“If you’re listening to the music on ‘Christian radio,’ it’s a bunch of garbage and God will judge you!” This sort of statement was extremely prevalent when I was attending a Holiness church. It has fallen out of fashion a bit in the Holiness church, but that makes it all the more important to examine. After all, if Holiness standards are biblical and not merely generational, we would never expect them to change. In this case, the majority of Holiness preachers would still preach that modern Christian music is wrong. In making this claim, they have a burden to prove it in scripture (for more explanation of the concept of “burden of proof” see the article on jewelry.)

So let’s hear their case, in their own words. This article was taken from “The Holiness Handbook” on holiness-preaching.org. I will keep their words in red, with no alterations, and my responses in black. I will attempt to fairly understand and respond to what they have to say, without taking them out of context or misrepresenting their arguments.

I make an assumption that if you are a Christian, that you know enough fundamental doctrine to understand that Country, Rock, Rap, or other non-Christian music is not pleasing to God.  With that in mind, we see that many of the so-called Christian artists are relying on secular styles of music and calling it Gospel. Does God need to copy the devil’s styles for his music? I think not. 

The author makes the opening assertion that all “non-Christian music” is unpleasing to God. He believes that this requires no stated biblical justification. While I would agree that there are ample biblical reasons to not listen to “un-Christian” or “anti-Christian” music (Psalm 101:3, Philippians 4:8), it doesn’t follow that we should not listen to “non-Christian music.” The difference is that un-Christian music, which is prevalent on the top hits chart, will teach and praise actions and ideas that are antithetical to the teachings of the Bible. However, a “non-Christian song” is a broader category which would include songs that are neither explicitly Christian, nor un-Christian. For example, “the Star Spangled Banner,” “Happy Birthday,” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” are all “non-Christian music.” The significance of this fact, is that there could be songs in any of the genres that the author mentions which would also not be “un-Christian.” There could be other reasons not to listen to them, such as not wanting to provide income to an artist who also makes anti-Christian music, however, such a reason is a matter of personal preference and not addressed in Scripture. The author provides no reason why I should regard “Home on the Range” as ungodly, and that also leaves me with no reason to regard “Mayberry” by Rascal Flats as ungodly (and if you want to say “Mayberry” is bad because Rascal Flats is bad, then you have to research the author of every folk song, children’s song, or patriotic song before you sing it). See the problem with guilt by association for more on this.

The author’s second claim is that “so-called Christian artists” are using “secular styles” or the “devil’s styles.” Leaving aside the question of whether it is appropriate for the author to reject the salvation of Christians who make music in styles he does not prefer, let’s examine his underlying assumption that there are uniquely “secular” styles of music. This claim would also infer that there the author believes there is a uniquely “godly” style of music. The author presents no evidence at all to back this claim, which by default leaves it standing as just his personal opinion. But we will try to dig deeper, despite the Bible’s near silence on the issue. In Daniel 3:10, the Bible records the role of music in the worship of Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image. “Thou, O king, hast made a decree, that every man that shall hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, shall fall down and worship the golden image:” Of these listed instruments, the cornet, harp, and psaltery are used by the children of Israel to worship God throughout the Old Testament. The Bible has nothing to say about musical styles, but what it does say about instruments suggests that God and the Devil’s people use the same ones.

But let’s take this a step farther, if God had a distinct musical style, we would expect it to be timeless. The good news is, we can test this hypothesis. There is a written hymn from the 300’s AD, that was inscribed with not only words, but musical notation. Take a listen and see if it sounds like Holiness church music to you: Oxyrhynchus Hymn. A bit of research shows that the earliest known Christian hymn… was written in the contemporary style of the Greeks. This is typical for early church music. One of the oldest hymns still commonly sung, “Be Thou My Vision (700’s)” was set to an Irish folk tune (the original hymn is in Irish). It also sounds like the music of its day, and not like the music of the Holiness church.

Ironically, I would have told you as a child that my church only sang hymns. After interacting with other Christians who also grew up in “all hymn” churches, I found that the hymns we sang in Holiness were all newer, most written in the 30’s and 40’s. The hymns other churches sang were mostly written in the 1800’s, 1700’s and prior. “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (1707),” “A Mighty Fortress is Our God (1529),” and “Be Thou My Vision (700’s)” are far more timeless than “I’ll Fly Away (1929).” Does this mean I’m making a case against “Victory in Jesus (1939)?” No, the Bible doesn’t say that older is better – but Holiness use that argument to explain why “new” worship songs are inferior to the “old-time” songs. And yet, Holiness people don’t routinely sing the oldest Christian songs, they sing the ones that many of the current church leaders grew up with.

But maybe God didn’t decide on his sacred style until the turn of the last century? Let’s evaluate whether the allegedly sacred style of Holiness music is truly “separate” from the secular style of its day. Holiness music, at least where I came from, is about 80% Southern Gospel, 10% older hymns, and 10% spiritual choruses or “Black Gospel.” The dominant style of Southern Gospel is completely a product of culture. The word “Southern” is even in the name, to note the recent geographic and cultural roots of the style. The original instruments of banjos, guitars, and pianos were the same instruments in all rural music of the era. Waltzes, bluegrass, folk songs, parlor ballads, ragtime rhythm, and many other points of contemporary style were cobbled together to create the Southern Gospel style. The only reason it sounds “old-time” to our ears is because modern music has largely moved past the styles that inspired Southern Gospel. However, at the time when it was first written, it sounded normal to the hearers. If you don’t believe me, just listen to these country music classics from the 1920’s,1930’s, and 1940’s. Compare it to the Southern gospel of the day, as performed by the Blackwood Family, Stamps Quartet, and the Lefevre Trio. Southern Gospel is not identical to Country music of its day (mostly because there were fewer soloists and more quartets/trios), but it was highly influenced by it, in addition to influences from black spirituals and church hymns from previous generations. I could certainly write a Southern Gospel song to match the tune of one of the early country songs, and you wouldn’t know the difference if you found it in the red-backed hymnal with a four part harmony. Modern Southern Gospel is also strongly connected to Country music as well. Spend a few minutes listening to Southern Gospel past and present, and you will see that “God’s sacred style” is suspiciously like the style of the culture it was formed in.

There is no biblical or historical evidence presented by the Holiness Handbook that would remotely justify the claim that God has a unique musical style. They just assume it, and then use that assumption to justify other claims. This is circular reasoning in its purest form. It’s like saying, “scientific observation is the only way to find truth; we know this because we have observed it scientifically.”

To determine what type of music Christians should listen to, we should go to the scripture. After reading the verses below, you should determine that the purpose of Christian music is to Praise the Lord.  Anything short of that goal is not edifying or worthy of our time.

Psalms 9:2  I will be glad and rejoice in thee: I will sing praise to thy name, O thou most High.

Psalms 21:13  Be thou exalted, LORD, in thine own strength: so will we sing and praise thy power.

Psalms 28:6  Blessed be the LORD, because he hath heard the voice of my supplications. 28:7  The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in him, and I am helped: therefore my heart greatly rejoiceth; and with my song will I praise him.

Psalms 33:1  Rejoice in the LORD, O ye righteous: for praise is comely for the upright. 33:2 Praise the LORD with harp: sing unto him with the psaltery and an instrument of ten strings33:3  Sing unto him a new song; play skilfully with a loud noise.

Acts 16:24  Who, having received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks. 16:25  And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.

In all of the cited scriptures, only one addresses musical style (Psalm 33). The musical style instruction it gives is limited to, use the same instruments as the pagans, play skillfully, and play new music. The rest of the verses only say to praise God. Note that the content isn’t phrased as an admonition. It doesn’t say “And when you sing, you must praise God.” It just says, David praised God and Paul and Silas praised God. We can reasonably take from this that praising God is a good thing in music, but that in no way suggests that music which does not explicitly praise God is not also good. By that logic, one would be able to take the biblical admonition of “shout to the Lord (Psalm 98:4)” to mean that you could never speak to the Lord at a normal volume.

Sadly, much of what goes by the title of Christian Music today is NOT Christian. It does not testify, praise or sing about the Lord Jesus Christ or God the father. In fact, a great deal of it does not even mention the Lord Jesus Christ. Much of today’s Christian Music goes out its way to avoid the name of Jesus Christ – or any Christian content whatsoever.

This claim is interesting, but is lacking on two counts. First, as addressed previously, he has provided evidence that some music should explicitly praise God, but no evidence that all music made by Christians listen to has to explicitly praise God. Saying the same thing multiple times doesn’t count as providing evidence for it. I would generally agree that music of any kind that doesn’t explicitly praise God shouldn’t be sung in church (“Dixie,” for instance). However, it doesn’t make it inappropriate to listen to in another context. It is also possible for a God honoring thing to not explicitly mention God. The book of Esther doesn’t mention God once – should we throw that out? Many of David’s Psalms aren’t upbeat praise, they’re heart-wrenching laments or even complaints directed at God in sincerity (“Why hast thou forsaken me?” Psalm 22). Second, while some music made by Christians may be not be worth singing in church or even at all, there is a tremendous amount of music – thousands of songs – that do, quite explicitly, “testify, praise and sing about the Lord.” I think this author isn’t listening to the same artists I am. Does this mean the author would listen to these songs? He should.

You’re rich in love
And You’re slow to anger
Your name is great
And Your heart is kind
For all Your goodness
I will keep on singing
Ten thousand reasons
For my heart to find
-Matt Redmond

And I’ll praise you in this storm
And I will lift my hands
That you are who you are
No matter where I am
And every tear I’ve cried
You hold in your hand
You never left my side
And though my heart is torn
I will praise you in this storm
-Casting Crowns

On the altar of our praise
Let there be no higher name
Jesus Son of God
You laid down your perfect life
You are the sacrifice
Jesus son of God
-Chris Tomlin

Martin Luther (Christian reformer of the early 1500’s) put his views of the state of salvation bluntly:  “whoever does not want to sing and speak of it shows that he does not believe it”.

I would agree that Christians should not be ashamed of their salvation. That doesn’t provide a shred of evidence that modern Christian artists are ashamed of their salvation. But let me not speak for them, let them speak for themselves:

And I know I’m weak, I know I’m unworthy
To call upon Your name
But because of grace, because of Your mercy
I stand here unashamed

I am unashamed
I will shout your name
so all the world will know
that you
you’re all that I live for, Jesus
I am unashamed
-Building 429

Martin Luther also used the music of the corrupt 16th century Catholic church with no alteration to the style. In his own words, “we have taken the sweet music or melodies which under popish rule are in use at wakes, funerals and masses for the dead, some of which we have printed in this little book; and it is in our thought, as time shall serve, to add others to them, or have this done by more competent hands. But we have set other words thereto, such as shall adorn our doctrine of the resurrection, not that of purgatory with its pains and expiations, whereby the dead may neither sleep nor rest. The notes and melodies are of great price; it were pity to let them perish; but the words to them were unchristian and uncouth, so let these perish.” Martin Luther clearly saw that words and messages were what mattered, musical style was not important to him.

According to the Lord Jesus Christ, Satan’s goal is to uplift man and not God :

Matthew 16:23  But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offense unto me: for thou savorest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.

Here the author implies that non-Southern Gospel style music that glorifies God is somehow a thing of man. He provides no biblical, logical, or circumstantial evidence for this claim.

A Christian’s music is sung to the Lord. It is not for the world.

Psalms 40:1  To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David. I waited patiently for the LORD; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry.  40:2  He brought me up also out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. 40:3  And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the LORD.

Psalms 144:9  I will sing a new song unto thee, O God: upon a psaltery and an instrument of ten strings will I sing praises unto thee.

Again, the author provides evidence that praising God is good. He doesn’t provide evidence that singing about other topics, like “Living in Canaan Now” are bad. Christian music is free to address a number of issues and topics. Just like Christian conversation is free to address a number of issues and topics, and we are not limited to praising God directly. Not even Holiness music meets the standard of all being written in direct and personal praise to God. “Jesus on the mainline, tell him what you want” would definitely not meet this standard.

The other thing these verses bring up is the concept of singing a “new song.” This actually appears nine times in the Bible, sometimes as an explicit command. The only style guidance the Bible gives us is that our music is to be new and fresh, or at least some of it is. Maybe God restated that so much, because he knew we would have a tendency to get stuck on the music we grew up on?

Can you even understand the lyrics of some of the contemporary styles of music and do the Country-Gospel lyrics even meet the Bible’s criteria of praising [t]he Lord?

1Corinithians 14:15  What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.

Psalms 66:1  To the chief Musician, A Song or Psalm. Make a joyful noise unto God, all ye lands:  66:2  Sing forth the honor of his name:make his praise glorious.

Hebrews 2:12  Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.

Psalms 149:1  Praise ye the LORD. Sing unto the LORD a new song, and his praise in the congregation of saints.  149:2  Let Israel rejoice inhim that made him: let the children of Zion be joyful in their King. 149:3  Let them praise his name in the dance: let them sing praises unto himwith the timbrel and harp.

Yes, I can understand the lyrics. I note that most Christian music differentiates itself from secular songs with the same musical style precisely because it is easier to understand. Christian artists know they have a message, so their words are usually especially clear. But some of this is just about having an ear tuned to the style, there are plenty of Bluegrass Gospel singers who are barely intelligible to the uninitiated.

Do they praise the Lord in a biblical way? Evaluate these Christian songs that have copied phrasing directly from Scripture. Surely they would qualify:

He wraps himself in light
And darkness tries to hide
And trembles at His voice
Trembles at His voice
How great is our God, sing with me
How great is our God, and all will see
How great, how great is our God
-Chris Tomlin (Psalm 104: 1-2)

Blessing and Honour
Glory and Power
Be unto the Ancient of days
From every nation
All of creation
Bow before the Ancient of days
-Ron Kenoly (Daniel 7:9)

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty
Who was and is and is to come
With all creation I sing praise to the King of kings
You are my everything and I will adore You
-Kari Jobe (Revelation 4:8)

What does Lucifer or Satan know about music?

From Ezekiel 28:13 we get a hint that Lucifer was once very involved with the music of heaven. He knows how to use the wrong music against humans.

Eze 28:13  Thou hast been in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was thy covering, the sardius, topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the emerald, and the carbuncle, and gold: the workmanship of thy tabrets and of thy pipes was prepared in thee in the day that thou wast created.   Eze 28:14  Thou art the anointed cherub that covereth; and I have set thee so: thou wast upon the holy mountain of God; thou hast walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire.   Eze 28:15  Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created, till iniquity was found in thee.

I default to assuming that the Devil is a wily foe. But I also knew that Jesus defeated him with the Bible. So as long as the music I listen to lines up with the Bible, I feel very confident that I am thwarting, not supporting, the Devil’s schemes.

As it turns out, the Bible only says a few things about music. It says that the instruments we use don’t need to be different from the culture we are in, it says we should sing new songs, and it says we should praise God through many of our songs (though there is room for other themes in a musical composition, such as in David’s psalms of lament). There is a tremendous amount of modern Christian music that checks all of these boxes.

There is one more important passage in Scripture about music. It’s surprising that the author didn’t bring it up. Ephesians 5:18-21 “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.”

From this passage we learn that there are multiple kinds of Christian music for different purposes: “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” We could speculate on what exactly Paul is referring to, but the fact is that the Bible doesn’t say. I personally like the explanation that a psalm is the singing of Scripture, a hymn is praise directed to God, and a spiritual song is a song with a Christian message. Regardless of whether I am correct, the passage teaches that there is more than one “correct” type of song. We also see in the passage that we are to submit to one another while prioritizing God’s truth. Could it be that that mutual respect and submission was mentioned in the context of music, because God knew we were all going to have problems with this? And so it is not for me to tear down your musical preferences, the Bible does not give me the liberty to do that. And neither is it for you to disparage mine. The Bible is clear on what makes a song a Christian one – and it’s not the musical style.

-Nathan Mayo

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The full letter from Martin Luther: https://oll.libertyfund.org/pages/luther-s-hymns