(originally published October 18, 2013)
Many pastors, teachers, and shepherd trainers of shepherds have each taken time to speak on the subject of “vain repetition” with regard to their perception of its implications to worship music. Rather than impugn their intentions to build the Body, I would merely point out that even the most godly learned men are still imperfect and possess an understanding of God’s creation and God’s worship that is continuing to develop throughout their lifetimes. I would not attempt to instruct some of them on any subject, except that which they are not an expert on; and it so happens that many of these who speak out against repetition in music are not themselves experts on music.
This is not a problem in most senses, as their primary responsibility as teachers is the training and equipping of God’s people to do the work of ministry they have been called and created to do. Their main job is not teaching musicians to do music, nor is it teaching worship leaders in the art of worship as it pertains to music specifically.
However, some of their expressed opinions on music disturb me, because many people closely associate the opinions of their pastors with Biblical truth, and this is one area where the opinion is often just a matter of preference at best, and unbiblical at worst. I realize that’s an inflammatory thing to say about a teaching pastor, and again – I do hold my fellow teachers, pastors, and shepherds in extremely high respect as those who have been passionately pursuing Scripture truth for years, some for more years than I’ve been alive. That being said, many opinions on music are rife with misunderstanding, and I’m bothered that some particularly ignorant statements regarding music would be taken up as gospel truth by others, who lean heavily upon such words as ammunition in fights over what is and what is not Biblical worship of God.
I submit simply and humbly that some – indeed, many – simply do not understand music. Note that I do not say they do not understand worship. Music is not worship; it is a vehicle by which worship may be expressed, but it is not in itself worship. Worship can utilize music. However, being a scholar of worship does not automatically qualify one as an expert in the musical expression of worship.
Some may take offense at this. I can hear the initial responses now... “Who is this person to take anyone to task?”, “Who does he think he is?”, and the like.
Well I’m simply one who should have spoken up long before now. I’m one who has sometimes failed to speak up when other church leaders I respected misused their position and no one had the courage to speak up when they said or did wrongly.
I’m a musician, a worship leader, and a pastor. I’ve been a musician for over 30 years and I can speak with authority to this point. I’ve been a worship leader for over 20 years and can speak with authority that that point. I’ve been a shepherd pastor for over 15 years and can speak with authority from that point as well. So for the time being, let’s just agree that I have a unique perspective, being able to address this issue from several angles that not every pastor can.
Music is designed to evoke, express and convey emotion. DESIGNED to. Music without words has been doing this since our earliest recordings of its use. In the Bible, Saul was comforted when David played music for him. We are not told that he sang to Saul, but that he played an instrument. Music can soothe, inspire confidence, make one sad, make one happy, fuel rage within us, create distemper and unsettle us. Music uses repetition as a key element of its very nature.
Exactly like poetry, which also uses devices and formulas of repetition to convey a message, music uses different forms of repetition to convey a message.
We do not have the written sheet music for the Psalms. We do have notations such as “selah” which many scholars ascribe the meaning “musical rest” or “musical interlude” – in other words, describing an instrumental performance or musical solo interlude, or perhaps simply a musical rest.
In his book, “Worship: The Ultimate Priority,” John MacArthur discusses vain repetition in music as frivolous at best and dangerous at worst, associating it with demon worship and occult influences.
At the Strange Fire conference, the following conversation took place publicly:
<<Friel: Let me play devil’s advocate. “Your problem, Pastor MacArthur, is you like organs and cellos. This is our way of expressing ourselves in worship. What’s the problem with our way of worshiping?
MacArthur: It’s mindless emotional hysteria. It’s not about worship. Worship only goes high when understanding goes deep. The deeper your understanding of the truth of God, the higher your worship goes. Worship is directly correlated to understanding. The richer your theology, the more elevated your worship becomes. You don’t have to turn the music on for me to worship. In fact, I sometimes wish the music would all go away, and that I didn’t have to deal with sensations along with my thoughts. Low understanding of God, superficial, shallow understanding of God, leads to shallow, content-less, superficial hysteria. That’s not worship. Why have you been singing hymns this week? Because there is rich theology in hymns. We don’t have to go hysterical. We want your mind fully engaged.>>
My commentary on this discussion: Worship does not happen solely from the neck up. The greatest commandment prescribes our worship: Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. It’s a whole body charge to us, not just an intellectual exercise. Worship in spirit and in truth, as the Lord demands, is neither purely a cerebral exercise void of emotion nor an emotional exercise devoid of the intellect. God does not ask us to check our minds at the door when we worship Him, nor our hearts either. Certainly He demands our hearts first (Psalm 51:15-17 and Matthew 22:27) and foremost.
I’m totally on board with the precept of being theologically, intellectually engaged in worship – but to throw away or dismiss emotion as unimportant is to deny the heart of the Father who rejoices over us with singing, the God who wept, the God who comforts, the God who created us as emotional beings in His image.
<<Friel: So why is this bad? David danced before the Lord.
Steve Lawson: It’s mindless. It’s a-theological. There’s no Christ. John spoke about that this morning from 1 John 4. That’s just responding to crowd-control—mind-numbing music. I think you have to be emotionally unstable to even want to be in that.
John MacArthur: The thing with David. David, in response to the truth about God expressed himself physically. That’s all that’s saying. That kind of dancing is not sensual dancing or stupid, out-of-control behavior. It’s just that with every means he had humanly available, he expressed his joy and gratitude to God. >>
Obviously David did dance in an unrestrained, undignified, embarrassing way. He described it that way himself, and his wife had a major issue with it. To say otherwise is not being truthful.
To teaching pastors such as these, who hold to such convictions, I say this: either you do not understand music, or you do not approach this argument with intellectual integrity. Frankly I prefer to believe the former rather than the latter. There is no shame in admitting that.
Music and poetry are most often composed with repetition of patterns. Rhyme and rhythm, repeated. Psalm 136 is a perfect example of a repeated pattern. In it is repeated 26 times the phrase, “His steadfast love endures forever,” yet it is not vain repetition. It is poetic and it reinforces the main idea of the song. Why repeat the same idea 26 times? Because people learn from repetition. How do we memorize our multiplication tables as children? Repetition. How do we memorize Scripture verses at any age? Repetition. Why do we sing the same songs in church over centuries? Because they teach us Biblical truths through – you guessed it: repetition.
You say that you do not like modern songs because you think the pattern and formulas they follow exercises too much repetition, and you say that is an example of the “vain repetition” the Bible speaks against. Yet I attended a service at Grace Community Church where John MacArthur serves as pastor, where the choir sang a song in service that repeated the word “hallelujah” over 60 times. (I counted). Both MacArthur and Lawson were there in attendance. Neither seemed to have a problem with that repetition.
Let’s take a quick peek at the lyrics of some of our most stalwart traditional songs of the Church:
“Then sings my soul my Savior God to Thee, how great Thou art, how great Thou art.
Then sings my soul my Savior God to Thee, how great Thou art, how great Thou art.”
Or how about...
“It is well, it is well, with my soul, with my soul, it is well, it is well with my soul.”
So if we’re really being honest, it’s really just a matter of style, not substance. To those who pull the “vain repetition” card on modern music in their preaching: You don’t really have a problem with repetition. You have a problem with style and have a poor or inconsistent understanding of music, and the sooner you admit that, the better off the Church will be for it – as you are persons of influence. Your words before the Church matter. Your words fuel fights and in this case, a bad philosophy of worship based on poor hermeneutics. That horrifies me, and it should horrify you as well.
I do not appreciate you misrepresenting the Lord’s Word to apply your own opinion. That’s eisegesis, and you’re better than that. Be men of exegesis. Stick with that. It’s honest and simple.
<< Friel: Why are young people drawn to that?
MacArthur: I don’t think it has to do with what the teachers are saying. I think it’s the music. It’s like getting drunk so you don’t have to think about the issues of life. If you shut down the music, turn on the lights, and have someone get up there and try to sell that with just words, it’s not going to work. You’ve got to have some way to manipulate their minds.
John Piper: And all the healing crusades I’ve ever been to have always got the music going. Extended repetitive music that lulls people into the first stage of hypnosis. Disengage your mind and thought. You now become susceptible. And there are a lot of psychosomatic healings, all the time. But you don’t see medically documented healings. People are very susceptible to emotionally-driven music that goes on for 17 minutes. It wouldn’t work without the music.
John MacArthur: You won’t find that music in a Reformed church. Why? That’s not who they are. They’re going back to all the great Reformed teachers. Their world is sound theology, Bible exposition, obedience, discipline, order. This is a completely different stream. This is the world invading the so-called church and carrying it away with things that have nothing to do with the kingdom or the history of the church or sound doctrine.
TP: The New Testament shows two groups of people. Those who aren’t saved are driven by their feelings and emotions and their body’s appetites. And those in Christ are driven by their minds, by their understanding of the truth. There’s nothing about the mind in any of that [in the video].
John MacArthur: The attraction is the same thing as in a bar. It’s a sensual experience that disconnects you from the realities of life.
Friel: This is Jesus Culture asking to be filled up. [Shows video] This is wildly popular. I’m a parent. Some of what they say is good. My child loves it, should I be concerned?
MacArthur: Obviously you’re concerned. A broken clock is right twice a day. If you never say anything that is acceptable, you’re not going to be accepted [i.e., so we should accept that they get some things right]. But that [what we saw] has nothing to do with Christianity or with God. I’d be afraid to put my mind in neutral and start yelling, “Fill me up.” I think you’re inviting a spirit, for sure, but it isn’t the Spirit of God. This is paganism. This is the Kundalini cult. This is paganism. This is what Hindus do. The mindlessness of this. And if you accept any of it, if you say, “Well, there’s some good in it,” you literally have left your young people open to demonic powers. I would run from this so fast. >>
And yet, in your own church, John – people “mindlessly” sang “Hallelujah” over 60 times in a song that lasted nearly 20 minutes. You’re being a hypocrite here.
You have no clairvoyance or authority of omniscience to say what was in these folks’ minds when they sang the words, or to call them mindless. You simply don’t understand the music being performed or you just don’t like it. There is absolutely no difference between what Jesus Culture does in that song, and your own choir singing repetitively. The style is different. The chant is not.
<< MacArthur: I would go so far as to say that evangelical noncharismatic churches are using music that is unacceptable to draw people in. They’re using the music of the world to suck people in as if somehow people would get saved through the music. The two have no connection. This is so close to what’s in a normal evangelical environment that it’s a very small step to getting sucked in, because the style is the same. That’s not heavy metal or extreme rock-n-roll, it’s melodic. But the theology inherent in it is unbiblical.
Friel: Well Dr. MacArthur, the Bible never says there should be organs and hymns with four-part harmony.
MacArthur: Well, the Bible says we’re to use instruments in worship, especially in the Old Testament. And I don’t think the New Testament cancels that out. The organ is just another instrument, a wind instrument, along with wind instruments, pipes, and horns as we see in the Bible. And the reason the church found its way to organs and instruments were because they were following the biblical pattern. Psalm 150, you take every possible means there was. I even think guitars and modern electronic instruments can be used to praise the Lord. But they’re only accompaniment. The primary praise God wants in their ears is not instrumental but lyrical.>>
Clearly, you have never paid attention to the volume of a symphony orchestra is when all the horns blow loudly. The Bible describes 200 trumpeters playing at the same time as 200 singers, with the clashing of cymbals and beating of tambourines. Without modern amplification, it is a big stretch to think that 200 voices could come even remotely close to being the predominant sound when all of those instruments were played in unison. The idea that the primary praise God wants is only lyrical is not biblically accurate, when He prescribes specifically how He wanted His worship to be sung – to the sound of many LOUD instruments that would plainly compete out the sound of singing. Like the roaring of many waterfalls. With or without singing, as the verbage of the Hebrew words tehillah, shabach, shaown, patsach, machowl, yadah and nagan define for us the worship God wants. Loud & emotional, with dancing and shouting.
You express a preference for musical style. There is nothing wrong with having a preference, and there is nothing wrong with someone else having a different preference. What is wrong is condemning another for a different preference and implying theirs is bad, when that’s just your opinion and not “thus saith the Lord” – all the while implying wrongly that the Lord did thusly saith.
Vain repetition as described in Matthew 6:7 is not condemning someone who sings Biblical truth over and over again because they love the Lord, they love His truth, they love singing to Him, and they love singing with His Bride. Exegesis helps us understand the Word in its clear plain meaning, within its context, as it would have been heard and understood by the original hearer, and the clear plain meaning of Matthew 6:7 is precisely applied to people who think they need to go on and on while praying aloud or else they will not be heard by the Lord. Its specific application is not to corporate worship in song. Its general application could be applied to sung prayer, but that would be derivative and not the direct implication nor context. To imply otherwise is faulty hermeneutics.
He who sings prays twice – is that vain repetition?
I would instead assert it’s the act of someone who loves the Lord.