Church Music

Cabbages and Kings

I am picky when it comes to what we sing in church. In a patriotic week, I chose not to sing “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with its fourth verse:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,

With a glory in His bosom that transfigures

    you and me;

As He died to make men holy let us live to

    make men free,

While God is marching on.

The Moral Influence Theory of the Atonement is terrible theology.

There may be some room for

O God, beneath Thy guiding hand,

Our exiled fathers crossed the sea;

And when they trod the wintry strand,

With prayer and psalm they worshiped Thee.

But what about those whose ancestries are not included with those words? African Americans, for example.

We praise Thee, O God, for Thy guiding hand

In leading Thy church to freedom’s fair land.

Through sore persecution, our fathers here came,

Where free and unfettered, they worshiped Thy name.

Try singing that in some of our churches in Classis Red Mesa (New Mexico and Arizona). The point is that we should not wrap our faith in the American flag. Or any other. The point is that we must exercise care in what we sing.

That has, until recently, been a part of our tradition. Our Synod of 1951 appointed a committee to set forth concretely the principles of good music for our churches. The result was what became known as the blue Psalter Hymnal, now largely replaced by the gray Psalter Hymnal. Those who created the latter were not as astute as those who produced the blue book when they yielded to the pressure of some synodical delegates in 1983 and permitted the inclusion of the very popular “I Serve a Risen Savior,” with its words “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart”—words that can also be sung by some who deny the historicity of the resurrection. We know Christ lives, as we teach our little ones in song, “for the Bible tells me so.”

Today many Christian Reformed churches, as some others, have grown more careless. Choruses are sung—some good, but some repetitive, with sloppy theology and lacking in ministerial integrity. I hope it is a passing phase. In many of our churches the selection of music—the responsibility of the elders—is unsupervised. Some of us need to get back on track.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not so narrow as one might think to see nothing beyond the old blue book or even the gray book, neither of which can be found anymore in the pews of some of our churches.

I remember my classmate Bill. He was sent abroad by some Lutheran board to capture a dialect in writing. Bill was a genius, a linguist, a musician. He accomplished his mission. Some years later we met again. He told me of an Easter service he witnessed while on his assignment. A hundred people or so, in a huge circle. A big drum in the center, and everyone moving forward to the beat of the drum with a shuffle and a step. On every 10th shuffle they shouted, “He lives!” It went on for two hours. Bill was mesmerized. He said it was the most unforgettable Easter service he’d ever attended.

Wonderful! I’m sure the Lord was there. But in seeking to accommodate our services to the cultures surrounding our churches today, let’s not jettison our own rich tradition with its Calvinistic focus.

So? Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ, turn with me to number 318 in the blue book or to number 249 in the gray book, and in the words of a bygone radio preacher, “Let everybody sing!”

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!

Early in the morning our song shall rise

to thee;

holy, holy, holy! merciful and mighty,

God in three persons, blessed Trinity!

About the Author

Rev. Jacob D. Eppinga was pastor emeritus of LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church, in Grand Rapids, Mich. He went to be with his Lord March 1, 2008. This column concludes his popular “Cabbages and Kings” series, which he wrote for 40 consecutive years. Watch for It’s All Grace, a collection of his best and more recent columns to be published in book form this fall by Faith Alive Christian Resources.
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