Is it Loving to Sing Music by Bethel and Hillsong in Our Worship? Reexamining the Debate According to the Fruit of the Spirit Part 1

The fruit of the Spirit is love.

Love is not only listed first among the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23; it is the root of the fruit. For Christians, love is not a stand-alone virtue. Instead, it must contain and convey joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Without these, love falls short, and without love, even the most seemingly excellent worship becomes nothing more than “noisy gongs” or “clanging cymbals” —that is, distracting, deafening noise (1 Corinthians 13:1, ESV).

For our worship to be fruitful, love must be at the root. For our worship to be loving, it must bear fruit.

Love (agapé) appears 116 times in the Greek New Testament. Of these appearances, nine are in 1 Corinthians 13. This may not seem like very many, but for agapé to be used nine times in close succession should cause our ears to prickle. This chapter is zeroing in on this elusive concept—love—and defines its characteristics in no uncertain terms.

1 Corinthians 13 (its most comfortable verses, at least) is one of the most well-known passages of scripture, and it begins by describing loveless giftedness in terms of tasteless music…so why is this familiar, musical chapter not often used as the template for our worship?

Examining what is and is not fruitful in worship does not need to be complicated. We are simply called to carefully and prayerfully walk through scripture, asking with each verse, “Is this true of our worship?” To discern whether using music by Bethel and Hillsong (or any other band, for that matter) is loving, let’s walk through 1 Corinthians 13 together.

First, we are confronted with the brutal reality that, without agapé love, even the most gifted individuals and ministries not only “have nothing” but “are nothing” and “gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2-3). The stakes are high. If we determine that using music by Bethel and Hillsong is not loving, we should flee immediately and with the conviction that, if using this music is not aligned with the first fruit of the Spirit, it is not likely to be compatible with the others.

Without agapé, even the most gifted individuals and ministries not only “have nothing” but “are nothing” and “gain nothing.” The stakes are high.

However, if we determine that using this music is or can be loving, let’s proceed through the remaining fruits of the Spirit and consider this question from every angle.

Having established the stakes, let’s consider the Bethel-Hillsong debate according to the particular aspects of love presented in 1 Corinthians 13. In this chapter, we read that love is…

  • Patient and kind (v. 4) By establishing that our worship must be “patient and kind,” we are also establishing the ground rules for this exercise. If we are not “patient and kind” as we discuss using music by Bethel and Hillsong, our conclusions—however well-reasoned—will be tainted by lovelessness. So, first of all, we must commit to treating others with patience, genuinely listening to what they have to say, and kindness, agreeing or disagreeing with civility. (As patience and kindness are also fruits of the Spirit, I will discuss them at greater length in their own articles.)
  • Does not envy or boast (v. 4) If we use music by Bethel and Hillsong, how is this affecting our worship teams? Are we tempted to chase after celebrity? Do these songs promote singing as a congregational activity or as a performance led by an elite few? Are we tempted to envy (or attempt to emulate) the fame and fortune of Bethel and Hillsong’s artists? Or are we content with our own ministries and thankful for the work of these famous bands? Are we able to use and benefit from these songs, allowing them to make us more like out Savior instead of more like a particular singer?
  • Not arrogant or rude, does not insist on its own way, not irritable or resentful (v. 4-5) If and/or when we sing songs by Bethel and Hillsong, is it with humble gratitude? Going back to the ethics of this discussion, how do we treat those who differ from us on this issue? For band and congregation members: Are you willing to participate in worship even if your leader comes to a different decision than you do? If not, can you present your concerns with humility? Worship leader: Are you willing to sing or not sing these songs as decided by your pastors? If not, can you resign without causing undue division?
  • Does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth (v. 6) This is perhaps where most readers will point at their screens and cry, “Gotcha!” And they have a valid point. Is singing music by theologically suspect sources celebrating (and paying for…) wrongdoing and falsehood? Or can lyrics be good and true regardless of their writers? As with patience and kindness, I will address these crucial questions at length in my forthcoming article on goodness. The primary concern here is, again, how we approach this debate. Are we committed to evaluating this issue based on the truth and morality in scripture? Or are we allowing other factors (such as artistic preference) to shape our convictions?
  • Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (v. 7) Are we as worship leaders working to strengthen our relationships and congregations so that we can have honest discussions about worship without pettiness or schisms? Are we positioned to endure a serious conversation about fruitfulness in worship without immediately disregarding those who offer insights we don’t want to hear? Have we cultivated a worship culture strong and steady enough to endure even if we decide, ultimately, to stop using songs by these contemporary giants? Alternately, do we have a persistent enough culture of praise to sing songs by Bethel and Hillsong without descending into deception or division? Essentially, are we creating worship cultures that will endure beyond this issue du jour?
  • Never ends (v. 8) Here is where my bias as an organist comes into play, but I still think this is a point worth considering. Will music by Bethel and Hillsong withstand the test of time? If we are concerned that faulty theology and fallen morality are already tainting these songs and may lead to their eventual disposal…are they worth singing now? Conversely, if we believe that these songs communicate eternal truths—regardless of their singers’ failings—what is there to stop us from proclaiming these truths? “Love never ends,” and I believe that all worship must be evaluated in light of our own end. What does this mean? Simply, it means that if the songs we sing today do not resonate with our eternal, heavenly chorus of,”Holy, Holy, Holy,” should we be singing them? And if they do, well, sing on!

Discerning whether a particular song qualifies as loving is an overwhelming enough process. Determining whether the output of two enormous organizations is loving—well, that’s a daunting enough task to send any worship leader back to ye olde hymnals. However, considering each point above is not only the first step to perceiving and pursuing love in our worship, but to cultivating joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control as well.

Examining our worship according to agapé is a weighty task, and one that will stretch on throughout our entire lives. But be encouraged: this is what it takes to pursue the “most excellent way” in our worship (1 Cor. 12:31). And what musician or minister doesn’t desire excellence?

Only rooted in love can our worship be fruitful, and only in full fruitfulness can our worship grow to be truly loving.

As we continue through the fruit of the Spirit, I hope you’ll keep in mind that each fruit is also an essential component of Christian love. Only in evaluating Bethel and Hillsong (or any piece of music) according to each fruit of the Spirit, can we come to any conclusion about its relationship to or conveyance of agapé.

In the meantime, I encourage you to read 1 Corinthians 13 before you make any decision in worship, even beyond the Bethel-Hillsong debate. Eventually, this debate will fade into background noise, but love “never ends,” and neither, I hope, will our singing.

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