Sunday, October 21, 2018

Judging Music: You Can and Should, Here's How

I wrote a book on music in 1996:  Sound Music or Sounding Brass.  Below is not an excerpt.

The Academy of Awards announced it will no longer judge best actor or actress, because no one can know how to judge acting.  Furthermore, the Academy testified that there is no means to differentiate good acting from bad acting.  And no, that hasn't happened.  People do know in the important judgment of movies whether something is well acted.  People don't doubt that they know when they see something cheesy or what seems fake.  Good acting is good acting, but some is better or more difficult than other.  People, and especially Christians, can judge music too, especially compared to acting.

In many a discussion about or in commentary below posts about music, people question the criteria for and the ability to judge music.  Very often they either feign the throwing up of their hands or they really mean that they can't know.  They don't know how to judge what's good or bad.  They can't go any further than saying that musical style is personal taste or preference only, there is no objective means of judging between the good and the bad.

People say that they think there is good and bad music, exempt from the words, but they don't have an explanation for the standard.  They would say it's not like judging something that you might do, which comes with a clear standard.  Scripture never says that this or that particular music is bad.  This difficulty then moves music into the category -- to them -- of Christian liberty.  They may prefer a certain music, but they don't have the authority to say that some musical style is wrong.

Here are some quotes expressing the above in a recent discussion in the comment section:
I have yet to see something that makes very clear biblical judgment of the music itself possible.  And, I'm fairly convinced it's not a solvable problem (in general). . . . Absent a clear standard from scripture, that's the very definition of a Romans 14 issue. 
I too agree that music apart from lyrics has moral value. I  just want . . . someone to tell me how to determine that value in a subjective way and not by answering my question with more questions.   Please. Anyone?  I sincerely am looking for simple answers to apply to making music choices. I've been looking for a long time. . . . . I decided to walk away from the confusing admonitions of others and be content with having a good conscience before God until I get some clearer instruction. 
Personally, I'd never allow rap or rock in a worship service. But, I have no objective basis for that - it's my own subjective opinion. 
That is the sixty-four thousand dollar question.  When you can offer a clear, objective standard to determine this, please let me know.  Otherwise, it pretty much boils down to whatever I say it is. 
Is all music of equal quality?  Not in my opinion.  Is all music helpful and edifying?  Not in my opinion.  I think we both agree in general that music itself, apart from the words, can be sinful, or at least come pretty close to that category.  But how to define that objectively?  I don't know.  How to define that Scripturally?  I don't know.  And because I can't do so, I shy away from imposing my opinions upon others. 
I'm not saying music doesn't communicate on its own, but I've yet to hear a plausible way to tell clear truth or error from notes and rhythms. 
I've yet to hear a good, scripturally-based objective reason for choosing not to use music. 
And then you've got comments like this:
Given that the Scripture says nothing about time signature, whether music is on or off beat, major or minor keys, or structure of music, I'm going to go out on a limb keep my feet firmly attached to the ground and suggest that no reasonable interpretation of Scripture could endorse, or reject, any genre of music, any particular instrument, or any particular singing technique.  The closest we can come to a Biblical description or prescription of music is found in Psalms 149 and 150, where Scripture clearly references and recommends percussive instruments and dance as something God wanted Israel to do.  
Not holding my breath for the cultural fundamentalists to interpret those Psalms as written, to put it mildly. 
These were made by five or six different people, but they are the same, most common argument for the amorality of music.  "Music isn't amoral, but I don't have an objective basis for saying it is moral, so I have to treat it like it is amoral."  They say uncertainty is the major basis for the amorality of music.  Another word for uncertainty is doubtful, as in doubtful disputations of Romans 14.  If it isn't certain, then it is a matter of liberty.

A corollary to above for amorality of music, and, therefore, not judging musical style is that there isn't a specific verse against any particular musical style.  If a person judges something with no scriptural basis, he's adding to scripture, which violates sola scriptura, someone might say.  In fact, not judging, using scripture, breaches sola scriptura.

What is the scriptural, objective, certain standard for judging music or musical style?  Can someone, so should someone, judge musical style?  Does scripture require judging music?


I've talked about this before, but most application of scripture, which is called wisdom or prudence (Eph 1:8), to which God saves us, requires the utilization of a second term.  It works like the following:
First Term:  Scripture prohibits corrupt communication.
Second Term:  Four letter words are corrupt communication.
Conclusion (or application of first term):  Scripture prohibits four letter words.
What if I used a particular heinous four letter word through this post to spice it up, show anger or passion?  When you said that I used corrupt communication, I retorted with almost any of the above comments against scripture saying anything about music.  The four letter words are not supplied.  Some might say that the judgment against a particular four letter word then is subjective.  Someone saying, "it isn't objective," isn't objective.  What is subjective is deciding yourself what you want to be corrupt and what you don't want to be corrupt.  Just because you say it isn't corrupt, because there is no list of four letter words, doesn't mean it isn't corrupt.  You are still going to be judged by God.


The problem here one of fear on the part of those required to apply scripture.  I heard someone recently use the terminology, "first mover problem."  You've got a terrorist threatening a whole airplane with a knife.  You've got an evil dictator threatening a whole country.  A small number of people can intimidate a much larger group because of a "first mover problem."  The first mover might die, and he's got to be motivated by someone or something greater than himself to move.

In this case, the first move is saying that certain music is corrupt.  People will be upset if they lose their carnal, worldly, entertaining, pleasurable activity.  They often become angry, like a dog that has its food taken back.  The first mover sees himself excluded, looking silly or whatever temporal motive is there.  It's not just this issue where there are first mover problems, but many different applications of scripture, including what people have diminished by calling them "cultural issues."  They have deemed the cultural issues of either greater uncertainty or lesser importance to "doctrinal issues," like the Trinity, even though scripture doesn't treat non-doctrinal issues as uncertain or lesser.

The first mover problem has spread to many other cultural issues, including calling a boy a boy and a girl a girl, even using gender specific pronouns.  It also might by saying you think evolution is a lie.  You don't want to stand out by saying whatever it is that runs counter to convention.  It usually is accompanied by ridicule.  When most everyone who professed to be a Christian went the complete opposite direction, people joined the opposition to certain musical style and with complete certainty.  Someone didn't need to make the first move.  Now you will suffer for rising against what's easy to support, that is, unmitigated musical style.


The strange woman wore the attire of a harlot (Proverbs 7:10).  If I said, don't dress like a prostitute, no verse tells us what a prostitute dresses like.  It requires a second term.  We know how a prostitute dresses.  More women now dress like prostitutes, including many professing Christian ones, because of the same unwillingness to apply scripture.

Let's say that  a parent said to his child, "Get that look off your face -- it's disrespectful."  The child answered, "What verse says my look is a bad look or disrespectful, because that just seems disrespectful?"  Can no one know what is the 'eye that mocks his father' is?  Scripture assumes we can judge disrespect.  When people ask if there's anything sacred any more, it relates to this subject matter.  A culture that will not put any difference between that which is common or profane and that which is sacred, can't love or respect or worship God.

Children learn A-B-C on a line of letters.  They can get it.  It takes recognition of meaning.  People know meaning.  They fit music to scenes based on an understanding of meaning.  It's basic like A-B-C.  Those who refuse to judge are willful.  They can say, "I didn't get it or understand it," and God won't excuse it.  It is first grade understanding. They are playing games.  Scripture and history show that people play these type of games, and call them arguments.  God is not mocked.

The Bible has a lot of verses that would prohibit certain musical style as worship and then some of the same verses prohibit for Christians musical styles on their musical play list.  For this post, I'm just introducing them.  Everything else in this post has been necessary.

  1. Fleshly Lust (1 Peter 2:11)
  2. Worldly Lust (Titus 2:12)
  3. Conformed to this World (Romans 12:2)
  4. Provision for the Flesh (Romans 13:14)
  5. Profaning the Name of God (Leviticus 18:21)
  6. Fashioning yourselves according to your former lusts (1 Peter 1:14)
  7. Ecstatic (1 Corinthians 12:1-3)
  8. Sensual (James 3:15)
  1. Reverence (Leviticus 19:30, many others)
  2. Solemnity (Leviticus 23:36, many others) [the opposite of reverent and solemn are superficial, foolish, thoughtless, vapid, flippant, trivial, etc.]
  3. Holy (Romans 12:1)
  4. Spiritual (John 4:23-24)
  5. Lovely (Philippians 4:8) [the opposite is unlovely or ugly]
  6. Gender Distinct (1 Corinthians 6:9)
All of these can be judged or they wouldn't be in scripture.  God will judge us for doing what He said, and He wouldn't judge us for something we could not be sure to understand.  I'm not saying that this list is an exhaustive list, but it is certainly enough to start with.  We should assume that we can know and know what these are.  In future posts, I will make brief application of them to music.


James Bronsveld said...

"...There shall come...scoffers, walking after their own lusts." Since these are religious scoffers, a necessary part of the justification for walking after one's own lusts involves a delicate balancing between professed adherence to the Scriptures and a walk according to those lusts. To overcome this difficulty, one simply increases and expands the number of things that "cannot be known or culturally applied" from Scriptures, paving the way to God-approved lust following.

It's interesting, at the same time, to notice that often these same people have no trouble stretching the "application" of the Scriptures to whatever trendy social justice issue happens to be the cultural rage at the time.

Kent Brandenburg said...


I agree. Lust is the reason for apostasy in 2 Peter 2-3, but that's not a fundamental. People change their theology and their judgment to keep their music, entertainment, whatever. In so doing, it is self-autonomy, not under control of Jesus, denying the Lord who bought them. But it's not a fundamental, did I say that? I love the Trinity though. Catholics love the Trinity too.

Don't talk to me about music or lust, because I'm diving deep into the atonement. The deep dive bypassed lust.

Bill Hardecker said...

Jude 4b also applies, "turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness." New Calvinists do similar things by sanctifying worldliness (beer, music, etc.). Folks really do err not knowing the Scriptures. Even hearing and not doing ends up with deception. Wresting the word. Laying it aside. All of this is not good.

Alex A. Guggenheim said...

Having read these quotes of people who are incapable of recognizing and utilizing principles from the scriptures one can only come away convinced that these are spiritual adolescents.

Children need direct and obvious boundaries because they lack sophistication of thought. They are limited to the do's and don'ts.

Adolescents, on the other hand, are capable of some sophisticated thought unfortunately it is often to their own injury. They clearly see that not everything is obviously or directly stated in life but usually the immature adolescent uses such a nuance to avoid implications which force him or her in a direction that his or her immature self does not want to go.

Ex: a parent sees one child provoking the other by touching him or her. The parent then commands the provocateur to not put his or her hand on his or her brother.

The 14 year old complies however since Mom and Dad said nothing about putting hands and fingers right in his or her brother's face, the teenager precedes to do that disrespecting the principle behind what the parent wanted which was to not provoke.

Wisdom is it matter for the mature each person exercising wisdom recognizes the application of many principles in various matters among Christians who are able to have an exercise wisdom.

The immature mind is still grasping for direct statements instead of finding layers of principles and intentions of scripture.

Paul wrote that we are to prove/discern what is the good, acceptable, and perfect (full, complete or mature) will of God.

This sentence clearly establishes a hierarchy and a process which involves the sophisticated recognition and application of principles and not only direct statements which is what the immature rely upon.

"Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect"

Therefore, sometimes it is simply impossible to offer the spiritual adolescent what he or she is asking for it because they simply cannot grasp it. It requires the attainment of wisdom and maturity in order to recognize and receive principles which are used to weigh matter such as music and its value.

Kent Brandenburg said...

I agree, Bill.

Kent Brandenburg said...


I think it is possible that we're dealing with babies or adolescents, but I don't think that explains everything. I believe we have a considerable number of unbelievers. Paul said strengthen the feebleminded and support the weak. They can be strengthened and supported. You can't strengthen or support the unruly. Those you warn three times and then cast out. Maybe you are saying, however, that they are babes like Paul talked about in Hebrews 5:11-14 though, who can't get discern when they ought to be teachers.

Don Johnson said...

Hi Kent

I wrote up a response to this side-show in an article for P&D. It will appear Tuesday AM, Oct 23. Basically using the same argument as yours, though working through it from a slightly different angle.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Don,

I liked your article. I've often said that, it seems, that a certain segment of professing Christians, are the only ones who say you can't judge musical meaning, therefore, morality in music. Rolling Stone says they do. The world knows they do. They like producing sensual, sexy, angry, seductive, chaotic music, etc. They know what it sounds like. Actually, these people, who say they don't know, do know. It's not an intellectual problem, but volitional one. I appreciate your patience in dealing with them.

Brendon Dunn said...

Hi Kent

This is excellent. It was helpful to me.

I read through the comment thread you referred to and it is quite depressing, particularly when you realise that many of those people are pastors of churches, entrusted with watching for the souls of their congregations. What hope is there when the blind are leading the blind?

The prevailing attitude of these men seems to be not how righteous and God-honouring they can be, but how close can they get to the world without being 'worldly'. How much booze can I imbibe without being a 'drunkard'? How short can we have our ladies' hemlines without it being 'immodest'? How little can I give to God without robbing Him?

Shouldn't the Christian rather be seeking to be as holy and godly as he possibly can?

One of the commenters summed it up by asking a series of "What's wrong with..." questions. That's the wrong question. We should be asking what's RIGHT with this or that. What is true, honest, just, pure and lovely about it? The standard for the Christian is not merely to avoid sin, worldliness and carnality, but to hate even the garment spotted by the flesh (they term this 'secondary separation').

Christians throughout history who sought to pattern their belief and conduct according to Scripture regarded the views of these people (Fundamentalists?) as antinomian. They have reduced the Scripture to a handful of fundamentals, and anything outside of them, especially in the practical realm, becomes a matter of 'preference'.

Richard Baxter's "Directions for Amusements and Recreations" is a good example of how the Puritans applied Scriptural principles to their daily activities. No doubt these enlightened folk would deride and dismiss those Puritans as "cultural fundamentalists".


Alex A. Guggenheim said...


I was being as generous as possible using the term adolescent but believe you framed it most accurately with the description of such a mindset being that of babies.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Brandenburg,

"First Term: Scripture prohibits corrupt communication.
Second Term: Four letter words are corrupt communication.
Conclusion (or application of first term): Scripture prohibits four letter words."

Give the above, is there an illustration of this in Scripture? I am looking for an example where the second term is explicitly revealed either in context, or in another passage. How can I convey to someone from the Bible that we are under obligation to supply the second term?


Kent Brandenburg said...


What I'm describing is the normal use of language. If you say, don't use communication, people already know what you mean. If they need an explanation, you say, four letter words. If they say they still don't know what you mean, maybe you give them the words and explain, but I think that last step is just willful rebellion against the truth.

Just because the Bible doesn't use the words "second term" or "minor premise" or something like that doesn't mean that it does not exist. Romans 12:1 says that presenting your body to God, holy and acceptable to him, and it doesn't say what it is. It says it is your "reasonable service," and "reasonable" is logikos. The worship is logical. The regular use of language is logical or reasonable.