I once heard a music professor from a very traditional Christian college attack contemporary Christian music as being evil and therefore not appropriate for worship services. In this essay I will 1) outline his argument, 2) show his argument’s weaknesses, 3) present a defense for Christian Rock music, and 4) I make a few comments on the danger of tying Christianity to any one cultural expression.
I. The Case Against Christian Rock
The professor claimed that human beings consist of 3 parts: body, soul and spirit. Music, he said, is also made up of 3 parts: rhythm, harmony and melody. He then argued that the Bible connects the 3 parts of the body to the 3 parts of music: the body matching up with rhythm, the soul relating to harmony and the spirit to melody. He continued that the spirit is the part of man closest to God. Thus when the Bible tells us “to make melody in our hearts” in Eph 5:19, it is telling us that music that emphasizes “melody” is the music most pleasing to God. Traditional church music is driven by melody, he reasoned, and hence God loves it. Rhythm, by contrast, is connected with the body, the lowest part of humanity. Music that emphasizes rhythm is not pleasing to God. Since Christian Rock emphasizes rhythm, God detests it.
II. Does the Bible Really Say That?
A. Biblical Interpretation Problems
I have communicated with 4 biblical scholars on this topic and all agree: we don’t know enough about ancient musical terminology to distinguish rhythm, melody and harmony. As far as we know, the Bible never speaks of any of them. Since these concepts do not exist in Scripture, the professor’s argument completely falls apart.
What about that passage in Eph 5 which mentions “melody”? The 1611 King James Version of the Bible poetically translated the word for “music” in this passage as “melody”. It’s a beautiful translation, but the Greek word means music in general, not melody vs. harmony. I should also note that in his presentation, the professor did not quote one verse from the Bible where the words “rhythm” or “harmony” are used as musical terms. That is because, they simply do not exist.
B. Theological Problems
1. The Bible Teaches Dichotomy, not Trichotomy
Human beings are not tri-part beings. Instead the Bible teaches we are made up of body and soul. The words “soul” and “spirit” in the Bible are synonymous. The professor’s paradigm of connecting the 3 parts of humanity to the 3 parts of music fails then from the beginning because humans do not have 3 parts.
2. Musical Gnosticism
The Bible teaches that God made man to be both body and soul and that God declared that combination to be good. God himself took on a human body in Christ. Since Christ is without sin, to have a body must not be sinful. God raised Jesus from the dead, body and soul, as a pledge to save us body and soul in the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. Therefore if rhythm is connected with the body, as our professor friend claims, then rhythm would not be inferior to melody as the Bible never teaches that the body is inferior to our soul. Rhythm, and music that emphases rhythm, would be a good gift to be valued along with our bodies which God created. I do not concede his point that the body is connected with rhythm in the Bible as I made clear above. But for the sake of argument, assume his point is correct. Then rhythm oriented music would be good in God’s sight because God declared the body to be good.
Our professor comes very close to the ancient heresy of Gnosticism when he claims the spirit is superior to the body. The Gnostics taught that the physical world, including our bodies, is inherently evil. The early church, on the basis of the biblical doctrines of creation, incarnation and resurrection, utterly rejected Gnostic claims. It seems to me that our prof has taken a step in a very unbiblical direction.
III. An Argument for Christian Rock
First, I want to say that Christian Rock music needs no defense. The Bible says nothing about musical styles. Where God has not spoken, he has left us free.
However, I think we can draw a analogy from the Day of Pentecost that suggests God is greatly pleased with Christian Rock. When God revealed himself to us, he chose not to do so in one sacred language. The Old Testament is written in Hebrew, but the New Testament is written in Greek. This greatly distinguishes Christianity from Islam which teaches that Arabic is God’s sacred language.
This point was magnified on the day of Pentecost when Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit on his church giving them spiritual gifts to accomplish his mission. The apostles on that day were given the ability to preach the gospel in numerous languages. They didn’t force their audience to learn Greek or Hebrew. Instead, they spoke the gospel in common languages of the people. Following their example, we too are to present the gospel in all the languages of the earth. This is wonderfully seen in the work of Wycliffe Bible translators.
Isn’t music, like language, a cultural form of communication? And if God wants the gospel to be preached in all the languages of the world, it would seem to follow that he would want his praises sung in all the different musical styles of the world, including Rock. This argument gains force when we once again point out that God in the Bible never condemns any style of music. If God wants children from every language, tribe, nation and people group in heaven, wouldn’t he also want people representing all the different musical styles, including Rock?
IV. The Danger of Making Jesus the High Priest of a Particular Culture
Christianity is by its very nature multi-cultural. Though Christ became incarnate in the first century Jewish culture of Palestine in the Graeco-Roman world, God never commanded us to leave our current cultures and to adopt that one. Instead, as is evident from the argument from Pentecost above, God wants his gospel to make in roads into every culture it encounters without compromising its theological core. When we confine Christianity to one culture, we undermine the mission of the church. As the Apostle Paul said, “to the Jew I am a Jew and to the Gentiles I am a Gentile that I might reach them all.” Wouldn’t a natural application of this principle be that both Jewish and Gentile music was welcome in the church?
One of the core beliefs of the Christian faith is that we are saved by God’s grace alone, not by any good works we can contribute, including cultural ones. This was one of the grave mistakes of the Pharisees who thought they would be saved (or at least had an advantage) simply because they were Jewish and of the Judaizers who tried to force Greek and Roman Christians to become Jews culturally (via circumcision). Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and Paul rebuked the Judaizers partly because these two groups were trying to be saved by belonging to a particular culture, not by trusting in God’s grace alone.
I think the trouble with those who condemn Christian Rock is that they have too closely tied their culture to the gospel. Like the Pharisees, they do not truly believe they are saved by grace alone, but they think they are saved by grace plus being culturally traditional Christians. They think there is an inherent righteousness in singing 18th and 19th century European musical styles. Like the Judaizers, they want to assign righteousness to some outward cultural expression and thereby force people who prefer contemporary music to make a cultural conversion, not just a spiritual one. Please do note that those who prefer Christian Rock can make exactly the same spiritual mistake and many practically do.
When we put culture ahead of Christ, we make Jesus the high priestly pawn of our culture to promote its prejudices. But Jesus is not the high priest of any culture; he is the judge and redeemer of them all. We need to understand that ALL cultures are deserving God’s wrath. Apart from the cleansing blood of Christ, traditional Christian music and Christian Rock both deserve hell. When we stand before God on the day of judgment, the only claim we will have to heaven is the blood of Jesus Christ shed for our sins, not what style of music we prefer.