Do We Gather to ‘Worship’ on Sundays?
Some Christians seem to have developed an allergy to describing what we do at Church on Sundays as ‘worship’. The idea is that when we gather on a Sunday it is not principally for the ‘vertical’ act of addressing God in ‘worship’ but for the ‘horizontal’ purpose of building one another up. And so, the argument goes, the word ‘worship’ is better kept for our daily service of God. Being a daily sacrifice is where ‘worship’ is to be focussed.
Ideas don’t usually come out of nowhere and as ideas go this one is relatively recent. It sprang originally from a Churchman article by Howard Marshall in 1985. Gathering momentum in certain circles, it has led to some rather bizarre linguistic games. One is refusing to call Sunday Church gatherings ‘worship’. Another is calling singing in meetings merely ‘a time of musical praise’ on the basis that ‘the whole of our lives are worship’, as if the latter wasn’t obvious and agreed anyway.
Marshall is a great scholar and it’s not that he and others have made no good points. But there are really two problems with this rather dubious theory: as Don Carson has pointed out, it is too narrowly based on analysis of the use of words for ‘worship’ in the NT; and consequently it lacks historical imagination about what went on in NT worship, in particular how the language of worship worked then and works now.
We have only one substantial NT description of a Christian ‘worship’ gathering and that is Paul’s corrective teaching in 1 Corinthians 14. Here we discover:
(i) that psalms were sung in Church (14.26). The psalms vary in content – but over the years Christians have recognised those that praise and adore God as amongst the most suitable for corporate singing. Psalm 95 is a good example: ‘Come let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord out maker’. This is the essence of worship, for the main NT word for worship is proskuneō, literally to ‘kiss towards’, not a kiss of intimacy but, as Matt Redman puts it, ‘face down’ at the feet of our Lord and our God;
(ii) that it would be good if we all spoke in tongues (14.5 with interpretation for others, of course - even better if we all prophesied, but that’s for another time) and that speaking in tongues involves ‘singing praise’, ‘blessing’ and ‘giving thanks’ to God (14.15-16). We may reasonably infer from this that much of the vernacular speech of the Corinthian assembly consisted of singing praise, blessing and thanksgiving.
(iii) that if there is prophecy then when unbelievers/outsiders hear the secrets of their hearts revealed they will fall down in worship and acknowledge God’s presence (14.25). It would be a bit odd if only non-Christians come to Church to fall down in ‘worship’.
Of course Paul writes all this also in the context of building one another up. Paul’s main concern in the text is to ensure that people can understand what one another are saying so that their mutual ministering is edifying. But it’s important not to miss the difference between content and function here: when someone prophesies they bring a message addressed from God. It is to be weighed. Its result is to edify, encourage or console (14.3) but this does not mean that this is the content of the message – it may, for example, reveal the secrets of the heart (14.25). Similarly those who speak in tongues address God (and themselves) in prayer or praise but the effect is to build themselves up (14.4).
Not all forms of communication are direct. Sometimes I discipline my kids in front of the others, so that they learn. What is a rebuke for one is a warning to another, a form of indirect communication. When I sing a hymn of praise I may actually be addressing myself (Praise my soul the king of Heaven, to His feet thy tribute bring) or others (Shout to the Lord all the earth let us sing, Power and Majesty, praise to the King!). But the point is not just to talk to others or myself but to exalt and glorify God, celebrating his character and action in response to his self-revelation.
It is true that our whole lives are worship – the NT has a word which covers this too, it is latreuō, to serve. Nonetheless this service needs ‘face down’ worship to focus and strengthen it. Perhaps a married person knows this instinctively, for they know that they love their spouse every day, all day. But what wife or husband would not think it strange if that love never came to specific expression in a gift, a quiet moment, or just saying ‘I love you’? Such events are more than a continuing of everyday love - they also enliven it and deepen it by bringing it to focus and expression – they epitomise love. So worship events epitomise and enliven our worship of God.
We live in a generation that desperately needs to learn to worship. We are so easily tempted to treat ourselves and our fellow humans, their achievements and their needs as the sum and measure of all things. Our view of the world is too readily limited to what we can see and touch and taste. At the heart of biblical worship is God’s self-revelation and action in Jesus Christ. When we come to Him ‘face down’, we acknowledge that God is God – the beginning, sum and end of all things. The fundamental, unchanging and determinative element in the whole cosmos is one that we cannot see, Almighty God himself. In worship we acknowledge him and anticipate that day when every knee will bow. Worship gets life, the universe and everything into perspective. Which is why, when we gather Sunday by Sunday, the first thing (though far from the only thing) we do is to acknowledge the one true and living God in adoration and praise. I for one would have it no other way.
Your unpacking of the 'proskuneo' / 'to kiss towards' idea is really helpful. I guess it highlights the problem with taking the 'literal' translation without being aware of the background and context of a particular phrase or idiom. Would you be able to provide a reference for interpreting it as 'kissing the feet' (which I assume is the idea)?
The idea of bowing down is pretty clear in the OT. Joseph's family get upset that he thinks they will bow down to him (Gen 44.17). Ps 99.5 and Is 44.17 describe Jewish and pagan worship respectively. And the Hebrew of Psalm 2.11-12 follows serving YHWH in fear with 'kissing the Son' (= the anointed King cf Ps 2.6-7) - serving God is demonstrated by prostration at the feet of the Messiah.
Thanks Mark. So you're saying that the context in Psalm 2, 'kissing the Son lest he be angry', implies a kiss of subservience (rather than intimacy)? And Paul is using proskuneo in this sense?
Yes - it's very clear in 1 Conrinthians 14.25 where Paul says that the unbeliever (literally) will worship 'bowing on his face.'
I already met 'proskuneo' meaning 'to come towards to kiss') in David Watson's ground-breaking 1981 book, 'Discipleship'(Hodder and Stoughton).
What I need help with is 'adore'. 'I was brought up on the old notion of prayer as 'Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving, Supplication', which I later condensed in RE lessons to 'the Three P's': Praise, Penitence, Petition'.
Christina Roseti wrote: 'Worship and adore'. The question is, how do we 'adore' in prayer. I find no difficulty 'adoring' in my actions. A priest once told me to try to do something good for others every day - something that no-one else could ever know about. Usually, I find that not hard. But I do find 'adoration' in prayer hard, because I don't know how to do it. Same with 'praise'. It surely must be more than lip service in 'Praise you, Lord'.
Many thanks for your reply, Jean
We could think of worship in prayer as a prose version of worship in song. The biblical Pslams are a great place to start. Not all are 'worship' in the narrower sense, but Psalms like 95-100 and 145-150 celebrate the character and actions of the God of Israel in a way that catches us up into adoration and worship.
At the heart of worship is awe and joy in who God is and what he has done. Catching this vision of God is essential to energising true worship. Corporate adoration help us with this, just as corporate intercession helps us to learn intercession in personal prayer.
Good hymns can help us too. My personal tastes here are pretty eccelectic - I love modern worship songs (that have content!) and old hymns. A particularly worshipful favourite of mine is 'My God how wonderful thou art, thy majesty how bright...'.
Try getting hold of a book of worship songs a praying them (some hymn books are divided by topic and 'Adoration and Praise' is often an early section). Or take Psalm 136 and add your own lines of praise at the end, with the refrain between each.
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