I had a fascinating conversation with my wife last night. I’ve taken to refraining from singing in worship because most of my church’s activities, including worship (it’s PCA, mind you, the denomination that supposedly holds to the theology of Jesus, Paul, Augustine and Calvin) reminds me instead of Charles Finney. (If you don’t know who he is, look him up.) I’m very uncomfortable participating in worship that isn’t glorifying to God.
My wife asked a penetrating question, but as is typical, I fumbled through a response while we spoke only to think with greater clarity later on. I have many of these “Jerk Store” moments. (If you don’t know what that is, watch Seinfeld re-runs.) Not that anything I said was necessarily untrue, but it’s possible to assert a bunch of indicatives from Scripture without answering the question at hand, leading the one who asks the question to think, “Huh?”
So here’s the question in a nutshell. Assume for a second that I’m right and our music does not glorify God. Is it a sin for her, our kids, or anyone else in our service to participate? If not, then why do I refuse to participate? We know that sinning does not glorify God, but can not sinning not glorify God as well? I’m sure there are other ways to ask the question, but hopefully you get the point.
I wrestled with this issue this morning. In addition to not singing, I also don’t talk to anyone during the meet-and-greet. Why not? Because worship is about God, not socializing with others. As John wrote, if we have fellowship with God through His Son, then as a necessary consequence we have fellowship with others who also have fellowship with God through the Son. My focus, though, must remain on the Son, not on others, for it is possible to have a relationship with others without having a relationship with the Son. We see this same principle in the two tables of the Law. If we truly love God, we shall love our neighbor, but it is possible to “love” our neighbor without loving God (although whether such love is the proper love is a different story).
Am I right for not singing with the church if the theology is flawed? Am I right for not socializing with the church? If I can voluntarily excuse myself from certain things the church does, why not all things? Clearly God commands us to come before Him each Lord’s Day to receive His Word and His sacraments through the ordinary means of grace, so how can we separate what we are commanded to do in worship from what we actually do in worship?
The answer, in my mind, comes down to this. I submit to our church in its preaching of the Word, its administration of the sacraments, and its non-coercive discipline. Those three church functions reflect solely the authority given to it by Christ, for they reflect the offices of prophet, priest and king, all of which were foreshadowed by separate individuals in the Old Covenant but brought to fulfillment in the one person of Christ in the New. To submit to the church in these matters is, for the individual, a matter of unconditional obedience. I do not choose to submit when I feel like it; I do so unconditionally because God commands it for my own welfare. Likewise, I tithe each week at the beginning of the service regardless of the fact that my church often fails to uphold its weekly worship responsibility because my tithe is not conditional upon the church’s performance. God does not need my money, but He demands it nonetheless through the church.
The question is: should I submit unconditionally to the church’s praise, prayer, and fellowship? Or are these elements of church piety conditional? I would encourage everyone to consider prayer. Every time an evangelical asks us to bow our head and join them in prayer, should we? A recent episode of the White Horse Inn dealt with this topic, which I’d been wrestling with before. I appreciated the perspective of the panel, which was “no.” There is a conditionality about prayer – namely, that you dare not go before God unless you are enjoined to the Son by the Spirit. Would I let a Catholic, a Mormon, a JW, a Christian Scientist, a Hindu, a Buddhist, or a Muslim lead me in prayer? Clearly no, because they do not know God as Christians have been taught to confess Him from Holy Writ. Unfortunately rampant theological illiteracy in contemporary evangelical “Christianity” (I find it very difficult to pair those two words without using quote marks) has made me dubious every time an evangelical bows their head in prayer. Do they truly know Jesus?
Does this sound judgmental? Perhaps, but I think it actually reflects discernment. If I come to a wooden bridge that looks rickety, should I just cross it because everyone else is doing so? Or should I use discernment to escape a certain death? Going before a holy God who smites sinners shall result in sure death. The only thing that covers me from His wrath is the blood of the Son on the cross. It’s foolishness to approach God without being cognizant of our own sinful mortality and the only grounds by which I am entitled to approach Him at all.
So if joining into prayer is conditional, what about singing? I do believe it is a function of the church to pray corporately, but perhaps we need to distinguish what makes corporate acts truly “corporate.” God saves individual sinners in order to be enjoined to the Son. It is anathema to think that we can be saved apart from a body of like believers. I am often suspicious if self-professed Christians claim to be saved but have no regard for the church. Short answer: Christ doesn’t save people from the wrath of God in that way (or at least not ordinarily)! As a Reformed Christian, I believe God ordinarily uses Word and sacrament ministry, as well as church discipline, to save sinners. But as members of one body, we are yet individuals. We are sanctified differently and come before God, ultimately, as individuals. Hence, though the church may bring many together to respond to God together, such responses are still many individual responses to God’s grace. I consider prayer an individual act. Yes, Scripture gives countless examples of Christians praying together, but it’s still individual Christians praying together. We may pray with other Christians, but we are still lifting up our voices to God as individuals. If it was not that way, then the one praying would be acting as a mediator between God and those for whom he is praying. But there is only one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.
Likewise, singing is an example of our response to God’s grace. It is not a law to sing; if it were, I would participate with Charles Finney – er, my worship leader – unconditionally DESPITE his lousy grasp on theology. But my participation with him is conditional. Can I join him in singing?
Now here’s a question. What if I’m not joining him? What if he’s leading, but I’m just singing to God? What if I’m not joining someone who’s praying incorrectly, but in my heart I am praying to God correctly? I certainly don’t think it’s impossible to consider such possibilities, which is why, to answer my initial question, I don’t think I can say I’m sinning to singing or sinning by not singing. If I always approach God rightly, then by singing or praying with one who does not approach God rightly doesn’t make me a sinner. But now I ask, why would I pretend to do so? This is not to condemn those who sing out to God regardless of what’s being proclaimed from up front, and since singing and praying are individual responses done corporately, surely that is exactly what’s happening. But if it troubles me to do that, then I believe it’s not unreasonable to refrain. Singing and praying with someone when you’re not truly enjoined to them is like telling them to go ahead and cross that rickety bridge while you cross a stable one right next to it. You’re not really with them, so why the pretense? And isn’t it better, if we are truly to love one another and bear one another’s burdens, to help them see that the bridge they want to cross shall fall while the other offers sure footing? Though we may respond to God’s grace as individuals, should we not still love other parts of the body by helping them see Christ crucified for our sins?