Bob Kauflin on Songs and Associations

Bob KauflinA couple weeks ago, I posted thoughts from Dave Doran and C. H. Spurgeon on the process of selecting music for corporate worship. Part of the discussion centered on the issue of association, and Spurgeon was especially clear that he chose hymns based on their content, not composer.

Since then, Bob Kauflin has fielded a question on associations over at his blog, Worship Matters. He provides some helpful thoughts on the topic in this post. Though he doesn’t make a hard and fast rule regarding songs and associations, and though he is especially addressing the orthodoxy of the writer rather than secondary issues, he doesn’t entirely dismiss the association question, either. Interesting.


Note: Speaking of congregational singing, this post from July of 2006 addresses its importance.


11 Responses

  1. Hey, Chris. Just really quick on the subject of association.

    I am very quick to agree with you (and Doran) that the association argument is never a primary argument, but I do think that it should be at least part of our consideration.

    Wasn’t that the problem with meat offered to idols? Wasn’t it purely association?

    The other issue here is that I don’t think quoting Spurgeon on this applies at all the same to what we mean today when we talk about associations in music. Spurgeon was referring to hymn text that were written by Romanists or otherwise heretical individuals. But the text itself was good, and there was nothing intrinsic in the text that associated it with the heresy of the author.

    We cannot say the same for some music used in the church today. For one thing, mass media has changed everything. We now have a global culture. For another thing, when most of us talk about associations that may be harmful (and remember, I don’t think this is a primary argument ever), we’re normally talking about the form of the music itself, possessing intrinsic qualities that associate it with something ungodly.

    For instance, the reason some people are uncomfortable using Sovereign Grace stuff is not because it’s associated with the reformed charismatics who wrote it (gasp!), but because the music is associated with ungodliness because of intrinsic characteristics.

    So, while I agree that associations are not always indicative of the sinfulness of a particular song or form of music, and should never be a primary argument against using something, it can be.

    We cannot say that associations never matter.

  2. Hi, Scott. I have just a second here, but will try to respond to the points you’ve raised.

    First, I specifically asked Doran if he was dismissing the association issue altogether, and he said no. He just isn’t making it as central as some have. But he still considers it. Neither of us would say “associations never matter.”

    As for the meat offered to idols issue, I think that may be a stretch. I may not disagree with your conclusions, but I’m not convinced that those passages are germane to the discussion. If they are, they may lead to some conclusions with which you’re not comfortable. :)

    I understand why Spurgeon’s situation isn’t apples to apples with ours. Point taken. However, his major point that he would use a good song regardless of its source is still at least analogous to our situation. (Not that quoting Spurgeon proves anything.) And of course, speaking of apples and oranges, he was dealing with unregenerate writers, whereas we’re talking about believers with whom we differ on secondary issues, be they doctrinal or musical. I’m not saying the issues aren’t important, mind you. His take on the association issue provides an interesting example, anyway, though what he did or said is obviously not authoritative.

    As for your last point—that some are uncomfortable using SG music (for example) because “the music is associated with ungodliness because of intrinsic characteristics”—I think you’ve moved away from the association issue to the appropriateness issue. Now you’re addressing the nature of the music—“intrinsic characteristics”—not just its authors. Now again, I don’t disagree with all of your conclusions. Though I use some SG or Getty/Townend music, there are also songs which I don’t use because I don’t care for the style of the music. But when I make that decision, I’m not ruling the music out because of association, either with them or with a rock culture; I’m ruling it out because I think it’s inappropriate for worship. So the discussion goes back to the 3 main issues in Doran’s grid: accuracy, appropriateness, and accessibility.

    At any rate, to apply the association issue to SG or Getty/Townend means we stop singing songs like Before the Throne of God Above and How Deep the Father’s Love. Doing so would be our loss, I believe.

    Thanks for the discussion.

  3. Good points, Chris.

    Let me just, for the sake of argument, apply your last paragraph to what Paul said in 1 Cor 8-10:

    “To apply the association issue to meat offered to idols means we stop eating meat. Doing so would be our loss, I believe. Who cares whether we cause someone else to stumble in the meantime. It doesn’t matter that we have other alternatives that are just as good (or better) that carry none of the associations.”

    Of course, I’m speaking somewhat tongue in cheek. But I think the point is valid. If we have other hymns just as good (or better) that do not carry the same kinds of associations, why can’t we use those instead for the sake of weaker brothers?

  4. Scott,

    I may have mentioned this, but I don’t think the allusion to meat offered to idols in a pagan temple is an accurate one for music written by fellow believers, especially when the songs in question have excellent doctrinal content and appropriate music. (And again, if you disagree with the appropriate music part, we’re no longer dealing with the association question.)

    However, if we apply 1 Cor. 8-10 to the discussion, we need a weaker brother to be offended by Before the Throne of God Above. That’s unthinkable to me, but that’s what we need. Fortunately, at TCBC, we have none. So I’m enjoying the meat very much. :)

    p.s. As one who’s dabbled in hymn writing a bit, I can’t think of many that are better than Before the Throne. I wish I could write something like that or that Greg (sorry, pal) could write such a fitting tune.

  5. Well said, Chris.

    I fear that too often, we get carried away to the point of lunacy with all this “weaker brother” talk. We could really drive one another crazy if we over-analyze all the things other peope do that offend us (and vice versa). I’m kinda sitting here chuckling about the ridiculous extremes this can go to. :)

    I’m all for Romans 14 properly applied. However, I think sometimes we must honestly evaluate why certain things bother us. Maybe we just need to humble ourselves and serve others by accepting things that might be out of our comfort zone for whatever reason (such as Before the Throne of God Above).

  6. Scott said: Wasn’t that the problem with meat offered to idols? Wasn’t it purely association?

    There was no problem with the meat offered to idols. As Paul said, idols are nothing, and meat offered to them is affected in no way. The only problem was that some people did not have this knowledge.

    So I think whatever argument might be made about music, the meat offered to idols would play into the hands of those who reject morality in music. They would say that those who refrain from certain types of music (i.e., meat offered to idols) do not have the knowledge that the music is okay (e.g., the meat is fine).

  7. You’re right, Larry. I agree with you. I think 1 Cor 8-10 apply only to morally neutral issues, and music isn’t immediately applicable. I do think, however, that principles within that passage apply indirectly.

    But I agree with your point.

  8. Scott,

    FWIW, I would not say that 1 Cor 8-10 apply to morally neutral issues, since I don’t think there are any such things. I think something either pleases God and is therefore acceptable (though not necessarily mandated) or something doesn’t please God (and is not acceptable). In 1 Cor 8, eating meat offered to idols is, at face value, pleasing to God. Therefore, it is morally positive, not morally neutral. We need not participate in all morally positive things, though we certainly have freedom to do such. Some people’s conscience may prevent them from participating in a morally positive thing, but that does not change it’s nature as morally positive (which is, I believe, the point of 1 Cor 8).

    But there are probably applications from that passage to this topic …


  9. Larry, you said…

    There was no problem with the meat offered to idols. As Paul said, idols are nothing, and meat offered to them is affected in no way. The only problem was that some people did not have this knowledge.

    But that’s only chapter 8. You aren’t including chapter 9 or 10 in that statement. Chapter 10 is much more forceful.

    … back to the topic, I would agree that when it comes to music, association is probably less important than other issues, but it is an issue. For example, I don’t go out of my way to have our church sing one of the two songs in our hymnal by the infamous Joe Z, but I don’t make an issue of it when someone requests it. I imagine in some places, it would be awfully hard to use those songs now.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  10. I think chapter 10 makes the same point that meat offered to idols is unaffected. Eat it and don’t ask questions. If someone tells you it has been offered to idols, then don’t eat it, but not because there is something wrong with the meat, but because of the other person’s conscience.

    Chapter 9 is really about a different issue for the most part, namely the right of an apostle to be paid. At the end, Paul does talk about limiting himself for the sake of the gospel, but that doesn’t seem relevant here.

  11. One more comment on 1Cor, don’t want to cause the thread to drift….

    In spite of his odious theology in 1 Cor 11, I recommend you read Gordon Fee on this. If you have Tom Constable’s Notes (Galaxie Software), you will get a pretty good summary of Fee.

    Essentially, 1 Cor 10 says NO to meat offered to idols, then gives two qualifications where the meat is acceptable under certain circumstances.

    But as I said, this isn’t the topic, so I don’t want to get into it.

    I do have a couple of ancient posts on my site somewhat related to this:

    on the popular misuse of 1 Cor 10.31


    on attendance at the idol’s temple

    1 Cor 8-10 and Rm 14-15 are passages of great interest in our increasingly pagan world, so I always get sidetracked when they are mentioned.

    I’ll leave it alone in this thread for now.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

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