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The Elements and Nature of Worship

In past days I have been spending quite a bit of time reading about the nature of worship. Here are some quotes that speak of worship, and more specifically, music as worship:

“Wherefore that much more ought we to take care not to abuse it, for fear of fouling and contaminating it, converting it to our condemnation, when it was dedicated to our profit and welfare. If there were no other consideration than this alone, it ought indeed to move us to moderate the use of music, to make it serve everything virtuous, and that it ought not to give occasion for our giving free reign to licentiousness, or for our making ourselves effeminate in disorderly delights, and that it ought not to become an instrument of dissipation or of any obscenity.”

-John Calvin

“The hymnody springs from the psalmody; it is inspired by the psalmody. Watts’ hymnody comments on, interprets, and continues the psalmody.”

-Hughes Oliphant Old

“The vague spirituality of choruses often fails the test of intelligibility that Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 14. It is for easier, for example, to understand what the Ebenezer is of “Come Thou Fount” than the river that flows in the chorus of “Shine, Jesus, Shine.”“

-D.G. Hart

In order that the church may retain the blessing of good singing, the privilege which Mr. Sankey and his imitators claim, of importing their own lyrics into God’s worship, must be closely watched… If the same license is to be usurped by every self-appointed chorister, we shall in the end have a mass of corrupting religious poetry against which the church will have to wage a sore contest. Our children will then learn, to their cost, how legitimate and valuable was that restriction which we formerly saw in the lyrical liturgies of the old Protestant churches, expressed by the imprimatur of their supreme courts, “Appointed to be sung in churches.”

The most that can be said of Mr. Sankey’s developments in this direction is, that they do not appear to have introduced positive error as yet, and that they exhibit no worse traits than a marked inferiority of matter and style to the established hymnals of the leading churches. The most danger thus far apparent is that of habituating the taste of Christians to a very vapid species of pious doggerel, containing the most diluted possible traces of saving truth, in portions suitable to the most infantile faculties supplemented by a jingle of “vain repetitions.”“

-Robert Dabney

“It is crucial that the church’s songs be substantial enough to express accurately mature Christian belief as well as the subtlety of Christian experience…Simplistic, sentimental, repetitious songs by their very nature cannot carry the weight of Reformed doctrine and will leave the people of God ill-equipped on occasions of great moment.”

-Terry Johnson

“Singing is popular in churches today. For this we should be grateful. But we should also be careful. How often do we look forward to an evening cantata from the choir because we will not have to sit through a sermon? … In the end, the worship wars are not simply about new songs replacing old hymns, but reflect a reorientation of public worship away from the Word read and preached and toward the singing of songs… This means that the fight can’t be waged over our preferences in music, It must be fought over the elements and nature of worship. Consequently, the contemporary debates about song in worship make all the more obvious our need for greater discernment.”

-D.G. Hart

If you did not read the final quote, go back and read it now!

While some of these quotes seem to speak out against contemporary worship in particular, I believe the final one puts the rest in perspective. It should be noted that these quotes were written over a period of several hundred years, so they were not all written in response to the contemporary music of our day.

It has often seemed to me that people who speak out against contemporary songs and music consider the music to be the disease when in fact it may be merely a symptom of the true illness. But we see in these quotes that for many people the worship wars, which is the “fight” about the place of modern forms of worship in the church, speak to a much deeper issue than the outward form of the music. The discussion goes to the heart of the Christian’s expression to God - the elements and nature of worship. We often caricature people who speak out against new types of music as old fuddy-duddies who get their knickers in knots over anything that challenges their Victorian mind-sets. But this is not a fair (and admittedly, exaggerated) caricature, for it may be that their primary concern is that our worship remain pure in nature and practice, unpolluted by the desire or example of the world.

This may be something that has occured to most other people long ago, but it is the best you’ll get out of me today with my flu-sickened mind!