Songs that are unambiguously “true” are typically not going to be debated by Christians about whether or not they’re biblical. By and large, Christians are generally going to agree on good, solid, doctrinally-rich songs.
So, an easy way to test whether a song is “true” is to simply pass it around to a group of Christians in your church and listen to the collective response (generally, it should be those who are reasonably mature in the faith, especially your elders). Out of 20 Christians, is there a pretty even split between for and against? Well, there’s a pretty good chance that song will alienate half the congregation on Sunday morning. But if there’s general agreement that a particular song is doctrinally solid—especially when the opposing voices are outliers or based on obscure arguments that no one else is really thinking about—that gives us a lot of confidence that a song meets that truth requirement.
And we can even broaden our scope: Is a song confined primarily to a particular cultural or theological subset of Christianity? If not, but rather is sung by charismatics and presbyterians, or by Christians in 1800 and Christians in 2020, or by Christians in underground China, the American south, and coastal California, it’s probably “true” according to how we’re trying to understand it.
There’s more here than mere democracy, by the way. Looking to the collective consensus of God’s people really is a way of truly ‘letting the Spirit lead’ when it comes to our congregational worship.
A primary role of the Holy Spirit under the New Covenant is to write the truth of God on the hearts of his people at regeneration (Jer. 31.33, Ezek. 36.27, Rom. 8.16, 1 Cor. 2.12-14, 2 Cor. 3.14-17, Gal. 4.6, 1 Jn. 2.20). This is one of the test cases for inspiration as well as for identifying essential Christian doctrines. For example, nearly all God’s people everywhere have always accepted the Gospel of Matthew, but have always rejected 1 and 2 Maccabees, as authoritative, divinely-given Scripture. That is an indication that Matthew is inspired Scripture, but that 1 and 2 Maccabees are not. In the same way, nearly all God’s people everywhere have always insisted on the affirmation of the deity of Christ as essential for salvation, but that same universal insistence has been absent with respect to church polity (independent vs. denominational, bishop vs. elders, etc.). That is an indication to us that the former is essential, but that the latter is not.
This may be a little technical, but the point is simply this: by being watchful for songs that receive broad affirmation among God’s true people, we are in a very real and biblical sense ‘listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit’ in our congregational worship.
“By being watchful for songs that receive broad affirmation among God’s true people, we are in a very real and biblical sense ‘listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit’ in our congregational worship.
We’ve said a lot, but in really practical terms, here are a handful of questions that help us determine whether or not a song is congregational—that is, how well it stacks up against our criteria of “clear” and “true”:
•Is there wide debate among Christians about its doctrinal content or theological quality?
•Overall, is this song putting something on display for me as an observer, or is it designed for my participation?
•Are its dominant themes musical genre or style? Are its key features the creativity, talent, or skill of the performer?
•Is the language itself comprised of themes that are intentionally, explicitly sacred or biblical, or is the language more colloquial, casual, or consisting primarily of cultural themes?
•Is the vocal style characterized by a lot of syncopation, off-beat rhythm, improvisation by the singer, runs, or “vocal acrobatics”?
To be clear, we are fully persuaded that there is nothing inherently sinful in any of these things. For instance, if a song is heavy on “vocal acrobatics,” in no way does that mean it is sinful. On the contrary, music is a wonderful gift from God, and we enjoy it and thank him for it (1 Tim. 4.4, 6.17), and there is an infinite number of situations in life where it’s appropriate for us to crank up that volume on all kinds of non-congregational songs. Let’s be clear on that.
What we are saying, rather, is that congregational worship is a special, unique time for the people of God collectively in which he has certain objectives that he is trying to accomplish in us. Therefore, a framework like the one we’ve worked out here helps us maximize the biblical mileage we get out of the music we do when we are gathered together in the Name of the Lord Jesus.