To Rap or not to Rap in Worship

Michael Daniels

December 4, 2013

Worship must be reverent and with a holy fear. It must not be flippant or without trembling. Worship is not about silliness or childish antics that often passes for modern evangelical worship today. It must be serious, with a reverence and a solemn fear . Psalm 2 says “Rejoice with trembling”, and “With reverence and a godly fear” Hebrew 12:28. And why must this be? Hebrews 12:29 tells us , “For our God is a consuming fire.” We must tremble at his Word. Isaiah 66:1-2. I once heard it said and I heartily agree we must come with “Solemn JOY, and Exuberant Solemnity… “

Divine worship is timeless, universal and transcendental. It does not have the fickleness of culture. Worship transcends the culture moment- the time, place and group out of which it has risen. The worship of the scriptures is universal and avoids the narrow generational or cultural classification and should transcend sect, race, generation, or party.

Calvin tells us that there are two parts of “song” in worship, “I understand two parts: namely the letter, or subject and matter; secondly, the song, or the melody.“ As a Reformed Presbyterian and to those whom I am writing being also Reformed Presbyterian the first part of the song, namely the letter or subject is already settled. We believe we are confined to the very words of the Psalms. So I am not going to write about the first part at the moment. It is to the second part I wish to discuss, namely the melody.

There as been a furor lately since a group of Reformed panelist which was hosted by the NCFIC when the majority of the panelist came out against Reformed Rap as an unsuitable genre to convey God’s praise. There has been a literal raising of arms over the responses of the panelist. I have sought to avoid commenting on it but I feel compelled to offer my opinion regarding the subject. Now it is true that the panelists did not offer up much in way scriptural principles and sadly one panelist used uncharitable words that were a bit harsh. The latter part is inexcusable, but of the former, we must understand the nature of the situation out of which it arose. It was a short clip of a Q&A time during the discussion. It was only a short clip of what transpired. It was also off the cuff which means there was nothing prepared, the panelists had no idea what questions were going to be asked of them.

Now we must understand that there is a huge difference between music which one makes to entertain men and music that one employs to the worship of Triune God. John Calvin rightly said in his Preface to the Psalter, 1543, quoting Augustine “there is a great difference between music which one makes to entertain men at table and in their houses, and the Psalms which are sung in the Church in the presence of God and His angels”. What I would like to discuss today is not the kind of music we make to entertain ourselves, but the kind of music we employ in the worship of Almighty God. There may very well be scriptural principles that govern the music we entertain ourselves with but I will leave that discussion for another day. Today I want to bring it narrowly down to the kind of melodies that we employ in the Divine Worship of God.

Melodies should be universal in their appeal. They should avoid generational and cultural aspects in the same way that the psalms transcend race, generation, and era. Melodies should tap into universal aesthetic principles. Melodies should appeal and transcend beyond the circumstances of their composition. They should appeal broadly and transcend culture. They should be timeless.

John Calvin gives us a list of scriptural principles of what our melodies should be and what our melodies should not be in his Preface to the Psalter, 1543, I offer the following summary,

It should not be:

Disordered delights

Lascivious

Shameless

Light

Frivolous

Part stupid and dull

Part foul and vile

It should be of “ weight and majesty appropriate to the subject, and even to be proper for singing in the Church.” (Calvin, preface to the Psalter 1543)

Melodies should neither be light nor frivolous. They should have a degree of weight and majesty that exhibit the true beauty of the God we Worship. They should not be flippant, silly, or have childish antics. We serve a Holy God and we who approach Him must approach Him with a reverence and a solemn fear. Yes, we are to rejoice ,but we are to rejoice with a trembling. Yes, we are to come to Him in exuberance but we are to bring exuberance with solemnity.

Melodies should be well crafted blending melody, harmony and rhythm in balanced proportions (Ps. 33:3).

Melodies should be emotionally suitable to the words. The melodies should also fit the words, matching their mood and tone.

Augustine confessed that he often felt his own mind drawn away from the words by the melody, which he calls “the delights of the ear” and then said “When it so happens that I am moved more by the singing than by what is sung, I confess that I have sinned”

Clement of Alexandria wrote against the use “of sentimentality”, and “over-colorful melodies” and stated “we must indeed retain chaste harmonies”.

John Calvin stated,

“And certainly if singing is tempered to a gravity befitting the presence of God and angels, it both gives dignity and grace to sacred actions, and has a very powerful tendency to stir up the mind to true zeal and ardor in prayer. We must, however, carefully beware, lest our ears be more intent on the music than our minds on the spiritual meaning of the words. … On the other hand, songs composed merely to tickle and delight the ear are unbecoming the majesty of the church, and cannot but be most displeasing to God”. Institutes, Book 3, Chap. 20, 32.

The Melodies should be singable. That is to say, they should not be beyond the reach of the congregations. They should not be overly difficult because of complexity. They should not be fast where has the congregation cannot keep up with the words that are being sung.

So I must ask, does Rap music really fit the general principles of Scripture for the worship of God as outlined above? Is it singable? Is it emotionally suitable to the words? Is it neither light nor frivolous? Does it have weight and majesty befitting a Holy God? It is well balanced in proportion to melody, harmony and rhythm thus well crafted? In my opinion the Rap genre is not suitable to the worship of God. It is all about driving rhythm overbearing the harmony and melody. Certainly it can be fun and catchy for entertainment purposes.

Many Christians have said that “the bible says nothing about this power of music” or about the properness or suitability of one kind of music over another. Calvin and the Reformers would respond that the scripture contains general principles on the subject and is a matter of wisdom.

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