The Difference Between Birds and Bruised Offerings

Leviticus 14:21-22 But if he is poor and cannot afford it, then he shall take one male lamb as a trespass offering to be waved, to make atonement for him, one-tenth of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil as a grain offering, a log of oil, 22 “and two turtledoves or two young pigeons, such as he is able to afford: one shall be a sin offering and the other a burnt offering.

Malachi 1:8 And when you offer the blind as a sacrifice, Is it not evil? And when you offer the lame and sick, Is it not evil? Offer it then to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you favorably?” Says the LORD of hosts.

Often enough, those who seek to elevate worship from where it is in our era to something resembling biblical worship and worship worthy of the Self-Existent Creator are criticised for making worship ‘too high’.

I am a pastor and sensitive to this criticism. My role, partly, is to mediate between the world of abstract ideas and the grit and grime of hard-working, busy and distracted church members. My role is to read and study what my parishioners do not have the time or inclination to, and to present and teach what is necessary for their life and godliness. One of my roles is to be something of an interpreter, a simplifier (within reason) and an applier.

When it comes to planning and including the elements of corporate worship, I have a foot in both worlds. On the one hand, I have more time to read and understand some of the better hymnody of the Christian tradition. I could include some of it on a Sunday morning, and merrily sing it, to the bewildered expressions of those who have encountered it for the first time. In so doing, I would not be respecting the realities of life for my parishioners in expecting them to engage with a largely indecipherable hymn.

On the other hand, my responsibility is not discharged until I have urged the Christians under my charge to elevate their view of God, to grow in their understanding of a right response to God, and to expose themselves to the kind of hymn or prayer that is just slightly beyond their present grasp.

In this matter of worship, a tension will always exist between accessibility and elevation. What is accessible is by definition not above you; what is elevated is by definition inaccessible to you. And yet both are needed. Christians need a point of entry to understand and engage with God in worship. Simultaneously, they need to be pulled and urged to move up from their present understanding to a truer and loftier one.

In our age of radical egalitarianism, attempts to elevate the thinking and worship of others is seen as “aiming too high” or “returning to a liturgical mindset” or “leaving the simplicity of Christ”. It’s to this criticism that I enlist the Scriptures referenced earlier.

Clearly, God has mercy on poverty. His expectations of worship are not tyrannical. The poor Israelite could offer what was within his grasp. (I am certain that if the poor Israelite began to prosper, and continued to offer the poor man’s offering, God would have been displeased.) A poverty of knowledge regarding music, poetry or appropriate responses to God in worship might be winked at by God, at least initially. First-generation Christians are often bankrupt of ordinate affections when they first arrive, and God may receive unsophisticated and simplistic worship responses the way He received the turtle-doves and pigeons.

However, God has no tolerance for sloppy, lazy, and careless worship by those who know better. When Israelites were bringing Him lame, stolen, or diseased animals, they were committing blasphemy. They knew He deserved better, but gave Him what was cheap, leftover and worthless, because it suited them. In other words, they were worshipping themselves.

The difference between simplicity and shallowness is part of what guides me as I plan corporate worship. There are songs and hymns which are appropriately simple and unadorned in their quality. They represent an earnest but nevertheless biblical appreciation of truth about God without trivialising, cheapening, watering down or otherwise diminishing it. They’re simple, but not sentimental. They’re simple, but not shallow. They’re simple, but not trivial. And they’re necessary for God’s people to “sing with the understanding also” (1 Co 14:15).

On the other hand, there are songs and hymns which are not merely simple, they are shoddy. There are hymns that are not beautiful in their plainness, they are untruthful because they have cheapened the gospel into a kind of entertainment. They are foolish, comical, and lightweight. They treat the things of God too sweetly. These hymns are insidious. They are not turtle-doves and pigeons. They are bruised offerings. They are not the partial expressions of children or novice Christians. They are deliberately narcissistic and man-centred, crafted to gain a visceral response of pleasure. And no appeal to the need for simplicity in worship ought to lead us to use them.

As a pastor, my legitimate choices are between beautiful hymns that are simple, and beautiful hymns that are complex. Both are needed. The challenge is to discern, and to help others discern, where simplicity has become frivolity, and where profundity has become impenetrability.

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13 Responses to “The Difference Between Birds and Bruised Offerings”

  1. ds. Marc sr. Says:

    Keep your good and solid thinking coming my way! Would it be possible to promote your e-mail to others – say in the church I pastor and among my pastor friends? How would you prefer that I go about this task? ds Marc

  2. David Says:

    Dr. Marc,

    I emailed you directly, but let me know if it didn’t come through.

  3. Scott Aniol Says:

    This is very good, David. Thanks.

  4. ML Says:

    Well said!

  5. Chris Ames Says:

    What a difference between “I would offer better, but I can’t” and “I could offer better but I won’t.” Thank you for this!

  6. David Says:

    The difference between can’t and won’t is a chasm indeed.

  7. Todd Mitchell Says:

    I’ve been recommending this to folks. You have helped clarify my own thinking on the tension between accessibility and elevation.

    In a presentation I gave recently, I held up this blog as an example of how blogs can be done well. Keep up the good work!

  8. David Says:

    Thanks Todd. The balance between the two is something I think we all struggle to achieve.

  9. Cal Lewis Says:

    Hi David,

    Just caught up with your blog articles. Thanks for raising these issues. They have certainly caused me to think more on so many levels. I have especially been encouraged reading this blog differentiating between acceptable and bruised offerings. Can you give your thoughts on Churches that try and hold to true Biblical exposition through preaching and teaching yet who have deliberately incorporated narcissistic and visceral worship in their services – what are the effects both immediate and longterm in your opinion – which will triumph?

  10. David Says:

    Hi Cal,

    Yes, it’s possible to be conservative towards Scripture, but quite progressive or liberal in methodology, and worship. Sometimes churches like these are not deliberately choosing what is visceral; they are often picking up a tradition and perpetuating it. It appears to me that leaders who do this are most often guilty of being neglectful of meaning, and are content to do what the ‘big names’ are doing. They regard the widespread use of visceral worship as an indication of its neutrality, and regard conservatives as the ‘weaker brother’ of Romans 14.
    As to the effects, I don’t believe that sound biblical teaching will win the day, if the affections are warped. In the end, it is what we value, what we love, what we desire that ultimately shapes what we believe and hold to be true (The understanding and the affections have a reciprocal effect, but the Bible is clear that the heart is the seat of judgement and ultimate decision). The affections shape the understanding, not vice-versa (Proverbs 9:10; Phil 1:9-10). If our corporate worship is an exercise in stimulating the passions in the name of Jesus, at some point those passions will be downright perverted, and will justify themselves in the name of orthodoxy. On many fronts, we are already there. Charles Hodge, speaking to students at Princeton in 1829 probably said it best: “Whenever a change occurs in the religious opinions of a community, it is always preceded by a change in their religious feelings. The natural expression of the feelings of true piety is the doctrines of the Bible. As long as these feelings are retained, these doctrines will be retained; but should they be lost, the doctrines are either held for form sake or rejected, according to circumstance; and if the feelings again be called into life, the doctrines return as a matter of course.”

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