Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Worship Leaders: Imitate J.S. Bach

"Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith." -Hebrews 13:7

In a previous post I encouraged those who lead worship to imitate the character of pastor and hymn writer John Newton. I would like to continue this theme of emulation by encouraging those who lead worship—especially those involved with music—to imitate Johann Sebastian Bach. In the universe of Music History, Bach might just be the brightest star. It is safe to say that without Bach Western music would simply not exist as we know it today.
J.S. Bach was not a pastor, nor a theologian, but that is not something he was ashamed of because he knew exactly what God had called him to be; a musician. Christoph Trautmann writes:

“Bach was deeply conscious of his own office as a church musician, ordained for him by God through David. Accordingly, the office was in his view not merely the name of a calling or the description of a sphere of activity, but on the basis of Biblical authority he identified himself as a called and ordained servant of the church.” (Cited from Mary Dalton Greer in the book “About Bach” )

One of the reasons we know that Bach felt his office as church musician was ordained by God is evidenced by taking a look through his personal Bible. Bach’s personal Bible in reality was multiple volumes of Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible along with a commentary by Abraham Calov. Over time these volumes were brought together and they now reside in Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. But the most interesting thing to note is that there are numerous notes and underlining’s found throughout the Biblical text as well as the Commentary, not the least of which deal with his theological understanding of the church musician and church music.

We find a note at the beginning of 1 Chronicles 25, a chapter which lists David’s assignment of the Levites in regards to instruments and song, “This chapter is the true foundation of all God-pleasing church music.” Another note in 2 Chronicles 5:12-13 reads, “In devotional music, God is always present with His Grace.”

We also find Bach underlining Luther’s words at 2 Thessalonians 3:12, a passage about vocation, “Lord, I accept my calling and do what You have commanded, and will in all my work surely do what You will have done; only help me to govern my home, help me to regulate my affairs, etc.”

And from this article we read: “Bach's view of music can perhaps best be summarized by his own comments next to passages in 1 Chronicles and Psalms in the Calov Bible. Bach underlined that musicians are to "express the Word of God in a spiritual songs and psalms, sing them in the temple, and at the same time to play with instruments." In the Psalms, Bach underlined commentary which points out that two prophets served King David by playing musical instruments as part of their official duties. Bach saw himself in such an office. He proclaimed God's Word with his music, and he did so with the most beautiful music he was able to compose.”

J.S. Bach and His Personal Study of the Bible
I want to dwell on two aspects we can glean from J.S. Bach and his personal study of the Bible. First, is that which we have already abundantly seen, namely that Bach was fully convinced that his calling as a church musician was thoroughly Biblical. This is very important. This foundation allowed Bach to pour his life into his calling. Think of the ramifications if Bach was not fully convinced his calling was from God. What then would motivate Bach to compose such beautiful and masterful music? How encouraging it is to know that your calling is rooted in Scripture! If Bach were living in the present he might very well be called a “worship leader” as we use the term today. I, along with Bach, find great encouragement in these Old Testament chapters that list musicians who ministered and proclaimed the Word of God through song.

Two simple observations I draw from these lists of musicians found in 1 Chronicles 25.
1) God chose music and song as a way for people to worship and to glorify Himself. And God gave to David the duty of selecting those who would fill that office. We read in verse 2 that these musicians prophesied under the direction of King David. That is, the chief duty of these musicians and singers was to proclaim the inspired Word of God that God gave through David. We have record of this inspired Word in the Psalms.

The importance of this for us today is that the role of the worship leader, church musician, music minister, worship pastor, or whatever title you call it, is a legitimately Biblical office. Though I would be quick to warn and point out that these offices were set up under the Old Covenant. It would be folly if we were to equate these offices as equal to our own today under the New Covenant. However, the principles remain the same, and this Bach understood; God still uses music as a means to glorify Himself and (here’s the important one) those who minster through music are to minister under the direction of the Word of God. This isn’t an argument for the exclusive singing of Psalms but rather a fulfillment and practical application of Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” It’s what I like to call ‘sound doxology.’

2) Another observation I gather from the list of Musicians in 1 Chronicles 25 is that it is simply that; a list. Sure we can learn a lot from this list, but in reality Scripture doesn’t give us very much information about these guys. They are mentioned briefly as being a part of some major events such as when the Ark came into Jerusalem and the Temple Dedication, but beyond that we don’t learn about their “methods” or their “worship set list,” we don’t even learn about their backgrounds. The Bible simply tells us they were there and they did their thing.

What I learn about this is that sure these guys were important, but not as important as we think they should be! Check out Chapter 26. In this passage we find a list of all the assigned gatekeepers. Now I don’t know about you, but when was the last time you saw a “Church Usher Magazine”? How many blogs have you read dedicated to being a Greeter? I don’t say this to downplay the importance of Ushers and Greeters at our churches, but rather to point out the fact that Worship Leaders tend to have huge swollen heads. Hopefully this puts some perspective on the office of worship leader. Your job is important and given to you by God, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not about you.

The second aspect I glean from Bach and his personal study of the Bible is that we notice Bach was a serious student of Scripture. Of course we are all interested in what Bach wrote and underlined about music but we find that out of all of his markings only 3 percent of them deal with music. Bach dug into the entire Word, and not just the parts that he felt applied to him and his calling. When Bach came across printing errors he would correct them in the margin. We even find next to Exodus 38 Bach adding up the amount of gold used to build the temple. Bach was intimately familiar with all of Scripture.

How different would our songs for worship be today if every church musician was as familiar with the Bible as Bach was? Imagine the impact it would make for those who compose songs, those who lead singing, and those who play instruments in our worship services! A life consumed with the Word of God is a life that will overflow with the Word of God. No wonder why Bach’s music is among the best in the world!

On a side note, at the risk of stepping on toes, I feel that this only adds to my conviction that those who assist in leading worship must be Christians. As we have seen, Bach was obviously convinced that the role of church musician was a biblical role, one that he took seriously and devoted his life to it; a life that was rooted and sustained by the Word of God. Why would you want to allow your congregation to be taught, fed, and led by someone who by their very nature despises the Word of God? Even if it’s “just the guy who plays guitar” you are still sending a message to your congregation that: 1) Good sounding music is equal to or more important than worship. 2) Those who lead are not held to a Biblical standard, but rather a Pragmatic standard—therefore, so is the congregation—which leads to a works-righteousness culture and a devaluing of Scripture.

Glimpsing the personal Bible study of J.S. Bach has greatly encouraged me and I hope it does the same for you. From it we find that:

1) Bach was fully convinced that his calling as a church musician was thoroughly Biblical which gave him great courage and great humility as he carried out his duties.

2) Bach came to this understanding through an intimate knowledge of Scripture that was the overflow of his life and work.

O that I might emulate J.S. Bach and soak myself in the Word of God so that it might be the overflow of my life and my work!

If you want to find more info about Bach's Bible check out the following links:
The Calov Bible Wikipedia Page
Watch a Video about Bach's Bible
Christianity Today Article

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