sing responsibly

Not long ago a student told me that I should listen to more Christian music so I would be up on things. I explained that was a good idea but every time I try I get so upset that I need a couple years off. Well, last night I was feeling optimistic on my way to church, so I turned on my local Christian radio station and joined a rousing Platonic anthem already in progress. An artist named Mandisa was singing about her bad day, but it was going to be okay because

It’s only the world I’m living in
It’s only today I’ve been given
There ain’t no way I’m giving in
Cause it’s only the world (only the world)
I know the best is still yet to come
Cause even when my days in the world are done
There’s gonna be so much more than only the world for me
Do do do do do do do do do, yeah it’s only the world

Near the end Mandisa sang, “Heaven is a place where the tears on every face will be wiped away, And I can’t wait to go.” Then she caught herself, because actually she very much wants to wait, so she signed off with “but for now it’s enough to know this is only temporary, this is only, Yeah, Alright!”

Do do do do do do do do do, yeah it’s only the world
Do do do do do do do do do, yeah it’s only the world

I wish I had turned the radio to something more edifying, like NPR’s discussion of the Detroit bankruptcy, because the next song was shockingly straight Pelagianism. The song is “Who you are” from a group named Unspoken, and it repeats this chorus:

You can never fall too hard,
So fast, so far
That you can’t get back
When you’re lost

Where you are is never too late,
So bad, so much
That you can’t change
Who you are, ooo-oooh
You can change who you are, ooo-oooh

I doubt that most Christians noticed the problem because the song once mentions forgiveness and right before the end mentions the need for Jesus and the cross. But then again, so did Pelagius. This chorus is straight Dr. Phil, Oprah, and Chuck Finney. You would never hear it from Augustine, Luther, Calvin, or Jesus.

I turned the radio off then because I didn’t like where this was headed. After Platonism and Pelagianism, what might be next? It’s tough to teach people sound doctrine when popular Christian songs teach heresy. Both of these songs are catchy, so their lethal lyrics are already buried in many Christians’ hearts. Good luck digging that out.

I guess the lesson here is that we must always listen with discernment, especially when it’s Christian musicians who are doing the talking. See you in 2015.







42 responses to “sing responsibly”

  1. Andy Smith


  2. Andy Smith

    Oh, and I’m all there with your assessment. Of course, a lot of the old hymns are equally heretical, but you knew that as well. 🙂 Here’s to a biblical literacy that informs our worship and worldview!

  3. Doug Blackwell

    And to think that when I was a teen in church main thing that my youth leaders were concerned about was the “beat”.
    ***2015…the year you will give it another go…

  4. Steve

    Maybe GRTS should offer a songwriting track within the MDiv program 😉

  5. “…more Christian music…” So, after the try with the radio station, you put on some Bach and Brubeck?

  6. I’m with you on the current Christian music scene which is why I tend to stay away from Christian radio stations as well. If interested, check out Grain Worship Music. Chad Vitarelli and I wrote all the songs. Being GRTS grads (and one of your Systematic Theology students) I would be interested in your feedback. Here’s a link:

  7. Skeeter

    People crucify me sometimes because I will listen to secular music, but to me it is safer. You know they mostly aren’t believers and you must keep your guard up, constantly passing every lyric through your biblical filters, and using discernment about when to change the channel. I like the philosophical and religious debates I can mentally have with the content. Listening to ‘Christian’ music you may be tempted to let your guard down and stop analyzing so much, which you really should never do. Paul quoted the secular poets, so their is a precedent to be thusly versed.

  8. mikewittmer

    Doug: the beat is the best part!
    Steve: We do, it’s called the MDiv program.
    Mike: I have a week left on my free XM service, so that is exactly what I did. Classical pops.
    Doug: The website looks great, and I’m glad that you are doing this. If I catch a whiff of Platonism I will hunt you down.

  9. Stan Fowler

    We really need some good worship songs about the redemption of the cosmos, as opposed to a Platonic heaven. Is anybody writing such songs?

  10. mikewittmer

    I’ve got my money on Matthew Westerholm, once he finishes his Ph.D. He already has a Kuyperian hymn going in the new Psalter, and he’s not even Reformed.

  11. Dan Jesse

    I’ve always said that listening to secular music can be safer than Christian music. Especially music that in no way can be interpretted as Christian. It’s quite easy to embody the bad theology/philososhy in a song that pretends to be “safe”. When a song is blatantly wrong, you can quite simply reject the lyrics. But when it is almost right, it gets much more difficult to do so.

    And Doug: You, Chad, and the rest of the pastoral staff have done quite well at rooting out the awfulness in the worship songs at Calvary!

  12. JM

    Skeeter, I went to a fairly conservative Christian college, and had friends there that thought the same way as you about music. Of course, we weren’t allowed to listen to most Contemporary Christian Music while students, but several of the guys in my dorm said that they would listen to popular secular music, but not “CCM”, mostly for the same reason you stated. I’m just finding it very hard to see the Biblical support for doing that. Wouldn’t that be akin to leaving a church where you didn’t agree with parts of their doctrinal statement to find a religion whose house of worship you could attend that didn’t even claim to be “Biblical” or “Christian” (especially if one relies on Christian music to teach theology in the same way one relies on a Pastor or Sunday School teacher)? It seems the same rationale would apply so that you knew that anything you heard in that house of worship had to be “run through your biblical filters”, and I’m sure you could find plenty of “philosophical and religious debates”. If the issue is listening to music with improper doctrine (I assume you believe it’s dangerous because it could lead one in to theological error?), how is getting secular music stuck in your head any better? I’m not looking to start an argument, I’ve just heard others with your reasoning for the last decade or so, and I’ve never been able to understand the rationale. Maybe I don’t understand the purpose of Christian music to the extent you do, but if we stopped listening to (and singing) all songs with any improper doctrine in it, wouldn’t that ostensibly eliminate the vast majority of songs in any church’s hymnal/song book?

  13. Skeeter

    First the secular music doesn’t belong in church, it doesn’t belong in your worship time, etc. It serves its purpose for me in its place but it does not take the place of other forms of music.

    A song is often merely a way to express an idea and communicate concepts, much as the spoken word. If it were unacceptably dangerous to listen to any secular music, it would be nearly as unacceptably dangerous to engage in any conversation with unbelievers. Now in talking to unbelievers, sometimes it is good and we continue, other times we discern it isn’t. Their profanity laced rantings are getting us nowhere and you must decide to walk away. So it is with the music, some you can dailogue with and others you need to walk away from.

    By the way I don’t see, or hear anything TV, music, movies without having an internal dialogue about it. Just the way God wired me I guess. I’m too stubborn to let the music sway my opinion, and too opinionated and argumentative to let anything go unanswered if I think there is an issue. If this weren’t true perhaps I’d be wiser to walk away from more of it. Now normally I’ll do it in my head, every now and then I realize I’m explaining it out loud and the people are staring at me talking to myself.

    So I have an internal dialogue with the songs when I am listening to them. “Black and White” by Jackson Brown says, “Tell them you’ve gone to find the person, someone you lost track of long ago. Tell them that it is someone you need worse than anybody else you’ll ever know.” If I recall that piece of lyric is speaking of a love lost, but that’s not important to this discussion.

    I reply in my head, “Well you have that right, there IS someone you lost track of. The Bible tells us we are born with knowledge of God written on our hearts but we suppress it and thereby lose track of Him. He alone is the only one you can need that badly, for it is only in the person of Jesus Christ we have salvation.” Much the way Paul took the statue to the unknown God, and told them it is all well and good, but let me tell you who this God really is. Just like if someone had made that statement in conversation you could use it as a starting point to witness to them.

    The statements of the song are a starting point, but not the truly useful part of listening to them, what I say in response from my Biblical worldview is the important part. Saying, ‘there you are wrong’, ‘here you are right’ and ‘here you just barely miss the mark, let me redirect this a little’.

    You might say to what point, but it does help me figure out how to explain certain things, figure out how the Bible addresses real world concerns, actual issues of the human heart, etc. It does i fact prepare me for real time conversations with real world believers who often say the same sorts of things expressed in these songs.

    There are my thoughts on that in a nutshell.

  14. Dan Jesse

    Maybe we should get rid of a lot of songs that are sung in our church. It seems that we are pretty lax when it comes to seeing “singing time” as credal affirmation time or education/instruction time, and that needs to change.

    We should remove songs that teach heresy. We should also remove songs that do not affirm what the church affirms in its creeds. Some Wesleyean songs should not be sung in a Reformed church. Should they banned from the Universal Church? Of course not. But should they be sung by people that do not profess and affirm the lyrics? Of course.

  15. Sarah

    I often don’t post comments on any blog, but I felt I should interject something. For me, as someone who listens to both secular and Christian music, I feel that we should use discernment for whatever we listen to. There are truly good music out there, and bad, on both sides.

  16. Jack Horton

    Stan, worship songs about the redemption of the cosmos? Have you not already read that this is not the mission of the church? 🙂

  17. On Sunday mornings we like to listen to the Blue Lake Public Radio program of sacred choral classics…. That does more to set me in a mood for worship then what I usually hear on the local Christian radio…. There have been some pretty solid pieces come out of CCM; “Behold Our God” comes to mind…, but then I am not in a place where I hear the worst and mediocre of CCM…

  18. Jonathan Shelley

    I think you are looking for a level of theological precision that is beyond what the “poetry” and imagery of song lyrics are meant to convey. Having written one or two papers for you, I know and appreciate the importance of precision in one’s language, but I also know that there is a time where carefully nuanced propositions are needed and there is a time let the praise flow from us even if our spirit means better than our words convey.
    I think the case can be made that neither of the songs you quote above actually present the heresies you ascribe to them but that one must read certain presuppositions about the singer’s/lyricist’s worldview into the lyrics to derive Platonism and Pelagianism. After all, it is true that this world – this broken, depraved, sin-cursed world – is only temporary. You supply the assumption that she excludes the new earth as our permanent and real home. After all, Jesus and Paul both longed to leave this sinful world and stand in the presence of God; should we do any less? Likewise, your critique of Unspoken assumes that the lyricist means that we are the sole active agent in our moral transformation. As you stated, the song mentions our need for Christ, but is it enough to conclude this is Pelagianism because the focus is on the promise of complete and overwhelming forgiveness and restoration that is available to us through Christ rather than the depravity of our current state? We cannot fall too far or too fast so that God’s grace cannot reach us. You must read in the idea of human efficacy, since the idea that “you can change who you are” may simply refer to the act of repentence, which, as I remember from Sys 3, involves a willful rejection of sin and a re-orientation toward Christ, and we can never quite define what is done by human will and what is an act of grace (irresitable or otherwise).
    Granted, these are terrible lyrics. Lazy, cliche-laden song writing. But they may not be as theologically deplorable as you make them out to be.

  19. mikewittmer

    Jonathan: I’d be open to your argument if I had a single verse of Scripture that supported either “it’s just the world” or “you can change who you are.” I have lots of verses against each but none for them. And then there are the theological issues as well.

  20. james jordan

    Augustine was the heretic not Pelagius, and anyone who hasn’t figured that out yet is either a total moron or a Catholic stooge who just believes whatever the Roman Catholic hierarchy spoon feeds him.

  21. Mike

    Mike, I always appreciate your words of wisdom and insights as you well know. I call you enough with questions. I do fully agree with you that the more theologically precise christian music could be, the better and more uplifting and life changing it would be. I have noticed that a lot of our music as switched from being theological as in the old hymns, to being more problem solving and me centered… there is some christian music that is very shallow to me and suspect. However, concerning the Mandessa song, I think all she is alluding to is to put the struggles of this day in to perspective of the glory of heaven which lies ahead. ie…

    2Cor. 4:16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

    That being said, I am sure I will get an exegetical lesson soon.

    I tend to agree with the 2nd song more, but I would give them the benefit of the doubt that they are trying to encourage the one who has fallen hard…

    There are a couple popular songs out there now that I question…”God is not dead, he is truly alive, he is living on the inside roaring like a lion.” I get the point, but I always go back to peter who says that our adversary prowls about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour…

    Or this one…Love like a hurricane…

    Again, i get the analogy, but again hurricanes are destructive and deadly…I guess the question is what are the parameters of analogies and metaphors? Only those in bible or are artists free to expand to all of creation ?

    I fully realize that we are always to be critiquing our messages, songs etc, but on the other hand, we can tend to just lock our selves up in our cyber ivory towers and throw stones at everything and everyone who is in theological error. That really bothers me…

    Concerning listen to secular music….I lived 23 years of my life listening to secular music and was headed straight to hell on AC DC’s super highway. I rarely listen to it…I don’t find it edifying at all…How could it be theologically????

    One final note, I think in the last 25 years since I have been a Christian, The main topic has been worship. Worship centered around music. The church has so focused on worship, music, instruments, bands, praise teams, contemporary, traditional, etc….We have given it more priority than the great commission….The NT talks about worship in Spirit and Truth…However most of NT is about the mission that Christ began…Out of doing the great commission, evangelism, discipleship, etc we ought to worship. All I am saying is with the church closing its doors and focusing here, our culture has done a downward spiral the last 25 years because we have neglected the great commission…Anyway Mike, I appreciate your ministry and I love you brother…I also appreciate my Christian brothers and sisters trying to minister with teh gifts God gave them as well…Peace

    Mike Gohn

  22. mikewittmer

    Thanks for this, Mike. I am sensitive to the charge that I’m being an ivory tower curmudgeon, but the Pelagian song is so egregious I felt compelled to say something. I think my criticism is eminently practical because it is preserving the gospel so people can be saved. If we tell people they can change who they are, then they will not be changed in the most important way and they will go to hell. So we must speak up.

    The Platonic song is less troubling because you can be Platonic and still go to heaven–which is good, because if you’re Platonic that is exactly where you want to end up–but I still think it’s very important to ground our people in a solid worldview, which begins with a biblical view of the world. Regarding 2 Cor. 4–Paul is bemoaning the sufferings of his persecution–the effects of the fall–he is not saying anything like “Oh well, it’s just the world, so it doesn’t matter anyway.” Jesus loves the world and died for it, so if we shrug it off like it’s nearly nothing then Jesus nearly “died in vain.”

  23. Michael Gohn

    Agreed on all accounts…but I’d think mandessa is just like looking past the difi ulties of her bad day to what lies ahead…which is the perspecgi e we need…saying that..I know full well we need to be fully engaged in minimizing the effects of the fall as best we can for all…yea…as for the other song…you are right…but we are also responsible to get up and walk as Jesus told the paralyzed….anyway…love ya like a hurricane so stop roaring like a lion at me…

  24. mikewittmer

    It’s hard to hear the “loves like a hurricane” and not laugh. That song tortures metaphors and then water boards them. But at least it’s not heretical, so I let it go. So should you! 🙂

  25. Chuck

    “It’s tough to teach people sound doctrine when popular Christian songs teach heresy.”

    There might be a bright spot in current Christian music. A recent issue of Christianity Today pointed out a few Hip-Hop artists that are writing and singing good stuff. Go to YouTube and listen to Hypostatic Union by Shai Linne and Tell The World by Lecrae.

  26. joshbishop

    Chuck beat me to it on the Christian hip hop. Have you given any of it a listen, Mike? I’m curious what you think. Lecrae is great, and I’ve recently been listening to Shai Linne’s album, “The Attributes of God” ( Also good are Trip Lee, KB and Tedashii.

  27. mikewittmer

    Josh, I’ve heard good things about Lecrae and liked what I heard. Overall it’s not my preferred style, but I’m all for it. I usually listen to music without words, either as background, writing music or classical stuff while driving–it makes me feel rich.

  28. You just need to listen to the right stuff – which often isn’t on the radio. Like Keith Getty or Sovereign Grace Music. Much Chris Tomlin, Steven Curtis Chapman, Nichole Nordeman, and others have solid lyrics too.

  29. I have this unshakable feeling that if you had turned on the radio and it had been David himself singing one of the Psalms,you still would have complained.about his theology.

  30. mikewittmer

    No idea how to respond to an unshakable feeling, so you win. But it was your wife who put me up to listening to more Christian radio, so blame her!

  31. james jordan

    That cracked me up. But so true, especially if he was singing Psalm 119. “Oh how I love thy Law” Law? No we’re saved by faith alone!!!!! GAAAA!

  32. Jessica Cardoni

    Well I have an 11 year old and a 6 year old. Neither of them are interested in the theology of any song BUT when you hear a 10 year old daughter sing “I kissed a girl and I liked it….” you switch to Christian music and never look back!!!!

  33. james jordan

    “BUT when you hear a 10 year old daughter sing ‘I kissed a girl and I liked it….’ you switch to Christian music and never look back!!!!”

    What about making them listen only to Disney music? Worried that when the Disney stars slutify that will influence them?

  34. Jonathan Shelley

    Sorry to come back to the thread after so many other comments, but to your rebuttal – circle does not an argument make. Of course you don’t have a single verse to support “it’s just the world” and “you can change who you are” since you have predefined these to mean something anti-biblical. You went into this experiment expecting to find heresy, and, lo and behold, you immediately found two of your biggest hitters. However, I read those lyrics trying to find something edifying and was able to find the hope of the Age to Come (yes – in the new earth) and the reminder that the trials and tests I face today pale in comparison to the glory that is to come. With Unspoken, I found a throwback to my Methodist upbringing that reminds me that although I continually fall short, I can and must continue to work out my salvation and not merely sit back and wait for God to do all the work. It’s all in the perspective. And one’s ability to be contrary.

  35. Mike – I woke up this morning to the health and wealth gospel set to music on Christian radio up here in TC. Just thought you would like to know so your faith in Christian music can increase (and if you have enough faith, CCM will improve). While there is a lot of good stuff out there, you are right that personal discernment is a must. Just wish Christian radio stations would use a little discernment. And that CCM writers and singers would get a little Biblical/theological training. Oh wait, Biblical/theological training is the church’s job. Guess I better get off of here and get to work on my sermon – which providentially addresses false gospels. Your post and my morning experience will give me some good illustrations for it.

  36. Jacob McGarry

    You have successfully saddled me with your burden. Unfortunately, I have not the theological training to pick out the heresies. I am forced to reside safely in the bounds of secular media, refusing to attempt to see any deeper meaning to anything. I guess it’s pop music, action movies, and juvenile fiction from here on out.

  37. Skeeter

    I’ve debated saying anything more because this sort of evolved into a discussion of worship music as opposed to just listening to music in general. I do feel like I ought to offer a further defense of my interest in secular. First, it really isn’t for worship and I don’t use it that way.

    For worship, while neither is perfect, I tend to prefer older hymns to modern Christian music. While there are exceptions, modern songs tends to say very little as they are dominated by a repeating chorus, older stuff seems to have more content to chew on. If you want to find either perfect hymns or perfect praise choruses, your going to first need to find some perfect people to write them, good luck with that.

    As far as the secular music, first I think it is important to understand what that term encompasses. Music is secular, in my opinion at least, if it either doesn’t mention anything religious, or is written by anyone non religious. If you want to get right down to it “Mary had a Little Lamb” is a secular song, and nobody is going to argue that song is immoral or that having it stuck in your head will somehow damage your Christian worldview or your theology, though it might damage your sanity after a certain point.

    The idea that secular music necessarily means it will be vulgar, immoral, or have inappropriate content is erroneous. There certainly are musicians, and segments of all styles, that do go in bad directions (‘Christian’ music itself even having bad examples apparently), but it would be equally erroneous to assume that I’m listening to those segments. I do say I listen with discernment and yet there are those that gloss by this statement. Many secular songs are in fact amoral and some even espouse a certain degree of morality.

    Many songs are simply a recounting of some event that has transpired or commentary on culture. Most Norman Rockwell prints could be classified as secular as well, I honestly don’t know the man’s religious viewpoint, but most of his prints have no religious content. Many prints are simply a recounting of some event that has transpired or commentary on culture. Be clear, if we are banning one secular art form, wouldn’t it be a bit hypocritical to not ban it all?

    Whatever you listen to, do it responsibly, listen to it carefully, process it through your filters. However, it is bad theology to garner theology directly from music, paintings, or even your preacher. The only place you should be deriving your worldview and theology is from scripture itself, all else needs to be stacked up to it, including sermons, to see if it has any merit.

    I particularly love it when someone criticizes me for listening to “Turn, Turn, Turn” by the Birds (based on Ecclesiastes), for example, while at some point admitting to watching some show that I consider not just secular, but downright immoral. One person I know criticized me for not listening to contemporary Christian music, but admitted to watching modern horror movies like Saw, which I, along with many Christians, refer to as torture-porn.

    So remember, sing responsibly, listen responsibly, and don’t forget to watch responsibly.

  38. […] Mike Wittmer posted on the poor theology that pervades much of modern Christian music (see here).  I agree with him.  A lot of songs placed in heavy rotation on K-Love are borderline heretical. […]

  39. […] Mike Wittmer posted on the poor theology that pervades much of modern Christian music (see here).  I agree with him.  A lot of songs placed in heavy rotation on K-Love are borderline heretical. […]

  40. I don’t think you actually explain what it is you think is wrong with the lyrics of either of those songs.

  41. Bill Olson

    Kyle couldn’t have said any better!!

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