Friday, 16 May 2014

Can we worhsip God wrong? An Orthodox Christian explains

Robert Arakaki, an Orthodox Christian, has written an insightful essay here with an Orthodox assessment of 'contemporary' Protestant worship - pop music with catchy tunes, young preachers in jeans delivering hip powerpoint-assisted sermons etc. Needless to say, the article is very critical of contemporary worship styles, showing how far away they have strayed from the style of worship practiced by the early Church and by the Jews, and demonstrating that Orthodox worship instead is solidly rooted in Scripture.

In the course of the article the author also takes a couple of (unwarranted) shots at Catholic liturgy, but virtually all his points about Orthodox liturgy are applicable to Western Catholic liturgy as well (bear in mind that there are also Catholic Churches that use the exact same rites as the Orthodox). So I thought I would provide the most relevant excerpts below. Main points are highlighted by myself.

Mr. Arakaki starts by explaining the origin of Old Testament worship:


First we need to ask: Is there a guiding principle for right worship? St. Stephen, the first martyr, gave a sermon about the history of the Jewish nation. In this sermon he notes that Old Testament worship was “according to the pattern.”
Our forefathers had the tabernacle of the Testimony with them in the desert. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. (Acts 7:44 NIV, italics added).

The phrase is a reference to Exodus 24:15-18 when Moses went up on Mt. Sinai and spent forty days and forty nights up there. On Mt. Sinai Moses was in the direct presence of God receiving instructions about how to order the life of the new Jewish nation. Thus, the guiding principle for Old Testament worship was not creative improvisation nor adapting to contemporary culture but imitation of the heavenly prototype.

Next, he shows that Orthodox (and Catholic) worship is rooted in the Old Testament:


Worship in the Orthodox Church is patterned after the Old Testament Temple. Typically, an Orthodox church has three main areas: the narthex (entry hall), the nave (the central part), and the altar area. This is similar to the Old Testament Tabernacle which consisted of the Outer Court, the Holy Place, and the Most Holy Place (Exodus 26:30-37,27:9-19; I Kings 6:14-36; II Chronicles 3 and 4). The layout of Orthodox churches may seem strange to those who attend contemporary services, but it is patterned after the Old Testament Temple.

Orthodox worship is also patterned after the worship in heaven. At the start of the second half of the Divine Liturgy the church sings:

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.
This is a participation of the heavenly worship described in Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8. For the Orthodox Church this point of the Divine Liturgy is not so much an imitation as a participation in the heavenly worship.

Another way Orthodox worship is patterned after the heavenly worship is the use of incense. Incense was very much a part of the heavenly worship. In his vision of God, Isaiah describes how as the angels sang: “Holy, Holy, Holy” the doors shook and the temple in heaven was filled with incense (Isaiah 6:4). The Apostle John in Revelation describes how the angels in heaven held bowls full of incense and how the heavenly Temple was filled with incense smoke (Revelation 5:8, 8:3-4, 15:8).

Then he goes on to demonstrate that the Old Testament prophecies foretell of Orthodox/Catholic worship:


Orthodox worship is more than an imitation of Old Testament worship. It is also a fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. The Old Testament prophets besides describing the coming Messiah also described worship in the Messianic Age. Within the book of Malachi is a very interesting prophecy:
My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord. (Malachi 1:11)

What is striking about Malachi’s prophecy is the reference to incense. Where before incense was offered in the Jerusalem Temple, in the Messianic Age incense would be offered by the non-Jews... Thus, whenever an Orthodox priest swings the censer and the sweet fragrance fills the church one experiences a direct fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. Protestants may complain about how strange incense is, but they should realize that the use of incense was an integral part of Old Testament worship and is one of the key markers of authentic biblical worship in the Messianic Age.

Malachi’s prophecy about “pure offerings” is a reference to the Eucharist. The Jewish rabbis taught that when the Messiah comes all sacrifices would be abolished with the exception of one, the Todah or Thanksgiving sacrifice. This was fulfilled in the sacrament of the Eucharist, that is, the last supper Christ had with his followers when he gave thanks over the bread and the wine (Luke 22:17-20). The word eucharist comes from the Greek word evcharisto “to give thanks.” Jesus’ statement about the cup of the new covenant meant that he was about to inaugurate the Messianic Age.


For the Apostle Paul the Eucharist was just as important as the Gospel message. As he went about planting churches across the Roman Empire, Paul taught them the Good News of Jesus Christ and how to celebrate the Eucharist. This can be seen in Paul’s formal phrasing: “For I received from the Lord what I also pass on to you….” in I Corinthians 11:23 for the Eucharist and in I Corinthians 15:3 for the Good News (Gospel). Paul’s phrase: “What I received from the Lord….” parallels that in Exodus 25:9: “exactly like the pattern I will show you.” The infrequent celebration of the Eucharist in Evangelical and Pentecostal worship shows how far they have moved from historic Christian worship.


Mr. Arakaki also points out that the common view of Protestants that Old Testament worship has been abolished by the New Covenant and Christians are to worship God in a completely different way is contrary to the Gospel:

The Evangelical approach to worship seems to be based on the assumption that Jesus abolished the Old Testament. Because of this Evangelicals ignore the Old Testament teaching on Tabernacle worship and focus on the New Testament for instruction on how to worship God. The paucity of New Testament passages on worship has been taken as grounds for an anything goes approach to worship. But, this assumption is wrong. Jesus made it clear he did not come to abolish the old covenant but rather to fulfill it:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17).
An examination of the gospels shows Jesus’ adherence to the Old Testament pattern of worship. Jesus was in the habit of attending the synagogue services (Mark 1:21;Mark 3:1; Mark 6:2). Likewise, he observed the great Jewish festivals at the Temple: Passover (Luke 2:41), Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:1-13), and Passover (Matthew 26:18; Mark 14:14; Luke 22:7-11). Like Jews throughout history, Jesus considered the Passover meal the highlight of the year. Jesus told his followers: “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” (Luke 22:15)


Likewise, we find Jesus’ apostles continuing the Old Testament pattern of worship. Following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the first Christians met at the Temple courts (Acts 2:36). The Temple court was a focal point for the early Christians (Acts 5:20). The apostles preached the Good News in hope that the Jews would accept Jesus as the Messiah. Just as significant we find them relying on the ritual prayers used by Jews. This can be seen in the fact that a literal translation of Greek in Acts 2:42 would be “the prayers.” We find that Paul, like Jesus, attended the synagogue (Acts 13:5, 14; 14:1; 17:2, 19:8). Even when Paul had become a Christian he continued to make it his habit to attend the synagogue services...


Where Evangelicals assume a sharp discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, the Orthodox Church sees a strong continuity between the two. The Evangelicals’ assumption of a sharp discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments has led them to ignore the Old Testament teachings on worship... As the Jewish Messiah Jesus Christ took the Jewish forms of worship and filled them with new content and meanings. Orthodox worship took the Jewish synagogue and Temple worship and made them Christocentric.

He goes on to question both the origins and the fruits of contemporary worship:


The classic shape of Christian worship consists of two parts: the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of Holy Communion. This was the way all Christians worshiped until the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s... The Protestant teaching “the Bible alone” resulted in the sermon becoming the center of worship. Priests were replaced by Bible expositors, and the altar was replaced by the podium. This marked a decisive break from the historic form of Christian worship.

But the break from historic worship did not end there. In the early 1800s a more emotional and expressive form of worship became popular on the American frontier. Then, in the early 1900s Pentecostalism emerged with its emphasis on the baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, and other charismatic manifestations. Where mainstream Protestantism stressed sober singing and the rational reading of the Bible, Pentecostalism stressed ecstatic worship and experiencing the Holy Spirit...

Just as influential on Protestant worship was pop music popularized by music groups like the Beatles. The pop culture of the 1960s shaped in profound ways the values and outlooks of the baby boomer generation. A cultural gap widened between the more traditional church services that relied on organs or pianos and had traditional hymns, and the more contemporary church services that used guitars and sang simpler and catchier praise songs. Many churches were split as a result [of] “worship wars” — hymns and organs versus praise bands and praise songs.

The third influential movement was the church growth movement. Though less visible to the public eye, it influenced the way many pastors understood and ran the church. The church growth movement brought market analysis and business techniques to the way the church was run. With the introduction of the concept of the seeker friendly church, church worship moved away from edification of the faithful to evangelizing outsiders. Numerical growth was seen as proof of God’s blessing. This is exemplified by mega churches packed with thousands of enthusiastic worshipers. However, despite its good intentions the church growth movement introduced several serious distortions. Worship of God often became spiritual entertainment. The sermon shifted from an exposition of Scripture to selecting Bible verses to support teachings on how to live a fulfilling life. In seeking to tailor the Christian message to non-Christians many pastors have dumbed down their message with the result that many of their members know very little of the core doctrines. Just as troubling is the fact that many churches have become spiritual machines that rely more [on] organizational techniques, high tech electronics, and social psychology than the grace of the Holy Spirit.

In short, Protestant Christianity has undergone a major uprooting as a result of the influence of Pentecostalism, contemporary Christian worship, and the church growth movement.

Finally, he wraps up his analysis by pointing out that Scripture speaks of the necessity of worshipping God in a manner acceptable to and prescribed by Him:

A non-Orthodox might ask: What difference does it make to God how we worship? The better question would be: What does the Bible teach about worship? Does the Bible teach it makes a difference how we worship God? The answer is God does care about the worship we offer Him. We read in I Peter 2:5:
…you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (NIV, emphasis added).
This concern for proper worship goes all the way back to Leviticus 22:29:
When you sacrifice a thank offering to the Lord, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted on your behalf (see also Leviticus 19:5) (NIV, emphasis added).
If we are instructed to offer “acceptable” sacrifices, this implies we can offer improper worship that will be rejected by God.


If salvation is about a right relationship with God then worship plays an important part in having a right relationship with God. Before the Fall Adam and Eve enjoyed unbroken communion with God; after the Fall they became alienated from God and mankind has suffered as a result. God has been at work throughout human history working to bring us back into fellowship with him. This work of restoration reached its climax with the coming of Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2). The author of Hebrews stresses that Jesus Christ is the High Priest of the New Covenant (5:7-10; 9:9-14) and as a result of His death on the cross we are able to enter into the Most Holy Place (Hebrews 10:19-25) and take our place in the heavenly worship (Hebrews 12:22-24). In Revelation 7 is a description of the great ingathering of the Jews and the Gentiles in worship at the throne of God.

Our ultimate destiny is not to be Bible experts but to have communion with God... The heavenly worship described in Revelation is not in some far off future but can be experienced in the Sunday liturgy in an Orthodox church. In Revelation 22:3 we read:

And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. They shall see His face and His name shall be on their foreheads (NKJV).
The Greek word “serve” can also be translated “worship.” As we stand in worship facing the altar we behold the throne of God; this is because the altar, like the Ark of the Covenant, is where God’s presence dwells. The phrase we shall see God “face to face” finds its fulfillment when we face the altar looking at the icon of Christ the Pantocrator (the All Ruling One). The icon is more than a religious picture, it is also a window into heaven. Lastly, “His name shall be on their foreheads” is fulfilled in the Orthodox sacrament of chrismation where the priest anoints the foreheads of converts with sacred oil forming the sign of the cross. Every Orthodox Christian has this spiritual seal on their forehead as a sign of their belonging to Christ.

Thus, it is not Orthodox worship that is so strange and different but contemporary worship. Orthodox worship only seems to be strange because it is not of this world. It is part of the worship of the eternal kingdom.

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