A Defense of Singing Songs from Bethel and HillsongAugust 6, 2021 45 Comments
Perhaps you saw an article that appeared online recently in which Mackenzie Morgan, a worship leader at Refine Church in Lascassas, Tennessee, announced that she and her church would no longer sing songs that come from Bethel Church in California or Hillsong Church in Australia. After examining some of the teaching from both Bethel and Hillsong, she concluded that to sing any song that originated with or was composed by someone from either of these local churches was dangerous.
Morgan insists that when it comes to corporate singing in church, “theology matters.” “It matters,” she says, “if a song is weak in theology and is not accurately displaying the Holiness of our God.” I couldn’t agree more.
Here at my church, Bridgeway, we are intensely careful never to sing error. If a song is in any way inconsistent with Scripture, we don’t sing it, no matter who wrote it or how much we might like the melody.
Morgan is also bothered by the fact that in singing the songs of Bethel and Hillsong “royalties” are being paid to them, and in this we are tacitly subsidizing and spreading “their false gospel message.” She continues:
“What if the majority of the church is leading its people astray singing music that is less than worthy of a Sovereign and Holy God? Would God be pleased with the lights? With the smoke machines? With the obsession of hands in the air and ‘response’ from the crowd? With loud worship nights singing songs He doesn’t approve of?”
So let me go on the record in this regard. I don’t like the strobe lights that so often are used in church worship sets. I refuse to make use of smoke machines. But I’m puzzled by the reference to the raising of hands. Has she not read Scripture’s many references to this practice? Has she not considered the deeply symbolic and spiritual nature of not only this but of other physical postures in worship? I’m curious: Does a person’s stiff, statuesque posture, with hands firmly at one’s side or stuffed into one’s pockets honor God more than those that are lifted in praise?
And should we not expect a “response” from the crowd? I read in Scripture of shouts of joy and declarations of “Holy, holy, holy”, and affirmations of thanksgiving, among others. And what is the alternative to “loud worship nights”? Quiet or soft worship days? And as I said, no one is endorsing songs of which God wouldn’t “approve.”
Be assured of this. In no way do I endorse or turn a blind eye to the scandals that have rocked Hillsong in recent days. In no way do I endorse certain ministry methods that are employed at a variety of churches that artificially stir up emotions as an end in themselves or manipulate people into behaviors or experiences that lack biblical sanction. Every church, be it Bethel, Hillsong, or Bridgeway as well (including Refine Church in Tennessee), needs to labor more vigorously to tether our teachings and practices to the inspired Word of God.
But let’s go straight to the point. Because this lady believes that some of what Bethel and Hillsong teach is unbiblical, no other church should make use of the music composed or sung there. She also insists that we should “read their church’s doctrine and see what they preach, teach, and believe. But don’t stop there. Don’t compare it to your traditions or what you think is right. Compare it with Scripture. Scripture is the ultimate authority. Not me, not your pastor, not the world, only God. There are no gray areas in God’s Word.”
So, I did just that. Bethel’s statement of faith is profoundly evangelical and orthodox and consistent with the historic creeds of Christianity. They affirm the Trinity, the inspiration and authority of the Bible, the incarnation and virgin birth of Jesus Christ, his substitutionary death on the cross, bodily resurrection, and ascension into heaven. They explicitly declare that Jesus is “true God” and “true man.”
They further affirm that we are saved by grace through faith in the person and work of Jesus. Bethel was at one time affiliated with the Assemblies of God, and yet their statement on the issue of Spirit baptism differs from that denomination’s viewpoint. Here is what they say:
“The baptism of the Holy Spirit, according to Acts 1:4-8 and 2:4, is poured out on believers that they might have God’s power to be His witnesses.”
Nothing is said about speaking in tongues being the initial, physical evidence of Spirit baptism. They do appear to believe that this experience is separate from and subsequent to conversion, but even then the language is a bit ambiguous. And let us not forget that although I and many evangelical charismatics believe baptism in the Spirit occurs simultaneous with conversion, the doctrine of “separate and subsequent” has been and still is embraced by numerous Christian denominations within the Pentecostal world, and is ably (even if not persuasively) defended by countless biblical scholars who minister in that tradition. We may disagree with their view on this point, but it is very much a secondary, perhaps even tertiary, doctrine. It is hardly a hill to die on.
They also believe in the Second Coming of Christ and the eternality of both heaven and hell.
One statement that clearly needs greater clarification is this:
“We believe the victorious, redemptive work of Christ on the cross provides freedom from the power of the enemy – sin, lies, sickness, and torment.”
I also believe this, but the question of when complete freedom from “sickness” is to be expected needs to be clearly stated. But note well: there is nothing in the statement that affirms the “Word of Faith” movement and its beliefs or the so-called “Health and Wealth Gospel.” If anyone at Bethel teaches these notions, it is not because they are acting in conformity with the church’s official statement of faith.
And there is a lengthy, thoroughly biblical defense in their statement concerning the historic and traditional biblical sex ethic, in which marriage is designed solely for one woman and one man. As for homosexuality and transgenderism, I can’t recall ever reading a more clearly defined and thoroughly biblical perspective on those issues.
I’m baffled by how or on what basis Morgan accuses them of preaching a “false gospel.” They preach salvation by grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. They tether their hope of eternal life on trust in the sinless life, sacrificial, atoning death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus.
If some in Bethel or Hillsong believe in the so-called “prosperity” gospel, they are, of course, in error. But as grievous as that error may be (and is), it is not damning. Those who embrace that view are not, for that reason, consigned to eternal condemnation.
Now, are there certain other ministry practices embraced by Bethel that I find questionable and without explicit biblical support? Yes. But those do not make them heretical or deserving of cynical disdain. If more time were spent by Bethel’s critics praying for them than is given to writing hyper-critical reviews, perhaps such practices would diminish over time. Let me at the same time say that we should pray just as fervently for Morgan and those who agree with her article. I’m reminded of Paul’s exhortation to the church in Rome. We would all do well to heed his counsel:
“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:5-6).
I also followed Morgan’s advice and read Hillsong’s Statement of Beliefs (I wonder, did she?). Aside from one or two minor, secondary, doctrinal differences (Hillsong is affiliated with Australian Christian Churches, a traditionally Pentecostal denomination), it is thoroughly evangelical and orthodox. Do I agree with all that is done in the context of their worship services? No. It may not be my “style” nor that of Morgan’s, but that doesn’t make them heretical. It just means they are different, and perhaps unwise. But in numerous other ways, aren’t we all?
Morgan says that she will not sing songs that are not “worthy of a sovereign and Holy God.” Good for her. I agree. And I hope you wouldn’t ever sing such songs either. And if songs are composed by someone from Bethel or Hillsong that are beneath the dignity of our great Triune God, don’t sing them. But I challenge anyone to closely examine the lyrics of these songs, all of which were composed by someone in Bethel or Hillsong or related to them in close friendship or some other ministry alliance (such as Jesus Culture), and tell me they are dangerous, unbiblical, or not worthy of who God is and what he has done. Here is a small sampling:
“God, I look to you”
“Goodness of God”
“King of Kings”
“O Praise the Name!”
“Raise a Hallelujah!”
“No Longer Slaves”
“Jesus, We Love You”
“This is Amazing Grace”
“Worthy is the Lamb”
“Seas of Crimson”
“One Thing Remains”
“For the Cross”
“Man of Sorrows”
“Holy Spirit (You are Welcome Here)”
“Lead me to the Cross”
“Lion and the Lamb”
“Shout to the Lord”
“All Hail, King Jesus”
I will go on record and say that God is profoundly honored and exalted by each of these songs.
“Oh, but Sam. We disagree with some of their secondary doctrines. Won’t our singing of these songs communicate to people that we endorse what some in their churches believe? And we have to pay royalties to sing those songs. Aren’t we contributing to the spread of their errors?”
No. Folks, I plead with you: Don’t let cancel culture come to church! You may differ with Bethel and Hillsong in some (perhaps many) of their ministry practices. So do I. But we will sing with these people around the throne of the Lamb for eternity. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Surely, you are not prepared to denounce them as unregenerate, unbelievers because they don’t toe the line on every doctrine that you embrace.
What about Morgan’s concern that by singing the songs of Bethel and Hillsong we are paying royalties to these churches? Well, let me ask Morgan and others a question or two.
Where will you draw the line on where and to whom you will allow your money to go? I dare say that you will find it difficult to survive in our world if you refuse to participate in or make use of something, be it a song, a book, or a product, simply because you fear that by doing so you are promoting and indirectly subsidizing what you regard as unbiblical.
Should I throw away all the books in my library that were written by Jewish scholars because they reject Jesus as the Messiah? I’m talking about books with profound and instructive insights into the OT and other historical and textual issues. Have you ever purchased such books? Should you?
What about the numerous scholarly resources that are of tremendous help in our understanding of the biblical languages, backgrounds, and cultural contexts? Must I dispense with the multi-volume Anchor Bible Dictionary because a few of its contributors are likely not born again?
Have you refused to do your shopping at Kroger and Target because they are decidedly pro LGBTQ? Does not your purchase of their products indirectly support that movement?
Have you refused to take your kids to Disney World because of their widely public and visible stance on same-sex marriage?
Do you carefully avoid purchasing gas for your car from those stations who obtain their products from oil companies that fund Planned Parenthood?
Do you continue to read novels and other books written by decidedly non-Christian authors, lest by purchasing their works you contribute to their unbiblical lifestyle?
Have you stopped singing “A Mighty Fortress is our God” because its author, Martin Luther, made horrific anti-Semitic statements in his later years?
Do you make use of Facebook and Twitter, two companies owned and operated by unbelievers who support both LGBTQ and abortion causes?
And do you refuse to make use of songs written by Matt Maher or John Michael Talbot insofar as they are Roman Catholic?
Should we refuse to sing “It is Well with My Soul” because the author of its lyrics, Horatio Spafford, eventually denied the existence of hell, affirmed universalism and purgatory, and was guilty of multiple instances of fraudulent financial dealings?
Shall we never again read books by Jonathan Edwards or sermons by George Whitefield because both of them at one time owned slaves?
If someone within the Churches of Christ wrote an otherwise biblically based worship song, would you refuse to sing it in your church because they affirm water baptism as necessary for the forgiveness of sins?
In no way do I even remotely endorse the errors of these I’ve just mentioned, but to refuse to sing thoroughly biblical worship songs they wrote lest we be somehow tainted or defiled in doing so is both impractical and absurd and will only lead to a legalistic and Pharisaical local church culture.
It is virtually impossible in our day to travel, shop, participate, or in some manner support groups or companies or individuals that don’t violate our biblical standards of truth and morality. If you choose to “cancel” everyone who differs with you on some matter of doctrine or ministry practice, out of concern that your money will subsidize their errors, you will end up encased in your own echo chamber, isolated and alone, pridefully patting yourself on the back for being among the remnant who “get it right”.
I, for one, will instead continue to remain rigorously biblical in what I preach and how I sing, but do so without castigating and/or cancelling other Christians who happen to differ with me on some secondary issue or ministry style.