God’s people must take care in how they worship God, for he has said, “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified” (Lev 10:3). May we be found faithful.
Communicators, especially those within the evangelical community, love to use alliteration. It can be a helpful literary tool for impressing the points of a sermon or other spoken or written work upon the minds of an audience. Then there are those times when forcing alliteration leads to some sticky messaging. Such is the case with the phrase “worship and the Word,” often used by church leaders to cleverly describe a gathering that contains music and preaching—“Join us this Sunday for worship and the Word!”
At least two things are problematic with this description. First, it creates a false dichotomy by equating worship with music, as if preaching is not worship. Second, such distinctions either elevate these items over all other elements of worship, or worse, limit worship to music and preaching, to the neglect of other biblically-ordained worship activities.
An appropriate understanding of these terms, however, does not create a dichotomy, but rather, unites worship with the Word. This union recognizes that the Word of God should regulate, provide, and inform the elements, shape, and substance of corporate worship.
The Word Regulates the Elements of Worship
The first step in exploring the marriage between worship and the Word is to determine exactly what elements should be included in corporate worship, which raises the question of whether God cares what we include or not. All can agree that what God forbids should be excluded, but much debate exists between including only that which God has commanded (the regulative principle of worship)1 or allowing anything that God has not forbidden (the normative principle of worship). Several arguments can be made for why the regulative principle is the most biblical conclusion. One such argument is found in the outcome of Nadab’s and Abihu’s attempts at worship in Leviticus 10:1–2:
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.
Previously, God had both initiated worship and commanded the instructions for worship, to which God’s people were obedient (Lev 8:1–4); yet here we see Nadab and Abihu initiating worship apart from God’s command. The error was not simply that they were worshiping in a way that God had forbidden, but that they had offered “unauthorized” worship, “which he had not commanded them.” In our worship, then, we should submit to only that which God has commanded or shown in his Word.
Because Christ’s sacrificial death fulfills old covenant worship practices, we specifically look to the New Testament for instruction in corporate worship. Here we find seven elements of worship:
- Reading of Scripture (1 Tim 4:13)
- Preaching (2 Tim 4:2)
- Singing (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19)
- Prayer (Matt 21:13; 1 Tim 2:1)
- Giving (1 Cor 16:2)
- Baptism (Matt 28:19)
- The Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:26)
While we may have noble reasons for including other elements in worship, the best way we can be faithful to worshiping God as he desires is to limit our worship to that which he has revealed to us in his Word.
The Word Provides the Shape of Worship
Once we have determined what should be included in worship, we are then left with the task of putting the service in a particular order. Unlike the elements above, we do not have a biblically prescribed liturgy. However, we are instructed that our worship be orderly (1 Cor 14:26–40), and Scripture does reveal to us a common pattern, seen at a macro level (the whole of Scripture) and at micro levels (specific passages throughout Scripture). Consider Israel’s first service of worship: