The Messenger Is Not Unimportant

Character matters. In my Wordwise Hymns blog, I have a topical article entitled The "Total Message" of a Song. In it, I explain how various elements work together to contribute to (or detract from) the message a music group or soloist in a church service delivers. I encourage you to read the article, as background for the following.

One day, I received a lengthy blog post challenging the validity of points made in this article. I certainly appreciated the time taken to comment on what I’d written. But it seemed to me that the writer (or writers, identified as “Moses” and “Molly”) sometimes misunderstood what I was saying, and that the basic argument was flawed. I’ll be quoting from their post, as I respond to them. (For brevity’s sake, I’ll refer to the writers as “MM.”)

MM: He [meaning me] argues that the words of the song alone are not enough. All good music must also have a fitting style (which he views mostly as hymns), a God-honoring presentation (not man focused), a good moral character for the performer (he attacks the Christmas pop CDs that have secular artists singing Christmas hymns), and a social context (which is basically an argument that Christian music must be different than secular music).

Several points there.

1) Are the words ever enough? Yes, in certain quite limited circumstances. “The word of God is living and powerful” (Heb. 4:12). And sometimes sinners are convicted and converted by the Holy Spirit, through reading the Word of God, without any direct human agency. That is why the Gideons organization puts Bibles in hotel rooms and hospitals. God can, and does, work through His powerful Word.

However, when a human messenger is introduced, whether he is preaching or singing the message of Scripture, that immediately introduces other pertinent factors, some of which have the potential to distort or discredit the message. Character matters. (Even thought sometimes, I'm sure, the Lord works in spite of us, rather than because of us. More of this in a moment.)

2) As to viewing all good music as hymns, or thinking hymns are the only good music, this is nonsense. I personally listen to, and enjoy, a wide spectrum of music, sacred and secular. But my blog is about hymns–which is why it is called Wordwise Hymns. My stated purpose there is “to discuss the music we use in our churches–particularly our traditional hymns and gospel songs.” For the most part, I’m talking about what is found in the hymn book.

3) “Attacking” Christmas pop CD’s is a little strong. But it does bother me when someone I’ve heard profaning the Lord’s name on other occasions tries to sing His praises. As James puts it, “Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so” (Jas. 3:10). What is known of the performer can affect the credibility of the message, for good or ill.

MM: It accidentally puts our wonderful and all-powerful God in a “man’s reputation of God” (aka, man’s “testimony”) sized box.

Well, there was nothing “accidental” about my article. Behind it were many hours of study, and years of interaction both with those who agree and those who disagree with me. As to putting God in “a man’s reputation of God…sized box,” if I understand this correctly, it relates to the main issue taken with my presentation, discussed further below.

MM: God doesn’t need the “Total Message”...God is not dependent on the vehicle He chooses to convey His truth. He is bigger than the broken instruments He uses to proclaim His praises. When any man or woman, moral in the eyes of man or not, stands before a congregation to sing, he or she is a broken vessel to communicate God’s truth….In the Old Testament God even used a donkey (an unrepentant animal I am sure) to give Baalam truth! God can even use pop musicians with sinful lifestyles to teach His truth. He is that big.

This seems to be the central core of the writers’ disagreement with me. But there is a vast difference between saying that an all-powerful God can, if He chooses, make use of unrepentant and unregenerate human beings (and even donkeys), and saying that the spiritual condition of the messenger, therefore, doesn’t matter.

God made use of wicked Pharaoh (Rom. 9:17), but He also punished and destroyed him. Just because God is powerful enough to use the wrath men to bring praise to Himself (Ps. 76:10), does not mean that He winks at the rebellion and unbelief of sinners. It is also true that “the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (Jas. 1:20).

As to God not being dependent on man, there is an important sense in which that assertion is incorrect. A sovereign God has chosen to work through human instruments. “For since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching” (I Cor. 1:21, NET Bible). “How shall they [the unsaved] call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14).

MM: While he [Paul] was sitting in prison, some people were going out and preaching the Gospel “from envy and rivalry” (Phil. 1:15, ESV). These men were not preaching the truth out of love–they were trying to afflict Paul! And yet, despite the poor motivation, Paul wrote in Philippians 1:18 that that didn’t matter. Instead he rejoiced that “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that [Paul] rejoice[s].”

This is the passage some quote to make the argument that it doesn’t matter what the messenger is like, as long as the message is biblical. But we need to examine Paul’s comments carefully, and consider what else he has to say on the subject. Proof-texting with one isolated verse is a dangerous thing.

The NIV’s paraphrase of Paul’s words in vs. 18 is most unfortunate. Paul didn’t simply shrug at the carnality of these preachers and say, “But what does it matter?” The NKJV is better with a more literal, “What then?” meaning, what is the result? The result was that Christ was preached. And in that fact, specifically, Paul could rejoice.

Though he was gracious and forgiving regarding attempts to hurt him personally, the apostle would hardly say that it didn’t matter that those in Christian ministry were acting in “envy and strife” (vs. 15)! How do we know this? We know it because:

1) He condemned those in the Corinthian church who were exhibiting these very qualities (I Cor. 3:1-3).

2) He was concerned that conduct unbecoming the gospel would cause the teachings of Scripture, and even the person of God Himself, to be blasphemed (Rom. 2:21-24; I Tim. 6:1; Tit. 2:4-5). Character matters.

3) He told the Thessalonian Christians: “This is the will of God, your sanctification…that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel [body] in sanctification and honour, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God....For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness” (I Thess. 4:3-5, 7).

4) He stated that those in Christian ministry should be: "blameless," and “of good behaviour,” having “a good testimony,” “reverent, not double tongued [not sending mixed messages],” “holding the mystery of the faith with a good conscience,” and so on (I Tim. 3:1-13; Tit. 1:5-9).

5) He exhorted Timothy to “be an example to the believers in word, [and] in conduct” (I Tim. 4:12, italics mine), saying, “Keep yourself pure” (I Tim. 5:22). He urged Timothy, as a “man of God,” to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness,” and serve “without spot, blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ’s appearing” (I Tim. 6:11, 14). He wanted him to be “a vessel for honour, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared [ready] for every good work” (II Tim. 2:21).

6) He likewise admonished Titus, “Speak the things which are proper for sound all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works; in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility, sound speech that cannot be condemned, that one who is an opponent may be ashamed, having nothing evil to say of you” (Tit. 2:1, 7-8).

7) And this emphasis was not new. As a Hebrew scholar, Paul would know that these admonitions were in harmony with what the Old Testament demanded of the Levitical priests (Exod. 19:22; Lev. 21:6; Isa. 52:11; Mal. 2:4-9; 3:3). Given that, on this side of the cross, all Christians are describes as "a holy priesthood" (I Pet. 2:5), the stardard is surely not lower for us.

For your interest, here is John Calvin’s comment on Paul’s words in Philippians 1:18:

"We ought, therefore, to rejoice if God accomplishes anything that is good by means of wicked persons; but they ought not on that account to be either placed by us in the ministry, or looked upon as Christ’s lawful ministers."

Years ago, I worked in a commercial advertising firm with a man who, in my parents’ day, had been a popular evangelist. However, he frankly told me that he didn’t believe a word of what he was preaching back then. That it was all a show. But in the midst of it all (whether he believed it or not) he presented truths from God's Word. So, were any saved through his sermons? Yes, I know a man who was, who later became a pastor. But that does not make the evangelist’s unbelief and hypocrisy either unimportant or benign.

As to church music, the factors I discuss in the article do affect the message that is delivered. And if we insist that it is okay to send mixed signals, and disregard personal holiness, because God is sovereign and powerful and He’ll overrule, we are violating Scripture, dishonouring the Lord, and weakening our ministry.

There is also a sense in which this attitude "tempts" God, challenging Him to prove Himself, over and over, by overriding our folly. It is as though we've decided we can walk across a busy highway, without regard to the traffic, because God is powerful enough to protect us. (The devil tempted the Lord Jesus in this way. But He responded, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16), "It is written again, 'You shall not tempt the Lord your God'" (Matt. 4:5-7; cf. I Cor. 10:9).

When Isaiah was given a vision of God, in all His glory, he cried, "Woe is me, for I am undone [ruined]! Because I am a man of unclean lips" (Isa. 6:6). The NET Bible paraphrases it, "My lips are contaminated by sin." It was only after a seraph symbolically cleansed his lips with a burning coal that the prophet was able to respond to God's commission to take His message to the people (vs. 6-8). Being a messenger of God's holy Word requires a holy messenger. That God works, in grace, with we who are less than perfect does not change that.

Bottom Line: I stand by the article about the "Total Message" of a song. It reminds us of issues very important to each servant of God, whether a musician or a speaker, or a writer. Character matters.