On the Use of the Arts in Worship
The ultimate end of the church, both in the sense of destiny and of purpose, may be summed up as worship. We have been constituted as the peculiar people of God simply so that we might â€œshow forth the praises of him who has called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous lightâ€ (I Peter 2:9). This is, in the subjective sense of what salvation intends to accomplish within those who are saved, the one overarching purpose for the church. And this purpose will find its ultimate tangible expression at the conclusion of history, when a multitude from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation lift up their voices in unity to proclaim, â€œWorthy is the Lamb that was slain!â€ Hence, the unadulterated expression of perfect Christian unity is necessary for the final realization of the Churchâ€™s great goal: without perfect unity, we could not come to a full apprehension of our doxological purpose in the eschaton; and to the extent that we fail to display unity as the Church in the present age, we also fail to â€œshow forth the praisesâ€ of God in the manner that the church was designed to do. That this is not an overstatement of the absolute necessity of Christian unity both for the Churchâ€™s purpose of showing Godâ€™s praises, and for the enjoyment of her destiny in glory, may be seen by two of the statements Christ made during his last supper with the disciples, as recorded in Johnâ€™s gospel. The first of these implies that, when Christian unity is not observed, the â€œshowing forthâ€ of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus (and so a Christian and a member of Godâ€™s Church), becomes impossible: â€œBy this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for anotherâ€ (John 13:35). The second demonstrates that absolute Christian unity is a vital element for the Church in glory â€“ without it, the goal and mission of the Church must fail, short of her attaining to her ultimate end of seeing and enjoying the glory of Christ where he is with the Father:
Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that you have sent me. And the glory which you gave me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and you in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that you have sent me, and have loved them, as you have loved me. Father, I will that they also, whom you have given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which you have given me: for you loved me before the foundation of the world (John 17:20-24).
From the outset, then, we may assure ourselves that our striving for authentic worship must be marked by a striving for equally authentic Church unity. Neither goal will be met with perfectly until we arrive in glory; but until that time, a great part of our task as the Church of God must be the pursuit of just such a state of united, God-reflecting worship.
These prefatory thoughts are intended to set in perspective the seriousness of the contemporary discord in our ranks over such issues as the propriety of certain styles of music in the worship services of the Church. It is a tragic irony that, in the course of debate over what may constitute authentic worship, the sine qua non of authentic Church-wide worship has been lost. The question which confronts us is this: while allowing for diversity in the modal expression of worship from church to church, or even from individual to individual, may we as the Church of God arrive at a unified understanding of the essence of the worship that we offer up through these various means, in such a way that we are all joining together in basic harmony and unity, differences in style notwithstanding? I trust that this is a goal towards which, by Godâ€™s grace, we may make significant advances from our current milieu of essential discord.
Some of the objections commonly raised against many modern styles of worship are as follows: they are seen as emotionally-manipulative; seeker-centered rather than God-centered (and gospel-centered); and they fall athwart the so-called â€œregulative principleâ€, the teaching commonly adhered to among Reformed churches that the only legitimate means of worship are those specifically mandated in scriptures. These objections are no doubt valid; but their application to worship styles, per se, is unwarranted. They ought to be employed against the false notions concerning the essence of worship, and not merely against the means by which worship is offered up. In other words, any style of worship may be emotionally-manipulative, seeker-centered, and so on; and therefore, the correction must be applied at the more fundamental level of what constitutes worship. The errors cannot be alleviated by any change in style; rather the foundational principles to which those styles give testimony must be evaluated. This holds true for underlying philosophies motivating traditional as well as contemporary worship paradigms. In order to address these fundamental questions, and arrive at a scripturally sound understanding of the appropriate place of the arts in worship, I propose to analyze, first, the nature of true worship; second, the nature of art; and third the testimony of scriptures, both in examples and commands, regarding the means by which worship may be legitimately offered up to God.
The Nature of Worship
The heart of true worship is largely contingent upon its origin. Any worship which originates in the heart of man is by its very nature unacceptable. Any worship which is offered up as a duty by which we are supposing (consciously or not) that we are adding something to God; or any worship which is itself an attempt to produce in ourselves emotions or right feelings about God is intrinsically flawed. Worship offered up in this spirit may be responded to with Paulâ€™s assertion that, â€œGod that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwells not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he gives to all life, and breath, and all thingsâ€ (Acts 17:24-25). Similarly, any â€œworshipâ€ that is intended to be evangelistic, and thus proposes to affect other men with worshipful feelings, is a denial of the very nature of worship, which ultimately has to do with none other than God himself. True worship must be directed to God alone; but furthermore, it must likewise have its origin in God alone. In order for worship to be genuine, it must be simply a response to the Divine initiative in revealing his altogether worship-deserving nature to men. This analysis of worship must necessarily impact our pursuit of worship, for it goes beyond asserting that worship must be God-centered in that it is directed to God; and asserts that it is as well God-centered in that it is produced by God. True worship is not a duty that we are naturally capable of. It is a gift of God; and when it is lacking it must be sought in prayer and through the study of the Word, Godâ€™s self-revelation to men.
This truth is basically what Calvin was arguing for in his Institutes, when he proposed, â€œunless [men] establish their complete happiness in [God], they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him.â€ That by giving themselves he intends to signify worship is made clear a little later, when he adds, â€œIndeed, no one gives himself freely and willingly to God's service unless, having tasted his fatherly love, he is drawn to love and worship him in return.â€ The biblical examples of this principle working itself out in the true worship of Godâ€™s people could be proliferated. A striking case is that of Moses on Mount Sinai:
And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation. And Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped (Exodus 34:5-8).
A corollary to this principle (that true worship has its origin in God alone) is that true worship must be emotional, heartfelt worship. Worship that attempts to produce emotion errs in that it is not produced by the self-revelation of God. Worship that is devoid of emotion errs as well, in that it demonstrates that it has not arisen from seeing God, whom to see is to wonder at with every faculty of the soul. Hence, the commands to worship God are everywhere couched in the most emotional of terms. Worship that is not filled with wonder and joy is no true worship at all. â€œAs the deer pants after the water brooks, so pants my soul after you, O God.â€ â€œHow amiable are your tabernacles, O Lord of Hosts! My soul longs, yea, even faints for the courts of the Lord.â€ (Ps. 42:1; 84:1). â€œBlessed are they that dwell in your house: they will be still praising you. For a day in your courts is better than a thousand.â€ (Ps. 84:4,10).
A second corollary is that authentic worship must be characterized by theological truth. If worship is the heartfelt response to seeing God, then it is impossible unless one sees him as he truly is. The wonder of God in his person and his mighty acts of redemption is the motivating principle of worship. Anything offered up as worship which reflects poor theology, or is shallow and devoid of theological content, regardless of how sincere one may be in his singing, is no true worship at all. In sum, true worship is the emotional response to seeing God as he truly is; and it is produced only by the self-revelation of God.
The Nature of Art
With this foundation laid, we are now equipped to take up the question of the use of the arts in worship. In order to address this question, we must be clear on what precisely constitutes art; which is no easy task, involving as it does the concrete definition of an abstract idea. However, I suppose that if one were to think through the various arts and that which they propose to accomplish, he would find that they are without exception designed to proclaim truth in a way that emphasizes its inherent beauty. The truth is beautiful: particularly the truth about God. Art recognizes this basic reality, and attempts to bring out the beauty which inheres in the truth. To say, â€œIt is difficult to conceive of the full extent of the sort of grace which could rescue a sinner from his total depravity,â€ is a truth which is by its nature beautiful. To sing, â€œAmazing grace, how sweet the sound, / That saved a wretch like me!â€ Is the same truth, but expressed in a mode that attempts to convey the inherent beauty of the statement. This, I believe, is the peculiar essence of the arts. In a subjective sense, the arts are employed, both by the artist and the one who makes use of his art, to express the emotions that inhere in the mental apprehension of truth. One in whom the wonder of the previous statement has produced great joy will find it insufficient to give expression to his joy in prosaic ways. The truth of his confession yearns to be framed in a way that gives voice to his heartâ€™s emotional response to the beauty inherent in the truth.
Some of the arts which have been used to convey the beauty of truth in the worship setting of the Church are architectural arts; dramatic arts; musical arts; and dance. Examples of the first include the soaring structures of medieval church buildings, intended to convey the wonder and majesty of Godâ€™s presence in the midst of his church as they gather for worship; the steeples and crosses which adorn many modern church buildings; and the beautiful and ornate structures of the Old Testament tabernacle and Temple. Dramatic arts extend beyond the obvious use of plays, object lessons, etc., which attempt to convey concrete truths in beautiful, symbolic manners. In a sense, I would contend that a highly structured liturgical style of worship is a form of drama which seeks to express in beautiful, symbolic manners, certain abstract truths about God and the gospel (truths such as the orderliness of his nature, the sobriety and reverence with which one must approach him, the unity of the church as they corporately give united expression to the things they believe, etc.), in distinction to the concrete truths in which the other forms of drama find useful themes. The musical arts, most significantly singing, intend to convey a personâ€™s emotional response to the beauty of the truths about which he is singing. And likewise dancing is the physical expression of joy and emotion which attends reflection upon joy-producing truths.
An Assessment of Scriptural Patterns and Commands Concerning the Arts in Worship
It requires only a very cursory examination of the bible to recognize that many art forms attended the public worship of the Church in the Old and New Testaments, as means through which praise was offered up to God. The Temple was filled with characteristics that were not at all architecturally practical, but existed exclusively for aesthetic reasons. The base supporting the great bronze laver, for example, was not a simple, practical, square pedestal: it was four massive oxen, facing towards the four points of the compass (which, as a divinely appointed structure, must inform our understanding of the intent of the second commandment; which would seem to be a prohibition of any representations supposed to signify the invisible God, and not of any representations in general). Likewise, the almonds, bells, and pomegranates which adorned the pillars and other Temple structures; and the inclusion of gold and precious stones, explicitly added for no other reason than â€œbeautyâ€ (see II Chronicles 3:6). There is some reason for assuming that this splendor was appropriate for the day of shadows, before Christ had fulfilled all the gospel-promises, in a way in which it would not be appropriate today. It is also clear that many of the beautiful temple features were intended as types of the person and work of the coming Christ (Hebrews 9:9-12); and that with the arrival of the substance, the need for the shadows was eclipsed (see Colossians 2:16-17). However, the example at least instructs us that it is not essentially inappropriate to beautify the architecture connected with worship services, as an expression of the vast worth of what takes place there. The typical New Testament pattern would lead one to suppose that such outward adornment has little, if any, contemporary value; but the Old Testament examples would at least suggest the appropriateness of the display of such architectural features as the cross as a symbolic means to confess truth in a manner characterized by beauty.
While we see little in the way of drama in biblical worship patterns, we do at least find the structured liturgies that serve as a sort of abstract drama. Davidâ€™s structured division of different courses of Temple singers, and Israelâ€™s manner of corporately singing through a definite succession of psalms are expressions of this liturgical style of worship. In the New Testament, we may have a hint of this sort of approach developing in the â€œfaithful sayingsâ€ which Paul makes use of in the pastoral epistles. They appear at least to be the rudimentary basis of a catechetical system, and may have been used in corporate worship as well.
The first two classes of the arts in worship have a somewhat sketchy biblical basis. But when we get to music and dance, we find an overwhelming supply of examples. Singing, in particular, is so wrought into the very grain of Old and New Testament worship that it would be superfluous even to address the issue. It is self-evident. Dance, particularly when conceived of in the broad sense of using the motions of the body to convey the emotional side of apprehending truth, although much less pervasive, also has some significant biblical examples. Of note is Davidâ€™s dancing with all his might before the Lord (II Samuel 6:14). Other forms of dancing, such as clapping and lifting the hands, were frequently employed in the worship of the Old Testament Church; and no doubt also in the Church of the New Testament.
So far we have been dealing merely with biblical examples. Now let us touch on biblical precepts. Again, we would not at all be hard pressed to find commandments tending toward the use of the arts in worship. At least this is the case with the use of music and dance. The bible very clearly commands that Godâ€™s people give emotional expression to their joy at beholding the great truths about God and his works (e.g. Psalm 5:11; Philippians 4:4); and furthermore, that they give expression to their joy specifically through music (both in singing [Psalm 9:11; Colossians 3:16] and by the use of every available musical instrument [Psalm 150]); as well as through dance (Psalm 150:4), which includes such actions as clapping (Psalm 47:1) and the lifting of the hands (Psalm 134:2; I Timothy 2:8).
A Word on the Regulative Principle
The proper use of the regulative principle does not mandate any one musical style, order of worship, and so on, above any other; it simply demands that what God has commanded for worship, and only what he has commanded, be carried out in the services of the church. God has commanded that we sing; he leaves untouched the question of style. He commands that the Word be taught; but does not mandate any specific catechetical (or other) approach. He commands that the Word be preached and the Lordâ€™s Table be observed, but does not indicate in what order. It is vital that we observe the biblical commands instructing worship; and as we do so, it is vital that our worship be a genuinely heartfelt, God-wrought, emotional activity. But the specific manner in which this happens may look quite different from church to church, even without coming under the condemnation of the regulative principle. Authentic worship may look like a black choir in Africa singing at the tops of their lungs, lifting their hands, and swaying to the music. It may look like an outwardly reserved German congregation, their faces turned towards heaven and their bodies tense with wonder as they sing the old hymns with souls filled with awe at the mercy of God. What it looks like is insignificant. That it takes seriously all of Godâ€™s instructions and arises from sincere hearts of faith is everything.
The purpose of this article is not to argue for one style of worship over another. If it has any of the following three effects, it will have accomplished its intended goal. First, if it frees anyone to offer up genuine praise to God in ways which would have been conscientiously impossible for him beforehand, I will be pleased to have written it. It was a great source of joy and blessing to me when my conscience was finally delivered from the erroneous idea that certain styles of music were inherently wrong. Until that point, the music by which I felt best able to express my deepest emotions was off-limits for me because of my untaught conscience. It was tremendously liberating to me when I became able to express my emotional response to Godâ€™s truth in the manner in which my soul resounded the most deeply. Not that the music was the source of my joy; but music that better expressed my joy in God became a medium through which, in good conscience, I was able to offer up joyous praise. Second, I hope that the article will enable some to embrace a changed perspective on the inherent genuineness of worship in other churches, even when it looks different from the worship in their own. I hope that more people will be able to feel the unity in which the whole Church is offering up worship to God, without stumbling at the modal diversity which matters nothing to essential legitimacy. It is a tragic assault on the very essence of worship when the Church of God is divided over that which ought to unite her. Finally, I hope this may be a help to some in thinking through activities that are passed off as worship, but are not actually legitimate worship at all. If that which one calls worship is not a genuinely joyful response to Godâ€™s self-revelation; if it is not doctrinally substantive; if it takes forms contrary to the scriptural patterns and commands; if it is not entirely God-focused; then it must be changed. God grant that we as the universal Church may move in our worship closer to essential, authentic unity, marked by a complementary diversity in modality.
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