This is the second offering on worship style, in answer to the claim made by Contemporary Independent Baptists like Josh Teis (see this link also) and Robert Bakss that worship style is merely a matter of preference and personal taste. If you have not yet read the first in the series, please kindly follow this link before reading this post.
In the first post in this short series, I sought to distinguish between the subjective and the objective in order to establish a foundation of objective beauty. As style is an element of beauty, it is necessary that we understand that beauty is not divorced from truth or goodness, and that none of the three are purely subjective. Christians have historically believed in objective truth, objective goodness, and objective beauty. The ultimate objective standard of truth, goodness, and beauty is God Himself, Who is truth, is holy, and is altogether lovely. Because we are commanded to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, our worship style must reveal that beauty, must show what the beauty of holiness looks like.
In this post, I want to consider the place of style in worship and the Scriptural requirements concerning worship style; then in a later post, I want to consider the cultural application of these Scriptural requirements.
The Place of Style in Worship
Without an objective standard, beauty loses all meaning. As style is an element of beauty, we can conclude that without an objective standard, worship style itself loses all meaning. In a certain way, I think Teis and Bakss would want to argue that the style has no meaning. Yet they clearly do not believe that style has no meaning. In fact, they are dogmatic in their defense of contemporary style, chiefly because they believe it has objective meaning. But in their defense of contemporary worship, they argue that worship/music style is just a matter of preference. On the one hand, they speak as if it doesn’t matter; on the other hand, they act as if it matters a whole lot.
My friend Kent Brandenburg points out (here) that Teis and Bakss obsess “over style while saying that style either isn’t important or doesn’t mean anything.” He goes on to say that the contemporaries “…are the most sensitive people that I see to style. Style is almost everything to them.”
From reading and hearing their defense of contemporary style, I think he nailed it. When they defend their contemporary style of worship, they always speak of the style itself as being truly worshipful, as if the style were the worship, or the worship was the style. So they make it subjective, but then argue as if it were objective. By divorcing beauty from truth and goodness, they claim that there is no such thing as “right” and “wrong,” “good” or “bad” when it comes to beauty or style. Beauty has no truth or goodness. And yet, when these men describe contemporary worship, they speak as if this style were true and good and beautiful.
Therein lies the problem – a very real self-contradiction. Either worship style is purely preference, and therefore has no objective meaning, or else worship style has objective meaning. If it is simply a matter of subjective preference, then anything goes and who’s to say what is right and what is wrong. Crank up the mosh pit!
But of course, worship style does have objective meaning. God commands us to worship Him “in the beauty of holiness.” God knows exactly what He means by that. We can also know what is truly beautiful and what is good in beauty by examining the things that God says are beautiful.
This is why I argue that style choices are more than just preference. Style proclaims the message. In many cases, style is the message. On Tom Brennan’s Facebook re-post of my “Gothpel Style” article (at https://www.facebook.com/tom.brennan.58/posts/10214908523539365), I noticed this particular argument from Josh Cox:
I can say the Bulls won. And say it two different ways (as a Bulls fan or a Pistons fan), but it is still the truth. The Bulls still won. If my style was yelling and excitement, or one of dejection and anger…the truth transcends.
While I would agree in principle that the truth is still the truth, the message is something different. Job’s friends often spoke the truth in their rebuke of Job, but God rebuked them for their message. The truth is one thing, the message quite another. Between the Bulls fan and the Pistons fan, the message doesn’t change if neither fan uses any expression. Are we talking about a newspaper headline in Albuquerque? Because unless you are tone deaf, there will be a very real difference between the message of the Bulls fan and the message of the Pistons fan. True, the facts have not changed. But the message between the two fans is very different. If they were real people, the excitement or disappointment would be the message.
If I could illustrate another way, in our Rhetoric class we will have the students express the same statement three different ways. Say the statement is, “It is raining outside.” One student might say, “We experienced some inclement weather due to heavy precipitation.” The next might say, “The weather broke and it rained throughout the day.” The third might say, “It’s raining cats and dogs out there.” In each case, the facts remain the same, but the expression of those facts changes the message. That is the point. Thus the truth of the statement that
Nine times out of ten, the coarse word is the word that condemns an evil and the refined word the word that excuses it.
Style is not neutral. Our perspective of beauty gives us the sense that it is subjective. But that does not mean that beauty itself is subjective, only existing “in the eyes of the beholder.” The “illusion of subjectivity” comes out of our humanity, the fact that our human perspective of beauty is limited, is in some ways clouded by our fallenness and is bound by our finiteness. We must admit that our perspective of anything that is beautiful will be limited by our own subjective experience of it. But this is not to say that beauty itself is subjective. Our ability to appreciate it, and the various aspects of beauty that we appreciate, might be unique to us. But underlying our individual experience of beauty is the objective nature of beauty itself.
Because style is an element of beauty, and beauty has objective meaning, the style we choose for worship expresses what we think of God every bit as much as the doctrines we hold while we worship. The doctrines that underly our worship ought to play a significant role in shaping the style choices we make for worship. There should be no disconnect, no dissonance between our view of God and our expression of that view in worship.
The Scriptural Requirements Concerning Worship Style
God is the standard of all beauty. He is Himself altogether lovely, fairer than the fairest. All ultimate loveliness and beauty rest in the Triune God.
Thou art fairer than the children of men: grace is poured into thy lips: therefore God hath blessed thee for ever. (Psalm 45:2)
One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to enquire in his temple. (Psalm 27:4)
And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it. (Psalm 90:7 )
God is the source and spring, the fount of all that is beautiful, and He has made everything beautiful in his time (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Our Creator God has not simply created a great variety of creatures and things in the material world. He has created works of art. He has created a beautiful world and filled that world with beautiful things. From a beautiful mountain to a daily sunset to a running horse to a mossy forest to a dew-covered flower to the bee harvesting pollen to a housewife weeding the garden to a little child eating chocolate cake, God has poured out such a wealth of true beauty that we must admit that when it comes to beauty, we have “an embarrassment of riches.”
God requires two big things from us in worship: first, reverence and godly fear; second, the beauty of holiness.
Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: (Hebrews 12:28)
Give unto the LORD the glory due unto his name: bring an offering, and come before him: worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness. (1 Chronicles 16:29)
Give unto the LORD the glory due unto his name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness. (Psalm 29:2)
O worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness: fear before him, all the earth. (Psalm 96:9)
God knows just what He means by each of these – “reverence and godly fear” and “the beauty of holiness.” But God has not hidden it from us either. He has revealed to us what He means by each. God does not leave it up to our preference — whatever is beautiful or reverent to you or to me. He has an objective standard for reverence, fear, beauty, and holiness, and He requires us to meet that standard in our worship style.
You will notice, by the way, that the one thing missing from that list is “cultural relevance.” I don’t find that in the Bible anywhere. In fact, we must not concern ourselves with “cultural relevance,” as far as that goes. The “new song” that God puts in our mouth is “new” in the sense of its direction – “even praise unto our God.” Our worship must not be relevant to the world because our worship must be relevant to an unchanging and unchangeable God. When we attempt to make our worship of God palatable to an unbelieving world, we have changed the very nature of the Gospel. What strikes fear in the heart of those who hear our new song is the difference, not the similarity, between our song and the song of the world.
Regarding Psalm 45:11, Spurgeon said,
Jesus sees a beauty in his church, a beauty which he delights in most when it is not marred by worldliness. He has always been most near and precious to his saints when they have cheerfully taken up his cross and followed him without the camp. His Spirit is grieved when they mingle themselves among the people and learn their ways. No great and lasting revival of religion can be granted us till the professed lovers of Jesus prove their affection by coming out from an ungodly world, being separated, and touching not the unclean thing.
This is why it is such a wicked thing to prostitute that beauty, to display it for the world and seek to be attractive to the world rather than to God. The church is His bride. As Paul reminds us, we are espoused to one husband. Our beauty is for God, not for the world. For the church to seek, through worship style in particular, to be attractive to the unbelieving, rebellious world is for us to commit spiritual adultery. For a prophetic indictment against this sin, read Ezekiel 16, especially verse 15.
The Word of God and the truth of Scripture will never be relevant to a rebellious world until the world repents of her rebellion. Because we believe in an objective standard for style, and because we believe that this standard is found ultimately in God Himself and particularly in the world He has created, we believe therefore that our style should seek to imitate and reflect the beauty of God as seen in His created world. We, therefore, insist that style choices must first be made from a heart of submission to God. In particular, worship style – whether music, clothing, platform, or lighting – must display our reverence for the beauty of God. Worship is not me serving God in my own way; it is me giving God what He wants. I must admit that my own desires for worship are not entirely pure, that I am a fallen creature in need of redemption, and that a part of that redemption includes the redemption of my own style preferences. As my style preferences are themselves tainted by sin, it is necessary that I hold them up to the objective standard of reverence and beauty established by God, and that I adjust my own preferences to reflect my submission to God’s preference.