When Worship Style Becomes an Idol

1 Corinthians 3:1-9, But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labour. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.

When Christians who love hymns look down on those who like contemporary music, and when Christians who love contemporary music look down on those who like hymns, worship style becomes idolatry. When those accustomed to a high church service develop a superiority complex and look down on low church services, worship style becomes idolatry. Watch yourselves. You become less Christian than those you accuse of being unchristian when you exalt one worship style over another. You begin to place your trust in those things rather than Christ Himself.

When Worship Style Becomes an Idol

I never came across superiority complexes in styles of worship until I became a Lutheran. There is a stereotype against Lutherans that they have a superiority complex, and there is a truth to all stereotypes. This superiority complex that some Lutherans exhibit in regards to worship style is definitely a problem that needs to be addressed. From what I’ve experienced and have been told from other Lutherans, this often comes from high church minded Lutherans and those who prefer traditional music to contemporary music. For some reason, high church Lutherans have it in their mind that having incenses, a processional and recessional, and other strict liturgical practises are the only way to worship God. Likewise, those who prefer traditional music have somehow gotten it in their minds that the only way to worship God is through hymns. While both worship styles are permissible styles of worship, neither of them are the only permissible worship styles. I am speaking, of course, on adiaphora—things neither forbidden nor commanded in Scripture.

That being said, I want to make clear that I have nothing against high church worship styles nor traditional hymns in the use of liturgy. They certainly have their place and can be beautiful. On the other hand, it is absolutely wrong for high church and traditional Christians to proclaim these are the only appropriate ways to worship God. Each congregation can engage in the worship style they prefer, so long as Christ remains the focal point. It becomes a problem when someone takes this adiaphora and questions another Christian’s discipleship or salvation for it because then it is no longer adiaphora, but a man-given command that Scripture does not support.

Time and time I again I hear in Lutheran circles those who proclaim high church services as the only legitimate worship style and traditional hymns as the only way to sing praises unto God. Not only is this insulting, but it is also frustrating. Where are they getting this command? It’s certainly not from Scripture. It’s coming from church tradition—man-given ordinances. These high church minded Christians are becoming like the very Papacy that Luther wanted to reform in the first place. The Papacy placed tradition over Scripture; this is already happening in some Lutheran circles. Lutheran churches have traditionally been high church and used a traditional style of worship. Because of this, there are some who think this is the only way to have a worship service. In this way, they are placing their trust in Lutheran tradition and a specific style of music, not Christ. By doing this, they are abandoning the sola Scriptura principle of Lutheran doctrine. Instead of looking to Scripture, they are looking to church tradition and subjective feelings. When you refuse to worship with your Christian brethren simply because you don’t like the style of music or service, worship service becomes an idol.

Scripture does not say which style ought to be practised, which is precisely what makes this issue adiaphora. Jesus said, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). What does this mean? The Lutheran Study Bible comments on this verse, “That God’s essential nature is spiritual, not material, reinforces the teaching that people should worship ‘with the inclinations of the heart by faith’ (Ap XXIV 27).” Can believers worship with the inclinations of the heart by faith in high church services and with traditional hymns? Of course they can. Can believers worship with the inclinations of the heart by faith in low church services with contemporary music? Of course they can! 

We also have to consider culture. Of course, we mustn’t be concerned with appearing attractive to culture, yet culture still influences the way we worship. To think otherwise is foolish. You cannot escape from the culture you live in. Culture influences everything about you. Placing high church services and traditional music over everything else is itself a cultural way of thinking. That was the culture in the early Lutheran Church for a long time. Now, in a new culture, we can utilise new styles of music to praise God and no longer use incense and such in our churches. That’s not our culture anymore, and it is foolish to try and force this culture upon others. It’s not necessary to add new culture in our worship services, of course, but it is certainly not wrong to do so. I could use the high church argument to say that Christian poetry today mustn’t be used in personal worship of God and rather that only the reading of the poetic Psalms must be used to worship Him in one’s home. This is, of course, absurd, for certainly a Christian can use his or her God-given talent of poetry to write poetic praises unto Him. I would only argue it becomes an issue if a person were to use their written poetry in church worship.

Returning to the Corinthian passage, Paul was addressing these Corinthians who were finding their identity in who taught them rather than in Christ. These men were orators, and orators were essentially the celebrities of these times. So the Corinthians were identifying themselves with these famous men much like we do with celebrities in our own time and our worship styles as Lutherans. These Corinthians were spiritually immature, and I dare say we are being spiritually immature when we take worship style as adiaphora and make it into a command. To use Paul’s language: What then is high church and traditional music? What is low church and contemporary music? Instruments through which we praise God, as the Lord blesses to each.

Repetition and Bad Theology

I recognise there are some contemporary songs that are extremely repetitive, which I agree is an incorrect use of worship music. Singing a chorus four to six times is absurd and unnecessary. There are also contemporary songs that use the following pattern: verse, chorus, verse chorus, and that’s the song, where the words in the verses and chorus do not change. That’s viewed as being repetitive by many, but we can use this same logic against hymns as well. Most hymns use the following pattern: verse, refrain, verse, refrain, verse, refrain, verse refrain—so four verses (with different words), but repeating the refrain between each. This is also arguably repetitive—repeating the refrain 4 times that never changes its words. Yet this repetition is not inherently bad because its purpose is to instill its doctrinal words into the mind and heart of the congregant. Contemporary music does the same thing when verses and choruses are adequately repeated. We use repetition all the time, and we use it for the purpose of remembering, whether it’s trying to memorise a verse or passage, or while we’re singing a hymn or contemporary song that leads us to repeat a Scriptural phrase for the purpose of remembering who God is.

I also recognise there are some contemporary songs that have false doctrine and bad theology in it, but that does not mean all contemporary music is bad. Such a generalisation is fallacious thinking. There really are some beautiful, doctrinally sound contemporary songs. Yet there are also hymns with bad theology. For example, James Lowell’s hymn Once to Every Man and Nation teaches a “new Messiah” and relativism. There is also Ralph Carmichael’s hymn The Saviour is Waitingwhich is ubiquitous with decision theology. If I were to use high church logic, I could say all traditional music is bad since these hymns (and others) have horrible theology, but of course that would be an absurd and fallacious claim. Yet there are plenty of hymns with sound theology. In the same way, there are plenty of contemporary songs with good theology and it is absurd and ignorant to claim all of it is bad.

If all contemporary music were truly bad, you would not listen to any secular music. Think of any secular band or genre you like. Pink Floyd? Led Zeppelin? Coldplay? Country music? Rap music? Alternative music? Contemporary worship cannot be bad just for being contemporary just as secular music you like cannot be bad just for being secular. Thinking otherwise is, again, fallacious thinking. In the same way, if a church doesn’t use incense, does the processional and recessional, and other high church practises, that does not make the church any less Lutheran or Christian. I dare you to find Scripture that commands such things. You will not find it. You can only use church tradition for your argument while abandoning sola Scripture, which is manmade and not commanded by God. You can only argue with a 500-year-old culture as your reason, a culture that only exists in the few high churches that remain.

Don’t Be A Jerk

“Do nothing in rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). What good is rivalry among us? Lutheranism is already small as it is, and the more we divide ourselves, the less orthodoxy remains. So you prefer high church services and traditional music? Good for you. Worship your Lord. Do not think yourself better than those who attend a low church that uses contemporary songs with sound doctrine. If a contemporary song is being used where it has false doctrine, by all means address it. But if its doctrine is sound, do not be so conceited to say they are worshipping God incorrectly, for they are still worshipping Him in spirit and in truth. For who are you to command which worship style and which music ought to be used among God’s people? 

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