In the January issue of The Briefing (Matthias Media, Issue 340) Ian Carmichael raises and answers a question which has been much discussed lately in Sydney evangelical churches – should we sing Hillsong songs?
To clarify, “we” refers to evangelical churches who agree with many of Hillsong’s beliefs, but disagree with some of their teaching and practices, particularly on points such as the prosperity doctrine and music as a form of sacrificial worship. The author gave three reasons against using Hillsongs:
1. When we sing their songs, we endorse a church whose teachings we disagree with;
2. When we sing their songs, we contribute financially to the propagation of “harmful teaching”; and
3. When we sing their songs, we compromise our theology (even if the lines look okay, there is usually a “pentecostal” way of understanding them which isn’t okay).
“Personally,” he concluded, “I think these three reasons are sufficient for us to place a blanket ban on Hillsong music in our churches. What do you think?” (Ian Carmichael, “Should we sing Hillsong songs?” The Briefing 340 (January 2007): 34)
As a band we have vigorous debate over what songs should we put on our CDs, and what songs we should lead congregations in singing when we play live. Yet it never occurred to us to place a blanket ban on songs from a particular publisher, any more than we would unquestionably accept songs from a particular source (not even Emu). The first time we came across this type of policy was when, in preparing for a gig at a small Anglican church, we were asked to remove three songs from our set because the host church had a policy of not singing any Hillsongs. Two of the songs they wanted removed weren’t actually from Hillsong, but the issue of the final song remained…what should we do? The issue is made more complex by the fact that Garage Hymnal has contributors who are evangelical but come from charismatic backgrounds, including some who attend Hillsong.
I agree there may be a point at which you might be wise to stop singing songs from a particular church, but where that point is and whether we have reached it with Hillsong is not as simple a question as Carmichael seems to suggest. Indeed I think the need for caution in making pronouncements over that church is recognised by the far more cautious article by Philip Percival in the same issue of The Briefing.
I want to add to the discussion a few questions which I don’t think have been adequately addressed by those making a case in favour of a ban.
(1) How far do we go? How “significant” do the differences in our theology have to be in order to justify a ban? We need some threshold – otherwise we would not be able to sing much; most hymns would be out for sure! Do the disagreements between evangelical churches themselves count as “significant”? If you support women preaching and I don’t, can I still sing the songs you write about calvary?
(2) Do we still have sisters and brothers at Hillsong? Have we really reached the point with Hillsong where we wouldn’t want even the royalties from a single overhead transparency going to support their ministry? Churches buy things from people they disagree with all the time (our church’s plumber has some strange views on predestination); for us to decide to positively make an effort to boycott, embargo and disassociate ourselves from any group of believers is a serious thing indeed. Isn’t this the type of action we reserve for churches who, after tearful exhortation and loving rebukes, walk away from the most central of gospel truths? The early church had huge disagreements over issues which everybody felt very strongly about (food sacrificed to idols comes to mind), and yet they were clear that they were still on the same team. Are there enough commonalities between our situation and the early church’s to require us to mirror their humility and grace? Are the real opponents of the gospel those who read the bible differently, or those who have stopped reading it at all?
(3) Is a boycott really the wisest, most loving, most beneficial way of dealing with the situation? It is very hard to make people listen to you when you look for all the world like you are being prejudiced and unreasonable. And it is hard to not look prejudiced and unreasonable when you are refusing to sing any songs from a particular church regardless of what the songs themselves actually say. Normally when we think someone is in error we seek a way of dealing with them which engages with the issues in contention, and doesn’t burn our bridges too early. We seek to be clear on what we oppose, and just as importantly to affirm them when they do right – not blindly oppose them either way. When we make it personal, and refuse to have anything to do with them regardless of what they say, there can be no hope of change. We just look arrogant and unreasonable, and they are therefore never challenged. Let’s not forget that Hillsong Publishing covers a lot of different songwriters, many of whom have far more evangelical beliefs than their senior pastors. Their influence over the Hillsong movement is considerable, and is only bolstered by their music’s success.
(4) More generally, should our acceptance of songs (or anything else: books, ideas, arguments etc) rest on their institutional source, or on how their content measures up to scripture? Should we teach our congregations to avoid material from certain sources, or teach them to discern the truth based on the bible?
(5) Are we being inconsistent when we don’t also ban songs from UK or USA Pentecostal churches? Is it just that we don’t know anything about them? Or does our own church’s unique situation and context rightly make a difference to how wise it is to have such a ban? I don’t know of any church which has gone through the hymn book and removed those written by people whose biographical data tells us held aberrant views (and there are a lot, trust me!).
I don’t claim to have the answers to these questions. I am not wise enough to know what is the right thing to do. But I don’t think those advocating a blanket ban have addressed these questions satisfactorily. For this reason, as you have probably guessed, for the moment I disagree with the idea of a blanket ban on songs from any source as much as I disagree with blanket acceptance from any source. Instead, let’s continue to do what we should have been doing all along; let’s carefully examine each song on its merits, discard the bad and mediocre, and use what we think is great.
That said, I think those who advocate a ban are mostly right – we do need to be more aware of the theological baggage that the songs we choose come with. I have written elsewhere about the need to be very thoughtful in the process of adopting songs. We should not just reject songs which contain wholesale heresy, but also those which are unhelpful in their language because they connote theological discourses we think are misleading, or just plain wrong (singing as sacrifice, church as temple, etc.). My next paper will take a look at some common questions raised by standard pentecostal songs which we often sing (including Carmichael’s example, “Shout to the Lord”).
(But what did we do about the church which did have the blanket ban? Well, we did the gig, and we just didn’t do that song.)