Who should decide how Churches are to go about worshipping the Lord?
Should it be the Pastor? He’s been to seminary, and he gets paid to think about these things on a full time basis. He could probably come up with some really interesting and significant symbolism, some really deep rituals with all sorts of connections to scripture.
Should it be the culture? Obviously we want to attract members of our society so that we will continue to grow, and certainly we want people to come and hear the Gospel, so why not design a worship that reflects the broadest aspects of the pop culture, particularly so that the transition from outside the church to inside the church won’t be too difficult? After all, if the church is merely a baptized reflection of the culture then we won’t have to worry about culture shock will we?
How about the youth? They are, after all, the next generation, if we fail to attract them, then the church will gradually die out won’t it? So why not let them design worship that is hip and intelligible to them and their peers. Old Granny Jones may be driven out of the church by the hip-hop praise band, but she is hardly the future of the church and if we can get 10 shiny new high school kids attending, then isn’t it worth it? Even if they aren’t converted, it at least keeps them off the street.
Well what about traditions? Why not let the preferences of our ancestors be the arbiter, that way we can say we are following in the flow of established tradition. This was the way my Great-Grandmother worshipped in the 1930s, or as is more common today; this is the way we worshipped way back in the 1980s when we first decided to let the culture decide how we should worship.
Or maybe we should try to blend it all together? We can have a bunch of different worship services from high church liturgy to rave worship and just keep adding stuff as it occurs to us, and essentially offer people a user-friendly smorgasboard so they can choose the worship they prefer – let them do what is right in their own eyes. That after all, is essentially what the Emergent church is doing.
Those are just a few of the potential answers that people have come up with throughout the years, and of late in many denominations the differing answers and preferences have lead to what have been called “the worship wars.” Worship wars are what break out when your “preferences” in worship clash with my “preferences” in worship. Usually they are fought on the basis of arguments appealing to “aesthetics” (i.e. what is most artistic, tasteful, and beautiful) or arguments appealing to “relevance” (i.e. what is most appealing and intelligible to our culture). Ultimately these usually break down broadly into “CONTEMPORARY” versus “TRADITIONAL” and they are frequently settled by me going off and joining a new church so I don’t have to put up with your awful preferences any more.
But is that the way it’s supposed to be? All of God’s people church shopping till we find a church that best caters to our tastes or amuses us the most at that moment in our lives? Is that the biblical answer?
Well let me ask, who is the object of our worship? Is it us? Admittedly, we are the ones who benefit from worship. But do we gather together as a church to entertain and amuse ourselves? Isn’t it our Almighty God whom we are supposed to worship? Therefore, who should decide, how we worship? Who is best qualified to answer that question?
This may seem like an overly simple answer, but isn’t God best qualified to tell us how we should worship Him?
Well in the Second Commandment, that is exactly what God is telling us. Just as in the First Commandment, God told us who we should worship, in the Second Commandment he tells us how we should worship.
That should be a tremendous relief to us, that it isn’t a case of worship being decided by the preferences of the largest number of sinners (because that, brothers and sisters is who makes up the church, sinners like you and me) but rather it is a sinless and perfect God who tells His people how to go about worshipping in His word, the Bible.
The idea that the Bible alone should be the only arbiter of how Christians worship is a radical idea these days, but it really shouldn’t be. Because as Christians we are supposed to believe that not only is God’s word true, but that it is also sufficient. The Apostle Paul said it this way:
2 Tim. 3:16-17 “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
In other words, the bible was given to you as your guidebook for your life, your faith, and your practice of that faith. In all of these things it is a complete and trustworthy guide.
And that is a good thing, because we all are born with a sinful tendency towards idolatry. To paraphrase Paul in Romans 1:22-23 we think we are very wise and become puffed up and then we “change the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man.” Our tendency is to take our Holy God and recast him into something he isn’t – an image made like us and then we worship this image saying “this is what God is like – he is like me, and he likes the things I like.” That keeps him safe and manageable the way we like him rather than the way he really is – not safe but good to borrow from C.S. Lewis.
That is why in the Second Commandment God specifically tells the Israelites not to worship Him – the true God – the way the other nations worship their false Gods, by using an image either made to look like man or some other creature. They had of course just left Egypt where all their false god’s were worshipped with images made to look like combinations of men and animals.
God knew their hearts only too well didn’t he? God’s people have only just received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai when they react to the frightening and prolonged disappearance of Moses into the cloud at the top of the mountain by demanding that Moses’ brother Aaron make them an image. So he takes their gold jewelery and produces the Golden Calf.
Now this was not an image of a false God, but a false image of the true God, which is why Aaron declares in Exodus 32:4 “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!” That phrase was carefully chosen. By it Aaron is saying, that this calf which looks like the kinds of idols that the cultures they lived amongst produced, is an image of Yahweh who delivered you and who declared in the introduction to the Ten Commandments: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex. 20:2)
Then Aaron goes a step further and declares the first uncommanded Holy Day saying “Tomorrow is a feast to the LORD.” He specifically uses the name YAHWEH so that there can be no doubt that he was referring to the same God who had defeated Egypt, and lead them to Sinai, and who was even then present in the midst of thick clouds and fire at the top of the mountain. This is no new god they are worshipping, it is a new way of worshipping YAHWEH that Aaron and the people had invented.
Now let me ask you, if it was acceptable for the people to determine how they were going to worship the Lord, what would God’s response have been to all this? If God really shared their presuppositions (and those of many in the church today) He might have said to Moses “Hey, the important thing is that they are worshipping me and enjoying themselves in a culturally relevant fashion that seems to really appeal to all kinds of Israelites.” But he didn’t, instead God was furious with their presumption that they could decide how to worship Him, and it is only the intercession of Moses on their behalf that saves them from being utterly destroyed.
Now is it just making images that God, was concerned about? Clearly not. He was concerned that they not adopt any worship practices that he had not commanded, especially by borrowing from the surrounding cultures.
In fact throughout the first five books of the Bible God strives again and again to tell his people, the nation of Israel, which is the church in the Old Testament, that they are a peculiar people set apart and dedicated to His service. That made the people of Israel really weird and different from the surrounding people, but God knew all too well what the practice of adopting their worship practices – which is a process we call syncretism – leads to:
Deut. 12:28-32 “Observe and obey all these words which I command you, that it may go well with you and your children after you forever, when you do what is good and right in the sight of the LORD your God. When the LORD your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ “You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.”
God knew that what they would do is start by adding a little here and a little there, as they borrowed from the worship practices of the surrounding cultures: “O look what they do in Moab on March 12th*, isn’t this a cool ritual, wouldn’t our God be pleased by it? I know it pleases me and my neighbors!” And gradually Israel’s worship would come to be more and more adulterated with the preferences, imaginations and inventions, of men. God knew that after this process had become commonplace, they wouldn’t even hesitate to add abominations like temple prostitution or child sacrifice that went directly counter to God’s moral law. Often people argue that they aren’t adding anything to worship that is forbidden, but the history of Israel and the church both show that when we start to add our own uncommanded additions to God’s worship, we will inevitably end up excusing and then adding even explicitly forbidden elements.
So God says in essence, “don’t even start down that road, I will show you how I desire to be worshipped in my Word, by commandment and example so just be careful to observe it; you don’t need to add to it nor take away from it. This is what pleases me.”
One of the many reasons that God did not want His people to add to the worship that he instituted was that the ceremonies and observances that he instituted were, as the author of Hebrews tells us, “shadows” or “types” of the good things to come. Observances like Passover pointed to the coming sacrifice of Jesus and thus served to build the people up in faith in the coming Redeemer. Inventions like the Golden Calf on the other hand, had no reference to Christ, they may have made people feel closer to God but all they taught were lies.
Moving from the Old Testament to the New, we see that by the time the Son of God, Jesus Christ came to dwell with his covenant people, they were about the practice of adding to His worship again. Not with anything as crass as idols, but our Savior could barely move without offending the Pharisees by violating one of their made-up worship traditions. Gradually, over hundreds of years a body of uncommanded Rabbinic worship practices had developed and the Pharisees and Scribes taught that these inventions of men must be obeyed.
So Jesus said to them – Matt. 15:8-9 “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”
Jesus taught that our made-up worship traditions are vain, no matter how old they are, if they aren’t God’s commandments, God is not pleased by them (think about it, does God prefer old lies to new ones?) Paul calls them will-worship or self-imposed religion in Col. 2:23 and says they have no value.
One could wish that after the coming of Jesus and His corrections, the church never again erred when it came to worship and stuck to the principle that our worship should be simple and biblical and based on the premise that if the Apostles didn’t do it, we don’t need to either.
Unfortunately that wasn’t the case, and almost as soon as the Apostolic age was over God’s people again started borrowing from the surrounding culture, adding rituals, garments, feast days, even images of Saints and the three persons of the Trinity. By the time of the Protestant Reformation, it had gotten to the point where the simple worship commanded in scripture had been entirely jettisoned in favor of a highly stylized mélange of culturally inspired traditions .
Consequently, at the heart of the Reformation was the desire to get rid of all these unbiblical traditions and return to the commands and teaching of the Bible. They did this by calling the church back to the Great Commission Jesus gave the church: Matthew 28:18-20 “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.”
Jesus has not given the church the power to teach things that they have made-up or that seem like a good idea. Rather Jesus commissioned His church and gave them His delegated authority to teach and practice only what He has commanded in His word, the Bible.
Apparently, God takes worship very seriously indeed. We should too, especially considering it is what we hope to be doing in heaven for all eternity. Speaking of the worship in heaven, I have never heard anyone seriously contend that the church will order or add their own inventions to the worship there, so if our worship here on earth is intended to be practice for our eternal worship hereafter, shouldn’t we be about the practice of learning to worship the way God commands here and now?
So when people push their worship preferences, or ask if we are for traditional or contemporary worship, we would do well if we answered along these lines:
“I’m not for men’s traditions or preferences be they new or old. I’m for simple biblical worship and not because I’m stodgy, but because they are what my Savior Jesus Christ commanded me to do, and I love him and I remember that He said “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” So I sacrifice all my pride and my vain preferences, and I joyfully observe the elements that he commanded: Prayer, The reading of the Scriptures, the sound preaching of the Word, the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, the administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, and I do all of these things with Love in my heart towards Him, knowing that He Saved Me, and has designed all of these things to be a benefit to me and my fragile faith.”
* Yes I know that the there is no month of March in the Jewish Calendar, purists should insert the word “Abib” here instead.