Thursday, December 16, 2004

On our "Call to Worship": Do baggy shorts and flipflops enhance our peaceful, easy feeling?

Back in March, 2004, I wrote a post titled, On Worship, based on a message by R. C. Sproul in which he discussed how our worship to God should be characterized by sacredness and respect. His message was titled, Surely God is in this place and might still be found at his site. One of his criticisms, and one of mine, was how our current Christian culture seems to have lost the concept of respect for God due, in part, to our misunderstanding of the character of God. Sproul said,
Nothing reveals more clearly what your church believes about the character of God, than how you worship. You can take your confessions, your doctrinal statements, your programs, and roll ‘em up and throw ‘em in the garbage can because they don’t mean anything, in terms of what really is being expressed about the character of God, as in your worship. Our problem in not an architectural problem, it’s not even a musical problem, …the problem is people are coming to church and have no sense of the presence of God. In fact the basic sense of the American person in our day is a profound sense of the absence of God.
I questioned that our lack of respect is sometimes evident through, but not limited to, how we dress when we go to worship. My critics immediately charged me with being legalistic and claimed that what matters, to God, is not how we are dressed when we approach Him, but what the attitude of our heart is. Now, while it’s true that just about any custom or liturgy could get to be so routine as to make it ineffective, I believe the core of my criticism is valid. I have not stated that one is unable to properly worship unless dressed in fine, expensive clothing of any particular style. I have also not stated that the attitude of our heart in preparation for, and during worship, is irrelevant. Rather, I have maintained that our spiritual attitude is not unaffected by the physicality of the manner in which we present ourselves before God. We exist in the reality of the universe created by God, and that reality entails the material and the abstract, the physical and the spiritual. Yet, given the way some Evangelicals approach the act of worship, it seems that we sometimes place more emphasis on the abstract, spiritual side of reality than is warranted. What could possibly drive the line of thinking that what matters most to God is not the physical nature of our reality, but the spiritual? Could it be driven by the fact that Jesus spokeout more against sins of thought than sins of action? Or is it due to the fact that the Bible states that while we see only the outward man, God sees inside the heart? Or could it be simply due to the fact that our culture elevates personal rights and, accordingly, personal feelings to that of supreme importance? Well, for whatever reason, the spiritual aspect of our being seems to be regarded not only as authoritative over our physical being, but it is sometimes considered to actually be free from the effects of the Fall. In Greg Koukl’s Decision Making and the Will of God series, one of the criticisms he receives is that our decision making process should not be based on our reasoning skills but, rather, based on our spiritual connectivity with God. In other words, we can’t trust our own reasoning, so the argument goes, but we can trust our spiritual direction from God. Likewise, when I discuss how we, as Christians, should exercise some effort to actually study the Bible in order to understand the meaning of the words and intentions of the author, some critics respond that such a practice stifles the leading of the Spirit. Again, the argument presented by critics is that the process of spiritual formation through God’s Word is best dealt with through God’s supernatural action, and that any attempt by us to rely on our own reasoning is inherently corrupt. There is, it is alleged, a dichotomy, however subtle, between the spiritual and the physical. This line of thinking, I believe, fails to embrace the fullness of God. It works from a false premise and ignores the very Christian idea that, while we are not of the World, we remain in it. I would argue that there is no dichotomy between the spiritual and the physical and that, in fact, there is Biblical evidence that the physical reality of our existence is just as important to our theology as the spiritual reality is. In another message by Sproul, the title of which I cannot recall, he examined the aspect of our five senses and how they might relate to God’s revealed Word. For example, Sproul raised the question as to whether it made any difference that God chose wine and bread to be used for the holy sacraments. We understand that they are symbolic in nature, and that the symbolism is abstract; but does the color, smell, and taste of wine guide the symbolism in any way? Does the texture, structure, smell, and taste of the bread aid in our understanding of the intended meaning of the sacrament? Consider how God described the burnt sacrifices of the Old Testament as releasing a pleasing aroma to his nostrils (e.g., Exodus 29:18). Ponder the implications of finding the proper sacrificial lamb as well as the meaning behind the color, smell, and texture of its blood. Of what value would our intimate appreciation of the smell of expensive perfume be as we ponder the equally existential aspect of feet that are encrusted with dried mud made from sweat and dust? Is our abstract understanding of the sacrament of water baptism amplified through the physical experience of being engulfed in water? Is there such a thing as a “physical” aspect with regards to our attitude of worship? If so, does scripture give us a template on how such an aspect of our attitude of worship should be shaped? A cursory reading of scripture would seem to reveal a reverence for the “call to worship” that we, in the 21st century West, seem to have missed. Does our culture’s reliance on the importance of presenting a pure “spiritual” attitude of the heart reflect sincere piety, or does it reflect a misguided and, possibly, self-centered worldview? When Christians think that they can casually approach God, because God “accepts them as they are,” I think that they have seriously misunderstood who they are, who God is, and how important the physical reality of this existence truly is. The Gnostics considered the physical to be evil thereby elevating the spiritual to that of supreme importance. While a casual attitude with regards to our call to worship does not, in and of itself, deem the physical to be evil, it does tend towards elevating to sole importance the spiritual aspect of our relationship with God. Indeed, we are not Gnostics. We live in a reality encompassing both the physical and the spiritual. As such, we should be about understanding the full measure of our responsibilities towards worshipping God.


Anonymous said...


I'd wished we could have continued the discussion below on issue of theistic evolution. However, I rest assured that the topic will not fail to come again at some point. Yet it appears you are a man after my own heart, for this issue of worship has been a topic near and dear to for at least the last 10 years.

I'd have to say that I agree with nearly all that you have said here. To this bit:

"Indeed, we are not Gnostics. We live in a reality encompassing both the physical and the spiritual. As such, we should be about understanding the full measure of our responsibilities towards worshipping God."

I say amen! In fact, we are not only not Gnostics, but we are truly anti-gnostics. Not only is the body not something to shun, but its glorification is something we long for. For in Scripture, the "spritual" is seen as physical, but simply more so. Let me explain.

Christ says that God seeks folks to worship him in spirit and truth. And so we are tempted (as that word pneuma might suggest) to think of spirit in the sense of ghostly, transparent, or unseen. But I think Scripture goes a long way to turn this very notion on its head. I'd propose that the "spiritual" is unseen not because it is less solid or less real, but because it is more solid and more real. As Paul outlines the believer's hope, the resurrection in I Cor 15, he notes that it is the resurrection of the body for which we hope. We sow the natural and raise up spiritual.

And of course with Christ, we get our most complete glimpse of the spiritual body, where he tells the disciples (Luke 24), "Look at my hands and my feet... Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have." And when we think of the risen Jesus passing through walls, we are tempted by association with the mythology of ghosts, to think of his spiritual, glorified body as being non-corporeal. But I would contend that this isn't it at all. It is this physical world that is the non-corporeal by comparison. Of course this physical world is real, as far as it goes. But in comparison to the really real, i.e., the spiritual, this world is merely a thin shadow cast, as it were, in turning. (See the Lewis' Great Divorce for a much more profound exposition.)

But this, Rusty, I hold against you, though I do not blame you, for I have it against Sproul and most every one else who has addressed the topic of worship in the past 100 years or so. In our modernity, we seem to have forgotten that Scripture does not (even once as far as I know) use the term "worship" as a noun. See even I am guilty of it, for in the last two sentences I should have referred to the topic of "worshiping". Worship is a verb. It is something you do.

In the OT we find predominantly two words used to signify "worship", shachah (to bow down, pay homage, make obeisance) and abad (to work, labor, or serve). Tellingly, these words are used together in the OT a whole lot, translated "bow down" and "worship" in the KJV, and "worship" and "serve" in the NIV. The fact that they are used together so much, indicates that to the Hebrew mind, both words are taken together to form a mental picture of "worshiping"--of bowing down and serving. But it no case is the picture that of a noun.

The theme continues in the NT, where again we find two words predominating: proskuneo (to crouch, prostrate in homage, see Matt 2:2, Rev 15:4), and latrueo (to minister, render homage, see Phil 3:3, Rom 12:1).

So I would contend that the real fix that we need on the topic of "worship(ing)" needs to begin with a cleansing draught from the Word of God. And forcing ourselves to deal with "worship" as a verb will get us a long way towards home.

Steve Nicoloso

Rusty said...

Hi Steve,

Don't write me off from the Theistic Evolution discussion just yet. I do want to make some more comments, but with only one week until Christmas I doubt that you'll see any until afterwards. Since I hadn't posted anything in a week I thought I'd better get some thoughts out there (hence, the Worship post).

Thanks for your comments. BTW, I agree that worship is properly understood as a verb.

Bonnie said...

Thoughtful writing, Rusty.

You said: our spiritual attitude is not unaffected by the physicality of the manner in which we present ourselves before God.Absolutely. This goes for the way we live every moment of our lives, not just during worship at church.

People still dress up really nicely when they get married, don't they? Most dress reasonably well when they go to work. Dressing well is still a socially recognized way to make an impression. Why would anyone therefore not want to dress nicely for God during corporate worship? Not to impress Him, of course, but to make a nice presentation for Him?

I think something the Catholic Church has a handle on that most of Protestantism doesn't is the idea of sacrament. It's too bad that there isn't more of a sacramental nature to Protestant worship. It's too bad that many don't live their lives more sacramentally. I think we're really missing something.

LotharBot said...

About 4 years ago I discussed this topic with my then-girlfriend (she's now my wife.) We'd just gone out on our very first date, and since I'd flown some 1200 miles for it (we met online, and this was our first face-to-face meeting) I thought the least I could do was dress up real nice and take her somewhere fancy.

We were also studying through Leviticus at the time, and trying to make sense of the various offerings described therein. Sin offerings and Guilt offerings made a lot of sense -- you commit a sin, and you make an offering to cover it. And tithes made a lot of sense -- you give a certain percentage of your income (in grain, cattle, or money) to the temple/government for general upkeep. There were also "thanksgiving offerings" where you'd respond to something special God had done with thanks, and that made a lot of sense, too.

But there was one other type of offering, which NIV calls a "fellowship offering" and others have called a "peace offering" (Lev 7:11 is one place where it appears; it's described about 40 times in Leviticus and Numbers, and referenced a few times in Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and Ezekiel.) Looking over all of the descriptions of it, it seemed like "fellowship offering" was a pretty good description -- it sounded like, essentially, making an offering so you could just be with God for a while, almost like going on a date with Him.

That was the first time it really dawned on me that the main point of the entire Bible is having a relationship with God, and that certain parts of that relationship were very similar to things we do in human relationships -- such as going on a date. It struck me that corporate worship is a whole lot like going on a date with God.

At about the same time, I was listening to a song by a favorite Christian Rap group of mine. One of the rappers describes how he goes to church in his gangsta clothes -- saggy pants and all -- because it helps him reach the members of his former gang. Sometimes other believers judge him for it, as if saggy pants are non-Christian or something, and he expresses frustration about this in quite a few songs. But in one in particular, he said something that caught my attention: "I came to praise Him with my soul, not with my clothes."

And I thought... well, why NOT praise Him with your clothes, too?

If you'd wear a nice shirt and tie to go on a date with your girlfriend or wife, to honor her, why not do the same when you go to worship God? Why not dress to honor Him, as if you're going on a date with Him? Why not come with the attitude that you will honor and worship Him from the inside *and* on the outside?

I used to wear sweatpants and a T-shirt to church, and the only sense in which I dressed up is that I made sure I wasn't wearing anything with excessive holes in it. Now, I wear a tie, and I come to church with the attitude that I'm on a date with God and I'm going to enjoy being with Him. It's made a tremendous difference for me -- because how I dress, and how much effort I put into it, helps determine my attitude. While I wouldn't impose it on anyone else or look down on them for doing otherwise, I do think it's a very worthwhile thing for individual believers to do. You might not necessarily benefit from wearing a tie, but I do think you benefit from treating corporate worship as a date with God and dressing however you think is appropriate with that thought in mind.

A lot of people nowadays don't dress up because they don't want church to feel like a social club where everyone wears a mask and pretends to be better than they are. I totally understand that, and I support those who seek to make church inviting to outsiders. I support those who seek to remove unnecessary and harmful social heirarchies within the church. There are definitely those who have good reason to dress down when they worship. But, at the same time, I think people in general have lost sight of the respect for God that dressing nicely conveys -- and, even, the respect for God that dressing nicely *creates*. Now, I don't mean to imply to anyone that if they're not wearing a tie, they're not holy -- but seriously, if you're coming to worship God in something that you wouldn't dare wear out with your wife / husband / girlfriend / boyfriend, maybe you should think about your attitude toward church and toward God during worship. If you have a valid reason to dress down (ministry to the homeless, breaking unhealthy social trends at your church, etc.) then stick with that -- but if you don't, consider dressing for your date with God the same way you'd dress for a date with a person. Give God at least that much respect.

Rusty said...

Thanks for your comments LotharBot.

Yes, I'm not condeming anyone who isn't able to dress up for God. But, as you've stated, shouldn't a Christian at least manifest an outward respect for God? If a Christian complains with the statement, I came to praise Him with my soul, not with my clothes., then I would respond with, "So, purposely showing up naked would be okay?"

In C. S. Lewis' autobiography he tells of when he was a boy, studying under a learned atheist instructor. He noted that his tutor, despite his atheism, would wear a nicer set of clothes on Sundays.

Is it cultural? Sure it is. But the issue isn't whether it is simply a cultural custom, but whether we have the ability to show respect to God by means of how we present ourselves outwardly.