Intellect, Worship, and the Irreducible Complexity of the Christian Life

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(This is an article I wrote a couple years ago in a different context. The specific target audience at that time was Christian scholars, and I’m developing the point that the Christian life must be motivated by adoration of Christ. But the point of the article is that the principle at hand applies to all Christians, not just intellectuals. So I offer it for your edification here on PS23.)

kyrie eleisonWhat does it mean to adore someone? We romanticize adoration: “I just adore her. She’s such a wonderful person!” Or we trivialize it: “What an adorable puppy!” Now these are normal developments in word usage, so I’m not complaining, but it does present the possibility that when we come to the idea of adoring the Son of God our understanding of adoration may be somewhat diluted. But adoration for Christ is a necessary element of Christian thinking, so we would do well to ponder this topic in some depth.

Let’s begin again by using a more precise word: worship. When a deity is its object, adoration is worship, and Scripture has much to say about that. In fact, when we begin to trace the theme of worship in Scripture, we find ourselves overwhelmed with the sheer ubiquity of the concept. The actions and attitudes that cluster around the concept of worship in the great story of Scripture are impossible even to summarize, much less explore, in a blog post. My goal here will be to make the point that an intentional life of worship is a basic component of a life that is authentically Christian—for intellectuals no less than any other Christian.

Worship: Do, Think, Feel

When you mention worship to most American Christians, their thoughts will immediately focus on weekly church services, usually on Sunday. They think of a program of music, readings, prayers, and teaching attended by a group of people who sit in rows of seats and are led by a few that have particular skills and positions of leadership. Now worship does (or can) indeed happen at these gatherings, but worship is a much broader and more comprehensive concept in Scripture.

Worship in the Bible is characterized as a kind of serving—think of a priest serving God in the temple, not just a slave serving his master (the same word is used for both in the OT). A clear example of this is at the beginning of Israel’s national history, as they are awaiting God’s deliverance from their enslavement in Egypt. God’s word to Pharaoh through Moses was, “Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness” (Exod 5:1). A feast, or festival, is an organized worship event. When Moses confronts Pharaoh again, he relays God’s demand this way: “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness” (7:16), and this demand is given five more times until Israel is finally released. God was calling Israel out of Egypt not just to save their lives, but to establish a covenant relationship in which they would worship him. This Hebrew word for serving is used a number of times throughout the OT to refer to Israel’s covenant worship of God: they “served” him through the prescribed sacrifices and prayers.

serving-handsThe idea of service as worship becomes even clearer in Deuteronomy, where warnings against idolatry are worded in terms of serving idols: “And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish” (Deut 8:19). Later, after the nation had fallen into the very sin Moses warned them against, Samuel urged them to put away their idols and “direct your heart to the LORD and serve him only” (1 Sam 7:3). So worshiping God means being his servant: at his disposal entirely, ready to do as he has commanded, including giving him honor, praise, and love.

Second, worship in Scripture is very often expressed physically. In fact, one of the key words for worship is actually a word that denotes bowing down—even prostrating oneself—and this vividly pictures the heart attitude of a true worshiper in Scripture. Just notice how people respond when they encounter the greatness of God:

  • And when [the Israelites] heard that the LORD had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped [bowed down] (Exod 4:31)
  • Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! (Ps 95:6)

And this is not rare or reserved for moments of extreme drama—it is a common way of responding in worship to God (notice how often it occurs in the gospels when people recognized Jesus for who he really is!). It comes as no surprise, then, that the idea of fearing God is closely related to worship in Scripture:

The LORD made a covenant with them and commanded them, “You shall not fear other gods or bow yourselves to them or serve them or sacrifice to them, but you shall fear the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt with great power and with an outstretched arm. You shall bow yourselves to him, and to him you shall sacrifice. (1 Kgs 17:35-36).

Notice how the various notions of worship weave together: fear, bow, serve, sacrifice. Worship, then, is a response to God by people, a complex of actions and attitudes that express the heart orientation of a creature before the Creator: humbled, devoted, and ready to serve and give honor to their Redeeming Creator.

Christian intellectual, is this how you orient yourself toward your task? Are your endeavors motivated by loving, humble service to Jesus Christ and his gospel, or are you more concerned about being seen as the victor in a debate? Of course, these are not mutually exclusive goals, but it makes a big difference if the former undergirds the latter.

Worship as a way of life

As we read both testaments we see that this multifaceted dynamic of worship is not just for gatherings organized for that purpose. Both testaments present worship as a way of life. Moses makes the connection in Deut 10:12-13:

And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?

We could think of Rom 12:1 as a New Testament version of this: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Worship in Scripture is not primarily about gathering together to do a prescribed set of activities. Rather, that is simply one way to worship (a vital one, as we will see below). Worship is a heart attitude that is lived out through everything you do. In the OT the sacrificial system was the centerpiece of organized worship. Paul picks up this image and says that our very lives are to be offered as sacrifices to God: lives devoted to serving him. In fact, the term “spiritual worship” in Rom 12:1 is a direct reference to the theme of worship-as-service that we saw in the OT.

What, then, is a lifestyle of worship? Paul gives us the fundamentals in Rom 12:1—a life conducted as a living, holy, acceptable sacrifice. Paul is speaking against the backdrop of God’s covenant with Israel through Moses, where sacrifices were formal acts of worship. Paul says that now in God’s covenant with us through Christ, we offer ourselves as sacrifices, yet with a key difference. In the OT, you didn’t take a sacrificial animal home with you after completing the ritual—the animal was slaughtered. In contrast, we continue to live lives that are holy and acceptable to God, because we have offered ourselves up to serve (i.e., worship) him.

I like to think of this in terms of “devotion.” In some ecclesiastical traditions it is common to think of daily interaction with God through Scripture and prayer as “having my devotions.” According to a popular dictionary, being devoted means being dedicated to someone, or “feeling or showing great love, commitment, or loyalty to somebody…especially over a long period of time.” It’s helpful to think of worship lifestyle as a life that is devoted to Christ. And, far more than just a short time of Bible reading and prayer in the morning, this devotion will shape every act, every thought, every decision—every aspect of life under the sun.

Christian intellectual, do your efforts to engage philosophical, theological, and cultural issues arise from a life that is holistically devoted to Christ as a living sacrifice of worship? If public ministry is not fueled by private worship, then the root of hypocrisy has already begun to grow in your life.

Worship as a community essential

Although it is evident that worship involves all of life individually, we must not jump to the conclusion that worship is an entirely “personal” or private matter. In order for worship to be fully expressed, it must be shared in the community of faith. This principle comes through dramatically in Ps 34:1-3. As the psalmist begins to praise God he just can’t keep it to himself—he invites the community to join him:

I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the LORD;
let the humble hear and be glad.
Oh, magnify the LORD with me,
and let us exalt his name together!

Church Pews --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Although the New Testament doesn’t define for us exactly what corporate worship is supposed to look like, it does show us that gathering together as worshipers is a nonnegotiable of the Christian life. We need look no further than Heb 10:24-25, “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” That doesn’t necessarily refer a weekly worship gathering on Sunday, yet elsewhere in the NT we do see that the Christian community is to be worship-oriented when it gathers.

In order to make this point briefly, I will focus on just three passages. First, Paul’s description of Christian relationships and community life in Eph 5-6 gives us some important specifics. In 5:18-19 Paul says that we are to be “filled with the Spirit” and then tells us what that looks like (in part, at least): “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Now again, Paul doesn’t say, “here’s what you’re supposed to do when you gather on Sunday,” but it seems clear that these commands apply when we do gather, for they are focused on “one-anothering” and involve worship activities like singing and giving thanks to God.

A similar passage, Col 3:16-17, contains the same exhortation concerning singing and giving thanks together. But instead of an emphasis on being filled with the Spirit, Paul stresses the need to “let the Word of Christ dwell richly” among God’s people. He emphasizes teaching and exhortation, a theme that also dominates his final instructions to his young pastoral protégé Timothy in the two NT epistles that bear his name.

Finally, 1 Cor 11-14 contain key principles for Christian gatherings: there must be godly, discerning men in leadership so that the content of the meeting is congruent with biblical truth, the ritual of the Lord’s Supper must be observed in a way that remembers Jesus Christ vividly and brings his people together in unity. The diversity of spiritual gifts must be employed for the upbuilding of God’s people and always exercised in self-giving, humble love for one another. And there must be an orderliness about the whole meeting so that its content may be intelligible and edifying to all present, even unbelievers.

In short, the Christian meeting is a vital element of the overall Christian life of worship: it is where worshipers gather to share a unique time of confluent worship, gathering up their (individual) adoration of the triune God and offering it together as sacrifices of praise to God and encouragement to one another (Heb 10:13-15).

Christian intellectual, are you eagerly involved in the worship life of the church? Are you committed to a particular assembly of Christians where you participate actively in the gathering of God’s people to exalt him, be instructed by his Word, and build others up? This is the natural and necessary outflow of an individual life of worship—it seeks the company of other worshipers. A Christian academic with a nominal commitment to the church cannot speak with an authentic voice for divine reality because he is not vitally connected to that reality himself. As a result he isn’t speaking as a Christian thinker so much as a thinker with Christian sympathies.

Not Either-Or

For many years now the principle of “irreducible complexity” has been used in discussions of how life came to exist: critics of evolution who use arguments from “intelligent design” note that there are certain biological structures (like the human eye) that could not have evolved one mutation at a time because the whole interdependent, complex structure must be present in order for it to function.

Properly functioning, the Christian life is an irreducibly complex combination of individual and corporate worship that nourishes the whole life in Christ—alone in private devotion and daily activity, and together in community. Christian scholar, beware of the temptation to engage in scholarly pursuits apart from the foundational commitment to being a worshiper of the Triune God. Without this your arguments will be hollow and your genuine accomplishments meager. An authentically Christian intellectual is a worshiping intellectual.

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