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Both tune & text in church music should honor God, Ken Puls says

WILMORE, Ky. (BP)–Music used in corporate church worship should not seek to amuse, entertain or manipulate congregations; rather, every text and tune should be carefully and thoughtfully informed by Scripture, music professor Ken Puls said during the 2001 Southern Baptist Founders Conference, July 17-20 at Asbury College in Wilmore, Ky.

Music often competes with preaching and teaching for supremacy in the contemporary church, when it should serve as an underpinning for the proclamation of God’s Word, said Puls, who teaches church music and classical guitar at Dallas Baptist University and also serves as music director at Heritage Baptist Church in Mansfield, Texas.

“I know of no other ministry in the church that has so great a potential to help or to hinder the pastoral ministry of teaching and preaching in the church than music,” Puls noted.

“The music in your church has the potential to become an obstacle to worship [by] amusing, distracting, entertaining the people and, as a result, minimizing and trivializing the preaching of the Word of God, or worse, contradicting the pastor who is trying to be faithful in preaching the Word to the congregation.”

Scripture is clearly foundational for the presence of music in a worship service, Puls said. Songs and spiritual songs are particularly found in Psalms and should inform the words sung in worship, he said.

Puls himself has written several hymns and contributed to the compilation of the Founders hymnal “Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs,” published by Founders Press and used in the annual conference sponsored by Founders Ministries, an organization rooted in the historic teachings known as the doctrines of grace, or Calvinism, embraced by numerous early Baptists.

Puls listed various roles which Scripture assigns to music: praise of God, giving thanks to God, prayer, proclaiming the truth of God’s Word, exhortation, confessing one’s faith and enriching worship with beauty.

A hymn’s text should be of primary importance, Puls said, because it voices the content of the believer’s worship. Therefore, the words must be faithful both in context and theological truth drawn from Scripture, he said.

“The text conveys and sets forth truth as we sing the words of Scripture, as we teach and admonish one another through music with the truths of Scripture,” he said.

Much of today’s praise and worship seeks to minimize theology and doctrinal content while maximizing feelings and subjective experience, Puls observed. Some of the newer music should be used but he cautioned worship leaders to ensure that all worship songs are filled with doctrinal truth.

“If you are in a situation and you are only trying to do that [reform worship] with praise choruses and short little songs, you’re going to have a very difficult time doing it,” Puls said. “We need church music that has substance to it, that keeps us focused on the truth of God’s Word.”

Texts and tunes should not be framed according pragmatic, man-centered, feel-good methods because God’s Word sets guidelines for worship in John 4:23, Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:18-21 in which the apostle Paul places worship under the authority of Scripture.

“The passages in Colossians and Ephesians must be considered together,” Puls said. “In worshiping in spirit and in truth, truth is inseparably tied to the work of God’s Spirit.

“It is the Spirit who indwells us, who illuminates our hearts and our minds that we might grasp and understand and respond to the truth of God and his Word. What we sing before God matters.”

Puls urged music leaders to ask questions of the text regarding quality, purpose and message, examining it carefully to see that the words of Christ are dwelling richly in them.

The tune of music, often dismissed as a matter of personal taste, is another critical consideration in singing God-centered worship songs, Puls said. The issue runs much deeper than mere taste, he said.

There are certain styles of music that are always inappropriate for worship, he said. Heavy metal rock is one example, Puls said, of music that is beyond the bounds of worship because its discordant and violent style fails to promote the dignity, reverence and seriousness that should accompany worship.

“I find the disregard for music disturbing,” Puls said, “because music is wed so closely to desires and emotions. Not all music or musical styles are appropriate for worship. There are musical gestures, inflections and movements that will always be out of place in worship. Not all music is suitable for every context.

“Music provides an accompaniment for almost every activity in human life, each requiring a certain style and a character of song. Music does not have to be sanctified and used in public corporate worship in order to make it legitimate or within God’s pleasure or God’s will,” Puls continued.

“There is music that God gives us to accompany a great many activities that we partake of in Christian liberty outside the context of worship. When we understand the regulative principle of Christian worship, that not everything that God has given us liberty to do are we to do in corporate worship, it shouldn’t surprise us that not all music will be adequate or suitable to accompany those activities that God calls us to when we gather together in corporate worship.”

With the music beneath the words a subject of much conjecture and debate in the contemporary church, Puls said it is vital to give it painstaking consideration for three reasons: The tune is the incarnation of the text; it helps worshipers to interpret the text, providing an emotional context; and perhaps of prime importance, it identifies the text.

Different styles of music lead to different interpretations of the words being sung. Puls used an example of an actor on stage in an opera performance. The actor could be extolling the virtues of another character in song with a serious, sincere tone of music underlying it, thus showing the sincerity of his adulation.

However, if the music were whimsical and circus-like, yet accompanied the same words, the audience would interpret the singer’s tone as mocking and sarcastic instead of truly complimentary.

In much the same way, the tone of the tune beneath church music sends messages ranging from sorrow over sin to exalting worship of a holy God, Puls said, urging a congruency between the text and music.

“Do both the text and the tune communicate the same message?” Puls asked. “Are the music and the words equally yoked to communicate a clear message suited to the purpose of worshiping God and edifying the church? When choosing songs for worship we must carefully consider both music and words and how they fit together.

“Tone affects how we take the words. The music should undergird and strengthen worship, not distract from it or confuse it or call attention to itself rather than the content.”

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  • Jeff Robinson

    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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