Distinguishing Between Songs that are Theologically Incomplete and Songs that are Theologically Wrong

Zac HicksWorship and Pastoral Ministry, Worship Theology & Thought8 Comments

From XKCD.comMy last (provocatively titled) post sparked a brief but helpful comment-dialogue between me and my friend, Bobby Gilles, over at My Song in the Night.  It got me thinking about an important point of distinguishing when appraising songs for use in corporate worship.  There’s a necessary distinction that worship pastors, planners, and leaders must make between songs that we can describe as “theologically incomplete” as compared to songs that are just wrong.  Sometimes in our zeal for truth, we blur that line and dismiss songs with a prophetic kibosh, branding them with the scarlet letter of “bad theology” when the truth is that they are not wrong, just incomplete.

Think of songs that do not preach the whole (or any) gospel.  For instance, one could look at the wonderful, well-known hymn by Frances Ridley Havergal, “Take My Life and Let it Be,” and argue that it’s encouraging works-based righteousness.

Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee
Take my hands and let them move
At the impulse of Thy love

You walk through the whole hymn, and it’s all take, take, take.  The hymn doesn’t supply the grounding for such consecration.  Where’s Jesus?  Where’s the gospel?  We’re probably cocking our heads funny because we all recognize that songs have both authorial and doxological contexts.  In other words, we know that the song is gospel-driven because we know a bit about the author and (more importantly) we understand how it is used in the flow of worship.  Good worship planners put a song like this after we’ve sung, read, or rehearsed the gospel narrative of God’s saving grace in our lives.  It is not that this hymn is theologically wrong.  It is that it is incomplete and needs a context for its completion.  And in saying it is “incomplete,” we’re not saying it’s a bad song at all.  We recognize that not every song can do everything.  We recognize that worship services move along a path and that, while most songs can’t embody the whole path, they can be waymarks for various points of the journey.  “Take My Life and Let it Be” is a marker on the offering/consecration part of the path.

This all makes me wonder whether we have dismissed some helpful, beautiful, and edifying songs because we fail to apply the incomplete-wrong distinction more liberally or because we have some knee-jerk biases against certain expressions.  Let me illustrate with a confession of one of my own biases.

I sometimes struggle with the Hillsong corpus.  Time and again, I’ve identified in album reviews and other posts their penchant toward what some call “triumphalism”–this idea that “I can do it,” “I’m running after You,” “I’m chasing after God,” “I will get there,” “I’m giving it all to you,” etc.  This emphasis certainly has a theological explanation.  Church history teaches us that Pentecostalism (Hillsong’s tradition) is rooted in the Wesleyan holiness movement, which holds up sanctification as a strenuous effort toward greater and greater perfection until we reach triumph.  It’s a very “can-do” theological orientation.  When I am hearing or singing songs of triumph, something deep inside my (Reformed) bones shudders.  I squirm and bristle when I feel like TULIP’s “T” has gone underserved and when Christ’s finished work of righteousness for us gets eclipsed…and rightfully so.  It is an affront to the gospel and to Christ Himself when we minimize His work and maximize ours.  

But the incomplete-wrong distinction helps me to temper my analysis of such songs for use in my context because I know that, in the context of our worship service, such songs of our triumph will be adequately wrapped in a context of Christ’s triumph.  We can do these things, as we are united with Christ, and brought along by the Spirit.  We can put forth effort and chase after God, as we fix our eyes on the author and perfector of our faith.  And, my most important task is to be faithful to Christ as pastor in my context, and perhaps work harder at suspending judgment on the contexts of my brothers and sisters when I have only partial knowledge (i.e. I’ve got their album).*  

The incomplete-wrong distinction opens up new possibilities for engaging songs that seemed to be ruled out before.  It becomes more about weight and balance within a whole service (or within a whole series of services).  This distinction also allows us to assume a more humble posture with our brothers and sisters from traditions which differ from ours (and God knows we could use more humility!) without compromising on what we feel is solid, biblical truth.  It seizes on 1 Corinthians 13’s encouragement that, within the body of Christ, “love hopes all things.”  So before you dismiss a song outright because you believe it’s “wrong” (which it still might be), stop and ask yourself if this song wouldn’t be more “right” when given its full doxological context.  

Check your heart, worship planners.  Where might this distinction be helpful to you?


*As a little sidenote, I was immensely blessed at a Hillsong Live concert in Denver a few weeks ago, when it appeared that many of their songs of triumph came after a healthy dose of Christ’s work and atonement.  It was a glorious evening and gave me a renewed appreciation for the movement and their influence.

8 Comments on “Distinguishing Between Songs that are Theologically Incomplete and Songs that are Theologically Wrong”

  1. great post zac!! so insightful. so few of us really spend the time to work out how our song choices interact with the narrative of the gospel in a service, or a season, or even a year of church song! I would love to hear some more suggestions about how to go about working out this tension in our worship planning.

  2. Great post, Zac. Worship pastors/leaders/planners have a weighty responsibility to craft services that accurately walk us through the gospel. When services fail to do that, even if none of the songs or other service elements were theologically wrong, it's often because they failed to pay enough attention during the planning sessions. We have to think beyond "start with a fast song or two, then enter the "slow song" portion, then close with a fast one at the end."

  3. Zac:

    I’ve appreciated your last two blogs. The balance (modern and older music fairly discussed) and depth has been challenging. I laughed and related to the cartoon at the head of today’s blog. Thanks.

    I think some of the ground you are covering in both, especially today’s blog, has to do with how theological correctness and completeness is something systematic theologians seek but that poets and song writers don’t. Not because they can’t. Jesus, Paul, Luther, and others were both theologians (correct) and poets. I’m saying that poetry asks/answers different questions than does a theological treatise. It has a different purpose and function.

    Poetry (For today’s purposes, I include fictional and non-fictional story with-in this word) strives to be true in the broader, experiential, emotional, psychological sense of the word, not only factual, correct, accurate, and complete. True, as in “true that.” Dynamic not static.

    Consider Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “How Do I Love Thee” to her husband Robert. When she is “counting the ways,” she had no intention of coming up with a complete list. She probably missed one or two ways. Nor, I think, is she trying for an indisputably correct definition of love. Rather she is painting a true word picture of love that others can relate to or enter into, so to speak. Systematic lists and logical definitions may be complete and, possibly, correct. They teach, pass on information. But they are seldom true in that deeper, more emotional sense of the word. Poetry creates an atmosphere to learn and grow in.

    Biblical poetry is the same. Job’ s friends poetically espouse incorrect theology. Some Psalms border here too. The prophets poetry and Jesus’ parables fail to be complete in their theology. “The kingdom is like a tree,” is a simile or metaphor designed to take us somewhere not define something. Rather Jesus and the prophets grab a slice of truth and fill it out in images, pacing, rhyme, and metaphors that answer questions in a different but needed way, that complete and correct cannot.

    Sacred music is first poetry. This is not to say it should not be correct and complete when called for. But poetry is, by definition, incomplete, and must be. Otherwise it ceases to be poetry. Epic poetry may be the exception. Maybe we need to understand that poetry, song, story, and image (icons) are not literal but are rather literature, and that even sacred, inspired, God breathed literature does not serve one narrow purpose. Maybe we can ask, what is the purpose of modern praise music? Ancient hymns? Then we can ask if they fulfill that purpose.

    Thanks again for a thoughtful blog.

  4. Great post (I thought it'd be fitting to finish this mini-trinity of "great posts" haha).

    But seriously, really appreciate this. It provides insight into the broader task of the worship leader. As Bruce alluded to, you can even apply this to the macro level. To paraphrase Bob Kauflin: "What if someone grew up in your church and all they heard were the songs… after 20 years, what would they know about God, sin, salvation, the church, hope, mission, etc…?"

  5. Good analysis. I also agree about the placement of songs – you are pretty good at this in the service, I notice.

  6. Great post Zac.

    Allow me to troll a little. I could not help but notice that the title begs the question a bit. All songs that are theologically wrong are merely within a particular degree of being theologically incomplete. The lacuna is what introduces the error. And, let us be humble and realize all theology is by nature incomplete, St. Paul himself said "we know IN PART". Therefore, all theology is wrong in some measure. God not only suffers our sins, he suffers our theology.

    Orthodoxy is not a description of a holistic and flawless system, it is a description of a reasonably sound, but incomplete system. It is therefore gracious with itself.

    Case in point, the statement you make regarding works-based righteousness. Righteousness is not made manifest in what we think, it is what we do. Even if I held to sola fide I would have to accept works-based righteousness, because even for protestants, salvation comes by works, it is simply in the works of Christ alone.

    I do not embrace that, but a Protestant song speaking from the first person claiming to do good works, is really no different that the Spirit proclaiming His work through the singer. It is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me kind of perspective. Why not proclaim the work Christ has done through you, and proclaim it as a desire for Him to do more of it also.

    So you are right, remembering it is, after all, Poetry, can redeem us from the Sisyphean task of always trying and never achieving pure and rigid propositional doctrine in our worship songs.

  7. This is an incredibly important post. I feel like it shows new thoughts that are developing in you as musician-theologian. I'll just summarize some of my thoughts here: I very much agree with the statement: "It becomes more about weight and balance within a whole service (or within a whole series of services)." I find this liberating and capable of voicing a wider range of aesthetics and emotions in music. Also, I find it liberating because sometimes even reformed theology can take on rigid forms that look like legalism. It is amazing how human beings in their sinfulness can twist and wrongly apply something as life-giving as reformed theology..I've seen cases where reformed theology was taken to look something very much like Cessationism. (I've got stories, Zac!)

    Having said that, I want to affirm that the above comment pertains to individual songs and not the shape of the liturgy: I STRONGLY believe that gospel-shaped liturgy is and always will be the most biblical and spiritually formative framework of Christ-centered worship. Given how often human hearts are prone to wander away from the gospel of grace (there was a Calvin quote in the Chappell book about this that I really agreed with), I believe that the centerpiece, as well as the heaviest weight of every worship service, should be the gospel. I get this from Chappell, you, and from my personal worship experiences. Seriously, there is nothing more empty or tragic than being part of worship service that does not overtly celebrate the gospel. And that is why I'm so thankful to be worshiping at CCPC and my soul will never tire it.

  8. *tire of it.

    And I guess I need to qualify this too: I agree with "It becomes more about weight and balance within a whole service." But I don't agree with the "(or within a whole series of services)" alternative.

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