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” (2 Cor. 13:5) and “work out our salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). 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 (Acts 14:17) and we are never with an excuse (Rom. 1:20).
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.
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” (Rom. 14:2-3, 5-6). 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…” (Rom. 14:1, 3, 7-8, 10).
In the final analysis, “each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Rom. 12:12).
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?” (1 Cor. 10:29)
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 (1 Tim. 5:24), 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” (Rom. 14:13). 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.” (Rom. 14:14-16).
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” (1 Cor. 10:23-24). 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 1 Cor. 10:23-24. Even if we hope to become all things to all men that we might win some (1 Cor. 9), 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 (Rom. 14:15, 20).
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” (Rom. 15:1). 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.