The topic of worship is a ‘hot’ issue these days. For fear of controversy, discussing worship is largely considered taboo among many religious circles. Many have strong opinions as to why we worship, how we worship, and even the very nature of worship itself. Despite its controversy, worship is one of the most fundamental aspects of Christianity. Why is there so much disagreement and confusion over the issue? Perhaps the answer can be found by looking at the religious world’s understanding of the topic. Most Christians simply do not know what it means to worship God.
The English word ‘worship’ does not conveniently have a single Greek counterpart in God’s Word. Rather, there are thirteen Greek words that are translated ‘worship’ in our English translations of the Bible, but only three occur more frequently than the others. Though each word must always be considered in its context, a fundamental understanding of worship can be ascertained from their definitions.
The first most common word for worship is proskuneo (προσκυνέω), which means, “to do reverence to” and “prostrate oneself in homage and adoration” (either figuratively or literally) (Strong 1664). Such an image reveals that God demands a deep level humility on the part of the worshipper (cf. Jas. 4:10). The second most common word is sebomai (σέβομαι), which means “to revere” or “devoutly adore” (Strong 1668), meaning that worship necessitates an attitude of reverence and respect (cf. Psa. 114:7; Hab. 2:20). The third most common word is latreuo (λατρεύω), which means to “render religious homage,” and physically “serve” someone (Strong 1644). This reveals that worship requires giving service to God. Thus, worship is more than a mere attitude; it is also a specific act of service that must be given to God according to His requirements (cf. John 4:24; Col. 3:17). Knowing how the scriptures use worship words, we must ensure that God’s Word defines our understanding of worship today.
The Attitude of Worship
Awe, Reverence, & Fear
The object of our worship is God, and God only (Matt. 4:10). When we worship, we must understand that we are not engaging in an interaction between two equal beings. Such a mindset would conflict with proskuneo and sebomai worship. We need to fully realize that God is GOD, and we are merely human. He is the Grand Creator (Gen. 1:1), and we are merely the created (Acts 17:25-27). God is infinite in knowledge and power (Psa. 139:1-6; 147:5; 1 John 3:20), whereas we are only finite beings. God always has been and always will be, yet our own physical existence is only temporary (Jas. 4:14).
When we engage God in worship, we find ourselves overwhelmed with the humility and awe that His limitless power and majesty demands. Remember when God called Moses through the burning bush at Mt. Horeb? The scriptures tell us that Moses “hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Ex. 3:2-6). Notice how fear and awe overwhelmed his spirit. The same attitude should describe us when we come into God’s presence to worship Him. We must be filled with awe and fear.
This attitude must lead us to a heart of willing and humble submission to God. Consider Jesus, our ultimate example of Someone Who knew how to worship. As He was praying to God in the garden of Gethsemane, He cried three times, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matt. 26:39ff). Notice His submission to God’s Will, which led Him to offer Himself as a sin offering for the sins of the world. The apostle Paul, urging Christians to fully submit their hearts to Christ, wrote, “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). Looking to Jesus as our example, we learn that worship to God is more than merely experiencing fear and reverent awe. Worship necessitates humble submission to God’s Will.
Contrast: A Perverted Attitude
It appears that at least a few of the early Christians in Colossae were adding elements to their worship that were not sanctioned by God, but rather by man. Paul referred to their worship as “self-made religion” (ESV) or “will-worship” (ASV) (Col. 2:23). In other words, their worship was “originating in the human will as opposed to the divine,” and thus became “worthless despite their difficulty of performance” (Orr 3085). These early worshipers were doing things their way rather than God’s way.
Compare the attitude of humility and awe to the attitude of will-worship. Can both attitudes co-exist within the hearts of Christians today? Absolutely not! The attitude of the false teachers whom Paul referenced was the complete opposite of ‘humble’ and ‘submissive.’ In fact, they were being flat-out rebellious to God. God’s design for worship, as outlined in the N.T., is both exclusive and prohibitive.
Many churches today advocate will-worship when they go beyond the binding commands and examples of N.T. worship. They think, “What’s the big deal? We want to do things our own way!” and then proceed by “going beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6). They have no desire to come before God with an attitude of awe, fear, and humble submission to His Will, but instead argue on behalf of their own fantasies.
Consider what Albert Barnes, the famous Presbyterian minister and theologian, had to say about the churches that argue for will-worship:
A large part of the corruptions of religion have arisen from this[…] deceitful argument. God knew best what things [were] most conducive to piety for His people to observe; and we are most safe when we adhere most closely to what He has appointed, and observe no more days and ordinances than He has directed. […]There is much wickedness of heart at the bottom, and there is nothing that more tends to corrupt pure religion (311).
Again, God is the object of our worship. We must empty ourselves of any self-pleasing motives and merely worship Him in “spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
Contemporary Issues In Light of the Proper Attitude of Worship
The Principle of Biblical Authority
Paul wrote, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:17). “In the name of the Lord” means, ‘by the authority of the Lord,’ or ‘as the Lord authorized’ (cf. Acts 4:7-10). It also means that we must not go beyond, or fall short of, God’s Will (2 John 9-11; Rev. 22:18-19; 1 Cor. 4:6). When considering our worship to God, we must ensure that we are doing what (a) the Lord desires and (b) the Lord has authorized. To reject the inspiration and authority of the Bible in matters of worship is to reject Christianity, which in turn means we are rejecting Christ, which in turn means we are rejecting the only hope of salvation we have (1 Tim. 1:1; Col. 1:27).
Examination of Mainstream Worship Trends
When we worship God, we must do so with an attitude of deep awe, fear, and humble submission to God’s design concerning worship. As was stated earlier, God’s design for worship can only be discovered in His Word. With this kind of attitude, finding the answers to some of the most challenging questions of worship becomes rather elementary. Consider the following issues that are popular in mainstream religion today. Should we:
- Offer the Lord’s Supper on Saturday? The 1st century church met “on the first day of the week” to “break bread” (Acts 20:7). We know the N.T. church regularly met on the first day of the week to worship (1 Cor. 16:2), and this is the only day the scriptures tell us they assembled for the Lord’s Supper. Since we are worshiping God when we commemorate the death, burial, and resurrection of His Son, we must do so with an attitude of awe, fear, and humility. If our desire is to worship God in “spirit and in truth,” how can this be justified in good conscience?
- Allow Women To Lead During the Worship Service? The N.T. clearly teaches that a woman is not to “exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Tim. 2:11-12). How can any church allow a woman to preach a sermon, lead a prayer, conduct a song service, etc., and not rebel against God? If our attitude is to worship God in “spirit and truth,” how can this be justified in good conscience?
- Add Musical Instruments to Worship? All music falls under two categories: mechanical and vocal. Which are we allowed to use when we worship God? Few have honestly considered such a question. The N.T. only authorizes vocal music when worshiping God. Every passage that has to do with Christian worship mentions singing (Acts 16:25; Rom. 15:9; 1 Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; Heb. 2:12; Jas. 5:13), yet mechanical instruments are not mentioned. Even in the Old Testament under the Mosaical system, instrumental music was highly regulated (Price 18), and today we are only under the Christian system. We already know how God feels about unauthorized types of worship (i.e. Nadab & Abihu, Lev. 10:1-2). If our attitude is to worship God in “spirit and truth,” how can instrumental music be justified in good conscience?
Attitude matters to God. Jesus made this very clear when He said, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Without the proper attitude behind our worship, the entire design of our worship is in jeopardy. It is critical that we approach God with an attitude of awe toward His majesty, fear toward His power, and humble submission to His Will. This being our attitude, it becomes much easier to decipher what is true worship and what is will-worship.
All quotations of scripture are taken from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise stated.
Barnes, Albert. 1852. Notes, Explanatory and Practical, on the Epistles of Paul to the Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers. 1st Ed.
English Standard Version. 2007. Good News Publishers: Crossway Bibles.
Orr, James. 1915. The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. Chicago: The Howard-Severance Co. Vol. 5.
Price, John. 2007. Old Light on New Worship: Musical Instruments and the Worship of God, a Theological, Historical, and Psychological Study. Simpson Publishing Co.
Strong, James. 2007. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.