Another Look at Romans 14 and Christian Music

ewell.gifThis is an excerpt from the paper "What Is Christian in Music?" by Dr. Terry B. Ewell of Towson University.  In this selection, Dr. Ewell explores the analogy of music to food or drink from Romans 14.  As this is a subject that I discuss frequently, I was intrigued to find another viewpoint on the topic.  This article is published here with the author's permission.

Fortunately the 14th Chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans offers some insights that at least partially point to a resolution of this issue of what is Christian in music. Paul writes concerning circumstances under which food or drink is appropriate for Christians to consume. These circumstances may be summarized under three principles that are those of taste, conscience, and the law of love. Paul states that all foods are clean and are appropriate for Christians to eat (vs. 14). However, individuals may decide when and what to eat as a matter of taste (vs. 6). Some are further restricted as a matter of conscience in their choice of foods or drink (vs. 2, 21). Last of all the law of love constrains us to avoid harming others with our choices of food or drink (vs. 15, 21). Let’s explore the analogy between food or drink and music. In verse 14 of Romans chapter 14 Paul asserts that God created all food elements (apples, lambs, etc.) so that none is unclean. Elsewhere Paul writes, "The earth is the Lord's, and all its fullness" (I. Cor. 10:26). We may extend this concept of the goodness/cleanness of God's creation to music. God has created a temporal-physical-spiritual-conceptual environment in which musical elements can exist. Just as elements of God's creation (apples, lambs, etc.) are good/clean, so also the elements and elementary concepts of music (pitch, rhythm, etc.) are good/clean. Thus, an apple or the note "C" sung by a human voice similarly partake of God's original creative act and his continuing sustenance of His creation (Col. 1:16-17). There is a distinction, however, between God's creative actions and those of people. The Hebrew scriptures assign different verbs to God’s original creative act (creating something out of nothing) and man’s refashioning of God’s creation.[9] There is a further distinction between God's creative acts and those of people: a difference in morality. God's creative actions are always good/clean (Gen. 1:31, James 1:17); those of people are not necessarily good/clean (Rom. 3:10-18). Although people may begin their creative acts with good/clean elements from God's original creation, the creative actions of people determine the goodness/cleanness of the final product. Relating this to music, it is not the elements of the music but rather people's interaction with the elements—composing, performing, singing, or listening—which color the musical experience as good or clean, even Christian or non-Christian. Thus, the note "C" sung by a human voice, for instance, is unclean not in its essence, but rather could be unclean due to the context in which it is employed. Our difficulty with determining which music is or isn’t Christian results from the assumption that Christian music (apart from text) contains musical-spiritual encryption that is absent in non-Christian music. This is similar to asserting that Christian food contains dietary or spiritual supplements different from non-Christian food. The essence of the Christian experience resides not with the musical object (a song, a recording, a rhythmic pattern, an instrument, etc.) or cuisine, but rather with our interaction with and our attitudes towards music or cuisine. Paul clearly makes this distinction when he writes:

If any of those who do not believe invites you to dinner, and you desire to go, eat whatever is set before you, asking no question for conscience' sake. But if anyone says to you, "This was offered to idol," do not eat it for the sake of the one who told you, and for conscience' sake. (I Cor. 10:28-29, New King James Version)

Paul's point is that the food offered to an idol and food not offered to an idol are equally nutritious for a Christian and neither will spiritually harm the Christian. Offering the food before an idol has not physically or spiritually transformed the food. The setting in which the food is served–informing diners that this food was offer to an idol, for example–does, however, mark the act of eating the food as clean/good or unclean/evil. By analogy Christians may likewise "consume" music in appropriate or inappropriate contexts. Here the object–food or music– is not at issue but rather it is the situation that determines the ethics. Paul writes in the letter to the Colossians:

And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. (Colossians 3:17, New King James Version)

The experience of Christian eating is that done to the glory of God; likewise the experience of Christian music making is also marked by a dedication to the Lord. Paul writes in Romans 14:6 that food choices are a matter of individual taste. In music individuals prefer different instruments and varied styles of music often not of necessity but rather of preference. This also holds true for corporate bodies such as churches. Just as regional or national cuisines develop in different parts of the world, musical traditions have and should develop in churches throughout the earth. A variety of musical styles should be encouraged in the church. Our brief survey of music in historic and contemporary churches indicates that Christians have served the Lord with great musical ingenuity throughout the centuries. We must realize, however, that our preferred musical traditions may not suit others. Paul cautions us against despising the eating habits of others, so too we should seek to avoid judging the listening habits of others in matters simply of taste. That food which tastes good to us may not satisfy another. That song which draws us closer to God may leave another’s heart unstirred. Paul cites the example of a vegetarian who out of conscience cannot eat meat and the Jew who cannot eat anything that is unclean according to their dietary code (Romans 14:2). Above we have already seen in the first letter to the Corinthians that food sacrificed to idols may also violate a person’s conscience (I Cor. 8:4-13.) Bringing the analogy to music, there are people who for the sake of their consciences should not partake of certain music. This may be due to cultural upbringing or the association of a musical style or instrumentation with demeaning and sinful practices. Just as an alcoholic may not return to the bottle, certain people cannot return to the music associated with a demoralized period in their lives. These matters of conscience are distinguished from matters of taste since a person transgressing their conscience experiences spiritual harm. No where does Paul encourage a person to violate their conscience, rather they should follow its guidance. Paul admonishes the Christian who is free from restrictions of taste and conscience to be sensitive nevertheless to the needs of others when choosing food or drink:

It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak. (Romans 14:21, New King James Version)

In private I might eat a chocolate candy bar, but if I know I am in the presence of someone struggling with dieting I would abstain from the candy. By analogy what I listen to in private may not be appropriate in a public setting such as a church service. The law of love needs to guide our musical choices in public. At this point many may be uncomfortable with the notion that Christian music should be chosen strictly by internalized criteria. Please understand that I am not proposing purely subjective ethics for the choice of music, for indeed Chapter 14 of Romans does not advocate moral choices absent from God and His character. The passage must be interpreted in light of God's authority and justice:

So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. (Romans 14:12, New King James Version)

Paul clearly recognizes that individual consciences may be faulty. Some consciences are described as weak (Rom. 14:2), others have "seared" or evil consciences which provide defective moral guidance (1 Tim. 4:2, Heb. 10:22). All, however, will be judged according to God's own immutable character and His righteousness.


Dr. Terry Ewell is Chair of the Department of Music and teaches bassoon and chamber music at Towson University. He is President of the International Double Reed Society, Vice President of Region 6 of the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM), and was selected to receive training as an NASM accreditation evaluator. He has performed as principal bassoon of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Wheeling Symphony Orchestra, as acting principal bassoon with the West Virginia Symphony,. He has also performed with the Laureate Wind Quintet, the resident quintet at West Virginia University. As a soloist he has appeared with the Seattle Symphony, the Hong Kong Philharmonic and several regional orchestras in Washington state. He currently performs with the Towson University Quintigre Wind Quintet and the Handel Choir Orchestra. Dr. Ewell has recorded for Cambria Records, Musical Heritage Society, Hong Kong Records, and Pickwick records. His publications appear in over ten journals, most notably those of the International Double Reed Society.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by increcitony on July 18, 2006 at 9:12 am

    OK, Briny,
    When first I look at this article I was forced to ask one serious question.
    “What is the fascination you musicians have with the big dorky glasses?”

    With humble admiration,


  2. All the better to see you with, my friend!!


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