Vain Worship

By Nathan White

Regarding the recent discussion involving the Regulative Principle of Worship, I ask you to briefly note the following passage and consider my comments below:

Mark 7:1-13 Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God) — then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

Note the following observations from this text, regarding the RPW:

  • There is such a thing as vain/useless worship, even when the worshiper is sincere: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.’
  • The commandment of God is abandoned when man-made traditions are embraced: ‘You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.’
  • The Word of God is made void by implementing tradition: ‘thus making void the word of God by your tradition’.
  • The washing of hands was never condemned by the law, much like drama and other modern forms of ‘worship’ are never condemned in scripture, as they are all certainly seemingly harmless acts, but embracing traditions which are beyond the bounds of scripture, as if they are worship and/or obedience, is in actuality replacing and superseding scripture, which is vain, useless, and condeming worship.
  • The Old Testament law is specifically referenced by Jesus as binding on worship, just as we can now look to Deut 12:29-31 as binding/instructive on our principles of worship: ‘For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’’
  • The Pharisees claimed to be obeying the commandment to honor father and mother, and would never deny it’s truthfulness, but by setting up their tradition they undermined it completely.

Brethren, as we have spent several posts outlining, the Regulative Principle of Worship is not a legalistic, arbitrary, and binding set of rules aimed at ruining the worship experience, but it is rather a firm conviction, based on an abundant of Old and New Testament texts, which keep us fallen creatures to falling into error, heaping up condemnation, and erecting idols in our worship of the Living God. Let us magnify Christ by preaching and proclaiming His word; let us not nullify it by setting up our seemingly harmful traditions in place of Christ.

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27 Comments on “Vain Worship”

  1. Barry Says:

    Maybe we should start with Santa Claus.

    I’m wondering if I should revile my mother for lying to me about the guy?

    And, what about the manger scene I’m starting to see everywhere I look, is that appropriate? There are scores of signs relative to Christmas appearing (officially) everywhere in the little village I live in which I can’t help but think are meant to produce the effect of a softening of feeling we have for one another at this time of year.

    Nathan, no matter how much we would like to separate Christ from Christmas it can’t be done. In trying to do so we become the grinch.

    Just enjoy the season for what it is, a harmless (and more often than not helpful) time of year when peoples’ attitudes toward one another become more accepting.

    Your point of the scenes of Christmas having little or nothing to do with the worship of Christ is well taken.

    But, nothing you or I do is going to stop people from enjoying the ephemeral activities associated with Christmas.

  2. Nathan White Says:

    Barry,

    You appear to have misunderstood me. I didn’t mention Christmas other than to make an emphasis on drama. My post has nothing to do with Christmas, but has everything to do with how we worship God. The things you listed above, even Santa Claus, are not really relevant to this discussion. That’s a completely different discussion.

    How does scripture define worship? Indeed, what is worship and what isn’t? How can we offer ‘acceptable’ worship just as scripture commands, and avoid the ‘vain’ worship that our Lord discussed in Mark 7? That’s more along the lines of my post. I hope you and others will consider these questions, without getting weighed down with the example that I previously gave in order to make my point (drama is prevalent this time of year).

  3. Barry Says:

    I see your point.

    That in the SBC relative to church service “worship” may vary.

    I had thought you were referring to outside the church with trappings of the season.

    A question one might ask, then, is: Would a general consensus be found as to the identification and application of these “harmful traditions”?

    Or, is the answer too complex with no two people from two different churches able to agree upon what is “vain” worship and what is valid as applied in the service itself?


  4. A discussion on worship is found at White Horse Inn. If you like Mike Horton, you’ll like this.

  5. Howard Says:

    # The commandment of God is abandoned when man-made traditions are embraced: ‘You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.’
    # The Word of God is made void by implementing tradition: ‘thus making void the word of God by your tradition’.

    I agree with your post in general. I am wondering if there is a logical fallacy. It is one thing to leave the commandment of God for say \”drama\”. It is another if drama was used not in place of but alongside with what God does prescribe.

    For instance, what if the Pharisees did not condemn Jesus and His disciples for not washing hands? Would Jesus still have made the same argument? Would Jesus still have been against their position using a slightly different argument?

    Just curious.

    Howard

  6. Nathan Says:

    it seems to me that most Baptists cling to tradition over many denominations. We hold hymns as an honored tradition, and are the “only” way to worship to so many. We have traditions of clothing… people used to believe that dressing up pleased God. Is that in our theology today? Yet, we still show up in suits.

    I have an issue with your first bullet. The issue here is not that the traditions were wrong or bad. The issue was that they were not sincere in what they did. It was meaningless tradition — acts of worship to try to get them closer to God. I don’t think that you can extract the statement “There is such a thing as vain/useless worship, even when the worshiper is sincere”. Jesus did not detest the traditions. He detested the manner in which the Pharisees went about it — heartless and insincere.

  7. Pat McGee Says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with the post.

  8. Jay Z Says:

    I have never heard the regulative principle used to argue that we should not use hymns, or that we should not wear suits to church.

    I am now even more unsure of the heart of this post.

  9. Dirtbeard Says:

    Jesus:

    This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;

    Here again we see that the manner is less important than the motive. It’s the heart that counts, not the procedure.

    Dirtbeard

  10. Dirtbeard Says:

    Nathan wrote:

    The issue here is not that the traditions were wrong or bad. The issue was that they were not sincere in what they did. It was meaningless tradition…Jesus did not detest the traditions. He detested the manner in which the Pharisees went about it — heartless and insincere.

    Exactly! The fact that they were doing something not specifically prescribed in Scripture was not the sin – the sin was their heart.

    Same is true with drama, or any other such worship element not specifically prescribed in Scripture.

    Dirtbeard

  11. Nathan White Says:

    Barry said: Would a general consensus be found as to the identification and application of these “harmful traditions”?

    I would venture to say yes. Generally, advocates of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) recognize that scripture speaks of prayer, singing, preaching, the Lord’s table, baptism, and giving as acceptable means of worship, but that things like, for example, painting and sculpting during the service as a means to promote ‘creativity’, or using drama to communicate a message instead of or in addition to the preached word; or say a Christian comedian coming in and performing during a ‘worship’ service, etc., are not acceptable means of worship because they are not given to us in scripture.

    Of course, adding in the Anglican and Catholic traditions, and you get scores of blatant violations: imagery, graven images, vestments, incense, candles, holy water, etc.

  12. Nathan White Says:

    Howard said: I am wondering if there is a logical fallacy. It is one thing to leave the commandment of God for say \”drama\”. It is another if drama was used not in place of but alongside with what God does prescribe. For instance, what if the Pharisees did not condemn Jesus and His disciples for not washing hands? Would Jesus still have made the same argument? Would Jesus still have been against their position using a slightly different argument?

    This is a good question. I would point to the example of Nadab Abihu in Lev 10, who of course offered ‘strange’ fire before the Lord, right alongside everything else He commanded, and yet were killed instantly.

    Or, I would point to 2 Kings 16 where the wicked Ahaz fashioned an altar after a pagan pattern that he liked, and put it in the temple, and simply moved the Lord’s prescribed altar to the back of the room. Thus, God’s prescribed methods always get moved to the back, so to speak, when we insert our own traditions, which is what I believe the text in Mark 7 is explicitly teaching.

    Essentially, I believe the text clearly teaches that anytime we establish a tradition of man, thinking that we are worshipping, we are denying the commandment and word of God.

  13. Nathan White Says:

    Jay Z said: I have never heard the regulative principle used to argue that
    we should not use hymns, or that we should not wear suits to church. I am
    now even more unsure of the heart of this post.

    Two different Nathans speaking here! I’m certainly not arguing against hymns, suits, or other harmless traditions that have nothing to do with worship.

  14. Nathan White Says:

    Nathan said: it seems to me that most Baptists cling to tradition over many denominations. We hold hymns as an honored tradition, and are the “only” way to worship to so many. We have traditions of clothing… people used to believe that dressing up pleased God. Is that in our theology today? Yet, we still show up in suits.

    I see no correlation here with my argument in this post. Hymns are spoken of by Paul; dress has nothing to do with worship (unless it is vestments, or a rule established that one must dress a certain way to worship). I’m specifically discussing what we *do* in worship, and claim as worship.

    Nathan said: I have an issue with your first bullet. The issue here is not that the traditions were wrong or bad. The issue was that they were not sincere in what they did. It was meaningless tradition — acts of worship to try to get them closer to God. I don’t think that you can extract the statement “There is such a thing as vain/useless worship, even when the
    worshiper is sincere”. Jesus did not detest the traditions. He detested the manner in which the Pharisees went about it — heartless and insincere.

    I agree somewhat. Of course the heartless and insincerity/hypocrisy of the Pharisees is being condemned here by Jesus. But my point was Jesus’ specific reference to *traditions of men*, and the fact that they leave the commandment of God in order to establish them. They thought they were worshiping, but they were only worshipping their own man-made rules, and thus proved that their hearts were insincere.

  15. Nathan White Says:

    Dirtbeard said: Here again we see that the manner is less important than the motive. It’s the heart that counts, not the procedure.

    This goes directly against the text itself. The text clearly has Jesus condemning them for ‘traditions of men’. What does an insincere heart have to do with the traditions of men? Absolutely nothing unless the traditions are sinful. “Commandments of men” and “traditions of men” and “your traditions” is mentioned three times by Jesus, and it is *this* that caused Jesus’ condemnation; not their hearts only.

    Dirtbeard said: Exactly! The fact that they were doing something not specifically prescribed in Scripture was not the sin – the sin was their heart. Same is true with drama, or any other such worship element not specifically prescribed in Scripture.

    As I said above, this goes against the clear wording of the text. The vanity of heart is mentioned when Jesus quotes Isaiah, but He then applies it to their case by emphasizing the ‘tradition of men’. It is clear that He is saying that *both* their hearts *and* their traditions were sinful; you do a great injustice to the text when you try to make it only one or the other.

  16. Nathan White Says:

    To all:

    Thomas Twitchell made a comment over at my blog concerning this subject, and I believe it is an excellent summary of some points that I have been attempting to make. Please give it a careful reading (all emphasis mine):

    Well, with the conversation drifting over the yellow line from time to time with subjects of form and style, it is indeed easy to lose focus of the issues at hand. I do not think that form and style have anything to do with worship in this, but rather, what do form an style bring to worship that is proper or improper. The washings really were not a bad thing, either hygienically nor as symbolic of purity, but when they became codified they imported something to worship that did not belong there. We might say the same thing about the veneration of the Host. It is not the offering of the bread, nor even much of the rest of the sacrifice of the mass that is offensive. It was the meaning imported to it that made it an offense to the commands of God.

    If I can refer accross blogs here, I said at SBF that it is both what we do and say in drama, and what is not done and said, that is where the problem begins. It is granted that the Supper is an acting out of Scriptural Truth. But, it is highly regulated even with some latitude of presentation. Drama does not have that same structural guide in Scripture which makes it problematic in establishing Scriptural mandated regulatory worship. One needs only look at Corinthians and we find at a bare minimum shoulds and should nots. And, if we know that the Word of God contains commands, prescriptive, proscriptive and prohibitive, which all agree it does, then it is only wise to search out what Scripture has to say and to try to establish those guidelines.

  17. Barry Says:

    This is interesting.

    I suppose that each movement has its unique ancillary motifs visible during a service that have nothing to do with worship.

    I think that alot of what we do and say and present has nothing to do with worship nor, one might suggest, does it really bring us closer to God.

    Are crosses we wear around our neck, or fish symbols found on bumpers of cars, designed to bring us closer to God? Or, could it be that these are gestures for the benefit of others which might suggest one thing but might actually be misleading?

    There are some amazing things going on today which only serve to confuse.

    What is it suppose to tell us when we see some guy with a cross tatooed on his neck?

  18. Nathan White Says:

    Barry,

    I don’t really see the relevance of crosses, tattoos, symbols, etc., in regards to this post. I am specifically asking the question of what it is we *do* when we meet together corporately as a church. Do we worship God through the preaching of His Word, prayer, etc.? Or do we, essentially, offer ‘strange’ worship, that is really nothing of worship at all, in our dramas, games, skits, entertainment shows, etc.

    What we *do* as a church, when meeting corporately, is the question I want to raise.

  19. Dirtbeard Says:

    Guys,

    This has been fun, but when I see that things as innocuous as “candles” and “imagery” (which by definition would exclude any descriptive sermon illustration since it would evoke a mental image) are labeled “blatant violations” — it’s time to move on…

    I don’t mean to be condescending – but really… I can’t drink the “God is offended by my lighting a candle in worship” Kool-Aide.

    Dirtbeard

  20. Pat McGee Says:

    I can’t but help addressing the issue of clothing. My apologies for going down a rabbit trail, but someone else already opened the trail.
    I am a professional. I wear a dress shirt and tie daily for my job. Should I then dress down got God? I don’t think so. I should wear the best I have, unless that is not appropriate. (If I owned a tux, I would not wear that to church). I see people coming to church in shorts and tank tops and flip-flops. They would never go to work dressed like that. What is more important? God or work? I also have seen women dressed provocatively, which is also inappropriate and I might add, a distraction. Think about what you wear. God is pleased when we put Him first. I believe how we dress is part of that.

  21. Nathan White Says:

    Dirtbeard said: when I see that things as innocuous as “candles” and “imagery” (which by definition would exclude any descriptive sermon illustration since it would evoke a mental image) are labeled “blatant violations” — it’s time to move on…

    DB,
    I certainly didn’t mean to say that the use of candles and such is wrong; I simply meant to give an example of a harmless thing being elevated to idolatry, as the Roman system has done with those things.

  22. Dirtbeard Says:

    Nathan,

    With that I would agree, any “thing” could be raised to such status.

    Dirtbeard

  23. Jay Z Says:

    Good luck with one Pat.


  24. […] Ninth Inning Rally? There have been several kind folks who have asked me about my “Ask Anything” question that, for about a month, stood at #1 on Mark Driscoll’s “Ask Anything” website. Some of you will remember that exactly a month ago, I bailed out on the project as I thought things had gotten way out of hand, and the comments on the question seemed to miss the point. During this period of time, I seldom visited the “Ask Anything” site and did not vote. However, Andrew (here) and Nathan (here, here, and here) have been blogging it up, for which I am really grateful.The current vote total for my question stands (as of 12.08.07 at 7:00 a.m.) at 15,236, landing it at #10 on the top 20 list. For the question to make the cut, a spread of around 1,200 votes will have to be overcome. At this point, there are only six days left before the voting process closes. That means we are in the bottom of the ninth inning. Can the regulative principle rally and make it in the top 9?I think it is worth a try. I remember as a little leaguer when we would put on our rally caps, yell a little louder, and believe a little more. I guess that little leaguer in me is still there. So how is it going to happen? Well, I know at least it will require a team effort. […]

  25. Jim Pemberton Says:

    Anyone notice that this passage does not provide a context of corporate worship? The disciples are eating with hands that were not ceremonially clean. That’s the tradition the Pharisees were talking about. This passage has to do with such tradition. The only mention of worship was in Christ’s Isaiah quote, and it’s dubious as to whether it even refers specifically to corporate worship. I’m not saying that the RPW can’t be demonstrated elsewhere, but not specifically here.

    As far as it goes, there is a sense of propriety in corporate worship. However, worship should be done always, not just corporately. That means that whatever we do should be glorifying to God. If this is the case, should we never do drama at all or listen to secular music? Even if we only sing sacred music, as an accomplished musician I am well aware that music by nature is dramatic. Otherwise, we should be able to sing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island” with a straight face. No, but rather our purpose at all times should be to glorify God. And in corporate worship, this must be according to some order (because God is the author of order – not chaos), but may be through creative expression. Sculpting isn’t a bad thing, but it’s not conducive to corporate worship. Glorify God in unity in corporate worship, not in individualism.

  26. Nathan White Says:

    Jim,

    This post is about worship in general, not *just* corporate worship.

    Of course, I would also encourage you to examine the context of the IS passage that Jesus quotes.

    Regarding your other comments, I find no diasagreement. But my post here is one of many in which I seek to separate what is *true* worship, what is not, and what is simply living to God’s glory.


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