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Biblical authority in worship practice

Biblical authority in worship practice

Unsplash/Hannah Busing

One important principle articulated in several places in the New Testament was an emphasis upon the importance of biblical authority for worship practices. Usually these kinds of discussions came in the context of confronting the legalism of the Jewish religion. During his ministry, Jesus had already condemned the adding of religious practices not prescribed in the Scriptures; the same problems continued with the “Judaizers,” Christian converts who taught that it was necessary to adopt Jewish religious practices from the Law of Moses. The church first encountered this when some Jewish Christian converts traveled to Antioch and insisted to the Christians there, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1 ). This resulted in the formation of a council of church leadership in Jerusalem, including James, Peter, and Paul, to debate the matter. The council concluded that requiring such religious practices not prescribed for the church was “a yoke on the neck of the disciples” (v. 10).

Paul also explicitly contradicted this teaching in his epistles, insisting that any religious practice not explicitly prescribed by Christ or his apostles for the NT church should not be forced upon the corporate body. These rituals were merely “human precepts and teachings” (Col 2:22 ); they have “an appearance of wisdom,” but they are nevertheless “self-made religion” and “of no value” (v. 23).

Paul’s discourse in Romans 14 directly addresses issues related to corporate worship such as ceremonially unclean food and sacred days. Some “weaker” Jewish Christians in Rome evidently still honored the Mosaic dietary restrictions and therefore abstained entirely from meat or wine out of concern for their ceremonial purity. They also continued to observe the Jewish Sabbath and holy days. Within the context of “what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (v. 19), Paul insists in verse 5 that “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” concerning observing sacred days, and in verse 23 he warns that “whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”

In other words, one must be careful not to impose upon his own conscience or another person’s conscience a religious practice of which he is not fully convinced based on biblical prescription. As individuals, Christians are free to observe religious practices as long as they do not contradict Scripture or consider such practices necessary to salvation; as a corporate body, however, no religious practice may be imposed that has not been prescribed for the church. Paul’s goal is that members of the church “live in such harmony with another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:5–6); his goal is a unity of the body in worshiping God that can only be obtained by carefully submitting to what the Bible prescribes for Christian worship.

Scott Aniol, PhD, is an author, speaker, and teacher of culture, worship, aesthetics, and church ministry philosophy. He is chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He founded Religious Affections Ministries and has written several books, the most recent being By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture. He can be found on Twitter @ScottAniol.

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