The title of this post does not do the matter justice. The word ‘abuse’ is too mild, and it might be even more accurate to say that in actual fact the sweeping trend within Christendom is that there is outright plain ignorance on what these terms mean. The charge only matters at all to those Christians who believe that the Scriptures are the final and ultimate authority. A huge swath of people who call themselves Christians obviously don’t, so this post is not really for them, even though they share in the guilt. Of course, the term ‘Christian’ itself is commonly abused, but I am not saying that these are the only three words that get abused. These are just three really big ones and the ones I intend to treat in this post.
Having laid down a stinging charge, I must now defend it. Unfortunately, it would take a book to do so adequately. I have only 1,500 words- if I’m lucky. So, instead my goal will be to try to raise doubt in your mind that maybe, just maybe, I’m right.
The nature of the abuse of these three words have two basic things in common. First of all, even though these are terms closely associated with the Christian faith, they generally escape close scrutiny and very little grounding in what the Scriptures might actually have to say about them. They escape this scrutiny because we think we already know what they mean.
This is most vividly seen with the word ‘love.’ Everyone takes it for granted that we know what ‘love’ is, so we (Christians) don’t bother to see what the Scriptures tells us love is. Then, we take the meaning which we have according to our unexamined instincts and read that meaning back into the text. For my own part, I was shaken out of this habit for the word ‘love’ back in college. Like many, many, many other Christians, I had been raised on the view that there were ‘three kinds of love’ described in the New Testament. These are ‘agape,’ ‘eros,’ and ‘phileo.’
Agape is supposed to be the love that God has for us. Eros is sexual love (eros… erotic… see the connection?) and phileo is brotherly love. This is about the extent of the systematic treatment that ‘love’ gets, and it all came tumbling down when I tried out my developing Greek skills and discovered that ‘eros’ isn’t in the NT at all! Oops.
Further inquiry turned up the word ‘agape,’ which was supposed to be a love entirely describing a one way approach from God to man, used in all of the situations that up to that point had been ascribed as being a different kind of love. For example, it was agape that marked the love between a husband and his wife (Eph 5). It was agape that marked the love between friends (John 15). Heck, we’re even supposed to ‘agape’ our enemies! (Matt 5)
You may have missed the methodological error bundled into the assertion that there are ‘three kinds of love.’ Framing it that way at all reveals that the whole approach is backwards. It assumes that we have already mastered the content of the term ‘love’ in English and we assume further that the Scriptures will mean the same thing. So, instead of taking the more or less common sense approach that different words probably have different meanings… you know, or else they wouldn’t be different… any word in the Greek that closely matched what we already ‘knew’ by our natural lights got lumped in as ‘love.’ (Interesting side note: on this approach, there aren’t actually 3 words in the Greek for ‘love.’ There are 7.)
What difference does it make? It’s a huge deal. I mean specifically the part about letting the Scriptures inform us about what ‘agape’ means rather than assume that what we believe about ‘love’ matches it.
Since as Christians we acknowledge that one of the central tenets of our faith centers around ‘love,’ we should be at least mildly interested in making sure that we are doing so in the manner that the Scriptures would have it. The alternative would be that we think we are loving people and loving God but in fact, are not. The implications lead to the second thing that the abuse of these words have in common, which I will come to shortly.
The same kind of methodological error in regards to ‘three loves’ is true again with the word ‘worship.’ I have a book on my shelf that is like a text book on ‘worship’ and I think it is pretty representative of the general use of the word ‘worship’ among Christians. He begins, appropriately, by saying that we must define the word. He then proceeds to use zero scripture in defining the word. When finally he gets to the Scriptures, it is so phrased: ‘The NT uses a variety of words for worship…”
You see it is the same thing as with the ‘three loves’ bit. It is taken for granted that we really know what ‘worship’ is so we’ll just assume that all these different words really signify what we (think we) already know. And admit it- when you think of ‘worship’ your mind springs instantly to some notion of praising and offering adulation to God, usually in the context of a ‘church’ service. In fact, this trend is so pervasive, that we often hear people treat the ‘church service’ and ‘worship’ as one in the same. They’ll say something like, “So where do you worship?”
This assumption is built right into the translations of our Bibles. For example, in any discussion about just what the Bible says ‘worship’ is will lead to the invocation of 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. Nearly every translation out there will begin this section off with the headline: “Orderly Worship.” One of my Bibles titles it, “Maintain order in your worship services.”
Obviously, then, what is described in this section must be ‘worship’, right? Bizarrely, none of the Greek words which my Christian Worship text book indicates could mean ‘worship’ are used in this passage! Ooops!
On what basis, then, do we presume that Paul would call this worship?
It can only be that we already think we know what worship is, and our conception is such that we think Paul is describing it in this passage. What would happen, though, if we took this novel approach: we let Paul speak for himself.
For example, if we take one of the more definitive statements by Paul on the nature of ‘worship’ which is commonly cited, Romans 12:1, we read: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God- this is your spiritual act of worship.” (NIV)
If the one hour on Sunday is supposed to be ‘worship’ and Paul thinks that ‘worship’ is offering one’s body as a living sacrifice, I am left wondering just precisely how I will be offering my body as a living sacrifice in that time. Moreover, Paul’s statement here in Romans would seem to viciously war against the notion that ‘worship’ could ever be distilled into just one hour a week. He clearly is implying a total, daily, hourly sacrificing of one’s life.
Put this way, are you not curious about just what Paul believes ‘worship’ is? And what about Jesus?
Using yet another word my introductory text book raises as illustrative of the ‘word’ ‘worship,’ we might look at the famous account in John 4 where Jesus is talking with the Samaritan woman. She raises the question, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
Jesus doesn’t contradict her. He argues that “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 is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”
I would direct your attention here to the assumption that the Jews up to this point were ‘worshiping’ in Jerusalem. But what did this entail? What was it that a Jew could only do in Jerusalem, and not anywhere else, say, like in a synagogue? Now, this is interesting, because it is basically the case that the Christian ‘worship’ service closely models the Jewish way of doing things in the synagogues, which, since all the first Christians were Jews, makes oodles of sense. However, apparently the Jew would not have thought of their synagogue experience as ‘worship.’ What made Jerusalem special?
Hint: it has something to do with splashing the blood of animals around in a temple. Puts a new thought in our mind as to what Paul, a Jew, may have meant by ‘worship’ consisting of being a ‘living sacrifice,’ no? Shouldn’t we be wondering what first century Jews believed ‘worship’ was in order to properly understand what is meant when the word and concept is invoked?
And why should it matter? What difference does all this make? Well, it is commonly agreed by Christians throughout all the denominations that ‘worship’ is a central component of the Christian experience. What if it were the case that we weren’t worshiping at all? What if we were doing something else entirely? Something valuable and biblical, surely… but not ‘worship’ as the Bible describes it? It might mean that we are neglecting how the Bible actually calls us to worship. This might be something we might want to address.
I am now at 1,566 words, give or take. Still with me? Gonna hang with me further?
Again, the implications of our acting as though we already know what ‘worship’ is touches on the second thing that the abuse of these three words have in common. But first a word about ‘church.’ 🙂
Here at least we can be thankful that the systematic theologians have invested some time. The problem here seems to me to be less about presumption regarding the term ‘church’ and more about a disconnect between our theology and our practice. In our theology, when we talk about the ‘church’ we generally present the fact that the ‘church’ is the Church, that is, the bride of Christ, that is, the very body of Christ, who, taking the ‘one flesh’ relationship of marriage as representing the same kind of mystical union shared by Jesus and all believers. (Eph 5, for example).
The New Testament is more or less consistent with this description of the ‘church.’ Remember, there were no ‘church’ buildings yet. Constantine had yet to make Christianity the state religion and make it safe for massive cathedrals to be erected. In the New Testament, they did not ‘go to church.’ Rather, Paul addressed himself “to the church that meets at their house.” (1 Cor 16:19).
Of course, when pressed, we always point out that the Church is the people, and not a place or building. We acknowledge that where the NT would appear to talk about ‘churches’ as some sort of discrete unit representing an organizational entity, we still aren’t referring to a building, but a group of people (1 Cor 16:19 being relevant yet again).
And yet for all that, you can still have someone like Anne Rice come out and declare that she is abandoning Christianity and forsaking ‘church’! And thousands and thousands of people will know exactly what she means and cheer her on. (See my open letter to her which has the background you’ll need)
It may be argued that the practical fact that we talk about ‘going to church’ on Sunday (to ‘worship’!) has little to no consequences, but in point of fact the use of the term in this fashion is the dominant one, and has the effect of obliterating what we would otherwise say and believe about Church when we were waxing theologically.
The nature of our relationship to each other as Christians is obviously something we should be concerned about. The practical effect of thinking of ‘churches’ only as organizational structures cannot be underestimated. “Oh, I’m a member of the Methodist church!” What the Bible means by ‘member’ and ‘church’ is barely reflected in such a statement. What is at stake in this sloppy use of the term is our very understanding of our relationship to Christ and with each other. The practical implications will be far reaching.
2,000 words in. I think I can finish it up in just 500 more. Let’s try.
I said at the start that these three words had two basic things in common. The first was that the suffer from the fact that we behave as though we already know what they mean and assume that when we come across the terms in the Bible, the Bible means the same thing.
The second thing grieves me to say and many will greatly resent as hubris. If I preempt that by admitting right from the start that I am as guilty of my own charges, can I deflect that criticism?
The other basic thing that these abuses manifest is basically a gnostic selfishness and works righteousness. You know the gnostics. They were the people who believed they had received a special knowledge. They were all about thinking that the physical universe- matter- was evil and yucky. They were only interested in the ‘spiritual.’ Their religious experience was such that they were trying to constantly reach a ‘spiritual high.’ In a word, it was all about them.
When the Scriptures are allowed to speak for themselves about these three terms- which represent core aspects of the Christian faith- it is rarely, if ever, individualistic.
The basic principle underneath all three terms in the Scriptures can be seen in a place like 1 John 4:20 “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”
We understand, at least in principle, that there is literally nothing that we can offer God that he needs. He does not need our love any more than Bill Gates needs his kid to lend him twenty bucks. At the same time, we reflect on what God has done for us (“In view of God’s mercy” Romans 12:1!) and wish to respond. God knows that we want to respond and he knows that we can offer him nothing. His solution is to ask us to turn our loving thanks over to the ones we can see. God then credits this as love for him.
This is a far cry from how many of us practically behave. We still think that we are showing God that we love him when we go to ‘church’ and ‘worship.’ We show up, we hear an inspiring message, some song touches our heart, and then we sing praises and thanks to God- you know, ‘worshiping’ him. Having reached some semblance of a spiritual high, we feel truly, earnestly, and sincerely, that we truly love God. Then we go home. In this series of events, there will have been precious few opportunities to lay down our lives for our brothers (1 John 3:16). In short, we came to hear again how God loved us, then we tell God thank you very much, we love you too, and honestly believe we have loved God. Yet God is very clear that if we truly loved him, we’d show that by loving each other. Bill Gates says to his son, “I’ve got all I need. If you really love me, take your twenty and find someone who can really use it.”
In short, our time together as Christians is not meant to be defined by our utterances of love and devotion to God, but rather by our acts of service as living sacrifices to those who also are in the literal body of Christ.
We think that we are testifying to the world about our love for Christ by regularly attending ‘church.’ That’s not what Jesus said (if we care about what Jesus said). “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34)
But of course we tend to think of ‘loving one another’ as some sort of warm and fuzzy affection for someone (what some would call ‘phileo’ love), so we are perfectly content to think that having a warm regard for people means that we’ve loved them- as if we could call parents loving if they willfully tolerated destructive behaviors in their children. There is no ‘warm and fuzzy’ feelings involved when you have to tell your kids to get off of drugs. Yet, parents know that their love is not ‘about them’ but rather about the object of their love- their child.
Romans 12, which I pointed out describes ‘worship’ as a living sacrifice goes on just 8 verses later to discuss what it means to love- and it is wholly directed at how we interact with others, not warm and fuzzy feelings and spiritual highs. You see, they are connected. Our genuine worship of God means loving each other. You thought it was about praising him! In retort, Hebrews 13:15 is often given:
“Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise- the fruit of lips that confess his name.”
And any word commonly translated as ‘worship’ is present here, how? But I do not deny that the passage is in fact expressing the 1st century Jewish Christian concept of ‘worship.’ Did you notice the word ‘sacrifice’? That’s what Jews customarily did when they went to Jerusalem to ‘worship.’ But now there is no need for a sacrifice… what would happen if we would go on and read the very next passage? Maybe we could glean something important from it?
“And do not forget to do good and share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.”
The very next passage tells us precisely what kind of ‘sacrifices of praise’ the author had in mind as pleasing God. We see again that it isn’t ‘about you.’ “In view of God’s mercy,” we offer ourselves as living sacrifices, and this means ‘doing good and sharing with others,’ or, put another way, dying for your brother.
I just wonder what would happen if the next time I went to ‘church’ I was given the opportunity to die for my brother, and he for me. This would be ‘love.’ This would be ‘worship.’ This would be interacting with the people around me in full knowledge and appreciation that we together are literally, actually, one in Christ.
What would happen if we went to ‘church’ without the practical expectation that we are engaged in a spiritual transaction between God and the individual (“Tell me how great I am, earthling!” “God, you are great! You are so awesome I just feel, I mean, WOW! I feel the love! My spiritual tank is full, now!) and we instead had ample opportunity to minister tangibly to each other in such a way that it could honestly be described as laying down one’s life?
I do believe a lot that ails us in the Church would be rectified almost immediately. The world would still think we’re nuts, but at least we might escape the hypocrisy charge. On the way, perhaps Eph. 4:1-16 would be fulfilled, right before our waking eyes.
3,200 words. Sorry, I knew when I started that it would be this long. I tricked you, I know. But you no doubt have many questions and objections and though I wanted to reply to them all, you see that it could not be done and still get the point across. Allow me to offer clarifications upon request, or in the future as I return to the topic.
Peace. (Which is, according to the Bible, Jesus. Eph 2:14)