The Language of Worship

By Byron Cartwright

Knofel Staton has pointed us in the best possible direction—to Scripture—in exploring biblical worship. He has done an excellent job, and Staton’s writing supports some affirmations I teach, namely:

The audience for worship is God.

The bond of worship is community.

The evidence of worship is transformation.

The essence of worship is lifestyle.

There is a fifth affirmation I teach: the language of worship is culture. We may take ideas, concepts, and principles from the “thus saith the Lord” of Scripture. But putting flesh on these can occur only in the expressions of language, tradition, art, music, values, and customs that reflect our culture.

It is not possible to express ourselves apart from culture. Furthermore, there have been many cultures throughout history, and all cultures and subcultures continue to change. Cultural changes are occurring faster than ever because of changing communication, mass media, and entertainment. It’s no wonder, then, that we sometimes face emotionally charged waters of cultural expression in worship. But Paul has provided instruction to help us navigate forbidding cultural seas.

In the Context of Culture

In his epistles to the Colossians (3:15-17) and Ephesians (5:17-20), Paul is actually putting some important biblical concepts in the context of culture. Paul is writing to Christians living in Greek culture, which dominated the Roman world in the first century. Part of Greek culture included a highly developed system of music—instruments, scales, theory, philosophy, and ethos. Music was an important part of Greek worship, but it also included aspects of “wine, women, and song” that were in direct opposition to Christianity. Such would have been the case especially with the cult worship associated with the goddess Diana of the Ephesians.

As Staton pointed out in his discussion of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, Paul recommends diversity of musical expression to Greek Christians. The Old Testament psalms Paul advocated represented texts handed down from Jewish worship and culture (a culture not highly valued by Greeks). Much of the music (chant) for these texts would also have been handed down throughout the centuries by oral tradition (once again, from Jewish culture), and would have represented a type of cultural expression that could be labeled foreign and “classical” for the time. The hymns and spiritual songs Paul recommended would most likely have found voice in the Greek style of music, but Paul did not seem afraid to recommend the Jewish psalms of a culture that Greeks quite likely would have disdained.

Paul did not tell the Greeks to worship like Jews, nor did he tell Greek Christians not to use their own musical expressions, even though much of their music would have had pagan associations and a philosophy incompatible with Christianity. Paul did advocate a transformation of Greek culture with Christian ideals (“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly”), integration of contemporary Greek culture of the day with old-fashioned Jewish musical traditions, and diversity of expression through musical culture.

While Paul’s admonitions can be applied to worship, more importantly they address the totality of expression within the Christian community. Paul wrote concerning the value of musical communication between Christians; he was not writing to choirs, praise teams, or worship leaders specifically, but to Christians generally.

Culture in Conflict

Paul’s teaching offered valuable guidance for first-century cultures in conflict, and his words still have value for 21st century cultures and subcultures that often find themselves in conflict because of musical style in worship. Christian musical cultures will continue to change and develop. Traditional church music continues to evolve, liturgical church music is not static, and a cursory overview of modern praise and worship music indicates continued dynamic innovations.

Although there may be no “thus saith the Lord” about musical style, I believe there are biblical guidelines to help congregations maintain unity of purpose and witness within the diversity of cultural musical expression. Perhaps one of the most important admonitions for contemporary congregations derived from Paul’s writings is, “Work harder at cultural understanding, cultural diversity, and demonstrating the ‘peace of Christ, the mind of Christ, and the word of Christ’ as you praise and witness through music!”

Byron Cartwright is professor of music at Atlanta Christian College, East Point, Georgia.

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