Over at The Pangea Blog, Kurt Willems offers some provocative thoughts on Chris Tomlin’s “Our God is Greater”:
I agree with every line of this song. Nothing about it is theologically untrue in any way. But I think that singing “Our God is Greater” might make God seem less great….
To call God “great” is more than appropriate, but calling God “greater” invites a competitive and confrontational tone. So, in this sort of cultural climate, I make the claim that singing songs about how “our God is greater” actually makes God less great. Two reasons come to mind as to why this might be so.
The two reasons Willems proffers are: first, that it essentially proclaims that the Christian narrative should be central to society – a stance he clearly sees as imperialist and which he conflates with American nationalism; and second, that the proclamation of God as greater may be offensive, especially in an increasingly pluralistic and post-Christian culture.
I should note, right off the bat, that Willems thinks the theology of the song perfectly accurate (and says as much explicitly). More, I believe he is coming from the right direction as he approaches this question: he wants to make sure that God is most glorified and that people are drawn to him. We couldn’t agree more on those aims, but we differ quite a bit on whether this song, and the sentiments it expresses, will be salutary or detrimental in the pursuit of those goals.
Willems cites a number of transitions that take place as a society transitions from “Christendom” to “post-Christendom”:
- From the center to the margins: in Christendom the Christian story and the churches were central, but in post-Christendom these are marginal.
- From the majority to the minority: in Christendom Christians comprised the (often overwhelming) majority, but in post-Christendom we are a minority.
- From settlers to sojourners: in Christendom Christians felt at home in a culture shaped by their story, but in post-Christendom we are aliens, exiles and pilgrims in a culture where we no longer feel at home.
- From privilege to plurality: in Christendom Christians enjoyed many privileges, but in post-Christendom we are one community among many in a plural society.
- From control to witness: in Christendom churches could exert control over society, but in post-Christendom we exercise influence only through witnessing to our story and its implications.
- From maintenance to mission: in Christendom the emphasis was on maintaining a supposedly Christian status quo, but in post-Christendom it is on mission within a contested environment.
- From institution to movement: in Christendom churches operated mainly in institutional mode, but in post-Christendom we must become again a Christian movement.
I think he is right about these transitions, and with him I actually welcome these transitions. But the conclusions he draws are, in my view, deeply flawed.
First, he argues that the tone of the song is too confrontational: that call God not only “great” but “greater” sounds like a power play: “my dad can beat up your dad.” But this is just the sort of declaration that populates every book of the Bible: that God is greater than every other god, indeed, than every other thing that lays claim on our hearts. We cannot hesitate to say as much today. This truth is not ours to mute when it becomes culturally unacceptable; it is not ours to decide what aspects of God ought to be in the forefront. Scripture is clear, and our responsibility is to Sripture, not to the changing whims of the world.
Willems wants to say that the church cannot say this from the margins now (though it did in its beginning) because our history is different. We have occupied a position of power, and accordingly, this song sends a message about cultural dominance. But as with all points of theology apt to be misunderstood, our responsibility is not to mute the teaching but to explicate it more clearly.
Further, Christianity should not seek to be the central narrative in society, he thinks. But of course, if Christianity is true, then Christians should want it to be the central narrative in every individual’s life – and if it is the central narrative in most lives in a culture (admittedly a far cry from today’s situation), then it will be the central narrative of the culture. Christianity stood as the central narrative of culture not because of mere power-mongering but because it triumphed over every competing narrative for centuries.
This, then, is not a matter of political power plays, but of passion for the gospel. In the end, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. Not that he’s nice, not that he’s fascinating, not even that he is Savior – that he is Lord.
We dare not truncate our proclamation of the character of God for any reason. In a generation that cares far more about social justice and equality than about sin, that embraces a certain egalitarian approach to all religions (“Whatever works for you, man”), the declaration of God as triumphant is more essential, not less. Truth always offends. Which apsect of God’s self-revelation offends most varies age to age, and the temptation is ever-present to compromise on just those points where our culture stands most opposed to what God has said. We must not.
More: though Willems seems to think offending the outsider with this sort of confrontational language will prevent people from coming to God, I believe just the opposite is true. What is needed in this time is not agreement, even tacit, with the compromising spirit of the age, but prophetic declaration of truth. We claim to love speaking truth to power. Well, then: let us do just that. People will be won by the Spirit of God in the clear proclamation of the gospel, as they ever have been. And part of the gospel is that God is greater than every other power in the world. Not merely great, but greatest – he brooks no rivals; he is the king. That’s good news precisely because of the rest of the gospel: his triumph over sin, his redemption of people to live in righteousness. But it is good news.
Willems is wrong for another reason, too: he misses the fundamental breach between church and culture – an ironic failure for an Anabaptist. Even were we to grant that the song’s tone is inappropriate for cultural interaction and engagement, that it is too hostile seemeing for outsiders, this would still not be grounds for ceasing to sing it in the congregation. The church stands apart from culture, its members in the world but not of it. Our worship must reflect that difference. The corporate worship of a gonregation is not _for_outsiders but for God himself first and then for the edification of the community of believers. That outsiders might be offended or turned off by our declaration of truth in worship is utterly irrelevant. Indeed: if no part of our worship offends a non-believer, we are almost certainly not worshipping the true God.
“Our God is Greater” is precisely the sort of song we should be singing more: it exalts God and instructs believers. It confronts the lies of this age and boldly declares God’s supremacy over all things. The moment we bend knee to our culture’s theological egalitarianism is the moment we begin to compromise on the very nature of God himself.
No impulse, however noble, can carry us down that road without great harm. We either stand firm on what is theologically true – without hesitation, without qualification – or we risk losing the very thing we aim at. Whenever Christians have turned from proclaiming all truth about God, the gospel inevitably becomes murky. This is just as much the case for those who proclaim God’s sovereignty without proclaiming his love (the pit into which my own camp is likely to fall) as it is for those who want to proclaim his love without his lordship. We need both, and we need to proclaim them boldly.
There is more to be said, here, of course: his association of the song with American nationalism is perplexing at best. I suspect he's reading into the song meaning that no Christian I know attaches to it, probably thanks to his other Anabaptist and progressive views. But almost 1500 words is enough for one night.
Let me close by reiterating that I think Willem’s aims are dead on. May God indeed be more glorified in the church in America. May his church-planting efforts be fruitful for the transformation of many lives as he preaches the gospel. May we, like him, be more concerned, not less, with the plight of our unbelieveing neighbors and friends. But let us not, in pursuing those things, even begin to mute any part of our proclamation. Those unbelieving neighbors need all the truth about God, not only the parts that they like, and not only the parts that are less historically and culturally fraught.