Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Whose Reflection Do You See?

Consider the following question: When the congregants of your church gather at the appointed time for worship on a Sunday morning, who or what is reflected?  The answer will vary and include, but not be limited to, such admirable attributes as love, acceptance, truth, and mercy.  The format will vary along a spectrum of formality from highly structured to chaotic with art and accouterments displayed or eschewed in a manner consistent with a particular style.  All this occurs in the name of reaching unbelievers or “unchurched” with the gospel in whatever way that is envisioned.  I wonder, though, if the truth is not more accurately represented by a well-known line from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale:

Queen:  Looking-glass, Looking-glass, on the wall,
Who in this land is the fairest of all?

Mirror:  Thou, O Queen, art the fairest of all.

In other words, are we are simply telling ourselves what we want to believe in order to rationalize or legitimize our self-made plans, notions, or traditions?

Jonathan Aigner raises a warning flag in his examination of the trend towards multiple worship styles by noting nine points that run counter to the work of the local assembly:
  • • It divides otherwise healthy congregations.
  • • It often segregates along demographic lines.
  • • It establishes a false “old vs. new” dichotomy in congregational song.
  • • It teaches different theologies.
  • • It equates music with worship.
  • • It assumes that historic elements of Christian worship are optional.
  • • It reduces corporate worship to an activity of individualistic self-expression instead of a gathering of covenant people.
  • • It creates a self-centered atmosphere.
  • • It bows at the altar of American consumerism.
While Aigner’s post is aimed at the large church attempting to have multiple styles over their worship services, these points apply to groups moving towards or engaged in what Mike Livingstone coined as “worshiptainment.”  In other words, we feel that we need to entertain in order to get people into the worship service.  He posits three points that strike at the heart of the issue:
  • • Who or what is the spotlight really on?
  • • What message are we communicating?
  • • How are lives changed?
These are important questions for every local assembly to consider.  At the root is what I consider to be the prime question: Should not worship reflect God’s glory?  YHWH establishes his rightful place in relation to his people in the commandments given to Moses:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.… You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. (Ex 20:2-7)
Honor, glory, and adoration were requisite responses of first importance so that, at the end of the wilderness wandering, Moses gave instruction governing all personal and corporate life.  Torah was to be considered as if physically attached to the body governing all personal and corporate life (De 6:5-9).  This included very definite, explicit instructions for proper worship (Ex 25:9, 40; De 12:13-14) that carried serious, even capital, punishment when neglected (Le 10:1-2; 2 Sa 6:6-7) or rationalized for seemingly good reasons (1 Sa 15:15-19).

With the passing of the Old Covenant, the move has been to increasingly explore new and trendy practices with the idea that there is freedom to explore possibilities.  However, when we take up personal tastes and assumptions of worship practice, we are left with an incoherent and chaotic pattern that serves no one, as the below graphically shows.

HT: Rich Futrell

Alec Satin points out the trend of God’s people to replace reverent worship with irreverent.  He demonstrates through the simple act of applause that churches are following the massive shift away from reverence in society at large.  Those things once held sacred by cultural understanding are now deconstructed and employed in common ways to stimulate base desires or in crude ways to shock sensibilities.  As the envelope continues to be pushed, the limits of credulity are extended until they are paper thin or vanish altogether move from questionable forms and culturally-attuned doctrinal statements to aberrant forms and teaching—the chief goal of the protagonist, Satan.  By placing the sensibilities of the world or ourselves above the Lord’s, we disgrace His name as Martin Luther put forth:
From this every one can readily infer when and in how many ways God’s name is misused, although it is impossible to enumerate all its misuses.… But, the greatest abuse occurs in spiritual matters, which pertain to the conscience, when false preachers rise up and offer their lying vanities as God’s Word.  Behold, all this is dressing one’s self up with God’s name, or making a pretty show, or claiming to be right, whether it happens in gross, worldly business or in sublime, subtle matters of faith and doctrine.
Large Catechism, I.53-55

A scoffer may ask, “Has any local assembly really gone off the rails into that much confusion? That seems far-fetched.”  Some are mentioned in Scripture with Corinth the chief among them.  Matters were so bad that the apostle Paul had to deal with multiple internal issues, not least of which was their meeting practice (1 Co 11:17-14:40).  Clement would later send a non-canonical letter to this same body of Christians because they had inappropriately dismissed their elders—a grievous situation causing the need for an envoy to correct the matter.  Beyond that example are seven churches in Asia Minor from the book of Revelation.  Compare the warning given to the church of Laodicea (Re 3:14-22) with the canons from the Synod of Laodicea, and note that the sinful attitude highlighted by the Lord through John ran rampant 350 years later.  Today, little to no Christian testimony exists because they did not repent of those things that Jesus had warned them to correct.

How do we correct course?

Luther offers a beginning in the subsequent point of his catechism:
Here, then, let us learn and take to heart the great importance of this commandment, that with all diligence we may guard against and dread every misuse of the holy name, as the greatest sin that can be outwardly committed.  For to lie and deceive is in itself a great sin, but is greatly aggravated when we attempt to justify it, and seek to confirm it by invoking the name of God and using it as a cloak for shame, so that from a single lie a double lie, nay, manifold lies, result.
Large Catechism, I.56

In order to guard against the misuse of God’s holy name in worship, we must examine the instructions He gave for worship.  Multiple chapters of the Pentateuch are given over to the exact construction of the structure, utensils, sacrifices, and timing of worship.  This function in the life of the elect is of paramount importance.  Proper worship must be in accord with Divine revelation.  One may object that the constrictions were removed when Jesus died on the cross: after all, He fulfilled all these things to which Mosaic Covenant pointed.  While the system was completely removed as far as a specific building, location, and system, the resulting expectation is greater.  Much as Jesus instructed the crowds in the Sermon on the Mount, we no longer operate according to the letter of the Law, but according to Divine intent.

Throughout the Acts and epistles, we get glimpses of imperfect worship offered by imperfect Christians and instruction to offer it more properly.  The tendency has been to assume these imperfections were meant to show that diversity in worship practice is either allowed or expected.  This places a wrong focus on the actions of forgiven sinners to instruct our concept of worship while placing less emphasis on the corrective instruction.  The first epistle to Corinth gives a case in point.  Near the end of his teaching on church order, Paul states:
What then, brothers?  When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.  (1 Co 14:26a)
First, the apostle is describing the current condition.  The meetings described in chapters 11-14 have been bedlam while prophets, teachers, and tongues-speakers ply their skills.  Some have used this passage to suggest the gifts are to be used in whatever way is desired and as the Spirit moves.  Paul intends to correct the problem of chaos.
Let all things be done for building up.  (1 Co 14:26b)
But all things should be done decently and in order.  (1 Co 14:40)
Rather than continuing on the path they had begun, order needed to be restored that believers might edify one another, not themselves.

What should our worship look like?

While I have stated or implied that we cannot be lackadaisical or haphazard, neither must we be rigid, however there are definite New Testament patterns by returning to the book of Revelation.  There we find a pattern and characteristics to be emulated.
  • Ordered – Each group of worshipers understands their place and function within their position as intended.
  • Reverential – The worshipers bow in reverence, casting what they have been freely given at the feet of the Giver of all good things, yet there are those represented who are welcome to bring their petitions before the Lord.
  • Focused – The Lord Jesus Christ is ever the focus of worship.  None of the songs proclaim what the worshiper intends to do; nor do they speak of Him as their lover, confidant, BFF, or other earthly relationship.  They refer to Him as Lord over all having won salvation and is worthy to receive honor and execute judgment.
  • Dialogical – Throughout the book we see a pattern of revelation or action from Jesus followed by a response from the heavenly host.  This not simply a remembrance of what happened in prior times, but a continual interaction between the Lord and His saints.
  • Edifying – The saints slain for their testimony were clothed with white robes and the comforting promise that though others would die, there would be an end.
I could probably bring out other elements, but these should suffice.  The question to ask one another is: Are we as a local assembly worshiping aright, or have we given way to the whims of culture or personal taste?  We would do well to periodically evaluate what constitutes worship within our assemblies, compare that to Scripture, and make any adjustments to reflect the Lord’s glory and not our own.


Glenn E. Chatfield said...

Excellent article!

Steve Bricker said...

Glenn, I have been waiting for any disagreement, but none has arisen. I wonder if this is a similar case as my post on catechesis: those who need it will not see it.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

Those who need it see it but are too embarrassed to respond.