What is Biblical Worship?

Zac HicksWorship Theology & Thought7 Comments

The Difficulty of “Biblical Worship” Discussions

I’ve been in conversation with some trusted friends over the issue of “biblical worship” and how many people (including us) toss that phrase around, often meaning very different things.  The concern is that people use the Bible to talk about worship without admitting that we approach the Text with different methodologies in place that color what we pull out of it.  When well-meaning Bible thinkers exegete Scripture and come out with defenses for quite different worship practices, we need to pause and ask the meta-questions about how we’re approaching the text, which texts we’re approaching, and why we believe some texts are informative to the topic while others are not. 

In our conversations about “biblical worship,” have we done enough asking of these types of questions?  As a practitioner first and a thinker-writer second, I thought not, especially when I read articles, chapters, and books from more well known evangelicals like D. A. Carson, John Piper, and Tim Keller, to semi-knowns like Simon Chan, John Witvliet, and Michael Horton, to even lesser known folks niched in my little Reformed world like Jeffrey Meyers and Peter Leithart.  Sometimes, reading these folks on worship is like sitting in a room where everyone is talking at the same time, about the same subject, but they are talking over and past one another.  That works okay in the scholarly world, but for practitioners like myself who are trying to make sense of the big conversation, it can be quite overwhelming.  (This is admittedly an overstatement.  These folks do, in some arenas and works, dialogue with one another and interact with each others’ material, but it is often less overt than is helpful to folks like me.)

A Must-Read Article

David Taylor passed me a wonderful article that largely solves this problem.  It puts many of the thinkers into one room and parses them out on a methodological level, dividing them into hermeneutical and theological categories.  Michael Farley’s “What is ‘Biblical’ Worship? Biblical Hermeneutics and Evangelical Theologies of Worship” was published a few years ago in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, and I regret that this important work has gone unnoticed, even by me (my eyes had glanced over it several times prior to reading it a few weeks ago).  This article is a scholarly work and interacts on that level, with an assumed vocabulary and an understanding that its readers are aware of and have somewhat digested certain works or at least their ideas.

For this reason, I’m going to attempt to distill and summarize in crude form the thrust of the article knowing that in my simplification I will over-simplify and in my generalization I will over-generalize.  Hopefully it will pique your interest enough to go to the source and mull over its important observations.

An Over-Simplified Summary

Evangelicals disagree about what “biblical worship” is, and part of the problem is that underneath this debate lies disagreement about which passages of Scripture are relevant to the discussion.

In the first group, who probably narrow the Bible’s applicability the most, and who probably represent most evangelicals (whether they realize it or not), tend to see the Old Testament as concerned with ritual and form while looking at the New Testament as focused on inward and spiritual experience.2  This group tends to minimize the relevance of OT texts to the “biblical worship” discussion, arguing that the Bible doesn’t end up prescribing a detailed model for the structure of a worship service.  This group will argue for some bare-bones content (derived from the New Testament) and will probably say that the divergence among evangelical practice is due to the fact that the simplicity of biblical and early-church worship allows for worship to be taken in a variety of directions which are “okay.”  The result of this perspective is often the most loose understanding of the order and elements of worship.  Most evangelicals find this familiar, because we often freely “play” with elements of our worship, willing to include them or exclude them, or rearrange them at will.  Among the folks in this category are John Piper and D. A. Carson (and perhaps even Tim Keller), who follow in the spirit of the English Puritans.

In the second group, the playing field broadens a bit (while, interestingly, the practice narrows a bit), because these folks begin engaging the biblical text on the level of theological principles, which is a step beyond what the former group seems to do.  They dialogue on the level of liturgical form (in other words, the actual elements of and order to a worship service), evaluating practices based on how those rituals and symbols embody and communicate biblical truths.This camp will find valuable things like observing the church calendar year and following the lectionary because they help immerse the church in the gospel, the biblical story centered around Christ.  This group still camps out exegetically in the New Testament and occasionally refers to the Old Testament.  Authors in this category include Robert Webber and Simon Chan.

In the third group (Farley considers them, understandably, a subset of the previous group, rather than a separate category, but for ease of summary, I distinguish them this way), are those who engage the Old Testament more fully through Christological and covenantal lenses, and they therefore find value in applying some of the structural and liturgical principles of the OT into Christian practice.  For example, they will look at the actual order in which OT sacrifices were performed and derive important observations about the order of Christian worship in Christ:4

The OT order:

1. Sin/purification offering (dealing with sin)
2. Burnt/ascension offering (enjoying access to God, committing to God)
3. Tribute/dedication offering (committing to God)
4. Peace offering (a fellowship meal with God)

A “Christian” structure:

1. Entrance into Worship, Confession of Sin (dealing with sin)
2. Assurance of Pardon, other elements (enjoying access to God, committing to God)
3. Sermon & Offering (committing to God)
4. The Lord’s Supper (a fellowship meal with God)

So this group observes more than theological principles.  They are willing to, because of the continuity between the old and new covenants, import OT practice through a NT lens.  This group will, therefore, find the most exegetical value for Christian worship in understanding the Old Testament practice.  Scholars in this category include folks like Allen Ross, Hughes Oliphant Old, Michael Horton, John Witvliet, Jeffrey Meyers, and Peter Leithart.

Why Worship Leaders Should Think This Through

Okay, so we’ve covered a lot of ground.  I’m sure some heads are spinning to the point of asking, Why is this important?  Let me answer this by posing a scenario that you’ve probably encountered (if you’re a thoughtful, intentional worship leader).  Have you ever been in a dialogue with someone over what worship should be based on the Bible and felt like you were on totally different wavelengths?  A very big part of it could be that you have differing ways in which you approach Scripture.  What I find incredibly helpful about the article above is that it helps get everyone on the same dialogical playing field so that we can have a proper conversation.  Too often, we’re barking about “biblical worship” and talking past each other.  If you’ve been in those kinds of conversations, you know how frustrating they are.  We evangelicals certainly won’t agree on the above, but, as one of my favorite talk show hosts, Dennis Prager says when dialoguing with dissenters, “I prefer clarity to agreement.”  I think I’d still prefer agreement, but in the strong likelihood that this won’t happen, clarity is a close and necessary second.  This article is important because it provides clarity for what has been very muddy and convoluted.  Furthermore, if you’re a pastor and a worship leader who finds that you’ve been reading ideas and authors in one camp and are shocked that one or two more camps even exist, it’s probably time to open up a section of your library shelf for a few more books and articles and open yourself up to some other possibilities.

As always, I’m open to thoughts, questions, disagreement, comments, etc.  Fire away.



1 Michael A. Farley, “What is ‘Biblical’ Worship? Biblical Hermeneutics and Evangelical Theologies of Worship,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 51/3 (September 2008), 591.
2 Ibid., 595.
3 Ibid., 596.
4 This is my summary, not Farley’s (his is on pp. 605-606).  His is more nuanced (and probably better), but for the sake of the clarity of observing the parallels, I’ve made my own here.

7 Comments on “What is Biblical Worship?”

  1. Zac,

    Thanks for the post and bringing our attention to Farley's article. I've had the same thoughts about different authors/pastors/theologians approaches to biblical worship.

    I've yet to read the article in full, and perhaps my observation will change when I do, but for the meantime I wanted to mention the similarity between each "camp's" conclusions when applied to the worship service. Specifically the Christian Structure you've highlighted in the 3rd group.

    I can see how group 3 arrives there via OT, but I find it interesting that group 1 and 2 can arrive at a similar structure (if not the same) by a different approach. I'm thinking about Chapell's "gospel story" model which doesn't fall into the group 3 approach (maybe a blend of 1 and 2?) but comes out with nearly the same structure. Just my initial thoughts.

    But this is all great stuff to ponder and discuss. Thanks again for highlighting it.

  2. It seems to me that regardless of approach, all Christian worship involves the same elements: singing, teaching, preaching, prayer, reading of scripture, etc… But how we arrange them can make all the difference. I believe that there is no one "correct" structure and liturgy, but also that we have MUCH to learn from the historic church on these matters. The main goals I keep in mind when planning worship are: 1. Make it scripture saturated. I try to fill every corner of the service with God's words, not just our own. 2. Make Christ the focus; this is done both through content and structure. 3. Being a student is usually better than being an innovator: Throwing away traditions more often than not detracts from the first two. But it doesn't have to. I try to keep a critical eye towards new trends and use the best of them. 4. Consider the effect: How the church worships simultaneously expresses and forms our identity, so consider what the elements of the service, and their content and sequence, say about who we are as a church.

  3. Rich: Great observations. I would encourage you to read the article, only because some of the things you're thinking through are addressed more fully there.

    Rich & Miguel: One thing I didn't mention that the article quite fully addresses is the connection of each of these camps to historic Christian worship practice. In an effort to be brief, I zeroed in on the "Bible stuff." Farley does an excellent job weaving those things together. When we see them woven together, we DO observe a Chapell-like, Gospel-centered consistency in how the argued-for "biblical worship" melds with the confluence of the Christian tradition over time.

    Miguel: I'd encourage you to read the article, too, just because the "correct structure" comment is at least partially addressed there and may challenge (or confirm) your thoughtful insights.

    "Being a student is usually better than being an innovator." That's a GREAT comment!

  4. ah. now I see.

    I read through the article and I do see how he weaves the three and how each might wind up having similar conclusions.

    I don't believe he is being unfair to any of the groups, however I think it would have been important to at least highlight many of the reasons why the Puritan hermenutic came to be. The 'strict' version of Group 1 might be an overreaction (esp. today) but it was aimed to battle a real threat to orthodox Christianity during the time it was developed. Some things they called 'popish' we might chuckle at today, but that's because our people aren't being decieved in the same way theirs were. (As for the 'non strict' version of Group 1 I think it is essentially a good place to begin the journey into a fuller expression of biblical worship.)

    So I think that Group 1 hermenutic rose out of the abuses from Group 2 (which I'm glad to see he warned against the possibility of #2 becoming 'open ended'). If we understand why Group 1's hermenutic developed we'll be more sympathetic to its adherents. That said, Group 1 needs to study the overraction–the baby's being thrown out with the bath water–if we are to start off on the right foot towards a better understanding of biblical worship. A healthy understanding of Group 2 will aid in this.

    Group 2 can benefit from Group 1 also. The dangers that Group 1 reacted to (however strongly) are worthy of their study. In my opinion, historically, it has less to do with interpretation of biblical worship and more to do with protecting sound doctrine and theology. The error of Group 1 is reacting to what is percieved as abuse (right or wrong) and stripping things down to the bare bones. The error of Group 2 is not reacting when there are abuses, or more likely, not being aware of abuses because they believe (right or wrong) that their liturgy is 'biblical'. Group 2 can't rest on it's laurels. To truly be a 'superior' way Group 2 needs to have a rock solid theology and a firm grasp of the gospel and the proponents need to teach and lead others to actually see it in the liturgy. But like Farely says, the weak point is that there isn't as much Scripture to back them up as much as Group 3 (or even 1?). I could be wrong, but when I picture a non western church trying to discuss biblical worship I don't think that #1 or #2 comes into their dialogue very often unless it has been forced upon them.

    Ultimately I agree with Farely's assesment that Group 3 is the best way of interpreting biblical worship. And interestingly enough, I think folks like Piper, Carson, and Keller wind up here as well; at least when we're talking about OT rituals being fulfilled in Christ and the sacrifical language 'shift' that occurs in the NT.

    sorry for the length, but thanks for the discussion!

  5. Rich…great observations. I think you're right to talk about the emergence of the Puritan regulative principle being very context-driven, and, when we see it as such, we can become a lot more sympathetic with the position. I get what you're saying at the end about Piper, Carson, and Keller, but I'd commend the article again, because Farley makes the claim that they do NOT fit in that camp. While they totally affirm the Christocentric nature of the new covenant as fulfillment of OT rituals, they do not much argue for the application of some of those rituals (again, through a Christ-lens) in Christian worship. That's why Farley puts them in Group 1. So it's not an issue of OT-fulfilled-in-Christ theology. I think most if not all the folks in all three camps buy that theology. It's an issue of whether OT worship has something MORE to say to Christian worship than just rejoicing in its fulfillment. The argument of folks like Leithart and Meyers seems to be that our theological understanding of Christ-as-fulfillment begs to inform our liturgical practice. And Farley even talks about how it may not be that the aforementioned more mainstream evangelical folks would be averse to the ideas in Group 3, but that it may be that their biblical theology of worship as it relates to the OT is underdeveloped. Great discussion.

  6. yeah I see what you are saying. maybe I'm not looking at this as deep as I should (for this discussion). Perhaps I need to familiarize myself with more Leithart and Meyers to gain a better understanding of Group 3. Because when I read their writings in Farley's article I find myself seeing really no disagreement between many folks in Group 1. I shouldn't say 'no disagreements', perhaps no major disagreements (in the end).

    But I do agree that it is a matter of perspective. It looks as if Group 1 (at least the 'less strict' ones) would look at the NT first, recognize its dependence upon OT worship models and therefore take what the NT already says about the OT and are content that their understanding of 'biblical worship' is a 'full expression'. Whereas Group 3 would look at the OT worship models first and then push them through the NT filter and see what remains (kind of a crass way to put it) for the new covenant community. (I'm basing this on his 3pt description on pg 12)

    I see the positive side of Group 1 having assurance that they're liturgy will always be orthodox (even if it's bare bones) and the negative side (aside from legalism) being the lack of a fuller and more wholesome liturgy that God allows. So the contrast of Group 1 to Group 3 is that specific things and doctrines like the beauty of the tabernacle/temple and (say) the Creation story can be translated into Christian worship. With this understanding I can see why he'd place someone like Piper in Group 1 even though many of the same conclusions can be reached.

    So I guess I would say Group 1 *reaches through* the NT to grab the OT, but they're only able to pull through the things the NT allows them to reach. While Group 3 *pushes* the OT *through* the NT (and it's story/theology) which purges the dross and refines the gold.

    (I'm not necessarily arguing anything. just pretty much thinking through this as I type…thanks for the discussion…and the space!)

  7. Good discussion! Thanks for drawing attention to Farley's article. His article is important because it brings before the larger Evangelical world the thought of Leithart and Meyers. It is important to realize that Meyers is arguing that the OT Levitical system provides the "divine pattern" for the New Covenant worship service. Farley comes close to this dogmatism when he writes: "Thus, a careful typological reading of the OT demonstrates that the Bible does provide instruction about the order of different elements in a worship service." (p. 607) The conclusion would seem to follow, that if this is the biblical and divine pattern then any deviation from it would be unbiblical and perhaps deserves the designation "sin." A fundamental question is whether the Levitical sacrificial system is meant to provide the sequence for New Covenant liturgical worship for the Lord's day. Farley mentions (p. 608) that both Meyers and Leithart seek to substantiate this claim by appeal to the NT's use of sacrificial language. It is here that one must keep a keen eye on the NT texts brought forward. For example, in "The Lord's Service" by Meyers on pages 65-69 there is a section entitled "A Survey of the Language of Sacrifice in the New Testament." Much in this section is good but it does not prove the main point to be established, namely this language justifies seeing the Levitical sacrificial system as a prescribed divine sequence for the liturgics of New Covenant worship.

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