Reflections on worship (music) / Why we will (n)ever be
One of my prayers and aims this year, is learning how to live coram Deo in every aspect of life. In his brilliant article, R.C. Sproul argues that “The big idea of the Christian life is coram Deo. Coram Deo captures the essence of the Christian life.” He goes on to explain the concept in this way: “This phrase literally refers to something that takes place in the presence of, or before the face of, God. To live coram Deo is to live one’s entire life in the presence of God, under the authority of God, to the glory of God. To live in the presence of God is to understand that whatever we are doing and wherever we are doing it, we are acting under the gaze of God. God is omnipresent. There is no place so remote that we can escape His penetrating gaze.”1
In their book “The Songs of Jesus”, while explaining Psalm 1, Tim and Kathy Keller aptly define meditating on the law as meaning “to think out [the scriptures’] implications for all life”. By this definition, when we are called to meditate on the word, a key part of that is to essentially think out what scripture means for the various aspects of our lives – another practice I am cultivating this year.
With this backdrop, I want to reflect on letting go of one of my favourite songs of all time called ‘Ever Be’ by Bethel.
Listening to Kalley sweetly sing “Your love is devoted. Like a ring of solid gold, like a vow that is tested, like a covenant of old” has always brought tears to my eyes. This song beautifully encapsulates (in modern language) the beauty of God’s love and how it conjures up worship in us. It is also probably the only Bethel song I still listened to. Of all their discography, I have found its lyrics to be faithful to the word even when my doctrinal positions evolved. And it’s pretty! The lyrics are so so beautiful. As someone who appreciates words and artistry, this song really resonated with me. And it’s been hard to let it go, but I want to explain why I am developing such a serious conviction against listening to some songs that I absolutely love, and to gently remind my heart why we have to learn to let these go.
Bringing heaven to earth
If you are familiar with headlines in global Christendom then you’ll remember the Bethel scandal from December 2019. At the time, a little girl named Olive whose parents attend Bethel church, was said to have died in her sleep. In the wake of what they termed her “untimely” death, they decided to step out in faith and pray for a miracle of resurrection.2 Yes, yes, they did – using the #WakeUpOlive hashtag, they prayed for her for several days and caused a global storm in the process. Olive’s mom is my sweet Ever Be-singing Kalley, so it’s personal.
Now, while a lot of people were gobsmacked by the grotesque move to pray for Olive’s resurrection, some of us were not shocked. I had been a Bethel fan for most of my university life, mainly because I loved Bill Johnson’s seemingly personal and intimate way of fellowshipping with God. When he spoke, he would cry over certain passages where he had seen the Lord, and had therefore developed a “personal history” with God. Bill sounded humble and lowly, and I still believe that he genuinely believes the things he shares. From what I remember, what Bill et.al used to preach is very consistent with the #WakeUpOlive movement. In fact, I would argue that the #WakeUpOlive movement was the natural conclusion of Bethel teachings. When you primarily teach that Jesus declared we would do “even greater things”, and that our Christian mandate is to “bring heaven to earth”3, then of course the members you teach will step out in faith and pray to raise the dead the same way Jesus raised Lazarus. That action is the culmination of Bethel’s primary teaching. I don’t want to go into why their theology is so off in this reflection, so I will leave notes to helpful articles that correct some of the problematic interpretations of certain verses that they’ve resigned themselves to.
The “shock” during that period from people who teach similar things, was strange to me. If anything, it seemed intellectually dishonest that they couldn’t see that Bethel was being very very consistent with their teachings. As a matter of fact, their ability to get to the point of living out their theology is one I would admire if the theology wasn’t so damaging. Dare I say it’s a disfigured version of living coram Deo!
But damaging theology damages people. I spent years of my university life praying for God to “reveal himself” specially to me, so I too could form my own “personal history” with him. Instead of thinking through the implications of the various scriptures for my life [meditating], I demanded my ‘special revelation’ pound of flesh from God – spoiler alert: I didn’t get any. I prayed and cried and prayed and cried for God to show himself to me in visions and dreams like he did for his favourite children. I prayed for God to promote me to the higher echelons of spirituality and give me gifts of tongues and special words of revelations so I too could feel loved and accepted. I prayed for God to help me “bring heaven to earth” by allowing me to pray for the sick and they be healed, to speak words of knowledge to others that would come to pass. If I am being honest, I know that the natural conclusion of this theology, the “growing into a mature man” that we are called to, would have been to step out in faith and #WakeUpOlive. I’ll also admit that I didn’t pray for God to make me more self-controlled, to grow me in endurance when I didn’t enjoy his providence, to “rejoice always” even if he never changed my uncomfortable situations, or for him to grow me in obedience to the word, with the same desperation and vigour. I didn’t pray for God to mature the saints and make men and women who sought a “word of knowledge” for their lives to see that our call is to obey Christ and enjoy God no matter what his sovereign will for our lives. I didn’t seek for God to do “even greater things” by protecting, maturing and growing his global church. The “bringing heaven to earth” I was after was always so me-focused, always so small and hardly about the glory of God.
After years of this abusive “relationship with God”, where I felt unloved and neglected (though I would never dare say it), I was exhausted and I rebelled. I wanted little to do with this cruel God who seemed to love and favour others while barely meeting the needs of some of his children (again, I would never have said this out loud). This God who told us “you have not because you ask not” but never answered when I was asking for gifts that seemed spiritual and I was convinced were for his glory. This God whose mind I could ‘change’ but never seemed able to, while others testified of this. Hayi ndandidiniwe nguloThixo ukhethayo!4.
And so this theology left me damaged. But God in his providence saw it fit to preserve me from fully disavowing him. He sent people who were patient and kind to explain hard doctrines to me, and to reason with me. Then he put me in a local church faithful to his word, and saw to it that he would teach me more about who he is and who he isn’t. As a result, I will always tearingly sing “hallelujah, what a saviour!”.
Bethel church vs. Bethel music
So how does disavowing bad theology from Bethel church relate to disavowing good songs from Bethel music? I will explain in 2 points below
1. “Worship is not what we sing but how we obey”
In one of my favourite poems titled “I Remember” 5, David Bowden climaxes his own exasperation with the church and worship with this amazing line: “worship is not what we sing but how we obey”. This reflection comes from 1 Samuel 15:22, where Samuel says “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams”. God through Samuel tells us that he is more pleased with obedience than with sacrifices.
We see this more dramatically in the story of Uzzah. After the Ark of the covenant had been brought back by the Philistines to God’s people, two brothers Uzzah and Ahio were driving the cart on which the ark was placed when David sought to bring it up to Jerusalem. At some point during the ride the oxen stumbled, making the ark tilt. Uzzah then put out his hand to steady the ark from falling. 1 Chronicles 13:10 says “And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and he struck him down because he put out his hand to the ark, and he died there before God.” While this may seem harsh, God had given very strict instructions in Numbers about who should carry the ark (the Levites), how they should carry it (this included them not getting carts in Numbers 7:8, “…because they were charged with the service of the holy things that had to be carried on the shoulder”) and what they should not do (“But they must not touch the holy things or they will die”, Numbers 4:15). From this we learn that God is very particular about how he ought to be worshipped.
When I think about the disobedience – good intentioned or not – that is encouraged by bad theology, I cannot in good conscience sing along to Bethel without feeling a tinge of guilt over those they have managed to damage. And while my inclinations are to not be so “dramatic and dogmatic”, and to “elevate the words of the songs without thinking about the actual singers”, I know that “whatever is not done in faith is sin” (Rom 14:23). Therefore, continuing to listen to these guys when I feel some type of way about them spreading bad theology is not done in faith. I also know that wanting to push these feelings aside and just sing those beautiful lyrics is not to exalt God, but to make me feel good. Since the song is pretty and it makes me feel mushy inside, I can convince myself after I sing it that I have worshipped God when I know it was me who was tickled and entertained through that whole activity. This is not worship, because “worship is not what we sing but how we obey”.
2. Funding bands from bad churches is funding bad churches
Bethel church and all churches like it, are in existence because people give to keep the ministry going. They give of their labour, talents, time and money to “get the gospel out”. Since Bethel music singers are all members of Bethel church, they tithe and offer to the church. This means that as we fund them through streaming, we are inadvertently funding the ministry. We all understand this argument when it comes to people like R Kelly (#muteRKelly). We understand that streaming his music gives him money that affords him insulation from accountability in various forms.
Some may argue that they downloaded the songs a long time ago and therefore aren’t streaming them. Others may say that they watch them on YouTube and therefore aren’t funding Bethel. I am not here to bind anyone’s conscience but to explain my own journey and thought process to letting Bethel go. Even so, I think the counterargument I’d make to this is related to how I first got into Bethel. When I was in high school, my youth group used to play a lot of Hillsong. When I grew a bit older, I sought out other bands similar to Hillsong and came across Bethel music, and then got into their church. If I did not love Bethel music, I probably would have never gotten so deep into Bethel church or their theology. And if I did not love Hillsong, it’s possible that I would never have gotten into Bethel music. Therefore, while you may personally know to discern and separate the music from the theology, are you always careful to just play it in private where no other impressionable person/ less mature Christian- who may get intrigued by them (their music bangs!)- would hear it and love it?
As we seek to live coram Deo and to meditate on God’s written word for our lives, may we be intentional in thinking it through for all aspects of our lives to the glory of God and for the completion of our joy.
- https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/where-is-heaven-on-earth; https://www.ligonier.org/blog/greater-works/; https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/how-do-great-things-jesus/
- Attributes of God series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EzkXUNg5vYU