In recent days, singer/songwriter Vicky Beeching announced that she is a lesbian, and that she disagrees with the historic Christian sexual ethic. Prior to this, Beeching wrote many songs used as praise choruses in evangelical churches. Some are asking if they should continue to sing her songs in corporate worship.
At first glance, the question is a good one. After all, this is not the equivalent of an intramural disagreement about the ordinances or church government or the authorship of the Book of Hebrews. At question here is whether or not the church will tell unrepentant persons that they will “not surely die” if they proceed in this way. This is a gospel issue.
The issue becomes more complicated, though, when we ask what it means to sing songs written by someone in some area of doctrinal or moral error. The leadership of the congregation in song is a calling of great gravity. Music is more than just “mood accompaniment” for preaching. Music is an important way that the people of God conduct spiritual warfare and the way we teach one another in the gospel (Eph. 5:15-20).
In the old covenant, God gifted, by his Spirit, the musicians of the people of Israel, with a high responsibility for leadership. In the new covenant, the gifts of the Body come from a triumphant Christ, and are for the upbuilding of the rest of the church (Eph. 4:7).
The question, then, is what does it mean to sing songs written by someone in error? If Vicky Beeching were the worship leader of a congregation committed to a biblical understanding of sexuality, she would face the discipline of the church seeking to bring her to repentance (1 Cor. 5:9-12). If she were using her gifts within a local congregation to write the songs of praise, the congregation would pause this area of leadership. But is that the same thing as a congregation singing songs written by someone outside of the congregation?
In one sense, this question is only possible in the modern era. There was no Christian music industry in the first-century church. The Psalms were written, at least partially, by a sexually immoral murderer (though ultimately a repentant one), and the songs and hymns were probably mostly composed by those under the direct oversight of the local congregations.
To get at this, let’s compare the situation to preaching. Suppose a pastor is caught in some serious doctrinal or moral error. The pastor is then disqualified from continuing in this service to the church (1 Tim. 3:1-7) until he comes to repentance and to restoration by the body (when possible). But is this the right analogy? What about the sermons he preached previously? We all have benefited from preachers and pastors who later went astray. Are the insights we gained from them, sometimes insights we still return to and perhaps even quote to ourselves and to others, now to be put away?
Moreover, what about the distance between the songwriter and the direct leadership of God’s people in worship. Is the analogy here between a songwriter and a preacher, or is it more akin to the writer of a biblical commentary, who informs the interpretation of the preacher.
There are, on my shelf, all sorts of commentaries written, many of them with great insight, by people I would not admit into membership. Would I quote them to a congregation, by name? I suppose so, as long as I didn’t think the congregation would see the quote as an endorsement of everything the person believes, or does.
I think the same dynamic is at work in this case. Personal regeneration is necessary for leadership in a local church, but that doesn’t mean that every insight is dependent on the spiritual condition of the writer.
I thought about this past Sunday as my congregation sang one of my favorite hymns, “God of Grace and God of Glory.” The writer of the hymn, Harry Emerson Fosdick, is, in my view, a heretic. He denied the virgin birth, the inerrancy of Scripture, the historicity of many of the miracles, the bodily resurrection, and the physical return of our Lord. This is not Christianity.
But what a hymn.
“Crown thine ancient church’s story, bring her bud to glorious flower. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour.” I had tears in my eyes, as the rest of the church instructed me in song: “From the fears that long have bound us, free our hearts to faith and praise.”
If my church leadership had thought that singing this hymn would be an endorsement of Fosdick’s theology, I am quite sure it would never be sung. But no one would have concluded that and, truth is, many of the songs we sing were written by people we wouldn’t want to follow.
Horatio Spafford, author of the majestic “It Is My Well with My Soul,” died as part of some sort of messianic cult. This isn’t communicated when we sing. Instead, we are communicating that Spafford grasped something true when he wrote, “My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to his cross, and I bear it no more.” Whatever Spafford personally experienced, that song is true, and when we sing it we are not endorsing him, but we are instead using his artistic gift to point ourselves back to what God has revealed to us.
And, ultimately, that’s the point. If in your context, there’s some reason why using a song written by a songwriter in error at some point of other would lead people to assume you are endorsing the error, don’t sing it. Don’t be a stumbling block. But, if not, then the most important question, for this decision, is not, “Is this person right?” but “Is this song true and good and beautiful and edifying?”