Is the Form of Worship Important?

The following is a response to an assertion that is often heard in our day.

Statement:

“Form of worship is not important, just our desire for God’s presence.”

 Response:

Forgive me my friend, but I am concerned that this statement is misleading.  No question that love and desire for the Lord’s presence is paramount.  No question that one can be in a worship service without being engaged in spirit.  However, this does not mean that form is merely neutral or arbitrary.  In some sense this is the same thinking that has overtaken our worldly culture, i.e. “love” is the key point, the form of that love (man-women, man-man, women-women) is not important.

If indeed the form of worship is of secondary or little importance why did the Lord take such incredible care (as we see in chapter after chapter of Exodus and Leviticus) to instruct Moses and the people of Israel in great detail how He should be worshipped, along with what should be used as the means to worship Him, and what materials should be used to construct them.  If form doesn’t matter, why did the Lord provide specific instructions as to how Israel was to worship Him properly, how to construct the Tent of Meeting and later the Temple?  Certainly the goal is the revelation of His presence to us, but it was precisely after the completion of the Temple that the glory of God appeared in such a powerful way that the priests could not remain there.  Why did He give such detailed instruction regarding the construction and form of the Ark of the Covenant, commanding it be gilded with pure gold inside and out and that the likeness of cherubim flank the Mercy Seat, the very place where He would speak “face to face” with Moses?

Nor do we have any evidence that the early Christians were unconcerned about the form of worship.  In fact we have the opposite from the direct descendents of the Apostles – Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, Justin the Martyr, etc.  All of them write both about the order and the form of Christian worship.  The absence of specific instructions in the New Testament does not argue for the absence of specific forms or order, but rather that there was no controversy in this area.  Everyone knew what Christian worship was, as it was implemented in the churches by the Apostles decades before the Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians.  Ironically, the forms that are specifically commanded in the New Testament – the Lord’s Supper, head coverings for women, etc. – are systematically ignored by most Christians who claim the Bible as their only guide.

We are not Gnostics or Platonists.  We are not dualists who believe that only immaterial, “spiritual” things matter and that the body and how it is used is irrelevant in the arena of the spiritual life.  In fact it matters a great deal since what we do with our bodies affects and influences our soul and spirit.  The Judeo- Christian understanding of man is that soul and body are an integrated and inseparable unity.  The very definition of death (something not intended by God and “unnatural” according to the original created order) is the separation of the soul from the body.  The Apostle says, “Glorify God in your bodies and your spirit, which are God’s (1 Cor. 6:20), and again, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice…for that is your spiritual worship.”

One might say, “Well, the worship of the Old Testament has passed away and there are no Christian regulations or forms of worship.”  That’s not what I read in the New Testament.  Hebrews 9:1 states: “Then indeed, even the first covenant had ordinances (or “regulations”) of divine service and the earthly sanctuary.”  This implies that the new covenant also had ordinances of divine service (in Greek: service = “liturgy”).  In fact it could easily imply that the new covenant has even more ordinances than the old.

True, the system of animal sacrifice passed away because they are all fulfilled and perfected by Christ’s one, perfect sacrifice (“Christ is our passover Lamb”).  However, what replaced the animal sacrifices was the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, instituted by the Lord Himself and which was understood to be a participation (1 Cor. 10:16) in the one, unrepeatable Sacrifice of Jesus.

Do we really believe that the apostles – Jews who worshipped liturgically – had an “anything goes” policy for Christian worship?  Quite the contrary, the Apostle Paul says everything must be done “decently and in order.”  Before the Jews kicked them out, the Christians worshipped in the Temple and Synagogues, where ordered liturgical worship was normative.  The Acts of the Apostles attest, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.  The Greek says “the breaking of the bread [i.e. the Lord’s Supper] and the prayers (fixed liturgical prayers designated].

The apostles were instructed by the Resurrected Lord for 40 days between His rising and His ascension.  Did he not instruct them as to how Christians are to worship?  Certainly He must have as we see a unanimous and universal shape of Christian worship by the 2nd and 3rd centuries all over the world.  And this without the internet or even the printing press!