By Bobby Killmon
What a great question. There are multiple discernment issues at stake. We cannot fall into the trap of saying that just “old” songs need to be sung, because Scripture says to sing a “new song” or that God “hath put a new song in my heart” (Ps. 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1; Isa. 42:10). Even in Rev. 5:9 and 14:3, “new songs” will be sung in heaven. Neither, however, should we use any “new” song just because it is new. We should be evaluating both old and new songs to see if they align with Scripture.
Paul gives us one powerful way to evaluate singing when the Spirit moved him to write the Church at Colosse. He writes in Col. 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” So Scripture declares that one of the primary missions, one of the first essential things, about songs is that they teach or admonish. If they don’t, then they’re not vindicated as Apostolic.
Other things come into play as well, such as whether the genre and the necessary worldview and associations are conducive to carrying the Gospel at all? What is the intention in the heart of the writer and/or musician? (Mt. 12:25; Lk. 6:45). Even if the lyrics are sound, how can a tainted heart manifest evil and contaminate what it touches? Pride, arrogance, world ideas such as sensualness, carnality, etc.
We exercise discernment. Here’s one example of how this was done at IBC. We recorded a song called “What a Beautiful Name It Is” on one of our latest projects. Here is an interchange of ideas some of the Worship Studies team and I had over the lyrics. In verse one, note the difference and explanations:
You were the Word at the beginning
One with God the Lord Most High
While this language could allude to John 1:1-2, I think the writer means to couch the language in creedal affirmations by implying a bit more trinitarian language. Perhaps you could substitute here, “You Were God Most High” or “You Were God the Lord Most High.” Man, what a great Christological song on what God did as man. You could have it introduced well with verses such as Acts 4:12, Phil. 2:8-10, or 1 Tim. 2:3-5. Does the writer realize that they’re touching biblical lyrics that push Jesus name essentiality in baptism by this? The point is that by exercising discernment, here’s a case where with a small but essential amount of adjusting I think we can sing a song truer than even the writer intended.