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.1
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.3 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.