Can we legally change the words in songs to line up with Scripture or to have clearer meanings?
No, you may not. Of course I am assuming that the song in question is copyrighted. I’ve made numerous changes over the years to songs that are in the public domain.
A song that is copyrighted can not be altered in writing. This means sheet music, lyric sheets, video projection, etc. The way the song is written is the way it must stay written.
I think of it like this: as a writer, I would not want someone making unauthorized revisions in my books or articles. That, in essence, is what happens when someone makes changes in copyrighted songs. Whether the composer(s) didn’t think of your brilliant idea, or whether they intentionally wrote it the way it is because they were not aware that you would think it was theologically inaccurate, either way, it’s still copyrighted and you can’t make changes.
So, when you type the words of the song into your computer for your vocalists or congregation to sing, the words must be correct. If the line (word, phrase, etc) is really that bad, then don’t use the song. There are enough other options from which to choose. I know, you think it’s really a great song except for that one little place. But there are other great songs out there that don’t have that one small sticking point. Use one of them instead.
One possible consideration for this is to contact the composer(s) and/or copyright holder, requesting permission to make the change and explaining why you think the change is necessary. Individuals and smaller organizations are more likely to grant permission. Large companies most likely will not allow you to make changes, but if your case is compelling enough, you never know. I’ve done this before and was pleasantly surprised at the response. (Not that I would ever find something theologically wrong with a song… 🙂 )
Further, something you can do is to make changes vocally (not in writing). Let me explain. There are two changes that I make frequently. I often change songs that talk about God into songs that talk to Him, instead. Personally, I think it’s stronger—especially when we’re worshiping God—to speak directly to God rather than talking about Him. So, then, “God is worthy!” could become, “You are worthy!”, singing directly to Him.
I also like to encourage a corporateness during corporate worship, so it would be normal for me to sing “we” instead of “I.” (My personal opinion is that it can seem somewhat selfish to sing about me when we’re all there gathered together.) So, “I exalt Thee!” becomes “We exalt Thee!”
Here’s an example of both changes together: a simple song with words like “I praise the Lord” can be sung, “We praise You, Lord.”
The song sheets, projected lyrics, etc. all remain unaffected, maintaining the original words. I simply tell the people to sing it differently using vocal commands during the actual singing of the song. I’ll say something as simple as, “Let’s sing, ‘We praise You, Lord!'” and then we do it. And because the copy remains unchanged, no copyright law has been violated. This can be a very effective tool.
One note of caution: practice beforehand singing the song while giving the directives for changes at the same time. If you’re not experienced with doing this, the words can easily come out all wrong. (Yes, I am speaking from experience here.) Done well, this tool can make a world of difference in the song… and never violate the copyright law. (For more about copyrights and songs, click here.)