Must Hymns Be Scriptural?

I sometimes wonder if song/worship leaders should be giving the same disclaimer as preachers: “Compare the songs we sing to the Scriptures. You’d be my friend if you let me know if anything we’ve sung is out of harmony with the word of God.” 

While we are very quick to talk about the need to listen to sermons with an open Bible, might we ought to do the same in our singing? We tend to let hymns bypass the filter of God’s word, either because we assume that’s what a hymnal editor is for (which is partially true) or because we’re not sure it really matters, so long as we’re trying to praise God with what we sing.

From a biblical perspective, whether our musical expression is scriptural matters. Consider the activities that are going on as we sing, as described in Colossians 3.16.

  • We let Christ’s word dwell in us richly.
  • We teach and admonish one another.
  • We sing with grace (thankfulness) to God.

Let’s ask this question: can we do any of these things with words not in accordance with Scripture? If we are singing words contrary to Scripture, is it Christ’s word dwelling in us? If we are singing words contrary to Scripture, is our teaching and admonishing profitable? If we are singing words contrary to Scripture, are we being thankful?

I would almost go so far as to say that it is more important that our songs be scriptural, than our sermons. Two reasons:

  1. As a practical matter, we are more apt to remember the songs we sing than the sermons we hear. Music has that effect. Also, we are likely to only hear a specific sermon one time; how many times do we sing some of the songs in our repertoire?
  2. Singing involves active participation on the part of the congregation. We may be active listeners during a sermon, but we are not ourselves teaching the false doctrine (unless we’re the preacher). When we sing, we are actively proclaiming whatever it is we are singing.

This week, we’re going to look at the subject of scriptural content. Later in the week, we’ll look at some specific expressions that tend to raise eyebrows. In our next installment, we’ll look at how we ought to handle a hymn that we determine does contain unscriptural content.

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9 thoughts on “Must Hymns Be Scriptural?

  1. Interested to see where this is going and the participation that is bound to occur. I am curious to see whether the suggestions this week are that we have to sing songs that point to a direct book, chapter and verse, or that they can be an idea or teaching that is simply rooted in Scripture, with no one verse to support the thought. For example, can we sing a song that would have the line “In order to be a Christian you must hear, believe, repent, confess, be baptized and live a God-fearing life.” without any other verses supporting that line? In that example, I can strongly point to ideas or places where I can find that those things are great mindsets to have while one is transitioning from the “old man” to the “new man”, but I can’t find a verse that specifically says, “One of the specific steps of salvation is hearing” (Work with me here, I understand this analogy might be weak). More to my point of this little exercise though, are the songs that typically revolve and are sung around the Lord’s Supper. Did Jesus die “in my stead”? Or did He die for us (Rom. 5:8) and is ‘for’ translated ‘because’ or does it mean ‘in place of’? And can we point to a specific verse (perhaps) or do we gather this based upon logical reasoning (perhaps, certainly). I’m genuinely asking these questions, not looking for a beatdown. Full disclosure – I am comfortable with leading songs like ‘By Christ Redeemed, In Christ Restored’ but know that others find no Scriptural basis for it at all.

    • Jason, thanks for the comment.

      There’s a lot in here, which may result in yet more posts. I’ve written four of the five posts for this week. Some of the penal substitonary atonement material will be addressed in Wednesday and Thursday’s posts as I consider a couple of specific lyrics, though I don’t know if that will answer your question about “in my stead.”

      Tomorrow’s post is going to get more into my philosophy about what we sing. To give a preview of that, I think two important factors are (1) how close an expression is to verbatim Scripture, and (2) how an expression would be commonly understood by someone outside the church (or even the original author).

      I am not opposed to some stretching of the biblical narrative (“Night, with Ebon Pinion” takes some liberties with the text, for instance) so long as it does not push it in a direction that suggests something unscriptural in principle. I am, however, probably more conservative with interpolations into the text than many. For instance, I am not a fan of either “Thomas’ Song” or “Arise, My Love,” because (among other reasons) they are based primarily on supposition into things that we do not know for certain. While I might say some of the same things from the pulpit, I am there to qualify my embellishment of the narrative as such.

  2. Carl, you bring up a number of excellent points. I think we also need to (or tend to) give leeway for “poetic license.” If a song is led that I think parts of are not scriptural, I just do not sing that passage. For example, I omit several phrases in “God Give Us Christian Homes” regarding the altar and the queenly quest–and that’s not even considering the non-scriptural usage of “Christian” as an adjective throughout the song. Likewise, some of the lyrics in Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” seem paganistic to me, so I just keep silent. Those words and phrases may seem perfectly scriptural to others, so that is where “poetic license” comes in.

    • Pat, poetic license is definitely a matter of some judgment, and I think that often we do not show enough charity in this area. I also think, however, that poetic license can be abused. I deal with poetic license only indirectly in this week’s posts; I’m debating whether to devote an entire post or series of posts to issues of poetic license in a future week.

  3. I was answering questions on heaven in a lesson this past Sunday. I bet you can guess one of the questions, “Will we know each other in heaven?” I pointed out that “we” believe that we will know each other in heaven simply based on the fact we sing about all the time. The old “Songbook is our creed book” idea. Nevertheless, I pointed out that simply stating it in song is not enough to establish belief, it must be rooted in scripture. So we went from there.

    • Yes, if we never meet again this side of heaven, I will meet you on that beautiful shore. 😉

      I think there is at least a scriptural plausibility that we will know one another, since there will be something of our individual identities that continue on past this existence, and David’s “I will go to him” may be an indication of this. I tend to make a point that regardless of whether we do or not, the glory and praise of God is probably going to be more of a priority than having a family reunion.

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