In the World, But Not of It


About once a month or so I find myself on the receiving end of the same argument. It usually goes something like this:

  1. Worship music is from the Spirit and for the Spirit…
  2. God inspires it, and we simply shape it and send it back to Him as praise….
  3. Why, therefore, should we pay for a license to cover our use of this God-given music?

It’s a somewhat understandable argument. There are 150 or so psalms in the Old Testament, and we haven’t much historical record of songwriters copyrighting them or publishers making them accessible to far-flung congregations.

And in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul said nothing about laws or rights or licensing. He simply said “Be filled with the spirit as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts (5:19-20).”

Some eighteen hundred years, later, however—somewhere between Paul’s call to the Ephesians to sing and the very different noise we’ll all make this coming Sunday—an enlightened group of thinkers sought to do this:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

We call it the Constitution’s “ Copyright Clause”, and it serves as the anchor of all of the US trademark, copyright and protection laws. Most countries have their own versions of this legislation (ours was based on British Common Law) and all are made for similar reasons.

To me it’s a perfect example of the injunction we imply from scripture to be “In the world, but not of the world.” I say “imply” because the phrase “in but not of” is not actually a quote, but is made up of a group of parallel ideas:

  • Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world,3 but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
  • And Jesus says of His followers in John 17:16: “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”

Yet this is where we are. This is our world. This is where we live, learn, marry, raise our families, and work out our faith. It’s been constantly changing for thousands of years, with none of the timelessness or endlessness God enjoys. So we adapt to it. Milestones like the Constitution let us adapt in ways that make the world understandable, equitable, and fair.

When James Madison and Charles Pinckney made their proposals for the creation of copyright legislation in the Constitutional Congress they were codifying “fairness.” They were invoking a taste of God’s justice. They were planting the idea that when the Spirit stirs in someone, and a beautiful song of praise comes out of that stirring, then it should be protected, if only for a little while.

In that little window of protection, we grant the inspired author or the God-touched inventor a small slice of time to make new works, works that not only benefit us but in some cases glorify God. By protecting this work for a short time we not only create this self-sustaining engine of creativity, but we grant “fairness”.

And fairness is, I believe—along with righteousness and justice—one of God’s favorite things*.

* For an amusing and illustrative look at the kinds of man-made “favorite things” that can be copyrighted or patented, read this great article


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