Category Archives: Church/Ecclesiology

The Folly of Will Worship


One of the key themes in the Old Testament, and really all of Scripture, is worship.  It is useless to read of who God is and what He has done, is doing, or will do, if it does not lead us to worship.

Beginning in the book of Genesis, worship is central as the God WHO creates reveals that He is worthy of worship, and then that this same God has determined HOW He will be worshiped by His creation.  Adam and Eve’s failure in the Garden was primarily a failure of proper worship.  In Genesis 2, Adam was instructed to “work” and “keep” the Garden, both words in the Hebrew conveying the priestly functions of “minister” and “guard” (see Num. 3:7-8).  A priest, as we know, was given charge to mediate the worship of God.

Fast Forward some 2500+ years, to the infant stages in Israel’s history, and again we see the centrality of worship (Exodus 32:1-6).  As Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to receive the Law of God, including regulations for worship, the people had given themselves over to the folly of will-worship.  Here, the principle offender is Aaron, who leads the people into this false system of man-made worship.  Aaron’s construction of the golden calf was bad enough, but he went a step further in declaring that this lifeless idol was the god who had delivered Israel from Egypt, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” Ex. 32:4  Not satisfied with the violation of the newly minted First, Second , and Third Commandments, Aaron next instituted an unsanctioned day and feast, accompanied by sacrifices, to this graven image.  As would be expected, this unapproved worship provoked the wrath of God.

Fast forward again, around 400-500 years later, to a time when the nation of Israel was fracturing into two kingdoms, the North – called Israel, with its capital in Samaria, and the South – called Judah, with its capital and original center of worship remaining in Jerusalem.  In the North, comprised of 10 Israelite tribes (excluding Judah and Benjamin), Jeroboam is made king and almost immediately constitutes unsanctioned, man-made worship (see 1 Kings 12:19-33).  Echoing the scene described above from Exodus, Jeroboam fashions golden calves to prevent the Northern Kingdom from turning, “back to the house of David” by rightfully sacrificing at the temple, as God had commanded.

“‘You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough.  Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’  And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.”  1 Kings 12:28

Jeroboam, following in the footsteps of Aaron, created a worship of his own to replace that which God had ordained.  “He also made temples on high places and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites.  And Jeroboam appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar.” 1 Kings 12:31-32

This scene of Jeroboam’s own folly of will-worship is perhaps best summarized by the statement, “that he had devised in his own heart.”  Jeroboam set the course for decades of idolatrous worship in Israel.  Collectively, their failure to repent and turn from Jeroboam’s folly eventually led to their exile and ultimately their destruction.  Their exile was the punishment of a failure to worship God as He had commanded.

21 When he had torn Israel from the house of David, they made Jeroboam the son of Nebat king. And Jeroboam drove Israel from following the Lord and made them commit great sin. 22 The people of Israel walked in all the sins that Jeroboam did. They did not depart from them, 23 until the Lord removed Israel out of his sight, as he had spoken by all his servants the prophets. So Israel was exiled from their own land to Assyria until this day.” 2 Kings 17:21-23

Bringing this theme of worship to the New Testament, in Colossians 2:23, the King James Version translates the Greek word ethelothreskia (e-the-lo-thra-ske’-ä) as “will-worship.”  According to Thayer’s lexicon, this word is defined as, “worship which one devises and prescribes for himself, contrary to the contents and nature of the faith which ought to be directed to Christ”.  This definition describes perfectly the examples shown above where will-worship was imposed upon the worship that God had commanded.  While Colossians has little to do with golden calves and worship on high places, nevertheless, it is concerned with worship, specifically false, man-made worship.

In Colossians 2, we read of 4 specific warnings regarding worship, before the Apostle arrives at his concluding statement against “will-worship”.  The first occurs in 2:4 and warns of the dangers and influence of human wisdom.  Next, in 2:8, we read that believers, Colossae in particularly, should be on guard against the influence and practices of human tradition.  Third, in 2:16 the Apostle reaches a summary point, therefore, and exhorts believers to guard against human opinion.  Finally, in 2:18, he warns against the dangerous influence of human experience.  Each of these four warnings apply specifically to the context of worship, or perhaps more accurately when believers gather together.  Just like for Colossae they are warnings for us to guard against these influences in our own gatherings.

It’s often easy to see that God regulated His worship in the Old Testament, specifically through the giving of the law.  It’s therefore no surprise to read of the consequences that God levied against those who profess to be His people when they violated his commands for worship.  However, sometimes when we arrive at the New Testament, we are guilty of forgetting that this same God continues to take His worship seriously.  Everything that we do must be regulated by the Word of God, otherwise, we will fall prey to human wisdom, human tradition, human opinion, and/or, human experience.

Will God’s wrath against will-worship be provoked any less today than it was in the days of Aaron or Jeroboam?

Lest we be quick to dismiss this, let us be reminded that this letter with warnings for the Colossians was to be shared with the church at Laodicea (see Colossians 4:16; 2:1), the same Laodicea of the strongest warning given by our Lord in Revelation 3:14-22.  Clearly then, God’s concern for right worship has not waned one iota.

Though a topic for another day, the Apostle concludes his section on worship in his letter to Colossae with a positive command for when believer’s gather

16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”  Colossians 3:16-17



Is This Church


It’s not often that I comment or interact with other blogs, but one I recently read fit so well with a recent post of my own, that it called for interaction.  My lane is exposition of Scripture, particularly that expressed in the form of devotions or meditations.  When I change out of that lane, even with posts on historical theology, it can become a long, drawn out mess.  I’ll do my best, but make no promises, especially with the length of this post (2000+ words!).  Hopefully in the end, the value of the interaction will be evident.

Having said that, a post linked by a popular blog: A la Carte – January 17 was directly related to the post I made on the principles of Sola Scriptura and the Regulative Principle of Worship.  In fact, the post nearly makes my point for me,  but not because we necessarily agree.  If you read that post, recall that the point I attempted to make was to highlight how those two principles should be the lenses through which we determine what a healthy church is, or what a church is at all for that matter.

In the post linked above, Tony Payne, founder of Matthias Media and co-author of the helpful book The Trellis and the Vine, uses an illustration of an elderly relative visiting his church for how our churches may differ and how they have evolved since the New Testament.  At the conclusion of this particular worship service, his relative was asked if she had enjoyed it, to which she declared, “This is not a real church”.  Payne suggests this may have been due to it lacking her traditional preferences for what constitutes a church, which includes, “prayer book service, the fact that we didn’t celebrate Holy Communion on that particular morning, the absence of organ music, or the general want of a quiet, ‘churchy’ atmosphere about the place. ”  This led Payne to consider the following questions concerning his own church’s worship service in comparison to the experiences that his elderly relative might have been more familiar with

“In one sense, it was quite true: many of the elements that a previous generation would have closely associated with ‘real church’ had been stripped away or changed beyond recognition in our congregational gatherings. Had we stripped away too much? Or, to think about it the other way, how much can you strip away and still have a real church? If we were to apply Ockham’s Razor to church, what would be left standing?”

I suppose Payne’s dilemma is not isolated to his own geographical church, or even the expressions of church in the 21st Century.  In fact, I too recently had a similar experience where I would’ve been the “elderly” relative that visited a much more contemporary worship service than the one that I typically attend.  In fact, my own wrestling with what constitutes a church service frothed over in the middle of this service and birthed the Sola Scriptura/RPW post.  It was the product of several years of thought given to this on-going, internal wrestling with what constitutes the gathering of God’s people.

Returning to Payne’s article, the next two paragraphs summarize the heart of what he is suggesting with the philosophical reference to Ockham’s Razor made above.  Ockham’s Razor basically suggests that given two options, the simplest is the most obvious or better choice.  As applied to what he is about to suggest with regards to church, what happens if we simplify it?  Contrary to this philosophical application, I want to suggest, instead of the unbiblical notion of Ockham’s Razor applied to church, what if we applied Sola Scriptura and the Regulative Principle?

Here is Payne’s thesis:

Let’s try this thought experiment: can we assume that the churches of the New Testament were real Christian churches, lacking nothing essential? If so, what could we ‘lop off’ our current practice of church life and still have a genuine Christian assembly (or ‘church’)?

Let’s mention the obvious ones first: no special religious buildings, no denominations, no territorial bishops, overseers or presbyteries responsible for a group of congregations, no committees, no constitutions, no weekly bulletin sheet, no announcements and no hymnbooks. So far, so easy. I’m not saying that these things are necessarily wrong or bad; they are just clearly not of the essence of what the church really is or what it needs to function well, since the New Testament had a perfectly complete experience of church without (as far as we know) any of them. And thus it would be very possible today to have a full and complete experience of Christian church, in which nothing is lacking, without any of these things.

He presses this idea further in the next two paragraphs, which themselves are worthy of full citation

What else is absent in the New Testament church that we might start to regard as a little more essential? We don’t find evidence of set prayers and orders of liturgy, for a start. There is also no evidence of the word or concept of ‘worship’ being applied to what New Testament Christians did in their gatherings. It is shocking, I know, but there are no worship services in the New Testament. In fact, there weren’t any ‘churches’ either—by which I mean that there wasn’t a special religious or Christian word used to describe Christian gatherings. They were not a new species of religious thing called a ‘church’; they were just ‘gatherings’ or ‘assemblies’, but Christian ones.

We also find no example or imperative for Sunday being the ‘right’ day on which we should meet, or any other day, for that matter. We know they met regularly, but in what configuration and frequency we aren’t sure. In fact, we struggle to find any distinction between a regular large gathering of the congregation (what we would call the Sunday Service) and any smaller gatherings that may or may not have taken place (what we would call ‘home Bible study groups’). We find no formal system of church membership, nor any set procedure or system for the structuring of leadership and governance within the congregation. (Certainly, New Testament Christians belonged to or were ‘members of’ particular congregations, and these congregations were led and governed; I am simply saying that we know next to nothing about the structures, procedures and practices of membership and leadership. So a particular model of membership or leadership—whether it be the Anglican, Presbyterian or Baptist models—is not of the essence of church.)

The reason why I’ve quoted him so extensively is because I want to clearly present the argument he is making.  Payne is saying let’s strip away everything we’ve come to know and expect from our traditional “worship services” down to what the New Testament describes and see if what we have left could in any real way be called a “church”.  The principle that is driving this, for him, is Ockham’s Razor, i.e. simpler is better.  In my previous post and in others, I am suggesting the exact same thing as Payne, only my driving principle is Sola Scriptura and its derivative The Regulative Principle of Worship.

Let’s see what Payne concludes.

Before proceeding, he adds the following caveat, “Let me make sure I am not misunderstood: I am not for a minute suggesting that we attempt to recreate a complete, working model of a New Testament church”.   This caveat seems important.  Payne is suggesting that we examine our current practices in light of what the New Testament describes, but then says we should not attempt to use that as a model.  He suggests that doing so is a return to “primitivism”.  Instead, he is saying that this exercise is just a thought experiment to see  how many “extra-biblical details, structures, and practices” have been added to our concept of church.  I’m a little troubled by the “primitivism” comment, because it comes off a little too “evolved” for my tastes, as though the New Testament church was either ignorant or undeveloped on what a real church should look like.  My questions for Payne would be, “Has God commanded how He is to be worshiped?  If so, who gave us permission or liberty to add the ‘extra-biblical details, structures, and practices’?  Does the New Testament provide a model for a church?  And if so, is this model sufficient for us? ”

I’m proposing that given their proximity to Christ, their relationship with the Apostolic ministry, and what is recorded for us in God’s Word about their practices, they are not “primitive”, but instead are exemplary.  Though we are suggesting the same “thought-experiment”, Payne and I are driven from different motivations and certainly arrive at different conclusions.

Here are his concluding statements

Well, here’s what Ockham’s Razor has reduced us to: we could have a group of Christian people (of any size), with a qualified elder or overseer (or more than one, appointed or elected, we care not how), meeting in the name and presence of Christ in any location, at any time of day, on any day of the week, with any frequency (so long as it was regular and often), at which time they spoke and heard God’s word together (through Bible reading, preaching/teaching, prophetic encouragement, etc.), and responded in prayer and thanksgiving, with the result that God is glorified in Christ and the people edified.

Again, let me be clear.  I am suggesting the exact same thought-experiment as Payne, strip down all of the traditions and pragmatic layers that have crept in and clouded our notions of what a church should be, down to the foundation of the New Testament church and then see what we have.  This bare-bones foundation is what he summarizes in the paragraph above.

The difference in our theses is that Payne sees this stripped down model as the product of philosophy, Ockham’s Razor, and has no desire to pursue what he’s found.  I am suggesting that this stripped down model is the product of Scriptural Authority, namely Sola Scriptura and specifically how it applies to our worship as defined by The Regulative Principal of Worship, which as a reminder states that whatever is not commanded by God, or given as an example, in worship, is strictly prohibited.  If this stripped down model is what God has either commanded or given as an example, then who are we to add or subtract from it in the name of preference.  With a little more nuance (as perhaps defined by 1 Corinthians 11-14), I would agree with the assessment that Payne has made on what the New Testament church “basically” looked like .

His concluding paragraph highlights both our agreements and our differences

You might want to describe this ‘cut down’ New Testament church a little differently, or add extra things. But here’s the point: what things do you currently regard as of the absolute essence of church—things without which you could not imagine church being ‘real church’—things that, in fact, are accidental, traditional or cultural details that could be otherwise? And could any of these things be changed if the times, seasons, purposes and circumstances of your fellowship suggested that they should be?

Payne is asking the right questions, but the basis for how one answers, according to his reasoning above, would circle the church-wagon back to big three: preference, pragmatism, or tradition.  Following this out logically, we would arrive at exactly the same conclusion that his elderly relative did, “This is not a real church” for anything different than what we were used to.

Where Payne fails in his thesis is his failure to address and apply the authority of Scripture, though perhaps this error is made unwittingly, I do not want to judge him in this matter.  I’m sure if he were asked if he holds to Sola Scriptura, he would answer in the affirmative, as so many professing evangelicals would.  The difficulty is when you actually have to put that into practice, particularly when it goes against the big three.  We far too easily fall off of the path that Scripture has provided and take our own paths of preference or tradition.

Here is my own concluding statement.  I’m suggesting that the New Testament provides exactly what a real church should look like.  If this is true, then it is incumbent upon us to move from a “thought-experiment” to putting what we have found into practice.  The problem is, are we faithful enough to evaluate our current practices in the light of Scripture; obedient enough to put what we find into practice; and courageous enough to stand firm in the face of criticisms, even when they come from other professing Christians?

2 Non-Negotiables for a Healthy Church


There are a lot of opinions circulating for what constitutes a “healthy church”.  Over the last few years, as I’ve been thinking through how the Scriptures define a church, both its form and function, it seems clear that there are two non-negotiable guiding principles that rarely get the attention they deserve.

Typically, when we read of the marks of a healthy church, we see lists that skip right to the “to do” rather than pointing out the corrective lenses that would allow one to see clearly what this list should include.  These two lenses are Sola Scriptura and the Regulative Principal of Worship.  Let’s briefly define them and see how they impact the progression and development of everything else that would build a healthy church.

First – Sola Scriptura.  God’s Word is foundational because it reveals who God is and who we are in light of the knowledge of Him.  Sola Scriptura is a principle revived after the Reformation (though named and defined a couple centuries later) which is Latin for “Scripture Alone”.  This little phrase means

the sufficiency of Scripture as our supreme authority in all spiritual matters. Sola Scriptura simply means that all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture. It is not a claim that all truth of every kind is found in Scripture. (ref)

Additionally, the sufficiency of Scripture or Sola Scriptura, assumes the inerrancy of Scripture.  The final statement in the definition cited above, that sola Scriptura “is not a claim that all truth of every kind is found in Scripture” is an exhortation against Solo Scriptura, a danger that all professing Christians must guard against.  A good, biblical starting point for defining the sufficiency of Scripture may be found in 2 Timothy 3:16-17

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

As it pertains to a local church, “a practical denial of Sola Scriptura“, even among those who profess adherence to it, is the chief malady in today’s churches.  It’s bad enough when a church is ignorant of this principle, but it’s perhaps worse when a church is knowledgeable of it, yet abandons the practical application of it.

Too often it seems that churches grant themselves Christian liberty to form and function a church how, either as an individual or small group of individuals, best see fit and then the congregation decides if they will go along with this or not.  This is often referred to as “vision casting”.  The problem is that the vision has already been cast by God in His Word and it is often being improperly adhered to.

For an application of Sola Scriptura in a church, we may first look at the qualifications of an elder to find out who should/shouldn’t be leading, 1 Timothy 3:1-7.  Any step around or outside these requirements is a practical denial of Sola Scriptura.  In another application, we  may ask who holds the keys of the church, the congregation or the “clergy”, as it pertains to matters of admittance and discipline, Matt. 18:15-20.  Denying or failing to recognize who God has given this authority to is again a practical denial of Sola Scriptura.  A final example is in matters concerning the mission of the church, which is clearly defined in the words of our Lord from Matthew 28:18-20.  Ignoring this and focusing on matters of politics, redemption of society, or establishing social justice as primary importance, is again a practical denial of Sola Scriptura.

The most common objection to Sola Scriptura is another Latin phrase, Sola Ecclesia, which states that the Church is the final authority in all spiritual matters.  Historically, this has been the chief error of the Roman Catholic Church.  Likewise, abandoning Sola Scriptura and embracing tradition has become one of the primary reasons why so many people are leaving Protestantism for Roman Catholicism.  Practically speaking, most churches do not rely on either of these two, but are instead the product of tradition, sometimes without even realizing it.  This, not the Scriptures, becomes the guiding principle for how and why a church is formed and functions the way that it does.

Proper application of Sola Scriptura in the development of a healthy church means that the Scriptures should be the guide and final authority for how a church is formed and for how it functions.  Tradition, opinions, including “God told me”, and the church down the street must all yield to the authority of Scripture, either its prescription (command) or description (example) with respect to a “healthy church”.

Second – The Regulative Principal of Worship.  This principal, while distinct, flows right out of the application of the previous principal.  The Regulative Principal of Worship summarily states that God has determined how He will be worshiped.  RPW concludes that anything not expressly commanded by God in His Word is strictly prohibited, as it relates to His worship.  This principal has often been called “the foundation of all Puritanism”.  Writing against a popular objection to this principle, Puritan John Owen provides a common definition

That nothing ought to be established in the worship of God but what is authorized by some precept or example in the word of God, which is the complete and adequate rule of worship.

Conversely, the Normative Principle of Worship, largely held to by Martin Luther, and later the Anglican Church, states that whatever is not strictly prohibited in Scripture is allowed, as it relates to the worship of God.  As you can see, the former principal is much more limiting while the latter may open up the floodgates to what is allowable worship.  What’s to prohibit dancing or a play in worship, or elephants and motorcycles for that matter?  More practically, what determines whether you sing hymns or Contemporary Christian Music?

The most familiar examples of the RPW occur in the Old Testament as God clearly establishes the how, when, where, and who for His worship, c.f. Exodus 25:40.  Those who ignore this, such as Cain (Gen. 4:3-5) and Nadab and Abiuh (Lev.  10:1-3), paid the ultimate price for violating God’s prescribed worship.  In the New Testament, the principle can appear to be less clear, which has given license to many to worship God however they see fit, but this is not the case.  In fact, Christ rebukes the Pharisees for the vanity of their worship in following traditions and the commandments of men, Mark 7:1-13.  Additionally, we are given a clear command that constrains what is allowable teaching, Matt. 28:20.

In practice, most churches function under the much more liberal Normative Principle, essentially working from either a traditional, preferential, or pragmatic base, one in which everyone does what is right in his/her own eyes, i.e. popular opinion.  If the RPW is valid, and it seems that it clearly is, then the great duty of all churches, indeed all individuals within them, is to search the Scriptures to find how it is that God has ordered His worship.  Commenting on this, John Owen writes

This, then, is the church’s duty, to search out the commands of Christ recorded in the gospel, and to yield obedience unto them.  We are not, in this matter, to take up merely with what we find in practice amongst others, no, though they be men good or holy.  The duty of the church, and consequently, of every member of it in his place and station, is to search the Scriptures, to inquire into the mind of Christ, and to find out whatever is appointed by him, or required of his disciples, and that with hearts and minds prepared unto a due observation of whatever shall be discovered by his will.

It’s beyond the scope of this post, but we must seriously examine the Scriptures to ask has God either prescribed or described the form and function of His church?  Has God regulated His worship?  If so, how?  Turning once again to Owen we read

Take care that nothing be admitted or practised in the worship of God, or as belonging thereunto, which is not instituted and appointed by the Lord Christ.

The Word of God is sufficient for us in all matters of faith and practice, including the basis for the form and function of a healthy church, but do we practically operate this way?  Additionally, God has prescribed how He will be worshiped, but have we given this due attention and then obediently put it into practice?

One final exhortation from God’s Word, which should regulate our worship:

Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it. Deuteronomy 12:32

I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. 1 Corinthians 4:6

18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. Revelations 22:18-19