Sunday, June 05, 2011

What's a Musician To the orthodox Christian Church?

Early in my Journey to Orthodoxy I noticed that the word orthodox was used more often than the word Christian in referring to a baptized person in the Church. It is understandable that the term orthodox is needed today to distinguish between those in the original church, established by Christ, and those in the myriads of pseudo-christian groups claiming to be churches. In fact, the word orthodox, meaning "right teaching" or "right glory", was first used in the early centuries of the church to distinguish between those who adhered to the faith of our fathers and those who were given to heresies. "We are orthodox Christians," one might have said.

Though the word's usage started as an adjective, today it is erroneously used more often as a noun; the Catholic Church, the Baptist Church, the "Orthodox" church, and the like. The fact is, we are not Orthodox, we are orthodox. We are not part of the Orthodox Church, we are part of the orthodox Christian Church. It is easy to clear up the misunderstanding with non-orthodox people, but it seems a little harder to clear it up with the orthodox faithful. The word orthodox has become so synonymous with Christian, that some very important lines have become skewed. We are actually orthodox Christians not Orthodox Christians.

I often hear the phrase, "that's not orthodox", but rarely hear the phrase "that's not Christian." The phrase, "that's not orthodox", is often used in reference to doctrines, but I have discovered the phrase is more often used in reference to a cultural tradition or practice. This is where the Orthodox and the orthodox can get skewed. A case in point is the use of songs of praise with musical instruments. Are songs of praise and musical instruments un-orthodox? Are they un-Christian?

When musicians come into the orthodox Church, they learn very quickly that there is no room for their instrumental skills in the Temple worship. They also learn that their vocal skills even must be tweaked to sing and chant according to the byzantine or other liturgical traditions. The "o" and the "O" becomes skewed when musicians are told or made to feel that their instrumental or vocal talents are not orthodox. This is where one must be careful to respond, "Yes, but is it Christian"?

There is and should be a place for musicians in the orthodox Christian Church. It may not be orthodox in the Temple but it is Christian to use instruments, lyrics, melodious songs of praise and joy to worship and praise our God in other venues. Would it be un-orthodox to allow such expression of praise in the coffee hour or in another venue? No. Would it be un-Christian? Certainly not.

We often hear the phrase, "passionless worship", to be practiced within the Liturgy. There is great value in this and it is orthodox to refrain from human passions in that context. However, one must not skew the Christian faith to say, "that's not orthodox", to the orthodox Christian musician who would, with great passion, sing and play songs of praise to our God outside the context of the liturgy.

I encourage all of the orthodox Christian world to encourage the musicians amongst them to write, play, sing, and record songs of praise. Why? Because it is both orthodox and Christian to do so!
  1. Ephesians 5:19
    Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;
  2. Colossians 3:16
    Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.
  1. Psalm 7:17
    I will praise the LORD according to his righteousness: and will sing praise to the name of the LORD most high.
  2. Psalm 9:2
    I will be glad and rejoice in thee: I will sing praise to thy name, O thou most High.
  3. Psalm 9:11
    Sing praises to the LORD, which dwelleth in Zion: declare among the people his doings.
  4. Psalm 13:6
    I will sing unto the LORD, because he hath dealt bountifully with me.
  5. Psalm 18:49
    Therefore will I give thanks unto thee, O LORD, among the heathen, and sing praises unto thy name.
  6. Psalm 21:13
    Be thou exalted, LORD, in thine own strength: so will we sing and praise thy power.
  7. Psalm 27:6
    And now shall mine head be lifted up above mine enemies round about me: therefore will I offer in his tabernacle sacrifices of joy; I will sing, yea, I will sing praises unto the LORD.
  8. Psalm 30:4
    Sing unto the LORD, O ye saints of his, and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness.
  9. Psalm 30:12
    To the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks unto thee for ever.
  10. Psalm 33:2
    Praise the LORD with harp: sing unto him with the psaltery and an instrument of ten strings.
  11. Psalm 33:3
    Sing unto him a new song; play skilfully with a loud noise.


  1. THANK YOU! This skewing is precisely where I struggle the most in my journey (we are looking at joining the Antiochiian Church). So refreshing to hear this and very disappointing to not hear it from mainstream Orthodox sites.

  2. Jacob, You are welcome. God bless you on your journey. Please read my post concerning Antioch:

  3. There are some who support the usage of an organ because it makes the praying and divine service less boring. If for these people praying is boring, than they might consider not praying at all. One may recommend them to go see a musical play, a movie, or just go fishing. A prayer is a dialogue with God, asking him for forgiveness and salvation… A person might just imagine this situation: “You come to your mother or father to ask them for forgiveness for something”. Does one need a guitar or an accordion in hand to do that? Why? If in one’s request for forgiveness (a prayer) there is not enough sincerity, will the musical accompaniment will be able to compensate that? No, it will probably mask that insincerity, but not form the one to whom one is praying. What about us why should we cheat ourselves?
    In the Orthodoxy a human being is looked at as the most perfect instrument ,that must be tempered. For that, just like a guitar or any other instrument there needs to be a long and strenuous practice. That practice does not require one’s personal will but a will of God. This practice requires humility, forgiveness, not being hypocoristic but to honestly look at oneself as the first of the sinners. Just like our faithful grandmothers taught us: Praying, fasting, and suffering. Then there will be no desire “to better” the divine service that was commanded to us by the holy fathers, the best of the representative of the church, which was founded by our God Lord Jesus Christ himself.
    To determine why Catholics and Protestants use musical instruments in the churches, that should be discussed separately. In the end, if they have established such tradition for centuries, let them keep it, since the purity of the church they chose not to keep. Looking back at the history of our Orthodox church it is difficult to imagine that during the divine service there will be playing of an organ, a guitar, or a violin orchestra. That the Holy Communion will be accommodated by Rock music, like it is done in certain Protestant sects. Orthodox chants reflect the Orthodox life, a godlike life, a life with God. Orthodox chants help us to undergo that or the other event of the earthly life of Jesus Christ. Those are the gloomy chants of the holy week and those of full joy like the Paschal chants. Orthodoxy is not just emotional, it is first of all spirituality, that unity with the holy spirit. The real Orthodox chants like the Byzantine or Old Slavonic famous chants and others ideally represent the essence of Orthodoxy; mainly unity, secondly freedom in all and love. Early fathers saw instrumental music to lead to dancing and other passions that destroy the humility of the Christian life.

  4. Alexy, You have given a right explanation as to why instruments are not used in the liturgy, but as I pointed out: "There is and should be a place for musicians in the orthodox Christian Church. It may not be orthodox in the Temple but it is Christian to use instruments, lyrics, melodious songs of praise and joy to worship and praise our God in other venues. Would it be un-orthodox to allow such expression of praise in the coffee hour or in another venue? No. Would it be un-Christian? Certainly not." So the question is: "when and where can the orthodox Christian use his talents in praise of God?"

  5. Also important to consider what genre of music is being used to express that praise of God. There are types of music out there that serve to rouse the passions and have very negative, and in certain situations, a demonic influence upon the body and soul. Yet, many of these genres are used for Christian music-making and are, in fact, quite lucrative.

  6. Euphrosyne,
    I am curious to know to which "genres/types" you refer. Is the negative influence in the tones, instruments, volume, lyrics, setting...? Is it inherent or is it a matter of the intent of the heart?

  7. I think all of the above can be contributing factors. Multiple elders and fathers of the Church speak to us about considering the effect music has upon our bodies and souls... how it makes us feel. Many genres carry heavy influence from their African voodoo music roots. Contemporary Christian songs often contain lyrics that praise God but contradict the truths upheld by our mother Church. Not to discourage would-be Orthodox musicians (my husband is a semi-professional musician), but the intent of the heart, while hopefully a good one, often errs and one's lyrics, as well as the sounds and rhythms of their music, ought to be weighed against the traditions, doctrines, dogmas and teachings of the Church if one purports to be an orthodox musician, even at coffee hour. Without doing so, one could be unintentionally causing spiritual harm to their fellow parishioners or, in the case of a public concert, deterring others on their spiritual path without knowing it.

    I know my stance sounds extreme, but I think we must take every thought (and indeed action and choice) hostage and judge it, by God's grace and even with our own sinful nature, against the truths the church has given us. All that to say, one genre I think is a great place to start for would-be orthodox musicians is in traditional folk music from many cultures around the world. St. Innocent's Academy and Living H20 (both Orthodox groups) have both put out multiple CDs of liturgical and folk music that are quite good (and even include one classic Irish drinking/fighting song, so you can't call me a total stick-in-the-mud!) :)

  8. Anonymous4:45 PM

    Thanks for the thoughtful article Nathan. I am considering conversion to Orthodoxy after many years being unsure of my spiritual path. My relationship with churches has always been dictated by the fact that I am a touring musician and artist, but I have been blessed over the years to have spiritual guidance and friendship from a wonderful Orthodox priest and painter who has always encouraged me to follow my heart on this. My music has always been spiritual, and I have often resorted to profanity and even sexual imagery to express spiritual things, which is a tightrope I know, but it is also the form my art takes. It is provocative or, to say it another way, it is prophetic. I have often wrestled with whether it is of a different spirit than the peace and joy which I experience in the Holy Spirit. But I always come back to this: the Spirit is sometimes a dove, sometimes a fountain, but other times, it is fire! So I say that in addition to praising God directly through gospel music outside of the liturgy, there is also another kind of worship that happens in music or art that is confessional, conveys pain and wrestles with the passions, and narrates the human landscape in an honest, un-glossed way. Would love your thoughts on this.

    Thanks again for the article! -- Sean.

  9. Thanks, Sean. for sharing your journey. I hope this article encourages you, as a musician, rather than discourages you, toward the orthodox Church. You have a great blessing in the orthodox priest who encourages you in your musical talents. I have a Metropolitan who also encourages me and understands that we are artists because God has made us so. One difference in the Protestant and Orthodox ethos is the fact that the orthodox liturgy is not used as a platform for one to perform or display his musical (or theatrical) talents. When I was a protestant, we had a man in the church who loved to sing solos. When he first arrived, he sang often and felt content. Over time, when he was not asked to sing as often, he grew discontent and left the church. It is always a matter of our heart. To what end and goal do we direct our talents? Outside the liturgy/worship service, we are artists who reflect life in all of its dynamics, both the good, bad, and the ugly. Does a painter paint only flowers and puppies? Neither does a singer sing or write about only the better things. Neither does an actor only play the roles of godly characters- someone must portray the dark side of humanity. Even the Scripture reflect the reality of all humanity! We must know evil to know righteousness. Our challenge is to not become what we create, but rather, let The Creator guide us in all things. Having a spiritual Father/priest to counsel us and watch after our souls is vital. Be prepared: there is a school of thought (although very few, but boisterous students are enrolled) that all art is tainted and evil and to participate is the conduct of demons. To them I say, to condemn the artist is the conduct of demons!. Sean, draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Commit your ways to Him, and He will direct your paths. Stay in touch and e-mail me if you like:

  10. What about classical music?

  11. There is a song i grew up with in the Baptist church "Holy Holy Holy" that i have never heard in the Orthodox church but would love to hear someday.

  12. I am a former church organist and pianist. After playing for at least 50 Churches throughout Louisiana as well as performing secular music in nightclubs and other venues I converted along with my wife to Orthodoxy under the Jurisdiction of Antioch. I was informed upon my conversion that there was no room for my talents within the circle of Orthodoxy. I am blind and grew up practicing music for almost 8-10 hours a day. This is the only livelihood I have ever known. This is what I learned to do as my life's work. I am forbidden to play for other churches so I could play secular music, but my conscience wont let me sing lyrics that do not glorify God. J. S. Bach once said that music was created for the glory of God. I don't know what to do. I have given up singing and playing. I haven't been near a piano or guitar in 4 years because of what I was told. It has caused me to feel as though I had lost a part of my body. Music is and has always been my prayer, and devotion, my therapy and so much more. It is a misery to me such that I have often considered leaving the Church. The only thing that has kept me hanging on is the grace of God, and the knowledge that this is the true Church, and as St. Peter once said, where would I go? (John 6:69, extremely paraphrased). I do not understand either, since famous singers have existed in the Orthodox Church. People such as Mara Callas, and actresses such as Natalie Wood and her sister. Why does it seem that Orthodoxy now hates musicians, and wants to suppress any hope they may have for supporting their families and being contributing members to society and the Church. I do not know nor do I understand what to do about this yet, but am waiting patiently for God to provide a way to fix this!

    ☦ John Mark Hair

  13. This is a very refreshing post. Others, such as Bradley Nassif, have advocated for some changes in the music used in Orthodox churches in America. I am a bishop in the Evangelical Orthodox Church, not recognized as canonical by mainline orthodox jurisdictions. Many know one side of our story through writings of former EOC leaders who joined the Antiochian archdiocese in the mid 80's, such as the late Fr. Peter Gilquist Sr. who wrote Coming Hone. What many don't know is that their are still vibrant EOC parishes, and one among a number or reasons we have remained so is the music. We live in America and most all of us came out of Protestant/Evangelical churches and have been very influenced by that rich musical heritage. Much of it is not orthodox in its theology and much of it is not fit for liturgical worship, but there are some very good hymns and songs that are, but they have no place in the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church. Not only is such music organic to us every bit as much as some chant styles are organic to Orthodox mother countries, but it also forms a bridge for Protestant Evangelicals who can't warm up directly to traditional Orthodox liturgical chant. Consequently, many have found the Orthodox Church through the bridge of the EOC. Of course, we would prefer to be officially connected with the larger Orthodox world, but not at the cost of being circumcised to fit the foreign-feeling atmosphere of traditional Orthodox worship. This is not an attempt to create God or the Church in our image, but simply to press out the orthodox Faith in a way that is honest and incarnational to our realities. To suggest that heaven only contains one kind of music would even betray the variety among various Orthodox jurisdictions. I am not advocating for the typical entertainment style of praise band "worship" to be incorporated into the Divine Liturgy, but simply a welcome reception to music that is very reverential and majestic, but that still reflects the cultural realities of America. Surely the Old Testament is fulfilled or "filled full" in Christ but not discarded; and surely anyone can see that Davidic worship had much in it's character that has been lost in much of contemporary Orthodox Liturgy.


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