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Worship Wars and Warriors

Editor’s note: the following essay appears as the foreword to Scott Aniol’s book, Worship in Song: a Biblical Approach to Music and Worship. This highlights some of the perspe

ctive from which Kevin Bauder will be teaching his upcoming tuition-free class: “Knowing and Loving God.”

Worship wars. It’s a new phrase, but it expresses a phenomenon that has been around as long as people have deviated from the true worship of the living God. Sometimes the worship wars have involved actual, physical warfare, including the shedding of blood. Other times they have involved the assertion of ideas and the exercise of liturgical authority.

Worship wars have been fought over at least two kinds of issues. The first issue is, “Whom shall we worship?” The biblical answer to this question is contained in the Shema and the Great Commandment: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Deut. 6:4-5). In other words, one and only one being exists to whom worship is rightly directed. That one is Yahweh, the LORD, the God of the Bible.

Any effort to direct worship toward any other god than the God of the Bible is idolatrous, and it invokes the displeasure of the LORD—for “I the LORD thy God am a jealous God” (Ex. 20:5). Even when an idol is called by the name of the LORD, it remains an idol. We must worship God as the Bible reveals Him to be, resisting every attempt to remake Him in our own image or according to our own wishes.

Anyone who erects an idol in the name of the true and living God is likely to provoke a worship war. Moses went to war with the golden calf that Aaron proclaimed to be Israel’s “Elohim.” Paul pronounced his anathema upon anyone who declared a gospel that contradicted the true work and nature of the living God. Perhaps the greatest worship warrior of all time was Jesus Himself. He made it clear that people had to choose to perform their religious exercises either for the true and living God or else for the praise of men—but they could not do both! He insisted that people who pursued religion for human recognition were hypocrites who already had their reward. He pronounced woe upon such hypocrites, especially upon the scribes and Pharisees who ought to have known better. With Jesus, worship war became physical confrontation when He drove the hypocrites out of the temple. “The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up” (John 2:17).

Worship wars are fought over the worship of false gods. But worship wars are also fought over a second issue. Besides asking whom we ought to worship, we must also ask how we ought to worship.

Worship does not exist for the sake of the worshiper, but for the glory of the God Who is worshiped. That being the case, the most significant question in every worship event must be, “What will please God?” When we truly worship, we do not seek to please ourselves, but to please the God to Whom our worship is directed.

How do we know what pleases God? How do we know what He wishes us to offer Him in worship? To put it very simply, He tells us. Unless He tells us, we have no way to know. Therefore, we must search the Scriptures to discover what elements God authorizes us to include in our worship. Whatever elements He requires of us, we are obligated to offer. If we offer elements that He does not require, then we must not pretend that we are offering them to please Him, for how can we know that these elements please Him if He has not told us? We might rightly ask ourselves the question of Isaiah, “Who hath required this at thy hand?” (Isa. 1:12).

Nevertheless, some people do offer elements in their worship that God has not required. Why would they do such a thing? By definition, they cannot be doing it to please God. Therefore, they must be doing it to please either themselves or other people. For such worshipers, the act of worship becomes a façade to conceal either the gratification of their own appetites or the appeal for human favor. Whether they are self-pleasers or men-pleasers, their worship is the most crass idolatry. This manner of worship is an exercise in self-assertion that the apostle Paul names as “will worship” (Col. 3:23).

Even the elements that God does command can be offered in better and worse ways. If we are serious about pleasing God, we shall choose the better ways. We shall eliminate any expression of worship that debases or trivializes holy things.

Why should we be concerned about debased or trivial expressions? First, because a trivial God is not the God of the Bible. If we are trivializing God and the things of God in our worship, we are effectively transforming Him into a different God. Since the trivial god who results from this transformation is not the God of the Bible, He must be a God of our own invention: a diminutive and sometimes laughable deity. This, too, is idolatry.

Second, we are explicitly forbidden in Scripture to take the name of the LORD our God in vain. To take the LORD’S name in vain means to speak of God in an empty, thoughtless, or shallow fashion. In other words, trivial or debasing expressions of worship have the effect of profaning holy things and violating the third commandment. Violating this commandment is especially serious—the LORD Himself tells us that He will not hold those guiltless who take His name in vain.

Of course, any expression may take the name of the LORD in vain. Not merely our worship, but our instruction, our fellowship, and even our witness may be profane. Reverencing the name of the LORD (treating His name as it ought to be treated) should be a major concern in all of our speech. Never should we utter corrupt communication, especially about holy things.

One of the major vehicles through which we express worship (not to mention fellowship, instruction, and witness) is music. Not surprisingly, music has come to be the focus of the worship wars. The reason is that the message of music is not so much propositional content as affection. That is what makes music such a powerful medium of communication. It is also why people become so attached to “their” music—the music is an externalization of what is in their souls. To criticize the music they love is to criticize their very capacity for loving. Furthermore, this affective aspect of musical communication is precisely what gives music such a powerful capacity to debase or trivialize the objects that it examines.

If our music of worship leads us to view God in the wrong way, or if it leads us to feel wrongly about God (to direct toward Him the wrong kind of love, fear, or joy, for example), then we will profane the Holy One by taking His name in vain. If we take His name in vain, then He will not hold us guiltless.

God’s people must make sound judgments about the music they use to express their faith. Nothing has become more common, however, than the jibe that these judgments are “merely” matters of taste or opinion. No one disputes that they really are matters of taste and opinion. It does not follow, though, that they are purely relative. Opinion can be either right (in which case it is called orthodoxy) or wrong (in which case it is called heterodoxy). Taste, especially when directed toward holy things, can be either good (ordinate and orthopathic) or else bad (inordinate and heteropathic).

How are Christians supposed to discern when their music is orthodox and orthopathic? This is the point at which Scott Aniol enters the conversation. He understands the problems connected with the worship wars. Particularly, he understands the difficulty that confronts Christian people whose sensibilities have already been degraded by the profane. He articulates a coherent theory that, if consistently employed, would bring believers close to a mode of worship that reflects ordinate affection and orthopathic worship. In the process he responds to most of the clichés that populist evangelicals use to reinforce their prejudices.

Aniol is paddling against the current of contemporary, evangelical sensibility. Many will be so offended by his conclusions that they will never even consider his arguments. Others will examine the arguments only in the hopes of locating some weakness that they might use to refute it. That is a pity, because the issues that he raises are important and the answers that he provides are reasonable.

Scott Aniol is a worship warrior in the very best tradition. He is kind, reasonable, and careful, while also expressing strong convictions in view of the evidence. He deserves to receive a hearing.

Find out more about Dr. Bauder’s tuition-free class on worship here.

Find out more about Scott Aniol’s book here.

Watch the following video for more information about the class:

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.