Worship Ethics

Mark Roberts
  • The impact of this truth on ethics is huge. On the one hand, it transforms how we think and act. Every moral choice we face becomes a question not only of right and wrong but also of what will truly glorify God. On the other hand, the call to do everything “in the name of the Lord” transforms our vision of worship leadership.
Worship Ethics

A friend of mine, who I’ll call Chip, is a fantastic musician. When he became a Christian he developed a passion to lead worship. After excelling in a couple of part-time church jobs he finally received a call to be a full-time worship leader in a thriving church.

As soon as he began his new job, Chip reached out to former band members and quickly earned their respect. He also recruited new musicians for his worship team. Soon he had gathered a solid core of highly talented artists who seemed to thrive under Chip’s skillful leadership.

But before long things started to unravel. Conflicts between band members threatened to shatter the band’s harmony. Some accused Chip of musical and moral mistakes. Chip wasn’t quite sure how to respond. He had been thrown into the tumultuous waters of ethics where issues of right and wrong swirled around him so quickly he could hardly discern which way was up.

Chip’s experience is not unusual. Every worship leader I know has had to confront circumstances like Chip’s. Conflict among band or choir members seems inevitable, as does occasional resistance to a leader’s authority. Often worship leaders find themselves tossed about by the waves of sexual immorality, dishonesty, gossip, or unforgiveness.

Forgive me if I sound like a seasick Eeyore. There are certain times of smooth sailing for worship leaders, seasons when our sails perfectly catch the wind of the Spirit. Yet, even in the best of circumstances, worship leaders face ethical challenges that stretch us to the limits of our understanding. When I speak of ethics I’m referring to questions of right and wrong and to ways of approaching those questions. Ethics don’t only tell you what’s right in a given instance; they also provide a method to help you deal with all sorts of situations.

Here’s a way for you to approach the ethical challenges you’ll face as a worship leader. I’m not going to provide a checklist of rights and wrongs so much as a way for you to think about how to discern right and wrong. Thus, in line with my nautical metaphor, I want to give you a navigational chart so you can sail the seas of worship ethics without sinking. This chart, by the way, isn’t my creation. It comes from the pages of inspired Scripture, from chapter three of Paul’s letter to Colossians.

The Chart: Colossians 3:12-17

Colossians 3 was written to believers who had already begun to experience the new life that comes from a relationship with God. Our “chart” reads:

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:12-17 NIV).

Be Who You Are

Colossians 3:12-17 begins with one of the most important tenets of Christian ethics. As Christians we are to live out who we are in Christ: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved . . ..” In the language of philosophical ethics, the ought follows from the is. In simple terms, Christian ethics is centered on the basic imperative: Be who you are!

Before getting to the behaviors we should employ, Paul emphasizes the basis of our Christian life. We have been chosen by God as His special and dearly loved people. Thus we seek to do right in this life, not to earn God’s favor, but in response to that favor freely given. We must understand this foundational truth of Christian ethics so that we avoid the temptation to become legalistic. Moreover, worship fuels the fire of ethical living because it celebrates God’s love for us and reminds us that we are holy to the Lord.

Be Like Christ

In light of who we are as God’s people, Paul says, “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (v. 12). In a nutshell, we are to be like Christ.

Our culture tells us that leaders have to be decisive, visionary, hard-driving, and perhaps even merciless. (Think of the famous television exclamation, “You’re fired!”) Yet Christian leadership begins with the paradoxical qualities of Colossians 3:12. The first steps of Christian ethics don’t involve making decisions about certain moral issues. Rather, they have to do with becoming a certain kind of people, Christ-like people. I’ve made some of my worst mistakes as a leader when I’ve failed to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, and patient. Let’s continually remember that before we do ethics we must seek to be like Christ.

Expect Ethical Problems

I’ve always loved the realism of Colossians 3:13. Right out of the blocks we’re told to “bear with each other” and “forgive” each other. Paul assumes that we’ll bug and even sin against each other. This assumption is based both on solid theology and on real experience of Christian community.

If we put aside our romanticism about Christian fellowship and expect to encounter tricky issues of right and wrong, and if we realize that our ministry partners—and even we ourselves—will make mistakes, then we’ll be better prepared to deal openly with them. Naive idealism, pretending, and denial have no place in healthy worship leadership.

As leaders, we’ll be forced at times to confront those who have done wrong. Furthermore, we’ll sometimes be the targets of people’s “stuff” as they work out their immaturity on us. None of this is any fun, but it’s all part of real leadership. That’s why we need to remember the call to forgive. We’ll need to do it.

Love

Love lies at the heart of Christian ethics. It is the tie that “binds” together the diverse aspects of the Christian life “in perfect unity” (v. 14). The danger in speaking of love, of course, is that this word has been turned into mush by our culture. Love in Scripture isn’t particularly romantic or sweet. It’s costly, sacrificial, choiceful, and often quite tough. It involves doing what is best for one another no matter what the price.

When we’re deliberating about tricky ethical decisions, it’s always right to ask: What is the loving thing to do here? But we must be sure to define love biblically, not according to the whims of our world. For example, if a band member is stuck in persistent sin, biblical love calls us to confront that person. Worldly “love,” on the contrary, would tell us to mind our own business or simply to be “nice.”

Be a Peacemaker

As believers in Christ, we receive His peace. Colossians 3:15 reminds us that peace isn’t just an individual experience. It lies at the core of Christian community as something to be generously shared among believers: “As members of one body [we] were called to peace.” This includes peace with God, to be sure. But Colossians 3:15 also refers to the peace we share with each other.

Jesus commended peacemaking (Matthew 5:9). By his own example He showed both how important it is to make peace and how costly it can be (Ephesians 2: 11-18). We who lead in Christ’s Church are called to be peacemakers. Yet as pleasant as this sounds in principle, it’s one of the toughest tasks for the Christian leader. It generally involves getting involved in messes we’d rather ignore, dealing with people we’d rather avoid, and modeling humility when we’d rather lord our authority over people.

Be People of God’s Word

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (v. 16). In other words, don’t just dabble here and there in Scripture. Rather, let it live in your mind and heart, filling your being with the riches of God’s revelation.

One of the crucial distinctives of Christian ethics is its reliance upon the Bible. Scripture provides not only ethical imperatives but also the theological groundwork upon which these commands are based. If you want to make wise ethical choices when you’re in a sticky spot, by all means, consult the Bible. But don’t leave Bible study for those tricky times. Let God’s truth regularly fill your mind, heart, actions, and relationships with other believers.

Do Ethics in Community

Notice that the “word of Christ” is to dwell in us as we “teach and admonish one another.” Discerning God’s truth and applying this truth to specific situations is the job, not just of the individual Christian, but also of the Christian community. I can’t emphasize how important it is for you to grasp this essential dimension of Christian ethics. The Holy Spirit has immersed you in a body of which you are one of many members. Your entire Christian life is to be lived as an active member of this body, especially when you’re figuring out what’s right and what’s wrong.

Christian leaders can be too isolated. When we confront difficult decisions we go off by ourselves to figure out what to do. Solitude has its place, of course, but we must learn to do ethics in community. There have been many times I’ve depended on the wisdom of my brothers and sisters in Christ, especially when confronting difficult moral decisions. I’ve needed their insight, their appraisal of my motivations, their tough questions, their support, and their prayers. If you take anything away from this article, here it is: Don’t do ethics alone. Do it in community.

Worship All the Time

The conclusion of Colossians 3:12- 17 mentions activities we associate with worship: “sing[ing] psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” and “giving thanks to God the Father.” Wedged between these lines we find a surprising exhortation: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, . . ..” In other words, our worship isn’t simply what we do in church or even in our personal devotions. Worship should permeate our hearts and lives, our words and deeds.

The impact of this truth on ethics is huge. On the one hand, it transforms how we think and act. Every moral choice we face becomes a question not only of right and wrong but also of what will truly glorify God. On the other hand, the call to do everything “in the name of the Lord” transforms our vision of worship leadership. Our calling is not only to help people worship through song and prayer in the corporate gathering it’s also to help them keep on worshiping when they’re away from the gathering. Biblically speaking, worship is a 24/7 activity.

Thus, as a worship leader, I am concerned not only with the prayers and praises of my people in church but also with their daily words and deeds. Therefore ethics is a central concern of my calling as a worship leader. How people actually live, the decisions they make at work and school, the choices they make in their personal lives—all of this “ethical stuff” is also “worship stuff.” This means that the measure of our worship leadership is not merely what our people do in church but also ultimately how they live in the world.

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