On the Assumption that the New Testament is Vague on Worship Practices Because God Wants Freedom

Zac HicksWorship Theology & Thought1 Comment

A Great New Worship Book

I’ve been plowing my way through what I think is one of the best worship books to come out this year, Robbie Castleman’s Story-Shaped Worship: Following Patterns from the Bible and History. In her introduction, she helps dispell a myth that I long believed–namely, that the New Testament is vague on worship practices so that post-NT-era worshipers would not unnecessarily codify the contextualized practices of the early church into hard and fast rituals.  Castleman says:

Because Paul and all the New Testament writers, with the possible exception of Luke, assumed their readers were familiar with the worship practices of Israel, the foundation of God’s people upon which Christian congregations were built, there is very little descrption in the New Testament of corporate worship. When descriptions do emerge in the earliest documents of the Christian church, it is not surprising that they reflect the influence of Jewish patterns for the worship of God. In addition, Luke, whose first readers were predominantly Gentile, often includes details concerning Jewish customs to aid early non-Jewish Christians in understanding the Jewish foundation for fthe faith and practice of the church. And this is as it should be. God has, in fact, given his people in the context of his story of salvation, the shape of worship designed for God’s own pleasure and blessing. It is this great story that God employs as the basic shape for worship that is, indeed, biblical.*

In conversations about a “biblical theology of worship,” evangelicals, even pretty heavy-hitting scholars, too easily downplay the patterns of worship assumed and incorporated from Jewish practices that would have been etched into the doxological habits of the first Christian worshipers.  Once that valuable piece of knowledge is forgotten, we start to miss the countless ways the New Testament displays, teaches, and informs both the theology and the practices of Christian worship.  Let me tease out just one example.

John’s Theology of Worship

The first chapters of the Gospel of John are loaded with implications for a theology of worship.  In fact, one could argue that John’s goal in chapters 5-10 is to argue that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Jewish feasts and festival practices.**  Jesus’ healing at the pool of Bethesda (5:1-47) was not just to show off His miraculous powers but to make the statement that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Sabbath. John 6 makes explicit that the miracles outlined in that chapter take place in the context of “the Jewish Passover Festival” (6:4) to make the point that Jesus is the fulfillment of Passover. John 7’s context is explicitly to proclaim Jesus as the fulfillment of “the Festival of Tablernacles” (7:2). Jesus’ altercations with the Jews during the “Festival of Dedication” (10:22), more commonly known as Hanukkah, illustrates Jesus as the true liberator of Israel and the fulfillment of this festival of lights (this is part of the reason Jesus claimed “I am the Light of the World” [8:12]).

Now…if you’re a good first-century Jew and you’re “reading” this theology here, what is your most natural assumption of the worship practices you engaged in?  In other words, in all the rituals–the annual calendar of feasts, the holy days, the weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythms–what does Christ’s fulfillment of them do to your practice?  

So the NT DOES Speak to Our Practices! 

I dare say that many evangelicals (including myself for a long while) assumed that Christ’s fulfillment of all this obliterated any sense of an adherence to certain ancient, historic rituals.  But this seems to be neither what New Testament Christians nor the early church thought as God’s Spirit moved in them to form the core historic worship practices of Christianity.  

The most natural assumption of a first-century-Jew-turned-Christian is that, “we should keep all the rituals, but re-enact them now in light of Christ.”  Interestingly, this is precisely what the Christian Calendar is and does–it re-enacts the life of Christ.  And this insight is largely given to us from John’s Gospel (and the book of Hebrews and a few other places).  Suddenly, our categories for what informs “biblical” worship in the New Testament get expanded a bit. (If you’re intrigued by this summary, I would encourage you to read my more thorough outline in this post on the Christian Calendar here.)

So hopefully this one illustration shows that the New Testament is not as vague as we think it is on the theology and practices of worship.  Just because it doesn’t offer more explicit biblical descriptions of early Christian worship does not mean it doesn’t powerfully prescribe patterns and practices for us to follow.  Castleman’s book is actually an excercise in this kind of exposition, which you won’t find much of in evangelical “theology of worship” resources out there.  I hope you’re intrigued enough to grab her book and take a gander through its pages.  It will be well worth your time!

*Robbie Castleman, Story-Shaped Worship: Following the Patterns from the Bible and History (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013), 15.
**This insight was first presented to me by Craig Blomberg.


One Comment on “On the Assumption that the New Testament is Vague on Worship Practices Because God Wants Freedom”

  1. Zac,
    Given that you are in a relatively new place from your old place, facing an undoubtedly different context both congregationally and culturally, it'd be interesting to see you tease out these implications a little further.

    For instance, where does the intersection of NT-assumed/articulated worship practices intersect with simple pastoral wisdom, and where does it intersect with missiological concerns.

    For instance, I often hear pastors put most "worship practice" in the category of missiological concerns, without considering at all what you have said above. This stems, to me, from a revivalistic impulse, that just simply ignores the theological concerns of worship. We just have to "reach the people." Well, the prosperity gospel down the street has people in the doors. Where is the line between "only caring about missiological concerns" but actually be unbiblical, based on the post above?

    That said, then, what else falls in your categories in this post, and to what degree (besides church calendar)? Lights, musical style, liturgy, sacramental issues, etc.? I think I know what you would say on a few of these issues, but I'm just really interested to hear how cultural context shapes/counteracts/bypasses this post above.

    Ever interested in your thoughts,

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