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D. G. Hart on worship and a reflection on worship as a "tertiary" issue

August 21, 2009

Mark Dever recently interviewed D. G. Hart, a notable historian of American Christianity and confessional Presbyterian. It is worth hearing. Here’s a selection:

MD: How is the church compromising today the average pastor should be on the alert to avoid?

DGH: I guess I’m still very much concerned about worship and the nature of it, and what worship does. And I’m concerned especially that people will not go to certain churches because of the kind of music that is sung.

MD: But you wouldn’t.

DGH: Right . . . it’s only because it’s thirty minutes of praise songs I would have to endure. If it was only a praise song for every hymn was sung, and you had the same order of service, it wouldn’t work as well, but it still would be bareable.

MD: It works pretty well.

DGH: … It’s increasingly difficult then, for people who go to these other churches, to come to my own congregation, which is a very vanilla sort of Protestant service–a lot of Scripture, four or five–well, four hymns maybe—tops, monthly observance of the Lord’s Supper, but they would be put off by this because it’s too stuffy somehow. And I don’t understand why people don’t feel like they have more to do as far as they have an obligation to worship God, and I need to do that wherever I can do it.

I tend to agree with Hart that the choruses-mixed-with-hymns approach does not work very well. At very least, it’s like blue-jeans at a funeral–there is something unfitting about it. But let’s leave that point alone for a moment.

I think D. G. Hart is on to something here. The progressives out there like to argue that music is “tertiary,” or that it does not matter. They argue that it is not a matter to divide over. But I ask them: if music is not a matter to divide over, if it is tertiary, then why not give it up completely? Why not go to a “stuffy” church that simply sings hymns?*

If music is truly “tertiary” or “not worth dividing over” for the progressives, then hymns, theoretically at least, is an acceptable medium to the progressives for congregational singing in public worship, as are choruses and praise-and-worship (P&W) songs. Now imagine with me two circles, one (circle C) representing the music acceptable to conservatives. The other circle (circle P) represents the music acceptable to the progressives. Theoretically, again, circle C would nearly all fit within circle P. That is, nearly all the hymn tunes and other traditional music acceptable to conservatives is acceptable to progressives, since music, to the progressives, is a “tertiary” or “secondary” issue. Conservatives, however, in no way find the music of the progressives to be acceptable. In fact, they find it irreverent. In theory, the progressives should have absolutely no problem attending congregations whose worship is conservative or traditional, especially if that music deeply offends other believers. In theory, the progressives should not desire in the slightest to move a congregation among whom one finds conservatives toward more progressive forms of worship, especially if that music deeply offends other believers and music is so-called “tertiary.” The fact is that neither of this theories are usually seen in practice.

My point is that the music issue is not tertiary for either conservatives or progressives. When the progressives say music is a tertiary issue, a matter of no importance, what they actually mean is that the conservatives should not declare the music of progressives unfit for public worship or immoral. They do not want to be judged. That’s what they mean. If it were truly “tertiary,” then they would capitulate on this point, especially since the music of progressives is so morally repulsive to conservatives.

——–
*Here I mean hymns, not pseudo-hymns, such as gospel songs or camp-ish fare.
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14 Comments leave one →
  1. annawood permalink
    August 21, 2009 12:08 pm

    I’d never thought about it quite that way. I agree with you.
    Thank you for your well thought out post. Anna

  2. Chris Ames permalink
    August 21, 2009 8:35 pm

    When has a canonized, profitable, popularly accepted concession to the flesh EVER been a tertiary issue among a group of believers?

  3. August 21, 2009 9:25 pm

    Ryan,

    This is NOT an argument for “progressive” music. It’s an argument that your argument isn’t persuasive to me.

    By that I mean, I think you’re suggesting progressives think tertiary issues don’t matter. I don’t think that’s a fair, or at least universal, characterization. The primary/secondary/tertiary distinctions I find most common are 1) primary=gospel issue demands affirmation to be a Christian; 2) secondary=local church issue demands agreement to be members of the same church; and 3) tertiary=not essential for agreement within local churches and may or many not affect cooperation between churches or members of different churches. That hierarchy doesn’t mean differences don’t matter; merely that they don’t matter equally in every scenario.

    Now, I’m sure every “progressive” is different, but I know some progressives who prefer less conservative music join churches that use very conservative music. Musical style, to them, is one factor in a complex of issues that affect choices. As a tertiary issue, it’s not unimportant or meaningless, but it doesn’t trigger a binary decision—it doesn’t mean *everything*.

    Finally, (and I’m not arguing this is a valid rationale), many progressives believe their musical preferences aren’t merely preferences—they actually help them worship/honor/praise God. They believe traditional hymns stifle or inhibit the expression of their affections for God. Nevertheless, other factors present or absent in various local churches may convince them that a more conservative church is best for them, or those factors may lead more conservative people to join a church with a more progressive style.

    We may or may not disagree with that line of reasoning, but they’re not arguing that style is unimportant. They’re simply arguing that style need not preclude all fellowship and cooperation, whether within or between local churches.

  4. August 21, 2009 9:52 pm

    You are correct in that I seemed to imply that “tertiary” mean “does not matter.” But I want simply to point out that I expanded what I meant by “does not matter”; I said (several times, in fact), “not worth dividing over.”

    What I’m glad to hear from you is that there are certain progressives who do join congregations whose manner of public worship is traditional. I may wonder how “conservative” the public worship of such congregations really are, but your point is well-taken. I certainly did not mean to imply that my generalization was true in every case. I would stand by this assertion (see the post above): “The fact is that neither of this theories [(1) prog. having no problem attending conserv. services and (2) prog. not leading congregations away from a traditional approach] are usually seen in practice.” I would venture to guess that the believers you have experienced are the exception not the rule.

    But, let me stress, I am grateful for exceptions.

    The point I was also after here (though not stated explicitly) is that when it is espoused that “the Bible doesn’t talk about music,” so “music doesn’t matter” or “we can’t separate over music” is not consistently seen in the actual practice of individuals. Over and over again I read statements along these lines, that music is not mentioned in the Bible, so we can’t be dogmatic about music. But, when I look at the way many people often behave in real life, I think their protests belie a different belief. But, again, I could be wrong.

    Thank you for posting.

  5. August 22, 2009 11:39 am

    Ryan,

    It’s sad when you have to make an argument this way. I think that what it is saying is that the category of people who wouldn’t go to the “praise worship” service is much smaller than the group that wouldn’t go to the “rich old hymn” service.

  6. August 23, 2009 7:01 am

    “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?”

    Jesus of Nazareth (Matt. 7:13-16)

  7. August 26, 2009 9:13 am

    Ryan,

    I don’t know if you have ever visited the Shepherd’s Conference at John MacArthur’s church in Los Angeles; however, I was struck by something I observed there this past March.

    Of the 3500 pastors and ministry leaders in attendance, it was obvious that the overwhelming majority of them knew most of the more contemporary songs used, like God of Wonders, Indescribable, Be Unto Your Name, and Refiner’s Fire. However, the building resonated most loudly when hymns–tried and true, 18th century and earlier, theologically solid–were sung.

    So, I guess I would take issue with one of your assertions here. It appears that a very large segment of conservative evangelical pastors who are committed to expositional preaching are very comfortable with the “blending” of ancient/modern — that it does not seem to stand out like “bluejeans at a funeral.” And by the way, they LOVE hymns!

    In regards to your questions, “if music is not a matter to divide over, if it is tertiary, then why not give it up completely? Why not go to a ‘stuffy’ church that simply sings hymns?” I think I would simply say that while it is true that I believe we MUST not divide over music–that such division is sinfully schismatic–I would also say that the unity and fellowship within a congregation is worth protecting from those who would engage in such sinfully schismatic practices, from either conservative or progressive perspectives. I would also note that I do not believe the primary criteria for choosing a church is the style of the worship, but rather the emphasis on Christ-centered, expositional preaching.

    The bottom line as always in such conversations is that some people believe music has intrinsic morality. As long as that belief is maintained and propped up on the legs of human reasoning and Western European musical theory, there will be divisiveness in the Church over this issue, coming mostly from the more conservative side of the camp, who believe they are maintaining a divine standard of holiness while in reality they often are promoting a separation foreign to the New Testament and damaging to Christ’s Church.

  8. Chris Ames permalink
    August 26, 2009 7:52 pm

    Brian,

    You said:

    “The bottom line as always in such conversations is that some people believe music has intrinsic morality. As long as that belief is maintained and propped up on the legs of human reasoning and Western European musical theory, there will be divisiveness in the Church over this issue, coming mostly from the more conservative side of the camp, who believe they are maintaining a divine standard of holiness while in reality they often are promoting a separation foreign to the New Testament and damaging to Christ’s Church.”

    What if someone demanded for this type of aesthetic agnosticism when it came to preaching? Does form in preaching have intrinsic morality, or are puppet shows OK? After all, if the words and theology are in keeping with the hot sellers at the Bible College book store, the Bible says NOTHING about puppet shows (I checked LOGOS), so it’s a go, right? To deny someone the liberty to exposit the Word using, say, a duck puppet wearing a Harley-Davidson vest and a spiked WWI trench helmet, that would also be divisive and evidence that the Western tradition has gotten too full of itself, correct?

  9. August 26, 2009 11:05 pm

    Ryan,

    You wrote:

    “Over and over again I read statements along these lines, that music is not mentioned in the Bible, so we can’t be dogmatic about music. But, when I look at the way many people often behave in real life, I think their protests belie a different belief. But, again, I could be wrong.”

    I think you need to define what you mean by “not worth dividing over.” As you well know, there are different levels of fellowship. Secondary and tertiary doctrines may strike at different levels, but it seems to me that you’re blending the two.

    In any case, the fact that some insist that you can’t be dogmatic on musical style doesn’t mean that they don’t make personal choices with musical style in mind. IOW, there’s a difference between making personal choices in the context of a complex of factors and insisting that your personal convictions MUST lead EVERYONE to make the same choices.

  10. September 5, 2009 9:05 am

    Ben,

    Sorry for the delayed response. I grant you that the reasons for choosing one church over another are complex and varied, and cannot often be reduced to one, or even one primary, reason. Your point is well taken. I can see how my post may lead to that conclusion. I would even say that my use of “tertiary” was a bit reckless (I did not intend to use it as a technicus terminus).

    I would still say that among those who deny that music should ever be a matter over which people separate, that music is in fact a very important consideration in the church they attend. I’m not necessarily trying to paint with universal strokes as much as try to demonstrate that “worship styles” are very important to people, even among those who say it should not be important, and that often the attempt to minimize the importance of music is really more of an attempt to say that the kinds of music with which people offer worship to God should never be relegate to a good or evil proposition.

    But, even so, if you would like an example of this kind of thinking, i.e., that music should never be an issue over which Christians divide, reread the comment offered by Pastor McCrorie above. He well exemplifies this position. Here is someone who articulates quite clearly that “it is true that I believe we MUST not divide over music–that such division is sinfully schismatic,” even to the point of saying that conservatives promote “a separation foreign to the New Testament and damaging to Christ’s Church.” Those are pretty fierce words–militant even (which is a bit of a surprise). Yet he pins the majority of the blame on the conservatives here, as if they are the (sole) problem, when, if the progressives would simply limit their freedom for the sake of the conservatives and allow traditional hymns, which theoretically falls within their accepted range of music (especially since the Bible does not address music and music is not good or evil), it would seemingly end this struggle. And if, as you say, progressives do not believe that “your personal convictions MUST lead EVERYONE to make the same choices,” then they should, by definition, be more latitudinal in their approach, which, though not uniform in every situation, does not seem to be the majority or general approach (to me at least) in evangelicalism today.

  11. Andrea permalink
    October 31, 2009 3:15 pm

    Your argument is illogical and unbiblical. I actually prefer hymns to praise songs as well, but you imply that hymns, by virtue of being older, are more biblical. NONE of these songs, in this language, were around in Christ’s day. None of them. There is nothing holier about a song written 200 years ago. If a song is biblically based, it is biblically based, no matter the era in which it was written. I do believe that progressives are often too permissive of certain behaviors among believers, but your artcile is a real example of someone putting the laws of man before the laws of God.

  12. Chris Ames permalink
    October 31, 2009 3:47 pm

    Andrea,

    Perhaps your response is an overwhelmingly typical example of someone putting the preferences of men over the preferences of God. Of course, you have veiled your preferences from any critique or scrutiny by saying that the standard for appropriateness is whether or not something strikes your fancies as “biblically based.” Do you come away from your reading of the Old Testament feeling that God royally overreacted to the Israelites’ preference of high places over the temple cultus, since both were more or less “biblically based?”

    Also, go ahead and re-read the article and count all the times that Ryan mentioned the date of publication of the music in question. This will help you evaluate your contribution.

  13. October 31, 2009 3:53 pm

    How could I imply something that I do not believe? I have never, nor would I ever, argue that hymns are better by virtue of their age. Nor am I sure what a “more biblical” hymn would even be. When you speak of a song being “biblically based,” what do you mean? Are words even an issue in this post, or do I not refer to something else?

    Perhaps you were reading someone else and then came over here to comment. For I certainly do not recognize your foe.

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  1. “If music is not a matter to divide over, if it is tertiary, then why not give it up completely? Why not go to a “stuffy” church that simply sings hymns?” | Religious Affections Ministries

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