Worship Music

Carlyle Manous



The following presentation is not complete in itself; it is intended to follow the author’s introduction and part one presentation on Christians and Music and is based on the assumptions and conclusions developed there.


Even after Christians have determined that making particular kinds of choices regarding music are both desirable and possible, there still remain questions about the application of various principles in real-life situations. This is especially true regarding choices of music for worship or for Sabbath use in general, and applying such principles may be especially vexing when corporate worship is involved. What follows is an effort to help individuals and/or music committees deal with such problems.

I believe it unarguable that the most basic question to be addressed regarding this subject is this: What kind of God do we believe in? How would we describe Him? What kinds of conceptions of God do we have in our minds? This question is essential because I believe it to be an absolute certainty that the kind of God we believe in will largely govern the ways in which we worship.

Now, God has been conceived and described in many inaccurate ways by human beings. Many see Him as a dreadful tyrant; others, at the opposite extreme, see Him as a sort of benign, indulgent uncle. My favorite (inaccurate) description comes from a Depression-era clergyman who said he conceived of God as "a kind of oblong blur." If we conceive of God as a tyrant we will almost certainly worship (if we worship at all) with the wrong kind of fear; if we conceive of God as a kind of benign uncle figure we will probably worship in some trivial way; if we conceive of God as impersonal (the "oblong blur") we will undoubtedly worship without any sense of moral accountability. In sum, as J. B. Phillips makes clear in his book, Your God Is Too Small, if we have the slightest inclination to do so we will find innumerable ways to define God that, in effect, make Him no God at all.

As we try to develop an accurate picture of God it should be intuitively obvious that as finite human beings we can never comprehend more than a tiny fraction of a God who is infinite! Furthermore, because He is transcendent we can know about God only that which He reveals about Himself. If we are to get a true picture of God, therefore, we must go to His word and see what He has revealed there. Scripture references that need to be considered in such a quest should probably include the following. In these we see God as:

Genesis 1:1 (Creator of all)

Hebrews 1:2-3 (Sustainer of the universe)
John 1:3-4 (The Source of all Life)

I Timothy 6:16 (The Immortal One)

I John 4:8 (The Definition of Love)

Titus 1:2 (The Definition of Truth)

Deuteronomy 32:4 (The Perfect, Just, and Good One)

Revelation 15:4 (Holy)

Malachi 3:6 (Unchanging)

Isaiah 46:9-10 (Omniscient)

Psalm 139:7-12 (Omnipresent)

Genesis 18:14; Matthew 19:26 (Omnipotent)

Isaiah 6:1-4 (The Glorious One)

Hebrews 12:29 (A "consuming fire")

Concerning the last two qualities particularly, Ellen White has shared what she was told about God while in a vision:

I saw a throne, and on it sat the Father and the Son. I gazed on Jesus’ countenance and admired His lovely person. The Father’s person I could not behold, for a cloud of glorious light covered Him. I asked Jesus if His Father had a form like Himself. He said He had, but I could not behold it, for said He, "If you should once behold the glory of His person, you would cease to exist."

These references all describe God as transcendent, and they are all absolutely true. But God may also be described as immanent. Such a God is:

John 1:14 (God in the flesh, the "Son of Man")

Philippians 2:7-8 (The One who "emptied" Himself to become Man)

Hebrews 2:17 (The One made "like His brethren")

John 15:15 (Our Friend)

John 14:9-11 (The One who was "defined" in the human Jesus)

I believe that if we look at the entire body of evidence we will find a God who is infinitely "large" (who demands our utmost respect and reverence) as well a God who is "small" and "friendly" (who invites the most intimate of relationships). If we are to worship both in "spirit and in truth" we must not—like the blind men who tried to describe an elephant—be satisfied with any "truth" that is not as complete as the Scriptures reveal. To please God in our worship I believe we must understand and appreciate both His transcendence and His immanence; both are true and both are necessary for a "complete" view of God.


These truths about God suggest at least five essential principles we should consider if we are to worship Him acceptably.


1) We must do nothing in our worship that will lower our conceptions of God. This principle is supported by the second commandment that specifically forbids the worship of graven images, a practice that would surely debase one’s view of God. The same principle was also enunciated in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament where only perfect animals were acceptable for sacrifice. This requirement was most obviously true because only a perfect animal could represent a perfect Savior. But there was also another meaning. The prophet Malachi points out (1:8) that a ruler would not be pleased with an imperfect offering. Would not a man, knowing that, be guilty of debasing his concept of God if he offered to God that which he knew would not even be acceptable to an earthly ruler?

2) God demands reverence as Sovereign and Lord of all. When Moses approached God at the burning bush (Exodus 3) he was told to remove his shoes to show reverence and awe in the presence of the Divine. The reaction of Isaiah (6:1-5) when he saw the Lord "high and lifted up" should also be instructive about reverence. If we are to please God in our worship this attitude on our part is non-negotiable.

3) True worship involves the principle of "purity." Jesus said, "Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8). We often tend to think of this purity simply as moral purity and, of course, it is that at least. But the principle of purity involves much more, for Jesus also said, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind" (Luke 10:27). God thus shows us that He loves purity of motive, of purpose, of belief, and of action, and that He is honored when we strive with total singleness of mind to seek His will in all things.

4) Everything in worship must be God-centered and directed. Some may be uncomfortable with the Scriptural notion of a "jealous" God, but this idea underlines another important principle—that all things spiritual must be God-centered and directed, never done simply for the glory of man. Isaiah quotes God as saying, "I am the Lord; that is My name; and my glory will I not give to another" (42:8). One can make the case that anything in worship that calls undue attention to that which is purely human diminishes the glory of God. This is not simply the opinion of a weak, petty God; it is not to "protect" such a God. On the contrary, it points up the idea that when we diminish the glory of God we do ourselves a great disservice; we have remade God into our own image—in effect He is no longer God. God is "jealous" for our good, not His.

5) The sacred and profane must never be mixed in worship. This is another principle amply illustrated in Scripture—that God wants the sacred kept clearly separate from the "profane" or ordinary, the holy from the unholy. A notable example of the violation of this principle was when Nadab and Abihu took "common" fire into the tabernacle and were destroyed for their carelessness. The record goes on to describe how God spoke to Aaron and reminded him that it was important to "put difference between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean" (Leviticus 10:10). Ezekiel, too, was to "teach my people the difference between the holy and profane" (44:23).

Principles, of course, are always easier to enunciate than to apply! I would, nevertheless, like to make some suggestions about how these five principles may be applied in a practical sense as we seek to worship God through the medium of music.


  1. We must do nothing in our worship that will lower our conceptions of God.
  2. Concerning this principle (and remembering that meaning in music may be a product of associative relationships)—we need to ask:

    Would music that is "flippant" be an appropriate vehicle of worship? Would music like that often used in beer commercials raise or lower our conceptions of God?

    Would music that represents the lowest common denominator of general taste help or hinder us in developing a view of God like that of Isaiah: "I saw also the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up" (6:1)? To ask such questions is to answer them.

    One of the notions developed in the essay (or discussion) on Christians and Music was that some styles of music are simply unfit for Christian use under any circumstances. Does it not seem logical that such music could not possibly be appropriate for use in worship if we are trying to maintain a high conception of God?

    Another way to come at this question would be to ask: If we had an audience with a king or queen, a president, a prime minister, or a governor, how would we dress? Would we go in work clothes? Would we even go in casual clothes? Would we not show honor to a person of great human distinction by dressing in our very best? And would not a failure to do so be a clear indication of our lack of respect for such a person? Every time we come to worship God we have an "audience" with the transcendent God, the Sovereign Lord of the universe! Should not everything—our dress, our deportment, and our music—be of such a character to demonstrate that we truly appreciate the greatness, majesty, and "worth" of the One we are worshiping? Surely, if we come to worship the real God of the Bible, we will choose music that will express the lofty concepts of God that are revealed there.


  3. God demands reverence as Sovereign and Lord of all.
  4. Now reverence is, in essence, an attitude, and that attitude could, in one sense, be proper or improper with any piece of music. But would not our choices of music also reveal our attitudes in another sense? If we believe God to be truly Sovereign would we not show reverence for Him by trying to find and do His will rather than our own? Should we not, as Paul counseled the Ephesians, "Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord" (Ephesians 5:10)? In music this might take the form of an attitude that, instead of saying, "I don’t know much about music, but I know what I like," would say, "Lord, what would you have me to do? What is Your preference in this matter?" In this connection C. S. Lewis has written:

     There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God. The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot, or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect. Neither such a High Brow or such a Low Brow can be far out of the way. To both, Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. They have both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense.


  5. True worship involves the principle of "purity.

" This principle demands that in worship we avoid any music that has any impure associations, any hint of that which God abhors. This seems so fundamental as to need no comment, but a candid look at common practices suggests that Christians are not as careful in this regard as they ought to be. In many Seventh-day Adventist churches it has become very common to hear music that has been taken directly from the rock music scene. In the previous essay (or discussion) the essential nature of this style was clearly demonstrated; it was shown that such music is immoral to its very core. If we are to please God in our worship in terms of moral purity I believe we must studiously avoid anything that even hints of this style.

But the notion of purity suggests much more. As argued above, it also suggests a single-minded pursuit of "truth," that we must always be open to whatever God would teach us—about music or anything else.

The "pursuit of truth" may also suggest the question of value—specifically what God values. Now, it should be intuitively obvious that the best music we can produce has little intrinsic value in the sight of God. Surely the music of heaven would make all our efforts sound trivial on any kind of absolute scale. Should we therefore conclude that artistic value (measured in finite terms) has no value at all in the sight of God?

To answer this question we might consider the following: When Susie is young she brings her "art" works home from school, and the art treasure is duly praised and put up on the refrigerator door. If, however, another twenty years goes by and Susie still brings home similar art works, her parents would see things in a totally different light. It thus seems clear that Susie’s art works from childhood were not, as a rule, valued for their intrinsic merit, but for what they represented—love offerings appropriate to a particular station in life. But what was once a treasured token of love from a child, becomes, from an adult, an evidence for lack of growth and maturity, an evidence of tragedy.

Is there not a parallel here in our music for worship? While our heavenly Father is happy with the musical love offerings we bring as immature Christians, will He continue to be happy if we fail to mature and grow in our understanding of what constitutes our "best" offerings? While our music may lack artistic merit based on a comparison with the music of heaven, if we expect God to view it as our best effort it surely should not lack artistic merit from the earthly point of view.

4) Everything in worship must be God-centered and directed.

I see in this principle two very direct applications to be made concerning our choices of music for worship.

The first may be illustrated by the following. Someone has said that in worship we often make the congregation the "audience," the minister or musician the "actor"—and we’re not sure what to do with God. The same person also suggested a better view of worship. In this better view the members of the congregation are the "actors," God is the "audience," and ministers and musicians no more than "prompters." And when God is the "audience," the great object of worship, it becomes clear that personal display, drawing attention to one’s self, is unacceptable—no matter what style of music is used. If musicians remembered that they are only "prompters" there would be less temptation for personal display, and there would be more effort to uplift Jesus before the people.*

The second application of this principles demands that music be chosen that does not lend itself to personal display. There is much great music, particularly from the 19th century, that was created for the specific purpose of virtuosity, to display the ability of the performer. Would not the use of such music be a violation of the spirit of God-centeredness in worship? This is not to say that music difficult to perform is never acceptable in worship. But should we not try to determine whether the difficulties serve purely musical purposes or are there solely for purposes of personal display?

5) The sacred and profane must never be mixed in worship.

If God does not change (Malachi 3:6) then His opinion on this subject is still the same now as in ancient times. If we wish to please Him we need to consider this point very carefully.

If, as we have seen, music may derive meaning from associative relationships, then one could postulate three general categories of music: sacred, secular, and neutral.

Sacred music would be music written for worship, traditionally per-formed for worship, and associated in most minds with worship.

Secular music would be music with specifically "secular" associations—social dancing, marching, operatic display, and other kinds of entertainment.

Neutral music would be all the music that fits between—music not designed for, nor performed primarily in, church, but without the secular connotations suggested above. Much of this would be what is called "absolute" music, just music for music’s sake.

Now, it seems reasonable to me to conclude that if music is "sacred" as defined above—and if it meets the criteria derived from the other four general principles—it clearly ought to meet God’s desires for the "sacred" in the context of worship.

It also seems reasonable to conclude that if music is "secular" by the same sort of definition it does not measure up to God’s desires. For if music clearly comes out of a secular setting it is "common" or "profane" by any reasonable use of the word. The fact that many Christian churches regularly use such music is no excuse for the person (or church) who wishes to find and do God’s will. In Christ’s day the leaders of the church were promoting practices in the temple courts that Christ knew were not in accord with His Father’s will. He did not say, "If this meets your needs it seems appropriate for the temple." He did not say, "Your generation views things differently from mine so I guess your practices are acceptable." What He did say was, "Take these things hence" (John 2:16). Today, are there not times when Christians need to say, "Take these [musical] things hence"?

The third category of music suggested above was "neutral." This is an area where we must each exercise careful, sanctified, judgment, for some "neutral" music is appropriate for worship and some is not. Perhaps the following guidelines might be helpful in making such decisions. If such music: (a) has no particular secular connotations or associations, (b) is similar in style to music that is specifically sacred, (c) was not written simply to display virtuosity, (d) has musical integrity, and (e) has a least some sense of a devotional spirit or at least seriousness, then it can probably be worthy for use in worship in some capacity.

An alternative view is that rather than dividing music into the three categories suggested above, we might divide music into just two categories: good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable. As we have already established, persons who wish to be like Jesus in every way will quite naturally avoid bad or unacceptable music under all circumstances. It follows, therefore, that for such persons music for worship will be chosen only from that which is good and acceptable.

But not all music that is good is necessarily suitable for use in a worship service. A further question, therefore, must be: Is a particular piece of good music appropriate or inappropriate for worship and/or Sabbath use? The Christian who is seeking in all things to find and do God’s will must then seek to determine (perhaps on the basis of the five principles suggested above) what music from the general repertoire of the good might be appropriate for the worship of God. As an example of applying this idea we could think of an Etude by Chopin or a march by Sousa. A Chopin Etude is a very good piece of music, but—because it was composed as a virtuoso work, with what that implies about personal display—it would not be appropriate for worship. A Sousa march is a very good piece of music, but—because it has such strong associative relationships with festive occasions, parades, and/or athletic contests—it, also, would not be appropriate for use in worship.

In any discussion of music using either approach (music seen in three categories or two) it also ought to be noted that music sometimes moves from one category to another. It can be shown, for instance, that what was once music for social dancing (certainly secular, common, profane) has much later been used in a worship setting and has seemed fully appropriate to serious Christian musicians. Also, people often point to the example of Martin Luther who is said to have moved music from the local taverns into the church.*

To put such ideas in perspective several things need to be noted. First, when music has crossed over "naturally" or "unconsciously" from secular to sacred it has often involved a significant process of musical "evolution."

Second, when music has crossed over without a significant change in style the time for this to happen is usually measured in centuries, not in years. This means that music, in time, may lose its old associative relationships, but the process usually takes place over several generations—meaning that no one lives long enough to see the process completed.

Third, when people have deliberately brought popular music into church they have typically made it sound "sacred"—that is, they have changed the style. Today, more often than not, church music is taken and made to sound "secular." (If people still wish to believe that Luther "brought music from the tavern into the church" they should also note that not every-thing Martin Luther believed and did was necessarily correct—he was, for example, notably anti-Semitic).

A related question that may be of interest to some involves what may be called "sacred concerts"—most commonly Friday evening or Sabbath afternoon "musicals." The major issue I see here involves whether what may frankly be called "aesthetic entertainment through sacred music" is legitimate for Christians during the hours of the Sabbath. After a good deal of thought on the subject (and a lifetime of personal involvement) I have concluded that such programs are legitimate and that they can serve an important function in the aesthetic and spiritual life of a Christian. Space (and my lack of wisdom) forbids anything like a complete treatment of this subject, but a few ideas may be helpful.

My first reason for believing in the importance and legitimacy of sacred concerts is that God is the Source of all that is beautiful. He is the Creator of the great variety of beautiful things we find all around us in the natural world—the birds, flowers, trees, and sunsets. He also made human beings "in His image" with the ability to create beauty through such media as music, poetry, painting, and sculpture. And not only do we have the ability to create such beauty; we were made with the capacity to appreciate the beautiful—whether created by God or man. I believe that one can go so far as to argue that artistic creation and appreciation are both important parts of what we might call the "stewardship of our essential humanity," as part of what being created in the image of God demands of us. In such a context I believe that it is possible to honor and glorify God in concerts of sacred music on the Sabbath hours.

My second reason to support sacred concerts is that God is Himself a lover of the beautiful. Through Isaiah (40:26) He invites us to take note of the beautiful things that He has created:

"Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?

He brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name;

Because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing."

He also inspired the writer of Psalm 121:1-2, who testifies that he "saw" God in the beauty of the natural world:

"I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.

My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth…."

The wise man was thinking God’s thoughts after Him when he asserted in Ecclesiastes 3:11 that

"He [God] hath made every thing beautiful in his time."

When the wilderness tabernacle was constructed and all the various parts of the sanctuary service were set up God specifically told Moses that the priestly vestments (crafted with gold, precious stones, and exquisite needlework) were "for glory and for beauty" (Exodus 28:2).

Finally, Psalm 96:9 calls on us to "worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness," and many have felt that it does no violence to the meaning of the text to turn it around in a call to "worship the Lord in the holiness of beauty."

If any of these arguments have been persuasive we might go on to ask whether the same principles apply in a sacred concert that apply in music for a worship service? To answer this question we could ask: Could we glorify God if the music used in a sacred concert in any way lowered our conceptions of His transcendence? Could we honor God if the music used in a sacred concert failed to show proper reverence for Him as Sovereign? Could we please God if the music used in a sacred concert was not true to the principles of purity—in both senses? Could we expect God to accept our homage if the music used in a sacred concert failed to be God-centered? Could we truly praise God if the music used in a sacred concert combined the sacred and the profane?

It would seem that the five principles we have been considering would apply under all circumstances that involve music and God. Yet we should note a couple of differences that might be important when comparing music for worship with music for a sacred concert.

First, some music suitable for a sacred concert might be inappropriate for a worship service based simply on length. For example, there are oratorios and related works whose duration goes well beyond the time usually set apart for a worship service. While some segments of such a composition may work well in the context of worship, a performance of the entire work would be out of the question. Such works glorify God in many ways and may be heard on Sabbath with great profit, but the worship service itself would not seem to be the best venue.

Second, some music considered sacred would be inappropriate for a worship service because of its purpose. That is, while a specific composition may glorify and honor God in the sense of being an expression of the beautiful, and while it may even be an excellent expression of what might be called a "spiritual topic," the major thrust of the work is not specifically the adoration or praise of God in the sense that is desirable for music in a service dedicated specifically to that purpose. Again, such works may be used to glorify God on a Sabbath afternoon concert where many spiritual topics other than worship are fully appropriate.

One more point needs to be considered as we conclude these thoughts for Christians about music—particularly in regard to making collective choices in sacred music. In I Corinthians 8 Paul enunciates an important principle that, he asserts, must govern all relationships between believers. Apparently some Christians in Corinth were in danger of using their superior knowledge about idols to acts in ways that other believers, with a less clear understanding, found difficult to accept. Paul’s counsel was that on such questions the "stronger" ought always to defer to scruples of the "weaker." The solution to problems inherent in making collective choices may also be elucidated by way of a comparison with the way decisions are made in many marriages. Imagine a scenario where Mrs. A wants a cat but Mr. A does not, while Mr. A wants a new tool for his workshop but Mrs. A doesn’t think that is a good idea. In both cases I believe the dissenting partner (unless convinced to drop his or her objection) must always have the power of a veto. The wish not to have a cat or not to spend money on a new tool must always trump the wish of the other partner to have the cat or the new tool.

In politics there is something similar in the necessity of a government protecting the rights of the minority from the will of the majority—even if it be a very large majority.

The Pauline principle of deferring to the "weaker" member, the notion of a dissenting veto in marriage, and the political guarantee of protection for the minority may all be applied in questions of choosing music in a church. For example, if member A feels that a particular piece of music is an adequate vehicle for worship but member B believes it to be "profane," the Pauline solution requires that member A graciously concedes to the wishes of member B. In such cases member B (like Mr. A and the cat) ought to have the privilege of a veto. Though in a minority, member B is to be protected from what may be the wishes of the majority.

We might also note that the Pauline principle (and the others) ought to work at both ends of the musical spectrum. That is, not only should "strong" members defer to "weak" members concerning a style the latter consider to be a "profane"; "strong" members ought also to defer to "weak" members regarding music that might be (objectively) very good but which the "weak" members cannot in any way comprehend. As noted in the earlier reference from C. S. Lewis, the highest evidence of grace may be in the sacrifice of oneself for the good of others!


I believe it safe to conclude that in every congregation where the Pauline principle of mutual love and forbearance is practiced, where the negative wishes of some are respected, and where the "rights" of the minority are honored, there will be ample common ground upon which all may worship both in spirit and in truth. Surely, in such a setting, there will be a large repertoire of music upon which all can happily agree.


I believe that if Christians prayerfully consider the five basic principles suggested and do everything in their power to implement them lovingly within their cultural setting they will be able to honor God in their worship and be fully pleasing to Him. My most urgent appeal is that every Christian pray to God both for a spirit of willingness to obey Him and exhibit disinterested love for their fellowmen.