This question came in from Amy, after reading my post on “Entering the Draw Me Close Conversation.”
“How do you balance discernment without being critical? I find myself struggling with this constantly. Where is the balance between noticing and being concerned that the theology presented in songs/sermons is man-centered, or that the gospel is missing, vs. being critical of the music and preaching and thus being unable to actually worship?”
Great question. How do we exercise doctrinal discernment and personal humility at the same time?
First, we need to recognize the importance of being faithful to Scripture. We aren’t simply promoting our own ideas and opinions about God. We are seeking to express what God has already spoken. That’s what theology and doctrine are – knowing and communicating as precisely and comprehensively as possible what God has revealed about Himself in His Word. That’s what our songs and sermons should do.
While I wouldn’t recommend everything G.K Chesteron wrote, he made this insightful comment about our need for this kind of conviction:
“What we suffer from…is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.” (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy)
In other words, humility doesn’t mean sacrificing truth on the altar of tolerance.
That being said, viewing a song or sermon as doctrinally sub-par, misleading, or heretical is different from responding to it with a self-righteous, judgmental, or proud heart.
Here are a few sinful tendencies I’ve noticed in my own heart over the years as I’ve both led congregational worship and participated in it.
I can assume that my way of understanding a song is the way everyone understands it. Often there are numerous ways a phrase or lyric can be interpreted. If I’m leading, I generally avoid songs like that. But that doesn’t mean that no one can benefit from singing the song. Draw Me Close is one such song. I think there are weaknesses in the song, and don’t use it. But I’m wrong to assume that anyone who sings it or leads it is intentionally or even blindly exploiting those weaknesses.
I can think that songs are meant to be like systematic theology, containing every aspect of a particular truth. Some hymn writers sought to give an overview of redemptive history in their lyrics, but that’s not necessary, especially when you group songs together. As a leader, I want to be most conscious of the diet I’m feeding the church, both in a particular meeting, and over the course of time.
I can use my ability to discern as a means of exalting myself. “Look at everything I noticed!” I can think that not singing a certain song makes me more spiritual, or look disparagingly at those who sing it. Unfortunately, I have been wrong about things I’ve “discerned” so many times, I lost count years ago. God simply asks us, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1Cor. 4:7) If my discernment IS right, I should thank God and remember that He sees infinitely more than I do.
I cannot judge the motives of those who write, sing, or lead songs. This is dangerous area, and one that most of us are very familiar with. There is a difference between what a person does and why they do it. God addresses our sinful tendencies in James.
Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:11-12)
What about when I’m following someone else’s leadership? Years ago, I was at a conference being led in corporate worship. I thought the leader was capitalizing on musical manipulation and singing songs that spoke more of our works than God’s. Rather than stand there and fume over the glory we didn’t seem to be giving God, I knelt down on the floor and prayed. (I should say I did that only because I hadn’t done it so many other times.) I told God how much I needed Him, how thankful I was that He had sent His Son to die for my sins, and asked Him to remind me of the mercy He had shown me. I ended up having a significant encounter with the Lord that I remember to this day. I don’t want anyone’s leadership to keep me from giving praise to my Savior with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.
That doesn’t mean I can’t ask questions, offer observations, or engage in fruitful dialogue with a leader. If I happen to BE a leader, I have a responsibility to point out inconsistencies, inaccuracies, or potential error in songs. But I never have to do it in a way that makes it sound like I know everything, or that I understand everything, or that my knowledge makes me more pleasing than others in the sight of God.
In our pursuit of pleasing God, let’s be committed to passionately defending biblical truth with personal holiness and humility. It’s a good indicator that we’re seeking to exalt the Savior rather than our own opinions.