Christian Music: Secular or Sacred

Eurydice V. Osterman

Christian music, then, is what Christian music does - turns one's eyes upon Jesus. Christian music, like Christianity itself, has a refining influence, but cheap music produces a cheap religion. Both cheap music and cheap religion are superficial and will not produce a character change.

It may appear that God is silent when it comes to the issue of music, especially contemporary music, and for this reason, many have adopted the belief that they are at liberty to listen to or perform music that suits their tastes because it is such a "personal thing." But upon careful examination of Scripture, one will find that God is more articulate on issues relating to music than most realize.

God could have easily addressed the specifics pertaining to music to remove all doubt as to what is or is not acceptable to Him, but He chose not to. Instead He gave infallible principles that govern and transcend all ethnic, cultural, and generational concerns. Unlike the birds and crickets and other creatures to which He gave a song, God in love has given man the ability and the power of choice to create his own songs of praise and thanksgiving to Him for His mercy, kindness, justice, faithfulness, and love.


It must first be understood that the music controversy is really the consequence of a deeper problem that results from ignoring biblical principles that govern issues relating to music. One such principle is that of putting a difference between the holy and the profane (Leviticus 10:10). The keyword in this is difference. God wants that which is associated with Him to be different from the world, and for this reason, He has plainly said through Scripture to "come out from among them, and be ye separate.... and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you" (2 Corinthians 6:17, emphasis added). Apparently this text strongly suggests that if we want God's blessings, then we must not only make a difference between the holy and the profane, especially in our music, but we must also separate ourselves from that which God will not accept.

The Bible records numerous examples of how God's chosen leaders were to be different. In choosing Israel as a nation, the tribe of Levi to minister in the tabernacle, Samson, King Saul, the disciples, etc., God intended them to be different from those around them. The consequences they suffered because of disobedience are also recorded in Scripture. A most sobering case is that of Samson, who presumptuously disobeyed God and could not even tell when the Spirit of God departed from him. Has the Spirit of God departed from us unawares because of presumptuous indulgence in that which God cannot accept?

Today, as Christians, we, too, are called to be different. The Bible describes it as being peculiar. The purpose for this difference is to place the focus of attention upon God who, if uplifted, will draw all people unto Himself.

In recalling the story of Cain and Abel and the offerings each presented to God, we recognize that obviously one was acceptable and the other was not. Cain, whose motives were purely selfish, offered what he wanted God to have while Abel offered that which God required. Is our music an offering that God can accept because it is different from the world, or is it what we want Him to have?


In his book, Set the Trumpet to Thy Mouth, David Wilkerson describes his state of shock while perusing a Christian magazine in which he saw a picture of a "heavy metal" group, calling themselves Christians, dressed in the same black leather, nail-studded belts, bracelets, chains, and punk hairstyles as the twelve sadomasochists who nearly accosted him on the streets of San Francisco.1 How could this be, he wondered? How could a "Christian" group look and dress like sadomasochists, play their kind of music, and yet call themselves ambassadors of Christ?!

Perhaps the very same question can and should be asked of us today. How can we who call ourselves "Christians," ambassadors of Christ, bring music tainted with "worldliness" into the church, all in the name of worship? Is it because our concept of church, worship, and what is sacred and holy has been altered or lost sight of?

There is an axiom that says "if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, or quacks like a duck, it must be a duck." By the same token, if "Christians" look like the world, dress like the world, behave like the world, and sound like the world in their music, then they must be ambassadors of the world, for by the fruit of "worldliness" they are known.

Wherin lies the difference that is required of us by God?

Webster defines worldly as being "that which is devoted to this world and its pursuits rather than to religion or spiritual affairs." Worldliness, then would be the preoccupation with wealth, materialism, commercialism, fame, fashion, sensuality, etc., all of which are associated in some way with today's music, both religious and secular. Could it be that the worldliness which has crept into the church is really the result of the desire to perform rather than to minister? Is the church becoming a forum for entertainment rather than place for worship? "No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other; Ye cannot serve God and mammon" (Matthew 6:24).

Could it be that the cause of the Christian music controversy today comes as a result of trying to serve God and Satan simultaneously, whether through ignorance or through personal preference?


Upon careful examination of the three angels' messages in Revelation 14, one will note that the underlying issue is that of worship, the act of ascribing praise and adoration to a being or to some object such as a car, a house, money, and yes, even music. It is plain to see that Satan, because of his desire "to be like the most high," sought and still seeks to ascribe unto himself the worship, glory, and praise that belong only to God, especially when it comes to music.

We must never forget that had Jesus Christ succumbed to the temptation of worshipping Satan in the wilderness we would have lost all hope of eternal salvation. Therefore, if in our music Satan can tempt us to render vain worship, worshipping for the wrong reason (applause, display of talent, etc.) or false worship, the wrong god (the artists, the music, etc.), he will have accomplished his purposes just the same worshipping him.


Satan is out to destroy the Christian, the church, sacred music, and everything else that is associated therewith. He has devised and prepared numerous substitutes and counterfeits to lure and to deceive, if possible, the very elect, especially young people.

He tries to mask this truth by diverting our attention, thus causing us to focus upon points of controversy such as the generation gap, ethnic and cultural preferences, class and/or social preferences, that are really only symptoms of the problem. To further complicate things, he has capitalized upon what I call the law of carnal gravity to accomplish his purpose. Paul refers to this law as being another law within him, bringing him into captivity to the law of sin (Romans 7:23).


Consider, for instance, the generation gap. Young people have a natural tendency to identify with music that has fast tempos and driving beats when compared to music preferred by persons one or two generations removed. However, slow sensual music has its adverse effects as well. Despite the recency and/or length of a conversion experience, young people are not as mature in making judgments and decisions, spiritual or otherwise, simply because they have not lived as long. It is a proven fact that we worship according to our knowledge of and experience with God, which also will be reflected in our choice of music.

Unfortunately, the criterion upon which many make musical assessments is frequently their personal preference. Whether young or old, however, it is only as one grows and matures in Christ that one's musical tastes will become tempered and refined.

The music and recording industry are cognizant of this situation and have capitalized upon the opportunity to make millions of dollars by fusing the current popular sounds with religious words. Aside from scientific proof that this music is hazardous to the physical body (impairs hearing, destroys brain cells, etc.), it is saturated with sensuality in mood, character, and text. When we behold and digest it, we become conditioned to it, and the line of distinction between the holy and the profane becomes blurred or totally disappears.


The same can be said of instrumental music. Although Bible sanctions the use of instruments in worship, if the fruit of the music is sensual and sounds no different than that which is associated with worldly music, it is not acceptable to God, and He clearly says that He will not receive it.

Of the three main elements of music - rhythm, melody, and harmony - rhythm is the element that offers immediate satisfaction while, at the same time, it does not require the degree of thought and contemplation that melody and harmony do. The function of drums in today's music, both religious and secular, is that of accentuating the rhythm and the beat, hence, overpowering the melody.

Scientific research has proven that when the tension and release span are rapid (accentuation of the beat), music appeals more to the physical nature. Conversely, when the tension and release span progresses at a slower rate, the mind is more actively involved. This is why young people naturally gravitate toward music that is fast or has a driving beat. It stands to reason that if one wants God to control his/her mind, one should not choose to have Him do so through a medium that accentuates the physical rather than the mental. Where, then, is the balance between spirit (the emotions) and truth (the intellect) that God requires when we worship Him?


To further illustrate the impact that the mood, character, and text have on music, consider two key words - appropriate and association. Webster defines appropriate as being "set apart for a particular purpose," or something that is especially "suitable, compatible, or fitting." Obviously, it would be inappropriate to hear performed at a wedding songs like I'd Rather Have Jesus, Handel's Let Us Break Their Bonds Asunder (from the Messiah) or Master, The Tempest Is Raging. Within themselves the songs are good, but for the occasion they are neither suitable nor fitting.

Association, on the other hand is "something linked in memory or imagination with a thing or person that forms a mental bond between sensations, ideas, or memories." Therefore, when the names Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, or Duke Ellington are mentioned, the mind automatically associates with a specific style or genre of musical sound called jazz. Here again, when the names Bach, Del Delker, or the Rolling Stones are mentioned, the mind automatically associates those names with other styles or genres of musical sound called Baroque, sacred, and rock respectively, and neither the sound genre nor the source can be divorced one from the other.

The spirit and the character of the music are also suggestive of the mood and the behavior they will engender. For example, if a trumpet trio were to play certain chords in a festive rhythm, the spirit and the character of that sound would suggest majesty and splendor. Conversely, if a pianist were to play softly a progression of sustained chord clusters in the lower register of the keyboard slowly and deliberately, the spirit and character of that sound might suggest mystery, sadness, or even fear.


The association of a musical sound can also be found in the atmosphere created by a certain setting. For example, nouns such as circus, funeral parlor, or discotheque all create their own mood, atmosphere, behavioral response, and music that is characteristic of the setting.

If the hymn What A Friend We Have In Jesus is performed in the style of Duke Ellington, the sound associated with that style is jazz, and hence, the song becomes secular. Just because a style of music is currently popular does not necessarily mean that it is sacred. Ellen White has warned the church that there will be a "growing tendency to place the sacred and eternal on a level with common things, and those professing the truth will be an offense to God and a disgrace to religion."2

Christian music, then, is what Christian music does - turns one's eyes upon Jesus. Christian music, like Christianity itself, has a refining influence, but cheap music produces a cheap religion. Both cheap music and cheap religion are superficial and will not produce a character change. Therefore, the only infallible guides that will lead one to determine what is good Christian music are the Holy Spirit and unwavering principle (Leviticus 10:10, 1 Corinthians 10:31, 2 Corinthians 6:17, Philippians 4:8). "No deviation from strict integrity can meet God's approval."3


Eurydice Osterman received her B. Mus. and M. Mus. degrees from Andrews University. She completed a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the University of Alabama in 1988. Osterman, professor of music at Oakwood College, is a prize-winning composer and frequent guest conductor. She has been at OC since 1978.



  1. David Wilkerson, Set the Trumpet to Thy Mouth (Lindale, Texas: World Challenge, Inc.), 1985
  2. Ellen G.White, Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 500.
  3. Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 130.


This Article was printed in the Autumn 1993 issue of Notes, a publication of the International Adventist Musicians Association.