For about 20 years now, I’ve been having discussions with brethren all over the country about who should lead singing. Some argue that the congregation’s best song leaders should lead on Sunday morning to the exclusion of everyone else. They say that’s giving to God our best.
By contrast, others argue that it’s ungodly to judge the value of a song leader according to fleshly, external standards. The technical virtuoso may be self-centered and godless in his heart, while the guy who can’t hardly carry a tune in a bucket may be giving the Lord heartfelt glory. In consequence, we should let everybody lead who wants to lead and leave the judging to God.
I think both sides have a point, but I also think that the difference between them is not so great as it appears. To illustrate what I mean, let’s consider a couple of different sacrifices from the Law of Moses.
Leviticus 5:7 is an illustration of God’s kindness toward the poor. In it, God recognizes that some of His people may not be able to afford a lamb to offer as a sacrifice for sin. As a result, He allows them to offer according to what they could afford, by substituting turtledoves or pigeons for livestock. In God’s eyes, the turtledove offered by one who was giving his best was just as pleasing as the bull.
In Malachi 1, particularly in Malachi 1:14, we see a very different scenario playing out. This time, comparatively wealthy Jews who owned flocks were offering their lame, sick, and blind animals as sacrifices. They had the resources to do better, but instead of striving to give God their best, they offered what they thought they could get away with. God was not pleased with them!
Today, I think there are unblemished-turtledove song leaders and blemished-lamb song leaders. The former is a man who is simply limited in his gifts. He’s gone to song-leading schools to perfect his craft, he practices every time before he leads singing, but he regularly makes mistakes.
However, I think God is pleased with a sacrifice like that despite those mistakes. When we fall short of skilled perfection because of the way He created us, He doesn’t expect any better than that. I have a lot of sympathy for a song leader who is struggling but obviously offering his best.
On the other hand, though, we have blemished-lamb song leaders. These men make mistakes during the assembly too, but their mistakes are the fruit of lack of effort. They’ve never bothered to learn how to blow pitch, beat time, or master any of the other skills that are so important to the song leader. Before the assembly, they can be seen hurriedly putting together a song list on the front pew. In raw talent, they may well blow the unblemished-turtledove song leader away, but men like this never will realize their potential because they can’t be bothered to try.
Now, I’m not saying that every Christian man should feel responsible for becoming a song leader. However, if you want to be a song leader, then you need to put in the work. Nobody is entitled to lead the Lord’s people in worship on Sunday morning simply by virtue of church membership!
When men who have not developed their skills and do not work hard seek that position anyway, that is not a God-honoring spirit. Yes, it’s important not to presume what someone’s heart is like, but the one who is not diligent in preparing to serve makes his heart obvious by the absence of fruit.
When somebody wants to open up the song-leading roster, then, I want to know who the additions will be. Are these men who have worked hard, hit their ceiling, and want to serve despite their limitations? Or, on the other hand, are these men who are limited because they never have bothered to learn how to serve? Once we figure that out, I don’t think we’ll have any trouble discerning who should enter the rotation.
Along with most other members of churches of Christ, I believe that the word of God is the sole authoritative guide to serving Him. In particular, I believe that within the New Testament, we can discern a pattern of work and worship in the first-century church that God expects all Christians to follow.
However, I also believe that this pattern is limited in its scope. The Bible does not provide an answer for every question that we might ask about the church. Should the congregation meet on Sunday night? Should there be three trays of bread on the Lord’s Supper table, or four (or trays at all, for that matter)? The Scripture leaves these issues, along with a host of others, to our judgment and discretion.
Judgment also plays a role in the way that we interpret many commandments. Sometimes, the role of judgment is limited. 1 Timothy 2:1-2 doesn’t leave Christians with a lot of discretion about praying for the government. We have to.
At other times, though, our understanding of a passage can’t be anything more than a judgment call. I have read numerous explanations of what “the husband of one wife” means in 1 Timothy 3:4. However, I don’t think there’s any way to conclusively determine from the text what the phrase means. Nor can we duck the question altogether—not, at least, if we want to appoint elders! Instead, each congregation must judge for itself what a husband of one wife is.
So too, the application of Scriptural principles is left to our judgment. I can clearly define what adultery is, but I can’t do the same with modesty or uncleanness. I can offer my judgment about whether a particular garment is modest, but that will never be anything more than my judgment. On the extremes, I think it becomes increasingly difficult to argue that my judgment is wrong, but on the margin, that argument is very easy to make.
All of this is important for several reasons. First, we must acknowledge that we do make judgment calls as we apply the word. Some brethren have real trouble seeing this. They are every bit as confident in what they say about modesty as in what they say about adultery, even though the Scriptural witness in each case is very different.
This is problematic. We need to be able to distinguish between our judgments and the judgments of the Lord, or else we will end up in the same boat as the Pharisees! Additionally, Christians who turn their judgment calls into matters of faith bring the Restoration project itself into disrepute. It’s easy for critics to point out their error and use that error to deny that a first-century pattern exists at all.
Second, we must acknowledge the right of others to make their own judgment calls, particularly when they differ from ours. Just because I see the right answer to a spiritual question so clearly does not mean that the answer is, in fact, clear. “Judge not, that you be not judged,” is not as broad as the world wants to make it, but it is perhaps not as narrow as we want to make it either.
Third, we must confess that not everyone’s judgment is equally good. We all differ in Biblical understanding, life experience, and good sense, and all those things affect the quality of our judgment. No, there is no text in the New Testament that explicitly says, “Thou shalt not drink any alcohol, ever.” However, it’s also the judgment of countless elders, preachers, and older sisters in Christ that drinking is a bad idea. Is it wise to reject the judgment of the wise? Probably not.
Rather than being a flaw in our conception of the Biblical pattern, the exercise and development of our judgment is one of its strengths. Just as God has given each of us the right to read the Scriptures for ourselves, He has given us the right to interpret and reason from them. As we grow in our ability to judge, we mature in Christ. May we use this gift wisely, yet fearlessly, so that the longer we walk with Him, the more we become like Him!
In this week’s reading, we begin to encounter what is one of the most surprising themes of the gospels. As Mark 2:34 reports, “[Jesus] healed many who were sick with various diseases and drove out many demons. And He would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew Him.” Lest we think that this spiritual gag order is confined to demons, consider a text that will appear in our reading in several weeks, Mark 1:44. There, after cleansing a leper, Jesus tells him, “See that you say nothing to anyone.”
The leper ignores Him, but that’s hardly the point. It’s clear that Jesus, who later tells His followers to preach the gospel to every creature, is doing the best He can to suppress the truth about His identity. What on earth is going on?
In order to understand this, we need to understand the urgent nature of Jesus’ ministry. Today, we think of someone who obeyed the gospel three years ago as a new Christian--if not a babe in Christ, at least a kindergartner in Christ! However, the entirety of Jesus’ ministry was only about three years long.
Some of His disciples had been disciples of John; others were observant Jews. Still others (at least Matthew, maybe more) had been irreligious. Regardless of where they began, though, none of His followers were prepared for the transformation in their thinking that the gospel demanded. They spent three years trying to drink from a spiritual fire hose!
Throughout His ministry, Jesus displays a painful awareness of how much His disciples have to learn and how little time He has to teach them. It’s not hard to hear the impatience in His voice when He says to them in Mark 8:21, “Don’t you understand yet?” Come on, people! We don’t have time for your hard-heartedness!
Three years proved to be enough time to get the job done, even if all the disciples crater pretty spectacularly when Jesus is arrested and crucified. One year, though, or even two? It seems likely that Jesus’ ministry lasted for three years because He knew that it was the minimum amount of time that it would take for Him to prepare His disciples. Jesus could raise the dead instantaneously, but changing hearts required three years of frustrating work (which is perversely reassuring to those of us who are in the heart-changing business!).
Those three years come to an end, of course, when the leaders of the Jewish nation decide that Jesus is an existential threat to them and must be killed. They didn’t come to this conclusion on their own. Jesus provoked them into it by raising Lazarus and challenging their authority on the very grounds of the temple itself.
It was vitally important for the chief priests to decide to kill Jesus, but it was just as important that they not reach that decision too early. If they did, it would have cut into that vital time He needed to teach His disciples. I don’t think they could have killed Jesus early, but they certainly could have made it impossible for Him to teach publicly.
However, if the chief priests are deluged with reports of a prophet whom even the demons proclaim to be the Son of God, they might well move early. Jesus, then, forbids them to speak not because the message is wrong, but because the time isn’t right. He doesn’t want the narrative to spin out of His control.
Rather than being irrational, then, Jesus’ desire to conceal His identity makes perfect sense. Not surprisingly, the Man who does all things well is able to keep the leaks to a minimum, to give Himself the time He needs to accomplish His mission. Today, we are able to hear the gospel because Jesus kept too much of it from being proclaimed too soon.
The Life and Teachings of Jesus – Week 7 – February 17-21:
Monday – Matt. 4:12-17 (Mark 1:14): As Jesus starts His ministry, Matthew first sets the time frame, “when He heard that John had been arrested” (v. 12; cf. Mark 6:14-29 we’ll discuss John’s arrest and death with May 26th’s reading). Then he sets the geographical scene, “leaving Nazareth [Jesus] went and lived in Capernaum by the sea” (v. 13), followed by the theological significance “so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled” (v. 14). Lastly, Matthew summarizes Jesus’ message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (v. 17).
One feature of Matthew’s gospel is that he constantly connects Jesus’ life back to prophecy from the Old Testament (ref. 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 27:9). What does Matthew want you, his reader, to see with the references?
Tuesday – John 4:46-54: Nothing can shatter a parent more quickly or more completely than affliction falling upon their child. Regardless of one’s station in life, trouble, sorrow, and death come to us all. Death was knocking at the door of an “official” (literally a noble-man or king’s-man perhaps from Herod Antipas’ court). Desperate, he comes to Jesus and begs, “Sir, come down [to Capernaum] before my child dies” (v. 49). Note Jesus’ reply in the first part of v. 50a, “Go; your son will live.” These words contain a partial granting and a partial denial. Jesus granted the healing, but He refused to go do to Capernaum. He gave the man no sign, He simply gave him His word. “The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way” (v. 50b). Believing is seeing!
Many were believing in Jesus because they saw His “signs and wonders” (v. 48). How did Jesus require a deeper faith from the official? In what way(s), is Jesus requiring a deeper faith from you?
Wednesday – Luke 5:1-11 (Matt. 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20): Jesus already knew these men. He met them some time ago (cf. John 1:35-42). Jesus had performed a miraculous sign in their presence (cf. John 2:1-11), and He even had them baptize believers for Him (cf. John 3:22; 4:12), but now He’s going to call them to a greater work. Luke’s account makes Simon (“who is called Peter” Matthew 4:18) central to the call of discipleship as he alone records the miraculous catch of fish and Peter’s reaction. Jesus begins Peter’s journey of discipleship not by calling him away from his profession but by challenging him to a bolder practice of it, “From now on you will be catching men” (v. 10). When the boats reached land, Peter and his partners left “everything and followed Him” (v. 11).
Jesus seized Simon Peter’s attention when He demonstrated His authority not just in religious teaching, but over fish. Why do you think authority over fish affected Simon so much more profoundly that what he had already witnessed? What kind of authority would get your attention that strongly?
Thursday – Mark 1:21-34 (Matt. 8:14-17; Luke 4:31-41): With the four disciples in tow, Jesus “went into Capernaum and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and was teaching” (v. 21). As the people sat thunderstruck by His teaching, “immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?’” (v. 23). The Christ has been challenged. Very likely there was stone-silence for a moment in the synagogue by the sea. Then Jesus responds, “Be silent and come out of him!” (v. 25). With wild convulsions the man was loosed from his demonic tormentor. Dumbfounded, the crowd questions, “What is this? A new teaching with authority!” (v. 27a). The same measure of authority with which they had been confronted by His teaching was the same word of command to the demon, “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him” (v. 27b).
Imagine yourself there at the synagogue that Sabbath day and in Peter’s home afterwards, describe what you see, hear and witness, along with how you and others respond.
Friday – Mark 1:35-39 (Matt. 4:23-25; Luke 4:42-44): The early days of Jesus’ ministry were spent going from town-to-town “throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons” (v. 39). Matthew’s parallel account gives us a glimpse at our Lord’s exhausting travels, healing work, and the swelling crowds that followed Him. Yet, Mark shows us what sustained Jesus during this time, “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, He departed and went out to a desolate place, and there He prayed” (v. 35).
From both a practical and spiritual point-of-view, why do you think Jesus needed to do this? How do His actions speak to you?
Several weeks ago, I encountered an article called “The Devolution of Christian Congregational Worship”. Judging from the title, I predicted that it would be another grumpy get-off-my-lawn rant about contemporary praise songs and the damage that they are doing to Christianity. I was not wrong.
As always, I am struck by the inability of many in the worship wars to find a middle ground. I love the great hymns of centuries past, but I also am aware that there were just as many stinkers written hundreds of years ago as there are now. Many praise songs written in the past 20 years resonate with me, and I can accept and appreciate even ones that don’t for the sake of my brethren who love them.
I suppose that if you are tethered to instrumental worship of some kind or other, you have to pick a side. Organ music is organ music, and praise-band music is praise-band music, and never shall the twain meet. However, within the churches of Christ, we don’t have that problem. It’s easy for us to sing “A Mighty Fortress” (circa 1529) and “Behold Our God” (circa 2013) in the same service without the result sounding discordant.
I think it’s a mistake to junk every hymn that wasn’t written in the past 20 years. However, I think it’s also a mistake to try to turn our worship repertoire into a museum. The only things that don’t change are dead, and new songs inject new life into our assemblies.
The key, I think, is for worship leaders to recognize and accommodate the different tastes that exist in a congregation of any size. The correct response to that old dude with the hearing aids in the back who grumps about “not knowing any of the songs” is not to reply, “OK, Boomer.” Instead, it’s to make sure that every service contains a few hymns that he does know.
Anybody who thinks that hymns from 100 years ago can’t be relevant to today’s Christians hasn’t thoughtfully considered the lyrics of those hymns. Maybe they’re not as accessible as the latest Hillsong smash hit, but all of us can benefit from examining our faith from a cultural perspective that is not our own. I suspect too that if Boomer feels like he’s not being ignored, he’ll be more willing to learn a song or two that he doesn’t know.
On the other end of the scale, you have younger brethren who are impatient with the status quo, who want to sing songs written in a culturally relevant style, who predict doom for the church if church music doesn’t sound like the world’s music. They shouldn’t be dismissed either.
After all, new things are always uncomfortable, and that goes double for what we sing in worship. 75 years ago, the radio hymns like “Victory in Jesus” and “This World Is Not My Home” met with fierce resistance from brethren who thought they sounded like hillbilly music. 150 years ago, the revival hymns of Fanny J. Crosby and Robert Lowry were critiqued for their vulgarity. 300 years ago, Isaac Watts had to sell congregants on the idea of singing anything in worship besides metrical psalms.
So too it is with the praise songs of today. Most of them will be mercifully forgotten. The best of them will be incorporated in the repertoire alongside “When I Survey” and “I Am Thine, O Lord” to be defended by tomorrow’s traditionalists from whatever the next worship movement will be. There is nothing new under the sun, not even when it comes to new songs.
For now, the best thing for us to do is to anticipate the results of the process. When we continue to sing from our musical heritage, while adding to it the best and most useful of what is being written today, the results should be acceptable to everyone. They should ensure that God is glorified by our unity as well as our song.