Mahaney: “Worldliness,” ch. 3

Review: Chapter 3 – “God, My Heart, and Music” by Bob Kauflin in Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World, C. J. Mahaney, ed.

A friend of mine loaned me his copy of this little book for my review. Since it is a compilation of six essays by five Sovereign Grace Ministries clergymen, I thought it best to review the book section by section. Previously: Chapter One, Chapter Two.

The third chapter of the book is written by Bob Kauflin, director of worship development for Sovereign Grace Ministries and pastor and worship leader of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

I was forewarned by friends and other reviews that I would not like the music chapter by Bob Kauflin. As I read, I tried to be objective and read without a prejudicial spirit (how easy is that?). I have to say, to summarize briefly, I found many commendable thoughts in this chapter as well as a distinct difference. The distinct difference is to be expected given our differing philosophies of music and ministry, but the commendable thoughts encourage me that all is not lost in the thinking of men like Bob Kauflin. I think his views are not so far off mine except for the one sticking point, the distinct difference.

First, we have to say that it is commendable to address music in a book on worldliness. Many people do not take the more conservative view of music for which fundamentalists are known. Many of these simply dismiss the notion that music needs to be on the table in discussions about worldliness. To them, music is not an issue and anything goes. The only concession they might make is when lyrics are explicitly pornographic or rebellious or the like. But they absolutely maintain that music isn’t a matter of worldliness and shouldn’t be up for discussion.

Bob Kauflin isn’t in this category. His discussion really begins when he says:

Music can be more dangerous than most of us realize. It has the potential to harden our hearts and weaken our faith. In fact, a wise Christian understands that listening to music without discernment and godly intent reveals a heart willing to flirt with the world.1

Now he also does say, at the outset, “no single genre of music is better than the rest in every way.”2 He quotes Harold Best to the effect that classical culture or primitive culture are all one, and the music of any culture reflects the diversity of God’s glory. Quite frankly, such an assumption is culturally naïve. It is an essential flaw of thinking that contributes to the distinct difference I mention above. Some cultures are so thoroughly pagan that they are incapable of expressing themselves without the taint of their lusts imbuing every form of art they produce. Is it the ‘image of God’ they produce in their art? Well, maybe, but in a very perverted and corrupted form. We shouldn’t assume that any genre, or any culture, is spiritually neutral and therefore appropriate for glorifying God.

Kauflin argues that melody, harmony, and rhythm have no moral value by themselves and are “incapable of lying to us or commanding us to do wrong.”3 He says that music can’t teach us theological truth, which is true, but  no one is contending that it does… making this argument a bit of a straw man. He does say, in contrast, that “music affects our emotions in profound ways”4 noting that there are significant bodily effects from music as well as spiritual effects. This is the paradox of the chapter – on the one hand, we find Kauflin trying to maintain the distinct difference, but on the other, we find him acknowledging many of the arguments fundamentalists make concerning music.

For example, consider this statement:

The passions music draws out range from noble to base, from simple to complex, from God-glorifying to sensual. That’s why people who write advertising jingles, pop songs, and film scores can make a decent living. They know music speaks powerfully to our emotions. Most of us are touched by the music we hear, even when we’re unaware of it. In fact, sometimes we realize how music is affecting us only when we notice it’s not playing anymore.5


Kauflin says the reasons music affects us in this way are various. One is “learned musical principles”.6 I think he would say these vary over cultures. Also, he says, “attentiveness” makes a difference on musical effect. That is, music affects us more when we are paying attention to it. (I suppose that goes without saying.) He suggests a few other reasons that music affects us, but then says “no aspect of music affects us more than the things we associate with it.”7 He uses the metaphor of infectious disease, saying that because of ‘associations’ music is a ‘carrier’ of positive or negative influences. “And if we don’t realize what music is ‘carrying,’ worldly attitudes and desires can influence and affect our unsuspecting hearts.”8

Associations, according to Kauflin, make music a carrier through three elements: “content, context, and culture.”9 By content, Kauflin means the lyrics.10 By context, he means “the environments we connect with music — the places, events, and people that surround the music we listen to on a regular basis.”11 By culture, he means “the values we connect with music” which vary over time and differ from group to group.12 We’ll look at each of these categories in a bit more detail.


Kauflin insists that when it comes to the lyrics, Phil 4.8 is an absolute standard for what music should lead us to think about. He says, “When I don’t even consider ungodly lyrical content in the songs I listen to, I’m allowing music to seduce me.”13 He notes that Christians can sing about being delivered from sin on Sunday morning, then remain enslaved to lyrics that promote those very sins through the rest of the week.14 Ungodly lyrics will have an effect on our spirits even if, as some claim, ‘I don’t listen to the words’.

Over time the lyrics to songs can weaken our defenses, blur our discernment, and redirect our affections toward the world. Listening to music is never neutral, because our sinful hearts are involved.

Drift won’t happen right away. And you probably won’t even notice it. … I’ve known guys who work out to songs with angry, profane lyrics because they say the music motivates them to push themselves harder. One day they find themselves singing along to words they used to tune out, words they would be embarrassed to repeat in the presence of their parents or a pastor.

Music with ungodly lyrics can persuade us to love things we wouldn’t ordinarily love.15

Fundamentalists will find much agreement with Kauflin in this section on the content of musical lyrics. Ungodly lyrics are a real problem.

It is interesting to notice, though, that in this section Kauflin uses the illustration about a king hiring a carriage driver and asking the candidates how close can they drive to a cliff. The wise ‘young fundamentalists’ laugh at us older fogies when we use the illustration. I wonder what they think of Kauflin using it?


In this section, Kauflin maintains that past bad contexts for even Christian hymns can affect our feelings about a particular piece of music. He illustrates by a story where a man was saved out of Satanism having an attack of conscience when hearing a piece of music by J. S. Bach because of its similarity to music he heard in the Satanic cult. While I acknowledge that such contexts can cause individual believers some problems, the problem in this case is a mis-informed conscience, not an actual problem with the music.

Kauflin makes a point about the context of music being dangerous by saying “If you attend concerts or events where the artists or the crowd intentionally promote sensuality, godlessness, or rebellion, you’re flirting with the world. And you might not even be aware of it.”16 This is true, but it isn’t merely the association that is the problem. I doubt that such concerts are ones where J. S. Bach is being performed! He goes on to illustrate by mentioning Christian young people who “become attracted to a particular music group or style” who then start to “frequent clubs, bars, and concerts” to “fulfill their musical appetite”.17 “Over time their wardrobe, mannerisms, and attitudes changed to reflect their new influences.”18 The illustration supports fundamentalist contentions about style itself, I think.


In speaking of culture, Kauflin advances his notion that the culture of music varies and thus the ‘meaning’ of a particular piece of music changes as culture changes. I have heard others make this point, but I am not sure I agree with it. He speaks about songs that might have been considered ‘evil’ in the 50s and 60s, but “Many of these songs are now connected to a movie, a commercial, or a product rather than a rebellious generation. What they ‘mean’ has changed along with their cultural associations.”19 He says:

Culture isn’t the same as worldliness. … But worldliness — self-exalting opposition to God — is present in every culture and can be found in anything associated with the music we listen to: packaging, advertisements, pictures, and web sites, as well as musical artist’s clothing, attitudes, and interviews.20

Well, we agree on this point. However, since Kauflin is committed to the notion that genre or style is neutral, he means mostly secular music requires discernment with respect to culture. He refuses to connect his warnings about attitudes or rebelliousness to particular styles of music.

At this point, maybe you’d like me to suggest a list of artists or music styles that every Christian should either pursue or avoid. Sorry, but that list doesn’t exist. And if it did, I’m not convinced it would be helpful. What’s appropriate for one person to listen to might be sin for someone else because of the differing associations we make. We rarely hear music in a vacuum. Depending on the state of our hearts, any song we hear is a potential carrier of worldly values and perspectives.21

Well, to say that I profoundly disagree with this viewpoint would be an understatement! Here lies the distinct difference between us.

Rather than a list, I offer you two questions.

First, does the music you listen to lead you to love the Savior more or cause your affections for Christ to diminish?

Second, does your music lead you to value an eternal perspective or influence you to adopt the mindset of this ‘present evil age’?

Subjectivism reigns!

Kauflin moves on from his discussion of associations to signs that you might already be compromised by the world through the music you listen to:

  • “You seldom or never use Scripture to evaluate your decisions about music.”22
  • “Your music listening is characterized by objectionable content or ungodly contexts.”23
  • “Your priorities and schedule revolve around music.”24
  • “Your passion for Christ has waned; your passion for music hasn’t.”25

In concluding this section, he makes a really remarkable statement:

When the music we listen to glories in what should shame us and directs our minds to earthly things, we’re being more than unwise. We’re exposing ourselves to a message associated with the enemies of the cross — the cross that purchased our forgiveness and freed us from the bondage of our sinful desires.26

We can say, “Amen!” to most of the material in this section, keeping in mind the distinct difference.

The last section of the chapter turns to Kauflin’s advice for believers going forward. What should we then do? Here are his suggestions:

  • Evaluate your intake of music.27
  • Delete or throw away music you’ll listen to only if you backslide.28
  • Listen to music with others.29
  • Make music rather than listen to it.30
  • Go on a music fast.31
  • Keep track of how much music you buy.32
  • Broaden your musical tastes.33
  • Listen to old music.34
  • Intentionally thank God every time you enjoy music.35

I find these suggestions to be of uneven value. Some of them seem rather weak to me. And all of them suffer from our distinct difference, the question of style. Both Kauflin and I could employ these suggestions, but we will arrive in different places because he thinks style is neutral while I do not.

In the final analysis, I think Kauflin’s contribution to the topic is interesting and partly helpful. Many of the things he says should be applied to the question of style as well. I think he is wrong to suggest that style doesn’t carry inherent meaning. Some of the things he says in the chapter (see some of the quotes I highlight above) suggest that he instinctively knows this. He is just in denial because he wants to approve worldly styles that Sovereign Grace Music employs. (That’s my opinion, I am sure Bob Kauflin would hotly contest it!)

He closes the chapter with these words, words I think highly appropriate for evaluating everything about music, including style:

That means music is no longer ours to use however we want. It never was. It was never meant to provide what can be found only in a relationship with the Savior.

Music is a precious gift, but it makes a terrible god.

By God’s grace, may we always know the difference.36



  1. p. 71, emphasis his []
  2. p. 70 []
  3. p. 71 []
  4. p. 71 []
  5. p. 72 []
  6. p. 72 []
  7. p. 73 []
  8. p. 73 []
  9. p. 73 []
  10. p. 73 []
  11. p. 77 []
  12. p. 79 []
  13. p. 74 []
  14. p. 74 []
  15. p. 75 — It is interesting that again we have the idea of ‘drift’ … the slippery slope. When fundamentalists use concepts like this, they are laughed to scorn. []
  16. pp. 77-78 []
  17. p. 78 []
  18. p. 78 []
  19. p. 79 []
  20. p. 79 []
  21. pp. 80-81 []
  22. p. 81 – but he maintains that Scripture does not address style []
  23. p. 82 – here he acknowledges that music informs our view of the world []
  24. p. 83 – here he suggests that time and money spent can reveal idolatrous attitudes in the heart []
  25. p. 84 – here he suggests that music can actually seduce a Christian away from their initial attraction to Christ []
  26. p. 84 []
  27. p. 85 []
  28. p. 85 []
  29. p. 85 – by this he means that your understanding and appreciation of musical nuances can be aided and informed by the reactions and comments of others []
  30. p. 86 []
  31. p. 86 []
  32. p. 87 []
  33. p. 87 []
  34. p. 87 []
  35. p. 88 []
  36. p. 89 []


  1. Don,

    I deal some with Mahaney’s book here:

    For others’ perusal.

    • Thanks Kent. Interesting that we independently draw the same conclusions. Also, great link to the excellent article by Peter Masters. He gets to the heart of the matter. There’s a Calvinist we can have some time for.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3