One of the very good things about working with brothers and sisters involved in church music from all over the world is that you are forced to think through theological issues carefully, so that they don’t become merely personal theological idiosyncrasies. Taking one particular stand on an area of theology can feel like a petty thing to do, as it can alienate you from the majority. It can also mean that it becomes the main issue talked about instead of the Gospel itself.
However, some issues are worth taking a stand on even if we’re the last one standing, for the sake of the gospel, and the protection of the Lord’s vulnerable sheep.
The issue on the table is the relationship between the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. The Bible is clear that the Word of God and the Holy Spirit work in perfect tandem in their work of bringing life to unbelievers and in helping believers remain in Christ. The way the Spirit works is through the Word of God. This means that if a church is committed to teaching the Word of God, then the Spirit is powerfully at work. It’s not as if there are 2 different types of church – ‘Word’ churches and ‘Spirit’ churches. Nor is it that the preacher ‘does the Word’ and the musicians ‘do the Spirit’. The Word of God is the sword of the Spirit; the Spirit is the very breath/Word of God. One doesn’t work apart from the other. The late John Chapman said that you couldn’t get a cigarette paper between the two, but he was only stating in his own words what the Bible has already said so clearly.
As evangelicals we believe this, but we are always in danger of shifting, maybe because of lack of theological clarity, or maybe because people visit our Word-centred meetings and tell us that the Spirit isn’t there. We believe in the sufficiency of the Word of God, but criticism of our ‘Spirit-less’ meetings makes us think that maybe we need to change things to be more Spirit-aware.
The criticism of our meetings is fair – our meetings can often be dull and lifeless, but we need to be clear that though this may be to do with badly-led singing or hardness of heart, it has nothing to do with the Holy Spirit being absent or powerless. If we teach the Bible clearly, then we should have a deep awareness of the work of the Holy Spirit as he is wielding his sword, ‘for the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow’ (Hebrews 4:12 ESV).
As soon as we try to drive the thinnest of wedges between the Word and Spirit (eg by thinking that music can direct a movement of the Holy Spirit), then we start to define our knowledge of God through our own ‘spiritual’ experiences and not by the Spirit’s own revelation of God in his Word. This doesn’t just cause a lack of assurance in believers – it also opens up the door to things like the Toronto blessing and all the stuff about music ushering in the presence of the Spirit. It also means that those who think they are ‘Spirit’ Christians start trying to convert ‘Word’ Christians into ‘Spirit’ Christians (as if this were possible) rather than trying to share the Word of God with those who are really are in the dark spiritually.
We’ve faced exactly the same challenge in the UK, when a chap called Michael Harper believed he had received the baptism of the Spirit in 1962 (a second baptism, as he was already converted). Noticing dull and lifeless worship in evangelical churches, he was keen to encourage evangelical churches to become more open to the Spirit to bring things to life. Fortunately, John Stott and others stood firm and kept their confidence in the Word of God as the means by which the Spirit works, although others sadly followed his lead.
Today we face the same issue, but it seems a little more subtle. I’ve heard the phrase, ‘a church cannot be Spirit-led unless it is Word-fed’. This sounds brilliant, and I’d happily use that phrase, but some take this to mean that once we’ve been fed the Word of God, then the Spirit can come along and do the more spectacular stuff. This exact dichotomy was well illustrated in a book by Jean-Jacques Suurmond, called ‘Word and Spirit at Play’, where the Word and Spirit play a game together. The Word brings order, and the Spirit brings life and vigour.
Others like to call themselves ‘Charismatic with a seat-belt on’. Surely, if the seat-belt is the Bible, then they are evangelical full-stop. Otherwise we could say that we’re Liberal with a seat-belt on, or even Catholic. Either we believe that the Word of God is sufficient, or we believe that the Word of God is not sufficient. If we believe that the Word is sufficient, then we can give up on trying chasing labels.
Speaking from personal experience, my own assurance was rocked when I was at university because I had a friend who claimed she would make me into a charismatic within a year. I was keen to hold on to the friendship, so I prayed and prayed for the gift of tongues (well, my friend’s definition of the gift of tongues anyway) to no avail. I wondered whether I was a Christian at all, but the Lord restored the assurance of my adoption when (through the Word of God) the Spirit testified with my spirit that I was a child of God (Romans 8:16).
Church musicians and pastors, please hold on to the truth that when you preach and sing the Word of God, then the Spirit is mightily at work, even if your meetings are accused of lacking the Spirit. It isn’t the job of a pastor or a church musician to bring the Spirit to life. Keep teaching and singing the Word of God, because ‘the words I speak to you are spirit and life’ (John 6:63 ESV).