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Volume 11, Issue 5: Presbyterion

Worship Music and Propriety

Douglas Wilson

One of the great problems which modern evangelicals have is their inability to make cultural and social distinctions. The struggle is really over the meaning of the word propriety, and this inability to make distinctions is right at the heart of our difficulties in the “worship wars.” And so what kind of music should we use in our worship of the Most High God?

Regular readers of this magazine know that the musical tastes of the editors are fairly eclectic. We like jazz, rock and roll, some of it, classical, blues, and we love the psalms. Now given this hash of musical interests and appreciations, you would think that our desire would be to employ all of it in the worship of God. The assumption is that anything we like ought to hauled into the worship service. Not a bit of it, and the key word is propriety. I like beer too, but it would sacrilegeous to have a bottle of beer with me in the pulpit.
The problem with many modern evangelicals who insert the kind of music “they like” into their worship of God is the fact that they haven’t studied the direction and use of their own music. The problem is not that they like their music so much, the problem is that they think so little of the music they like that they refuse to study what it is for.
Music is teleological; it is designed to perform certain functions, to arrive at a certain end. It is not true that any piece of music can be performed for any function, and have the results be at all reasonable or normal. When Saul was in a blue funk, David’s music would soothe him (1 Sam. 16:14-17). When the musicians of the Temple came to prophesy, they did it with musical instruments (1 Chron. 25:1). When certain children wanted a jig, they played a pipe (Matt. 11:17). When the prodigal son returned home, the residents of that household broke out the instruments that were conducive for a good bit of dancing (Luke 15:25)—dancing and music, incidentally, that could be heard down the driveway. Music must suit the occasion, and because the tone and mood of occasions vary considerably, the kind of music we play must vary considerably. And as we study the subject of music we see that God has given us an impressive range of musical options to accompany us throughout our lives. The problem with contemporary worship music is not the kind of music it is, but rather the kind of occasion everyone seems to think the service is.
“Wherefore we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29). Let those words, reverence and godly fear, roll around in the mind and heart while singing “spring up O well,” with all the splish-splashy hand motions. The difficulty is not the music, but the incongruity of the music and what the Bible says the occasion of formal worship should be like. The music itself, that song itself, would be perfectly fine at a birthday party for someone’s kindergarten class. In the worship of the God of Abraham, it is a wretched insult.
Ragtime is not suitable for a wedding march. Complicated operatic music is not suitable for congregational singing. Conversely, swing is suitable for a particular kind of dancing. It would, therefore, be suitable at a wedding reception, but not during the wedding itself. The preacher tells us there is a time to mourn and a time to dance (Ecc. 3:4). We have music for dancing, we have music for funerals, we have music for military parades, we have music for lovemaking, we have music for a peaceful evening at home, we have music to pump up the crowd at a basketball game, and we have music to write Credenda articles. (I am listening to Taj Mahal as I write this, and would rather not receive any letters about it.)
Music can be evaluated in two ways. One method is the pure aesthetic evaluation, with teleology forgotten. Considered in this sense, the Brandenburg Concertos are vastly superior to anything in rock and roll—Chuck Berry made this point, perhaps inadvertantly, when he said, “Three great chords and eighteen great albums.” This “abstract” evaluation is important, but should not lure us into forgetting the teleology of music entirely. Despite this abstract superiority, a performance of the Brandenburg Concertos would not be appropriate in a worship service, any more than some song by Big Fats O’ Toole and his Ragtime Seven would be. Superior music is inferior in some settings. Inferior music is inferior in some settings. Music that is poorly done within the constraints of each genre is bad music, and shouldn’t be tolerated anywhere. Thus, we have good and bad superior music and good and bad inferior music. And surrounding all such distinctions we have the category “appropriate music.”
When the role of teleological function is remembered, we see that inferior music can be superior. For an “inferior” social event, that is to say, an informal social gathering, inferior music is better. Blue jeans are better than good clothes if you are chopping wood. Failure to recognize this can result in serious weirdness. I recall a training film in the Navy which had some machinist mate working on a diesel engine in his dress blues.
The music of Bach and Mozart is the musical equivalents of a great cathedral. And we all recognize the vast architectural superiority of such a cathedral over the typical suburban house. But it would be a drag to have to make your breakfast or watch Monday Night Football in the cathedral. The fact that it is a superior building does not make it superior for every function.
In the same way, congregational worship has a particular function; our corporate goal should be to hallow God’s name. This is what we are doing in worship. And having come to this answer from the Bible, we should ask what music is fitting.

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