Worship Services

Among the things that continue to grieve me since the Lord first called me out of man’s traditional church, is the observation of how seldom believers ever question whether or not common church practices are even of the Spirit and the Word. For example, most churches refer to the Sunday service as a “worship service” and hold to the notion that “worship means singing” hymns and choruses. Rarely have I seen the idea challenged; believers simply accept the modern worship model as handed down from our forefathers as Biblical and correct.

comeworshipFor the sake of examining the modern “worship service” and in particular singing as worship, let’s lay a Biblical foundation for discussion.

  • In the OT, the temple was a stone building in Jerusalem. In the NT, the temple is us (1 Cor. 3:16, 6:19, 1 Pet. 2:5).
  • In the OT, the priests were the sons of Levi and Aaron. In the NT, the priesthood is us (1 Pet. 2:5, :9, Rev. 1:6, 5:10, 20:6).
  • In the OT, the Spirit did not indwell the people, He resided in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. In the NT, the Holy Spirit has made His home in us since the Resurrection and Pentecost (Jo. 20:22, Ac. 2:4)

From the OT to the NT, the temple, the priesthood, and dwelling place of God all changed. Accordingly, worship changed, too.

In the OT people lived by a number of external actions and rituals to avoid sin and to cleanse themselves of it: do not touch, do not eat, unleavened bread, ceremonial washings, doctrines of portions such as tithes, animal sacrifices, etc. Even their worship was an external expression; with instruments, singing, dancing, banners, bowing, clapping, etc. Since the Holy Spirit did not dwell in them, their worship had to be externally expressed because they were worshiping God who at that time, was external to them.

In the NT, believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and so the one whom we worship lives within us. Accordingly, our mode of worship changed from the external to the internal, about which the Lord said the that the Father wants worshipers who will “worship in Spirit and in Truth” (Jo. 4:24). Similarly, Paul wrote that our true spiritual act of worship is to “offer up your body as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1). No longer is worship an external act, ceremony or “service”, but a never ending way for us to live, through dying to self, and which demands from us our very all, not just a portion.

Since God was external to the people of the OT, the time and location of their worship was ordered by the Law of Moses. In the conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well, the woman noted one difference between Samaritans and Jews, being the location of their worship; the Samaritans worshiped on Jacob’s mountain and the Jews worshiped in Jerusalem. Indeed Deuteronomy 16:16 commands the Jews to make pilgrimages three times a year to Jerusalem to worship at the temple; the feast of unleavened bread, the feast of weeks and the feast of tabernacles. Presumably, their worship was in the temple itself, facing the “Holy of Holies” where the Holy Spirit resided.

With the old covenant drawing to a close through the impending death and resurrection of Jesus and the advent of the new covenant, Jesus told the woman at the well “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father (John 4:21 ESV)”. Elsewhere, Jesus told his disciples “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them (Matthew 18:20 ESV)”. No longer does the location of our worship matter. Nor does the time and date of our gathering, as Paul said in 1 Cor. 14:26 “Whenever you come together …” (EMTV, et al).

Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching. (Hebrews 10:25 KJV)

How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying. If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God. Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge. If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace. For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints. (1 Corinthians 14:26-33 KJV)

Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues. Let all things be done decently and in order. (1 Corinthians 14:39-40 KJV)

Worship like it’s 600 BC?

What Hebrews 10:25 calls an “assembly” (meeting) of believers, the conduct of which Paul spells out in 1 Corinthians 14:26-33 and :39-40, today is called a “worship service” which takes an “ala carte” approach to scriptures lifted mostly from the OT. Accordingly, such “worship services” more closely resemble old covenant temple worship than the type of lively Spirit-led relational assembly described by the Apostle Paul.

And the sermons, if one listens carefully, are often more “church-centric” than Jesus-centric. Rarely is there a sermon about “Christ and Him Crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) nor meat fit for mature believers, rather, milk is the steady diet of the contemporary pastor-dominated “worship service”.

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food. (Hebrews 5:12, ESV)

Nowhere in the NT do Jesus or the Apostles command or describe a “worship service”, in the same way that the Law of Moses (OT) commanded the feast of unleavened bread, the feast of weeks, and the feast of tabernacles and described them in such elaborate detail. Could not the same God who directed those old covenant (OT) services give new covenant (NT) Christians even a brief description of what a Sunday “worship service” ought to look like? Or are the words of Jesus sufficient: “whenever (some versions wherever) 2-3 gather … I’m there with you” and “worship in spirit and in truth”.

So are our scheduled and scripted Sunday “worship services” worshiping “in Spirit and in Truth”?

Consider the seating of a traditional worship service, where people sit in rows of pews, facing the altar to worship, as if God were there, somewhere, hovering above the altar, unseen. In Truth, God now dwells within our bodies (1 Cor. 3:16, 6:19), yet we turn our faces away from each other where we see only the backs of each other’s heads. In so doing, we deny the temples in which God dwells, the brethren, and instead fix our gaze upon the desolate temples built by men, which God abandoned 2000 years ago (Matthew 23:38, Acts 7:48, 17:24). Is it worshiping in Truth when we turn away from where God does dwell, to where God does not dwell?

That question bears repeating:

Is it worshiping in Truth when we turn away from where God does dwell, to where God does not dwell?

And what of our singing together when we assemble; is that worship?

Paul wrote in Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 that we are to “Encourage (and) Admonish (and) Teach one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing to the Lord in (and) with your heart to God” (translations vary).

If as Christian leaders so often suggest, our singing together is worship for God, why did Paul write that it’s for us, for the purpose of encouragement and admonishment and teaching? Did Paul get it wrong? Clearly Paul makes a distinction between our external (audible) expression of singing as something we do for ourselves, while the internal expression of singing in the heart is for God. I believe the gist of what Paul is saying is that our singing aloud originates in the natural man for the natural man, while our singing in the heart originates in the Spirit for God. Lest that sound strange, there are several other places where Paul speaks to the differences between the natural man and the Spirit.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14 ESV)

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. (1 Corinthians 14:14-15 ESV)

What the flesh wants is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit wants is opposed to the flesh. They are opposed to each other. (Galatians 5:17 ISV)

But don’t just take Paul’s word for the differences between the natural man and the Spirit; Jesus Himself said:

“The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38).

So why do churches put such much emphasis on the worship of our weak flesh?

Have we forgotten that Jesus said:

“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24 ESV)

Since natural man is spiritually ignorant (1 Cor. 2:14) and scripture says we must worship God in Spirit (John 4:24), how can natural man worship God? Perhaps that is that why Paul wrote:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1 ESV)

The only acceptable Spiritual worship that natural man can offer up to God, is to die to self. Consider this also:

Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23 ESV)

Historically speaking, corporate singing does not appear to have been a significant component of gatherings in the first century church. Church historian Justin the Martyr wrote simply this:

“… and the people assent” (First “Apology”, Chapter LXVII, “Weekly Worship of the Christians”)

About that, Dr. Everett Ferguson, Professor of Church History Emeritus at Abilene Christian University, writes:

“Assent is … a word that has a double meaning: to make acclamation, or to sing. I have tried to bring out both meanings in the translation “sing out their assent.” We should think of a chant-like, unison acclamation. It was shouted out, not mumbled.”

Of course I do not mean to imply the early church did not sing. There are several NT scriptures that prove the Church did, in fact, sing (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, Acts 16:25, 1 Corinthians 14:15, et al). Nevertheless, the historian’s brief mention of the people’s assent suggests corporate singing was not particularly significant. When the historical account is considered together with the sparse evidence of corporate singing in the NT, the heavy emphasis upon corporate singing in “worship services” today suggests an evolution of our gatherings, most likely in response to cultural demands, while ignoring historical Church practices and New Testament scripture.

That I have found, there are no scriptures in the New Testament to support the idea of worship leaders, bands, etc. The practice seems to draw upon the OT forms of externalized worship led by the Levite priests in the temples and synagogues, with liberal reinterpretations and adaptations to fit the modern building-based church culture, which sadly, often imitates secular culture. How often have our so-called “worship services” looked and sounded like a secular concert? This practice causes me several concerns:

  • Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 4:6 “do not go beyond what is written.” A similar command is found in Revelation 22:18-19. So is it right to pick and choose the scriptures we observe, or to port obsolete temple worship practices from the OT to the NT?
  • Jesus said to worship in accordance with the traditions of men is in vain (Mark 7:6-8).
    “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.
  • If our worship is in vain, should we not to repent of it (Hebrews 6:1)?
    “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God.”
  • Did not the Lord warn us about trying to put new wine into old wineskins (Mat. 9:17)?

One final question seems appropriate. If we are going to turn to the Old Testament for instructions on how we should worship, why aren’t we observing the Jewish festivals commanded by the Law of Moses? If the answer is that Christians are led by the Spirit and therefore are not under the law (Galatians 5:18), what then of the bodily physical and other externalized acts of worship that originated under the Law of Moses?

While I am a life-long guitar player, singer and songwriter who greatly enjoys making music, I do not imagine that my gifting and talent are for anything other than to encourage, teach and admonish myself and the brethren. When I perform, I dedicate my music to the Lord and ask Him to bless those who listen. But my performance is not worship; it is my heart that worships in communion and harmony with the Holy Spirit who dwells in this tabernacle that is my earthly body. Certainly there have been times when I play and sing that the joy I feel in my Spirit resonates through my body and can be seen and felt by those who listen. That joy is multiplied through the common confession of a song sung with the brethren which helps to draw us into unity with one another and with the Savior, who joins us whenever we gather in His name.

I simply can not bring myself to acknowledge corporate singing as “worship”. Rather, I believe Paul said it right; singing together is for building one another up in unity.

Real worship occurs within the heart of believers.