Worship and an affectionate evangelicalism 2

In my last post I challenged the widely held view that ‘worship’ is an all-of-life activity. That assertion was not at all denying the call of God for his people to live lives of complete obedience to him in heart, mind and action—the right and proper response to being saved. Rather, I was contending that the Bible does not see such obedience as ‘worship’ so much as ‘service’.

Romans 12:1 in fact likens our service of God to the offerings presented for sacrifice in the OT temple—absolute and without compromise. Romans 12 is not, however, the end point of a biblical theology of worship. Rather, it provides a lovely summary of the whole Bible’s teaching on the life lived in response to salvation. Just as the service of Israel occurred under the umbrella of God’s grace, with no merit attached, so it is now for the Christian.

I pointed out that the original word behind ‘service’ in this and similar verses is the Greek word latruein. This word is commonly found alongside the word for ‘worship’, proskynein (though they aren’t synonymous).

Why all this is important is that there seems to be a great deal of confusion amongst Christians, in theology and in practice, in distinguishing between worship, service, the church, and—by implication—the things that go on in church, such as singing.

Those who subscribe to the idea that worship is all of life (based on, for example, a poor translation of Romans 12), generally go on to say that:

  1. the embedded OT temple connotations of service must also apply to the church gathering; or more simply:
  2. as church is part of all-of-life, then it too must rightly be called worship.

While I disagree with these conclusions, I actually want to leave all this hanging for a bit, other than to say that:

  1. Paul never directly applies all-of-life service to his doctrine of the church—which is where you might expect his application to go if he was envisioning a transformed new covenant temple-church.
  2. Outside of Paul’s letters, for example where cultic service appears in Hebrews, it is generally there to show the insufficiency of such service to satisfy God, and not to encourage ongoing cultic service as an actual practice of the church.

So if we can, let’s move on to check out briefly what issues come with ‘true’ worship.

True Worship

If service (latruein) is the response of obedience to our salvation, then worship (proskynein) is the attitude that drives that response. Originally, worship meant to physically bow before or lie prostrate before someone you were showing honour to. As the attitude behind the action (i.e. honour/respect) is key, the Bible often ditches the bowing and uses worship purely in the abstract sense, as we often do (e.g. “He worshipped the ground she walked on”).

Here’s a super quick biblical theology of proskynein worship:

  1. In the OT you could worship anything you liked—God, rulers, idols, whatever
  2. In the Gospels the only person ever worshipped is Jesus, e.g. by the Magi, the disciples (usually both physically and in attitude)
  3. In the NT letters, worship gets pretty scarce—but has some big eschatological moments—such as in the gathering around the throne in Revelation 5, and every knee bowing before Christ in Philippians 2.

So rather than landing on Romans 12:1, the Bible’s theology of worship finds its fulfilment at the feet of Jesus, where all people are in submission to him whether willingly or not. It isn’t the things we do which generate this worship, but it is the core attitude of our hearts toward God. And crucially, that attitude is affected in us by him.

This idea is made clear by Jesus in John 4. In discussing the nature of worship with the Samaritan woman, Jesus declares that true worship is not to be tied to religious places or practices. Rather, it happens at the level of the heart by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. It is he who creates new, submissive and obedient hearts towards God. In short, to worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24) means we worship God when we are in Christ. If ever there was a biblical command to silence talk of church as worship, it is here. Jesus claims not just to be the object of our worship, but is in fact our only means of worshipping.

While there is so much more to say on all this, I want us to note that a physical expression of worship seems to be something that happens only when Jesus is actually present—it occurs when Jesus is on earth and when he is in heaven. What happens between those two points is “worship in spirit and truth”. In either case, the attitude of the heart is the key.

And finally, note the lack of connection again between worship and church. Look up some of Paul’s classic church passages (1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians) and you’ll find no reference to worship (apart from the one describing the reaction of the unbeliever entering the church gathering). They are just not there—because worship doesn’t work like that for us. It is seemingly not an ongoing activity for the gathered church. We worship God by being in Christ. We worship in the same way that we are saved.

I admit that this feels a little unsatisfying to us. Worship is a big thing in the Bible, and we want to be part of it! It is just that worship finds its fulfilment in Christ—in a way that doesn’t require us to do anything past putting our faith in him. The attitude of worship is now in the DNA of the sanctified believer—and it is then worked out in active service of Christ.

The problem that Christians have always had, though, is that they want to do something—rather than trusting in salvation by grace through faith alone.

Current issues

1. Worship language

DA Carson has suggested that whilst our worship talk can often be biblically inappropriate, it is too hard, nevertheless, to change what has become common usage. The solution: redefine worship so that it fits our practice. He suggests we embrace ‘corporate worship’, upholding the supposition that church is a special part of all-of-life worship. While I can’t see that Carson and Peterson etc. have ever properly managed to argue this, the big problem isn’t actually about whether we are using the W word to describe church or singing or eating donuts or whatever. It is fundamentally a gospel issue (see the next point).

I don’t even want to be legalistic and have worship police rounding up song leaders who introduce with, “Let’s enter into a time of worship as we sing this next song”. The solution to that is for us all to better understand the nature of true worship and the nature of good singing—but that is another topic altogether.

2. Grace not works

When we talk of doing acts of worship, whether it be all-of-life or within church, then we miss the whole point of it being a fundamental attitude of the heart—an attitude affected in us by Christ to honour God. If we set out to worship, then we will in effect be doing a work—something to satisfy God in a way the cross of Christ can’t. This is the big danger of bringing OT cultic practice into our picture of all-of-life service, and it gets worse if we confuse that service with true worship. Yes, Israel’s sacrifices were to be done under the umbrella of God’s saving grace. But they never got that part particularly right, and neither do Christians who go down this route. Works in the disguise of religion are the hardest ones to see.

3. Worship songs

When we then sing songs that say “I worship you, O God” or “Here I am to worship”, we are in danger of saying that we are unwilling to trust the cross of Christ to perfect our relationship with God. There may be a worthy sentiment behind such words, but you are in effect bypassing the gospel of grace. If we emphasize singing too much in these terms then singing itself will become a work, rather than a response (see next point). Again, I’m not suggesting we ban any song that uses the word worship. Just try to make sure it agrees with biblical usage. And a good rule with the examples above would be to ask: “Does the Bible ever use such a phrase, or use worship language in this way?” Answer: No.

4. Mysticism

The early church got a bit too hung up on the liturgy continuing the course of OT temple practice. By the medieval period this had developed into full-blown mysticism—mysticism being about experiencing God through the sights, sounds, smells and sacrifices of ‘worship’. This was (partially!) dealt with by the Reformation, but it still exists today in much of Christianity. For some churches and movements, music is now at the heart of one’s experience of God through worship.

Now, having got all that off my chest, I would like encourage a way of doing church (particularly thinking about the preaching and singing), that is true, Spirit-filled, Word-centred, done in the context of grace, and which satisfies the affections—without the need to do worship or to experience God. But that is in the next post…

26 thoughts on “Worship and an affectionate evangelicalism 2

  1. Pingback: Worship and an affectionate evangelicalism 2 | The Briefing | Harp and Bowl Worship

  2. Hi Philip,

    “In the OT you could worship anything you liked—God, rulers, idols, whatever”

    How is this different to the NT context? Where, particularly the Roman Imperial cult required acts of worship (though not officially proskynein until the 3rd century or so).

    “Paul never directly applies all-of-life service to his doctrine of the church—which is where you might expect his application to go if he was envisioning a transformed new covenant temple-church.”

    What do you do with Philippians 2:17 – “17 But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. 18 So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.”

    And the idea that Paul sees his example as somewhat normative (1 Cor 4, 1 Cor 11:1) – as he “imitates Christ”… The chapter 11 one seems particularly important to an “all of life” view, coming as it does after the end of chapter 10…

    ” 31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33 even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.”

    I would suggest Paul sees his life as a sacrifice/all of life worship, and calls others to do the same.

    It also strikes me that often, as Christianity takes over the language of the cultures around it, it uses many different words with broad semantic ranges to try to articulate a concept that is being modified significantly from the prior picture – so I wonder if arguments based on linguistics, rather than concepts possibly carried in the semantic range of a word, are trying to make language do something, or carry a level of specifity, that it is not designed to do.

    • Also, given I was one of the people who made the “worship is all of life” so it’s odd to demark parts of our gatherings as “not worship” line in a thread the other day…

      “as church is part of all-of-life, then it too must rightly be called worship.”

      I would argue that Paul’s model of worship is a life lived in sacrificial service of God for the sake of helping others meet Jesus. His worship seems tied to his mission. I could proof text this I guess, but I think you could make a case that for Paul worship/”all of life” is mission and the eschatological worship you’ve described fits as telos of any worship now… which is why I think it’s ok seeing singing as part of a subset of worship, so long as singing is pointing people to Jesus as Lord, and aiding in our mission.

  3. Hi Philip, I like what you’re saying, especially about the danger of undermining the gospel of grace by our worship language.

    I do wonder, though, whether you need to be a more thorough in your application of biblical theology to our on-the-ground reading of the Bible.

    So for example, you say:

    When we then sing songs that say “I worship you, O God” or “Here I am to worship”, we are in danger of saying that we are unwilling to trust the cross of Christ to perfect our relationship with God … And a good rule with the examples above would be to ask: “Does the Bible ever use such a phrase, or use worship language in this way?” Answer: No.

    If I used this rule as you stated it, I (and anyone who’s used to the traditional Anglican service morning prayer) would say “Answer: Yes. Psalm 95:6 says, ‘Oh come, let us worship.'”

    How would you answer me?

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  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Phillip.

    I feel like your case in the end is not strictly a biblical case, nor a semantic one. Rather it is one possible proposal for how to limit the translation and conceptualising of the English word ‘worship’.

    And I can’t fully see why you are making your proposal. I still can’t see why latreia/service do not share ‘worship’ connotations. I can’t see why we can’t see an overlap of meaning so that latreia/service can mean ‘worship’ in some of its shades of meaning?

  6. Hey Philip –
    I enjoyed your blog posts, but I think I disagree on your hard and fast line between ‘service’ and ‘worship’ language. The command not to ‘bow down or serve’ the idols brings them tightly together I think.

    Anyway my thoughts on Romans 12 got a little long for a comment so I put them up on my blog. Take a look and see what you think if you have time.

  7. Chiming in again – I’m wondering what we do with Matthew 18:20, which seems to suggest that Jesus is with us, in a different way, when we gather… If his presence is a requirement when we worship, and he is present when we gather, how does that work?

  8. I’m finding this series of posts interesting but I’m struggling to understand what the basic point is (that’s my fault not yours). Would I be right in saying that the main reason you think that we should not be using “worship language” is that it could lead to a mindset of works rather than grace? If so, then wouldn’t “service” language have exactly the same potential problem?

  9. Hi Philip,

    As it’s the first time we’ve interacted, it’s a good opportunity to express my thanks for the music that you’ve written that I’ve sung (and sung along to) heaps and benefited from in many ways. :) Cheers!

    And thanks in advance for reading this reply (if you get a chance!).

    With respect to your post, I’m not sure why Jesus as the true worshipper necessitates the cessation of worship for the rest of God’s people? I don’t see how you’ve got to that point, scripturally.

    I guess I’m seeing in Scripture that we’re being conformed to the likeness of Christ, and as such being moved to true worship. The coming of the Spirit in Jeremiah and Ezekiel seems to be concerned with purification of worship rather than cessation, with Jesus confirming that God desires worshippers. I’m genuinely perplexed. As has been asked, what makes any other category of response to God immune from the same argument?

    You say that “DA Carson has suggested that whilst our worship talk can often be biblically inappropriate, it is too hard, nevertheless, to change what has become common usage. The solution: redefine worship so that it fits our practice.”

    With genuine humility, that isn’t what I think don has argued. My perception is that, rather, Don has suggested that worship is not a technical term that can be understood by a word-study on one particular Greek word and that it’s a trajectory through biblical theology.

    Lastly, I was quite surprised when I realised that you had said: “I would like encourage a way of doing church (particularly thinking about the preaching and singing) … without the need to do worship or to experience God.” (I trust the ellipsis has clarified rather than obscured the point)

    It seems to me that one of the most basic acts of prostrating ourselves and submitting ourselves to God, bowing down as it were, is the hearing and submitting of ourselves to his word. I find it theologically troubling to think that someone is not experiencing God when they hear his word. Now, I imagine that some of the implications I’ve drawn out there aren’t what you mean, or at least in the way I’ve explained them, so I’m more than willing to hear correction on this.

    Thanks for your time.

  10. Hi Philip!

    It’s good to think about what we do, and whether it is Biblical, and I’m glad you all are helping in that regard. And I’m also glad for your particular help in providing music with thoughtful and truthful content.

    But on this matter of worship, there is much I might want to say, but can I ask this: You say “you’ll find no reference to worship (apart from the one describing the reaction of the unbeliever entering the church gathering)” but why do you gloss over this instance from 1 Corinthians 14:24-25? I think this is very relevant. It seems that the unbeliever is convinced by the gathered believers, and while he is among them, in response he worships (proskynein) God. I would think it is presumed that he is not the only one worshipping in that gathering. Otherwise it is as if all the believers are looking on thinking “Maybe we still need to convince him that worship is done in Christ?” You also wrote “We worship in the same way that we are saved” and this previously unbelieving man seemed to worship as a response to being saved.

    By your understanding, even though you are uncomfortable with saying to God “I worship you”, is it ok to say to God “I glorify you”, “I honour you”, “I praise you”? Surely these things are Biblical (cf Acts 2:47, Acts 11:18, Acts 13:48, Acts 21:20, 1 Cor 14:15, 1 Tim 1:17, 1 Tim 6:16, 2 Tim 4:18, Heb 13:15, Heb 13:21, Jas 5:13, Jude 25 etc). And yet note in Rev 4:9-11, 5:11-14 etc worship involves singing praise, honour and glory to God and Christ. Can you really have one without the other?

    Lastly, I think that to say John 4:24 speaks of worshipping in Christ as the true worshipper, is far from irrefutable, and seems to be reading in more theology than is necessitated by the text alone. I realise you can only be brief here, but you would need to unpack that a lot more to be convincing that your point is actually what Jesus meant.


  11. This is a really interesting discussion, and I wish I had time to weigh in more significantly. But three very quick comments:

    1. Please remember to use your full (and real) name, not just a first name. It’s one of our commenting policies.

    2. Craig, where do you find singing in Rev 4:9-11 and 5:11-14? (It’s there in 5:9-10, but the verb in all the others verses is simply to ‘speak’ or ‘say’.)

    3. To those of you who would like to retain ‘worship’ language to apply to singing and/or to our church meetings, I have a question: Are you happy to retain ‘priest’ language to refer to Christian pastors and ministers? If not, why not?

    • Hi Tony.

      Thanks for taking the time to respond.

      Yes, you are right that the word “sing” was not used in the Revelation verses I quotes. I was wrong there. But as you note, 5:9 explicitly says “singing”, and it is possible that just as the words they “say” in 5:9 are sung, so also the words they “say” in 5:12 may have been sung. Also remember that worship = worthship and note that in 5:9 they sing “worthy is…”. In Rev 15:13-14 there is explicit singing about people worshipping God. And besides all that, do you think it is right to worship by speaking but not by speaking to music/singing?

      Regarding the priest question, I’m not sure that priest language is a necessary requirement for worship language. Although technically, according to Rom 15:16, 1 Peter 2:5,9, Rev 1:6, Rev 5:10, Rev 20:6, I would say that continuing use of priestly language is not wrong.


    • I’ll answer point 3 too…

      I’d say no. I’m comfortable with carrying over the language of priesthood – but not to describe pastors and ministers. Because I think one of the movements from OT to NT as the verse that Craig has posted above highlights, is a movement to every member priesthood… because we all now have the access to God, through Jesus, that we once had through the priest as mediator. And pastors and ministers aren’t standing in that mediatorial role…

      • Thanks Nathan. Good answer.

        I was going to say more at this point, but my reply has kind of turned into a post, which I’ll put up shortly.

    • “Are you happy to retain ‘priest’ language to refer to Christian pastors and ministers? If not, why not?”

      A good question. THE question, in a sense, however else I may be unsure of Philip’s reasoning. By the way, despite thinking it true to call singing to God worship, I don’t support the use of ‘worship’ as a term to differentiate singing from other aspects of a church gathering. Here is my personal reasoning for my position:

      (1)As humans, we are built for worship. We have no choice. The question is what we worship.

      In the visible gathering of church meetings, we are demonstrating, corporately, that our allegiance belongs to Christ. That God’s church submits to him as it gathers to sit under (submit to, bow to even) His word and sing His praises, as opposed to any other. Just by its nature, it is a special demonstration of that. Hence I would happily call church ‘corporate worship’.

      I now have to leave the room so it can be vaccuumed, perhaps will get time to give some other reasons soon.

    • I’m not happy to use that language for pastors and ministers for the same reason that I’m not happy to use ‘worship’ to differentiate the singing from the rest of the service. It creates a false distinction.

      I don’t think that the term ‘corporate worship’ when applied to church creates a false distinction.

      • Philip, great to see you stirring the debate and I’m grateful for you provoking us to think. Coming from England, and with a long and illustrious history in misuse of ‘worship’ I thought I should contribute! First though I agree wholeheartedly with your last three points of application (grace not works, worship songs and mysticism)

        However, I have to say I wonder if
        a. You’re hanging a lot on a tight semantic line of the distinction between the two ‘worship’ words, whereas
        i. In the LXX it’s not so tight as the worship/service distinction – quite often latreuo is used implying a cultic/corporate gathering context e.g. Ex 9:1 and compare to Ex 8:25-26
        ii. In classical Greek literature at the time of the NT latreuo was also used in a cultic setting e.g. Wenstrom notes that though quite a rare word it’s used in the cultic/corporate connection in the worship of Isis

        b. Given all the ‘momentum’ in the OT that’s built up of the idea of worship being a. A heart attitude thing to God b. Something we do when we gather in the temple/tabernacle/corporately then I think the big question is whether the NT does enough to put a hard stop on such thinking, or whether it redirects that momentum and broadens it out into the classic ‘all of life’ understanding. I think it would be odd for the NT writers with all their Jewish assumptions to be trying to push us towards a ‘hard stop’ on corporate worship, just because they don’t use proskuneo but rather latreuo when as we’ve seen – the distinction between the two in other usage is no where near as clear cut as you want it to be.

        Just some thoughts from a dodgy Anglican who still uses ‘corporate worship’ language!


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  13. Hi Philip,

    I read what you’re saying as follows: The locus or place of worship is the person of Jesus, not all-of-life or the church. But in using worship language for (primarily) the church service, we might have shifted the place of worship from Jesus to the church, which could lead to the works not grace practices etc. I definitely think we should remind each other that the place of worship is not the church but Jesus. However, to do that we need to retain the worship word is some contexts, don’t we?

    Regarding the ‘experience’ word, I have more of a problem with that. I’ve been thinking the Bible never uses the word experience in worship or church, but it is a very common 21st century word. However, its quite self-focused and self-fulfilling in its usage. I want to experience different cultures. I want to experience love. I want to experience music. I want to experience food. I want to experience God.

    Rather than using a generic experience which is focused on my process and what I get out of it, the Bible seems to use specific emotive words when it comes to describing our church life. I should want to know the love of Christ more and more, to be joyful in suffering (you could say experience joy here), to be slow to anger and quick to listen, to be patient and kind towards others I disagree with.

    Instead of just saying I want to experience God, maybe the question should be, what feeling do I want to experience when I worship God? Which leads us straight into the affections (and your next post!).

    • Whoops, when I said ‘we need to retain the worship word in some contexts’, I meant to say ‘in some way’. I definitely do not mean we should retain it to describe church, which leads to exactly the problem stated!

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