07.31.17

Lecrae and Shai Aren’t Your Problems: The Conscience and Christian Hip Hop

So the debate continues. Should artists be called “Christian rappers” or “rappers who are Christians”? Must all Christian hip hop include explicitly Christian themes and lyrics or are rappers free to explore other subjects? Does a move from explicitly Christian lyrics and identifying as a “Christian rapper” signify a move away from the gospel, the church and the faith or is it an acceptable repositioning in order to reach the not-yet-Christian world.

For a long time now, fans and observers of Christian hip hop have received a steady dose of this debate. Social media pundits have trenched out deep positions from which they lob the rhetorical Molotov cocktail at opponents in other trenches. Heat rises as little light shines—at least little light the “other side” is willing to acknowledge as light rather than darkness.

I don’t have much to add to the debate either in terms of the intricacies of lyrical craftsmanship or the entanglements of the music industry. I can’t rap and I don’t know the music business.

The Deeper Problem in the Debate

I can read my Bible, however. And, I suspect the deeper problem in this debate isn’t whether this or that artist “has it right.” While I think there are important lines to establish and maintain, I suspect the lines aren’t in the same place for every audience or interested fan. The solution isn’t to insist louder that “this line is right” and everyone ought to toe it. The solution begins with first asking ourselves, “Why do we have different lines for what’s tolerable or right in this situation?” What’s at the root of the difference?

It isn’t, as far as I can tell, different levels of allegiance to Christ, though we ought to always “examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith” () and “work out our salvation in fear and trembling” (). The root isn’t differing philosophical takes on how to label ourselves and how to engage people around us, though those difference no doubt exist.

To find the source of the consternation we have to look to the human conscience, that voice—internal witness, really—given to us by God so that we would have an innate sense of right and wrong even without the scripture. Through the conscience God makes sure He is never without a witness () and we are never with an excuse ().

But here’s the rub: No two persons have the exact same conscience at every point and no single person’s conscience exactly matches the mind of God. This means we may agree about the moral right or wrong of a great many things. However, some things I think are right you may consider wrong. And vice versa. And even where we all agree something is right or wrong, it may not at all be right or wrong in God’s sight. In other words, we can be unified in moral error. So our consciences, while critical guides, are not infallible and must be shaped by the word of God.

Christian Liberty

This is especially true in matters of Christian liberty. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him…. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (). Eating and abstaining, celebrating special days and counting all days the same are not issues that should provoke us to judge the other according to our scruples of conscience. One eats and one doesn’t. Neither is right or wrong. One calls himself a “Christian artist” and the other prefers “artist who is a Christian.” Neither is right or wrong.

This is why the Bible says: “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions…. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand…. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.  For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s….Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God…” ().

In the final analysis, “each of us will give an account of himself to God” ().

The Weak in Faith

But did you notice? The real difference isn’t diet or celebrations. The real difference is whether we are “weak in faith” or “strong in faith.” “Weak in faith” sounds like a critical judgment to our ears. But that’s not how Paul means it. He simply means “weak conscience,” or, to put it another way, someone whose conscience will not allow them to do things they are genuinely free to do in Christ. That person isn’t “weak” in the sense of crying in a corner unable to go outside. The “weakness” shows itself in the multiplication of rules, of scruples, things they will or will not do because of their conscience. Such persons tend to not only make rules for themselves (which is completely appropriate and necessary) but in matters of freedom they also tend to project their scruples onto others (which is completely inappropriate and unnecessary). The person with a “weak conscience” sometimes will treat the liberty of fellow Christians as if it were sin though the Bible doesn’t define it as sin.

We get this twisted. We often think of such persons as paragons of strong faith. But the Bible says this tendency to being overly scrupulous and binding others to our conscience is what makes them “weak in faith.” It seems evident from my TL that a good number of people chiming in on this issue are people of weak conscience who need to fall back to be sure their convictions are really warranted by the Bible. They need to take care they don’t try to bind people to rules of their making that Christ does not require in book, chapter and verse. “For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience?” ()

The Strong in Faith

If we often mistake the “weak in faith” for being strong because they abide by a lot of scruples, we also often mistake the “strong in faith” for being weak because they do things that unsettle us. The strong in faith embrace a wider sense of Christian liberty than their weaker brothers. Their consciences are not as easily bothered on some matters. They may be right to be unbothered, or they may be hardening their conscience to things they should be alarmed about. It’s tough to know the difference sometimes (), especially without book, chapter, verse (thanks Janette…ikz!).

However, the “strong in faith” have a responsibility in this discussion, too. Christian liberty cannot be wielded without loving consideration of others and the effect of our actions on others. So the Bible continues: “decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother(). This is not a decision the weak make for the strong. Rather, this is a decision the strong make for themselves. It springs from love and humble consideration of others. The strong reason this way: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.  For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.  So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.” ().

Those who think themselves strong in faith musk keep in mind: “’All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. “’All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (). God makes edification and love for neighbor the boundaries of our freedom. From what I can tell on my TL, some folks thinking themselves strong—with a conscience unbothered by the use of liberty in Christian hip hop—need to fall back and ask themselves if their actions and speech build up the saints and produce good for their Christian neighbor. This is important because whether you make music “for the church” or “from the church” it is still the Church that must be your concern according to texts like . Even if we hope to become all things to all men that we might win some (), and even if we think all things are lawful to us, we must keep in mind our brothers and sisters who are affected. We must always be concerned that we “do not destroy the one for whom Christ died” and that we not “destroy the work of God” in a fellow believer’s life ().

Conclusion 

This post doesn’t answer every question or solve every issue—or any issue. But I do hope it points to a deeper issue than merely arguing about labels, strategy and someone’s spiritual state. There are real questions to ask and answer, but we must start deeper. And I hope it helps us all to see we each have more skin in this than maybe we thought with our tribal and often knee-jerk reactions.

There’s a tight rope to walk in all of this. If we are really strong, then we ought to “bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (). If we are actually weak, then we ought to acknowledge our weakness and encourage the liberty of the strong. Maintaining this balance—which requires we be honest about ourselves and our consciences—is very near the heart of the Christian hip hop debate.

If you don’t know the state of your conscience, if you have never done a serious study of the Bible’s teaching on the conscience, Christian freedom and Christian unity, then I cannot commend enough Andy Naselli and J.D. Crowley’s book, Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ. I think it might be the most important book written in the last twenty years. I wish I could read it with every Christian. It just might help the Christian hip hop community find the unity we so desperately need.

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (ESV)

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, (ESV)

17 Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” (ESV)

20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (ESV)

One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.

Romans 14:5-6

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. (ESV)

14:1 As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.

Romans 14:3

Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.

Romans 14:7-8

For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.

Romans 14:10

10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; (ESV)

12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. (ESV)

29 I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? (ESV)

24 The sins of some men are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. (ESV)

13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. (ESV)

14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. 16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. (ESV)

23 “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. (ESV)

23 “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. (ESV)

9:1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?

Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? 10 Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. 11 If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? 12 If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more?

Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. 13 Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? 14 In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.

15 But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. 16 For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. 18 What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (ESV)

15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.

Romans 14:20

20 Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. (ESV)

15:1 We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. (ESV)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

C’mon Up!

  • Roosevelt Leggett

    Thanks pastor! Very helpful. I’m going to add the book you recommended to my wish list.

    • Thabiti Anyabwile

      I hope it blesses you as it did me!
      T-

      • Chinechetam Ogazi

        Thanks so much Pastor T. I appreciate the clarity and simplicity. But I’ll want to ask you; aren’t​ there warning signs when the conscience of both weak and strong seem to ‘technically’ avoid having a conversation about these issues and even move beyond to consider issues like Holiness, Contextualization in mission, Gospel clarity’

        So another question would be are there lines in CHH were Christians seem to be reluctant to shed light on the gospel, where perhaps ‘christian liberty’ is the message not ‘christian conviction’?

        Just the same way a Church may be more reluctant to speak up for justice and make ‘conservatism’ the message not ‘Jesus’?

        Also, my bias is here and I admit that i find it hard when some in CHH seem to always put ‘church’ and ‘gospel’ only in issues of debate or to make an argument and hardly ever just put it out there when no one asked or was expecting.

        Jerry
        Lagos, Nigeria

  • Selah

    Thank u. This is very balanced and unbiased unlike some commentators/periscopes etc.
    For some reason I had a picture while reading this of Thabiti as a dad pulling his sons Lecrae and Shai by the ear telling them to “fix this”! 😂🙏🏾
    Time to restore/rebuild CHH 👌🏾

    • Thabiti Anyabwile

      it’s because of my gray hair 🙂
      Thanks for reading!

  • Jelani Still

    This analysis, which is supported by scriptures, is helpful to me, and I hope to many others. Thank you.

  • Agee

    Wow. I admit I’m weak, and guilty of judging my stronger brothers liberity. I’m so thankful tho the scriptures when rightly divided gives so much light and clarity. Showing u where and how to walk in the way where it’s aim is the glory of God first and love for the weaker brother like myself. Wow! Grace and peace!

  • Truth + Fire

    Thank you for your perspective, Pastor. I agree with you regarding the none issue of whether 1 calls himself a “Christian rapper” or “a rapper who happens to be Christian”. That is certainly a matter of “liberty”.

    But the “Christian rapper” label also isn’t the crux of the debate. The debate isn’t about whether to use a label. It’s about the Gospel. It is about concern that 1 may be abusing his liberty that he is now falling into temptation and leading others to stumble.

    Lecrae has liberty to sing songs about “positivity” and “social justice.” He does not have liberty to water down or ditch the Gospel/truth of God. He has liberty to go into the world to reach the lost. He does not have liberty to endorse the lost as they create works that utterly counter God’s truth. Paul said while he has liberty to eat meat, if eating meat causes a brother to stumble, he’d never eat meat again. ().

    This debate isn’t about a “label” or the type of music an artist wishes to do. It’s whether said artist who is Christian (and built his entire career around being unashamed of the Gospel and needing a larger platform to share it) is going off mission and message.

    Paul and Barnabas fought over whether Mark stays or goes. That was a matter of opinion. But they each took the Gospel with them. Though they disagreed on matters of opinion, they still agreed in spirit and truth, which is why their reconcilation was possible. If one is showing signs of ditching the truth, that is a major concern. Not a matter of opinion or one attempting to hold someone to a legalistic burden.

    Also you said “no single person’s conscience exactly matches the mind of God.” But in matters that explicitly counter God’s word, a single person can apply the truth of God that he rightly judge a matter, and those who are spiritual (born again) have the mind of Christ. “The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him? BUT WE HAVE the mind of Christ.” (, emphasis mine). So there is a definitive right and wrong on a matter when the matter is filtered through the truth of God and He’s explicitly spoken on it. Whether a “Christian rapper” or “rapper who is Christian”, all Christians are charged to “always be ready to give an answer for the hope we have when asked” (which means to share Christ), . That is not driven by “liberty” so when we see a professed Believer ALWAYS dodging those opportunities yet ALWAYS find the opportunity to instead promote matters of the world, it’s justifiably concerning to discerning Believers. That concern isn’t at all based in man-made legalism, but God’s truth.

  • Greg Wright

    This is really interesting. Christian hip hop seems to be in a place I recognize from Christian rock in my youth. Punk and hip hop emerged at roughly the same time, responding to the same forces, just from the other side of town. And most churches didn’t know what to do with the energy and honesty that comes through in the music of the Altar Boys and Undercover, and the social commentary of Steve Taylor was either unintelligible or offensive to many churchy people. The loudest, clearest voice against segregation I ever heard in my suburban church was Taylor’s.

    And we heard all the same complaints from the broader world back then—Christian bands were corny, they aren’t as good, stuff like that.

    But what we saw back then, while the folks in “big church” were averting their eyes, was something like revival. When I heard Tim Keller describe the revival he saw in college, he could have been talking about high schools in my town in 1985. God used corny garage bands to bring glory to Himself.

    I still recite at the top of my lungs, just like Mike Stand.

    As a California guy I’ve been listening to Propaganda for a while, but I’m only now discovering Cross Movement. What rock have I been hiding under?