Is Music Neutral in Worship?

One of the “battles” in churches throughout the LCMS revolves around worship style.  Traditional vs. Contemporary.  Divine vs. Praise & Worship.   The central issue revolves around music.

Abide in My Word weighs in:

Lutherans have no business singing popular CCM songs which contain theology contrary to ours.  Likewise, Lutherans have no business employing praise bands and using rock and roll instruments to entertain the congregation.  Whenever the music used by Lutherans is the main thing, our theology of worship is lost.  Whenever the music used by Lutherans is presented in a performative and entertaining manner, our theology of worship is lost.  Whenever the music used by Lutherans does not remain a servant to the text, but overpowers it, our theology of worship is lost.  And, of course, as already mentioned, whenever the music used by Lutherans contradicts our theology, our theology of worship is lost.

At this point you may be wondering so what is the Lutheran theology of worship?  What is the Divine Service?

The Divine Service, according to our Lutheran theology of worship, is a holy, reverent encounter with our Lord, who graciously and mercifully comes into our midst to Gift us with forgiveness, life, and salvation through His Holy Word and Sacraments.  It is, by definition, Christ-centered and Cross-focused.  It’s focus is always on Christ and the work He does for us and among us.  It is ever mindful of the fact that our Lord is really, actually, and truly Present among us, and not “up there” in heaven waiting for us to reach Him with our praise.  Anything that detracts from that foremost and essential truth is inconsistent with our theology of worship.  And, certainly, one of the biggest detractors from that foremost and essential truth is the use of music which suggests otherwise.”

Confessional Bytes points out what it means for the music in worship to have value.

Value, in the sense being used here, means both what is suitable for the divine service and the meaning of the musical art form itself. I think it is the later aspect of value that is difficult for us to understand. However, it is terribly important to recognize that music itself does hold meaning. For instance, in Ezra 3:10 King David prescribes the instrumentation to be used by the priests in praise to God. Obviously not any sort of music would be God pleasing. Paul writes to the Colossians to teach and admonish “…one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16) and also in his first letter to the Corinthian church Paul writes about singing praises that are understood (1 Cor. 1:14) and using hymns for “building up” the church (1 Cor. 1:26). In short, music does not have a neutral value in the Scriptures and if some music is suitable for orderly worship in the Church, then the implication is that some music is not suitable for the divine service.

And that is where the battle lines have been drawn concerning what music is and isn’t appropriate for the worship service, as the music in the worship service is to lend itself to teaching and prayer.

On one side of the line are those who, marching under the banner of adiaphora, propound the notion that music itself is value neutral. Accordingly, we are free to use what ever instrumentation and sounds we please in the divine service and that we must not make laws regarding what music should and should not be used.

And on the other side of the line you have those who believe,

that when music is the focus of the divine service, then we have lost the Gospel. Music is elevated above Christ coming to us with His free gifts. Indeed, when we design worship services around music, we treat it as a means of grace and forget that God only promises to deal with us through His Word and Sacraments. Music assists in our receiving sound doctrine and in giving prayers. It is a mnemonic device and not for setting a mood; even though our moods are affected by music without a doubt. The point is that the use of music should not be about revving up congregants so that they enter an emotional state of mind where they ascend to God and connect with Him, and this point really drives to the heart of the matter.

I understand the argument of those who propose having the “contemporary” or “praise & worship” service on Sunday mornings.   I’ve been there.  But at the end of the day I have to agree with those on the side of the Divine Service.  As Confessional Bytes points out:

The point here is that music should not be about setting the mood for the divine service, since that takes music away from its sound role of teaching us doctrine and to pray and places it at front and center as a means to get in touch with God.

Music is not value neutral. We see from the Scriptures and the Lutheran confessions that music itself has value and a proper use in the divine service. Music which detracts from a Christ centered, cross focused, theology should not find its way into the divine service. We are not free to use any music we wish in the divine service, since music itself teaches. It tells us something.

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2 thoughts on “Is Music Neutral in Worship?

  1. Hello! I enjoyed your post, and can empathize with your thoughts and conclusion. I’ve had my own struggles with musical issues, and know that it is a touchy subject. I currently serve in a church as a youth pastor (I’m not Lutheran, hope I’m still welcome!) and am fairly young by pastoral standards.

    I was curious, what type of music do you feel best adheres to Godly worship, and where would you draw that line? I do feel that there are types of music that God would not approve of as being used for His worship within an orderly Church service, but I’m curious as to what you would feel is acceptable to Him?

    Again, enjoyed your post 🙂

  2. I feel like there are some unspoken presuppositions in the arguments presented on both sides here.
    I do, most definitely, agree that worship music is not a neutral matter. The theological content of songs are quite important and it does say something about our understanding of worship when we incorporate it into our services in particular ways.
    However, I would argue that there is a conflation here of incorporating particular types of music with supplanting Christ as the center of worship. This can indeed happen but the risk is just as present in any practice, even liturgy or more traditional or somber musical settings. Remember that while there are certain statues for worship in the Old Testament we also have psalms from David (144:9) wherein he offers a new song to God, the same David who is rebuked for his disorderly worship in the conducting of the ark.
    Can you offer any examples of particularly appropriate music or inappropriate music for worship?

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