When We Worship Our Worship
"When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward" (Matt. 6:5). These are some of the most sobering words ever spoken by the Lord Jesus. It is not only possible for us to act hypocritically regarding our motives in our personal worship practices--it is a very real and ever present danger. If we can take anything good and turn it an idol by giving it ultimate priority in our lives, then we can certainly idolize our personal and public worship practices. When we do so, we are really worshipping ourselves in relation to our worship practices and preferences. The Pharisees were masters of self-righteously wielding religious practices. While they perverted the God-revealed meaning of prayer, giving, fasting, sacrifice and Sabbath observation, they were deeply committed to all of these elements of worship in their religious practice. So how will we know if we have fallen into the snare of worshiping the idea of our worship? Here are a few symptoms:
1. We talk more about worship than we speak about the God we are to worship. While there are those who will use this as a smokescreen for downplaying the significance of worshiping God according to the Scriptures (i.e. what we call the "regulative principle of worship"), there is a very real danger that we will start to trust in what we do in worship rather than trusting in the God we are called to worship. Without doubt, we must care deeply about how God wants to be worshiped in accord with His word; however, when we make our liturgy, our music or our pastor's giftedness the end goal, we lose site of the Triune God who gives us the elements of worship, grace to sing His praises and ministers to proclaim His truth. The end goal of worship is not to sit content in the way in which we worship but to rest in the true and living God to whom we are coming in worship. Just as it is possible to preach about preaching Christ rather than faithfully preaching Christ, so too it is possible for us to worship the idea of worship rather than coming to worship the Triune God in truth. If we are not coming to God in worship with hearts that are seeking after and safely trusting in the mediation of Jesus, then we will inevitably be trusting in our worship practices.
2. We smugly compare our worship practices with those of other churches. It is not wrong for us to analyze the worship practices of the church universal. There is much to reject and much to appropriate by considering the worship practices of other local churches. However, there is always the danger that we become self-righteous about why we do what we do in worship. Self-righteousness in our worship practices can creep into the thinking of pastors and people alike in both low church settings or high church settings, in churches with contemporary music styles or traditional music styles (or, no instrumental accompaniment, for that matter) as well as in churches that observe a liturgical calendar or churches that follow a Puritanical liturgy. When we start to adopt the mentality that we have the perfect corner on worship and that everyone else should conform to our precise liturgical practices, we have probably allowed a self-righteous idolatry to take hold of our hearts.Again, this does not mean that every church is worshipping God according to His word or that there are not churches that are more pure than others in their worship practices. It is also not to say that there are not certain churches from which most other churches have much to learn about God-honoring worship. It is to say that we must beware of trusting in the externals of worship in such a way that we functionally believe in justification by knowledge and worship practices rather than justification by faith in Christ. A church's desire to "be seen by others" in what it does in worship falls under the same condemnation that Jesus raised about individuals praying, fasting or giving in public.
3. We determine what we do in worship by pragmatical measurements. This is arguably the most subtle forms of idolizing our worship practices. An "ends justifies the means" approach to worship is deeply self-serving. It convinces those who embrace it that growing the church, keeping a certain demographic satisfied or promoting the wisdom of the pastors is the end goal of worship. This can occur in more contemporary or more traditional churches. Whenever we lead with pragmatic, rather than biblical, rationale for why we do what we do in worship, we have made an idol of our worship. This is a most serious form of idolatry. Proponents of the regulative principle of worship are correct when they appeal to the Old Testament examples of men who took worship practices into their own hands. The end result? God struck Nadab and Abihu dead for being pragmatically innovative in their worship practices (Lev. 10). As the writer of Hebrews charges us, "Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:28).
That being said, we must understand that--even within a regulative principle framework--there will be circumstantial features of worship that will differ according to each congregation. Derek Thomas wisely explains the non-monolithic aspect of the regulative principle of worship when he writes:
"The regulative principle as applied to public worship frees the church from acts of impropriety and idiocy — we are not free, for example, to advertise that performing clowns will mime the Bible lesson at next week’s Sunday service. Yet it does not commit the church to a “cookie-cutter,” liturgical sameness. Within an adherence to the principle there is enormous room for variation—in matters that Scripture has not specifically addressed (adiaphora). Thus, the regulative principle as such may not be invoked to determine whether contemporary or traditional songs are employed, whether three verses or three chapters of Scripture are read, whether one long prayer or several short prayers are made, or whether a single cup or individual cups with real wine or grape juice are utilized at the Lord’s Supper. To all of these issues, the principle 'all things should be done decently and in order' (1 Cor. 14:40) must be applied. However, if someone suggests dancing or drama is a valid aspect of public worship, the question must be asked — where is the biblical justification for it?"1
We must make sure that giving glory to the true and living God through His Son in the power of the Spirit is the end goal of our worship. We must resist the temptation to trust in our worship practices rather than in the God we are coming to worship. In order to do so, we must examine our hearts and minds to see whether we have allowed self-righteousness to lay hold on our worship practices. We must seek to bring all that we do in worship into accord with Scripture as we direct our gaze on the Christ who leads us as the heavenly worship leader (Heb. 8:1-2). May God give us grace to discern whether we are worshipping our worship or worshiping Him in Spirit and truth.
1. An excerpt from Derek Thomas' July 2010 Tabletalk article, "The Regulative Principle of Worship."
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