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Unpacking the "In Christ Alone" Debate

I was in Nashville last week for the Tennessee Baptist Music conference and bumped into a heated dispute regarding a music publisher’s refusal to allow changes to original lyrics of a popular modern hymn, “In Christ Alone,” by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty. The controversial alteration is stirring debate over theological perspectives as well as copyright issues. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.) committee that is developing their new hymnal dropped “In Christ Alone” because they were denied permission to change a phrase.

The original lyrics say that “on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” The Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song wanted to substitute the words, “the love of God was magnified,” according to an article Sunday in the Tennessean written by Bob Smietana.

There seems to be an irresistible urge to change song lyrics, replace a word or add a verse to a popular worship chorus or hymn. There’s probably a lot more focus on the theological debate over the phrase “wrath of God was satisfied” in this case than there is on the copyright licensing and infringement issue. However, the frequency of copyright infringement is far more prevalent when it comes to changing lyrics without obtaining permission from the song owner.

This is an infringement of the copyright owner’s derivative and reproduction rights. Any modification or adaptation of a copyrighted work, like a song, is the exclusive right of the owner and requires permission prior to any modification. The controversy over changing lyrics for “In Christ Alone” is in the limelight, but it’s amazing how many times church worship leaders and pastors actually do change song lyrics without even thinking about asking permission first.

Often, it is because a pastor disagrees with a song lyric based on a theological point, along the lines of the debate over “the wrath of God is satisfied.” Other times, a worship leader or songwriter may feel compelled to “improve” the song with a new verse or chorus. Then again, lyric changes may be suggested due to a desire to make a song more inclusive or gender friendly.

No matter how compelling the reason for changing, modifying or adapting the lyrics, it is the “exclusive” right of the song owner to make that decision and requires permission prior to any modification. The only exception is if a song is in the public domain, and then you can make any changes or additions you want. Christian Copyright Solutions’ INDIEadmin service helps songwriters and publishers protect and license their musical works.

The decision to drop “In Christ Alone” was complicated by an earlier oversight with obtaining rights for the song. Committee members had found a version of the hymn with the altered text in another hymnal published in 2010. They assumed the song owners already had agreed to the change. When permission was requested to use the song with the modified phrase, the committee learned that the song’s authors had not approved the earlier change.

The impact of changing, or deleting, just one word was brought to light in 2008 when the American Idol eight finalists sang “Shout to the Lord,” during the second annual charity drive, Idol Gives Back. But during the broadcast, the opening line of the song was changed to remove the name of Jesus. The word ‘shepherd’ was inserted instead. The publisher, Hillsong Music, and the author, Darlene Zschech, were not asked, nor approved, of the name Jesus being replaced. I am not privy to the conversation that may have ensued between the song’s publisher/administrator and American Idol’s producers regarding the unauthorized change. I think the resolution was brilliant, however, as instead of a messy lawsuit or fine, American Idol reprised the song the following night with the correct lyric; the download version was also corrected. The result was a huge blessing to the writer and publisher, as “it received an incredible response and was the fifth most downloaded song in this week’s U.S. iTunes charts,” a Hillsong church spokesperson said.

I have wrestled with the request to change lyrics by church and creative leaders for years, and it’s sometimes frustrating that people don’t understand they don’t have the right to take someone’s original creative work and change it to suit their purposes. If you don’t like a song’s lyrics, then perhaps the creative solution is for you, or your worship team, to write a new song that expresses your personal perspective or feelings.

On the flip side, songwriters who pen Christian and worship songs have a profound responsibility to make sure their lyrics are theologically sound. They should be accountable in reviewing their musical works with those they trust and respect, who can speak into the substance of their lyrics from a scriptural and theological perspective.

I hope that the dispute over “In Christ Alone” will gain the attention of church leaders, writers and musicians and help bring a greater awareness to the rights of the original song owner by seeking permission before ever changing the song’s lyrics. If your request is denied, please understand the songwriter just doesn’t believe your modifications or changes enhance the song … and they have every right to protect their work.

What do you think about changing song lyrics?   

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Susan Fontaine Godwin is an educator and long-time member of the Christian arts community with 26 years of experience in the Christian media industry, church copyright administration and copyright management. Her passion is to build bridges between copyright owners and users of their content. Susan is an author and speaker and frequently writes for several Christian magazines and online publications. She is on Worship Leader Magazine’s editorial board and serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Mobile.