The Character of Worship – 1

 Among conservatives, there is often a discussion about the difference between the elements of worship and the circumstances of worship. God prescribes the elements of worship: reading Scripture, preaching, praying, singing and celebrating the Lord’s Supper. However, how these elements are to implemented is a matter of circumstances: how long the readings should be, who ought to pray, and for how long, what the sermons ought to be like, what should be sung, and how, and if instruments should be used, and what kind, and if one cup or several cuplets should be used. These and many others are the circumstances of worship. God seems to expect us to judge how to implement those elements. In other words, we are to judge for ourselves regarding the circumstances of worship.

A parallel issue is that God prescribes a certain character for worship, but expects us to judge what that character looks like in corporate worship.

For example, we’re told that our worship should be decent and orderly (1 Corinthians 14:40). What does that mean? Decent and orderly means very different things to different people.

We’re told our worship must be performed in reverence and awe of God (Hebrews 12:28). What does that mean? Reverence and awe means very different things to different people.

We’re told our worship should be joyful (Ps 100:2). What does that mean? Joy means very different things to different people.

We’re told our worship should be solemn and careful (Eccl 5:1-2). What does that mean? Solemnity and carefulness mean very different things to different people.

Here is one of our biggest problems in the worship wars. We all agree with the propositions that call for reverence, orderliness, joy or seriousness (just as many agree with the prescribed elements for New Testament worship). We agree that God has prescribed this character for our worship. However, we vigorously disagree when it comes to deciding what are appropriate manifestations of these prescribed characteristics of worship. Just as the debate begins when one discusses what are the correct circumstances of worship, so the debate begins when we begin discussing what is the correct form that the character of worship should take.

Many evangelicals will simply point to the silent nature of God’s Word when it comes to describing what God means by these characteristics and assume that He has no preference on the matter. This idea is simply post-modern: there is no such thing as a correct answer to the question of the application of these commands for a certain character in worship. There is no such thing as appropriate emotion, just appropriate for you and appropriate for me. Or maybe a bit wider: appropriate for my culture, appropriate for your culture. Appropriate for my era, appropriate for your era. Christian practitioners of this kind of thinking probably don’t know how much they sound like the Enlightenment philosophers who rejected most of Christianity. No, there is more to this than the facile explanation that “different people express their joy differently.”

The problem we have is that Scripture seems to assume that we will understand what it means by decently, reverence, gravity, or joy. We can infer that God would not prescribe the character of our worship, if He did not care how we flesh out that character. We can infer that if He did not describe what that character looks like, it must be for one (or possibly both) of two reasons:

  1. It is impossible to fully describe correct incarnations of appropriate emotions.

  2. He expects us to come to those commands with a ready-made knowledge of what He means.

The first reason is demonstrable. One can hardly write a rule-book on feeling, without destroying those feelings in the process. One could never cover all the gradations and variations and possible manifestations of ordinate affection for hundreds of cultures that would receive the gospel without writing a soulless tome that brought the heart under another Sinaitic code.

However, such a reason gets us no closer to solving the problem. This brings us to the second reason why He is silent: He expects us to know what He means without His spelling it out in Scripture. So, how are we supposed to know? The answer will seem circular to many, but self-evident to others: correct judgements regarding the character of worship are made by those who are governed by appropriate emotions.

Since the affections make the judgements, those with ordinate affections make ordinate judgements. The serious man knows seriousness; the flippant fool calls it morbidity. The zealous man knows zeal; the sluggard calls it fanaticism. The modest man knows modesty; the sensualist calls it priggishness. The reverent man knows reverence; the irreverent man calls it aloofness. The joyful man knows joy; the melancholic calls it foolishness.

The more you become the kind of person who feels ordinately towards God, the more you are able to judge what He means by these characteristics. In the next post, I’ll show some Scriptural proof for this assertion, as well as quoting some cultural critics who’ve said the same thing.

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