What is the role of scripture in worship? If scripture is to be our sole infallible guide to Christian practice as well as theology, what does that mean for worship? Since I'm writing this to enter it into the first Carnival of the Reformation, it's probably worth linking to a good summary of the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Wikipedia's entry should serve that purpose well. What I'm interested in establishing in this post is what bearing that doctrine has on worship, both private and communal. Some readers may consider some of my conclusions suprising, but I think they come right out of scripture. There are so many elements of contemporary worship that seem to me to use a non-scriptural basis and even undermine what scripture says about worship. Some of these are subjects of common complaints, but I think the ones I'm zeroing in on are not the most common complaints about the worship of our day. I do think they're some of the more serious ones. If we take scripture seriously, as the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura requires, I think we'll need to change much of how we think about worship, including the role of scripture in worship, though how it will need to change will depend on our background and our current practices.
If scripture is to be our only infallible guide about worship, the first task is to look to scripture to see what it says about worship to see whether our view of what worship is accords with scripture. Then I'll look toward what role scripture should play in our worship if it's our only infallible guide. Finally, I'll examine one view that I think goes too far in restricting what we do in worship by claiming support in Sola Scriptura and then conclude with a brief meditation on the role remembering plays in scripture.
What is worship? Biblically speaking, I can't see how to answer that question without looking to the whole of what the Bible says about it. We have a stark contrast in some ways between worship in the old covenant and in the new. If we looked at a lot of contemporary worship definitions and then looked at old covenant worship, we'd have a hard time putting them together. Worship involved killing innocent animals. For much of the old covenant period, that could only be done in one place, the temple in Jerusalem, which was declared to be holy and God's dwelling place. One day a week was declared to be especially holy and therefore to be kept holy. Certain people were able to perform the sacrificial acts of worship. Others were not. The division between holy and common in Hebrew culture was so thoroughgoing that all sorts of types of things could be holy or common -- locations, periods of time, food, pots, animals, houses, and even the area outside the camp during the wilderness wanderings. Among the common things (i.e. what isn't holy), something could be clean or unclean, especially objects and people but also actions.
In the new covenant there's a grand shift toward removing many of these distinctions, or more accurately seeing them as fulfilled in something greater and often invisible. When Jesus is asked the greatest commandment, he says loving God with your whole being, with the second loving your neighbor as yourself, both commands from the old covenant (Deut 6:4-9 and Lev 19:18). Jesus ties the two together in Mark 12:28-34. John makes it clear that they're not just two commands. You can't do one without the other (e.g. I John 2:9-11 but throughout the gospel of John also). Jesus retains this as the fundamental underlying principle of all God's law. Other elements find their fulfillment in him and what he was initiating.
The killing of animals was fulfilled in the death of one innocent, the Messiah. The categories of clean and unclean don't stop applying, but cleanness expands to things formerly considered unclean, and holiness expands to things formerly treated as common. Jesus tells the woman at the well in John 4 that worship will no longer just be on that one mountain in that one temple but in all places. No longer is one location seen as holy and the rest not. Times and days are no longer recognized as special in any of these senses. Every day is holy to the Lord (cf. Gal 4:9-10; Rom 14:5-9; Col 2:16-17), and the rest of the Sabbath is fulfilled in the rest from works (Ps 95; Heb 3:7-4:13). All things are created good (I Tim 4:4). The priesthood has expanded to include all believers (I Pet 2:5), and Levitical service in the tabernacle and temple is fulfilled in our service (as revealed by Paul's choice of words in Rom 15:16).
Most importantly, sacrificial language is now expanded to include many other ways of worshiping God. Even in the old covenant, sacrifices were not the key to worship (see I Sam 15:22; Ps 40:6-8; 50:7-11; Amos 5:21-24; Hosea 6:4-6; Isaiah 1:12-17; Prov 21:3). The key in all these passages is holy and righteous living. In the new covenant, this is complete in that the old sacrifices are gone, replaced by what they all along looked toward -- Christ's sacrifice, which enables us to be holy. It enables us to be a sacrifice ourselves, one that is living and not killed, one that is holy because of his holiness leading toward a life reflecting that, one that is acceptable to God and therefore leads us to live a life that God would accept (Rom 12:1-2). This is our spiritual, reasonable, or rational worship, depending on how you translate one difficult word in that passage. The passage goes on to explain what that worship is all about, and it's just a description of what the Christian life should look like. That's worship in the new covenant, just as holy living in the old covenant was more important than any killing of animals. Hebrews 13:15-16 applies sacrificial terminology to praising God, so the one thing contemporary worship language calls worship is part of the picture. However, that's only one aspect of what worship in the new covenant, as it truly was in the old covenant but under a different structure, is all about.
This includes work, which belonged to the original paradise (Gen 2:15). As something created by God, it's good. It's not as if the command to see the Sabbath as holy is removed. Saturdays are still holy. It's as if holiness has expanded to the other days and to what is done on the other days. Working is holy. So the division between working days and non-working days is unimportant for keeping the Sabbath holy, since every day is holy and every Christian act is holy. Work is part of worship. There may be special times when we gather with each other to worship communally, but worship is something we do when we do whatever we do, ideally. It's not even that when we work we also pray and say praises to God. It's that through our work, our honoring God by doing what he has given us to do, we are worshiping God. Through using our gifts wisely, through serving him by fulfilling our mandate to work the ground or whatever in our modern context we're actually doing to put food on the table, we're honoring him. That's worship.
There are two extremes to avoid, and here I'm relying on the terminology of D.A. Carson in his excellent biblical theology of worship that serves as roughly one quarter of Worship by the Book, edited by him and contributed to also by Mark Ashton (representing Anglicanism), R. Kent Hughes (representing a Reformed free church/baptistic view), and Tim Keller (a presbyterian). [I highly recommend this book to anyone who has to think carefully about public worship. Carson's chapter on the biblical theology of worship greatly influenced how I've thought about a lot of these issues, and it's been especially helpful for providing ways of describing things I'd been thinking long before I read it.] The two extremes to avoid are quietism and mere activism. Quietism is personal piety without worrying about how our lives affect those around us. It's adoration without action. It's trying to love God without loving others. It's not really worship, given the perspective I've been outlining here. This is really just hypocrisy, since it's not real. Real adoration involves adoring who God really is. Focusing on those truths affects how we live and isn't just kept to ourselves. If the good news means enough to us, it shows in our being moved toward more godly characteristics, which leads to action.
On the other hand, mere activism is action without adoration, taking acts that might be described as service to God as fundamental, which removes from them the basis of doing them -- love. Without love (for God and for neighbor), mere activism is just noise, worth nothing, as Paul says in I Corinthians 13. It's not worship. It might be easy to think seeing work as worship would lead to seeing any old work as worship. Not according to Jesus. The gospel should impel us. When we consider the significance of the good news of salvation, of being restored to peace, wholeness, and wholesomeness in our relationships with God and others, it leads us in a new direction, affecting our actions. If it's something else that's driving us, are we really loving God with our whole being?
One final issue is God's presence. We're already in God's presence regularly. Just as Jesus uses temple language to describe himself, Paul uses it to describe Christians collectively (I Cor 3:13; 'you' is plural) and later in the same letter Christians individually (I Cor 6:19). Through the Holy Spirit, God dwells in us. That means we don't need to go anywhere to be present with God. It means we don't think of ourselves entering God's presence when we gather with people to sing songs to God. We may get a greater sense of God's presence in such situations, but we don't enter God's presence in any real way just by being among other believers singing songs of praise. The reality is that we are seated in the heavenly places with Christ Jesus. We are gathered around the throne of God in heaven. That's the gathering that the word translated as 'church' refers to (since "gathering" or "gathered ones" is the most accurate translation of 'ekklesia'). The consequences of this are staggering. That means we're already, spiritually speaking, gathered around God's throne with all the saints of church history and those to come! The effect of realizing this on what we do when we live our lives of worship and when we gather particularly for worship through songs and teaching is fairly serious.
I want to address some particular applications of this, with some special concern for the role of scripture in worship (though any of this is already dealing with this because if the scriptures are our sole infallible guide then rethinking things in light of scripture is already following that guide).
First, consider individual worship. Loving God with your whole being is the greatest commandment. Can we do this if we see just the time when we gather together as our worship time? Can we do this if we see the time when we gather to sing as if we're being brought into God's presence, which implies that we weren't in his presence before? Can we do this if we're not in prayer regularly throughout the week? Can we do this if we're not seeking to think God's thoughts after him? What does God have to say about the things I'm doing? What does God have to say about what I should do? How does God feel about the various things that happen to me during my day? Am I seeking to think the same things, to feel the same way God does about the events of my life, about the people I interact with (or fail to interact with), about the ways I do or don't interact with them? Do I seek to appreciate what is good in things, even things I don't normally appreciate, simply because God does? Do I seek to feel God's anger and pain at sin and at the horrors of a fallen world? Do I seek to understand the deep truths of scripture and to marvel at how God has worked throughout his actions in history as he tells us of them through his word? Do I take every thought captive to Christ? Do I seek to be transformed in the image of Christ as my mind is renewed? Do I reflect on who God is, as he's revealed himself? Do I seek to align my desires with God's so that I may be pursuing what's best? Do I see praying for things as seeking to get stuff or as a way to share with our heavenly Father what our burdens are and what we really long for?
If we really see scripture as our sole infallible authority, this is how we will think of our lives of worship, and it requires taking deliberate steps to absorb what scripture says about God, reality, and ourselves. Crucial to study all of the scriptures, carefully and deliberately thinking through how these grand themes of God's work throughout history should affect our lives.
What about corporate worship? When we gather together, what is it that we're doing? We're gathering, but we're gathering primarily to God, who is already always with us. In a sense, this is a special kind of worship, since we're getting a taste of the reality of the heavenly Jerusalem that we have come to (Heb 12:22-24). Every local gathering of believers is a manifestation of this spiritual gathering to God manifested by people in different places and times. What we're part of is bigger than we are, not just across space and time but in a spiritual realm in God's heavenly throne room. We reflect this by gathering together.
What do we do at these gatherings that distinguishes it from individual worship (which is more of a lifestyle than an action)? We see some specific things that are done at gatherings in the New Testament period. Some of it is the same sort of thing that we should be doing as individuals (praying, spending time in the word: Joshua 1:5-9; Psalm 1:2). What is distinctive about these gatherings, as the NT writers describe them, is that they are times of encouraging each other (Heb 10:19-25, which also supports lots of these other general points). Even times of singing are times of speaking to each other (Ephesians 5:19). We teach and admonish each other, letting the word of Christ dwell in us richly. What's interesting is that Paul fleshes this out with the example of singing songs together (Colossians 3:16). This is a crucial element of how Sola Scriptura should influence our public worship. Our singing of songs is at least partly to each other, to affirm the truths of scripture to each other. We're reminding each other of the truths we affirm as believers, and we're teaching each other through our singing truths to each other. Those who see the public gathering time as a time to connect with God are not thinking biblically. That sort of view has its basis in experience and tradition, not the word of God. This should have a great impact on selection of songs, use of scripture, and even style of singing (e.g. call and response is emphasized), though it's important that nothing here should affect the style of music.
One view that seems to me to go too far is the idea that we should not do something in public worship if it goes beyond what scripture explicitly says about public worship, particularly what the New Testament says explicitly (which is the only way the view could ever be used to support not using instruments, because the psalms assume instruments). The more extreme version of this view says that no words should be used except what's in the psalms, since those are the only record of worship that we have given by God. Any other songs are not inspired in any infallible sense and thus should not be used if scripture is to be the only infallible guide. This ignores clear worship of Christ in the New Testament, such as the refains in Paul's letters or Revelation and in fact does not allow explicit worship of Christ, since the psalms do not do that. This is bad, because the New Testament specifically does expect worship of Christ. A more reasonable view is that only the words of scripture (or very close paraphrases) should be used in public singing. I don't have a major objection to that view, though I see no biblical support for it. If the Bible is our sole infallble guide, it doesn't do to insert a requirement that the Bible doesn't include and then say that you're using only what the Bible says. The view itself isn't listed anywhere in the Bible.
What's worse is that applying such a view to public worship misunderstands what public gatherings are all about. It's not as if there's something more holy about these gatherings. God's presence is not specially manifest in these locations in space-time, as if God is not with us to the same degree elsewhere and elsewhen, as if our life isn't really worship without the other believers or (what's worse) the particular building around us. That's why I hesitate at the reasoning behind why we dress up for these gatherings. If we should give God our best, we should do so when we go to bed and when we go running. We don't need to wear a nice suit or dress for those things. The reason to look nicer in public or at special occasions such as gathering with other believers can't be because we're giving God our best, as if that time is the time when we leave God's absence and enter his presence. This view of restricting public worship according to what the New Testament specifically says also ignores that God has gifted his people with abilities to reflect on what practices might best serve to teach and edify his people. What's the point of those giftings if we have to have these rigid and legalistic requirements on what can happen in the public gathering?
I want to end with some thoughts on remembering. One way to think of worship is that it's delighting in God (not delighting in worship as an experience, which is what I suspect many people in my generation prefer, but really delighting in God himself). How do we do this? Can we have a lifestyle of loving God with our whole being if we aren't constantly remembering God, reminding ourselves of what we have come to know about God? (Can we even do it if we aren't growing in our knowledge of God?) Think about which sorts of things God has revealed about himself that we can and should reflect on. That's part of worship. I think it's also fair to say that it's doing theology. Ideally, at least, they're two sides of the same coin.
Much of biblical revelation retells events. The Exodus and the Exile are two important old covenant events. Whole books retell events other books already covered. We have four gospels about the life, ministry, and final days of Jesus' time on earth. Paul tells the Philippians he's writing the same things again to them as a reminder (Phil 3:2; cf. II Peter 3:1). Moses told Israel to remember the Lord (Deuteronomy 6, 8). When they wandered from what God had said, they were forgetting God (and by extension not loving God; cf. Deuteronomy 6:4-5). Moses says to remember every word that comes from God, to hang it from doorways and wear it on their bodies. It should encompass everything they do. Our whole lives should be affected by what God has revealed to us in his word. That's how Sola Scriptura should impact our worship, since our worship is our life.
Our continuing study of God's ways in history, his dealings with people in the past, his statements about himself, and his guidance for our lives is crucial for delighting in God, since it's so easy to lose sight of these important things. This is important for individual and corporate worship. Jesus said that observing what we now call the Lord's Supper (or the Eucharist or communion) was to be done to remember him. If we see our whole life as remembering him, think of how that will affect how we live. That's the kind of worship scripture enjoins us to do.
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Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.