What About Unscriptural Hymns?

In the previous post, we pointed out the need for scriptural lyrics. The question for our consideration on this subject is, what do we do about unscriptural lyrics when we find them? There are some basic approaches, which we will consider in more detail below:

  • Keep the lyric, but “reinterpret” or “qualify” its meaning.
  • Alter the lyric to be scriptural
  • Remove the offending verse or don’t sing the song at all

With these options in mind, some points to ponder:

Understand the Meaning(s)

The first thing that we need to do is make sure we understand the meaning (and perhaps multiple meanings) of the lyric in question. Why? In part, so as not to declare something unscriptural that could be understood scripturally. For example, the line from the 2005 hymn, “Power of the Cross,” “Christ became sin for us,” is sometimes looked at suspiciously by brethren, when it comes almost directly from 2 Corinthians 5.21.

Sometimes, whether a line seems unscriptural depends on which passage of Scripture one is using, and the emphasis of that passage in context. In “The Kingdoms of Earth Pass Away,” “And forever and ever” has become “Till all foes Christ shall conquer,” preferring 1 Corinthians 15.24–25 over Daniel 2.44. There are also issues raised occasionally over “we all” versus “the saved” when we talk about getting to heaven. While that point can be made for absolute technical precision, perhaps we need to exercise common sense in our reasoning (who is the primary audience of such a hymn?).

There are some lyrics which cannot be interpreted in any scriptural sense. For instance, the song, “Father of Mercies,” actually began life as “Mother of Mercy,” in reference to Mary. On a side note, what do you think is at issue in this verse?

But scornful men have coldly said
Thy love was leading me from God:
And yet in this I did but tread
The very path my Savior trod.

A related issue is “poetic license,” where we allow something to be said that doesn’t quite fit the technical details of the text (such as in a narrative), but is consistent with the sense of the text and doesn’t contradict doctrinal teaching. While some poetic license can be accepted, we must take care that we do not excuse error as “poetic license.”

The Impact of Singing As-Is

Let’s suppose that there is a lyric that, when we have investigated everything carefully, is primarily taken in an unscriptural sense, or that was intended that way by the author. But suppose there is a way to understand the expression scripturally. Do we sing the song as it stands?

I would say that it depends. In general, the closer a lyric is to a direct quotation from Scripture, the more likely it is that it can remain. With non-quotations, however, I think we need to consider more than just whether we can sing it scripturally.

In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul addressed the subject of meat sacrificed to idols. While we’re not dealing with that specific issue, there is a principle at work there.  There, he acknowledged that there were things they knew about meat and idols. But then, he came back and said, “However, that knowledge isn’t in all men” (1 Cor 8.7). Thus, when such men saw those with knowledge eating what had been sacrificed to idols, “their conscience, being weak, [was] defiled.”

When we re-interpret lyrics, we might “have knowledge” that a lyric needs to be understood in a certain way. Perhaps a song leader, when first leading a song, mentions this before singing it. But what about visitors who enter the assembly at a later date? What if they have been raised to understand that line in the unscriptural sense? Or perhaps, a Christian raised similarly; even if they have been told how they should take a line, is that what they’re going to be thinking as they sing?

The question is not so much whether we can reinterpret many problematic lyrics; more, the question is whether we should re-interpret them. How beneficial is such an exercise, and would we be better served by seeking clearer expressions of biblical truth?

The Issue of Revision

The road that many have taken in addressing problematic lyrics is simply to change them. And while this seems an attractive option, it has its own set of issues.

For more recent hymns, copyright is an obstacle. In short, if a song is under copyright, you have to ask permission to make any modifications to it. This is a legal matter, and honoring the governing authorities is as much a part of godly living as singing scriptural songs.

For older hymns, those in the “public domain,” there is some question of the integrity of the song as a unit. While we may properly attribute a revised version as being “arranged,” there is still a tendency to credit the original lyricist with whatever lyrics are sung, even if he or she didn’t originally write them. Are we making them say something they didn’t intend to say?

This is not a statement that we should never revise lyrics, but that we should consider both the legal and intellectual issues with such. Truth be told, many of our beloved hymns vary to some degree from their original text.

The Chopping Block

Ultimately, though, the best approach may be to omit verses containing unscriptural teaching, if such can be done without disrupting the flow of thought. If not, it may be better to give up an otherwise brilliant hymn than to risk someone singing, believing, and ultimately acting amiss (Mt 5.29–30; Lk 17.1–2).

7 thoughts on “What About Unscriptural Hymns?

  1. I believe editors should not take liberties even with older hymns in changing the original words without some notation of what the change is.

  2. Good points in a useful discussion. I think as song leaders we have enough choices available that we don’t need to be hard-headed when someone in the congregation has issues with the lyrics of a song. Even when we feel a song would be a good fit for a particular theme, there are always other options. Sometimes discussion and/or education can eliminate an issue, but until that is accomplished we should respect their conscience. In my opinion many of the edits in Sacred Selections were both unneeded and problematic. That doesn’t mean I’m right!

    • I think the general consensus of late has been that Sacred Selections took a heavier hand than necessary in editing out content that could have been perceived as advocating a false doctrine—notably premillennialism—especially when direct quotations from Scripture got the red pen.

      In fairness to Bro. Crum, though, he was 27 when he compiled the book. Being that age myself, I wonder if I would have done any better a job. If so, it is only because of the influence of those older and wiser. Also, I’ve heard from those who spoke to him directly that many of the changes were made due to pressure from others in order to have the book adopted by many of the churches.

  3. Sometimes, Ellis Crum’s editing was wrong.

    “I’ve reached the land of corn and wine” is correct. Changing it to “I’ll” just shows that Ellis Crum did not understand what the word Beulah means in the Bible. Also “Nor if I’ll walk the vale with him” has reference to the valley of the shadow of death. The song writer was not suggesting that he did not know whether millennialism was right or wrong.

  4. hadn’t thought much about this till after reading the article..then…it came back to me a service I was in not long ago where the choir director sang, as she said, “one of their favorites”– I Won’t Have to Worry Anymore…immediately followed by the pastor who preached that we live by faith, not fear(worry)….well, sorry…but the song doesn’t exactly go with the message in that it’s “assuming” we ‘have” to worry here, but worry will be over in Heaven…..and that kind of song offends me, and only helps those who ‘insist’ on worrying as opposed to walking by faith that the Lord will take care of things.

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