Many believers don’t think a lot about the worship of their god. It is something they do. Something that is expected. After all there are places of worship on what seems like every corner. Yet, if you stop to think about it for a minute, the whole concept of worship doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why would a perfect God, completely at peace with himself and his power and his abilities, want or need people to tell Him how great He is? Why would he get any pleasure of of such a display? Why would he demand it? Furthermore, if you take the Book of Revelation seriously, heaven is going to be telling god how great he is forever and ever:
And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within; and day and night they do not cease to say,”Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.” And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Worthy art Thou, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for Thou didst create all things, and because of Thy will they existed, and were created.” (NAS, Rev 4:8-11)
Is this what a superior being really wants and desires? A human King or Ruler might want this but wouldn’t even such a person tire of this game? Eternity is a long time!
There are actually two main ways of looking at worship.
- Worship is for god. As such, god and only god dictates the terms of worship (what pleases and displeases him) and going against those terms is, essentially, treason and results in god’s displeasure.
- Worship is for man. As such, man decides how to worship god by deciding what gives him (man) the most pleasure in his worship of god. Under these terms, god has little say in his worship and really doesn’t care how worship is conducted or cares only in the broadest sense, such as you must have a pure heart. God doesn’t get involved with the details of worship.
Of course, as with most of Christianity, there is a broad continuum of thought about worship and what it entails but the two general camps are a good starting point. Simply speaking worship is either God-Centered or Man-Centered.
The Protestant Reformers, especially those in the Calvinist tradition, saw worship as God-Centered activity that requires man to worship god in the manner god prescribes. This is called the Regulatory Principle in Worship and can be found in the Westminster Confession of Faith:
The light of nature shows that there is a God, who has lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and does good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture. (Chp XXI)
The greatest support of this doctrine comes from the Old Testament, where there is no doubt that god told his people exactly how he was to be worshiped. Failure follow his procedures might even result in death as it did for Nadab and Abihu when they offered “strange fire” to their god:
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the LORD spoke, saying, ‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, And before all the people I will be honored.'” (NAS Lev 10:1-3)
It seems reasonable that if god was so particular about his worship in the Old Testament, he would still be particular today. If this is the case, the safest course of action would be to only worship god with elements that can be supported from the Bible and these elements should be centered on god, not man. If this is the correct Doctrine of Worship, the modern Evangelical movement is in big trouble as there is no doubt that it is a man-based, entertainment orientated system. However, even if you grant that the Regulatory Principle should be used in worship the question then becomes: What is exactly prescribed in scripture and how far can we take deriving elements from it?
The Westminster Divines listed what they considered to be essential parts of worship, but the fact is that there is nowhere to be found in the New Testament an order of worship. For something that was so important in the Old Testament, it seems like a glaring oversight in the New Testament. For instance: Do we start with prayer or with music or with a call to worship? Do we allow music? How about musical instruments that didn’t exist in biblical times? Do we use instruments at all? What kind of songs do should be sung (if any)? What kind of beats and tempos and keys? What kind of sermons should be preached (if any)? Should things like dance be allowed or plays or skits or dramatic readings? What about movies, slide shows, or PowerPoint presentations? Should worship be on Sunday or Saturday? What about the 4th Commandment:
“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy. (NAS Ex 20:8-12)
For all the talk about the 10 Commandments, there are few Christians that take the 4th Commandment seriously.
If god was so concerned with even the type of fire (incense?) used in the Old Testament, shouldn’t these things matter in the New? I think it should be clear by now, that even those who take a very strict Regulatory Principle stance have a lot of unclear details to sort through and various churches sort through them differently; yet, they are all convinced their interpretation is the true and correct one. After all, if it isn’t, their own theology will condemn them, in that god would be displeased with their worship.
I don’t think there is much doubt that the second way of looking at worship – man-centered – is more popular and more widely used than the first. However, popularity never is a good indication of reading the mind of god. Just a quick reading of the Old Testament shows that doing the popular thing often resulted in death or banishment. Still, it has much to commend it. These services are often, a least on the surface, more joyous in their outpouring of love for their god. If excitement and raw passion are any indication, these services are doing a bang-up job of worshiping god. Yet, in their rejection of a strict Regulatory Principle for Worship they tread a dangerous line of just what exactly should be included in the worship of god.
How far to you go to please and attract men and women into the service? How disorderly can you get and still be “relevant” or pleasing to god? Can a good skit replace preaching? How about orgies? After all, in the past, gods where often worshiped through sexual energy. How about animal or human sacrifice? How can you definitely say no to such acts, if you are only using your feelings to determine what to put into worship. Isn’t appeal to the scripture counterproductive if you aren’t bound to it in the first place?
How then does a believer worship God? Thinking about this problem actually lead me down the road to becoming an atheist.
- The whole concept of worship seems silly if it is primarily for god and is dictated by god. As I said earlier, does a supreme being really get off on everyone telling him how great he is and praising him for all he does for and to them whether bad or good?
- Worship makes a little more sense if it is primarily for man to express his feelings of awe, wonder and admiration for god. In this case where are the limits, if any? What becomes bad worship and what becomes good? Does it even matter? Is worship is just getting an emotional high, gathering with others who are like minded and giving money for the cause? If it is, then what is the point? Maybe god gets a kick out of seeing the lengths man goes to worship him, but he offers little clear guidance on how it should be accomplished. I’ve actually been embarrassed by seeing how some churches practice worship.
- Does god really want us to spend all eternity telling Him how great He is? Is that really what a superior being is? Can any believer actually say they are looking forward to an eternity of this?
Overall, to me, worship seems a little silly and smacks of humanity and kings and kingdoms. A man may want this because of insecurity. But God? If it matters so much to god that he will condemn most of His creation to an eternal hell for not doing it or doing it wrong, then why isn’t his “word” clearer on the subject? After all, the Old Testament had precise rules and regulations. It seems to me that worship is essentially a man-made system that was used to unite a people around a non-existent deity to foster common bonds and goals. It still seems to work this way.