Worship through music has become an increasingly integral part of the modern-American church service. It has also brought to the surface a number of new and complex issues for the faithful, Bible-believing church to navigate. Simply put, most concerns around style of music, volume, or timing come down to matters of preference or common sense (e.g., “If the music is too loud to sing along to, it’s not worship… that’s called a concert”). However, not all of these issues are so cut and dry, and one in particular can cause confusion or conviction in equal measure if not addressed properly. I am referring to the question, “Should we sing songs in church written by those who have fallen away from their faith, or are of questionable repute in some other fashion, or have bad theology?” Does the source of the song matter? Is it less glorifying to God to sing a song penned by a fallen and unregenerate sinner? Or is it ever OK to sing a song in church by a Christian who has glaring moral weaknesses or compromised beliefs? What if a bad root yields good fruit?
To help find answers I turned to the Word (more on this soon) and an old friend, Donny Hoover, Director of Worship Ministries at San Gabriel Community Church (SGCC) in San Gabriel, California. Donny has been serving in worship ministries at SGCC since 2002, and has been formally serving in a full-time ministry capacity since 2012. During this time, he has run across this issue on multiple occasions, allowing him to formulate a solidified concept of what constitutes a good song to sing on a Sunday morning.
When asked about the songs he selects for church services he said,
“I want the songs I choose for Sunday mornings to encourage, edify, and build up the congregation—to be God-honoring, Christ-exalting, theologically sound, and musically excellent.”
These considerations (minus being musically excellent) are central to how we evaluate teaching and theological writing as well. We are called in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 to “…test everything; hold fast what is good.” It is natural, then, that we would keep these main themes central in evaluating worship music. So how do these criteria relate to a song written by one who is questionable in their theology or personal life from a spiritual perspective?
“I think the criteria remains the same. Even if the author is someone who has become questionable or from a church that is questionable, that doesn’t carry as much weight when you come across a good song that’s biblical, theologically sound, and very good musically.”
Donny also pulled a few examples of beloved hymns that have become synonymous with church music in America in the last century that come from a “questionable source.” He listed “O Holy Night,” written by French poet and known atheist, Placide Cappeau, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” written by Robert Robinson (whom many believe turned to Unitarianism, denying the deity of Christ in his late life), and “It Is Well with My Soul,” written by Horatio Spafford, who denied the existence of hell, attempted a falsely motivated coup in his own congregation, and eventually started his own cult after creating as much division as he could manage. Donny said:
I list these to say, I would never throw those songs out because those are good, rich, theological songs that are solid, God-honoring, and Christ-exalting. If we’re starting to look at some of these sources and anything questionable is getting thrown out, then we’re going to end up throwing out all of the songs, because down the line—at some point—everything is going to lead to a corrupt, sinful person.
I agree with these thoughts entirely, but it is of course pivotal that we ground our thinking in Scripture. We can infer some helpful truth from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.Philippians 1:15-18
Just prior to this passage, Paul offered reassurance to his brothers in Phillipi that his imprisonment is working to advance the gospel and has even emboldened those around him to share the good news. Some of these folks, however, were preaching with selfish, ulterior motives. Paul concludes that God still works through compromised vessels in spite of their sinful intentions: “whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed…”. Though perhaps not directly applicable to music in the modern church, the inference we can pull from this text is that Christ may be proclaimed, the kingdom advanced, and God glorified from anyone, even those with ulterior or questionable motives.
So, what if a song is God-honoring, Christ-exalting, and musically good, but still causes a brother to stumble because of the source or author? When asked this question, Donny said:
If someone approached me saying, ‘This song is really causing me to stumble because of the source,’ I would really evaluate it and seek wisdom from our pastors and elders. If it seemed like there were really people who were truly stumbling and it was not just a matter of personal preference, then I would consider pulling it.
However, Donny also stressed that, in his experience, very few believers think about the authors of the songs they sing, and even fewer take the time to find out who those authors are.
I think nine times out of ten there are going to be personal preference issues with either the song or the publication company, because most people don’t have issues with the song writers.
Donny also said there are so many good songs available and that we should always be seeking the best of the best. If a song has a shadow hanging over it because of the compromises of the author’s personal life, it is easy to choose another song just as excellent by a composer of integrity.
Ultimately, it is apparent that the writer of a song matters far less than the song itself, just as the work of God matters far more than the people through whom he chooses to work his will. Just look at the genealogy of Jesus and Luke 3 and see all the compromised sinners that the Savior descended from! So, next time you see a new song published by Bethel, or Hillsong, or any other publication or song-writer that you may consider questionable, take some time to evaluate the song itself. Is it biblically true? Is it God-honoring and Christ-exalting? Is it musically excellent? If so, you might just find it in rotation at your church—because that right there is a good song.