We live in a place and time of unparalleled individual freedom of choice. We choose how we dress from an almost endless number of options. We decide whether we want our books in paper or digital format. Young people graduating from high school or college enjoy a host of vocational opportunities. Our culture trains us to think that we should be able to have things our way. In the 1990s, Burger King advertised its menu with the slogan, "Your way, right away." In the 1980s, AT&T advertised itself as "the right choice" for telecommunication and technology needs. Since the 1970s, abortion advocates have referred to their movement as "pro-choice"’an extremely clever move considering societal sovereignty of choice.
This emphasis on choice and individual freedom has significant implications for how we view worship. Given the combination of personal mobility and an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of church flavors, Americans today have almost limitless latitude in terms of how, where, and when we worship. To be fair, these worship options are not necessarily bad, nor are they avoidable. But they do challenge us to sift through the options with biblical wisdom.
Sadly, many people seem to weigh liturgical options on the scale of personal preference and emotional attraction: "I like more energetic worship, so I attend church X," or "I prefer more contemplative worship, so I go to church Y." Too seldom do people reflect on worship by asking the following kinds of questions: "Does God have anything to say about how I worship? Should something more than my feelings and preferences determine how and where I meet with God? Is there an authoritative guide to Christian worship?"
In answering these questions, we are greatly helped by the second commandment, which, like the others, summarizes what God's will both requires and rules out. God tells us that he reserves for himself the right to decide how we worship and that he has explained his will in his word.
Worship Is Standardized by Scripture
This thesis makes more sense if we understand how the Ten Commandments are divided. The Reformed and (most) evangelical churches follow the orthodox ordering of the commandments in which the second commandment prohibits worshiping the Lord according to the habit of the nations; that is, by a visible representation of God (Exod. 20:4-6). By contrast, Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches include these verses on images in the first commandment (to maintain the Ten Commandments, they divide "our" last commandment into two: the ninth forbids a man to covet his neighbor's wife; the tenth forbids him from desiring his neighbor's goods).
The point is that the first two commandments mandate us to worship God alone and only in a way that conforms to his will. In other words, not everything that moves us emotionally (such as an image) is appropriate for worship. The governing question in many modern churches is: "What will produce a stimulating religious impulse?" The question ought to be: "What does God say worship services should look like?" No single church or tradition answers that question perfectly. The problem today is that many churches are no longer even asking the question.
Nadab and Abihu should have asked the question. They had been commanded to worship God in a particular fashion. Instead, discontented with God's instruction, they offered "strange fire" for which God consumed them with his own holy flame (Lev. 10:1-2).
The principle’that God regulates worship’flies in the face of much worship today, which is often driven by an itch for innovation and justified by having good intentions. As our lawgiver, God governs our worship with full authority (Ps. 95:2-3, 6-7; Ps. 96:9-10). He still says, "Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it, nor take away from it" (Deut. 12:32; cf. Matt. 28:20).
Worship Is Structured by Scripture
Not only does the Bible regulate worship, but it also suggests to us the shape that worship should take. First, the Bible teaches us that worship is covenantal. A covenant is a binding relationship between two or more persons. Worship is a formal covenant meeting between the King and his subjects. God drew Israel out of Egypt so that she could meet with and renew covenant with him (Gen. 8:1; Deut. 5:2-4). Contrary to the contemporary status quo, worship is not meant to be an evangelistic crusade. Yes, the gospel must be preached powerfully with both unbelievers and believers in mind. But the worship service is first a holy convocation between God and believers and their children.
It should (though often doesn't) go without saying that Scripture assumes family integration in worship (Deut. 31:11-13; Eph. 6:1-4). It should not surprise us that God's commandment regarding the manner of proper worship should contain generational curses and blessings (Exod. 20:5-6). Our worship services give our children an early, and often unshakable, impression of who God is and how we must relate to him. Services that suggest we can approach God on our terms, governed only by the limits of our imagination, give our children a dreadfully erroneous impression of who God is and how we must find him. Seeker-sensitive worship can even threaten one's commitment to the biblical Christ, by whose merits alone one can approach God (Heb. 10:20).
Second, the Bible teaches us that Christian worship is a conversation between God and his people that draws them more closely together. God is always the seeker of worship (John 4:23). When God calls us, we respond by pledging our dependence upon him (Ps. 124:8). God responds with his greeting (2 Cor. 13:14). We cry out with our needs (Ps. 18:6). He responds with his provision (Ps. 18:7-19). We worship him for his goodness (Ps. 18:49). He sends us forth with his blessing (2 Cor. 13:14).
We must be diligent in continually searching the Scriptures and evaluating our worship in light of these principles; we have not yet "built" the perfect worship service. At the same time, we have received a sound pattern of worship from the historic church that we ignore to our impoverishment.
Worship Is Saturated with Scripture
Contrary to the practice in some churches, Christian worship is inherently verbal, not visual. To this point, the second commandment explicitly condemns making images of God whereby to worship him. The golden calf was not another god; it was Israel's attempt to serve Jehovah by visual means (Exod. 32:4-5). By implication, the historic Protestant Church has largely been critical of the use of images of any of the three persons of the Trinity (Deut. 4:15-19)’and for good reason.
Images give a biased impression of God based on the artist's creative abilities and theological proclivities. A beautiful image of Christ could be in contrast to Isaiah 53:2. An Anglo-Saxon image of Christ, apart from being historically inaccurate, can communicate an ethno-centricity. A cartoonish image of Christ runs the risk of stripping the Second Person of the Trinity of the dignity he deserves. No image of Christ can communicate his divinity, and so every image necessarily separates Christ's two natures. God saw fit to send to earth Jesus of Nazareth as his fleshly image. But then he took this image back to heaven and gave us the Word that must now form our impressions of God. Instead of crucifixes, paintings, or candles, out of loving sensitivity to our physicality, God gives us the sacraments (Mark 1:5; Acts 2:42).
When God called Israel out of Egypt to Mount Sinai, it was abundantly clear that he had center stage and that his speech should stop every mouth (Deut. 5:5). Biblical Christians are still convinced that when the church gathers for worship, God speaks (Heb. 12:25-27). We honor God's word the way Cornelius received Peter: "Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us" (Acts 10:33; NIV). This means Scripture must be read (1 Tim. 4:13), preached (2 Tim. 4:2), and sung (Col. 3:16). God's revelation even permeates our prayers (Matt. 6:9-13; 1 Tim. 2:1-2).
Worshippers Are Sanctified by Scripture
Of course, it is no use to have a biblical service if our participation in that service does not please God. Scripture teaches us that our attitude matters deeply when it comes to worship. As God sanctifies us with his word (Eph. 5:26), we are enabled to worship him to his pleasure. First, this means that worship must be interpersonal. We belong to God. We are his special treasure (Exod. 19:5; Ps. 45:11; Isa. 54:5). Therefore, worship is not an abstract experience with the divine. It is an intimate engagement with a triune being.
Second, our worship must be reverent, whether expressed in gladness or mourning. Toward this end, our worship services must communicate God's transcendence. We do not attempt to bring God down to earth; he raises us up to heaven (Heb. 12:22-24). We should have the sense that we are standing on holy ground (even if literally we aren't).
Third, worship must be sincere and simple. God despises duplicitous worship (Isa. 1:15). Simplicity and sincerity are often codependent. The more a worship service resembles a high-tech rock concert, the more difficult it becomes to offer thoughtful, sincere worship to God.
Finally, worship must be zealous. The words from Hebrews 12:12 could serve as a suitable call to vigorous worship: "Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees" and worship the Lord! God is jealous for his own worship (Exod. 34:14; 1 Cor. 10:22). Do we provoke God's jealousy? Should we not instead worship him in such a way that satisfies and pleases him? To do so, his word must be the controlling influence in our services’and in our heads, hearts, and hands’as we meet with our Lord.