This is Part 1 of a four-part blog on the Liturgy at Emmaus. This article will consist of our rationale, as a Church, for the primary elements of our corporate worship service, and Parts 2 through 4 will dissect each element in our actual liturgy.
In a recent sermon that Pastor Josh preached on Leviticus, I was reminded afresh why we worship the way that we do here at Emmaus. In this sermon, Josh summarized the story of Nadab and Abihu in chapter 10—the story of Aaron’s two sons who tried to worship God in an unauthorized way and were immediately struck dead for their presumptuous thinking. How arrogant is was for them to think that they were entitled to innovate ways of approaching God distinct from the meticulous prescription God had graciously given. “I told you how I desire to be worshipped,” God was saying, “if you truly desire to express your love and adoration for me in worship, you would simply obey my commands.” In this story we are given a stark picture of the holiness of God—we dare not approach him flippantly by any means other than those which he has provided.
What, you may be asking, does this have to do with how we conduct our worship gatherings at Emmaus? Could Sam really be saying that if we were to change the way we order our services, fire would come down from heaven and consume the Church? No, I am not saying that at all. In fact, the most relevant application of this story for 21st century Christians has to do not with our corporate gatherings, but with the exclusivity of Christ. This story tells us that God provides the means for communing with him, and a healthy fear of his holiness ought to compel us to stick to those means. In Leviticus 10, the means were the preceding (and proceeding) instructions for animal blood-sacrifices and ritualistic cleansings. Today, the means is the blood-sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Heb. 10:19-25). The primary application, therefore, is this: don’t you dare try to commune with God by virtue of anything but the blood of Jesus Christ—if you try to predicate your intimacy with this God on anything but the blood of the Lamb (your works, your sincerity, your piety, etc.), you are committing the same sin as Nadab and Abihu.
This is why we exhort one another so often to come to Christ with empty hands; to self-justify your hearing before God with your own works is not only foolish (you could never do enough to justify a hearing before such a holy God), it’s also blasphemous. It’s tantamount to saying that what you offer is better than (or improves upon) the blood of Jesus.
However, there is a secondary application to this story, which goes along with the first. At the very least, Leviticus 10 tells us that God cares about how people worship him. This is why we, as a church, generally identify with what theologians call the “Regulative Principle” of worship. This simply means that we want for Scripture to regulate not just the who of corporate worship, but the how of corporate worship. And by “regulate,” I don’t simply mean, “define what’s off limits.” Rather, I’m saying that Scripture has told us what Christians are to do when they gather together to worship, and as a principle, we are committed to doing only what Scripture commands.
And what does Scripture command for New Testament believers to do corporately? We are commanded to:
- Read the Scriptures (1 Tim. 4:13)
- Teach/Preach the Scriptures (1 Tim. 4:13, 2 Tim. 4:1-2)
- Pray (1 Tim. 2:1, Acts 2:42, 4:23-31)
- Sing (Col. 3:12-17)
- Participate in Communion/Baptism (1 Cor. 11:23-34, Acts 2:38, Matt. 28:19)
That’s it. That’s what we should be doing when we gather together corporately. Our liturgy should not include anything that doesn’t fit comfortably inside those five corporate commands. And by “comfortably,” I mean that we shouldn’t try to squeeze movie clips, dance routines, or that guy who throws paint on a canvas to depict what looks like nothing at all until he flips it right-side-up to reveal he was actually painting a very Caucasian Jesus, into the category of “teaching/preaching Scripture.” There’s not a single quote from The Office, for example, that could ever be followed up with “thus sayeth the Lord!”; a clip of The Office would be totally out of step with the purpose of the corporate worship gathering
Now, some churches may venture outside of these five elements that the New Testament explicitly commands. They may even do so without shifting from the gospel as their central point of emphasis. Should such churches anticipate facing a similar fate as Nadab and Abihu? I don’t think so. But I do think they are wrong not to subscribe to the Regulative Principle for three reasons.
This Is God’s Church
The Regulative Principle fosters a corporate understanding that a particular congregation belongs to God, while the alternative fosters a corporate understanding that a particular congregation belongs to the congregation (or, more often, the leadership of the congregation). God purchased the church with his own blood, and has subsequently placed her under the stewardship of elders (Acts 20:28). This means that church leaders cannot do with their flocks as they please, they do not own their churches. Emmaus does not belong to our pastors, she belongs to Jesus Christ. The regulative principle establishes an impulse among our Church leaders to ask, “What would the owner of this Church like for us to do?” I do not think the same could be said of the alternative principle, which merely looks to Scripture for prohibitions and then leaves the church to operate according to the whims of popular opinion or the fleeting charisma of personalities.
God’s Church Is Governed By God’s Word
The Regulative Principle reinforces the conviction that Christians live their lives positively directed by the Word of God, rather than merely guarded by the prohibitions of God’s Word. The alternative principle, in my estimation, inherently reinforces the natural sinful perspective that Christianity can be defined by what people are not allowed to do, and that life is ultimately to be governed according the autonomous whims of the individual. Conversely, the Regulative Principle is an object lesson in and of itself, teaching that Scripture does not merely set boundaries for how Christians should not live, but also directs Christians positively for how they should live. In other words, the Regulative Principle aids in the command to “let the word of Christ dwell richly in [the corporate midst].” (Colossians 1:16)
God Cares about How We Worship
The regulative principle assumes that God actually cares about how he is worshiped. Though our means of approaching God (the shed blood of Jesus) and Nadab and Abihu’s means of approaching God (the Levitical priestly offerings) are different, the God we are worshiping is one and the same, and thus the manner in which we worship him should be the same (i.e., with reverence and special attention to what he has said about proper worship). Further, Leviticus tells us what kind of God he is. He is a gracious God who provides what he requires (a means), and he is a holy God who cares about how he is worshiped.
On the cusp of the New Covenant’s arrival, Jesus informs the Samaritan woman at the well, “The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” (John 4:23) Notice, he does not say that the Father is seeking worshipers who worship him “however they see fit.” We want to look to the Word of God to see what Christ means when he says “in truth.” If we begin with self, and then merely look to Scripture for approval or disapproval, we do not cast the appropriate shroud of suspicion on the preferences of sinners—even if we are sinners who are saved by grace.
For these reasons, we have structured our service to hang only on that which Scripture commands. Next week, we’ll carefully dissect each element of our liturgy and explore the various purposes of our liturgical format.