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Worship in the New Testament Church

May 2, 2009

John 4:23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.

God seeks worshipers. As Jesus told the woman at the well, true worshipers of God worship in spirit and truth. Obviously Christians today need to strive to be that kind of worshipers. But what did Jesus mean by that?

Churches of Christ have traditionally taught five (and only five) authorized “acts of worship” which must be performed in the Sunday “worship service.” A typical explanation of that doctrine is available on the web site of the Knollwood Church of Christ.

The traditionally approved five acts include teaching, contribution, communion, praying, and singing. Based on the hermeneutic of Command, Example, and Necessary Inference (CENI), together with the Regulative Principle (prohibitive silence), these churches hold that all five acts must be present in every Sunday assembly, and that no other activities are authorized. According to the strict application of this doctrine, introduction of other activities to the “worship service” (instrumental music, dramatic presentations, videos, interpretive dance…) constitutes apostasy.

This is obviously a relevant topic for those who long for Christian unity. Did Jesus mean for us to break fellowship over those variations in Sunday worship?

To answer that question, we first need to understand what Jesus meant by “worship.” In John 4:24 the Greek word for “worship is προσκυνέω (proskuneo). This word occurs 60 times in 52 different verses in the New Testament, so we have plenty of examples from which to understand the meaning of the word.

Let’s take a tour through Matthew to see how προσκυνέω is used. The three wise men in Matt 2 sought to find the baby Jesus so they could προσκυνέω. Satan tried to tempt Jesus to προσκυνέω him in the desert. The same word is used for what the leper did when he ran up to Jesus as he descended after the sermon on the mount, and for what Jarius did when he came to Jesus on behalf of his daughter. προσκυνέω was the reaction of the disciples in the boat who saw Jesus walk on the water. The Canaanite woman προσκυνέω when she asked Jesus for the crumbs falling from the children’s table. The unmerciful servant in the parable προσκυνέω when he begged his master to forgive his debt. The mother of the sons of Zebedee προσκυνέω before asking for the favor for her sons. And after Jesus rose from the dead, we are told of two occasions where his disciples προσκυνέω him.

What is evident about all these examples is that none of them involved corporate worship– that is, the kind of worship done together in an assembly of believers. In random places and times where people in need encountered Jesus, they προσκυνέω. Similar examples can be found in the other gospels.

The woman at the well asked about where people should worship God. Jesus answered that it is not where we worship, but how, that matters to God.

The word προσκυνέω occurs several times in Acts, but is not used in reference to a Christian assembly. Once (Acts 24:11) Paul said that he had come to Jerusalem to προσκυνέω, but remember that he had been seeking to arrive in Jerusalem in time for Pentecost, a Jewish religious festival (Acts 20:16)

προσκυνέω is used in the letters only three times. In 1 Cor 14:25 it refers to what an unbeliever would do (falling face down) when convicted by prophecies exposing his heart. The other two occurences are in Hebrews — one referring to angels worshiping God, and the other referring to Jacob worshiping as he blessed his grandsons.

So there is no use of to προσκυνέω in either Acts or the letters referring to the Sunday assembly of Christians.

Similarly, the numerous uses of προσκυνέω in Revelation do not refer to Christian assembly. Instead, it is used in the context of worship in heaven by angels, and by elders. προσκυνέω is also used to identify worship of the beast and idols, as well as a couple of occasions where John fell down to worship the angel bringing him the message.

In short, προσκυνέω is never used in scripture to refer to an assembly of Christians. Nor is it used to describe what Christians do when they assemble. There is no basis for the conclusion that, in his comments to the woman at the well, Jesus had in mind the assembly of Christians.

There are at least seven other Greek words that are translated “worship” in one or more of the English translations of the New Testamant. A similar survey of these words would bring us to the same conclusion: that none of these words refers to the “acts” that are performed in a Christian assembly.

There really is not a lot of detail in scripture about how (nor when) to conduct an assembly of Christians. (1 Corinthians 14 provides the most complete set in a single place of the data points we have available.) People have gone to great lengths to fill in the gaps between the data points, coming to various conclusions. That is understandable and probably inevitable. The problem is not that we imagine different explanations for the data we have been provided. Rather, the problem occurs when someone insists that everyone else accept his explanation as the only valid one… and starts dividing the church over such issues. Some people are entirely too confident in their own understanding, and as a result are dividing Christians.

God wants worshipers who worship in spirit and in truth. Most of our disputes are over the “truth” part. A great place to study what “truth” means in the New Testament is the three part series that Jay Guin recently posted.

God seeks worshipers who come to him on the basis of the core Gospel: the death, burial, and resurrection of his Son as an atonement for our sins. That is the only way for a sinful man to come to God! May God have mercy on me, a sinner! When we come to God on that basis, we come with the right spirit and on the right basis of truth. That is the kind of worshipers God seeks.

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9 comments

  1. I found this interesting Alan:”Similarly, the numerous uses of προσκυνέω in Revelation do not refer to Christian assembly. Instead, it is used in the context of worship in heaven by angels, and by elders.”I wonder at times.. when I read statements such as these.. if we sometimes draw artificial lines between the operation of the kingdom and that of the church. It seems that kingdom principles are always appropriate for application in the church.


  2. Hi, Bob! I completely agree. It’s certainly appropriate to worship in the assembly of the church. The point is that I think Jesus was talking about something else when he talked about worshipping “in spirit and truth.” Most of biblical “worship” happens outside the assembly.


  3. I agree Alan! Real worship is not about location or style but about the heart.Blessings, Bob


  4. Could you then translate this as “stand in awe”? That’s how I take it, and like Bob mentioned we should apply that to corporate worship as well. In that case, our “worship” in song, whether with or without instruments, should bring us to “stand in awe”. That’s a struggle in our church where we’re used to singing songs by rote. I’m good friends with our worship leader and we talk about this often. Thanks Alan, for breaking down the Greek.


  5. Good point. Well, actually, it’s closer to “fall on your face in reverent fear” rather than “stand in awe.” It’s certainly far removed from singing by rote.


  6. Dear Alan,You conclude: “God seeks worshipers who come to him on the basis of the core Gospel: the death, burial, and resurrection of his Son as an atonement for our sins. That is the only way for a sinful man to come to God! May God have mercy on me, a sinner! When we come to God on that basis, we come with the right spirit and on the right basis of truth. That is the kind of worshipers God seeks.”This defintion of yours requiring “basis of truth”, instead of “truth” is fine if talking in generalities. But we need specifics since it could be easily demonstrated that many people feel deep regret for their sins, but that doesn’t mean they are approved. If they worship contrary to God’s Word, they offer vain worship, no matter how much they beat their breasts. And Kansas Bob is against defining acceptable too narrowly. There is no argument that the heart must be involved, but not the heart alone.


  7. DM, the primary point of this article is that, in John 4:23-24, Jesus is NOT talking about an authorized list of ‘acts of worship’ to be performed in Christian a ‘worship service.’ In fact, what Jesus calls “worship” here is not associated with the assembly. Some folks make a huge issue about “authorized Christian worship,” meaning what we are permitted to do in a Sunday assembly, but that concept appears nowhere in the scriptures.


  8. Probably right DM.. we are to love the Lord with all of our being.. I just find the heart to be the hardest to engage.. so easy to worship from our own understanding.


  9. wow. I'm teaching a class tomorrow morning and really needed this exact post. Thank you!



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