My 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?