again, the narrator approves. But nowhere in this section is God portrayed as arbitrary. In fact, Job is singled out for this kind of treatment because he is “uniquely righteous”, in fact, he is blameless.

      The story about the God causing destruction and death specifically aimed at Job is not meant to be broadly applied. It is Job’s story – one that is obviously “over the top” to make a point. And with Roger’s comment, it’s just bad form to claim that God killed a child.

      • Rather than go point-by-point . . .

        First, then what is Job repenting of in his own belief? He does not repent of the other character’s theology.

        Second, if God is responsible for killing Job’s family then why is the notion of God killing modern babies bad form? It would appear that theology is mismatched to practice.

        Third, again I submit that Job’s primary purpose is to demonstrate a higher wisdom that comes from God rather than the wisdom of humans. No character in the story is ever told of what happens in Job 1, and God’s speech is a reminder that the world goes on beyond our ability to comprehend it. Thus, we must appeal to God’s superior wisdom in order to understand and navigate it.

        • rogereolson

          There is nothing in Job that justifies claiming that every evil thing that happens (or every instance of innocent suffering) is from God.

          • Agreed. (I hope that was clear in the point I was trying to make.)

    • raleighgirl

      I agree that it is important to sing correct theology – and to use songs / praises/ hymns as teaching opportunities – but I disagree that this hymn is off base on it’s theology. God is either fully Sovereign (in charge of it all – happy and painful circumstances) or He is not. You can’t pick and choose parts that He is Sovereign of. He does give and take away. He is the Alpha and Omega — the beginning AND the end. We (as humans – specifically in America) don’t like to hear that because, well, we don’t like it when things don’t seem fair instead of looking at God’s holiness and all that He is…and was…and will always be.

      I do agree with Joe that “Above All” is an example of bad theology…God didn’t think of us most of all – He thought about His Glory and His plan above all. (Isaiah 43:25″I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”) (Romans 11:36 “For from him and through him and to him are all things.)

      —side note: Here is a quick link for a reference on what an ebenezer is:
      http://www.revneal.org/Writings/whatsan.htm

      —second side note: Here is an awesome link to John Piper’s site. He is Baptist in denomination. http://www.desiringgod.org/

      • rogereolson

        Ha! How did I know you’re a Piper fan before I got to the end of your message? So tell me this, did God foreordain and render certain the holocaust? Did he foreordain and render certain the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on 9-11? Does he foreordain and render certain the screaming agonies of a child dying of cancer or of a child being raped and slowly murdered by a sadistic pervert? Does he foreordain and render certain that certain individuals will suffer forever in the flames of hell for his glory because he foreordained and rendered certain the fall of humanity that led to them being guilty and “deserving” hell? If you agree with Piper you’ll have to say yes to all that. Then your “god” is a monster in my opinion. I hope you’ll read my book Against Calvinism when it is published in less than a month. Then come back and tell me what you think.

  • John Metz

    Roger, another good post!

    A question: if one does not understand the meaning of a hymn, is singing it considered worship?

    • rogereolson

      In that case, the person may still be worshiping but not with the hymn. Sometimes when I sing a hymn I am worshiping in spite of the hymn I’m singing!

      • “His response? “Only you would notice that.” He might be right, but that’s an indictment of the sorry lack of theological knowledge and awareness in our churches–even among many church staffs.”

        How very true. Corporate worship services should be pedagogical in a very real sense.

  • I’m glad you have brought this to light. As a worship pastor myself, I strive to make sure every song we sing melds well with my theology. It can be difficult when I receive numerous requests for “popular” songs that don’t, and sometimes I feel as though I’m the only one (outside of the pastor) who gives this much thought. Thanks for reinforcing a very important point for ministers to consider!

  • When I encounter such lines in the songs we do — “most people call them “praise songs” — I just don’t sing it. At certain times I have told the pastoral staff about songs that had bad theology, and I have found that they generally welcome the feedback.

    The downside to matching songs to sermons is that you can be asking people to sing some really obscure stuff. To me it would be better to have them sing something we will be singing regularly.

    These days I find that you also need to search through the Sunday program for references to websites. I once found one recommended to parents that asked them to teach their children theology that our church does not believe. The pastor was not happy to get that news and he made sure it did not happen again.

    Aiming at making people feel good is not a biblical purpose for song or sermon. If someone wants that, give them Joel Osteen’s address.

    -Barry

  • I try to talk frequently about the hymns we sing. One we do is “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus.” The hymn, as printed in our hymnal, says that as we “look full in his wonderful face, the world will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.” I explain some ways that is true. But I also have us sing it another way: “… the world will grow strangely CLEAR…”

  • Brian

    I refuse to sing patriotic hymns in worship services.

  • CarolJean

    I am not a Calvinist because I think it is contra to God’s character of justness and love and I don’t see the Calvinism in that hymn that you are objecting to. I see alot of words that agree with the scriptures I read about the life of a believer being full of tribulation but Jesus gives us peace, comfort, and leads and guides our paths. What specifically do you find objectional?

    • rogereolson

      The strong implication of the hymn is that all suffering comes from God.

      • CarolJean

        I’ve read the hymn a couple more times and I’m not seeing the implication that all suffering comes from God. Would you mind showing me something specific?

        • rogereolson

          Look at the last line.

  • Chuck Conti

    Years ago John Piper visited the Vineyard church I was attending. After worship he commented on the theology of some of the Songs. “Shout to the Lord” mentioned mountains bowing down. A week before a land slide had killed hundreds in Afghanistan. He pointed out the need to teach the theology of our worship,especially after tragedies like that, or else worship would become divorced from reality. I’ll never forget it.
    A couple of years ago, a song called “Let God arise “started getting played in church. I would never sing the chorus as I couldn’t quite grasp the theology behind it. I’m sure I could come up with something that would make sense ,but it just didn’t feel right.

    • rogereolson

      But, of course, if John Piper is right the land slide in Afghanistan was from God, so, for him, the mountains bowing down “at the sound of your name” is theologically correct.

  • Great question. There are some songs that really bother me as well. “He’ll Be To You” is particularly irritating. “He’ll be to you, just what you want him to; He’ll be your savior, your comfort or just a friend.” I doubt the author considered the implications of the terrible wishy washy theology. Another troublesome song is, “Because He Lives.” “You ask me how I know He lives, He lives within my heart.” I guess it might be alright if you reject the historical validity of the resurrection witnesses, but as for me, I cringe at the thought.

    • rogereolson

      I have had my students sing that and substitute “It’s true beyond a reasonable doubt” for “He lives within my heart.” That’s when we’re studying Pannenberg.

  • I’ve blogged on this subject myself. My solution is to change the lyrics. In churches that use hymnals this can be tricky, but with PowerPoint it’s easy enough. If the song’s in the public domain, there’s even money to be made by doing this, though I can’t recommend it. I’ve had varying results; some didn’t notice, some did and hugely objected, and some agreed with the changes.

  • Roger,

    I feel the exact same thing. Three issues that pop up in Christian worship music.

    1) Cosmological dualism / escapism. “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation. And take me HOME…”

    2) Atonement theology of wrath based appeasement. “… the wrath of God, was satisfied”

    3) Any song that emphasizes “I” instead of “we” (Ok, I’m not as picky on this one. However, when I am singing communally, it seems consistent with a theology of community that “we” are worshiping… not simply a time for “me” and Jesus.)

  • John Miller

    Dr. Olson, I wanted to share this with you: http://www.jesusneedsnewpr.net/watch-this-wrong-worship/ While reading your post, all I could think of was ” how great is this song? Sing with me, how great is this song?”

  • Timothy

    It is only in the very last line of thr hymn that the tendency to a rather theo-deterministic understanding of suffering is hinted at. Until then the hymn could merely imply the presence of the Lord in suffering and His ability to lead one safely through it.
    Could one pehaps adjust the last line? I am the world’s worst poet and so can offer little myself.
    Perhaps
    “From His own fullness all that’s tak’n away.”

    Widening the topic slightly, I have always understood that the Wesleys had a fairly modest understanding of how much their congregations would remember from their sermons which is why they wrote hymns. They were to provide a memorable and appropriately affective way to convey what the sermons also did but which were too easily forgotten.
    If this is the case, our hymnwiters and “worship-leaders” do indeed have a vital didactic role in lifting both our hearts and minds to God.

    • rogereolson

      I think Charles Wesley was overly optimistic about people remembering his hymns when he wrote them with 20-30 verses! We’ve taken that down to 4 in most hymnals. I once had my students (when we were studying Wesley’s concept of Christian perfection) sing all 26 verses of “Sanctification” by Charles Wesley. When they groaned I said “I’d rather sing 26 verses of a Wesley hymn than sing the same chorus 26 times.” They groaned at me again. 🙂

  • Percival

    “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it
    Prone to leave the God I love.”

    As one of my professors said, “It may be true for you, but it hardly seems like worship.”

    • rogereolson

      One of my favorite students has “Prone to wander” tattooed on his chest. I guess he feels the need for that reminder. I think we all do.

    • I always understood confession as a means to worship.

      (Maybe some have never struggled with that whole bit about the things I want to do I don’t do, what I do I don’t want to do?)

  • dave p

    Is it possible in all this discussion that the heart is what is valued as God hears us sing. When my children were younger, one of the best ways that I could know if their hearts were at peace was when they would sing spontaneously as they moved about the house. The lyrics didn’t matter, but the lightness of their song and the passion with which they sung made it clear to me that they were in a good place. I loved hearing them sing from their heart. It made me smile as a parent to know that my children were at peace in their souls.

    Is God is up in heaven judging our song writing ability? Fallen, human writers? Is He in heaven keeping a list and making notes about our ability to craft perfect worship songs. Will He at some point say to us, “You know, I really liked that song you sang, but that last line was just so bad?” If we apply the above logic to many of the Psalms, then even the Holy Hymnal would need to get censored as we tweak theological stances or throw out things that we disagree with. The imprecatory Psalms are a good example, Do we really want people singing to God to break people’s teeth with rocks? Do we then arbitrarily edit God’s Hymnal not to include certain songs or phrases? If those songs are included by God in the scriptures, do they not give us license to sing from our hearts and like any earthly father would receive the praise without parsing the words, God will receive from our hearts what He hears? How much liberty is allowed in the singing of Col. 3? As we all sing to one another (whatever is on our hearts) do we not all sharpen one another?

    There are so many things that divide us these days –

    • rogereolson

      I take theology too seriously just to ignore the theologies of hymns.

      • dave p

        Really?

        Is it really that simple. Can we be that dismissive over mere words? That sounds like everything that you write about and detest when you correct the Calvinists (of which I am not even remotely connected). You often speak of the displeasure you have for not being invited to the table during discussions of which you feel like you have a voice. And yet your response to a genuine question about the heart of worship is to dismiss my questions with a simple “I take theology too seriously just to ignore the theologies of hymns.” as if that justifies your reasoning. I too take theology seriously and care about the expression of my faith (and the faith of those that I God has called me to shepherd). No wonder we have become so splintered and divisive as a movement. The fact that we just dismiss each other and allow for no other theological “wrestlings” than our own is to me a shame and a sorry statement on our Lord. My discouragement is intensified as I read blog posts that come across as “I am right and if only you would believe like me we could worship together”. Every Sunday across the globe men and women of all theological leanings (and who are all taking their theology seriously) worship God with their hearts. Those hearts do not know all truth, but they love the same Lord and Savior. So why do we dismiss each other with statements that divide. Shouldn’t unity be our highest call?

        I read so many different blogs and men and women who I aspire to learn form and grow from and it is so defeating to see so much division among us. The fact that the commentors on Justin Taylors blog are wondering whether Rachel Evans is a follower of Jesus is a crushing blow to the state of our church. Correct Doctrine, style of music, role of women, and an endless list of other silliness has become the club to prove club membership. I read your blog to learn, not to be dismissed as if I was a “closet Calvinist” or some lesser christian who some day will take his theology as seriously as you do. I long for a day when we will see the kingdom of God displayed as unity, peace and harmony among all believers.

    • “Is it possible in all this discussion that the heart is what is valued as God hears us sing.”

      Not really. Not in this case.

      We’re talking about a congregation coming before the throne of Almighty God. This is not a 1st grader doing his best in Sunday School.

  • Bernie VanDeWalle

    I’ve always had trouble singing, “Though none go with me, still I will follow.” Really? Nobody? What does that say of one’s ecclesiology and self-assured theology?

    • rogereolson

      I’ve always heard that the song was written by an Indian (as in India) prince who converted to Christianity and was rejected by his family and community.

  • Steve

    Roger
    I have been part of the ‘worship team’ in a church setting (I don’t really know what this means any more) and there is a certian ‘construct’ to all this song list thing. I just think it is a part of the institution as awkward as it is sometimes. But I agree I am not singing something I think is just not true of God as presented scripturally. Churches often suffer from marketing ideas and theological confusion as much as anything.