Great truths are often weakened because the words by which we identify them become so familiar. How rich a theme, for example, is signified by the words which appear somewhere in almost every church bulletin: “worship service.” Let us glance briefly at these words as if we were defining them for the first time. But first, a prefatory comment.

The original harmony of the spheres and the perfection of joy which caused the sons of God to shout have been shattered by discord and rebellion, beginning with Satan’s first “I will not serve” and lasting to the present moment. No longer is it “natural” to conduct oneself in accordance with the divine orderliness which emanates from the being and nature of God, and which unites all creation (save man, the rebel) in a vast and exquisite artifice permeated by the driving force of love, all manifesting itself in total beauty. The satanic temptation is always aimed at the disciplined orderliness of right hierarchy. If creation may be likened to an orchestra (a popular simile in the 17th century), Satan may be likened to a tempter who whispers to the bassoon player: “You are not properly appreciated. You are not being permitted to play loud enough or often enough, and you can’t even make up your own melodies! Play your own way, make up your own tunes—and for heaven’s sake (if you will pardon the expression) play louder!” Such a violation of discipline, of order, of “acceptable service” the Renaissance writers often refer to as violation of “degree,” the divine ladder of hierarchy. And so Shakespeare has Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida say: “O, when degree is shak’d, which is the ladder of all high designs, then enterprise is sick!”

Now all this may seem a “long preamble to a tale” when our only purpose is to engage in a little semantic exercise; yet it is all to the point, for the service of worship implies no less than a completely restored inward and outward harmony for man as he takes his place once more in the perfect order of the kingdom of heaven. From God, the motionless center of the turning wheel, emanate all values, all relationships, all concepts of decorum. And the ultimate decorum which man must relearn shows forth his relationship to the infinite majesty of God and to his creation.

Worship And Communion

As the final comment in our preface we must note an often ignored fact: fallen man is completely unable to worship God in any way whatever. “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination unto the Lord.” The problem of worship simply does not exist for him, any more than the problem of how to honor and serve his betrayed king existed for the medieval outlaw. The right to serve was an honor deprived the outlaw as a penalty for his rebellion against his monarch’s rule and law. Indeed, the analogy may be pushed a bit further, for just as clearly as the outlaw was able to return to his king’s favor and thus to resume his service only as the king permitted, so clearly can fallen man be restored to citizenship and divine favor only on God’s terms. The pagan, therefore, deceives himself when he thinks he is worshipping God in his humble adoration of the night sky, or in his outpoured libations; and so does the modern, more sophisticated pagan in his self-appointed ritual of culture, or aesthetic response, or even good works. Further, all men do not worship the same God “by whatever sign or name He may be known”—Allah, or Dagon, or the Life Force. (Whatever were the shortcomings of the Crusaders, this is one error they did not make, as they battled the “paymin,” worshippers of Allah!) To all who worship on their own, as it were, come the tragic words: “Ye worship ye know not what.” Worship is not a sort of general spraying in all directions of reverence and awe, to be soaked up by whatever deity exists. It must, rather, be based on communion between two self-conscious beings who know each other.

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Worship And Values

Turning at last to our basic definitions, we note that “worship” comes from the Old English “weorthscipe” (Middle English “worschippe”) and that it denotes in its first syllable inherent value, ultimate merit. In short, it is a word primarily relating to a value judgment, and we know that value must be determined within a frame of reference, according to a hierarchy. Most of our value judgments day by day are comparative; that is, we compare the valued object with others of its class or group. Thus in feudal terms, for example, a count is of more “worth” than a baron; a duke is “worthier” than a count—all in “priority, and place, insisture, course, proportion, season, form, office, custom, in all line of order,” as Shakespeare explains.

So when worth is ascribed, one must know within what system of evaluation the term is used. Man’s systems vary with each age, each society, almost each individual, and that which is worthy to one group at any given time is offensive to another. Indeed, there is no more poignant evidence of man’s spiritual confusion, of his “fragmentation,” than his total inability to agree on any single system of establishing that which is good, worthy. Even in evaluating himself, he varies wildly, either shouting with Swinburne “Glory to man in the highest!” or agreeing with Stevenson that man is a mere “disease of agglutinated dust.” Paul warns us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought, but rather to think of ourselves in terms of the only absolute measure, the only changeless standard, the only infallible system of evaluation—the standards of God. By the terms of righteousness within that divine standard, man’s natural condition is simple and bluntly given in Scripture: “Thou art worthy to die.” But there is another dimension to be included, the infinite measure of God’s love, and by that measure man, though bereft of self-pride, stands immeasurably high, for while we were yet sinners God loved us.

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God’S Infinite Worth

For the Christian, then, the word “worth” has only one absolute application: the infinite worth of God. To acknowledge the absolute worth of God is the first step of worship; indeed, it is the first requirement. “Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name.” “I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God besides me.” When the church acknowledges “worth-ship” as it exists totally and uniquely in God it simply joins in with the “voice of many angels around about the throne and the beasts and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times the thousands of thousands; saying with a loud voice. Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing.”

Although such an acknowledgement can be made only after man has obeyed God’s command to “turn” to him, it is still simply the first step. The perfect communion with God which each creature seeks must be based on harmony of will and desire, not on intellectualassent alone. So we turn to the original meaning of the two words most often translated “worship” in English; and we find that both “shachah” in the Old Testament and “proskuneo” in the New carry the force of submission, obedience, “to kiss the hand toward someone in token of submission, to bow down in submission.”

Truth And Obedience

This concept takes us into the heart of the mystery of worship. Intellectual truths may be forced on us; the facts may simply overwhelm the mind until we cry out, “Enough! I am convinced.” But at the same time, in the secret place of our heart, we may whisper, “But I will not obey.” Hypocrisy, says Milton, is the only evil whose operation is so entirely inward that only God can know surely when it is present. It is an interesting question whether true submission can be willed. We can force our bodies to make those gestures which indicate submission; but can we by willing so alter our nature as to make it harmonious with, submissive to, a pattern of values foreign to it? To the Christian, of course, the answer is easy: such a change is not alteration; it is re-creation, a new birth, and only God can accomplish it. For the humanist, however, man need obey nothing unless he chooses. He is born with an unextended allegiance which he can, if he wishes, cherish throughout life as a king might his crown. Scripture teaches otherwise. Man is born in the kingdom of Satan and is under his domination. Submission to the will of God, central to worship, is a transferred allegiance, not a pristine bestowal of it. Writes Isaiah: “O Lord our God, other lords besides thee have had dominion over us; but by thee only will we make mention of thy name. They are dead, they shall not live; they are deceased, they shall not rise: therefore hast thou visited and destroyed them, and made all their memory to perish” (26:13–14).

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So here again is emphasized the fact that the high privilege of worship is all of grace. God must of his grace reveal himself sufficiently to man for man to acknowledge his being and his worth; but even more of grace is his victorious battle over the power of Satan and of his dark subordinates in our hearts. Man cannot serve two masters, and the evil king we are born under must be driven from his throne by a power mightier than the combined might of man.

Service And Fulfillment

The paragraph above has led us to the term “service.” It is impossible to speak long about “worship” without using the word, for worship exhibits itself outwardly in service. It comes second, but it is not secondary. Man is not a static awareness, a mere abstract state of knowing and submitting; he is a dynamic creature whose very purpose of creation was that he might “serve” God. When he fell he forgot every act and gesture appropriate to true service, for he was completely turned about, completely disoriented. So the detailed ritual of the Mosaic code of worship began to re-train him, to acclimate him once more to heaven.

From all of Scripture we know one thing that “service” does not mean, and that is “performance of labor for the benefit of another.” God did not create man simply because He needed anything done for Him. And yet the thought that when we serve God in worship we do something for which he should be grateful is widespread. It is even supported, innocently, by certain hymns—“God has no hands but mine His work to do,” for example. This attitude is an example of imperfect re-orientation. We are still too steeped in the world’s system of values, even its understanding of love. As T. S. Eliot is fond of pointing out, earthly love is inseparably linked with the idea of exchange, or bartering something we have for something we want. Apart from revelation, indeed, it is unlikely that man could ever imagine motiveless love.

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No, the service of worship is not something rendered to God in order that he may generously remunerate us. So we look further down the list of definitions until we come to one emerging from the philosophy and the social structure of the middle ages. (And the feudal system, whatever were its human perversions and injustices in practice, shows forth in its ideal concept the nature of divine orderliness better than any other system.) There, we note, “service” had the sense of being permitted to do that which fulfilled and enriched the person so serving. When the knight was permitted to serve his lady, or the liegeman his lord, he was (under the ideal if not the reality) given freedom to be his best self, to exercise his capacities as they were meant to be exercised, to become a living, working part of the whole beautiful, divinely ordained structure. Service was a privilege, an honor, a release from unworthy servitude. It was motivated by reference, gratitude, and love.

And so first and foremost, our service to God consists of living as we were originally intended to live, in obedience and perfect love. Such service is freedom because such living, for the recreated creature is natural. God created us for his glory, and our purpose is to glorify him and enjoy him forever. This is our “acceptable service.” We can never live it fully in this life—the process of perfection is not completed—but we can practice.

Then we look at one more pertinent definition: “service” as “an office of devotion” performed by a priest. It was the priest, we know, who under the Mosaic law was “ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices,” “to serve” before the Lord. Under grace, every Christian is entered into the priesthood of all believers and is thus similarly “ordained.” In a very significant way, this fact most clearly exemplifies the whole wonderful meaning of worship, for it shows a rebellion overthrown, a breach healed, an evil covered, a communion restored.

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Since, then, service emanates from a living relationship, our service of worship is continuous, as continuous as those who serve before the thunderous throne itself in heaven. The condition of the believer is not one of normal, everyday separation from God occasionally interrupted by periods when he is admitted to the Divine Presence. Rather it is one of permanent restoration to a vital relationship. In this life, however, this truth is never fully realized; so it is proper, and sanctioned by Scripture, that man should from time to time celebrate in a particular way his restored relationship to his Creator. And it is right, too, that these worship services should be made so decorous and comely that the spiritual reality is shown forth in pleasing outward signs. What in detail constitutes appropriate ritual is a matter of endless discussion among the various denominations, and it is no part of this writing to touch on the problem. But one thing is clear: any detail of the ritual which ignores, weakens, or contradicts any spiritual reality underlying the outward form is improper at best, offensive to God at worst.

Really, everything is summed up in a command and a promise. The command: “Whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the father by him.” And the promise: “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.”


“Not Every One—”

I call thee Lord, Lord

Glibly as a priest

Who knows the music of thy word

But nothing of its yeast.

I call thee Saviour dear

With unctious piety—

Yet, somehow, never walk too near

Danger or strife for thee.

I call thee Master, Christ,

With cheerful voice and hollow—

Yet I have never even priced

The road that Thee would follow!


Calvin D. Linton is Dean of Columbian College of George Washington University in the District of Columbia. He holds the A.B. degree from George Washington University, and the A.M. and Ph.D. degrees from Johns Hopkins University. His address on “The Service of Worship” was delivered to the Christian Business Men’s Committee of Washington.

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