A Christian Philosophy of Music by Jim Jester

It has been said that music is the universal language. We have various forms of the art in the many cultures of the world. In western culture, Christians have a special interest. Music began to change during the 20th century, especially after the advent of the Beatles in 1964. Not all of the change was bad, such as the concept of questioning authority, but for most of the social norms, it was a bad turn. For decades, the debate over “rock” music in the church and Christian home continued among fundamentalists. Today, the debate is over for most, and many church leaders consider everything in the field of musical genre appropriate for Christians and church worship. What a Christian personally listens to, and for what reason, is entirely up to him or her; but I would not expect any sincere Christian trying to model his or her life after Jesus Christ, to be listening to a steady diet of pornographic music. Music for the church is a different story; it has a different purpose and should be a higher character.

I believe music has declined during the 20th century from what it was in former ages. Because of this, I have developed my own philosophy about music for the church and Christian family. It is not a popular position but it is a consistent one. Most of the ancient Greek philosophers (such as Plato) and the church fathers (such as Augustine) believed that good music made a person good and bad music made a person bad. Whether this is true or not is a matter of conjecture, but there is no doubt that music does affect us.

How does music affect us? It affects us in three ways: physically, mentally, and spiritually.1  Why does it have these effects? No one seems to know for sure; it is just how we are designed. There are two theories held by musicians: the “intrinsic mystical power” view, and the “conditioned response” view.2  I tend to believe mostly in the former view and to a lesser degree in the latter view. It also seems to me that the ancient philosophers believed in this “mystical power” theory of music or they would not have taken the position they did on governing music.

The Message is the Music

Most of us have heard the statement, “You can’t see the forest for the trees,” made to someone who cannot see something right in front of them. Sometimes Christians do not recognize spiritual concepts that are staring them in the face from the pages of Holy Scripture. One of these principles is separation. The Bible commands that we be holy and separate,

Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you (2 Cor. 6:17). And, The Lord shall establish thee an holy people unto himself, as he hath sworn unto thee, if thou shalt keep the commandments of the Lord thy God, and walk in his ways (Deut. 28:9). And, For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth (Deut. 14:2).

As we study the Bible, we will recognize how this affects the various issues of life; everything from how we dress and things we avoid, to those we associate with and marry. It even affects us on the national level and guides us on those we elect. Christians do not (or should not) accept things as normal, just because “everyone else does it.”

Something dawned upon me back in 1982 when I was in a Christian bookstore. I had been to several stores, where my search for a recording of hymns done in chimes was futile. I wanted such for our church display in a town celebrating its tricentennial. I was elated to find such a record tucked, with a few others (that weren’t selling?), in its own little, odd-ball, and forsaken nook. This type of music was “despised and rejected” among the vast selections of the latest in contemporary Christian music.

I took my rare treasure to the check out counter with many thoughts like; has the church, in the name of “reaching the lost” with more contemporary music, polluted itself? What about the next generation in the evolution of “gospel music.” I confirmed in my mind that the church must maintain a standard for music as well as morals. We must acknowledge that the purpose of church music is not to entertain (and hopefully convert unbelievers) the lost, but to edify the believers and assist them in worship.

At the counter, I complimented the young lady on the nice music they were playing (at that moment) in the store, and asked if they had any recordings of the traditional hymns and/or classics. Of course there weren’t any (except what I had found), and she said that nobody had ever asked for that kind of music. I was floored; and then it struck me, that what was once the only music, for not only the Christian but for all of civilized society, is now not even asked for! I politely asked, “Isn’t it a bit inconsistent that you have books in your store against rock music and yet that is all you have in the record department?” “Well, uh” and she nodded. She saw that the bookshop, calling itself Christian, was inconsistent with Christian principles. “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness and what communion hath light with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14)

Music is effective in driving home a message, especially if the spirit (genera) of the music matches the message in the lyrics. Music may contain words, but the actual music is a message even without words. The message is not in the music via the lyrics, the message is, primarily, the music. When it comes right down to it, words are not very important. People listen to music for music’s sake, not for the words necessarily. Ever hear someone say, “I don’t care about the words, I like the music.” I said the same thing when I listened to acid rock, and I still say the same thing when I listen to Gregorian chant (which is in Latin). Interestingly, in neither one of these can I understand the words. In our day, people write lyrics for popular music rather than writing music for a particular text. This is the opposite from what was done in the past. Point is, the message is the music, not the other way around.

Now, of course lyrics are important. The plague of our day is that Christian songs lack spiritual depth. The reformer, Martin Luther said, “The devil takes flight at the sound of music, just as he does at the words of theology and for this reason the prophets always combined theology and music, the teaching of truth and the chanting of Psalms and hymns.” If words are important, then why obliterate them with instruments of percussion and rhythm? If one really wanted to get the words out then why not sing them acapella ? When someone claims words are important concerning contemporary Christian music, it could be that they are only using good words to justify bad music. Many well-meaning Christians, say the rock/jazz culture does go well with gospel songs, and to prove it they will point to all the “good results” with teenagers when rock is used to communicate the gospel to them. However, the Bible condemns the combining of the holy with the unholy. Many times, you will find that the so-called good results may have not been so good after all, or were short lived. “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed…” (Rom. 12:2). J. S. Bach insisted, “All music should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the soul’s refreshment; where this is not remembered there is no real music but only a devilish hubbub.” From his earliest compositions until almost the day of this death, Bach headed his works with the letters “JJ” for “Jesus Juva” (Jesus help me) and ended them with “SDG” for “Soli Dei Gratia” (to God alone the praise). I certainly agree with that.

Satan's Pied Piper

A popular radio station in Cincinnati calls itself “the degradation destination station.” Perhaps the owners are using irony, but maybe they are just being honest, judging by the music that they play. I believe the popular music of the 20th century has weakened the moral fiber of our recent generations of young people and has contributed to the breakdown of the family. The main themes of “pop”3 music are free sex (including sodomy and rape), drugs, alcohol, violence, false religions and the occult. I also believe this will cause the decay of society and the destruction of western civilization. Christians should not be a part of this degradation and they, through the church, should raise a higher standard for people to follow.

Some may object and say that music does not make them do such things (as listed above) as the many lyrics suggest in popular music. However, we must admit that music does influence the listener’s mind and attitude. Any psychologist will admit that one cannot divorce what a person feeds his mind on from what a person is and does.

Music therapist, Adam Knieste, calls rock music a dangerous drug “more deadly than heroin.” He studied the effect of rock music for ten years. He has treated narcotics by playing soothing music for them, and says, “If certain music can bring emotional stability, then it is possible that other music can create mental havoc among those whose minds are not disturbed.”

He ministered an emotional stability test to 250 high school students while they listened to rock music. The results suggested that all were sick. He also gave a driving simulation test to youngsters while they listened to the top 40. Thirty one percent did worse on the same test than they had done earlier.

The Journal of Music Therapy, XXIX, 1992, reports that “Observation of clients at a state mental health hospital by direct care staff indicated that they appeared to act in more inappropriate ways when hard rock or rap music was played in an open courtyard than when easy listening or country music was played.”

Time Magazine, December 1975, reports that in a school for unwed mothers in Florida, 964 girls out of 1,000 admitted that they indulged in sexual intercourse while listening to rock music.

The term “rock ‘n’ roll” was coined by a disk jockey that borrowed it from the ghetto, where he found it to be a descriptive sex expression. One singer said he knew this music got through to the young people because, “The big beat matches the rhythms of the human body and they will carry this beat with them the rest of their lives.” Another says, “Rock music is sex and you have to hit teenagers in the face with it.”

In January of 1989, the Italian catholic magazine 30 Days, warns of an “incredible increase in the civilized world of the number of lovers of Satan,” which is closely linked to “heavy metal” groups in Germany and the “doctrine of the New Age” or the “Age of Aquarius” in France.

On March 4, 1990, New York’s John Cardinal O’Conner issues a scathing denunciation of rock music, warning that it leads to demonic possession and suicide, and is “pornography in sound… some music is a help to the devil.”

Even Mick Jagger says, “There is no such thing as a good, family oriented rock song.” So, if this is true, why do those who identify themselves as “Christian artists” use the popular styles of music for their songs? Is it money?

In 1994, the latest hit by Sandi Patti was “Wings of Love.” There is nothing in the song about Christ, or, as usual of so-called Christian music today, no deep theological concepts, just positive, good-time, feel-good, liberalism – “everybody sing a song; find it on the wings of love; …play in the sunshine; dance in the moonlight.” And this is supposed to be Christian? Then the announcer of the local Christian FM station comes on and says, “That’s a great song” and “I shouldn’t analyze music.” I suppose he disagrees with the Bible because it says, “He that is spiritual judges all things” (I Cor. 2:15).

The Christian community has been led down the road of degradation by Satan’s pied piper of contemporary Christian artists. In my opinion, Christians should have never let popular music dominate what they use in church or regularly listen to at home. Once that line was crossed and as each decade passed, it gradually gained acceptance in the church. Once the trend began, there was no stopping it.

One example of this crossover of the sacred to secular border is Southern Gospel. I will grant that Country music is somewhat “cleaner” than Rock music, but does that make it appropriate for church worship? Not necessarily. Once this began, then the next genre can come up and vie for a place in the church. Therefore, anything can (and likely will) happen in the church, in time. For years, the devil has tried to get a grip at the front door of the evangelical church; now he has found a wide-open back door and has been blindly, yet enthusiastically, welcomed in through the music of his pied pipers.

Many well meaning Christians will say that “times change” and imply that we should too. However, when it comes to the church, pagan culture should not take over Christian culture. The contemporary Christian artist will quote the verse “sing unto the Lord a new song.” But, he does not know that the word “new” in this verse does not relate to time, rather, it relates to character. We have a new character because of Christ; we do not go back in time and become a baby. I have nothing against using newly composed music for the church, as long as its character, its genre, its sound, is not like the world’s immoral entertainment. It is common knowledge that “as long as it’s got a beat, you can dance to it.” Therefore, any music of these genres is not compatible with Christian morals. Why do so many Christians accept and promote the same music of the liberal, anti-Bible, Christ haters of our age? To me they are inconsistent pied pipers piping their new, yet degrading, music to unsuspecting childish followers.

Christianity has always maintained a high standard of values for society to pattern after. Why should Christians use pagan music? The pagans do not use our music! Christians should have their own standards in art and quit copying the world’s style. Christians have always had their own art form in the European Classical tradition. I know of no better place to draw a consistent line of division to help judge what is appropriate for the Christian church. This may sound radical to many, but after years of studying this, I believe it is the most harmonious and consistent philosophy to hold. And besides, it is not the job of the church to entertain.

The moral decline of our culture can be blamed on many things, but few seem to understand the part that art has to play. Jesus said, “It is the little foxes that destroy the vine.” A lack of standards in the arts and a failure to recognize the moral aspect of music has created the moral crisis in America. It is a scarcity of order and rules in art/music that creates the social atmosphere.

Chrysostom warned Christians against the influence of secular music. He regarded the music of his day as symbolic of everything lewd and degrading. He was writing towards the end of the fourth century when the Roman Empire was within a decade or two of its final dissolution. He saw the focus of all the degeneracy in music – a monstrous power both of reflecting and of acting upon a whole civilization; and said, “It is at the root of acts of violence and dishonor, wars and daily death. Life for those addicted to these things is dishonorable, amusements become less and less desirable, and everything at home is turned upside down.”

Problems with the Popular Theory of Music Philosophy

It is claimed by many church leaders that we should use the music of the day because people like it. They say that Martin Luther took a bar room tune to accompany his hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, and this is used as justification for using popular music in the church today. This is what I call the Popular Theory of music philosophy. I see four reasons why this is invalid.

  1. It is the exception, not the rule.

    Although Luther employed a popular tune of his day to promote his hymn, this is not how most church music came to prominence. He was not wrong for doing this, just revolutionary, as almost everything else he did. We should take a look at history.

    How did most church music come about? Great composers of the Catholic Church (Palestrina, Monteverdi) and the Protestant Church (J. S. Bach) wrote music specifically to honor God; music that would properly lend itself to the awesomeness and solemnity of the public worship of God. Both sacred and secular music in the European classical tradition were influenced by biblical standards, particularly in their connection to monody, which made them melody oriented. The tradition of melody, harmony, and rhythm which has been carried down through the centuries of church music, which we have in our hymn-book today, is the result of a long history of music composed to the glory of God.

    Therefore, it is foolish for anyone to base a philosophy of music on one or two isolated examples and thus making an exception to the rule the norm. Martin Luther did not depend on barroom leadership to run the church, but he made one wise choice of an appropriate, good, yet popular piece of music, regardless of its immediate source. This was not wrong.

  2. It assumes that music is autonomous.

    The Popular Theory assumes that music exists in and of itself as an art form, not connected to anything else; that music is amoral, and that it is just a matter of personal preference and taste. While it is true that music exists in and of itself as art, it is not true that it stands alone, for it is connected to many things.

    Francis Schaeffer in his book Escape from Reason, p.12, speaks of a “weakness” in today’s educational system. He asks, why do we today have dualistic thinking where science is studied as science, art is studied as art, music is studied as music, theology is studied as theology, etc.? Is philosophy, art, or any field of knowledge to be studied apart from the Creator in unrelated parallel lines? Certainly not!

    For the Christian, everything is connected to God. And certainly, as significant music is in our life, it cannot be separated from God. For no one, or no thing, is autonomous (or sovereign) but God Himself. Therefore, the Popular Theory is wrong because it ignores God, the Creator of music, and makes personal choice its god. With the Popular Theory reigning, no style of music can be barred from Christian use, and everything, in its time, is appropriate according to the consensus of the majority. And, isn’t this what has happened in our lifetime? In the words of Schaeffer (ibid, p. 42), “Man will keep his rationalism and his rebellion, his insistence on total autonomy or partial autonomous areas, even if it means he must give up his rationality.” But if you are a Christian, you know that Christ is Lord of all – over every aspect of life. “I am false or confused if I sing about Christ’s Lordship and contrive to retain areas of my own life that are autonomous” (ibid, p. 83).

  3. It ignores moral absolutes.

    Is there really a right and wrong when it comes to music? Since the Popular Theory of music philosophy disconnects itself from God, it also separates itself from moral absolutes. Most of the ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, believed that good music made a person good and bad music made a person bad. This idea is scoffed at today, but maybe they were correct. The fact remains that there has always been a right and wrong applied to rules for music. We can see this in history and in the Bible.

    Historically, plainsong and parallel organum started a tradition of sacred music resulting in the style of modern classical church music. The plainsong tradition was built on the principle of rhythm tied to the words, not words tied to the rhythm, as is modern pop music. Sacred and secular music of the medieval period were generally rhythmically free. However, secular music soon became based on dance rhythms. The mainstream of southern gospel music is a style of playing and singing utilizing moderate jazz techniques of performance. It is based on various folk, country, and black gospel as well. This “swing” or “big beat” in music began about the turn of the twentieth century in the “red light” district of New Orleans. Its purpose was to make fun of the white man’s sexual norms and promote immorality. Ever since then, popular music has followed this trend; be it country/western, jazz, soul, rock, heavy metal, or rap.

    Biblically, we find that music was not based upon rhythm. Drums were not found in the temple worship and the cymbals mentioned were never used as continuous rhythmic accompaniment; rather, they were used much as a conductor uses the baton, as a starting or stopping device.

    In the books of I Chronicles 25, 15 and II Chronicles 29, we have a divine revelation of the organization, administration, and excellence of the Levite musicians. Garen Wolf, in his work, Music in the Bible, tells us that:

    I Chronicles 23:5 mentions 4,000 instrumentalists in the royal orchestra of King David. One would wonder just how an orchestra of 4,000 would amuse themselves with second-rate music. On the contrary, the music must have been of a sophisticated nature. Chenaniah instructed about the song and was skillful (I Chro. 15:22). If he was skillful, it stands to reason that the music must have been difficult enough to demand some skill in performing it. In I Samuel 16:16, the advisors of King Saul wanted to seek out a man who was a cunning player on the harp. II Chronicles 23:13 speaks of voice teachers. Furthermore, the singer who were chief of the Levites were said to be “employed in that work day and night” (I Chro. 9:23). If the music was not highly developed and sophisticated, what did all these leaders and performers do day and night?

    In addition, in I Chronicles 25, we find mentioned a 288 member choral organization consisting of teachers and students. This comes nowhere close to what takes place on the “stage” of today’s modern evangelical church.

    When we study these and other passages in the Bible, we are forced to the conclusion that there is a biblical standard and rules for music. Dare we treat God’s revelation with disrespect when it comes to music? Do we disregard God’s Word in any other area of our life?

    Most people are not aware that there is so much about music in the Bible, nor are they aware of the history that embraces the examples of Scripture. The European tradition of church music lends itself more readily to the solemnity of worship than does jazz and country, which generally were not composed for use in any type of church context. These modern styles are a distraction from what should be in the church.

  4. It is inclusive.

    This is the most dangerous reason of all that the Popular Theory is wrong; and yet so many good people are deceived by it. We live in an age when we are bombarded constantly with the propaganda of inclusiveness. If we are not inclusive then we are labeled “unfair” or “racist”. Yet, the main principle that embodies the very essence of Christianity is separation or exclusiveness. “For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth” (Deut. 7:6). The Bible tells God’s people to be separate from other races and not to make agreements or marry them (See Deut. 7:2-3). The Bible also says, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world” and to “shun the very appearance of evil.” Christians are not to love the world system – we should love what God loves and hate what God hates. Biblical Christianity is not inclusive of everyone and everything, but rather it is exclusive. This, briefly, is the biblical doctrine of Sanctification.

    False Christianity is inclusive and proudly admits its universal appeal, which is in direct opposition to the clear teachings of God’s Word. The popular music of our age is designed for secular (and/or evil) purposes and has no business being linked with the holy words of scripture, forming such absurdities as religious rock, Jesus jazz, or holy ho-down. Many defend rock music, but it really has no defense. “Jazz and other forms of popular music seem to be stranded with no direct historical linkage to religious or church music of the European tradition” (Schirmer). Since this is true, then why use it? Are most people today addicted to the beat? Good music does not support an addiction. Is this why it is so hard to get many people to listen to the classics? Therefore, since the Popular Theory is inclusive, making it a part of the world system, it is not in harmony with the Bible and should be rejected by Christians for use in public worship.

In summary, since the Popular Theory of music is an exception from what we find in history; since it assumes that music is autonomous; since it ignores moral absolutes; and since it is controlled by the whims of the world and is not separate, but rather inclusive; it should be rejected as a Christian philosophy of music.


1. Music in the Bible, p.1, Garen Wolf, 1989 [back to text]
2. A Philosophy of Church Music, p.17, Robert Berglund [back to text]
3. By “pop” music, I mean all popular genera: jazz, country, rock and soul, etc. [back to text]