Sincerity and Profanity
Many pastors and Christian leaders believe they are purifying Christianity and worship when they remove any kind of formality from corporate worship. Formal dress, an exalted tone in prayer, or reverent music are eschewed for a more casual and informal approach. They appear to believe that retaining forms that are not immediately recognizable or penetrable by the average Christian represents an attempt to “appear religious”. To them, this is hollow priestcraft and chicanery. In fact, the term hocus pocus grew out of the medieval peasant’s presence at the Mass, where he would hear the priest say “this is the body of Christ” in Latin: hoc est corpus Christi. At some point, the hoc est corpus got mangled into hocus pocus. How bread became God was a kind of magic, impenetrable to the average peasant. Many modern Christian leaders believe divesting Christianity of formality will purify it of hocus pocus, and make it more sincere, authentic, and real. But this profoundly misunderstands the difference between the profane and the sacred.
Since Cain and Abel, man has understood that when something is performed, offered or used in an act of worship, that thing is set apart for that purpose. It is sacred. It is not always intrinsically so; it becomes sacred because it is so dedicated. It is sacred in purpose, not in makeup. This applies to animals, altars, human bodies, clothing, spaces, music, speech, times, even whole days or weeks or entire buildings. This is the act of consecration: setting things apart for holy uses. Once a common thing or place or time is set apart for worship, it is considered sacred.
The Mosaic Law made this point in hundreds of ways. Ordinary animals, utensils, tents, clothes would be consecrated and re-consecrated through sacrifices and ritual cleansings. When something was not consecrated or ritually cleansed, it was not to be used in worship, with dire penalties for disobedience. God kept explaining that by these acts of separating the ordinary from the sacred, Israel would be taught that God is holy: “that you may distinguish between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean” (Lev. 10:10). God is other. And because He is other, He is not known or worshipped by what is purely familiar or common. Even in pagan worship, common things, such as shoes were to be left in front of the temple (Latin= pro fanum), not brought inside it. To bring the unconsecrated into a sacred space was to profane that space, and indeed, that god. To obliterate this distinction between what was specifically given for worship, and what was for use in ordinary life was an act of profaning the name of the Lord. To profane God is to drag God and His worship down to the level of the ordinary.
No one, in all these millennia, misunderstood the nature of sacred things. They knew that the wood of the altar is still wood. They knew that anointing oil is still oil, and that the Sabbath is another twenty-four hours like all others. They did not waste time pointing out that priestly linen was the same material as regular linen. Nevertheless, they knew that what was consecrated had changed in its purpose, and since that purpose was now sacred, the objects or space or time were to be considered such.
Although the New Testament church is no longer restricted to a Tabernacle or Temple, and although it is true that all of our lives are to be offered up as worship, this does not mean that we by this fact lose the distinction between the sacred and the profane, particularly regarding corporate worship. Romans 12:1 is not meant to profane worship; it is meant to consecrate the mundane. The Lord’s Day is still His day. Ministers still ought to dress as if they were handling the most serious message in the world. Christians still ought to dress as if they were going to appear before God. Prayer still ought to be speech set apart to speak to the Most High. The Bible still ought to be read and heard like no other book. The space we meet in still ought to be treated like a space given over to worship. In various ways, we New Testament believers still ought to show that what we set apart for worship has a consecrated purpose, and therefore we should treat it as sacred, and not as common.
However, the realness police do not understand this. They rightly recognize that all of life is sacred, but then they take this to mean that the difference between worship and life is precisely what they should eliminate. They must make worship seem as ‘real’ or familiar as driving, eating, or walking through the mall. That way, they reason, no pretense exists in worship.
But in fact, such people turn out to be destroyers. Their efforts do not elevate normal life to a state of consecration; instead, they debase everything. Instead of a deep sense of reality permeating worship, they end up with a profound sense of mundaneness in corporate worship. Instead of filling the Christian church with sincerity, they fill it with what is average. Life does not become elevated and consecrated; worship becomes predictable, everyday and ordinary. Awe and reverence is lost, and the small consolation is that “we’re all so real about it.” Like Titus, they tear away the veil, and find nothing is there, and feel satisfied that at least they’d removed the mask.
The very contrast between worship and everyday life is exactly what invests worship with its power and transformative force. The gap between the common and the sacred is what makes worship a numinous and spiritual experience. The sacredness of worship is precisely what engenders the fear of the Lord. When we tear away at form – those things and ways and acts that remind us that this occasion is sacred – we tear away at worship itself. Indeed, we tear away at our own dignity as being made in the image of God, and not mere animals concerned with the material. When we refuse the distinction between the sacred and the common, we are nothing more than what C.S. Lewis called trousered apes.
Do not despise consecration. Do not attribute the setting apart of worship as a sacred experience as a bunch of sham and pretense. Learn to embrace such consecration yourself. Recognize it is part of the way God teaches us that He Himself is holy.
About David de Bruyn
David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.