church as ‘worship’?

Should we speak of our church gatherings as ‘worship’?

Tony Payne has written a helpful article here

Tony’s article is significantly more than a review of two good books. His first half dozen paragraphs are a helpful introduction into the “ongoing debate” about “whether ‘worship’ is the right word or category with which to think about our singing, or our church meetings more generally”. My hunch is that this debate is likely to intensify in the next few years.

The paragraphs about Dr Chapell “conducting his entire discussion of what we do in church under the rubric of ‘worship’” (page 48, column 1 in the print edition) helpfully contrast the directions of the gospel (from God to us) and of ‘worship’ (our response to God).

Tony asks (paragraph 24?), “why the apostles never labelled or categorized their church gatherings as ‘worship’?”  I have demonstrated (NT ‘Worship’ Vocabulary, University of Cambridge thesis, 1992; summary in Moore College Library since 1995) that, indeed, “the apostles never labelled or categorized their church gatherings as ‘worship’ (or even ‘corporate worship’)”. However, I suggest it is out of touch with the apostles to think that the idea had ever entered their heads. Rather, we should be asking ourselves (as I believe they would ask us) why on earth we are doing so! There’s no evidence that the NT authors rejected ‘worship’ as the category for church. Rather, I suggest, it never occurred to them express themselves in this way.

An historical study reveals that it was not only the apostles and all the New Testament authors who did not express themselves in such terms, but also the early church fathers. It is only a gradual process over the past 1700 years that has brought us to our present way of speaking. The process began with language imported into Christianity not so much from the Old Testament as from the Roman Imperial cult; the last significant step in this process, that of removing from ‘worship’ qualifying adjectives such ‘corporate’, ‘public’, ‘formal’, ‘Sunday’, etc, has happened only very recently, in the second half of last century.

The apostles did not speak of their gathered activity as ‘worship’ any more than they spoke of those in church ministry as ‘priest’, or their places of gathering as ‘temple’. For them, “the worship” (Romans 9:4) meant what the priests did in the temple, and they knew that had been fulfilled in Christ (the central argument of the Letter to the Hebrews). And just as the apostles re-interpreted these other Old Testament concepts into their new Gospel life context (e.g. taking the Gospel to the nations as “priestly service”, Romans 15:16; our bodies as “temple” of the Holy Spirit, 1 Cor 6:19), so they re-interpreted ‘worship’ for Christ’s gospel people – applying it not to corporate Christian activity, but to counter-cultural courageous living in the world for Jesus (Romans 12:1).

At the same time, the apostles were developing and experiencing Christian gatherings, and they spoke of and wrote about such gatherings often enough. Generally they did not use a key label word for their gatherings. (Some people, on hearing that the NT authors did not use ‘worship’ as their label for church, demand to know what word we should use instead. However, we should not assume that there is just one defining word.) While I have ideas about how the apostles thought about their gatherings, I invite other readers to consider that question for themselves – and to base their answers directly on the New Testament evidence, not on what they may have read elsewhere or been taught in theological colleges.

In The Briefing, Carl Laferton’s helpful article  Church: Just imagine  (The Briefing, 19 March 2012, proposes a ‘desert island’ approach to looking at what we do in church. It would be important to apply the same approach to how we speak about, and the purpose(s) of, our Christian gatherings.

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3 Responses to church as ‘worship’?

  1. Hi Andrew.

    You’ve doubtless thought longer and more deeply than I on this topic, but it seems that most modern evangelical definitions of worship ultimately depend on Rom 12:1 (to which you’ve also appealed in your definition above). Although this works well with many modern English translations which include the word ‘worship’ in that verse, it seems to me to fail to appreciate the fact that the Greek does not include the normal term for worship there. If we are unhappy about the use of ‘worship’ to label church then it seems to me perhaps we ought to be more careful in using the term to reflect biblical usage rather than build too much on the failure of English translations to differentiate Greek terms which should not be conflated in translation (see here)!

    So while I’m not happy about labelling everything that happens in church ‘worship’, not do I think that “counter-cultural courageous living in the world for Jesus” is an adequate definition!

    • Hi Martin,
      Many thanks for your comments.

      1. We mustn’t confuse a definition with teaching about something.
      A definition is a statement about what people mean by a word when they use that word. Dictionaries give definitions.
      But then when people use a word, they generally use the word in sentences in order to express propositions. And what they say in these propositions is much more than the meaning of the word.
      So we might consider a definition of ‘worship’ as something like this:
      ‘worship’ = behaviour directed towards someone or something, intended to express that the someone or something is highly valued. (English language dictionaries before the last 30 years generally gave definitions of ‘worship’ like this.) So ‘worship’ in a Christian context = behaviour directed towards God, to express that God is highly valued.

      Looking at what you’ve written, I’d express it slightly differently. Rather than “most modern evangelical definitions of worship ultimately depend on Rom 12:1”, I’d say, some “modern evangelical understandings of what the NT teaches about worship depend on Rom 12:1”.
      I’m not suggesting that ‘worship’ should be “DEFINED” as “counter-cultural courageous living in the world for Jesus”. But I am suggesting that the NT authors used ‘worship’ vocab when they were writing to call Christians to such living.

      In our present context, the big problem that Tony and I (and others) are talking about is that much of modern western Christianity uses ‘worship’ to refer to Christian gatherings and what we do in our gatherings, whereas the New Testament never does this. At least to begin with, this is not a problem about definitions, but a divergence of what we try to teach using the word/concept.
      If we accept that ‘worship’ means (is defined as) something being offered or expressed to God, then to use ‘worship’ to refer to Christian gatherings immediately expresses the idea that the key concept of our gatherings is that they are some sort of offering to God. But the NT does not speak like this, and does not teach this idea.

      2. You’ve raised the question of the various NT Greek words and our English translations. Unfortunately your “(see here)!” link hasn’t worked / does not work for me, so I’ve not seen whatever it is you have recommended there. My NT ‘Worship’ Vocabulary paper which I referred to above (and which I’d be very happy to send you), is a thorough and comprehensive analysis of ‘worship’ words in the NT. I began with the most common modern English Bible translations, and finding EVERY occurrence of the English word ‘worship’. Then I examined the Greek text to find every Greek word behind every one of those occurrences. In the light of that analysis, I suggest it is simplistic to say that “the Greek does not include the normal term for worship” in Rom 12:1. While προσκυν- is used 61 times and is usually translated ‘worship’, λατρ- is used 29 times, often translated ‘worship’, and so is still justifiably a ‘worship’ word. I don’t know if you have a suggestion for what other English word our translators might use instead of ‘worship’ in Rom 12:1 and Rom 9:4, etc? But the fact is that most of the modern English translations do use ‘worship’ most of the time to translate ‘λατρ-‘.
      I see Rom 12:1 as a very important hinge verse. On the basis of the whole gospel, expounded by Paul in Rom 1-8, and with the background of God’s dealings with the people of Israel expounded in chs 9-11, Paul embarks on his “how shall we then live” discourse in chs 12-15a. And what he’s saying is that the way we make our offering to God, replacing the whole of the OT temple system, is by our “counter-cultural courageous living in the world for Jesus”.
      However, the NT application of ‘worship’ concepts to Christian living in the world like this is not limited to Romans 12:1.
      Jesus, in John 4, uses προσκυνέω to shift the focus away from Jerusalem and to introduce a ‘worship’ which is not location-defined. Although no specific application is made, Jesus’ words here are consistent with the view that he sought a whole-of-life re-application of ‘worship’.
      Hebrews uses λατρεύω to demonstrate the Temple cult fulfilled in Christ (9:14), and to anticipate a service to God (12:28) which incorporates the whole of life (ch 13).
      Paul readily uses the terminology of the temple cult as a vehicle for expressing the Christian’s proper response to God, for example at Romans 1:9, 15:16 and Philippians 2:17; and Philippians 3:3 rejects the cultic requirements of the Law to call for a spiritually defined λατρεύω.
      The Pastorals, 2 Peter and Jude use εὐσέβεια to convey that a Christian response to God is not formal or cultic like the pagans, but is rather to be expressed in godly living.
      James employs θρησκεία to explain that religion worthy of the name is inward personal attitudes and outward practical activity for the benefit of others (1:26-27).
      Revelation’s apocalyptic genre uses προσκυνέω ‘bowing down’ imagery to teach with some emphasis that it is right to submit to God and to obey him, and wrong to submit to Satan or any other figure. The implication is that Christian’s lives should be lived in allegiance only to God.

      I’m happy to discuss it further, Martin.

    • Andrew, thanks for your reply. I’d be interested in reading your work. Apparently the URL was stripped from my comment, it was meant to point to this page:

      Your wrote:

      While προσκυν- is used 61 times and is usually translated ‘worship’, λατρ- is used 29 times, often translated ‘worship’, and so is still justifiably a ‘worship’ word. I don’t know if you have a suggestion for what other English word our translators might use instead of ‘worship’ in Rom 12:1 and Rom 9:4, etc? But the fact is that most of the modern English translations do use ‘worship’ most of the time to translate ‘λατρ-’.

      My problem is that the common use of ‘worship’ (meaning something along the lines of ‘to venerate’) is not a good match for the semantic range of terms such as λατρεία and by offering only one English term to render a range of discrete (i.e. not synonymous) Greek or Hebrew terms obscures the meaning of the text and confuses discussions such as these. The fact that English translations do this is a problem, particularly when they translate words with ‘worship’ when that rests on an unusual meaning for ‘worship’ in contemporary English.

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