Does It Matter Who Writes the Songs We Sing?

Ty sent in this question:

A lot of people at our church like the song “Your Grace Is Enough” which I think was co-written by Matt Maher and Chris Tomlin. I did some research on Matt Maher and found that he is a well-know Catholic artist. There are some who would say that since the song was written by somebody who is Catholic that it shouldn’t be sung. How should we think through something like this?

Before I share my thoughts, I wanted to address the question, “Is it possible to be a genuine Christian and a Roman Catholic at the same time?” I think so, despite numerous doctrines of the Catholic church that conflict with Scripture, such as purgatory, indulgences, and salvation by faith plus works. I know Catholics who have placed their trust completely in the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. To my knowledge, they’re truly born again.

But that doesn’t answer the question. How do we think through using songs written by people who hold beliefs contrary to what we believe the Bible teaches? I don’t think there are hard and fast rules in this area. But here are some thoughts.

Immediate content matters most. Knowing WHO wrote a song shouldn’t make it better or worse. I should first evaluate a song’s merits on the lyrics all by themselves, without any explanation, because that’s the way most people will sing and hear them.

Associations are important. Even though lyrical content is most important, we don’t always sing songs in a vacuum. I want to be careful about introducing a song that might be good in itself, but might lead to people getting exposed to a ministry, artist, or church that I wouldn’t otherwise be enthused about. Since “Your Grace is Enough” is more well known because of Chris Tomlin, it wouldn’t be a problem for me.

Associations can change over time. Churches sing songs today that were penned by Roman Catholics, Unitarian Universalists, and others who held to theological convictions we might not agree with. But because the song is disconnected from its origins, no one knows.

Composers often reveal their theological biases. If I know a song has been writen by someone whose orthodoxy I have a question about, I should exercise more care in examining the content. Songs by Catholics sometimes present a view of grace that’s unclear, or heavy on the result of grace and light on justification by faith. I find that often the problem is what the song leaves out, rather than what it actually says. For instance, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear was written by Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister of the 19th century. While it’s been set to a beautiful tune, and can carry powerful connotations, it isn’t very clear on the meaning of Christ’s birth.

Bottom line, if I think singing a song is going to expose my church to an unhelpful influence, I’ll skip it. I if I don’t think that’s going to happen, and the lyrics are solid, I’ll sing it.

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22 Responses to Does It Matter Who Writes the Songs We Sing?

  1. Eric Barnhart February 23, 2008 at 12:10 AM #

    Hi Bob et. al,

    Helpful framework. Looks like one of your paragraphs was inadvertently trimmed? “Some of the hymns…”

    I don’t think you can overemphasize the idea that content is king, literally and figuratively. If it doesn’t point us to God, it doesn’t serve us. Likewise, if it does point us to God and a right understanding of Him and our relationship with Him, then it is not right to exclude its possible use simply because of its author.

    Just as an example, let’s look at the other author who got a free pass from you :). Bob, you and Chris may run in the same circles and have had conversations about your own theological views. You may have formed your views about Chris’s theology from hearing him talk or reading material written by him. The bottom line for me though is that it, for the most part, doesn’t matter. When I choose to do a song by Chris Tomlin, I’m not endorsing Chris Tomlin. I’m endorsing the song.

    I personally have no idea whether Chris Tomlin is wacked out theologically or not. I personally have no idea if Chris Tomlin is a CHRISTIAN or not. I have no relationship w/ the man other than, if he is a Christian, through Christ. We’ve never met. We may never meet this side of heaven. Even if we did, I can’t peer into his heart. So for me to determine whether I use a song based off of whether the guy (or gal) who wrote it passes my own personal litmus test of “is he Christian enough” kind of falls flat on over 90% of the songs I use every Sunday.

    I do not say this to excuse us from researching the people who wrote the songs. That exercise can be helpful in numerous ways. I just don’t believe determining a song’s appropriateness for use is one of them. I’ve more often seen this working to spread disunity and denominationalism because one’s opinion operates under the guise of theological astuteness.

    Bottom line: we don’t need gatekeepers telling us who the approved songwriters for Jesus are because they’re better Christians or even Christians at all. We need shepherds who care about what words we sing and why we sing them because they can literally change our lives, regardless of who wrote them. If God can redeem a wretch like me, can he not certainly redeem the context of any song that points to his glory, majesty and grace? As songwriters, let us all echo the prayer of John the Baptist that we might decrease so that He may increase. For what it’s worth – (Buffalo Springfield)

    -eee

  2. Bob Kauflin February 23, 2008 at 6:57 AM #

    Eric,

    Thanks for your helpful thoughts. I think we’re in the same general area on this issue. I just don’t think you can completely rule out the associations people make or might make with songs. But as you say, content is king.

    Thanks for the word on the sentence fragment. I took it out.

  3. Tom Townsend February 23, 2008 at 10:04 PM #

    Hi Bob,
    Thanks for bringing this to the table, and clarifying some things. I did the same research after getting requests for the song. On YouTube there’s an interview with both Chris and Matt where Matt basically says, “I thought that if I said it enough (Your Grace is Enough) it might actually be true” and expresses some doubt. I thought it was good for him to be honest. We know better, thank God. I’d like to think it’s a song that reinforces a grace-oriented perspective in songwriting, but it’s not really, aside from the title. God wrestling with the sinner’s heart? The verses are a bit confusing and don’t really tie well to the title, my opinion. There’s so much better out there, and many songs of complete and perfect salvation in Christ yet to be written!
    Grateful for what you’re doing,
    Tom

  4. Dale February 24, 2008 at 2:25 AM #

    We need to understand that the songs people write is their fruits. The lyrics may be sound doctrinally. That is great but the pharises knew the scriptures. Most importantly is the spirit of the song.

    The main issue I have is, is the artist living in sin, this is not always easy. As a church we will not do songs if we know if the artist is living in sin. that is why we don’t sing any songs from alot of the mainstream churches as they are preaching a gospel of relevance and not the Gospel at all.

  5. Chip February 24, 2008 at 8:52 AM #

    Dale, I am not sure of your defintion of “living in sin”, but if sin is the criteria, would that prevent you from using Psalms?

  6. John February 24, 2008 at 10:53 AM #

    I love your stuff. You are going to find more and more Catholics who are living a Christian life of salvation and that is b/c the Church is in serious renewal now which is awesome. Let me encourage you to not dismiss the teachings of the Catholic Church because of the many Catholics who are ignorant of them and not living them. There are many Catholics who are not Christians just as there are many of every other denominations that are Christian in name only. The teachings of the Catholic Church, when truly understood are probably a whole lot closer to what you believe than you know. Investigate the Catechism of the Catholic Church for example, which defines Catholic belief and you will see that every teaching is based on scripture and the teachings of the Church Fathers (how the church taught before Scripture was around.) Many Catholics still have no understanding of scripture but no that the Catholic Church not only uses and values scripture immeasurably, but they also gave us the “Bible” that we use today. There were hundreds and hundreds of books and letters before the Catholic Church ratified the Canon which we now call the Bible. Remarkably today people try to disprove the authenticity and authority of the Catholic Church by using the book that is valid only b/c we accepted their authenticity and authority. The very Church Fathers who pushed the 27 books of the new testament for example that were then ratified at the Council of Carthage also were Catholic and wrote many, many writings on the Catholic Church’s teachings. The fact is that the Holy Spirit guided the Catholic Church over time to recognize and determine the canon of the New and Old Testaments in the year 382 at the synod of Rome, under Pope Damasus I. This decision was ratified again at the councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397 and 419). For more information if you are open go to http://www.catholic.com/library/What_Your_Authority.asp

    also…
    I think what Matt is saying in the video by that comment is that God’s grace is so amazing that it is hard to believe, He is not saying he doesn’t believe it.

  7. Brendan Beale February 24, 2008 at 3:56 PM #

    I am very familiar with Matt Maher’s music and have been greatly moved by his deep reverence for God and the Scriptural content of his lyrics. While I agree with you on the theological and soteriological problems with Catholicism, I have found (at least as evidenced through his music) that Matt Maher is an encouraging example of how the work of the Holy Spirit cannot be contained in a denominational box, and that He does reserve a remnant for Himself within the Catholic Church.

  8. Kevin February 24, 2008 at 10:01 PM #

    Hi Bob,
    Thanks for another helpful post.
    On page 1 of his preface to “Our Own Hymnbook”, Spurgeon wrote, ‘Whatever may be thought of our taste we have used it without prejudice, and a good hymn has not been rejected because of the character of its author, or the heresies of the church in whose hymnal it first occurred; so long as the language and the spirit commended the hymn to our heart we included it, and believe that we have enriched our collection thereby.’
    However, as I understand it he was only referring to one or two such hymns, and as the subsequent downgrade cotroversy showed, Spurgeon took the issue of association seriously with respect to sound doctrine.

  9. Tim Bolognone February 25, 2008 at 10:29 PM #

    Hey Bob,
    Thank you for your thoughtful and scripturally based words of wisodm on this subject. A dear friend of mine sent me a link to this timely article since we were just discussing this very issue. A slightly different slant that was on our hearts and minds regarding this matter was this: what to do with ‘good’ lyrics that may carry a variant ‘intended’ meaning than that which we would ascribe. The example with which we were wrestling was the lyrics by Phillips, Craig, & Dean. Though their songs don’t generally communicate errant theology overtly, it seems they themselves do. Should their theology that’s wrapped up in their use of the names of Jesus, God, or Lord, affect my ability to embrace that same song with my different meanings attached to the same names? This may be ‘splitting hairs’ to some… but I just wanted some wiser insight. Thanks!
    In Christ,
    Tim

  10. Rich Tuttle February 26, 2008 at 8:43 AM #

    Kevin, thanks for the Spurgeon quote. It kind of sums up my view on this subject as well.

    The Hymn “Faith of Our Fathers” was written by a Catholic priest at a time when Catholics were being persecuted, but the song is a great song to sing in times of trouble and persecution for the Protestant as well. In fact, I chose this song on Reformation Sunday! But the congregation didn’t think, “Well, let’s not sing this Catholic hymn on a day when we recognize the Protestant Reformation” because the words of the hymn transend the fact that a Catholic wrote it and can be applied to the rest of the Body.

    Bob, this is not the first time I heard about “It Came upon a midnight clear.” A few years back I actually gave a bit of history about some of the well known Christmas Carols. I found this one interesting and felt that once the congregation knew then some might be hesitent, so as I gave the history of the song I told them I thought it would be a shame if we never sang this again so to fix that problem I added a verse:

    He came down from His heav’nly throne
    into a world of death
    And with His perfect sacrifice
    the sinner now is blest
    Though as a Child in manger lay
    He still is Christ the King
    “All glory be to God on high!”
    The saints and angels sing

    The congregation was very appriciative for the information and came away with a greater and deeper understanding of what it means to sing about Christ.

    Great post!
    Rich

  11. Eric Barnhart February 29, 2008 at 11:27 AM #

    Amendment to my previous post:
    “I just don’t believe determining a song’s appropriateness for use is USUALLY one of them.” Certain contexts may make a song inappropriate for a season even if the content itself is fine, but i find these contexts to be far rarer than some agenda-setters think. :)

  12. Eric Barnhart February 29, 2008 at 11:29 AM #

    amendment to my previous amendment: that wasn’t a backhanded way of me saying you (or anyone else here) is trying to set an agenda! oops… i think i’ll stop typing now :)

  13. Kent February 29, 2008 at 3:17 PM #

    Bob,

    Thank you for your ministry to me personally. Your wisdom and insight on the questions you deal with on your post are very helpful and timely.

    My concern (which I pray to present humbly) with your post has nothing to do with Catholic songwriters or songs, but rather with your 2nd paragraph addressing the Catholics as Christians question. You stated that one of the Catholic doctrines that differs from Scripture is “salvation by faith plus works.” To be sure, that is not a different doctrine, it is a different gospel.

    I know this wasn’t the main point of your post, but to me it confused doctrine with gospel. “Salvation by faith plus works” in not a doctrine to be discussed like the doctrine of the church or one’s view on the millennium. On this truth the gospel of Jesus stands or falls: salvation is by faith alone.

    I believe you reference this when you say that “Catholics who placed their trust completely…” Thank you for including the “completely,” and feel free to capitalize, underline, or bold that word next time! It is as Spurgeon said, the gospel really is “ALL of grace,” or as the Sovereign Grace song declares, “ONLY Jesus, ONLY Jesus, give us Jesus, we cry!”

    Desiring to lift up God, Christ, grace, and faith with you,

    Kent

  14. Angel Mahehu March 7, 2008 at 3:10 AM #

    Thank you so much for the postings that continually make us better worshippers. We were having a conversation with my husband about songs and writers and i referred back to something you had shared with us while i was there that is is sometimes easy to judge a song by the person who writes it instead of whom the song is about. There are many professing believers who have written questionable lyrics but the Word of God is the beacon to guide us. If it is not aligned to the truth of the gospel even if one of the most renowned gospel singers wrote it it does not glorify God. Thank you so much for shedding light on this topic. God bless you.

  15. Sean McDonald March 8, 2008 at 2:07 AM #

    Do you go to heretics like Papists or Unitarians (or Pelagians, or Arminians) for your theology? Then why will you let them teach you how to worship God… or give you the very words with which you will praise God? What assurance do you have that God will accept such words in His praise? especially when we have perfect assurance that He will accept the Psalms, since they are His own words being sung back to Him?

  16. Bob Kauflin March 8, 2008 at 7:16 PM #

    Sean,

    Thanks for stopping by.

    A few thoughts. Charles Wesley, an Arminian, wrote many songs that contain clear, biblical truth. Error doesn’t affect every word we say or every sentence we write. Otherwise no one could pray or preach.

    Singing a song that someone has written doesn’t mean you’re embracing their entire theological framework. But as I mentioned, we need to be more discerning when we sing songs by those we disagree with theologically.

    Finally, and I think this is most important, the only assurance I have that God will accept any of my words is that they are in agreement with his Word and I am offering them in faith through the substitutionary sacrifice of the Savior. That would include hymns, praise choruses, or the various metrical versions of the Psalms.

    Hope that’s helpful.

  17. Michael Clary March 10, 2008 at 3:41 PM #

    This is a very helpful post, and about a question that I never thought of! I assume that writers reveal their biases, so this question never occurred to me. Thanks!

  18. Richard March 11, 2008 at 5:33 PM #

    We need to take note of

    “the prophetic nature and function of song in congregational worship. Deut. 32 records the song that Moses the prophet spoke in the ears of all the congregation of Israel. Judges 5 contains the song of Deborah, the prophetess. Mention is made of musical instruments in association with the company of the prophets in 1 Sam. 10. David, the sweet psalmist of Israel, had the words of the Holy Ghost upon his tongue, 2 Sam. 23:2. Then, when David made preparations for the worship which was to be performed in the temple, he committed the song into the hands of Heman, “the king’s seer in the words of God,” 1 Chron. 25:5, 6.

    In the New Testament, Paul gives instructions concerning singing “with the spirit” and the bringing forward of “a psalm” (1 Cor. 14:15, 26) in the context of regulating the use of the prophetic gift. In the disputed passages, Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16, the saints are to speak to themselves, to teach and admonish one another, in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Again, a prophetic function. Finally, in the Apocalypse, the songs of the redeemed and of the heavenly host are prophetic, either foretelling God’s judgements to come, or revealing the nature of those judgements when they do come. Here, then, is the biblical criterion for examining the quality of a song which is to be used in congregational worship. Is it prophetic? If not, the composition does not come up to the standard of worship-song as revealed in the holy Scriptures. In both the Old and New Testaments the church was blessed with a prophetic hymnody. The church of subsequent ages should not settle for anything less! And as uninspired men cannot produce prophetic compositions, the church ought not to settle for their substandard songs.” (Winzer, “Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land”)

  19. Caleb Kolstad March 28, 2009 at 1:40 PM #

    Thanks for this! We have been discussing this matter over at ET and i’m glad you provided this link for me/us.

    Caleb

  20. Hate the war love the soljers May 13, 2010 at 8:05 PM #

    Well i think it does matter who sings it because they might sound different. I am only in 8th grade and i wont to know more about it and i am learning the one that George F. Root and i would like to sing the one that is his not one that someone else did.

  21. Aseda January 14, 2013 at 11:42 AM #

    I’m really grateful for this topic! i kinda stumbled upon it because a Catholic website claimed that Chris Tomlin was Catholic, and i was brokenhearted because he remains my fave worship artist. i agree with the article. and i think also that although we should be extra careful about who we listen to, we cannot discount the fact that God’s spirit can speak even through unbelievers! Sometimes, the lyrics of the people we want to reject on the basis of doctrine, like Matt Maher, can still contain very powerful and very true words. I’m not by this saying we should go out of our way to listen to lyrics which don’t agree with the tenets of our faith, but i think even if it’s a Catholic or so singing, but the words express the same things we believe, it’s okay, as long as you sing with faith [ Anything that is not of faith is sin.]

  22. marsha Kay Dixon Dyser July 8, 2013 at 5:56 PM #

    I disagree with all of you…I research everyone I listen to…

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