In 2009 G. Craige Lewis published his now infamous book and its subsequent series of teaching called ‘The Truth Behind Hip Hop’. For those who grew up in a Pentecostal setting, you may be familiar with this product. G. Craige Lewis aimed to expose the spiritual forces that are behind hip hop and to exhort the Christian to abstain from hip hop. Whilst this may be the most famous contemporary example of the widespread debate around secular music, the question of whether Christians should engage with secular music goes beyond the genre of hip hop. This is a question that I have wrestled with personally and I hope this article would help clarify how we should think about listening to secular music as Christians.
Secular Music isn’t Necessarily Sinful
The debate surrounding secular music swiftly develops into forming binaries; it must either be sinful or not. The issue is when we try to make subjects that are unclear in scripture, clear, we actually do the doctrine of freedom a disservice. It is important to note when there is an unclear portion of scripture, and what I mean by this is that there isn’t a clear, prescriptive teaching on the subject in scripture, it doesn’t mean we throw that portion away or that it’s open to personal interpretation. What it does mean is that we use the clear portions of scripture to help us interpret the unclear. There is nowhere in scripture that declares directly that secular music is sinful. What the scriptures do say however is that we must be careful with the words we use (Matthew 12:36, Proverbs 13:3, Proverbs 21:23) and the words we listen to (Galatians 5:7-8, Luke 8:18), which includes the music we consume.
Secular Music and God’s Glory
The question that may be on some people’s mind is “Okay, so how do I choose which songs to listen to?”. I think this can either be a good question or a bad question. For this question to be good, the person would be focused on whether they can listen to a song in such a way that would magnify the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). For this question to be bad, the person will be focused on how it makes them feel. Even after salvation, the scriptures never tell us to be led by our feelings but by the Spirit (Romans 8:14). Humans were made for God (Genesis 1:27) and if you are in Christ you are ‘doubly’ His, as you have been bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20). Whilst the world screams that you have autonomy, God does not echo those sentiments. Our freedom in Christ is not the ability to do whatever we want, instead, it is the power to do what we should (Galatians 5:13, Titus 2:12). Consequently, what we listen to matters. We cannot divorce the words we consume and living for the glory of God. The words we hear shape how we think and/or influence how we feel. Some may argue that music has no effect on them, whilst I would disagree with this position; how I would respond is does the music you listen to make you think much of Jesus? Whilst there can be a tendency to demonise things that aren’t directly Christian, there can also be the tendency to ignore the potential of so-called “neutral positions” that could veer into evil. This is the danger, in the aim to enjoy secular music we can deny that there is the potential for certain songs to stand in opposition to the glory of God. How can we spot this?
How do I Decide?
The issue of whether we ought to listen to secular music or not isn’t as straightforward as we would like it to be. There isn’t always a yes or no response to be given to this question but there are some questions we can ask ourselves to decipher whether secular music ought to be listened to or not.
1. How am I defining Secular Music? Clarity is vital. The term secular has become so convoluted and people mean different things when they use the term. What do you mean?
2. Do these lyrics helps me think rightly about God or well about people? Philippians 4:8 tells us what we ought to fix our minds on: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy. Do these lyrics that I’m listening to help me do that?
3. How do these songs influence how I think or behave? Paul exhorts us to imitate Christ (Ephesians 5:1). The epistles are full of prescriptions and descriptions of how children of God ought to behave and think in light of their new nature in Christ. Do the songs you listen to help you do that?
4. Would I play these songs in front of young children? In Matthew 18:6 Jesus says “but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea”. Would you allow young children to listen to the songs you do? If not, why not?
This article is not to condemn anyone who listens to secular music, neither is it to affirm those who do not. Instead, my desire is that we would think carefully about what music we decide to consume. All of our lives must be submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and that includes the type of music we listen to.
To find out more about the topic of secular music, listen to the latest episode of the On The Table podcast below: