The True Worship of God:
Worship with Understanding

by Rev. Sterling Durgy

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Paul's writings to the Corinthians are filled with tension. Some of the issues he addressed in his letters are still sensitive issues today - issues upon which sincere and devout Christians disagree. This disagreement should not prevent us from a careful reading of these letters, however, in order to discover those truths that Paul sought to make clear to the Corinthians and to those others, including ourselves, to whom these writings have come.

The twelfth to fourteenth chapters of I Corinthians contain a discussion of spiritual gifts. Included in this discussion is a description of spiritual gifts, a list of such gifts, and an entire chapter that emphasizes the importance of love. In chapter 13, Paul states clearly that the expression of spiritual gifts, like all of the Christian life and faith, is to be an expression of love. This means that no spiritual gift can properly be used selfishly - it has been given not only to bless the person who receives the gift, but other members of the Body of Christ as well. Here, Paul uses the metaphor of a human body to emphasize that all members of Christ's Body are to work for one another's mutual benefit, just as the members of the human body work together for the benefit of the entire body. "But to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (I Corinthians 12:7). This "manifestation" need not be spectacular - but it is an ability that is spiritually enabled or enhanced by God, whether this is obvious or not.

In the fourteenth chapter, after Paul has emphasized these concepts, Paul addresses some specific issues of concern as to how the Corinthians are using spiritual gifts in their worship. The specific gifts Paul discusses are the gift of prophecy and the gift of tongues. Although there is much about these two gifts that Christians disagree about, at least two things are made very clear in Paul's discussion. First, these gifts are to be expressed in the church in an orderly manner. And second, the reason for this orderliness is not simply to reflect the orderliness of God (verse 33), but also to ensure that what is spoken is understood by all the worshippers. And, for that matter, any unbelievers who hear (verse 23). The goal is the edification, the building up, of the church. This edification comes by understanding what God has to say to those gathered for worship. This is not unlike the manner in which Paul teaches that men come to God through the Gospel. Paul wrote to the Romans, "So faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17 and context). Response follows hearing and understanding.

Two related goals of the Protestant Reformation were to make the Scriptures available to the people in their own language ("in the vernacular") and to have worship in the language of the people. The Latin spoken in the celebration of the Mass and the ability of the priests to read the Latin translation of the Scriptures may have impressed some Catholic worshippers, but it did nothing to promote the understanding of spiritual truths. Worship often deteriorated into "magic" and the people were cut off from the knowledge that they could serve God directly.

We must not misunderstand here - the Protestant reformers did not deny what Paul teaches in Corinthians and elsewhere, that there are individuals who are gifted by God to interpret and teach the Scriptures (I Corinthians 12:28). The reformers were not saying that the interpretation of Scripture is a "free for all" that takes place without paying attention to the learning and knowledge of devout scholars. The difference here is that in the early church and in the Protestant Reformation, the goal of scholars and teachers is to help others achieve a correct understanding of God's Word. In Catholicism at the time of the Reformation, the goal of much of the clergy was to make the lay people totally dependent upon them personally, so that rather than understand how to think Scripturally, the people knew only to do or not do what the priest told them - with a large measure of fear thrown in by the inability of the people to understand either God's Word or the ceremonies of worship. Latin was the language clergymen and church scholars used to communicate about matters of faith. The celebration of the Mass in Latin, which had become the custom, made sense to the priests, but made this ceremony meaningless to the people of the congregation.

The Augsburg Confession was created to explain the faith of the Lutherans. Article 24, "Of the Mass," begins: "Falsely are our churches accused of abolishing the Mass; for the Mass is retained among us, and celebrated with the highest reverence. Nearly all the usual ceremonies are also preserved, save that the parts sung in Latin are interspersed here and there with German hymns, which have been added to teach the people. For ceremonies are needed to this end alone that the unlearned be taught [what they need to know of Christ]. And not only has Paul commanded to use in the church a language understood by the people 1 Cor. 14,2. 9, but it has also been so ordained by man's law . . ." ("The Confession of Faith: Which Was Submitted to His Imperial Majesty Charles V At the Diet of Augsburg in the Year 1530" by Philip Melanchthon, 1497-1560. Translated by F. Bente and W. H. T. Dau Published in: Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921, pp. 37-95).

The "Thirty-nine articles" of the Church of England were created to define Anglican faith during the Protestant Reformation. Article 24, "Of speaking in the Congregation in such a tongue as the people understandeth" reads: "It is a thing plainly repugnant to the word of God and the custom of the primitive Church, to have public prayer in the Church, or to minister the sacraments, in a tongue not understanded of the people" (Hughes, Philip E. Theology of the English Reformers, New Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980). The creation of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was so that all of the congregation "in common" could participate in worship in a manner understood by all.

Although in the "counter-reformation" the Roman Catholic church addressed a number of the issues that precipitated the Protestant Reformation, Roman Catholics continued to celebrate Mass in Latin until late in the mid 20th century, when Vatican II allowed the Mass to be celebrated in the language of the people. For well over four hundred years, this was a major point of contention between Protestants and Catholics. Yet now, barely one generation after Vatican II, many Protestants seem to have forgotten both the issue and the arguments they so strongly advanced against Roman Catholic practice.

This is an issue that is larger than any denomination's interpretation of the gift of tongues (glossalalia). However "tongues"' may be interpreted, the important principle that corporate worship must be in the language of the people must not be set aside, as it was in the Corinthian church Paul wrote to. Moreover, when it is set aside, as it was at Corinth, those who worship in a language not understood by others tend to use it as a reason for personal pride and to mark themselves as an "elite" within the church. This also lays the groundwork for some form of "gnosticism," a mystical knowledge available only to an elite and unintelligible to outsiders, as opposed to the true knowledge of God that is available to all (I Timothy 2:4).

This principle of understanding in worship is too clearly defined in Scripture and in practice to be ignored by those who truly seek to worship their Lord. The Law of Moses required the people to know the Law and to pass it on to their children (Deuteronomy 6:1-9). Unlike pagan rites, there was no part of worship defined in the Law that was to be performed without the full understanding of the worshipper. The rediscovery of the Law led to spiritual revival (Nehemiah 8:1ff, see 10:28). The ministries of the prophets of the Old Testament were based on a correct understanding of God's Word. Their words, or as they testified "the Word of the Lord," became books in our Bibles because their messages were understandable and could be written down in the language of the people. The worship of the synagogue, which may have begun during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, centered upon the reading of passages of Scripture, prayer, and often an exposition of God's Word designed to help the people understand it. This exposition was often delivered by a knowledgeable lay person - underscoring that worship and the Scriptures were within the reach of all the people. Jesus' custom was to worship at the synagogue (Luke 4:16). Synagogue worship later became a model for formal Christian worship.

Whenever the Gospels relate Jesus' prayers or how Jesus taught us to pray, it is always in the language of the people. If there were a more spiritual form of worship, we would expect Jesus to have led His disciples in that worship, either before or after His resurrection. But that is not the case. His resurrection results, again, in an intelligible ministry of the Word of God.

The Old Testament used by the early church was the Septuagint version, which had been translated to Greek to be understood by more people. The New Testament was written in "koine" (meaning "common") Greek, the language of trade throughout the Mediterranean. I remember one of my college professors, who was not a Christian, calling it "gutter Greek" as opposed to the classical Greek in which ancient Greek literature was written. In his sarcasm he unintentionally underscored that the intent of the authors of the New Testament was to reach the greatest number of people with their message. This does not eliminate the need for the ministry of reverent scholars in the Body of Christ. Paul himself, author of most of the books in the New Testament, was a recognized scholar both inside and outside the Body of Christ. But the role of the Christian scholar is to help others understand the writings that are God's gift to all.

Since that is the case, the true worship of God must be in the language of the people. Language is God's creation. True worship involves understanding what He has spoken to us and using His gift of language to speak to Him. This does not rule out emotion. It does help us to discipline our worship of God so that our worship is truly meaningful as well as understandable.

First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume IV, Part 8, August 1996, Revised October 3, 1998.

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.