A Catechism on Judgement in Worship

How are we to worship God?
We should worship in all of life, but we have been told most explicitly to worship God corporately through the following:
– The reading of Scripture
– The preaching of Scripture
– The singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs
– The offering of public prayer
– The observance of the ordinances

How do we know which songs, what kind of music, what kind of sermons, what kind of prayers we should offer God?
We know this through exercising sound judgement.

What is sound judgement?
At the very least, it is the ability to discern between good and evil (Heb 5:14), to approve what is excellent (Phil 1:10), and to be able to to recognise what is true, just, noble, pure, lovely, praiseworthy, commendable, and excellent (Phil 4:8) – and the opposites of these. Judgement can also be thought of as discernment, discrimination, prudence, taste, or more broadly, wisdom.

Why is judgement fundamental to worship?
1) To worship God for His excellence, we must be able to distinguish excellence from inferiority, beauty from ugliness, good from bad. We cannot admire God if we do not know what is admirable. We cannot see the beauty of God if we are poor at recognising beauty.
2) To offer God what is worthy of Him, we must be able to judge the worth of our offerings. God is worth our very best offerings, but if we cannot tell tacky from elegant, we will end up offering him what is profane. We are required to discover what is excellent (Phil 1:10) and use it for God’s glory. Moreover, since God is true, we must never offer God what is false in any way: false in statement, or false in sentiment.
3) To rightly respond to God from the heart,  we must be able to distinguish between affections, and judge what is appropriate for worship. To recognise inordinate joy from ordinate, to distinguish between familiarity and boldness, between joyful exuberance and impudent flippancy, or between shades of joy, fear, or sorrow, requires judgement.
4) To understand how a song, prayer, sermon or other act of worship represents ordinate or inordinate affection, we need good judgement. We must understand the meaning of the prayer, song, music, or sermon and judge its worth for worship.

Isn’t it wrong to judge?
No, judgement is at the very heart of a mature Christian life (Heb 5:14). If you cannot judge good from bad, you will never worship meaningfully, or be protected against profanity. In fact, good judgment is placed side-by-side with a holy and fruitful life (Romans 12:1-2, Ephesians 5:8-11, Philippians 1:9-11, Colossians 1:9-11, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22).
Proud judgmentalism is what is forbidden to us, which is the same as ‘thinking evil’ of another, assuming the worst, or claiming to be able to perfectly read motives.

Won’t these judgements be subjective?
Yes, that does not mean they will not be true. Judgements made by subjects can still conform to the good.

Why can’t we just be given a list of approved hymns and songs?
If everyone does nothing more than submit to another’s list, then no one is learning to judge, discriminate and sing with understanding. It is fine for children and beginners to trust the judgements of others, but a maturing conscience is meant to be formed with knowledge and judgement.

Do you have to be a literary or musical critic to worship?
No, because we are all commanded to worship, and that would mean everyone on earth should be a literary critic. We should not be afraid to learn from them, though.

What about just giving simple offerings?
God loves simple offerings. He does not love cheap and tacky offerings. Discernment is learning to tell the difference.

How shall we go about learning judgement?
First, we should commit to living in the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of sound wisdom and discretion. No judgement or discernment will come to irreverent, flippant people. We must determine that we wish to revere God, whatever that might mean.
Second, we should commit ourselves to godliness of life. Discernment comes by reason of use, as we seek to know the difference between good and evil for application to life (Romans 12:1-2, Ephesians 5:8-11, Philippians 1:9-11, Colossians 1:9-11, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22).
Third, we must embrace the examined life. That is, we must seek a life in which we become thoughtful about the meaning of the various technologies, media, forms, and devices in our lives. We must become thoughtful and contemplative about meaning, if we are to grow in discernment. This is the same as Proverbs’ instructions to pursue knowledge, wisdom and understanding. We are to vigorously pursue an understanding of God, ourselves and the world.
Fourth, we should root ourselves in the genuine Christian tradition, immersing ourselves in it so that it gives us a sense of its discerning judgement by example and exposure.

How can I judge something that I already like or dislike?
First, we should make our prejudices explicit. If we like something, or dislike something, we should own that to be true.
Second, we should ask why we like what we like or dislike what we dislike. If we do not have reasons, we ought to seek them. Understanding why we love something is part of the way to learning what it means, and learning about our own hearts.
Third, we need to compare what we currently like, or dislike, with some standard of what is good, or true, or beautiful. What I like does not become good by virtue of my liking it; rather, I must learn to love what is good. What I dislike may not necessarily be bad; rather, my sinful heart may dislike things that are true. We should not defend our preferences because they are familiar; we should learn to like something because it really is good, and then make the good familiar. Sanctification is all about unlearning some loves, and learning new ones.

Where shall we get this standard?
The standard already exists in God. He is the source and standard of the True, the Good and the Beautiful. In God’s common grace, He has allowed both believers and unbelievers to produce works of imagination that conform, more or less, to God’s view of what is excellent. Therefore, we come to know this standard as we:
1) Consider what has been loved and cherished by God’s people for centuries.
2) Listen to people, who, by God’s common grace, have proven judgement – people who explain the meaning of works of imagination.
3) Compare and contrast different works, considering what they are trying to do, how they do it, and whether or not they achieve it.
4) Write poems, songs, prayers and sermons that are true, good and beautiful for God’s glory.

What shall we do with growing discernment?
We must weed out and reject offerings that trivialize God, humanity or creation. We must choose the good and the true. We must learn to write our own apprehension of God’s glory in poems, songs, prayers and sermons. We must worship God in our generation, in our words. And yet our words and works must also be true, good and beautiful.

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4 Responses to “A Catechism on Judgement in Worship”

  1. Seth Meyers Says:

    You knocked a six, David.

    But two questions.
    1. Should family or community be an appropriate element of discerning worship?
    If so, how can we relate that consistently to transcendence? Families have toddlers, teens, and adults. They have spilled milk, inferior drawings hanging on the fridge, and the uncle who keeps telling the same jokes. In short, they are necessarily and happily common. And that commonness is beautiful.

    In a church, wouldn’t that metaphor allow for Susie to play a clarinet in one congregation while in another they sing a song written by a church member? However, neither Susie nor the lay poet, let’s say, have a classic or enduring ability in their respective arts.

    2. What does this kind of worship look like for Christians living in the majority of the world that is poor?
    How can a subsistence farmer take enough time or leisure to master poetry, music, or even stout sermons? Can poor people use inferior means and still produce discerning worship?

  2. David Says:

    Seth,

    And you’ve, predictably, bowled a spinner. I think the answers are not out of reach, though.

    1) Family and community is the very soil in which worship grows. Lacking the judgement that grows here, little will flourish in the church. But the reverse is true as well. Culture is more cyclical than sequential.

    To your question, Susie or the church member may, depending on their skill, produce something that is more or less adequate for corporate worship. Ordinary beauty, as Roger Scruton calls it, is certainly part of worshipping God, but I am not sure that we must deliberately try to work it into public worship. This will almost certainly encourage the sentimentalism and aw-cuteness already present in evangelical worship. Besides, the ordinariness of our worship is only too plain to the watching seraphim, I’m not sure we need to get deliberate about it.

    Since corporate worship is supposed to speak to the affections and obligations of all men everywhere, the immature and untrained cannot effectively speak to these things. However, from the several efforts of many members, all trying their hand at writing, composing, and playing (particularly at home, or among friends) will probably emerge something that, while perhaps simple, is true, good, and beautiful, and adequate for corporate worship. In other words, let Susie keep playing, and let the church member keep writing, without the conceit that their improving ability must be used now by all God’s people to worship Yahweh. Let them keep training and worshipping God in private and home contexts with the simple, ordinary beauty they are cultivating.
    And I think this effort must be vigorously encouraged, while explaining to people that a child’s first scribble is hung on our fridges, not on our sanctuary walls. Sincerity cannot trounce a lack of skill, for we are not worshipping ourselves or our efforts.

    2) The subsistence farmer will not have the leisure to master an understanding of poetry or music or rhetoric. This does not mean he is immune to beauty, goodness and truth. You do not need to be knowledgeable about how poetry works or how a composer accomplished something for its power and beauty to register with you. Nor does the man’s impoverished circumstances mean he is better suited to partial ideas, useless melodies, or doggerel. His level of appreciation may differ from the expert’s, but he is by no means deaf or blind to transcendence.

    He is responsible to worship, even if he is restricted in his use of means. Usually, enough common grace exists in every culture that he will be able to find enough meaning in his ambient language, poetry, and music, to begin putting together meaningful and simple expressions of ordinate affection. If his ambient culture is near-bereft of forms that teach transcendence, then the emissaries of Christ must bring those with them as well. This does not mean a transplant of the best of Christian culture from the West directly into the unreached peoples of the Philippines. But surely some exposure is called for. Those bringing the Gospel will surely try to acquaint him with not only the doctrinal tradition of orthodox Christianity, but its liturgical one as well. Think Moffat translating hymns into Tswana.

    Let the new believers hear and read what their elders in the faith produced in worship. Let this exposure and example encourage them to begin building, with the tools they have, and with some they receive, genuine expressions of worship in their tongue. Not identical, but eventually – equivalent.
    These will begin as folk forms do – simple, but it must nevertheless be true and beautiful. The very ordinary beauty we began discussing. Given enough time, leisure, and spread of Christianity among more and more people, something with greater gravitas will emerge. Unfortunately, the ubiquitous nature of pop culture makes this process more difficult and unlikely than at any other time in history.

    One gets the idea that culture is a very precious thing, no? And when thrown away, one has thrown away millennia of work.

    Come back at me if I’ve failed to answer adequately or missed your point.

    • Seth Meyers Says:

      Point #1: Lekker, ek sal dink n bitjie tyd.

      Point #2:
      If Bach were alive he would be tweeting your line, “One gets the idea that culture is a very precious thing, no? And when thrown away, one has thrown away millennia of work.”

      But I think I’ll put this on a bumper sticker: “Unfortunately, the ubiquitous nature of pop culture makes [the production of religious worship with a sense of gravitas] more difficult and unlikely than at any other time in history.”

      That might be too big to fit on your little roller skate, but the rear of my new Hummer should hold it nicely.

      While I agree with the tidy way you phrased your closing paragraphs, its easier to read than to implement. It would be helpful to read a book-length treatment on the topic of creating or rejuvenating culture in non-Western societies.

  3. David Says:

    If you write the book, I’ll write the foreword. When you make enough, you can sell me your used Hummer.

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