The Worship Priority
The Fourth Commandment
Chapter 22 – Well Ordered Worship
The recent flurry of books on the subject of worship has given many Christians the impression that struggles over the nature of worship are something new. The truth is quite different. Whatever we may think of the established “traditions” of the churches in which we grew up, conflict over the proper nature of worship is as old as the church itself.
American denominations split during the colonial period over the introduction of “new measures” in worship. A “singing controversy” bitterly divided the earliest Reformed Baptists in England. We think of the Reformation as a revival of a the biblical doctrine of salvation, but John Calvin, in his influential letter to the Emperor entitled, “On the Necessity of Reforming the Church,” primarily addressed the need to reform worship.
Even that was far from the earliest controversy over worship. The New Testament church itself underwent serious disruptions over the nature of biblical worship. We are particularly familiar with the conflict in the church of Corinth, one of several controversies which prompted Paul’s first letter to that church. Paul’s response to the Corinthian worship battle was regulatory: he insisted that public worship be reformed according to the commands of God. From this we learn an important lesson: Regulated Worship is necessary to a peaceful church.
Paul addresses the worship wars in Corinth in chapter 14 of his letter. We must not be distracted in this passage by the presence of tongues and prophecies. While these gifts have passed into history with the completion of revelation, they were part of worship during the New Testament era. Paul addresses the proper use of these gifts early in the chapter, and then deals with the heart issues in which the Corinthians were at fault in verses 26 through 40.
As we read Paul’s instructions, we get a clear picture of what was happening in the services at Corinth. When they came together, each person had something he wanted to contribute. Everyone was concerned that his own gifts be recognized and utilized by the church, so some had songs to sing and others had messages to deliver. Little concern was given to whether any of this was comprehensible to the other worshipers. Those who spoke in tongues were doing so without the benefit of translators, and evidently everyone was speaking at once. Paul actually had to say “one at a time,” as though he were handing out popsicles to preschoolers!
The worship service at Corinth certainly sounds entertaining. It must have had something of a carnival air; you could pick which attraction held the most interest for you, personally. Each worshipper did his own thing. Perhaps they even shouted each other down, competing for attention and affirmation. That a similar spirit has overtaken worship in our culture scarcely needs to be said. At the outer fringes of the contemporary church scene we may find congregations which have reproduced the very conditions Paul addressed thousands of years ago!
Paul’s first concern was to address the hearts of the worshipers. The self-serving nature of their worship revealed an inner pride; it was as though they had achieved a state of giftedness entirely apart from the work of the Divine Giver. Each was to remember that if he had any gift to give the church it was because God had chosen to bestow that gift. “Was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” These questions were intended to shame the Corinthians into stepping off their “this is my gift and I’m going to use it” soapbox and remember how they had come to worship God in the first place.
This alone would have prepared the Corinthians to receive the commands of God in worship, but Paul did something more. As well as urging a renewed attitude toward God, he wanted them to think differently of one another. Everything done in worship was to be done “for building up.” In other words, each worshiper was to stop thinking, “This is what I want to do,” and ask instead, “What will build up my brothers in the Lord?” Since worship is corporate, we must desire the good of the whole body before we can enter into it properly.
Decency and Order
And how would the church accomplish that good? Paul’s answer is to insist on order in worship. God, he tells us, is not a god of chaos or confusion, but of peace. Our worship is to reflect that peace. Often we hear traditional worship ridiculed as sleep-inducing tedium. Worship should be interesting, at least to those who wish to know God, but some of these complaints have been generated by a desire for worship that is primarily entertaining. Paul said, though, that worship must reflect the peacefulness of God. Do sideshow extravaganzas meet that description?
Paul instead demands that participants wait their turns before speaking and that there be a basic decency and order about the service. And just what order should the church follow? Where is it to learn how to arrange a peaceful, decent, orderly service? Paul says that his instructions were “a command of the Lord.” As an apostle, he had the authority to say to the Corinthian church: “Your worship is not God-honoring. It is sinful. You must change it, and you must worship in another way.”
Paul’s handling of this controversy reinforces much of what we have been studying in this series. First, we see that improper worship is a very real category, for God is not equally pleased by all worship. Secondly, we see that God has given instruction in how He desires to be worshiped. He did so through the apostles, and their “commands from the Lord” are still with us on the pages of the New Testament. This is where we must learn not only that we ought to worship God, but also how to do so.
Spirit and Truth
In John 4:23, 24 Jesus told the Woman at the Well that God seeks those who will worship Him in Spirit and in truth. Certainly we need the Holy Spirit to bless our worship. We require His assistance in our prayers and praises, and we cannot hope to understand the Word of God without His enlightening ministry in our hearts. The Spirit of God, though, is a Spirit of truth. He always accompanies the truth – never lies. Our worship, then, if it is to be Spiritual, must be grounded in truth. The Holy Spirit is not at our beck and call; rather He blows where He wills.
We have been given the truth, however. Our focus in worship ought to be to seek out the will of God in Scripture, to endeavor to worship Him according to His truth. Then we may expect that our prayer for the Spirit’s presence will be answered, and we will worship as Jesus commanded: in Spirit and in truth.