Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Film as Worship: Heaven’s Gate?, Part II of III.


While the New Testament record on worship is not voluminous, there are certain themes about worship that emerge from these texts. We can draw conclusions about what the Bible teaches about worship in order to analyze whether films fit within that paradigm of worship.
As explored below, first, the New Testament is more descriptive than prescriptive with respect to worship, and hence, provides a great deal of flexibility to explore other manifestations of worship. Second, worship in the Bible is a corporate exercise, emphasizing fellowship. Third, worship engages the heart, most prominently in the form of song. Fourth, worship is seen in Scripture as an engagement of the mind as it speaks often of teaching the Word. Fifth, worship is concerned with the truth, as an outgrowth of its Christ-centrism. Sixth, we find that worship is a lifestyle that can and should arise in a variety of contexts, including outside of formal church (or synagogue/temple) settings.

A. New Testament Scriptures Are More Descriptive Than Prescriptive In The Area Of Worship

Nothing in the New Testament specifies precisely how worship must be conducted. In other words, the New Testament writers do not preempt the field by mandating certain practices and prohibiting others. Dr. Roberts has summarized the New Testament evidence well: “In the New Testament era God has allowed for greater freedom in worship expression. So we do not find elaborate New Testament instructions for Christian Worship such as we found in the Old Testament.”[1] Dr. Roberts extends this point: “[W]orship is not simply one kind of activity, but a multi-layered experience that defies simplistic categorization.”[2] Later, Dr. Roberts similarly argues: “The multifaceted nature of God necessitates diverse responses in worship.”[3] As a related point, God has created humans in His image with a creative impulse[4] and there no reason to believe that creativity should be left at the door once worship commences.

However, the Biblical texts do provide examples of activities that flow from a healthy, worshipping church. The next section will explore these worship manifestations prevalent in the Early Church.

B. Worship is a Corporate Activity, Incorporating Fellowship

A common theme emerges with respect to worship in the New Testament, as well as the Old Testament for that matter: worship is to be done corporately. “If we were to let God’s own Word guide us in our worship, we’d avoid the extremes of extreme individualism and empty community.”[5]

Acts 2 provides an apt example of the integral function of fellowship among Christ-followers: “And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.”[6]

From this text, we can draw the conclusion that fellowship was practiced often and in a variety of ways in the incipient Church. For example, the fellowship extended to gathering in temple, eating, sharing of possessions, singing or praising God.

Similarly, Paul assumes that believers will gather together in community when he exhorts: “When you assemble…”[7]

Likewise, Paul emphasized the corporate nature of worship in the context of the Lord’s Supper. “So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat [the Eucharist], wait for one another.”[8]
This corporate nature of worship did not just spring to life in the New Testament. It is rooted in the Old Testament. For instance, Psalm 66 invites “Shout joyfully to God, all the earth; sing the glory of His name; Make His praise glorious.”[9] (Emphasis supplied.)

C. Worship is an Engagement of the Heart

In describing features of worship, the Bible shows that the singing of songs is prevalent. Even a cursory review of Psalms establishes this point. For example, “Sing to the Lord a new song; Sing to the Lord all the earth. Sing to the Lord….”[10]

In the New Testament, the priority of praise in the form of song continues. Dr. Ralph Martin observes: “The Christian Church was born in song.”[11] In Mark, we find the disciples, “singing a hymn.”[12] In Acts 16, we also observe Paul and Silas “singing hymns of praise to God.”[13]
James 5:13 encourages Christians to “sing praises” to God.[14] In Colossians, Paul demonstrates how songs penetrate the heart, when he writes about their words indwelling them: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”[15] (Emphasis added.)

Paul instructs that songs be sung in worship.[16] Also, in Ephesians 5, Paul revisits this theme when he writes that the Church in Ephesus is to “Speak[ ] to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.”[17] (Emphasis added.)

Here, Paul plainly connects the signing of song with an engagement of the heart. In so doing, Paul recognizes the emotional power of music.

Songs help engage the emotions of the singer as well as the listener. Songs can trigger fond (and not so fond) memories, so it follows that songs can link us to our emotional past. They can also evoke feelings in our emotional present. Accordingly, they constitute a necessary feature of worship.

D. Worship as an Engagement of the Mind

In the Biblical description, if not prescription, of worship, teaching and instruction routinely appear. For example, “When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.”[18] (Emphasis supplied.)

In fact, songs were also used for instruction: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, signing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”[19]

Martin observes that public reading of the Scriptures was a feature of worship in the Early Church.[20] Martin also notes that sermons or preaching were employed during New Testament times.[21]

It is beyond dispute that reading, teaching and learning are all mental exercises. As such, this form of worship indisputably engages the mind.

E. Worship as Expression of and for Truth

“God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth.”[22] In turn, since Jesus himself is the truth[23], He should be the object of our worship. Likewise, the truth will help us to understand God and Jesus better, as they are truth and are to be worshipped in truth.

Peterson posits: “Jesus is the truth (14:6), who uniquely reveals the character of God and his purposes (8:45; 18:37). [end note omitted.] So the true worshippers will be those who relate to God through Jesus Christ.”[24]

Further, Christ is the source of all truth, regardless of its manifestation or modality. “For by Him [Christ] all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible whether thrones or dominions or rules or authorities—all things have been created by Him and for Him.”[25]

F. Worship as Lifestyle Activity Not Localized to Church Buildings

The Bible shows that worship took place outside of formal venues. The Scriptures assume, without explication, that worship was (and is) an organic outgrowth of one’s life regardless of circumstance or location. For example, Paul and Silas worshipped in jail by “singing hymns of praise to God” (and also praying).[26]

The New Testament makes clear that worship can take place anywhere when at least two or three meet. “Where two or three are gathered together, I am in their midst.”[27]

“The idea that acceptable worship is a total-life orientation is not a new discovery by the writers of the New Testament!”[28] Indeed, it is seen in the covenant at Mount Sinai.[29] “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all the nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”[30]

Peterson argues that this text suggests that “the engagement with God at Sinai was to inaugurate a total-life pattern of service or worship for the nation.”[31]

This reality of Old Testament worship was revisited in the New Testament when a woman noted to Jesus that “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain…” as opposed to Jerusalem. In response, Jesus emphasized that worship was not dependant on a particular location. Jesus said: “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall you worship the Father….[T]rue worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”[32] Peterson sums up the point that worship should be integrated into all aspects of life: “Worship is a subject that should dominate our lives seven days a week.”[33] And, “Worship in the New Testament is a comprehensive category describing the Christian’s total existence.”[34]

[1] Roberts, 3.
[2] Roberts, 4.
[3] Roberts, 31.
[4] Gen. 1:26-28; NASB.
[5] Roberts, 14.
[6] Acts 2:44-47; NASB.
[7] 1 Cor. 14:26a; NASB.
[8] 1 Cor. 11:33; NASB.
[9] Ps. 66:1; NASB.
[10] Ps. 96:1-2; NASB.
[11] Martin, 39.
[12] Mark 14:26; NASB.
[13] Acts 16:25; NASB
[14] James 5:13; NASB.
[15] Col. 3:16; NASB.
[16] 1 Cor. 14:26; NASB.
[17] Eph. 5:19; NASB.
[18] 1 Cor. 14:26; NASB.
[19] Col. 3:16; NASB.
[20] Martin, 68.
[21] Martin, 73.
[22] John 4:24; NASB.
[23] John 14:6; NASB.
[24] Peterson, 99.
[25] Col. 1:16; NASB.
[26] Acts 16:25; NASB.
[27] Matt. 18:20; NASB.
[28] Peterson, 29.
[29] Peterson, 28.
[30] Ex. 19-5-6; NIV.
[31] Peterson, 28.
[32] John 4:20-24; NASB.
[33] Peterson, 21.
[34] Peterson, 18.