July 26, 2006

whose right is it?

a recent thread on a mailing list discussion that I am a part of raised the question of changing the lyrics to songs that have current copyrights (any song that has been published in the last 70 years or so falls in this category). many times, there are songs that are quite useful in worship but have a word or phrase that doesn't agree with that group's theological convictions. the question was posed as to what etiquette and legal obligations were involved in doing this.

I have to admit that I have done this myself in planning worship. there are a few songs that are very popular that have just one line that I cannot comfortably sing in worship (and by very popular, I'm not judging them on their "Top 25 CCLI" ranking; rather by their popularity in the specific community that is using the song, e.g. Sunday morning worship or RUF large group). these lines tend to fall on the Arminian/Calvinist fault line that divides much of the American church today.

this is something that happens quite frequently in hymnals. prolific writers like Charles Wesley don't always write hymns that line up with every theological framework. one such example is from his great hymn "And Can It Be." in verse two, the second line is as follows:
"He left His Father's throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace!
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam's helpless race."
One hymnal alters it this way:
"He left His Father's throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace
Humbled himself (so great his love!),
And bled for all his chosen race.
I have asked a few people that I look up to concerning this subject and I have had a few responses that I tend to gravitate towards. The first is that this is Wesley's poetic way of saying something in simple terms that is rather complex to grasp when you get down to it. The second is that Wesley likely was writing from what he was reading in the Bible, and just because his understanding is not as developed at this point does not mean that it is an unbiblical statement.

jumping back to the issue of changing copyrighted material: the problem is that the original songwriter did not intend their song to have the opposite meaning. it'd be great if we all agreed about many of the basic tennents of the faith, but many times it is impossible to agree on anything, except that Jesus Christ is Lord (which even in some circles is up for grabs).

is it right to do this? if not, then what do we do? do we break the law every Sunday we sing the altered lyric? do we sing the original lyric and trust that God will correct this error in our hearts? do we scrap the song from our songbook? am I too worried that by singing the wrong theology in my worship that my worship will be unpleasing to God?


I think that when I come to worship, I need to repent of my theological thick-headedness. That need goes beyond the songs I sing.

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