Worship and Ceremony: Part 1

Evangelicalism needs a return to formal and Biblical worship. Worship is a public act, performed on the surface of God’s true altar, the world, before His throne. Man’s chief end is to glorify and enjoy God, and worship is done for God’s pleasure. It is man’s highest privilege to dance before the throne of the King of kings, to make a public ritual affirmation of the primacy of God.

Public worship is also done for the edification of men. To “edify” is to build up, as we see in the word “edifice,” which means building. God’s appointed pastors oversee and organize worship, because they are in charge of overseeing the building of the edifice (1 Cor. 3:10-15; and 14:26). At the same time, edification does not mean “good feelings.” We are not to worship as we “feel led,” but as God requires.

The basic regulation of worship is found in John 4:24, “in Spirit and in truth.” “Truth” refers not just to ideology but primarily to covenant faithfulness. The Hebrew words that lie in back of the New Testament word for “truth” have to do with faithfulness, reliability, trustworthiness, sureness. (One of them is the word “amen.”) Jesus said, “I am the Truth,” and He is more than a mere intellectual ideology. Truth involves discipleship (John 8:31f.), so that we are commanded to “do” the truth (John 3:21; 1 John 1:6).

Truth is presented as a dialogue between man and God. God speaks first, and man returns speech to God. God speaks His Word to man in more than one way: The Word is read to us, taught to us, preached to us, made visible to us in the Supper, sprinkled upon us in baptism, embodied to us in the lifestyle of Godly men and women. Then, we return God’s Word to Him, by listening, submitting to baptism, eating the Supper, singing and praying Scripture, and so forth. This is the dialogue of Truth at the heart of life, before the Throne, and it flows out into all of life.

The second element in true worship is Spirit. If we read John 4:24 in its context (verses 20-26), we realize that it is talking about environment. Worship in Spirit means worship in the environment established by the Spirit.1 In the Old Covenant that was Mount Zion. In the New Covenant, it is wherever Jesus Christ is present. Worshipping in Spirit does not mean (a) worshipping internally, or (b) worshipping enthusiastically, or (c) worshipping with my spirit. Rather, it means worshipping in the glorious environment of heaven itself.

This is made clear in Hebrews 12:22ff. The Spirit brings heaven to earth during the time of worship (compare Acts 2), and we are taken up into this heavenly environment (compare Revelation 4 and 5). We are present not only with other Christians (“the assembly of the Firstborn who are enrolled in heaven”), but also with “myriads of angels in festal array,” as well as the departed saints (“spirits of just men made perfect”). This is the environment of worship, and it is described throughout the book of Revelation. The slain Lamb and the Book in the center of the scene mean that Scripture and sacrament should be prominently displayed at the center of visual attention in the church, for the glory-environment of the Spirit is established around Christ, Who is specially present in Word and sacrament.

The essence of worship, according to Romans 12:1, is for us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices. Leviticus 9:15-22 shows us the proper liturgical order of sacrifice: confession, consecration, and communion. First comes the sin offering, which means worship must open with an act of confession of sin. After the sin offering comes the whole burnt offering and the cereal offering, which are acts of consecration: of self and works, respectively. Last comes the peace offering, which is the sacrifice of communion, a meal shared with God.

In terms of the dialogue of Truth, God speaks to us each time, encouraging us to the triple act of sacrifice. First, we are exhorted by the minister to confess sin, and then we do so (hopefully praying together a prayer provided for the occasion). The sanctuary – God’s corporate people – must be cleansed by the sprinkling of blood before worship can be offered, and we affirm that by the blood of Christ it has been so cleansed, once and for all.

Second comes the synaxis or service of the Word. Passages of Scripture are read (Old Testament lesson, Epistle, Gospel, Psalm), and then comes the sermon. This is all designed to lead us to the second act of sacrifice: the Offertory. The Offertory is not a “collection,” but the act of self-immolation (in and through Christ) of the congregation. In union with Christ, and not apart from Him, we offer ourselves (“whole burnt sacrifice”) and our tithes and gifts (“cereal sacrifice”) to God. In the early church, the bread and wine for communion were also brought forward at this time, along with tithes and other gifts. Thus, the offering plates are brought down front to the minister, who holds them up before God (“heave offering”) and gives them to Him. God then gives the offering back to the elders to use in His name. Then comes the long prayer, the prayer “for the whole state of Christ’s church,” (“incense offering”), which also is part of the Offertory. With this prayer, the synaxis is over.

Now begins the third act of sacrifice, the eucharist (“thanksgiving”) or Lord’s Supper. Prayers are offered, and the people are exhorted to eat of the meal God has provided, His holy Peace offering. After the eucharist, the people are sent out. Perhaps the Song of Simeon is sung: “Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace, according to Your Word. For mine eyes have seen Your salvation….” The people are ordered to leave: “Go, the service is over.” It is good for us to remain within the glory cloud on Mount Tabor, but there are demon-possessed children outside that need our attention (Matt. 17:1-20).

The Bible taught the early church how to worship, but in the later Middle Ages, great corruptions set in. The Protestant Reformers were primarily interested in the restoration of worship, rightly perceiving it as the center of the Kingdom. After all, when God called Israel out of Egypt it was not first and foremost to establish a theocratic nation, but to engage in a third-day worship festival.2 Unfortunately, within a hundred years, the liturgical dreams of the Reformers were mostly in shambles.

The Reformers wanted three things. First, they wanted a return to Biblical regulation of worship. Almost immediately, however, this concern was sidetracked by a minimalist approach. The rule, “we should do in worship only what is actually commanded in Scripture,” was taken in an increasingly restricted sense. The Reformers had realized that God’s “commands” are found in Scripture in “precept, principle, and example.” Their heirs tended to exchange this wholistic openness to the Word of God for a quest for “explicit commands.” Instead of reading the Bible to see the patterns presented there for our imitation, there was an attempt to find the bare minimum of what is actually “commanded” in the New Testament. The book of Revelation, which shows how worship is conducted in heaven (“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”), was ignored. Anabaptist minimalism soon overwhelmed the Reformed churches.3

Second, the Reformers wanted a return to Old Catholic forms, as they understood them. A reading of the liturgies they wrote shows this.4 Though all of the Reformers tended to overreact against anything that reminded them of Italo-Papal imperial oppression, they were not so “anti-catholic” as to reject the early church. Soon, however, sectarian reaction against anything that “smacks of Rome” overwhelmed their concern.

Third, the Reformers wanted participation in worship from the whole priesthood of all believers. They wrote dialogue liturgies in which the people had many things to say and sing. They had their congregations singing, for instance, the creeds, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. Soon, however, the strength of the Medieval devotional tradition reasserted itself – the “low mass” tradition in which the people only sat and watched and listened, while the minister did everything. This Medieval tradition was the essence of the Puritan view of worship. In worship, the Puritans departed from the desires of the Protestant Reformers.

It is important to understand that although the Puritans did uphold the theology of the Reformers, they rejected the Reformers’ views on worship at some crucial points. After the Puritan Revolution failed and Charles II came to the English throne, there was a conference at Savoy between Puritan Presbyterian churchmen and the newly restored Anglican bishops. It is very interesting to note what the Presbyterians proposed. They wanted “to omit ‘the repetitions and responsals of the clerk and people, and the alternate reading of Psalms and Hymns, which cause a confused murmur in the congregation’: ‘the minister being appointed for the people in all Public Services appertaining to God; and the Holy Scriptures… intimating the people’s part in public prayer to be only with silence and reverence to attend thereunto and to declare their consent in the close, by saying Amen.'”5 In other words, no dialogue, no responsive readings, no congregational praying of the Lord’s Prayer or any other prayer. The Anglican bishops replied, “alternate reading and repetitions and responsals are far better than a long tedious prayer.” They also noted that “if the people may take part in Hopkins’ why not David’s psalms, or in a litany?”6 In other words, if it is all right to sing metrical paraphrases of the psalms, why is it wrong to read responsively the very words of Scripture?

Originally the Puritan movement had not been opposed to prayer book worship, but in time the combination of state persecution with the continuing strength of the Medieval quietist tradition led the Puritans into wholehearted opposition to congregational participation in worship.

Worship and Ceremony

So, “ceremony” came to be a bad word. The Puritan approach greatly influenced the whole Calvinistic world, and so came into virtually all of what today is called evangelicalism. Gradually, however, the Puritan extremes were watered down. Congregations began to pray the Lord’s Prayer together. Choral recitation of the Apostles’ Creed was reintroduced. Responsive readings crept back in. Christmas and Easter became acceptable, as did the use of the cross as a symbol. At the same time, however, little has been done to recover the actual perspective and principles of the early church and of the Reformers. To a great extent, these catholic practices have crept back into evangelical churches not because they are clearly seen to be part of Biblical precept, principle, and example, but because of a de facto abandonment of any commitment to Biblical regulation at all.

Ceremony is still thought of with suspicion; it is just that certain compromises have been made. On our agenda today, however, must be a rethinking of the whole matter of ceremony. In this section, I layout three considerations that bear on the subject of ceremony: the priesthood of all believers, the heavenly pattern, the nature of performative language. A fourth principle, the action of the eucharist, is given special attention in the next section of this essay.

The priesthood of all believers means we need whole-personed participation in worship. Worship is a dance. It is a command performance. It is not a spectator sport. The Greek notions of the primacy of internal feeling, or the primacy of the intellect, have nothing to do with Scripture. In fact, if anything, the Scriptures give us the primacy of eating. Alexander Schmemann has written, “in the biblical story of creation man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food. Second only to the direction to propagate and have dominion over the earth, according to the author of the first chapter of Genesis, is God’s instruction to men to eat of the earth: ‘Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed…and every tree, which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat….’ Man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood. He is indeed that which he eats, and the world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man.”7

Schmemann goes on to note that “it is not accidental, therefore, that the biblical story of the Fall is centered again on food. Man ate the forbidden fruit. The fruit of that one tree, whatever else it may signify, was unlike every other fruit in the Garden: It was not offered as a gift to man. Not given, not blessed by God, it was food whose eating was condemned to be communion with itself alone, and not with God. I t is the image of the world loved for itself, and eating it is the image of life understood as an end in itself.”8

At the climax of worship is the Lord’s Supper. Jesus did not say, “Understand this in memory of Me.” What He actually said was “Do this as a memorial of Me.” The doing takes precedence over any theory of what is being done. If this simple fact were understood, it would be possible for churches to recognize one another and cooperate in true Biblical catholicity. At any rate, I do not want to be read as pitting knowledge against action, or as saying action is more important. I am saying, however, that knowing and doing are equally important, and in terms of the sacrament, doing is more important.9

The whole-personed priesthood of all believers means not only congregational participation (which requires prayer books), but also wholistic “doing.” It means singing, falling down, kneeling, dancing, clapping, processions, and so forth. The recovery of all these things for worship is not the labor of a week or even of a year, but that recovery must be our eventual goal.

The second perspective on ceremony is the heavenly pattern. John was “in the Spirit” on the “Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10). This is the day of worship, and John was ready to “worship in Spirit and truth.” Thus, he entered the heavenly environment. He saw a liturgy conducted in heaven, which is our model. Just as Moses saw the model on the Mount, and then came down to build the Tabernacle on the plain, so we pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

When we read Revelation 5:9-14, 11:15-18, 15:2-4, and 19:1-7, we see that worship is organized, planned, prepared, and done in unison. We see the “rote” use of standard phrases, such as “amen” and “alleluia.” We see dialogue, responsorial worship between the leader and the people. We see antiphonal worship between the choir and the congregation. We see physical actions.

In short, we see ceremony.

A third perspective comes from the nature of language. We use language for various purposes. Some language is primarily informative (“My name is Jim.”) Some language is primarily ceremonial (“How’re you doing?” “Fine; and you?” “Just fine, thank you.”) Some language, and this is the point, is primarily performative. Such speech actually performs an action. Here is an example: “I now pronounce you man and wife.” Here is another example: “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Ritual is not “mere ceremony,” though it can become that. Ritual worship is supposed to be performative. We as a congregation perform the following acts in worship: We confess sin. We accept forgiveness. We offer ourselves as living sacrifices. We take vows. We give gifts. We eat. We say “amen,” which is a covenant oath implying “May I be ripped in half and devoured by the birds and beasts if I do not confirm these words to do them.” The officiant also performs certain acts in worship: He baptizes. He declares us forgiven. He gives us Christ in bread and wine.

To be continued

James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This essay is an excerpt from his book, “The Sociology of the Church.

References   [ + ]

1. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son outward to manifest a glory-environment around the Godhead. This glory is called heaven, and also is seen as a cloud. It is architecturally modeled in the Tabernacle, in the Temple, and in the world itself considered as an altar under a canopy of sun, moon, and stars. For an introduction to this, see Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980).
2. See my book The Law of the Covenant (Niceville, FL, Biblical Horizons, 1984), p. 41f.
3. J. I. Packer has written: “The idea that direct biblical warrant, in the form of precept or precedent, is required to sanction every item included in the public worship of God was in fact a Puritan innovation, which crystallized out in the course of the prolonged debates that followed the Elizabethan settlement.” Packer goes on to note that, in rejecting such things as prayer books, kneeling, the Christian year, and weekly communion, “they were not in fact reverting to Calvin, but departing from him, though… it is doubtful whether they realized this.” Packer, “The Puritan Approach to Worship,” in Diversity and Unity. The Puritan and Reformed Studies Conference Papers (Kent: PRSC, 1963), pp. 4, 5.
4. See the collection in Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church (New York: Collins World, 1961).
5. See Francis Procter and Walter H. Frere, A New History of the Book of Common Prayer (London: MacMillan, 1908), p. 172.
6. Ibid. p. 173.
7. Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1963), p. 11.
8. Ibid. p. 16.
9. That is, so long as the Word is also present, as read and preached. The essence of the sacrament, qua sacrament, is doing, not saying. See Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (Westminster: Dacre Press, 1945; reprinted by Seabury in the U.S. in recent years), especially chapter 2.