The way we worship God profoundly affects our understanding of who He is. During the Reformation, Protestants felt that the idolatry and ignorance in the Roman Catholic church demonstrated just how dangerous false worship was. They argued that the tendency toward idolatry was so strong in people that the way we worship in our public meetings had to be regulated strictly by Scripture. Two principles of worship were proposed:
The Regulative Principle (RP) This suggested that only things specifically mentioned in the New Testament were permitted in public worship. While this would seem to point to a unified way of doing church, the opposite was true. The descriptions of Christian worship in the New Testament are not written in such a way as to give very clear guidance and so disagreements arose about exactly what was permissible. On top of this, the fear of idolatry in some cases led to a rigidity that resulted in joyless worship and multiple factions. RP also seems to vastly underestimate Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit would lead the Church into all truth.
The Normative Principle (NP): The normative principle is less pessimistic about the tendency toward idolatry and proposes that anything that isn’t forbidden in the Bible is allowed in worship. This less constrained position is common in Protestant churches today, but there are still some weaknesses. Without a clear direction for the purpose of public worship, the NP allows for such breadth that services can become distorted in what they emphasise. For example, in recent years, convinced that the primary purpose of a church service is evangelism, many churches have pursued an evangelistic and/or attractional style. Services have then been geared around reaching non-Christians or making the service as entertaining as possible for people, and the results have not always been good! When critiqued, advocates of NP will usually appeal to the freedom we have as Christians, but the outcome is services that are disconnected from the historical church and driven by pragmatic concerns. The church meetings usually reflect the surrounding culture more than the culture of the Church and thus are genuinely open to the threat of idolatry and false worship.
Agape Centred Worship: The answer to the problems posed by the RP and NP lies in worship centred on displaying the love of God. As we saw in the last week’s sermon on the second commandment, the incarnation of the Son reveals the whole of creation as a temple, so, in one sense, any good thing could be worship as the whole of life becomes worship “in Spirit and truth”. But, just as the temple in Israel had a special centre, the “Holy of Holies”, so does our worship of God, namely the love of God revealed in Christ, supremely at the cross. We see this in Revelation 5, where the worship around the throne of God in Heaven centers on the worship of the Lamb Who Was Slain. The symbolism of the passage portrays the whole universe as full of praise to God, but that praise revolves around the “Holy of Holies”, the triune love of God revealed in the death of Jesus Christ. Here we see God’s love supremely revealed because it shows us not only that God loves us, but that God is love. The purpose of our public worship is to be the “Holy of Holies” of our whole-life worship; to most clearly and most perfectly lift us up into that heavenly throne room so that we encounter the triune love of God once more. The issue isn’t so much, “Is it permissible to do this or that in the church service?” but rather, “What things most clearly and powerfully portray the love of God in Christ Jesus when a church gathers together?” The result of this “love-centred” worship is something that reflects the New Testament pattern of church worship, gives freedom, promotes unity and is reflected in the historical norms of Christian worship in things such as the reading of Scripture, prophetic preaching, transforming encounter, congregational participation, unity with the wider Church and so on, but, most notably, worship that culminates in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. This is our vision for worship at Turners Hill.
Personal Response: Since the way we worship God shapes our understanding of him so much, not only should our services be shaped correctly, but each of us has an individual duty to come to public worship in the right attitude: not under pressure to perform, but under God’s grace, ready to hear God speak, ready to meet powerfully with God, with adoration not lip-service, wholeheartedly, in unity with our immediate church family and the wider Church, and with the goal of being sent out to the world.