What Happened to Biblical Worship?

By David S. Lim, Ph.D.

Has it ever occurred to you that the present emphasis on “praise and worship services” is a step backward rather than forward in the church’s concept and practice of “biblical worship?” May I invite you to this reflection — not as a conservative Evangelical’s critique of the Pentecostal / charismatic tradition that prevails in the modern church, but as a biblical theologian’s critique of the development of “worship” in church history since Pentecost.

worship service at a Pentecostal church

Above all, “biblical worship” has been redefined. In both the Old Testament (OT) and New Testament (NT), “worship” referred mainly to one’s daily walk with God in the way of righteousness, and secondarily to one’s public adulation of God’s goodness in the festivals of celebration (held only three times per year in the OT: in the feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles). To give honor to God, we are to offer sacrifices of praise with our lips and sacrifices of good works with our lives (Heb. 13:15f, cf. Mt. 5:16), yet the emphasis is definitely on the latter (Rom. 12:1f — “offer your bodies as living sacrifices;” 1 Cor. 10:31 “whether you eat or drink”). After all in the NT, “God’s temple” is not a building (Ac. 7:48-50; 17:24), but the body of every believer (1 Cor. 6:19f). It is not a local congregation, but the whole people of God (3:16f; 1 Pet. 2:4-10).

working for God and serving others as part of everyday worship

Working for God and serving others as part of everyday worship

This deviation has resulted in other tragic consequences to the Christian’s priorities in “worshiping God.” For most Christians, “worship” has been separated and marginalized from daily life. They think they have “worshiped” if they have attended a worship service on Sunday, regardless of their lifestyles from Monday to Saturday. Not only has the time been shifted, but the venue has been relocated also: from their homes and workplaces to their church buildings. Even in the OT, the “teaching of the Law” was done in the homes, not in the Temple (Deut. 6).

Subsequently, “worship” has become ritualized: It has become a performance of a worship style or “order of worship” (liturgy) — finding the right words, right songs and right rituals to glorify God. Roman Catholicism emphasizes the altar, Eastern Orthodoxy the liturgy, Protestantism the pulpit, and Pentecostalism/Charismaticism the “song and dance.” In all these, the focus of Christian weekly gatherings has been on liturgical adoration in large assemblies rather than on mutual edification in house meetings (1 Cor. 14:26; Heb. 10:24f, cf. Eph. 5:19f; Col. 3:15-17).

sharing a meal and mutual edification at a house meeting

Sharing a meal and mutual encouragement in a house meeting.

Furthermore, “worship” has become professionalized. Only a few specialists appear on stage to lead the rest to perform the right things at the right time in the right way. In contrast, the Bible especially the NT views “worship” as a spiritual exercise done spontaneously by all believers (note Paul’s instruction to “pray without ceasing,” 1 Th. 5:17). After all, every believer is a priest/minister (1 Pet. 2:9f; Rev. 1:6, cf. Ex. 19:5f). Our Lord Jesus himself preferred “worship” (including prayer, fasting and alms giving) to be done primarily in the privacy of one’s home and frowned on the public display of such (Mt. 6:1-8, 16-18). Even performing religious duties may be counterproductive to one’s spirituality: our Lord Jesus taught that the Good Samaritan/businessman was more spiritual than the priest and Levite who may have been rushing to “serve God” in the Temple (Lk. 10: 25-35).

So, let’s beware of the wrong emphasis that’s prevailing in our churches today. We may not be worshipping God “in spirit and in truth” at all. We may be worshipping our worship, and worse even worship of the wrong kind! It’s time to put “biblical worship” back where it rightfully belongs — in every Christian’s home!

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