IS MUSIC WORSHIP?
Today, churches, Christian universities, and seminaries most commonly associate the word worshipand worship artswith music and any activity related to it such as music programming, music media presentation, the creation of mood and atmosphere with music, and the utilization of various methods to evoke congregational musical participation. Webster Dictionary defines artas skill acquired by experience, study, or observation. Therefore, worship artsmay be defined as the application and honing of skills necessary toward the creation and enhancement of the musical experience.
A college track in worship artswill typically encompass music-industry fundamentals such as scoring, recording, performance, and production. Included will be marketing, artist development and repertoire (A & R). Such industry fundamentals are then applied toward album production, publication, concerts, and so-called church music ministry. But, is there much of a difference between a mainstream music-industry track and a Christian worship artsdegree? It doesn’t seem so. Perhaps the church models itself after the music industry in hopes of also obtaining its successes and market reach. A side-by-side comparison reveals that both operate in much the same way, utilizing the same marketing, artist development, and business models. However, the Bible does not use the word worshipthis way, nor is worship artsa concept for the Church, which leads us to wonder why the Christian community thinks and does so. If worshipis about ascribing value or worth to someone, how exactly would music do or express this?
In the Bible, there is little connection between the Biblical definition for worship and its relation to music. Interestingly, not a single word in the Hebrew and Greek captures our modern concept of “music equals worship.” Wrong definitions and improper usage have led the Church down the wrong path, into false-thinking or myth-making, and the results are evident in our illogical church practices. Our current state of confusion is indicative of how we’ve strayed from the truth for far too long.
SO WHAT IS WORSHIP?
The English word worshipis not translated from a unique word found in the original languages of the Bible. It has been translated from several Greek words, some of which are listed below. Each word is different and describes different concepts. None have any associative references to music:
- Sebomai:(verb) To reverence (“in vain they do worship me” Matthew 15:9).
- Thréskeia:(noun) Ritual or religious activity (“let no man beguile you in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels” Colossians 2:18).
- Theosebés:(adjective) God-fearer (“but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth his will,” John 9:31).
- Proskyneō:(verb) Fall upon the knees, touching the ground (we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him” Matthew 2:2).
- Latreia:(noun) Service (“present your bodies a living sacrifice…which is your reasonable service [worship]” Romans 12:1).
The objective here is to see whether our modern concept of worship as found in worship artscorresponds to any Biblical example of worship. A simple way to do this is to examine these words and see if any elements of their definitions overlap with “worship arts.” If they do, it is reasonable to assume there is a correlation. But if they do not, then we need to question from where the church today gets its concept of worship.
The first word sebomaidescribes devout Greeks in Acts 17:4 and those who adore the goddess Diana in Acts 19:27. This word doesn’t make a distinction as to who or how something is adored. In addition, sebomaiis used to describe those who, in vain, followed and “worshipped” Jesus (Matthew 15:9). It further describes those who purportedly were devout followers of God, but whom Jesus disputed with in the marketplace (Acts 17:17).Sebomaimeans to revere and implies a sense of fear. There is no artistic or musical concept that can be applied to sebomai.
The second word thréskeia indicates ceremonial religiosity such as in Acts 26:5 when Paul speaks of his Pharisaical sect as the strictest, most religious sect of all, and is used in James 1:26 when James describes especially religious or ceremoniously pious people. Music has no connection to thréskeiain these passages. It could be argued that, because of music’s constant use and the role it is given in church services, our modern musical practices stand in for ceremonial religiosity. But if they do, the next question to ask is, on what basis should it? There is no basis for thinking music can emulate or substitute for ceremonial religiosity.
Theosebés, the third example, describes those who are devout to God, such as those proselytes who sought after God, doing his will (John 9:31). The Gentiles or Greeks who sought after the living God at the Temple were referred to by the Jews as theosebés, orGod-fearers. It is strange to imagine their devout fear of God had anything to do with music or that music could have inspired such a devout fear. Only the Word can engender authentic understanding and fear of God in a believer.
The fourth example proskyneō comes from the Hebrew shachahand means “to prostrate oneself.” The primary definition of prostration is an outward physical gesture of bowing or kissing the ground. Its secondary meaning includes adoration and respect along with the physical act of bowing. In Eastern cultures, the manner of prostration corresponds to rank, social status, and hierarchy. Not only is prostration important to the one to whom honor or respect is given, but equally as important to those observing as well. Prostration serves as a kind of communication, a visual indication displaying hierarchal relationships. Even today in Asian countries such as China and Thailand, customs regarding prostration still apply and remain deeply embedded in the culture. In these cultures, readers would assume that the title of this article – “worship arts” – would be about bowing customs and ceremonial obeisance.
Proskyneōalone, out of all the words for worship, has a contextual connection to music. In the Old Testament, the cultures that practiced prostration used music as an integral part of it. For example, Daniel speaks of proskyneōin the context of music: Nebuchadnezzar proclaimed that the moment when the trumpets and horns sounded was the moment to bow downto the image he had erected of himself. The three Hebrew men Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah refused (cf. Daniel 3:10-12). The music was a signal intended to instill adoration, or in this case, display adoration toward Nebuchadnezzar’s image – whether or not Nebuchadnezzar’s subjects adored him. But by outwardly bowing, participants displayed their respect, servitude, and place in society.
Though not intentionally, many churches emulate Nebuchadnezzar’s service of music. Churches use music to signal the start of certain activities and employ music’s powers to influence the emotions of its congregants. The congregation is expected to respond, and even though most Christians would not admit to doing this consciously or deliberately, the quality and depth of our relationship to God is frequently gauged by how we display our mimicked acts of proskyneō. Are we raising our hands high enough? Palms up, palms down? Are we closing our eyes? Are we feeling enough worship yet?
The irony and dissonance of this situation is that the Bible contains no guidelines about how to proskyneōwith music for believers. The example in Daniel is a vivid one practiced in a pagan culture. Additionally, it was a religious custom that Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah refusedto participate in.One may argue that the three Hebrews refused to bow because they were bowing to an image of Nebuchadnezzar, which is true, but there is no other precedent in the Bible to show that worship requires or needs music. The use of music in the Temple (cf. 2 Chronicles 29:28-29) was in conjunction with the service of sacrifice being performed. The music did not incite the congregation to bow and prostrate themselves, but rather, the congregation prostrated themselves because they feared God, and continued to remain prostrated long after the music had stopped. In Nehemiah 8:4-8, the people prostrated themselves before the Lord in deference to the Word being read and expounded without any use of music.
In the Church, the body of Christ, the practice of proskyneōas a societal custom, disappears. After all, the custom of prostrating oneself is irrelevant for a heterogeneous body of believers that includes Gentiles. Not until the establishment of Jesus Christ’s rule in the theocratic kingdom of Israel – and the re-inception of its Jewish traditions, culture, and customs — does proskyneōreappear (cf. Revelation 4:10).
If so-called worship/music arts were applied to proskyneō,how is the concept of hierarchy to music expressed? I suppose there is music that is considered “high-brow” and others “low-brow” as associated with the social classes with which such genres of music are enjoyed. But unfortunately, when music is applied as a spiritualized act of obeisance, music has taken on a more sinister role. Modern “worship arts” assigns music a role and a function – as it had in Nebuchadnezzar’s services – that supplants the real components necessary for a life of Biblical worshipfound in Bible doctrine. In some cases, music is simply an unnecessary distraction, but in others, it has become the object of our worship. Music is so embedded in services today that many churches will feel that something is missing, or that “feeling the Spirit” is lacking if music is not present. Unwittingly, churches have crafted music into a golden calf and will not part with it.
WHAT IS THE WORSHIP OF MUSIC?
Many Christians, unaware of the new position of liberty which we have in Christ, cling on to the Mosaic Law/Temple system, which is now defunct and obsolete in this dispensation of grace. In wrongly substituting music for the priestly activities in the Temple, music takes on a symbolism and role it was not meant to have, and in practice and intent, music is utilized as a means of gaining access or getting closer to God.
As with the atoning blood with which priests would sprinkle themselves as a covering for their sins, the “Holy of Holies” is approached under the “covering of music.” The result is a “music equals worship” concept where music is transformed into the act of “bowing before God.” Music is employed as the mediator in arbitrating an encounter with God. It is not surprising that many of today’s songs incorporate the phrase, “I bow down and worship,” and “I come into your presence.” People depend on music for its effect on their emotions and perceived realities of being in the presence of God.
The misappropriation of music has resulted in many false beliefs, some of which are listed here:
- Music ushers one into the presence of God.
- Music sung with sincerity demonstrates our love for God.
- Music lets us experience God.
- We invoke the Holy Spirit through music.
- Music ministry is a spiritual gift to the church.
- Music evangelizes unbelievers and unites believers.
- Music is a witness for Christ.
- “Director of Worship Arts” is a ministry position in the church.
Myth A:Music brings us into the presence of God.
Truth: In popular usage, music is said to be able to “bring us” back in time, into different moods and many places. Music is said to evoke sentiment, and we get sentimental when we remember events, places, and feelings tied to certain songs. Some Christians speak of music “bringing them into the presence of God.” While no one means any harm by this phrase, it is misleading and can even be detrimental if it is taken too seriously. Music has nothing to do with Jesus Christ’s atoning work on the cross, who, by his gift of salvation, made Christ the sole Mediator who brings us into the presence of God. Music can never be the substitute for Jesus Christ, who said emphatically, “No one comes to the Father except through me”(John 14:6). Some Christians may backtrack this phrase and say, “Music doesn’t bring me into the presence of God, because God is always present. I just experience God more strongly when I hear or sing music.” For an answer as to why this is also incorrect, see Myth C.
Myth B:Music sung with sincerity demonstrates our love for God.
Truth: We can sing songs of love and adoration through tears and crying, but if we are not living according to the Bible’s definition of worship, which is that we must present our bodies “a living sacrifice,holy, acceptable to God…” (cf. Romans 12:1), we cannot please God. Moreover, because we are now ambassadors of Christ with the message of reconciliation “that we have been made righteous through Christ, who knew no sin,” our lives must exemplify the life of purity that Christ has made available to us (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17-21). Singing love songs to Jesus until your tears run dry won’t reconcile you to Him.
Myth C:Music lets us experience God.
Truth: Music may cause us to respond with certain emotions, but music is only a mimic of reality. It may bring up feelings of love, joy, or peace, even when we may be living the exact opposite. Therefore, such dependence on mimicry can be very misleading. To attempt to experience God through music is as impossible as thinking that one can gain access to heaven by being good. For example, our preponderance for church love songs beguiles us into thinking that we are “in love” with God, though in practice we may be living contrary to His express will provided in His Word. Living in His will is how we demonstrate our love to God. Music is not the medium with which we experience God. We can only experience life with God once we are transformed into newness of life in Christ when we place our trust and faith in Him and His atoning work on the cross.
Myth D:We invoke the Holy Spirit through music.
Truth: Never does the Bible speak of invoking the Holy Spirit through music. There is nothing we can do to invoke God to do anything, and certainly not by music. Though music can arouse feelings of sadness, joy, or inspiration, we know that such feelings are not of the Holy Spirit; they come from ourselves. If they were actually from the Holy Spirit, the Spirit would be inconsistent, because the same music may produce feelings of love in one person, and at the same time may produce feelings of anger and madness in another…a common occurrence within congregations that have “blended” services. To sing with the spirit and with the understanding (1 Corinthians 14:15) is an approach that engages the mind focused on the Word of God, not on emotions produced by the music. Furthermore, it is not necessary to invoke the Holy Spirit since the Holy Spirit already sealed you (Ephesians 1:13) and made you the temple where He resides (1 Corinthians 6:19). These are facts, not feelings.
Myth E: Music is a spiritual gift to the Church
Truth: The Apostle Paul listed gifts which Christ gave the Church: “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12). Sorry, music ministers and worship arts directors did not make the list.
Myth F: Music evangelizes unbelievers and unites believers.
Truth: The Word of God contains the power to save, regenerate, and restore. Music cannot save unbelievers. Neither will the unsaved, seeker, or casual listener be saved by engaging in the music. Moreover, in most cases, contrary to many authors who claim that music unites people, music actually causes much dissention and disunity within congregations.
Myth G: Music is a witness for Christ.
Truth: As much as churches use music during conferences and evangelistic gatherings, it is onlythe Word that has the power to save. To use music as a witness for Christ runs the risk of portraying Christ according to the unreliable and questionable referents contained in the type, style, and genre of music, rather than on the reliability of what the Bible says about Christ.
Myth H:“Director of Worship Arts” is a ministry position in the church.
Truth: Read Myth E. The real Director of Worship Arts is the Word of God, for“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). These “instructions in righteousness” are the components needed for the art of living true worship toward God.
Here we find that the definitions and connotations attached to the words for “worship” that have been discussed so far do not correspond at all to a music-based approach to worship. Misunderstandings about the role of music and worship, and ignorance regarding the believer’s position in Christ, further complicated by a misguided yearning to connect with God through music, mean that music is now inappropriately used to connect with God.
MASTERING THE ART OF BIBLICAL WORSHIP
That said, there is one word for “worship” in the Bible that does have relevance to music. It has been easier, up to this point, to clear out irrelevant definitions before advancing to one that does have some relevance. This is the word latreia.The latreia concept of worship incorporates the use of Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs as presented in the Bible. Latreiais a word that embodies a concept of worship as “service.” It is used in Romans 12:1-2 and translated as both “worship” and “service.” To service something is to maintain, repair, refurbish, and rejuvenate it. For believers, because we are still embodied in flesh, it is our responsibility to reckon our life holy and to present our bodies a living sacrifice. This is called “our reasonable service.” Why? Because we are now the temple of the Holy Spirit. Our position as a member of the body of Christ is a position of holiness. “[God] hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace…” (2 Timothy 1:9).
Against this backdrop, we can now ascertain the role of music in the life of the believer. A contextual study of Colossians provides clear directives regarding the ‘serviceunto holiness’of music. In Colossians, Christ’s deity and headship is emphasized. The believer’s position as a member of the Body in Christ necessitates “hold(ing) fast to the Head” (2:18, 19) in submission to Him. Colossians concerns the “saints and faithful brethren in Christ” (1:2) with the following goals in mind:
That you may…
1:9 be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding
1:10 walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God
1:11 (be) strengthened with all might…unto all patience, longsuffering, with joyfulness
1:26 (because) the mystery which had been hid is now made manifest to his saints
1:28 (so) that we may be perfect
2:8 lest any spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit
2:18 let no man beguile you of your reward
3:1 If ye are in Christ, seek the things which are above
3:2 Set your affections on things above
3:5 Mortify your members which are upon earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affections, evil concupiscence, covetousness
3:7 for you once walked in them
3:8 But now put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication, lie not
3:10 Put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him who created him
3:12 Put on bowels of mercy, kindness humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering
3:13 forbearing one another, forgiving one another
3:14 above all, charity
3:15 Let the peace of God rule
3:16 Let the words of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom…teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.
Note, Colossians is addressed 1) to believers, those who have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, 2) to those who walk worthy, being fruitful in all good works, and 3) to those who are increasing in knowledge of God.Within the context of latreiathe Apostle Paul enjoins the body of Christ to teach, admonish, and speak the Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of the Bible first to yourself and then each other (Ephesians 5:19) with the purpose of letting the words of Christ dwell the believer richly (Colossians 3:16). For example, the Psalms teach us about God (Psalm 105), his Son (Psalm 2), and creation (Psalm 19, 104). Hymns (John 1:1-5, Philippians 2:5-11) ascribe praise and instruct us about who God is. Spiritual songs (Deuteronomy 32:1-43, Revelation 5:9-13) admonish, reprove, and reveal God’s redemptive plan. This is why the Apostle Paul gave us the injunction to use these songs of the Bible.
Note that the Bible is not saying let the music dwell in you richly, but the Word. Today, music is employed as a catalyst to evoke emotional responses. However, Ephesians 5:19, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord,” specify that these psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are the Word (the Word of Christ, Colossians 3:16) which is the true inciter of emotion, because it is the Word in our hearts that stokes us to ‘melody’. ‘Melody’ is from the Greek word psallo, which is a verb which means to pluck, as on harp strings. It is the Word of Christ internalized that pulls on our heartstrings, moving us to respond emotionally in singing with grace and understanding primarily in our hearts.
Worship arts is about acquiring the life skills necessary, through study of the Word, practice, experience, and observation, to live a life approved unto God, with grace amongst fellow believers, and with consideration and understanding in all things (2 Corinthians 6:4-10).
Adapted from The Ultimate Guide to Worship Arts by Arnfield P. Cudal (HARK, 2016)