Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Christian worship is of course a human activity, and thus involves the same sort of flaws other human activities involve. What is amazing to me is that so little thought is actually put into what a theology of worship should look like--- what is the purpose of worship? How does it differ from say, going to a concert and watching a Christian artist perform? Who is the subject and object of worship? What roles should the congregation or clergy or both play in worship?

Because so little meaningful discourse is available on this subject, I have recently written a little primer on a theology of Christian worship on the basis of what the NT has to say, and it will be forthcoming from Eerdmans under the title Doxa: Worship in the Light of the Kingdom. Here below is a draft sample of the discussion on one of my favorite subjects---- the role of music and in particular singing in worship. See what you think. Note that I have left out the footnotes here. BW3

Christians today are used to addressing God in shockingly familiar and even casual ways. Some even talk to and about God as if God were a long lost pal. What always strikes me about the stark contrast between what happens so often today, especially in prayer, and what we find in the NT is that the NT writers were looking for the most exalted language they could possibly find to pray and praise and proclaim God’s goodness and grace in a bolder way. There was not prose or even poetry elevated enough to do the subject of Christ and redemption he wrought justice. Looking for help, the earliest Christians turned to the Psalter and other such musical resources.

Ephes. 5.18-20 provides an entry into the heart of early Christian worship, which surprisingly enough the NT writers do not say enough about. Paul, in a circular homily meant for a variety of his churches says this in instructing them about worship—“and don’t become intoxicated with wine, in which is recklessness, but rather continue being filled in Spirit, singing to one another psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to (our) God and Father.” It will pay us to look closely at this.

In vs. 18 we have a clear contrast– do not get drunk with wine (Paul does not say do not drink wine, but rather don’t engage in dissipation), but rather be filled in Spirit. This contrast is also found in the Pentecost story in Acts 2 and suggest that early Christian worship was often ecstatic and jubilant, involving loud singing. The outsider might have a hard time telling the difference between exuberant praising (especially if it involved singing in tongues) and a drunk person singing and carousing.

It is not impossible that Paul is contrasting Christian worship with Bacchic rites which involved drunkenness and frenzy and orgiastic behavior. In any case, it should be noted that Paul says to Christians who already have the Spirit “be filled” and the verb is in the present continual tense—keep on being filled up by and in the Spirit. The phrase whole-hearted or even exuberant singing doesn’t do justice to what is being described here. A person is wide open to the internal workings of the Spirit and the result is, both internally and externally exuberant song.

Here Paul is likely referring to the sort of repeated fillings that happen to Christians who already have the full measure of the Spirit, but are inspired in spiritually high moments to speak and sing. In such cases it is a matter of the indwelling Spirit inspiring and lifting up the individual, not a matter of the individual getting more of the Spirit. The Spirit after all is a person, not a substance one can get more of. You can no more have a little bit of the Spirit in you than you can be a little bit pregnant. Here the singers are caught up in love and wonder and praise and adoration of God by the Spirit that moves them.

John Chrysostom is right in suggesting that Paul is contrasting intoxication that leads to one sort of singing and inspiration which leads to another. Paul is not talking about some second work of grace or of sanctification here, as the contrast makes clear. “For they who sing psalms are filled with the Holy Spirit, as they who sing satanic songs are filled with an unclean spirit. What is meant by ‘with your hearts to the Lord’? It means with close attention and understanding. For those who do not attend closely, merely sing, uttering the words, while their heart is roaming elsewhere.” (Hom. Ephes XIX). Paul means singing from the bottom of one’s heart, and so this is an exhortation to heartfelt and sincere praise and singing, with cognizance of the lyrics’ meaning.

There is a difference between mere ecstatic uttering of nonsensical things, and heartfelt praise which is an act of adoration. Perhaps Paul knew about the Dionysiac rituals in which getting drunk was seen as the means of achieving religious ecstasy or frenzy or spiritual exaltation (cf. Is. 28.7; Philo, Ebr. 147-48; Vita Cont. 85,89; Macrobius, Sat. I.18.1; Hippolytus, Ref. 5.8.6-7). Since early Christian worship took place not only in the context of a home, but also often in the context of a fellowship meal, the issue of drunkenness and worship were not unrelated issues for Pauline Christians as also 1 Cor. 11 demonstrates.

As Gordon Fee points out, what often gets overlooked in the discussion of Ephes. 5.18-21 is that we have a series of participles that modify the exhortation to be filled by/with the Spirit– speaking, singing, giving thanks, and also submitting-- in this case mutual submission of all believers to each other. The Spirit inspires all these activities. Fee also rightly notes that the emphasis here is not on the ecstasy producing potential of the Spirit, but on being filled, or having the fullness of the Spirit’s presence. Nor is the emphasis on being ‘high’ or drunk on the Spirit as opposed to being drunk from wine. Rather the picture is of individuals and a community together being totally given over to the Spirit and the Spirit’s presence and leading.

Philo seems to describe something of the life situation Paul has in mind here: “Now when grace fills the soul, that soul thereby rejoices and smiles and dances, for it is possessed and inspired, so that to many of the unenlightened it may seem to be drunken, crazy, and beside itself....For with those possessed by God not only is the soul wont to be stirred and goaded as it were into ecstasy but the body is also flushed and fiery... and thus many of the foolish are deceived and suppose that the sober are drunk” (De Ebr. 146-48).

Far from being filled with the Spirit leading to dissipation or drunkenness, Paul affirms it leads to wisdom and to the spirit of a sound mind and to the proper adoration and singing that all of God’s creatures should render back to God. In other words, it is the key to living the Christian life in a manner pleasing to God and edifying to others as well as one’s self.

The Spirit is both the means and the substance of the filling, and vs. 19 tells what sort of response the Spirit prompts in the believer. Christians sing hymns to Christ and also give thanks to God through the impulse and empowering of the Spirit. Note the implicitly Trinitarian nature of this discussion. The life of the Spirit-filled community is to be characterized by joyful singing, thanksgiving, and submitting to one another. “If believers were only filled with wisdom, the influence would be impersonal; however the filling by the Spirit adds God’s personal presence, influence, and enablement to walk wisely, all of which are beneficial to believers and pleasing to God. With the indwelling each Christian has all of the Spirit, but the command to be filled by the Spirit enables the Spirit to have all of the believer.” (Fee).

It is possible that the three sorts of songs mentioned in vs. 19 had differing forms. Psalmos probably means the psalms, usually praise songs with accompaniment, since the term originally meant ‘to pluck a string’. Hymnois may be more hymn-like liturgical and acappella pieces which were pre-written, and spiritual songs may mean spontaneous songs from the heart prompted by the Spirit, but we can’t be certain about any of this (cf. Col.3.16).

What these verses suggest is both old and new elements in Christian worship when it came to music. Paul says these songs are to be addressed, surprisingly enough, to each other, rather than just to God! They are to speak to one another in songs of praise. This makes clear that worship is not just a matter of adoration, but also involves edification. Vs. 19c probably does not mean ‘only in your hearts’, but rather ‘in a heartfelt way’ understanding that it is ultimately to the Lord. Perhaps what is meant is that the internal praise is to the Lord, but the external praise is to each other. We are always to do this in the spirit of thanksgiving (cf. 1 Thess. 5.18), and we are to do it, submitting ourselves to one another. It is not to be a protracted display of ego, and as 1 Cor. 14 suggests believers are to defer to each other, taking turns.

Notice too that here, as in 1 Cor. 14 nothing suggests a clergy dominated worship service. Everyone is allowed to join in and participate as the Spirit leads them. However we would be wrong to think this was leaderless worship, for Paul has just listed for us in Ephes. 4 the various leaders of these sorts of congregations when an apostle was not around—- prophets, evangelists, and pastors who are also teachers (Ephes. 4.11). Their job is the equipping of the saints unto the building up of the body of Christ, and certainly worship is one of the activities which accomplishes that building up and unifying of a group of Christians. Can we say more about the music itself? I believe we can.

The parallel passage in Col. 3.16-17 bears close scrutiny. Vs. 16 indicates that the basis of sound and wise teaching and admonition is the word of Christ dwelling in the midst of the community richly. Notice that this exhortation is given to everyone, and the assumption is that this is as appropriate when predicated of all as when these terms are used in 1.28 to describe Paul’s ministry. This exhortation is not directed, for instance, just to the men of the audience, any more than the next exhortation about singing is. Once again, three types of songs seem to be referred to– psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

Psalms would presumably refer primarily to the OT songs we find in the Psalter, hymns could be said to refer to the kind of Christological material we find in Col. 1 (it certainly refers to something sung to a deity), and spiritual songs would refer to songs prompted by the Holy Spirit, perhaps spontaneously. The grammar allows the conclusion that singing is viewed as one form of teaching and admonishing each other, and certainly Ephes. 5.19 mentions speaking the songs to one another. Col. 1 revealed Paul using a hymn for just such an instructional purpose. According to vs. 17 the Christian life is also to be characterized by being and showing oneself thankful for all God has done, and by doing and saying all that one does and says in the name and according to the nature of Christ.

When we see singing as under the heading of instruction and exhortation, it becomes clear once more that worship is seen to be an ethical act, and one aspect of this is that as God is glorified properly, the people are edified. What Paul is stress here is that these songs express the Word of God which is to dwell in the speaker and singer richly. Singing is quite specifically connected here with admonitions. But the end of vs. 16 makes clear that the ultimate aim of this singing is “singing in your heart to God”, or perhaps better said, singing whole-heartedly unto God. Vs. 17 punctuates this even further when Paul insists that whatever we say or do, and especially so in worship it should be done in the name and according to the nature of Christ, giving thanks to the Father through Christ. Christ is seen as the mediator of our relationship with the Father, but here and in Ephes. 5 the implication is as well that Christ is the object of worship and adoration.

Psychologists tell us that music reaches us in places and ways that mere words cannot do. It engages and arouses the affective and right brained side of who we are, and so it is crucial in worship, for in worship the whole person should be engaged, the whole self presenting itself as a living sacrifice to God, consciously, intentionally, purposefully. Worship is not an activity where you should expect to come and lose yourself, but rather to find your true self in the shadow of the Almighty, who comes down to inhabit our praise.


Warren Baldwin, age 49 said...

I'm impressed that when God appeared to men in the Bible they responded in fear, ofen falling to the ground. Men would become friends with God, but the journey began with a healthy does of fear at the awesome nature of God. I want to be God's friend, and God be mine, but must humbly remember the Creator-created nature of our relationship! This thought helps me in worship, too. Thanks for the interesting post.

Marc Axelrod said...

Very good discussion on Christian worship. You have shown clearly that worship should be both Spirit-empowered and scripture-drenched.

When Paul says "speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" in Eph 5:19, I'm trying to picture in my mind what that would have looked like. It seems like we know the Bible so little that it is hard for most Christians to carry out this command.

I was also thinking that it certainly seems to fit the emphasis on truthful speech in this epistle.

Chuck Anderson said...

"Speak to one another" --- One wonders what prompted Paul to include the kenosis hymn in his letter to Philippi. Did he think *first* of Euodia and Synteche and then later of Christ and the implications of the incarnation? Or to put it another way, if these two women had not squabbled would we even have this great spiritual song of Christology?

Here congregational life, theology and worship all come together in a single sitting. I know that good worship involves our eye angled toward God. But does it not also involve an eye cognizant of the presence of brethren nearest us?

Ben Witherington said...

HI Chuck:

Worship is not fellowship, but it does involve the edification of our fellow believers as well as the glorification of God. The focus of worship must however be theocentric, not anthropocentric as it has so often become. Worship is not about giving people what they want and crave, its about giving God what he desires and requires.


Ben W.

Darryl Schafer said...

I have a former professor who thinks that worship is an act of warfare in the book of Revelation. The evil powers fall when God's greatness is declared. I think he's on to something. I'm looking forward to your book.

Charles said...

I'm currently doing a sermon series on Worship and specifically looking into the Holy Spirit's role in worship so this post was especially helpful. Thank you. You cite Gordon Fee in your post. Could you give me the specific source that citation is from?

Ben Witherington said...

The quote from Gordon Fee is from God's Empowering Presence, a real classic that deals with every Holy Spirit reference in the NT.

I have often said that worship is the most important act on earth, as it produces the opposite of what evil intends--- idolatry.


James W Lung said...

A couple thoughts: First, your statement that worship is the most important act that we can perform is profound. Nothing is more important for us to grow into the Spirit-formed image bearers we were created to be than worship.

Second, one cannot approach the subject of worship, especially the subject of music in worship, with modern/post-modern nominalist presuppositions. By this I mean that all of reality is expressed and contained in symbols. Just as words contain the reality they represent, so music is a form that communicates and contains truth in its content. It is impossible to worship the triune God in Spirit and Truth while angrily screaming the name of Jesus to a discordant noise blasting from speakers the decibel level of which will not only cause one to be deaf, but most likely cause one to become sterile.

Third, worship has a grammar. That grammar is most perfectly manifest in the liturgy of the eucharist as the Church has always and everywhere celebrated that holy meal.


Me The B said...

Thanks for another thought provoking post Ben, my comment is not so much directed at your post exclusively but rather at the struggle I have been experiencing for some time and my hope is that your and your readers may have some helpful insights ...

As I read about Christian gatherings in the NT it seems that those gatherings are inclusive and active - with those attending participating in what is happening.

And yet the typical evangelical Christian gatherings we have today are mostly exclusive, passive and the only participation is to join in singing with the band who sings what they want when they want [A gross exaggeration of the song selection process and yet a fair summary I feel] which seems to be at odds with the NT example of people bringing what God gives them and actively participating and even, in an orderly way, setting the direction of what happens when in a meeting, as each person takes their turn.

Yet when people with more knowledge and wisdom than me address those passages they point out what the passage says - inclusive, active, participation in worship - but then add a modifying statement to support the practice of today.

as you did ...

"Notice too that here, as in 1 Cor. 14 nothing suggests a clergy dominated worship service. Everyone is allowed to join in and participate as the Spirit leads them. However ..."

Whilst I concede that Paul has indeed been speaking about Leadership and orderly worship is something that Paul upholds - inclusive, active, participation in worship does not mean that leadership is not existent nor that worship has to be disorderly, in fact 1 Cor 14 finishes with a powerful and even beautiful explanation of a Spirit driven gathering where "each one ... one by one ... not of disorder but of peace" has their part to play and plays it.

I am struggling with why our gatherings remain essentially exclusive, passive, observation [consuming??] of a select few exercising the gifts God gave them [even if they are not CLERGY in name they are clergy in sense] rather than the inclusive, active, participation of the NT.

I am honestly feeling as if I have missed something as time and again I read the NT description of gathered worship and look at the gathered worship of today and see such a huge divide.


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Me the B:

I am afraid that there is plenty of fault to go around, and chiefly what has to be deprogrammed is the consumer mentality approach to worship, not to mention the attempt to treat it as a form of entertainment for the silent masses staring in rapt attention. Pastors and teachers need to educate there people in how to worship, and they share a good deal of blame in disabling worship.


phil said...

Dr. Witherington,

Given the word that Paul uses "psalmos" which you said literally means to "pluck a string;" would you then say we could conclude that instrumental worship was happening in the first century homes as they gathered?

Ben Witherington said...

I think it is likely psalmos implies the use of instruments in early Jewish Christian music.

The Journey Out... said...

No matter how well each of you write your opinions and thoughts...and they are well said and thought out...the church remains caught in the web of being relevant but not revolutionary or what Eugene Peterson calls, subversive.
We all know something is off...we all feel disconnected and disspointed..yet, every Sunday/Saturday..or whatever new time we think will meet the masses..we listen to one man, sing too many songs to long and too loud... leave feeling we should have stayed home.
We so want to matter and meet to and with the ALmighty, with the ones He calls his Bride. I should speak for myself rather then include everyone but I know when I leave church I feel empty and full of longing.

Michael said...

Many of the criticisms that I hear for worship in Western churches today is broad and somewhat vague. I'm not a musician or a poet, but I love music and I appreciate greatly a lot of music that is being used in churches today. But perhaps it is not so much the style of music or the types of instruments being used that is being criticized; rather, it is the spirit in which it is done. I would suggest that no solution/change that stops short of actual personal, spiritual renewal in the worshipers themselves will change -genuinely- the quality of the worship that is being offered. Certainly, worship is not a moment at all; it is lives. One contemporary artist calls it a "lifesong." It is interesting to hear terms like "worship center," "worship band" or even "worship music" -as its own genre (?) being used so popularly now.


Rob Penn said...

It's been a while since I've visited your Blog, Dr. Witherington.

I like this post. Music has been a very important part of my life, and actually is the instrument God used to really spark seriousness in me about my faith. Plus, there's an appeal to the psych. major in me right there at the end. ^_^

I was wondering, how much does the Work that this is taken from discuss worship that isn't musical or performance-like? One example of such a worship experience that I've come to recognize is study. My mentor always told us that, if God has called us to a school or seminary to learn from it and study the material, then we should do that with all our heart and mind the same way we're supposed to sing with all our heart and mind at a worship service.

I actually visited one of his classes where he teaches now, and he announced a quiz by saying "We'll be having a worship experience next week."