Is the Church a House of Worship?
D. A. Carson and Tony Payne
TP: What does the Bible say about what we call 'worship'?
DC: In large terms, I do agree with David Peterson (in his book Engaging With God) and others who have argued that the move from worship under the Old Covenant to the New, is the move from the temple-centred cultus of sacrifice and designated priesthood and high feasts and holy times, to a stance where worship under the New Covenant is bound up with the limitless extent of the gospel. You have Romans 12:1-2, for example, where cultic sacrificial language is used to say that the offering of our whole selves is at the heart of Christian worship.
Of course there were individual prayers, and individual expressions of worship in the Old Testament - none of that is being denied. But the locus of worship in the Old Testament was bound up in the cultic system; in the New Testament it is bound up with offering all of our lives all the time to God. It can then play out in a variety of ways. We are constantly in the presence of the Lord, according to Hebrews 12, presupposed also in Ephesians, and worked out in Romans as well. Paul sees his 'priestly ministry' in Romans 15 as being expressed in evangelism. In John 4, likewise, Jesus says that those who worship him must do so in spirit and in truth. Sometimes we have reduced that to meaning something like 'we must worship him truly and with the help of the Spirit' or something like that. But it's more focused than that it's set against the woman's debate about whether the Samaritans have the right place of worship (at Gerazim and Ebal) or whether the Jews have it right in Jerusalem. Jesus says that this whole geographical debate is now superseded. True worship now is in 'spirit and truth'. Now in the context of John's Gospel, the true worshipper is one who obeys the gospel of Christ, who recognizes that Jesus is the very manifestation of the Truth. And you also have the time of the coming of the Spirit, who transcends all geographical limitations.
Likewise, Paul says (whatever you think about Sabbath and Sunday) that "one man views one day as more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind". It is impossible to imagine that kind of thing being said under the terms of the Old Covenant. The sense of cultic sacred time and space is broken down under the terms and categories of the New Testament.
Having said all that, however, we have to be careful not to go too far. Howard Marshall argues that what we do in church is not to come together to worship (since worship is what we do in all our lives), but to be instructed. David Peterson says that we come together to edify one another.
I don't deny they have a point, but I don't quite like the antithesis. Some people do say that we come together in order to worship, and this does suggest that worship is the name given to the thing we do on Sunday morning at eight o'clock, rather than what we do all week. This approach reintroduces the 'sacred space, sacred time' thing that forgets the nature of the New Covenant. This is clearly a problem. However, the response can be so strong the other way that it can sound as if whatever we do on Sunday morning is not worship.
Now I know what they're saying, and the texts they're appealing to, but I would want to say that if worship is to embrace all of our lives, as we offer ourselves in grateful service to him constantly, in obedience and evangelism, and in all things, then when we come together we worship corporately, just as we have been doing individually and in our families during the week. Worship continues ... but corporately. Within that framework, there is room for instruction, edification, the Lord's Supper, sharing with one another, confessing sins, prayers, singing, and so on. If we ask what the New Testament Christians did in their gatherings, these things would be included.
What I really want to say is that once you have agreed that Christian worship must embrace all of life, I still want us to reflect on what Christian worship should look like as a corporate act. Then there are certain things that I would want to nail down from New Testament precept or example.
I don't want worship to be separated, for example, from biblical preaching, as if you have a 'worship leader' and then a 'preacher'.
TP:Or even a 'worship time'?
DC: That's appalling in my view. I would abolish forever the notion of a 'worship leader'. If you want to have a 'song leader' who leads part of the worship, just as the preacher leads part of the worship, that's fine. But to call the person a 'worship leader' takes away the idea that by preaching, teaching, listening to and devouring the word of God, and applying it to our lives, we are somehow not worshipping God.
TP:Can I say a word in defence of Marshall and Peterson? Of course, it would be reductionist to say that under no circumstances should we describe anything we do on Sunday mornings as 'worship'. Since 'worship' encompasses all of life, how could Sunday morning logically be excluded? However, the theological category of worship does not seem to be the one the New Testament uses to talk about the Christian gathering. Might it not be a mistake, with other ramifications, to view the overarching category in which we think of Sunday morning as 'worship'? Speaking as an Anglican, that kind of thinking - that describes the Sunday gathering in the theological language of worship - has let in the door a whole series of destructive problems...
DC: Such as eucharistic offerings...
TP: Exactly. It seems curious to me that when you look at how the New Testament describes and theologises about Christian gatherings, the worship language is so conspicuously absent.
DC: True, but there are other factors to be brought in I think. You get these pictures of what the ultimate assembly is to look like in the book of Revelation, where there is a tremendous emphasis on praise around the throne, singing the glories of him who sits on the throne. Surely some of that has to be fed back into our earthly gatherings, if we view ourselves as in some way already assembled around the throne. Positionally, we are already there; when we come together corporately, we have to reflect in some respect what is going on around the throne.
Don't get me wrong. I want to avoid like the plague the whole 'we are gathered to worship' thing, where evangelism and the ministry of the word get relegated. That's appalling. If 'worship' terminology is being used to re-sacralize holy time and holy space, or for reducing 'worship' to singing, then it must be addressed head on.
But I don't want to swing the pendulum so far the other way that we don't give a lot of thought to what it means corporately to praise God, or corporately to pray. I think we would use a term like 'corporate worship' in a broader sense to describe this, and then move on to talk about what we actually do when we meet together. Let's not get caught up in semantics. Whatever broad term we call it when we come together, are we supposed to sing? Yes. Are we supposed to pray? We agree. Now what should our singing and praying look like? Ask those questions, which are more immediately tied to a whole range of texts.
TP: I would like to explore the question of terminology further, but now may not be the time. I agree that it can become a semantic quibble between those of us who fundamentally agree theologically about church (and indeed about worship). However, in the broader Christian scene, with our history, and with the way the word is almost universally used, it seems to me that retaining 'worship' language only reinforces the errors you're seeking to avoid.
The root of the 'worship' terminology in the Bible is the idea of 'bowing down' (behind the Hebrew and Greek words, I mean); and it seems to me that all the language and categories of worship stem from this idea of being in the presence of a Great One before whom you bow. You bow down, you show fear, respect and submission, and you accordingly pay homage, and do service. It is all essentially a down-on-your-face response to a Great One, whoever he may be.
If this is the case, it may help explain the different modes or emphases of 'worship' in the unfolding story of the Bible. Where God is present in the temple-right there, in a particular place-what are you going to do? You're going to literally fall on your face in that spot, you're going to sacrifice animals, etc. And when we're in heaven, and we're right there before the throne, then we'll cast our crowns before him, and fall on our faces, etc. But now, we're between those two moments, as it were. We have Christ continually dwelling within us by his Spirit; but we are still in the groaning creation, even though we are already in heaven by faith. All this conditions how we 'bow before him', how we submit and 'worship' here and now. It's why worship is expanded to an all-of-life continual submission to God, for he now dwells with all his people all the time. I think this is the problem with charismatic 'worship'-it's the same eschatological mistake they make with regard to healing and other things. They try to worship as if they're either in the Old Testament temple, or already in heaven. It's all by sight, rather than by faith.
But, as I said, let's not pursue that further at this point (Moses Ed. - DC and TP continued discussing this point both in person and by e-mail, and an edited version of the exchange is appended below). Putting to one side the question of the term we use to describe our assemblies, let's talk more about the actual content. What should we be doing in our public gatherings?
DC: First, let me say that we don't need to do everything the New Testament mandates in every meeting. For example, if people use 1 Corinthians 14 as the grid to authorize their meetings, they will have everybody with a prayer, a hymn, a revelation or whatever. However, in that passage there is no mention of teaching or the reading of Scripture, even though we know from other passages that this was done.
There is no single passage which lays out a paradigm of what must be done. But when you look up all the passages, and to try to synthesise them, then there are certain things that keep recurring, and there are certain things that are conspicuous by their absence.
Amongst the things that are man dated, then, is teaching the Bible, handling the word of God, remembering the gospel, those sorts of things; and not only for instruction and content, but also how to live on the basis of that. That's non-negotiable.
The reading of Scripture is also non-negotiable, and in many churches that's just about gone nowadays. What you have is lots of singing, and a devotional, and some prayers, but the public reading of the word of God is gone. Moreover, I want to recover some of the massive dignity of reading large sections of the Scripture-whole chapters, or even two or three chapters and it has to be done well. But when it is done well, it is a time of great dignity and solemnity, when God's word is read in the midst of the entire assembly. "Do not give up the public reading of the Scripture", Paul tells Timothy. Clearly there was also a place in the New Testament for psalms, hymns and spiritual songs-corporate singing. It reflects to some extent the practice of singing of the ancient people of God, but it is also for indoctrination, for affirmation, joyous expression, lament, comfort, expressing our love affectively, encouraging one another-singing does a whole lot of things.
I think we are supposed to be a singing people, because that is an expression of adoration and devotion, of Christ-centredness and God-centredness.
Do you have to sing at every evangelistic meeting and Bible study? No. But it has to have a part, and thus you want what is sung to be true, to be faithful. If outsiders come in to an assembly of the gathered people of God, we don't have to be embarrassed about the fact that we sing. It should be wonderful. You may have to explain a little more about what's going on-you don't just say 'Hymn 362' and people grab a book in front of them, the black one, but it turns out to have things like 'Isaiah' at the top of the page, instead of the blue one... You have to explain things. I've often said at 'guest services' things like this: "Historically Christians are a singing people because we have so much to sing about. In this church, we sing songs from centuries past, and songs that have been written in the last five years. We'll sing some of both tonight. And if some of these lyrics seem strange to you, nevertheless listen to the people of God as we delight to sing to the God who made us and has redeemed us." I'd say something like that. Then the very joy of corporate singing can have a telling effect on people. When I was here for the Katoomba Men's Convention, I heard reports of guys who had never been to a Christian meeting of any sort, dialling up their wives on their mobile phones and saying, "Dear, these guys are nuts but just listen to them sing" and holding up their phones.
TP: I have this theory that we humans are singing animals, and that arguing about whether we should sing is a bit ...
DC: Daft. Like whether we should talk or think. ..
TP: It's just the way we are. Humans have always sung in some way or another. In our modern society, we still have songs, our anthems, we just do it differently than in other places and times. We have professionals do it for us, and we listen in the car as we drive along. In the Bible, it's more to do with how to sing and what to sing. DC: Exactly. And because it is not only adoration of God and confession and so on, but indoctrination-that is, teaching one another-it needs to be biblically true. A great number of contemporary choruses are impressionistic rather than contentful. You don't come away having learnt a great deal. There are some exceptions, but on the whole that is true and we just have to work harder at this.
TP: One of the reasons for that trend in modern choruses is the theology that drives the exercise. It's implicitly a mystical exercise in which one enters God's presence, and the singing is the vehicle which carries you there. The worship leader becomes the priest who drives the vehicle (to mix metaphors).
DC: That can happen, and then it becomes just flatly manipulative. This is why I don't like things that go on and on, repeating the same thing again and again. They are like mantras. They worry me. Not that there shouldn't be any repetition-some of the psalms are repetitious-but when it becomes a way of building people up to an emotional high, it's a form of manipulation that is not godly.
But on the other hand, I don't want to be afraid of the articulation of truth, both in a sermon and through song, that breaks people down in tears. I've been in some wonderful Christian meetings that have been powerful emotionally, so long as we aren't trying to achieve it by manipulation-either by the preacher telling a weepy story for effect, or for mantra-like chants that get people all worked up. If the truth of the gospel is being rightly expressed through word and song, then we should not be afraid of emotion.
My mother died of Alzheimer's disease, over nine years. Nine or ten months before she died, you'd get a small flicker from the eyes or squeeze of the hand if you held up pictures of her grandchildren. Six months before she died, if you sang an old hymn like 'Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine', you'd get a squeeze. Or a quote from the King James Version that she'd been brought up on. That was about the last thing that produced any response in her. The most deeply embedded memories in that decaying brain were those old hymns and memorised Scripture. There is something worrying to me about a generation that sings choruses that won't last more than five years. There's not much memorization of Scripture, and there's not much memorization of doctrinally profound hymns. I want to see that reborn. Nobody's going to die remembering 'He's a great big wonderful God'.
TP: Let's talk more about 'things being mandated' or not.
DC:Yes, that's interesting, because that's when you get interesting traditions. The Hooker Principle, which Anglicans will have to debate and sort out, says that if something is not mandated by Scripture, then the church may mandate. The Presbyterians, on the other hand, have the Regulative Principle which, briefly stated, is that if Scripture doesn't mandate something, the church hasn't the right to mandate it, lest it offend the conscience of some who don't want to go beyond Scripture. And there is some debate among Presbyterians about what the Principle should be applied to. Among some highland Scots Presbyterians, it means that you shouldn't have an organ because there is no mention of organs in the New Testament. Whereas there are other Presbyterians, no less devout, who understand the Regulative Principle in a rather different way.
Likewise in Baptist or other independent churches, things are so free that they assume a hymn-sandwich regularity that is the most rigid of all. I would want to argue-speaking as a Baptist-that where the freedom and innovation of the Baptist heritage is combined with a profound biblical grasp, it is the best of all possibilities. In practice, of course, it can lead to people just doing the same thing every week, but not nearly as well as Cranmer did it, if you see what I mean!
This is what we're exploring in a book I'm currently editing called For All Their Joys Are One. I'm writing a chapter on the biblical theology, and other authors - Mark Ashton (an Anglican) and Tim Keller (a Presbyterian) - are writing sections reflecting on the biblical material and their own denominational traditions, and to justify and explain what they're doing in 'corporate worship', to use that phrase again. That will be out next year sometime (Moses Ed. - this book has now appeared under the title ‘Worship by the Book', Zondervan, 2002, and includes an additional chapter by R. Kent Hughes on corporate worship in the Free Church tradition).
TP: We look forward to seeing it. Thank you.
Further (email) conversations with Don Carson
An e-mail dialogue with Don Carson
From: Tony Payne
To: Don Carson
Don't you just hate it when you have a conversation and think afterwards of all the things you wish you'd said? After our interview on worship, I had just this experience. In particular, I wish that I had explored with you further about whether we should think about church in the categories of worship. Seems to me that we were in thorough agreement whilst ever we were talking about what we should actually do in church, etc. I remain deeply puzzled, however, about your fondness for retaining worship language to describe the endeavour. Perhaps it's a cultural thing. Or perhaps there is more to it.
In any case, I thought I'd drop you this quick email, and overcome my feelings of impertinence by being typically blunt as we Australians are allowed to be (apparently).
In brief, it seems to me that your argument for still referring to church as worship (in some qualified sense such as 'corporate worship') is:
a. it is not technically wrong, since all of life is worship (therefore it includes the few hours on Sunday morning)
b. we've called it this for ages; it is conventional
c. what harm is there in continuing the convention?
It seems to me that you could make a similar argument for referring to church as a temple (as in 1 Cor 3), or to the minister as a priest (as in the priestly ministry of preaching the gospel). Technically you could mount a justification, and you could argue that the usage was conventional and fairly harmless.
Yet it's not harmless. I think you would agree that the danger of importing OT cultic connotations, as well as undercutting the NT usage and emphasis, would militate against 'temple' or 'priest' terminology. And given what has happened in history (in relation to Roman Catholicism) we would regard it as unwise in the extreme to begin to use this sort of terminology to describe our gatherings, or elements of them. This is precisely my point with regard to 'worship'.
Jesus is the true worshipper (the leitourgos, if you will, of Heb 8:2) who ministers in THE sanctuary on our behalf (just as he is our temple, high priest and sacrifice). It is no wonder that the NT so avoids the language of worship in regard to church, as it avoids the language of temple (1 Cor 3 notwithstanding), priest and sacrifice. It's just the wrong set of categories. In Hebrews it is most striking. In the context of Jesus' heavenly ministry as worshipper, high priest and intercessor, the earthly character of our gatherings is to be 'spurring one another on towards love and good deeds' (Heb 10). Even though the writer is shortly to discuss the heavenly gathering around the throne (in Heb 12), he at no point implies that our earthly gatherings are in some way a copy of this. And for good reason -- the copy of the heavenly tabernacle was the *OT tabernacle*, as given to Moses, and this is what Christ has fulfilled in glorious reality. To in any sense then speak of our current earthly gatherings in terms of temple, priest or worship is gravely to misunderstand our eschatological situation in my view.
Now, I'm not saying that church is a purely 'horizontal' affair, or that it is not a very serious business, and where God is present (this is the whole point of 1 Cor 3 and the need to build carefully). Yet I think those who distinguish between the 'horizontal' ministry of edification and the 'vertical' practices of praise and worship, have missed the point. False dichotomies abound. The argument of 1 Cor 3 is that what we do (in sowing, watering, building etc.) is done before God; that he provides the growth, that he is present by his Spirit, and will call us to account for good or bad work. 1 Cor 12-14 makes the related point, that it is by the gifts of God (manifest by the Spirit) that we edify one another etc.
(On the opposite side, I would argue that praise is just as much confession before the congregation and the world, as it is direct address to God -- if not more so. Certainly that's what you would get from the Psalms. But that's another story.)
The language and categories that dominate NT teaching about church are those of love and edification (eg. 1 Cor 3; 1 Cor 12-14; Eph 4; Heb 10 etc.). Why don't we simply talk about what we should do in church, on the basis of these and similar passages? Why import and overlay 'worship' language, when the NT doesn't do so, and when there are so many latent dangers (which have played themselves out repeatedly in church history, the most threatening current manifestation being the charismatic 'praise and worship' industry)?
There we are. I have made my plea. Lest this brief email become even less brief than it already is, I'll stop there. Thanks again for your fellowship and help in our ministry.
Warmly yours in Christ
From: Don Carson
To: Tony Payne
Subject: On worship
Thanks for your thoughtful reflections. I confess your arguments have not persuaded me, partly, I think, because you invariably link a too-limiting set of parameters to 'worship'.
For you, every use of 'worship' seems to be associated with the cultic. That is what finally drives you to say that Jesus is the only 'worshipper', the _leitourgos_ in the heavenly sanctuary. Yet John 4 says Jesus seeks certain kinds of worshippers: apparently he thinks that it is still appropriate to attach the label to believers.
Where we are in agreement, I think, is in saying that under the terms of the new covenant the emphasis is away from the cultic and on all of life. But this is more than the autonymic response of breathing: there is intentionality to it. I agree entirely with your intermingling of horizontal and vertical dimensions. But if we are to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength, that is equivalent, as far as I can see, to worship under the new covenant. We do not love God _less_ when we come together. That is why, when I speak of 'worship' in connection with church, I prefer to use some sort of expression as 'corporate worship' to distinguish it from the broad sweep of what worship seems to embrace under the new covenant.
I do not see that any of your genuine concerns over sacramentalism or Pentecostalism are at all glossed over by what I am saying. I share those concerns. But you would be right, I think, _only_ if the word 'worship' _must_ have the associations with which you link it.
Is this helpful, or am I missing something?
From: Tony Payne
To: Don Carson
Subject: Is it strategic?
Many thanks for your kind reply. Yes it was helpful. I can now see the difference that remains between us, and I think it is pedagogical and practical rather than theological. Let me briefly explain.
I entirely agree with your comments about worship in the NT. I don't think I'm guilty of attaching 'worship' only to the cultic. I'm a big fan of Rom 12 after all (and John 4 for that matter). The point is, as you rightly acknowledge, that the fulfilment in Jesus pushes NT usage away from the cultic and to all of life. Loving God with heart, soul, mind and strength is indeed worship, and it is of necessity something we also do together. But it is the next step that I am still unconvinced about. You say:
We do not love God _less_ when we come together. That is why, when I speak of "worship" in connection with church, I prefer to use some sort of expression as "corporate worship" to distinguish it from the broad sweep of what worship seems to embrace under the new covenant.
I would ask: why do you "speak of worship in connection with church" at all? Is it because the NT drives you to, or because Christian tradition conditions you to?
If we were both to start from scratch -- tabula rasa -- and somehow put all our histories and traditions to one side; and if we then tried to decide how to label and speak of our corporate life, judging only by the terminology and theology of the NT, I would be astonished if either of us came up with 'worship' (even 'corporate worship') as an important (let alone overarching) term or category. Would you agree?
However, we are not starting from scratch. We have a long history of using 'worship' in relation to church, largely (it must be said) for the wrong reasons. And here is the practical difference between us I think. Your approach, given this tradition, is to retain the language, but qualify it, rehabilitate it in NT directions. Our approach has been to scrap the worship language, and start again with more dominant NT categories.
I suppose time will tell which is the better pedagogical strategy; or indeed whether different strategies work better in different contexts. I would guess that arguing _against_ the use of worship language in relation to church, for pedagogical reasons, would get you into a massive donnybrook in your part of the world. It may not be worth it. Then again, there is nothing like driving the money-changers from the temple to make your point...
Thanks again for this invigorating exchange.
Yours in Christ
From: Don Carson
To: Tony Payne
Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I think that the difference between us is largely pedagogical; I am not quite certain it is entirely so.
(1) Let us grant a shared biblical theology of worship. Nevertheless the early Christians, when they met together for their corporate meetings, did _some_ things that had resemblance to the temple worship of the old covenant: singing, prayers, hearing of Scripture, confession of sin, teaching. There were, of course, differences: the cultic measures were entirely transformed. Moreover, the range of worship terminology is applied far more broadly under the new covenant (thus I return to our shared biblical theology). But is it so great a stretch to use "worship," and especially "corporate worship," as one of several over-arching categories (though certainly not the only one) to describe what happens when Christians get together? Of course there are dangers. But there are also dangers of over-reaction -- as, for instance, "You are Peter" is completely misinterpreted by many scholars this side of the Reformation, because they cannot swallow the RC interpretation.
(2) The matter between us can be cast as different pedagogy, as you suggest; but it can also be cast as a typical translation problem. When we speak of "worship" we are using an English word. To ask whether that word is associated with church in the New Testament is slightly misleading -- partly because neither our English "church" nor our English "worship" has a univocal relation with any one Greek word (though of course there are substantial overlaps). Again: I am not trying to overturn our shared biblical theology; nor am I denying that there are pedagogical challenges to sort out. But part of the latter challenges are tied up with translational challenges.
(3) Sometimes it is better to take an antithetical stance to enhance clear thought. But: (a) there is also something to be said about trying not to alienate people unnecessarily; (b) as the influence of Sydney Anglicans grows worldwide, you will surely undertake to be understood, in what you are saying, by as many different people as possible, for the sake of influencing them with biblical thinking; and (c) I think an antithetical way of handling the issue can lead (and has in some cases) toward insufficient attention being given to developing really excellent corporate worship (or whatever you prefer to call it). Some of the sentimental and uncontrolled forms of contemporary 'worship' are at least in part a response to perceived sterility in our meetings. This is not their only rootage, of course but surely it has to be taken into account in our discussions of the best way ahead, wouldn't you say?
I remain impressed by the images of "corporate worship" in heaven in Revelation and the way it is in part supposed to be the fullness towards which we press now.
Keep in touch!
From: Tony Payne
To: Don Carson
Subject: One last thing
Thank you for another thought-provoking reply.
I certainly don't think it's wrong or illegitimate to use 'worship' as the overarching category (or one of them). You can mount a case, as you have. I still do think it is a stretch in terms of the NT usage and terminology (even granted the translational issues you raise). But you are the NT professor, and I am but a humble editor. I put my hand on my mouth.
One final comment on the pedagogical strategies: I was telling a colleague about our interesting email conversation, and his response was to the effect that re-educating people to use 'worship' terminology correctly would be a herculean task -- given that you have all the charismatics and pentecostals, the huge marketing resources of the praise and worship industry, the Anglo-Catholics, the liberal-Catholics and the Roman Catholics all beefing out the opposite message! In that context, being heard and understood may require the use of clear communication, however initially startling it may seem to some.
Of course, you're right about the need to work harder at what we actually do when we get together. If it ends up being either a vacuous chat-show (poorly done), or a sterile lecture, then surely we have failed.
Thanks again for agreeing to this friendly exchange. I have enjoyed it enormously. In fact, it has just occurred to me that some of what has flown back and forth might make a useful supplement to the taped interview. Would you mind if I used some of the material this way?
From: Don Carson
To: Tony Payne
Subject: Broadcasting our conversation
Go right ahead.
The first part of this discussion appeared in The Briefing Issue #232, 2000, and both parts are used with permission. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, or by any means, without the prior permission of Matthias Media.
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