In our last exploration into worship, we noted that worship overflows into the rest of our lives – flavoring them by the presence of the Spirit. We noted the significance of the determinative nature of worship on the believer. In short, when we really enter God’s presence, we are really changed.
However, many churches see the chance to be part of worship as reason to do just about anything in worship. If you ask many Christians about whether dance would be appropriate in worship or not, you will get a myriad of answers. Some would say that it is fine, but their explanations often betray a sensibility that worship is fundamentally about presenting something to God. Others, of course, would say that it is not fine, but the reasons are obscured by social mores and a strained biblical literalism.
The question, then, is how we might understand how to organize worship better.
The Holy Spirit & the Presence of God (2 Corinthians 3)
To understand how it is we make decisions about worship, we have must begin by understanding the fundamentally spiritual shape of any decision in the Christian life. In 2 Corinthians 3, the apostle Paul gives a description of how the Christian hears and understands Scripture. Paul draws a comparison between the Christian’s understanding and the understanding of the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai in Exodus 34. In Exodus, God reveals his glory to Moses who must re-record the covenant on stone tablets. (He had broken the original set as a sign of the breaking of the covenant which Israel committed in Exodus 32 with the golden calf.) When Moses comes down from the mountain, he must veil his face because it is radiating back some of God’s glory; and his face was too bright for the people to look at it. Paul points out that those who know Christ do not need a veil to block the glory of God. Instead, they been able to stand in God’s presence (like Moses) and radiate his glory back. They have seen God and they understand. Meanwhile, many of Paul’s own people – ethnic Israel – miss the point because they rejected Jesus, and so it is as if there is still a veil so that they cannot see God’s glory. Their hearts still like stone tablets – rather than living hearts with the covenant inside of them. (Here he is playing upon a motif from Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 about hearts of stone and hearts of flesh.)
The point that Paul earnestly wants to make is that the Spirit is at work in those who know Christ – even the very Spirit that threatened to overpower those who saw Moses face. That Spirit was present in the giving of Scripture, and it illuminates Scripture for believers. Therefore the church approaches the Word as those who have the presence of God in their midst. The fullness of freedom can therefore be enjoyed when God since God is present.
Distributing Gifts (Ephesians 4:1-16)
With the presence of the Spirit comes the rich diversity and complexity of the Spirit of life. Paul presents the richness of spiritual presence as gifts. In Ephesians 4, he cites Psalm 68 in describing God’s giving of the Spirit. There God is described as a conquering king who distributes the spoils of his victory. The Spirit is the gift, but as it manifested it comes to us in different ways.
The life of the church – including its officers and the gifts required for the ministry of Word and sacrament – relies upon the gifts of the Spirit. Passages that we will explore below tell us more about the interaction of various gifts, but what Ephesians 4 makes absolutely clear is that all of these gifts are given for the strengthening of the church. The worship of the church relies upon the gifts of preaching and gifts of leading in prayer and praise to function at all. Therefore, even at its most functional level, worship is an expression of God’s outpouring love. It is only possible because of him, and it brings glory back to him.
Corporate Operation of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12 – 14)
The same theology of God’s gifts provides Paul with the clarity required to handle a disturbance that erupted in the church of Corinth. That church had plenty of factions (cf. 1Cor 1:10-17; 3:1-23); but one of the most obvious places in which they were realized was in worship. It showed itself in their communion practice (1Cor 11:17-34). It also showed itself in the gifts that are valued. In 1 Corinthians 12 – 14, Paul goes into great detail about the way various gifts – those gifts of tongues especially – have become a monstrous distortion of worship. Rather than building up the church, they were tearing it down.
Paul expounds a similar point from Ephesians 4 throughout chapter 12 – there is one Spirit, one body in Christ. The point of the body is to care for each other. It is little wonder, then, that in this context Paul gives one of the most soaring visions of love (1Cor 13), “the more excellent way.”
Love provides the fundamental ethical groundwork for regulating worship. It is the concern for love – love of God first then love for the church – that we are compelled to use our gifts “decently and in order” (14:40). “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (14:33a). Our worship ought to be governed by God. It should be governed by his Spirit and by his revelation. The Reformed tradition has referred to this view of worship as the “regulative principle.”
There are two significant pitfalls, however, even when the spiritual nature of worship is realized.
First, there is the spontaneity trap. The spontaneous gifts were the gifts that were abused by the Corinthian church. Paul clearly criticizes them because their worship had become more about their own gifts and expressions rather than about God. The obsession with spontaneity has crept into Christian worship all around the evangelical church. David Wells sums up the problem well:
Much of the Church today, especially that part of it which is evangelical, is in captivity to this idolatry of the self. This is a form of corruption far more profound than the lists of infractions that typically pop into our minds when we hear the word sin. We are trying to hold at bay the gnats of small sins while swallowing the camel of self. It is an idolatry as pervasive and as spiritually debilitating as were many of the entanglements with pagan religions recounted for us in the Old Testament. That this devotion to the self seems not to be like that older devotion to a pagan god blinds the Church to its own unfaithfulness. The end result, however, is no less devastating, because the self is no less demanding. It is as powerful an organizing center as any god or goddess on the market. The contemporary Church is whoring after this god as assiduously as the Israelites in their darker days. It is baptizing as faith the pride that leads us to think much about ourselves and much of ourselves.
The most urgent need in the Church today, even that part of it which is evangelical, is the recovery of the Gospel as the Bible reveals it to us… The emancipation that the Gospel offers, after all, is not only from the judgment of God but from the tyranny of self as well. Its freedom is, in part, the freedom to be forgetful of the self in its imperious demands and its insatiable appetite for attention, the freedom to think that God is important in and of himself and not simply in relation to what he can do for us… It is the freedom of knowing that we are not in the center of the universe, not even in the center of our own private universe.
Second, there is the orderliness trap. This trap has been the most common pitfall for the Reformed church. We (since I am a Presbyterian) have often forgotten the basis of love for order. Obsession with the precision often masquerades as honor for Scripture. Paul criticizes this approach in Colossians 2:6-23 and 2 Timothy 3:1-9. Such worship has “the appearance of godliness, but den[ies] its power” (2Tim 3:5). “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col 2:23).
We will finish up the series by thinking about some practical implications of this theology next time, but for the time it is worth recognizing the spiritual source of worship which binds us together in love and orderliness.
 While I will argue for a form of the “regulative principle” below, the history of that doctrine is haunted by overly simplistic applications. For example, most supporters of this form of the regulative principle would absolutely oppose dancing, yet David is clearly right in dancing before the Lord in 2 Samuel 6.
 David F. Wells, Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 203-204.