Over the last months we have received more than a few questions asking how we are thinking about the use of Bethel songs in our worship services in light of increasing and appropriate concern over Bethel’s theology, practices, leadership, and teachings.
These questions are deeply encouraging. It’s a signal that many in our body are living out the exhortation in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 to “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”
To begin the conversation, let’s acknowledge that for generations, Christ-followers have sung hymns that are grounded in solid, biblical truth, yet have been composed by authors who have held errant views in other writings and/or have fallen away from the faith. Some famous examples include:
- A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, penned by reformer Martin Luther, who not only wrote Ninety-Five Theses, which rightly protested corruption in the Catholic Church and set off the Protestant Reformation, but also troublesomely wrote The Jews and Their Lies and On the Ineffable Name– works that are rooted in hostility and unsupportable viewpoints toward God’s chosen people.
- Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing, written in 1757 by Methodist preacher Robert Robinson, who later fulfilled the “prone to wander” lyric by drifting away from the faith.
- It Is Well With My Soul by Horatio Gates Spafford, who wrote the lyrics after losing his four children in the sinking of the SS Ville du Havre in November 1873. While his most famous work is an anthem to the truth of God’s sovereignty, his teachings on eternal punishment and the Holy Spirit were at best ill-informed, and at worst clearly heretical.
Should songs strongly proclaiming the truth of God’s Word no longer be used by churches in light of other errant beliefs or practices by the authors or their associated churches?
Here are four questions to ask when assessing whether a song, book, or any form of communication is biblical.
4 Questions We Use When Evaluating Media:
- Are you examining everything you consume (sermons, books, music, movies) through the lens of God’s Word? It is important that all believers are equipped with Scripture so that they may accurately discern (1 John 4:1-3) whether a sermon, song, book, website, or other media is in alignment with Scripture and of the Spirit. Every believer should be equipped individually to discern truth from error and live in fellowship with mature believers who hold them accountable in their discerning (Proverbs 15:22). Bring your community, along with your Bible, into your listening and reading habits in your efforts toward “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) and guarding your heart from error. Just because something feels right doesn’t mean it stands the test of the light of God’s Word.
- Does the song stand on its own, proclaiming the truth of God’s Word without explanation? Every song the Church sings should be grounded in Scripture and sound doctrine and be helpful for the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:29). If it doesn’t make much of Jesus, it’s not worth making much of in His Church. Right worship is a form of equipping, and if the song is leading the saints to ideas that are unbiblical, then those songs are not to be welcomed in the assembly of God’s people. Every song that is sung is the responsibility of the shepherds, and shepherds are to be on guard so that “savage wolves” (Acts 20:28) with snappy melodies don’t come in among the flock.
- Is it possible to separate the truth being sung from the error of its associations? The Church is never in more danger than when a false teacher (any evil-doer disguised as an “angel of light,” (2 Corinthians 11:14) is proclaiming the truth. (See also Paul and Silas’ response to the slave girl who had a spirit of divination in Acts 16:16-18.) In addition to false teachers, we must also be aware of the danger of directing others toward ministries of even well-meaning individuals who are consistently associated with false or errant theology and practices. The leadership of Bethel and the teachings and practices embraced by its members, students, and ministry partners would, at a minimum, fall into this category. It must be acknowledged that singing and advancing songs, even though they are theologically accurate, could make others open to additional messages and ideas that are errant in practice and theology. Historically, there is at least one significant example of music and lyrics being a means through which heresy was propagated in the life and practice of Arius.  Arius was a third- and fourth-century “church leader” who also happened to be a capable songwriter who happened to also deny Christ’s deity and wrongly assert that Jesus was not eternal, but rather a finite, created being with “some” divine attributes. The popularity of his melodies and songs led to the rapid spread of his heretical ideas. We would do well to acknowledge that a well-written song can quickly lead others to a truth-forsaken place. While it is unlikely that many people will dig up Horatio Spafford sermons if you sing It Is Well today, there undoubtedly will be many people who want to know more of Bethel’s “supernatural school of ministry” because of the excellence around their music.
- Would using the song cause us to actively support an errant ministry? Finally, and in my opinion the one that is the most unavoidable in its implication, it has to be acknowledged that using songs from these ministries and artists creates funding which flows to and helps support and sustain them. So, even if we protect our flock from future influence, at some level we unavoidably are strengthening a troublesome one. Weighing the cost-benefit of this truth is a daily conversation.
Over the years at Watermark, we have examined many songs for clarity – from Away in a Manger to Reckless Love. We constantly ask ourselves questions like, “is it accurate to describe God’s love as‘overwhelming, never-ending, and reckless,”’ as Reckless Love says in its chorus?  It is the responsibility of the spiritual leaders in every local church to make these calls. It is not an overstatement to say that the protection of their people (Acts 20:28-30) and their own future judgment (Hebrews 13:17) depend on it.
Our team examines the content and implications of every song we sing – whether those songs come from our own artists at Watermark, Bethel Music, Hillsong, Passion, or any other collective community or individual artist. While there have been many songs that we have chosen not to sing because we did not believe the content to be theologically accurate or glorifying to God, we have not as of today chosen to commit to never sing songs written or produced by churches we would not want to see others discipled by. We daily stay vigilant so that everything we put before Jesus’ Church will ensure that “we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14) while constantly reminding ourselves and others that catchy tunes can cause a lot of trouble. We continue to listen with care and lead with humble, godly conviction. We don’t ever sing a song just because people love it; we sing it because it is true and we believe it will grow you in your faith and love of God and the truth that will set you free.
This gave birth to the term “snarianism.”
Many have asked if it is appropriate to call God’s love reckless while He is also sovereign. While it is right to praise God’s power and sovereignty, it is also right that when a believer considers God giving His only Son so that sinful people could be reconciled with Him, the response might be: “What kind of reckless love is that?” Well, it’s the kind of reckless love that ought to wreck our hearts and make us want more of Jesus.