Worship and Ecclesial Purity

This is the second in a five-part series on a theological framework for worship. I began with a post on theological integrity. This week we focus on ecclesial purity. My former students will note that I’ve changed the nomenclature for this part of the framework to be more all-inclusive of matters related to worship as the people of God.

“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord,” the psalmist asks, and, “Who shall stand in his holy place?” Psalm 24 poses this question and answers with a series of qualities that allow one to enter God’s presence: “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.”

In one sense this seems to me an assurance that no one can actually approach God because, sinners that we are, no one meets those qualifications. But the Psalmist seems to assume that we can in fact dwell with God (as the end of Psalm 23 reminds us), and calls us, as Psalm 24 puts it, to lift up our eyes to see the King of Glory, the One who makes it possible for us to worship God. He is the One, and He alone, who does meet the qualifications of Psalm 24, and He is the one who makes a way for sinners to approach God (Heb 10:19-22).

This is, as David Peterson so aptly puts it, worshiping God “on his terms and in the way he alone makes possible.” We sinners worship the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit. Any theology of worship needs to come to terms with this reality – that God initiates and makes possible man’s worship. While that is true, it is also true that the Scriptures instruct us about the need for a certain way of life that pleases God as we worship Him. These include, at least, (1) certain personal attitudes and motives, (2) our relationships to other believers, and (3) the relationship of God’s people with others in society.

Attitudes and Motives

Jesus quoted Isaiah to call into question the motives of religious figures who claimed to be worshipers of God: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain to they worship me . . .” (Matt 15:8-9). This is not the first reference to vain, meaningless worship in the Bible. King Saul managed to use worship as an excuse to directly disobey the command of God (1 Samuel 15). His motives were impure and he attempted to cover them with the pretense of worship.

His daughter Michal serves as another reminder of such things as she (described, by the way, as a “daughter of Saul” in 2 Samuel 6) criticizes David for his abandonment before God while she herself refused to join God’s people to celebrate His goodness to them. This issue of motive and attitude seems to be at the root of God’s refusal of Cain’s offering in Genesis 4 (Sorry, Dr. Ashford, I still can’t bring myself to say it’s about blood sacrifice since that’s not actually in the text, explicitly or implicitly), along with Cain’s refusal to offer the “firstfruits” of his harvest, in contradistinction to Abel who brought the “firstborn” of his flock.

So, ecclesial purity means we must examine our motives and attitudes, in order to ascertain what is in our hearts as we gather to worship God. To withhold ourselves from God is inconsistent with God’s invitation for us to worship him through Christ, whom God did not withhold from us.

Relationships to Other Believers

Jesus taught us that if one comes to the altar to make an offering, and there realizes that he has a broken relationship with another, he should leave the gift there and go first to be reconciled to his brother, returning only then to make his offering to God (Mat 5:23-24). I’ve often wondered what the church would look like that takes seriously this command on a given Sunday as it assembles to worship. Imagine people who would stop singing, or lay aside an offering plate, and go to a brother to be reconciled to him first.

Paul criticized the Corinthians for attempting to celebrate the Lord’s Supper while having little or no regard for the well being of others in the congregation (1 Cor 11:17ff). This is not a minor issue to Paul; it is one of grave seriousness. Some are even dying, he says, because of their failure to examine themselves with respect to their relationship to others as it relates to taking the bread and the cup. I realize that we like to make self-examination at the Table mainly about virtually any sin we can think of, but read the text. It’s mainly about our relationship to one another in the church, not about whether you’ve “gotten current” with your “sin checklist” this week. Getting current in such a way may be a good thing to do, but let’s not forsake the matter the text explicitly speaks about in order to do something the text doesn’t tell us to do.

Jesus said that the world would know that we are his disciples if we love one another (John 13:35). Apparently this matters to God quite a lot. And it matters for our worship. Factions in the church are inconsistent with worshiping the God who exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in perfect unity. We are to strive to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:3), and do so eagerly, because God is himself One. Our confession of faith is focused on this very truth: one faith, one Lord, one baptism, one God and Father of all . . . (Eph 4:4-6). So if you want to cultivate a healthy worship life in the congregation, cultivate love for one another. Stop bickering, stop fighting. Just stop it.

Relationship with Others

The prophets raise a common theme that has specific bearing on worship and the subject of ecclesial purity. They reminded the people of God that Yahweh hates injustice. And He particularly hates when his people cause injustice or when they see it and do nothing about it. We learn in a text like Amos 5 that God hates it even more when his people cause injustice or allow it to continue and then come to worship him as if nothing at all is wrong.

God’s displeasure over such could not be clearer: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. . . . Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).

I believe God’s concern here is a kingdom concern. While the kingdom is not yet here, the people of God should do all that it can to establish justice and righteousness. Yes, Amos was prophesying to a people in the context of a theocracy, and we surely are not in that context. But the truth remains that his people are to promote God’s purposes for all the peoples at any time and place.

The notion of creating a little society that we call “church” as a safe place for refuge while ignoring the plight of those affected by injustice and unrighteousness in the world is an offense to God. Yes, the church should be a haven, but it should also be a place from which God righteousness and justice are heralded and enacted. So, the question arises: Can the church ignore the ills of society and appear to worship God as it pleases week after week? No, we cannot.

We cannot isolate ourselves from the misery and suffering rampant in this world. It is ours, as kingdom people, to do all we can to let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Apparently this is more significant than building fancy buildings and having cool music. Yes, I said that. And I mean it. The Bible tells us so.

So, if we are to worship God in a manner pleasing to him, we will recognize, first, that we can only approach God through Jesus by the Spirit. Attempts by sinners like us to come on our own are futile and bound to fail. And, second, we need to examine ourselves regarding our attitudes and motives, our relationships to one another, and our relation to others in society.

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  1 Comment

  1. Jacob   •  

    Great Article! my Friends and I were just discussing this very thing last night. I look forward to forthcoming articles!

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