Interview: Is the church a house of worship?

Amidst the mist and cold and rain of Katoomba at Easter, I sat with Don Carson in the warmth of the CMS Speaker’s Lodge. His series on ‘Turning points in the history of salvation’ had been the highlight of the Easter Convention for many. I was now inviting him to train his formidable theological weaponry on the subject of ‘worship’. What would ‘the Don’, as we deferentially like to call him around the office, say on this pressing question?

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[1] 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 Jesus says that this whole geographical debate is now superseded.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 soundas 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 defense 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 resacralize 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.[2] 

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 mandated, 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 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 then three other authors—Mark Ashton (an Anglican), Tim Keller (a Presbyterian) and Roy Clements (a Baptist)—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.

TP: We look forward to seeing it. Thank you.