Theological Integrity in Worship

In the past months I’ve had some things to say about worship, some in a general sense and a series on the problems associated with what I call “Disney-World” Worship. Yes, I have been a bit of a curmudgeon in the process. I appreciate those who have interacted with me both on the blog, via email, and some in person. Next comes a series of posts describing something of a theological framework for worship, focusing mainly on congregational worship, which is a particular instance of worship as a way of life. Much of what I’ll say in these posts will apply to worship in the more general sense, but I have in mind some thoughts about the gathered assembly as I write. If you’re wondering how I define worship, you can read that here. While I’ve been descriptive about some of the problems with evangelical worship (in particular) in the past posts, I intend to be more prescriptive in these posts. And, perhaps, if possible, a bit less curmudgeonly.

For some time I’ve used a basic theological framework for thinking about worship in the public assembly. A sound biblical theology of worship should include: theological integrity, personal sanctity, developing community, artistic quality, and pastoral sensitivity. I’ll note that this framework is a means by which leaders can think about how they are shaping the worship life of a congregation. This post takes up the issue of theological integrity, which I believe is foundational for everything else.

When I say “integrity” I refer to a wholeness or soundness. Engineers who build bridges do their job well when a bridge has “integrity.” That is, it is sound in its construction and it allows passage over the bridge with the safety intended. When pastors and other leaders think rightly in a theological sense, it allows the saints the opportunity to respond in faith to God in appropriate ways that are fitting with respect to God’s glory, the edification of the body, and the proclamation of the gospel.

A good biblical theology of worship is formed by: (1) an understanding of worship that arises out of the whole Bible and is set in the context of the grand biblical narrative (GBN); (2) an understanding and enactment of the biblical elements of worship; (3) an understanding and enactment of the liturgical dimensions of worship found in the Scriptures.

A Theology of Worship That Has Scripture as Its Primary Source

There are different ways of coming to an understanding of worship. We may do so out of the cultural context in which we live, we may do so from studying the history of Christian worship, or we may do so by studying the Scriptures. Whether we like to admit it or not, we typically include all of these sources to some extent in our worship practices.

The fact that many of our churches display United States flags in our worship spaces, and have annual patriotic celebrations in worship services, shows that we allow our cultural context to serve as a source for our theology and practice of worship. And we can point to numerous examples of the way in which history and tradition inform our worship – I doubt anyone would argue that a quarterly observance of the Lord’s Supper arose from biblical teaching. Rather, this is an example of tradition serving as a theological source for us.

We evangelicals prefer, though, at least in theory, to ground our theology in the Bible, and what I am calling for is a theology and practice of worship that draws primarily on the Scripture as its source, with things like tradition and culture as secondary sources that are subject to the prescriptions of the Bible. I think it is particularly helpful to set the doctrine of worship – both “way of life” worship and congregational worship – in the context of the GBN (I could say much more, but what I mean is that our “way of life” is seen in the context of the mission of God revealed to us in the GBN. For more on this see this previous post). This enables us to account for the whole of the Bible as we think about and form our worship, and not to leave anything out that should be in, and not to insist on something being in our worship that the Bible itself does not demand. We can then observe and assess our cultural and traditional practices through the lens of Scripture.

A Theology of Worship That Includes the Biblical Elements of Worship

There are different ways of categorizing the biblical elements of worship, but a survey of the Scriptures provides at least the following for our consideration (in alphabetical order): baptism, charity/giving, confession, Lord’s Supper, prayer and praise, preaching/teaching, reading of Scripture.

In my reading of Scripture I find these to be common practices when God’s people gather, which may be enacted in various forms. Confession, for example, may include a confession of faith as well as confession of sin. Prayer and praise may be spoken or sung. Giving may be done in varied ways. And preaching and teaching, as well as the reading of Scripture, indicate different ways to expose people to the Word of God.

I find it interesting that there is so little prescription about these elements in the Bible. We see these elements set in different contexts. We find no “order of worship,” however, that must be followed. It is as if the Spirit inspired the Scriptures in such a way that we learn what elements should be present in the life of the church, but without any strict prescription for how they may be employed. This actually seems consistent with the fact that worship takes place in varied cultural contexts and this allows a kind of freedom that sufficiently accounts for the forms God has given, while allowing the cultural and creative distinctions among groups of people to be displayed.

It is often interesting to take a list of biblical elements of worship like this and compare it to the last three months of orders of worship in your church. See what shows up in your worship and what doesn’t. Consider the frequency with which you see certain elements. You may find that you have real theological integrity, or you may find that some adjustments are in order.

A Theology of Worship That Includes the Three Liturgical Dimensions

I categorize the liturgical dimensions into three categories, though they may be ordered differently. David Pass, in his little book Music and the Church, sees three categories, while A. M. Triacca lists as many as eight. I think three categories suffice to account for the multi-dimensional nature of worship. Let me explain the three dimensions: doxological (adoration), hortatory (edification), and kergymatic (proclamation).

We readily understand the first of these, since we typically think of worship as that which is directed Godward. I use the term doxological in the sense of God’s glory. This is what we primarily do when we worship, we give glory to God. The Scriptures are replete with references to this liturgical dimension. This is the ultimate dimension of worship, but it is not the only one.

The Scriptures also instruct us about the way in which the assembled people of God worship as they exhort and edify one another. We call this the hortatory dimension of worship. In Eph 5:19 and Col 3:16 we see examples of this. The language of doxology (“psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”) is used with reference to encouraging one another, and teaching and admonishing one another. Note the interrelation of these two dimensions. They are not in Paul’s mind distinct actions; they occur together. As we praise God, we encourage one another. As we build up God’s people, we bring glory to God. This is found throughout the Psalms (look at Psalm 136, for example), and it may be so prevalent that we tend to overlook it.

The Scriptures indicate at least one other liturgical dimension, which we call the kerygmatic, with reference to the proclamation of the gospel. We see this in various places in the Scriptures. Psalm 96, for example, urges God’s people to make God’s glory known to the nations. Solomon prays for the Gentiles who will come and pray at the Jewish Temple (2 Chron 6:32ff), implying that the foreigner will hear of God and come worship him. And Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14, insists that worship must be intelligible not only so that believers may be edified (the hortatory dimension), but so that the unbelievers in their midst (note that, he assumes unbelievers will be in the midst of a worship service!) may themselves come under conviction and worship God (1 Cor 14:24-25).

Some Final Thoughts about Theological Integrity

If you’re thinking about some of these things for the first time, this may seem like a lot to take in. And, in fact, it is. The Bible has a lot to say about worship. As it happens, very often we have a lot to say about worship, but we often say it with little scriptural reflection. We need to change that so that our worship has theological integrity. Everything else I’ll say in the next set of posts hinges on this concept – forming a solid biblical theology of worship that helps our people understand worship as a way of life, and that moves us to shape our congregational gatherings of worship along truly biblical lines.

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  1. daniel   •  

    great thoughts David. I’ve never used the word integrity to talk about these subjects….but i love it.

  2. Daniel C   •  

    These liturgical dimensions truly act in tandem with one another and can’t stand alone. You see it in passages like Col 3 and Eph 5. Where the saints are edified by the doxological songs and the teaching and admonishment that comes from the kergymatic. I think one of the primary lessons of the GBN is that not only do the saints proclaim the gospel for the sake of the nations, but for their own remembering of it. When I proclaim the gospel with integrity I’m calling the nations to repentance and faith in Christ as well as reminding myself of the mercies and salvation that are mine in Christ. Hebrews 10 reminds us to not stop gathering together (assembling) but to remember those days when you first believed.

    Thanks David! I look forward to the upcoming posts.

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