The True Worship of God:
The Human Side of Worship

by Rev. Sterling Durgy

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Worship is given by creatures to their Creator. God Himself invites us to worship Him (Isaiah 45:18ff.) -- so it is impossible to have worship without a human side. God wants there to be.

At Mount Sinai, God gave Moses detailed instructions for the construction of a Tabernacle and the furniture to go with it -- the construction of which required many different materials and skills. The craftsmanship of the people was enhanced by the ministry of the Holy Spirit (Exodus 28:3, 31:1-3, 35:31ff.). From the elaborate breastplate of the high priest to the curtains of the Tabernacle to the workmanship of the mercy seat of the ark, the Tabernacle reflected the highest craftsmanship that could be produced. All of it was built of materials gathered and contributed by the people (Exodus 25:1ff., 35:20ff.). God could have created all of this by miracle -- He wanted the people themselves to build it as an act of obedience and worship. Perhaps, too, He wanted to take away some of the "magical" aspect of it, so that they would not worship the objects of worship. Very soon His Divine presence would inhabit what they created. But they were being encouraged to look at Him, rather than the physical objects, for their blessings; which they might be more inclined to do if those objects came from their hands.

The time has passed for imitations of the worship pattern of the Old Covenant -- as the author of Hebrews emphasizes -- in the New Covenant symbols have been replaced with realities (Hebrews 12:18-29). But the time has not passed for people to take of their best and use it to glorify God. "And let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us; and do confirm for us the work of our hands; yes, the work of our hands" (Psalms 90:17). If we are servants of God, then worship is truly a time to serve Him with the best we can bring.

Further, if we are truly honoring God, then those things we bring to worship will reflect the nature of God and be things that we know are truly pleasing to God. We may not have specific instructions for worship as did the craftsman who made the Tabernacle and all the items used in connection with it, and have the detailed description of ceremonies they had. But we have a knowledge of God and the Gospel, the Scriptures, and the example of faithful Christians who have gone before us to help us decide how best to worship.

Given human nature, some differences in opinion may well be unavoidable. The Christian church had two major branches, the Jewish and the Gentile, almost from the very beginning; with many Jewish Christians observing Jewish worship and ceremonies as well as Christian worship. Even the apostle Paul, who considered Himself to be the "apostle to the Gentiles," worshipped at the Temple when in Jerusalem.

Later church history also leads us to expect some measure of disagreement among Christians as to what is appropriate in worship. The Christian church has experienced times of controversy, sometimes great, concerning such matters as whether it was appropriate to have paintings and sculpture in the church, whether there should be instrumental music in worship services, what kind of dress is appropriate in worship services, the manner in which members of the congregation should indicate their approval of what is happening in their worship or their praise to God, whether there should be altar rails in churches, when and how funds should be collected, who is qualified to lead services, how ministers should be paid, and whether it is appropriate to conduct worship services outside church buildings dedicated to the worship of God. Churches run the spectrum from the great Cathedrals, like Notre Dame, to plainest of simple structures, like the historic Dunkard church that can be found on the Antietam battlefield in Maryland.

It certainly does no harm for like-minded Christians who wish to worship together in a certain manner to organize themselves as congregations and denominations -- as long as they recognize the faith of other Christians who do not agree with them in all matters. However, the obligation of Christian good will does not mean that worship is simply a matter of personal taste. There are Scriptural guidelines pertaining to worship that we ignore at the peril of our faith. When these guidelines are violated, we have every right to question -- though we must do so carefully and in love -- if truly Christian worship is really taking place.

  1. All worship must reflect the nature of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus taught that the Holy Spirit came into the world to exalt Christ (John 16:14). The church was brought into being by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. It follows, then, that all that happens in worship must exalt God, not man.
  2. Freedom in worship must not be used as an opportunity to indulge the flesh (Galatians 5:13). The Corinthians did this when they used the Lord's Supper to indulge themselves with food and drink (I Corinthians 11:20ff.). We might do it by making the church a place for our entertainment rather than worship.

    Care is required whenever the fine arts are involved. Art and craftsmanship can enrich our worship. At the same time, each form of the artistic expression has certain limitations. That does not mean that they have no value for worship, but it does mean that their value must be carefully and realistically evaluated. The arts more often than not tend to be stronger in emotion than in content. "A picture may be worth a thousand words," but very often, a thousand pictures are no substitute for a smaller number of correctly chosen words. That is why the Ten Commandments were given in language rather than as paintings and the greater part of the New Testament consists of teaching rather than stories. In other words, much information that God wants to communicate to us cannot be communicated except through language. The use of the arts must truly reflect God and not take the place of the ministry of God's Word.

  3. Special attention must be given to those things that truly build up the Body of Christ. "All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify" (I Corinthians 10:23). Does our worship accomplish the goals of building people spiritually: challenging, informing, comforting, strengthening, aiding growth in holiness, fixing the gaze and the faith of the people upon God and His Word, helping them to be better servants of Christ, or does it simply make everyone feel better?

    Narrative is important in helping us to remember what has happened in the past. The Gospels are collections of traditions that help us to remember the life and teachings of Christ. Likewise, The Acts of the Apostles is a narrative that relates the history of the early church. "Story" is used in Scripture, but a story is a specific way of relating events that is organized to maintain interest. A story is always constructed to create a tension in the listener or reader. It is essential that this tension builds throughout the story, then be released as those in the story confront the problem. Real life is not like stories - sometimes there are no neat solutions to life's problems, sometimes people die without finding a solution to a problem. Stories can help us to understand certain truths, as with the parables of Christ. But notice that the disciples needed to have many of the parables explained to them afterwards. Stories are helpful, but they cannot stand alone.

  4. Worship that honors God will not do things that help people to stumble (Romans 14:13ff.). For example, serving alcoholic wine for the Lord's Supper, rather than unfermented wine (grape juice), may cause an alcoholic who is trying to stay clean to slide back into bondage to alcohol. I prefer to worship in such a manner that my brother or sister in Christ, who may have a problem with alcohol, will feel that the communion table is a place of blessing, not a potential curse.

    We should exercise care that what we offer in worship is not so close to what is offered by our culture that those who worship with us will not notice the difference. If we do so, our message will be blurred and missed by those we seek to help to walk with Him. The knowledge of God and the Gospel and the attempt to serve God faithfully has a cleansing effect upon every culture. The degree to which certain aspects of culture need to be rejected will vary from culture to culture, but in every culture, including western culture, we should hold everything we bring to God to the light of God's Word before using it in formal worship.

In Paul's letter to Titus he discusses how Christians should behave. His comments in 2:10 are directed towards servants, but the reason he asks them to behave in a certain manner is, "that they may adorn the doctrine (teachings) of God our Savior in every respect," which should be the goal of all Christians, not just servants. The word "adorn" here is the verb form of kosmos, which is translated "world" in John 3:16. Kosmeo, the word from which we derive "cosmetics," emphasizes the ordering of things, and so was often used to describe how women carefully order their appearance or how graves are carefully decorated to honor dead heroes. In Titus 2:10, it means to so order our lives by the Gospel and the Scriptures that other people understand our God. This is similar to the manner in which John says Christ came to make God plain to mankind (to "explain" or "exegete" God, John 1:18).

This "ordering" is no less important in worship than in other parts of life. Christian worship is not to be governed or ordered by the world's ways. Though worship everywhere has the imprint of humanity and human creativity, if it is true worship, it reveals and explains God because it has been carefully ordered to reflect and bring honor to Him. Our confirmation that this is pleasing to God comes not from the approval of the world but from the knowledge that we have been faithful to our Lord and Savior, of Whom we never need to be ashamed (Jeremiah 9:23-24).

First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume V, Part 5, May 1997.

Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Permission is granted to reprint this article as long as the copyright is included, this statement is included, and the article is not sold to the recipients.

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This page was last updated October 22, 1999.