What is Worship?

The following post was first published in July 2013.  Some of the phrases used here are perhaps not the ones I would employ now, but I leave everything as it was originally published.

What is worship?  It’s a simple question, yet one which would appear on the face of it to have many answers.  In Christendom today, a great variety of activities are called ‘worship’.  The word is attached to organisations and inserted into job titles.  It would seem that ‘worship’ is a word which describes any sort of well-meaning and wholesome activity, directed God-ward.  It is my feeling that the word ‘worship’ has been sadly misused.  Although there might, legitimately enough, be a range of descriptions of what is worship, there is one which – in my view – is particularly apt.  “Worship is the adoration of the soul that is in the complete satisfaction of the knowledge of God.”*  The writer of this observation then goes on to remark that if the heart is not satisfied, there may be thanksgiving, but there will not be true worship, and “How could would we be in this absolute satisfaction, except by the Spirit of God?”  Therefore, Christian worship is an activity from which the Spirit of God is inseparable.  Without Him in it, it is not worship.

Scripture would assure us, unequivocally, that we worship by the Spirit of God.  “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God, and boast in Christ Jesus, and do not trust in flesh.” (Philippians 3 v 3).  Very well, many might say.  What’s the problem?  What goes on in my church, and the church down the street, and the meeting hall around the corner, and the chapel in the next town, all of it is worship if the Spirit of God is the source of it.  That would be true, if that were the case.  However, it would appear many Christians are happy to take the first part of of Paul’s statement, to regard themselves as the circumcision who worship by the Spirit of God.  They may even, outwardly, take on the second part.  It is the third part which is not properly attended to, which it should have been if we are of the circumcision, having seen our flesh cut off and dead to us.  But, it is very much to be feared and guarded against that “the mind of the flesh” (Colossians 2 v 18) and “the satisfaction of the flesh” (v 23) do not intrude and spoil what should rightly and wholly be for God amongst those that are His.  In Ephesians 4 v 30, the apostle warns against our natural tendency to “grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which ye have been sealed for the day of redemption”.  How does this happen, how is the Spirit grieved?  By the resurgence of our flesh, our old nature, which we have died to, and should be cut off: “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these things are opposed one to the other…” (Galatians 5 v 17).  This is what spoils what is for God and causes inevitable disappointment and despondency in His would-be worshiper.

Where is there evidence, then, of the mind of the flesh and its satisfaction in Christendom today?  Everywhere.  Amongst Protestant Christian denominations, there is wide-spread condemnation of the idolatry of Romanism, and rightly so.  The histrionic services, empty rituals and pagan mysticism of the Roman Catholic Church shows the religious flesh, displayed in all its gross decadence.  Here we see a system which was devised by the mind of man at the inspiration of Satan, and solely dedicated to the satisfaction of the flesh which walks by sight, and not by faith (2 Corinthians 5 v 7).  Here was see what Paul warns the Colossians against: “Let no one fraudulently deprive you of your prize, doing his own will in humility and worship of angels, entering into things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by the mind of his flesh…” Satan is keen that the mind of the flesh should be kept alive and active in each and every one of us, so that we mistake real piety and true worship for things “(which have indeed an appearance of wisdom in voluntary worship, and humility, and harsh treatment of the body, not in a certain honour,) to the satisfaction of the flesh.”  Allowing the mind of the flesh to have scope leads to the satisfaction of the flesh, and not the satisfaction of God, which is surely the purpose of worship.

“However”, the Protestant might argue, “none of this idolatry is in my church”.  Isn’t it?  Now we come to the real test, the hard word for many of us at this time.  Is the flesh dominating our ‘worship’ and setting it at nought?  It may not be the blatant idolatry of Romanism, it may be more subtle, but it is equally destructive.  I feel compelled to say at this point, Thanks be to God for every believer, every earnest believer with right Christian desires, indwelt of the Spirit of God who desires to worship together with their brethren in Christ.  These believers are scattered throughout broken Christendom, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, of a thousand denominations and titles, but all of Christ, and members of His Body, whether they own it or not.  It is because of these brethren that I feel it is important to address – as far as my feeble capacity to do so will allow – this vital issue.

When I was a child, my parents brought me along to Christian meetings.  I was too young to understand what was being discussed, so I sat through them, entertaining myself with toys, and latterly a notebook and pencil which I was allowed to doodle in during the teaching.  When I was old enough, I didn’t bring my notebook, and instead gave the meetings my attention.  If an adult were to bring out their smartphone in a church or meeting room in the middle of proceedings and start playing games on it, people would certain look askance at that, and quite rightly so.  But, is that not what many of us are doing?  Aren’t we bringing our toys to church?  In many churches, services of worship are accompanied by playing musical instruments, lights, video presentations, choirs, vocal solos and all manner of entertainments, ancient and modern.  This, I would assert, is sowing to the flesh and not to the Spirit (Galatians 6 v 8).

Undoubtedly, the above statement will raise great consternation and indignation in many who read it.  Undoubtedly it would be regarded by some as legal, by others as Pharisaical (I fail to see the logic of that, but it has been said), and yet others as an attack on Christian liberty.  To the last rebuttal, I would have to say that anyone making it has a poor idea of what true Christian liberty is.  In particular, musical instruments used in worship is a cherished and almost sacred practice of many churches.  From the traditional church organ to the modern electric guitars, to small orchestras in some places, it is quite a common thing now.  I can say with utmost confidence that it wasn’t so from the first, that there were no such innovations in the early church.  To counter this view, proponents of the use of musical instruments will point to the Old Testament scriptures, numerous scriptures, which speak of the use of instruments in the praise of Jehovah.  In 1 Chronicles 23 v 5 we have it recorded: “… and four thousand praised Jehovah with the instruments which I made, said David, to praise therewith.”  These, and many other scriptures, are used as justification for the present use of musical instruments in the service of God.  This shows – and I say this with all due respect and affection, mixed with sorrow, to those saying it – a dreadful ignorance of dispensational truth.  The Jewish order of things, God’s dealings with His earthly people, are merely shadows of that which was to come.  Colossians 2 tells us as much, and even a casual study of the scripture would reveal them to be such.  In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the apostle expands on this theme in great and rewarding detail**.  If we take Jewish things and try to fit them into our Christian worship, we are attempting to restore an order of things which God has brought to a close, a system of things which He has superseded with something infinitely greater.  To those who would bring instruments into the worship of God: are we to bring incense back too?  Are we to go right into apostasy and bring back many atoning sacrifices for sin, as the Romish system has?  God forbid that that terrible, blasphemous notion should get hold in the sphere of Christendom which is largely free from Rome’s baleful influence!  We should be clear that these things were right, proper and necessary, divine ordinances – in their time.  But to bring them into this dispensation, when symbolical things have been replaced by realities… that is both an terrible affront to God and a denial of the blessings of Christianity to the Christian.  Just as the many sacrifices have been utterly superseded by the one sacrifice of a perfect Lamb, once and for all, the use of the product of the works of man’s hands has been utterly superseded too by the service of the Spirit of God.  In 2 Chronicles 7 v 6, we have a wonderful scene, complete with “the Levites with Jehovah’s instruments of music, which David the king had made to praise Jehovah”.  Has not the Christ, the true David, made instruments to praise Jehovah, secured them in His death?  He has indeed: us, dear believer.  We are Jehovah’s instruments of music, for the praise of God.  The work of God Himself in us is ever refining our tone and pitch, His Holy Spirit plays on us in the service of the praise of God.  This is a wonderful and blessed truth, one of many of this dispensation: the shadows and the typical representations of the old dispensation having their realisation in this one, and beyond it, on into eternity.  I could continue on this wonderful topic, but I have stick to the bounds of the subject in hand.

There are some, even when presented with these points in view, clearly scriptural in their basis, who would say accuse me of pendantry and dealing in semantics.  I would strongly refute that, and say that these things are of the highest importance.  “Where’s the harm in it?”, many might ask.  In case the harm of feeding the flesh with sights and sounds is not established clearly enough above, I will use an theoretical example.  Two believers go to the same service of worship at a place where musical instruments and multimedia of all sorts is employed to “augment” the occasion.  Both are genuine and faithful, both have a right desire to worship God, a desire which is produced by His working in them.  One believer enters into the service fully, contributing to it in spirit and in voice, joining in with the singing of hymns and spiritual songs, worshiping by the Spirit of God, entering into the true spiritual things which – hopefully – remain despite the dross of worldliness and the Judiazing influence which has sadly been at work in the place.  The other believer is distracted by the sights and sounds of the service and gets caught up in it.  He enjoys the musical accompaniment, the theatrics and the emotion.  The Holy Spirit is grieved as the believer is taken up with the things which his natural senses appreciate, while he gets a lift and a feeling of joy and happiness from them.  But this is only a temporary boost, as results from anything which feeds our flesh but not our spirit.  He goes away from the service feeling joyful and peaceful, but this quickly fades.  The other believer goes away with something substantial having been worked out in his soul, the result of a real spiritual experience.  His weaker brother in Christ gets dejected and despondent: what he thinks is a spiritual experience is not satisfying him.  He sees his stronger brother grow in the knowledge of the truth and have his links with the Lord strengthen.  The weaker brother begins to question whether this thing called Christianity is indeed for him…  Of course, this could be regarded as a worse-case / best-case scenario, a sharp contrast between the two.  But, the fact remains that it could happen, and it has happened, no doubt.  Is it not our duty to have regard for our weaker brethren, and not cause them to stumble?  Is it not the spirit of Cain to question and to ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Assuredly, we are, if we truly walk in fellowship with one another.

On this point, the part that choirs and ‘worship bands’ have to play in the worship of God has to be questioned.  It is strange and disturbing that, while Protestants may condemn the ritual and theatrics of Rome, they have such things as these themselves.  Not everyone can sing in a choir, not everyone is naturally gifted to be able to do so.  Not everyone can play an instrument, because not all have that natural ability or have devoted the time to acquiring the skill.  Are these performances not theatrical, and for the entertainment of those watching?  It mirrors the corruption of Romanism.  The word ‘mass’ which is used to describe that histrionic ritual which the Romish church substitutes for the Lord’s supper, is in fact a corruption of the word which was, in times past, used as a command, to dismiss those from the place who were not there to join in communion.  The opposite is true of the Roman Catholic mass.  Those who do not communicate, who do not take part in the communion, watch the spectacle unfold.  And this, if you credit it, is called worship!  This being the case, why are entertainments and spectacles called worship by those Protestants who condemn so roundly the pageantry of Rome?  Again, the flesh is fed by these things, and the Spirit is grieved.  The flesh is fed in those watching, and in those performing.  If we feel that we’re being admired for our natural or acquired abilities, then that can lead to pride.  This is natural: that is the mind of the flesh.  It’s nice to admired for our talents.  In some measure, that is harmless.  But it has no place in the service of God, where He is the object – or should be – the object of all adoration and worship.  The apostle Paul is ever a good guide: he lists his many qualifications and achievements in his epistle to the Philippians, and then what does he say?  Does he say that, since he is so qualified and has achieved so much naturally and without God, that he should use it for the glory of God (as some have indeed argued!)?  Does he say that it is because of these qualifications and achievements that he is an apostle?  No.  “But surely I count also all things to be loss on account of the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, on account of whom I have suffered the loss of all, and count them to be filth, that I may gain Christ…” (chapter 3 v 8).  He lost all, and counted it filth.  Not “a great sacrifice”, not even “a small sacrifice”, but “filth”.  All that he was, all that he had achieved, all that he had worked at was worthless and undesirable to him.  He’d seen Christ, and that was all that filled his vision.

Would that we were more Pauline in our valuation of things here and heavenward looking in our gatherings, there would be no room for musical instruments, or choirs, or bands, or multimedia, or any of the passing things of this world which can only hinder the enjoyment and prevent the entering in of the believer into true worship.  “But, if we get rid of all those things”, asks the dismayed church-goer, “what will we have left?”  My friend, you will have the Spirit of God, free to move and operate among those He indwells, stirring their hearts in praise and worship to God.  That is all the God requires.  Nothing we can do will add to the service of God, we must use what He provided.  Consider the wedding feast of Matthew 22, and the displeasure of the King when he found a guest who wasn’t wearing the wedding garment that He had provided.  Consider the returning prodigal of Luke 15, destitute and without resource in himself at all.  Consider Cain, bringing the fruits of his own labour from the cursed ground as a sacrifice to Jehovah.  Can we find ourselves another means of salvation, other than that which is in Jesus, something we ourselves can bring to present to the righteous Judge, of our own making?  No.  Can we any more bring anything to the worship of God, other than that which God in His infinite grace has provided?  No.  He has done it all.  “All things ready; come to the wedding feast.” (Matthew 22 v 4).

These are just a few words, feebly spoken, on a vast subject of great importance.  I hope that every believer who reads them would weigh them carefully and follow up any exercise produced in the soul by them.  I would again encourage anyone who sees an error, typographical or doctrinal, in the above, to raise it with me for my help and correction.  I would again encourage anyone who reads this to be a good Berean, and search the scriptures to see if these things are so.
* ‘The True Grace of God’, paper entitled ‘Christianity’, C.A. Coates.

** For further reading on this subject, I can’t recommend more highly ‘Jewish Bondage and Christian Freedom, or Jewish and Christian Worship Contrasted’ by J.L.H., 1899.