Soli Deo Gloria

by Mike Stine

The concept of what worship is and isn’t has become a battleground of high stakes and many casualties within the church today.  While theological battles still rage among the leaders of the church the crux of debate in many churches has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the attending church members and the issue of worship.

There are many things that are thought of worship and what it should and shouldn’t be.  To many people, worship is simply the songs that are sung during a church service.  To others, it is narrowed even further to include only a particular genre of music most commonly known as “praise and worship” music.

There are arguments whether new “contemporary” songs should be used so that new and younger church members will be able to relate to the music being played in the church.  The other side of the argument is that this new music is strange to older members who have sung the same songs for sixty years.  Church leadership does not wish to isolate or offend older members by “phasing out” their older brand of worship.  Finances even rear their ugly head in the debate as it is the older members who are most often the biggest financial supporters of the church.  Some have even threatened to withdraw financial support from a church unless they get the kind of worship that they desire to see within their church.

Indeed, while such debates have some merit, I wish to say that I believe that on the whole, this debate is worthless and the point is moot.  The prophet Micah will support my statement.

The debate over worship is not over the forms of worship, as it often appears to be, but rather over who or what is worshipped.  The answer should be obvious that we worship God but the Lord is so often lost in this debate.  Immediately when we start arguing over old hymns or new choruses, we’ve taken the focus off of God and on to the method of worship.

Advocates of each side will state that the form of worship is important but they lack scriptural support.  The Bible is silent on how the church today is to worship.  There were strict guidelines given for tabernacle and temple worship but we worship in neither one today, nor do we have Levites who would be able to perform the necessary duties within our churches.

In truth, the Bible is silent even on the day that we worship.  The Israelites worshipped on the seventh day of the week.  The early church was still very much Jewish and began their worship in the same manner as the Israelites but at some point began meeting on Sundays.  No biblical command was ever given to change the day of worship, or to keep it the same.

The day of worship is just one of many things that the Bible is silent on concerning how we are to worship God.  I believe that this is because God in His infinite wisdom knew that different cultures would worship differently.  A white church is most likely going to worship differently than an African-American church and an African-American church is most likely going to worship differently than an African church.

So what is it that truly matters to the Lord?  The great composer Johann Sebastian Bach signed each one of his masterpieces soli deo gloria.  This means “to God alone the glory.”  This is what our worship should be and where our emphasis both should and MUST lie.

The people of Micah’s day had much the same problem that we see in our churches today.  The people of Micah’s day were caught up in the form of worship and ignoring who they were actually worshipping.  To the Israelites credit, they were at least given a form worship of sacrifices and feasts that they were to follow.  Today’s church has no mandate from God that states hymns are the only acceptable worship or that the Lord only wants to hear modern songs.  The Israelites got lost in the form of their worship, today we have gotten lost in the form and then we argue over how it is supposed to be done.

In Micah 6:6-8, the prophet asks a question and then answers it himself.

“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before the exalted God?  Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?  Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?  He has shown you, O man, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Israel had been given a form of worship that they were to follow.  They had sacrifices and feasts they were supposed to do and attend throughout the year.  Still Micah asks the question of with what he should come before the Lord.  The response he gets isn’t one that says, “I already told you all the things you should bring to each sacrifice.”  Instead the response he gets has nothing to do with form at all.

In the church today, almost all denominations and churches hold some things in common.  There are songs that are sung, an offering is taken.  Scripture is read, either as part of the service or as part of a sermon.  Some sort of biblical truth is communicated to the people whether in the form of a 40 minute sermon or a ten minute speech.  These are the equivalent to Micah’s sacrifices.  The New Testament makes reference to these as parts of early church services.  Micah’s sacrifices have specific instructions on how each one is to be done but the New Testament service has no such specifics.  This is inconsequential however.

In Micah’s response to his own questions, he says that the form of worship does not matter.  All of the sacrifices that were being done didn’t matter.  Today, all of the songs that are being sung don’t matter.  What matters is Micah’s response to his own question.

We have already been shown what is good and right.  We are to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.  These are open ended commandments.  The Israelites could attend their required sacrifices and return home and live their lives as normal.  We may go to our worship services, sing our songs, listen to our sermon, and return home and live life as normal.  What Micah hands down to the people is far more difficult to do.

There can be no “act justly” service.  We cannot gather together once a week and “act justly” and say that we’ve fulfilled the requirement.  It isn’t even enough to act justly most of the time.  I know that I act justly at least 8 hours a day; when I’m asleep!  This isn’t enough to fulfill what has been asked.

How does this relate to worship?  There are many ways this passage can be applied.  The easiest is that worship is not a one hour a week experience and must instead be lived throughout the week.  Returning to J.S. Bach however, worship is to bring glory to God alone.  These actions brought glory to God.  Acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly before the Lord brought glory to God.  It was not the forms that brought glory to God.

The offerings in and of themselves mean nothing to God, he has no need of rams and bulls because he created them.  In Psalm 50:8-10 the Lord says, “I do not rebuke you for your sacrifices or your burnt offerings, which are ever before me.  I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills.”

None of this is to say that the forms of worship are useless.  Even when God criticizes the Israelites worship as meaningless, he does not order them to stop.  He calls their sacrifices detestable and orders them to stop bring him blemished bulls and rams but he does not do away with the entire system.  The system itself was not broke.  God had created it and it was perfect.

The sacrificial system of the Old Testament was very detailed and even in very fine details, they pointed to a coming redeemer who would be the ultimate sacrifice.  The forms were perfect in the way that they had been set up.  It was the heart of the people who mindlessly went about the rituals who ruined the system.  A sacrificial system meant to point to a coming redeemer meant nothing if the people did not take time to think about it.  Likewise, Old Testament worship was abhorred by God when the people did not present what they were asked or did not present their best.

This has a direct correlation to today because we are making many of the same mistakes as the Israelites.  The form that we have is not broken.  I do not advocate throwing out singing altogether and spend our time of worship loving mercy and acting justly.

However, our worship is meant to point us to God.  Just as the Old Testament system pointed to Jesus, our worship should point to him both for what he has accomplished and as a king that we wait to return.  Middle Age cathedrals were specifically built to draw the eye upward in the hope that it would cause the viewer to focus on God.

This is what today’s worship should be all about.  It does not matter if we worship in a cathedral or a shopping mall, but the goal is the same.  A worship service is to glorify God and focus on Him.  When we gather together in the Lord’s name, we are there to bring glory to Him and Him alone.

We often hold traditions above the worship of God.  We sing the songs that we sing because we have sung them for years.  If anyone actually evaluates them however, some songs have very little to do with God or use language that people no longer understand.  I love the history and everything that Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” stands for, but honestly, I doubt I could find a dozen people in my church that know what a “bulwark” is.  I would not say that we should get rid of the song but I do suggest that people cannot worship God by using words of which they do not know the meaning.

On the other hand, “praise and worship” songs are often anything but praise and worship.  The name separates them from other songs by making it sound like other songs are not worshipful.  In fact, many praise and worship songs focus more on the singer and their emotions than they do on God.

Soloists, praise bands, and dramatists are all very useful resources in the church today.  A drama can provide a visual representation of an idea that a sermon or a song simply cannot.  Soloists can be both pleasing to listen to and allow a congregation to focus on the words of a song more than they can while singing.  However, the line should not be crossed where the church elevates the people who do such things.

People with gifts that are used in the church may be recognized as being gifted.  However, the praise should go to God who made them that way.  Likewise, the medium that the message is given through should not be overemphasized.  While a drama or a song may be considered entertaining, this should not be the driving purpose behind having such things.

The goal of having performers within the church returns to bring glory to God and to God alone.  Some churches can have performers in it and they can be wonderful in facilitating worship of God.  Other churches quickly lose the focus of why the performers are there.  They begin talking about how good the band is or how talented the dramatists are.  When this is done without giving God the glory for the gifts, the purpose is lost.

It is my belief that our form of worship does not matter as long as our goal is to glorify God.  The argument is often used that the end justifies the means in order to justify sinful actions that have a good outcome.  In this case however, I believe that the axiom applies.  I can think of no sinful action that brings directly brings about the glory of God.  (There are sinful actions that indirectly bring about the glory of God.  For example, terrorist attacks against the US brought people to focus on God and cry out to Him.  However, this was a secondary effect and obviously not the intended purpose of the attacks.)

As in the prophet Micah’s day, the form of our worship does not matter as much as our focus.  Our sacrifices and offerings mean nothing if they are directed to wrong the thing.  Micah calls us to walk humbly before God.  It is our walk and our worship that needs to be examined, not the form of our sacrifices.

In conclusion, there is a simple litmus test that we may apply to our worship.  It may eliminate many struggles and arguments if we remember it.  I call it the rule of soli deo gloria.  We simply need to ask ourselves if our worship bring glory to God and Him alone.  If our worship does not, we need to make changes.  If it does, there is no need for debate because we are already doing what is asked of us.

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