It was 2011. I received my first invitation to speak at the Pepperdine Bible lectures from Jerry Rushford. Jerry had been at the Spiritual Growth Workshop that year in Orlando and thought some of the things that were said there needed to be said at the Pepperdine Lectures. Along with that I was invited to speak on a panel with some people I have deep admiration for.
Our topic was ecclesiology – church. As I considered sitting on a panel in front of a few hundred people it dawned on me that I got the tough assignment. There was a panel on missions – everyone agrees we should be reaching the lost. But a panel on ecclesiology, how we do church, worship, etc, is a time bomb ready to go off! It just about did go off at the end and one of the more experienced panelists stepped in and rescued us! I was thankful.
Worship is a touchy topic. It is so near and dear to us and our preferences run deep. Churches of Christ have also invested a lot of time, energy, and ink over getting worship right (often as opposed to how others were/are doing it). It is important we have a healthy and biblical theology of worship.
What we end up doing is talking about symptoms rather than deeper issues. We talk about forms of worship rather than what is supposed to underlie the forms. It is like thinking about a crack in your drywall as being a wall problem when it is probably a foundation issue – something underneath is not right.
Here are two questions that I think are of ultimate importance when it comes to worship – What does God truly want? That is followed up with How do we know what God truly wants?
In Micah 6:6-7 – Micah asks what he should come before the Lord with,
6 With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings (Lev 1),
with calves a year old (Lev 9:3?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams (Lev 5, 6),
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil (Lev 2:1-7)?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul (Hyperbole!)?
Everything in black was something God required in the Old Testament. Micah isn’t wrong about what God “requires” but checking boxes isn’t the point either. God doesn’t just want your acts. He wants you. The offerings change us from the inside out.
Aside from your firstborn, God required all of those things. To do these things, which God commanded, would be equated with doing things pleasing to God because “How do we know what God truly wants?” would be explained in the Scriptures. These are things God said to do.
But one can do what God said to do and still not please God. Those of us who are parents know this to be true. If you say “Go clean your room” and they stuff it all under the bed, on closer inspection the room isn’t cleaned up. If you tell your kids to go clean a room together and they get it clean but one comes out with a black eye because they were wrestling while cleaning, that doesn’t cut it either. Would you be pleased?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
The stock answer to “What does God require of you?” is do that which the Lord commands. But we can be obedient to the command and still not do what the Lord requires!
If your child is told to do the dishes and they do them but they complain the whole time. Are you pleased? Did they truly do what was required of them?
God, like parents, is interested in more than checking a box. God is interested in our character formation that happens through worship.
Consider the rich young man in Mark 10:17-22,
“17 As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.”
What does the Lord require of you? The things he commands. But you can do what God commands and still not do what God requires! Jesus follows this up by commanding him to do something never commanded in the Bible prior to this moment – sell everything, give to the poor and come follow Jesus.
This has everything to do with worship.
Bear with me for a moment of deconstruction and then we will get to some reconstruction. We don’t leave the building in a heap of rubble. We put it back better than we found it.
We searched the Bible for what God requires for New Testament worship. We landed on five acts. Preach the Word, Give, Sing, Pray, Lord’s Supper. I would add a sixth – offer the invitation. To fail to do so is tantamount to sin!
Then we said biblical worship requires all five, even though no one text has all five nor is the instruction that all five are required present in any text to “get it right.”
Here is the problem that needs a solution – The idea is that as long as you get the form right, God is pleased. What does the Lord require of you? All these things I have done since I was young. Sure but you missed the point if your heart is rotten, if you complain about everything that happened on Sunday as if it was all about you and as if the people were singing your praise.
Our answer to what does God require has been this – get the form right and God will automatically be pleased. But now we see from the scriptures that is a pretty low view and expectation from God. God is far more dynamic than that.
Let me say is plainly – this kind of thinking is pagan, not Christian. Pagan thinking was about having right forms to control the gods. Think Harry Potter and Hermione trying to say the spells just right for them to work. It is occult, not Christian that if we walk through the steps just right God is happy. We do this, God does that. We are good. Box checked.
Here is the solution – understand that worship was never only about the form, it was about the heart. Get the form right and the heart wrong and you get the whole thing wrong,
Consider Ephesians 5:18-20,
“18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
We took these verses and concluded it was about a form pleasing to God (worship without instruments) without also considering every word in this verse is equally important. “From your heart to the Lord” is important. We were more interested in finding the form than it coming from the heart – in fact the “from the heart” phrase was just used as leverage for our position (from the heart not from a guitar) than it was to actually think that we should worship God from our heart – that our heart should be in proper disposition to God when we worship!
We were/are stuck on forms in answer to what does God require.
Once we see there is more too it than the form then we begin to open ourselves up to what worship is all about – pleasing God because we love God. If you don’t exhibit the fruit of the Spirit when you worship, you may be caught up on form.
Last, God wants us to worship out of reconciled relationships.
Matt 5:23-24, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”
The Old Testament doesn’t require that in black and white but if they (in the Old Testament) knew God they would know that was the right thing to do. The offering is required by the letter of the law. It would easy to justify offering it without reconciliation but Jesus knows that is not good for what is deep inside of us and that these things actually affect the quality of our worship.
Let us truly make music with our hearts to the Lord and take ourselves out of the center of worship to put Jesus back in His place. Let us uphold our zeal to have a solid biblical theology of worship. I love our Lord’s Supper theology, for instance! And let us understand that God doesn’t just want the offering, He wants all of us! To give him less is to check a box and box checking has never been the answer to what does God require of us?
P.S. – This is not unique to Churches of Christ but some of the ways we go about it are our own and need to be examined. Thanks for your patience!