The Apostle Paul, the iPod, and Evangelical Music

by Matthew Raley

Recall the distinction between encouragement and edification.

To encourage is to hearten or animate—to give an emotional uplift when someone is down. Edification, like encouragement, has an emotional impact, but is not primarily focused on a person’s subjective world.

To edify is to build people morally and spiritually. This usually means that the work of edification goes beyond individual instruction to address the relationship of that individual to the community. We ask questions like, “Is this person alone? How can she be better connected?”

The edified person is a connected person, which is how Paul uses the Greek term in Ephesians 4.11-16.

Believers in many roles work together “for building up the body of Christ.” The “unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” is the state into which “we all” must grow. That unity prevents our being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine.” The phenomenon of people growing up “in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” is explicitly relational. Christ, “from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working together properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

Giving encouragement to individuals is good work, but it is not the same as what Paul describes. Edification summons an energy that comes directly from Jesus Christ, and that reaches into the community of believers to create loving vitality. Edification in Christ connects people.

The dominant ethos of worship today, even in theologically conservative churches, is closer to that of the iPod than the Bible.apple-ipod-face-profilePeople want freedom to express their own passion for God. They want to be in a place where everyone else is doing the same thing. If they don’t feel that freedom, then their worship is inhibited by the people around them. Authentic iPod worship is dancing Godward like no one’s looking.

To be sure, people want a sense of togetherness in this expression of individual passion. But the togetherness only comes when everyone is into the tunes. If even 10% of the people are standing still, the energy is gone. And that means, in order to preserve the energy, only the people who like what you like can worship with you.

I cannot say this in strong enough words: the iPod mode for worship is not the Bible’s mode.

The iPod mode is just you. It does not match Paul’s description of Christ’s body in Ephesians 4. It cannot. Because it’s just you. Even if your passion involves speaking directly to Jesus, it’s still just you. You and your passion are not enough to reach the edification that Paul describes because you are just you. Even if other people like you express their individual passions in the same room with you, you and the other versions of you have merely attained corporate selfishness.

Maybe you think I’m applying Paul’s words about the life of the body inappropriately. After all, you say, Paul wasn’t talking about music in Ephesians.

Really?

Paul applies his principles of edification in the rest of the letter.

After covering a host of sins that destroy edifying love, he commands the Ephesians to make “the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” The will of the Lord is not drunkenness, the debauched pursuit of individual pleasure and fake fellowship through boozing, but the filling of the Spirit. The first of many subordinate clauses that specify how the body becomes Spirit-filled says, “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart . . . .”

A preeminent way in which the body of Christ is edified is in singing, both to one another and with one corporate voice.

In the larger context of Ephesians, this direction is specific. Christ “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” between Jews and Gentiles, “that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two” (2:14-15). Therefore, two formerly alienated cultures must now sing together. The newly reconciled body must sing “psalms” from the Old Testament, the ancient chants of Israel. The body must also sing “hymns,” Greek forms of idolatrous praise that are now turned to praise the living God.

Further, the body must sing music that originated with neither Jews nor Greeks. The phrase spiritual songs is, of course, much debated. But at the very least, it indicates that the new culture of Christ’s body in Ephesus must produce new music that is formed in “the unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4.3, a use that sets the context for all subsequent references in this letter to things that are “spiritual”).

Paul was talking about music. And we will unpack the musical implications of what he taught in the coming weeks.

For now it’s enough to repeat that we live in a time of consumeristic selfishness, a narcissism that divides young from old, individual from community, race from race, and rich from poor. Evangelical worship music has not challenged this narcissism at any level.

I fear the evangelical culture of encouragement is a mask for self-adoration.

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