What would it mean for our worship to be truly shaped by Scripture? Christians are people of the book. Conservative Evangelical Christians, in particular, demand that their beliefs and lives be governed by Scripture. God’s inspired Word is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16–17). Therefore, for Christ-honoring sanctification to take place, the lives of Christians must be governed and saturated by the living and active Word of God. And for this same reason, corporate worship must also be governed and saturated by the Word; since public worship both reveals belief and forms belief, and thus it must be shaped by Scripture.
Yet, I think it’s safe to say that most modern evangelical Christians have an entirely different conception of corporate worship. Instead of a life-forming drama, corporate worship has become a concert plus a lecture, a time where we sing some songs that give authentic expression to our hearts and listen to a sermon that hopefully will give us some practical advice for the week. Most evangelical Christians would quickly assert that Scripture in general provides for us the necessary theological foundation and content for our corporate worship, but not much more, particularly when you venture into questions of the aesthetics of our worship, the cultural forms our songs employ.
Instead, what I will argue in this essay is that in order for worship to properly form God’s people as God has intended, every aspect of our worship—including our worship aesthetics, must be formed and shaped by the Word of God.
This emphasis upon biblical authority over our corporate worship applies in at least four areas; First, the elements of our worship must be regulated by the Word of God. The sufficient Word has given those ordinary means of grace that, through their regular use, will shape believers to live as disciples who observe everything Jesus taught: These elements have been clearly prescribed for the church in the New Testament: First, Paul commands Timothy, in the context of teaching him how to behave in the house of God, “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture (1 Tim 4:13). He repeats similar commands in Colossians 4:16 and 1 Thessalonians 5:27.
Paul also commands Timothy to “devote yourself . . . to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim 4:13) and “preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2).
Third, Paul commands that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and for all who are in high positions (1 Tim 2:1). He commands the Colossians to “continue steadfastly in prayer (4:2), and to the Ephesians he admonishes, “praying at all time in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication . . . making supplication for all the saints” (6:18).
A fourth biblically-prescribed element might not actually be a separate element at all, but rather a form of Scripture reading or prayer, and that is singing. In both Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, Paul commands gathered believers to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, thereby “singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph 5:19) and “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Col 3:16).
Fifth, Christ commanded in his Great Commission to the disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
And finally, Paul told the Corinthian church that he passed on “the Lord’s Supper” to the church, having received it from the Lord himself (1 Cor 11:20, 23). The regular, disciplined use of these means of grace progressively forms believers into the image of Jesus Christ; these Spirit-ordained elements are the means through which Christians “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [them], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12–13).
Second, the content of our worship elements must be regulated by the Word of God. Clearly what we teach and preach, what we pray, and what we sing must contain the Word of God, or at very least express sentiments consistent with the Word of God.
Third, the order of our worship should be regulated by the Word of God. If the primary purpose of corporate worship is the edification of believers—God forming us into mature disciple-worshipers, then even the structure of our services should follow what God has given to us in Scripture. God made clear this purpose when he instituted corporate worship assemblies in the OT, establishing a structural pattern that continues also into the NT. God often calls these assemblies of worship “memorials,” meaning more than just a passive remembrance of something, but actually a reenactment of God’s works in history for his people such that the worshipers are shaped over and over again by what God has done. Beginning at Mt. Sinai (Exod 19–24), God instituted a particular order of what the OT frequently calls the “solemn assemblies” of Israel. This order reflects what I like to call a “theo-logic” in which in the assembly, God’s people reenact through the order of what they do God’s atoning work on their behalf. For sake of time, I will just summarize this structure:
God reveals himself and calls his people to worship
God’s people acknowledge and confess their need for forgiveness
God provides atonement
God speaks his Word
God’s people respond with commitment
God hosts a celebratory feast
This same theo-logic characterized the progression of sacrifices within the tabernacle assemblies and the dedication of Solomon’s temple (2 Chron 15–17). In each case, the structure of the worship assemblies follows a theo-logical order in which the worshipers reenact the covenant relationship they have with God through the atonement he provided, culminating with a feast that celebrates the fellowship they enjoy with God because of what he has done for them.
While the particular rituals present in Hebrew worship pass away for the NT church, the book of Hebrews tells us that these OT rituals were “a copy and shadow of heavenly things” (8:5). Thus while the shadows fade away, the theo-logic of corporate worship remains the same: we are reenacting God’s atoning work on our behalf when we gather for corporate worship. Significantly, Hebrews teaches that when we gather for services of worship, through Christ we are actually joining with the real worship taking place in the heavenly Jerusalem of which those Old Testament rituals were a mere shadow. And so it is important to recognize that the two records we have in Scripture of heavenly worship also follow the same theo-logic modeled in the OT. When Isaiah was given a vision of heavenly worship in Isaiah 6, the order of what happens mirrors the same theo-logic as that given to Israel for its worship. Likewise, when John is given a similar vision of heavenly worship, the order of what happens is the same. From creation to consummation, the corporate worship of God’s people is a memorial—a reenactment—of the “theo-logic” of true worship: God’s call for his people to commune with him through the sacrifice of atonement that he has provided, listening to his Word, responding with praise and obedience, and culminating with a beautiful picture of perfect communion with God in the form of a feast. This reenactment in a corporate worship service of God’s work for us is what will progressively edify us over time to live out our relationship with God through Christ as his mature disciple-worshipers.
This is why historic worship services, intentionally structured on the basis of this biblical theo-logic, have always followed a standard order: Worshipers begin with God’s call for them to worship him, followed by adoration and praise. They then confess their sins to him and receive assurance of pardon in Christ. They thank him for their salvation, they hear his Word preached, and they respond with dedication. And the climax of all historic Christian worship has always been expression of communion with God, either through drawing near to him in prayer, or more often in historic liturgies, through celebrating the Lord’s Table. To eat at Christ’s Table is the most powerful expression that Christians are accepted by him. All of the Scripture readings, prayers, and songs in this order are carefully chosen for their appropriateness in a particular function within the gospel-shaped structure.
Fourth, the forms of our worship should be regulated by the Word of God. We must remember that the Bible is not simply a static collection of theological propositions. Rather, Scripture is a collection of God-inspired literary forms that express his truth, and all of Scripture, including its aesthetic aspects, carry the weight of divine authority. Therefore, as we choose artistic forms of expression in our modern cultural context, we must be sure that the way in which those forms communicate truth correspond to the way in which Scripture itself aesthetically communicates truth.
There has been in recent years somewhat of a recovery of this emphasis on the importance of biblical authority over the elements, content, and structure of corporate worship and an understanding of corporate worship as disciple-forming covenant renewal.
What has not yet been recovered in my opinion is a recognition of the disciple-forming power of Scripture-formed music. However, what kinds of poetic and aesthetic expressions God chose to use in the communication of his truth in Scripture should inform the kinds of contemporary musical expressions Christians produce as they communicate the gospel and disciple believers.
Worship Forms Regulated by Scripture
We may—and should—express God’s truth in new ways, but the aesthetic way we choose to newly express biblical truth, even our musical expressions, should accurately correspond to the aesthetic way God chose to express truth in his Word. Scripture must govern not only what is said from the pulpit or the lyrics of the hymns—Scripture’s forms must govern our worship forms. In other words, if we believe in verbal-plenary inspiration, then the meaning of the aesthetic forms we employ in our contemporary worship must accurately correspond to the meaning Scripture’s aesthetic forms embody.
This idea of Scripture governing even the forms of our worship, including our songs, flows directly from the covenant-renewal, gospel-shaped theology of worship we just discussed. Songs within this covenant-renewal worship serve one of two functions: (1) Often psalms and hymns serve as God’s words to us, either directly quoting from or paraphrasing Scripture itself. (2) Psalms and hymns can also serve as our response to God’s revelation.
With both cases, choice of songs depends upon how the lyrical content fits within the dialogical, gospel-shaped covenant renewal service. Songs are not lumped together into a musical “set,” but rather interspersed with Scripture readings and prayers throughout the dialogical, gospel-shaped service.
The goal of covenant-renewal worship is discipleship—building up the body (1 Cor 14:26). Every aspect of the service is chosen, not for how it will give “authentic expression” to the worshipers or give them an experience of God’s presence (see below), but rather how it will build them up, maturing them by the Word of God.
The music itself is actually not very prominent in this theology of worship. Music is important—as I’ve discussed, it provides an interpretation of the theology of the lyrics and gives expression to that interpretation. But music is secondary. The music is selected and performed to modestly support the truth with sentiments that “accord to sound doctrine,” and an emphasis is given to reverence, self-control, sobriety, and dignity in how the songs are led, accompanied, and performed.
Contrary to caricatures, this kind of worship is deeply emotional, but the music is not intended to stimulate or arouse emotion; rather, deep affections of the soul are stirred by the Holy Spirit through his Word, and music simply gives language to appropriate responses to the Word. Emotion in covenant-renewal worship is not often immediate, visceral, or flashy—rather, it is felt deeply in the soul.3 In fact, particularly because of commands in Scripture (like Titus 2:1) that Christians are to be dignified and self-controlled, care is given to avoid music that would cause a worshiper to lose control. Christians with this theology recognized that although physical feelings are good, they must be controlled lest our “belly” (a Greek metaphor for bodily passions) be our god (Phil 3:19). Rather, since reverence, dignity, and self-control are qualities that accord with sound doctrine, music is chosen that will nurture and cultivate these qualities and the affections of the soul like compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Col 3:12) and love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:23). This theology takes note of the fact that qualities like intensity, passion, enthusiasm, exhilaration, or euphoria are never described in Scripture as qualities to pursue or stimulate, and they are never used to define the nature of spiritual maturity or the essence of worship.
Musical choices from this perspective are not about new vs. old or the canonization of one kind of music; rather, it is about choosing musical forms that best accord with a covenant-renewal theology of worship.
Since the earliest days of the church, theologians with a covenant-renewal theology of worship cautioned against using music in worship that was simply designed to stir up feelings. Clement of Alexandria, for example, insisted,
But we must abominate extravagant music, which enervates men’s souls, and leads to changefulness—now mournful, and then licentious and voluptuous, and then frenzied and frantic.
Rather, Clement argued that the church’s hymnody should employ “temperate harmonies.” In A New Song for an Old World, Calvin Stapert notes how uniform this understanding of music was among early pastors and theologians.
This emphasis was renewed during the Reformation. Martin Luther and other German reformers insisted that worship music embody reverence. For example, Johann Konrad Dannhauer required that music be “sacred, glowing with love, humble, dignified, the praise of God sung by the voice of men and instruments with becoming grace and majesty,” contrasted with “profane music, which is unspiritual, frivolous, proud, irreverent.” Likewise, Balthasar Meisner insisted,
Let all levity, and sensualism be absent [in worship music]. On the contrary, let gravity and a pious intent of the mind prevail, which does not contemplate and pursue bare harmony but devoutly fits and joins to it the inmost desires and emotions. For unless a ready spirit is joined to the turns of the voice and a vigilant and fervent heart to the varied words, we weary God and ourselves in vain with that melody. For not our voice but our prayer, not musical chords but the heart, and a heart not clamoring but loving, sings in the ear of God.
Calvin, too, insisted that music used for worship fit its solemn purpose, having “weight” and “majesty” rather than being “light” or “frivolous.”
Christians have affirmed this understanding for centuries. They sometimes disagreed over some aspects of what was acceptable, such as Calvin insisting only on unaccompanied psalms; nevertheless, since they had a similar covenant-renewal theology of worship, they all agreed that worship ought to be characterized by reverence and that some kinds of music embodied messages that simply did not accord with sound doctrine. We can see this evidenced by the fact that although Lutherans and Calvinists disagreed about whether we are permitted to sing hymns, for example, they shared tunes among their groups quite freely. They had the same understanding of what kind of music accords with sound doctrine.
Most evangelicals today view art forms as simply pretty packaging for truth or at best a way to “energize” the truth. Worship music, for example is just a way to make truth interesting and engaging in worship. But imaginative forms are not incidental to truth—they are essential to the truth, expressly because they are fundamental to the way Scripture expresses truth. Therefore, like with Scripture, contemporary art forms help to express the imaginative aspect of truth in ways that propositional statements alone cannot; they communicate not just the what of biblical content, but also how that content is imagined.
Thus, the kinds of imaginative forms God chose to communicate his truth in Scripture should shape our art forms. The Bible’s aesthetics should be the source of our contemporary worship aesthetics. Choices of what art forms we will use to express God’s truth and worship him are not merely about what is pleasing, authentic, or engaging; what forms we choose for our worship must be based on the criterion of whether they are true—whether they correspond to God’s reality as it is imagined in his Word.
The critical point is to extend biblical authority to every aspect of our worship—elements, content, structure, and aesthetics: If we understand the formative role of corporate worship in making disciples, and if we consequently recognize that such disciple-forming corporate worship must be formed by Scripture, then we must be sure that our liturgies and how we express God’s truth aesthetically in corporate worship are similar in meaning to how Scripture expresses God’s truth. Scripture must be the authority of both the content and forms of our worship.