Hillsong, Homosexuality & Hymns

Hillsong United

It’s been quite a few weeks for Hillsong.

At this year’s Dove Awards, Hillsong UNITED was the big winner, taking home five trophies. But late last week, senior pastor Brian Houston gave what many deemed a non-committal answer about same-sex marriage as it relates to the church (though he later released a statement to clarify his position).

As can be expected, Houston’s nuanced original answer (and clarification) sparked significant discussions online, with some wondering if “Oceans,” Hillsong UNITED’s song of the year winner, and other worship songs originating from the church and their bands should be removed from Sunday morning services.

This question is much bigger than Hillsong though. This is the type of question we will continue to wrestle with moving forward. Can you worship rightly when singing songs written by someone with whom you may disagree theologically?

It is not just that more and more Christians will make statements on marriage and other moral issues that may not be strong enough for some. If the trend continues, worship artists and song writers will continue to come out as homosexual themselves.

Ray Boltz and Jennifer Knapp are now open about their homosexuality. Singer/song-writer Vicky Beeching recently announced she was a lesbian. Does that make their songs off limits in evangelical churches? Maybe not.

On the heels of Beeching’s public break with a historical Christian understanding of sexuality, Russell Moore wrote an excellent piece about why churches should not feel forced to remove all of her songs from their worship services.

I thought about this past Sunday as my congregation sang one of my favorite hymns, “God of Grace and God of Glory.” The writer of the hymn, Harry Emerson Fosdick, is, in my view, a heretic. He denied the virgin birth, the inerrancy of Scripture, the historicity of many of the miracles, the bodily resurrection, and the physical return of our Lord. This is not Christianity.

But what a hymn.

“Crown thine ancient church’s story, bring her bud to glorious flower. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour.” I had tears in my eyes, as the rest of the church instructed me in song: “From the fears that long have bound us, free our hearts to faith and praise.”

Fosdick is not the only hymn writer who strayed away, at least for a season, from orthodox Christian belief. Two of my favorite hymns were written by men who may have died as heretics.

Most everyone knows the story behind Horatio Spafford writing the words to “It Is Well With My Soul” while sailing over the place where his children drowned. But many do not know that he and his wife left their Presbyterian church and founded what could be described as a Messianic cult in Israel.

At the age of 22, Robert Robinson penned “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” after converting to Methodism. He later became a Baptist minister, but some believe he became a Unitarian later in life and denied the full deity of Jesus. The last sermon he ever preached was in a church with a Unitarian pastor.

Should we cast those songs out because their authors potentially had unorthodox views later in life? I for one hope not because they so often remind me of the goodness of God and my ever-present need of grace. Regardless of the viewpoints of the authors, those songs help me worship my Savior.

That is not to say theology doesn’t matter. It absolutely does. I may not be comfortable with Boltz, Knapp or Beeching leading worship in my church, but that’s not what we are considering. When evaluating their songs, the question I must consider is whether the words are consistent with the teachings of my local church body.

Some may argue that they cannot help but think of those songs different now. How can you sing a song about a steadfast faith when the writer may have abandoned it?

Well, how can you sit in a pew with someone who was a prostitute or an adulterer? How can you read words of Scripture penned by a murderer? How can you sit under a fallible preacher? Grace and a constant reminder that you look to a person and their words only so far as they are pointing to Scripture and the Author of it.

Must you sing faithful songs written by unfaithful people if they conflict with your conscience? Of course not. But you should remember your hope does not rest on the beliefs of Hillsong, Spafford or Robinson.

We find our foundation in the One who calls us out upon the waters, who has taught us to say, whatever our lot, it is well with my soul, and who has sought us when a stranger wandering from the fold of God. And those thoughts, regardless of all else, are worthy of our consideration and our voices.

4 Comments

  1. Aaron, thank you for this thoughtful and balanced post. This is something I regularly wrestle with in my mind and heart as a worship band musician. We do need to remember that many in our church services don’t know the origins of the songs we sing, but they can and will connect with the truths (or errors) they communicate. I have to believe a song is worth performing on a Sunday morning if I’m expected to get behind it as a musician.

  2. Zach

    A very good post, which rabbit-holed me into reading Moore’s piece from August (and all its comments), as well as hunting down several accounts of the Spaffords’ post-tragedy life.

    There is definitely a gray area of discernment from church body to church body. For me, the historical distance from the errors of Spafford and Robinson and even Fosdick serves to insulate the body of Christ from being confused when we sing their otherwise-salutary lyrics. Perhaps, because Hillsong is only beginning to capitulate on a key issue, it also insulates other churches from instantly associating their songs with error. But in the case of Jennifer Beeching or other openly unrepentant sinners, we may have to draw the line. Not only does singing her music bring Ms. Beeching royalty money through copyright, it also draws positive attention to her at a time when the body of Christ ought to be collectively (though kindly) pulling away from her doctrinal flaws.

    • I do agree that there is a possible distinction between those who are no longer able to repent (being dead) and those who can (being alive).

      There are a lot of issues at play here, one of which would be the ignorance of most churchgoers of the songwriters themselves. Growing up I knew the Fanny Crosby songs. It was in the hymn book and talked about some. Today, the songwriter may be on the screen in fine print, but never mentioned beyond that.

      However, I don’t think that excuses us from thinking deep and praying hard about these issues in the local church context. Thanks for stopping by and contributing to the needed discussion.

About Author

Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.