Regarding Responsible Reformation
by Al Maxey -------
Issue #33a ------- April 26, 2003
"I find the great thing in this world is
not so much where we stand, as in what
direction we are moving: To reach the port
of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the
wind and sometimes against it --- but we
must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor."

--- Oliver Wendell Holmes (1858)

Questions from Two Readers
Concerning "Worship Reformation"

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) once observed, "Reforms are like offenses; they must needs come, but woe unto that man through whom they come." The ranks of the martyrs swell with reformers, and yet where would we be were it not for their vision and voice of concern?! Reform is rarely popular, but the alternative is less so. Thus, in every age God raises up so-called radicals and rebels to call His people to responsible reform and to move them forward in their journey toward spiritual wholeness. Walt Whitman (1819-1892) phrased it this way: "The eager and often inconsiderate appeals of reformers and revolutionists are indispensable, to counterbalance the inertness and fossilism making so large a part of human institutions."

These Reflections are a challenge to my beloved brethren in Christ to consider the need for responsible reform in various areas of our walk with, work for and worship to our Lord. As Mark Twain correctly observed, "Reflection is the beginning of reform." We will never change if we are unwilling to think, and we will resist reflection if we are fearful of change. I have been encouraged by the growing number of readers of these Reflections who have indicated they are engaging in deeper study of the Word of God as a result of what they have been reading herein. I am further uplifted by those who have acknowledged personal change in both perception and practice as a result of their prayerful reflection. May I also hasten to add: I am thrilled by those readers who have written to challenge my own thinking, and who are willing to engage me in respectful, reasoned dialogue as a fellow disciple of the Lord Jesus. Such a Berean spirit (Acts 17:11) is most sincerely appreciated.

Two such brothers in Christ wrote me after reading issue #33 on Worship Reformation. Both men are very well-known in the Churches of Christ and highly respected around the world as spiritual leaders, writers and evangelists. Their roots run deep in the American Restoration Movement. I sought permission to use their names in this response, and both readily agreed to be identified. I thank them for their godly spirit and for their many years of devoted service to the Lord.

From J. D. Tant in Georgia

I certainly believe we have guidance from the inspired Scriptures as to what our Lord finds pleasing and displeasing in our worship unto Him. For example, if we "teach as doctrines the precepts of men," then Jesus says we worship Him "in vain" (Matthew 15:9). He also informs us that if our worship consists only of honoring Him with our lips, and our hearts are not devoted unto Him, then that also is worthless worship (vs. 8). Elevating tradition over Truth also constitutes an invalidation and transgression of His Word, and renders our worship unacceptable (vs. 3-6). One should also not overlook the teaching of our Lord to the woman at the well in Sychar. He informed her that worship of the Father must be "in spirit and truth" (John 4:21-24), rather than focused upon externals. This signifies our worship must be both spiritual and sincere (genuine). Thus, there most certainly is considerable divine guidance within His written Word.

Where I think the new covenant has superceded and transcended the old, however, is in greater freedom to express the devotion of one's heart in worship unto the Father. Our loving, worshipful expressions are not restricted and regulated to the "nth degree" as they were under the Mosaic covenant. Does that mean "anything goes" in personal or corporate worship? Of course not! This is where we must use a healthy dose of good, God-given common sense and spiritual discernment. God is dealing with His people these days as more mature individuals, rather than as infants and toddlers. The relationship has changed; it has evolved. With this freedom in Christ, however, comes responsibility to behave responsibly. The mature are required to behave maturely. Liberty doesn't equate to license; with our freedom comes the obligation to sufficiently know the mind of our God so as to live responsibly within that freedom before Him and others.

I think the apostle Paul summed this up beautifully when he said, "All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify" (1 Corinthians 10:23). Paul made this observation in the context of a discussion on Christian liberty. Yes, we are free .... and thank God for that freedom! But, if our liberty is not being used to bring glory to God, or edification to His people, or the message of hope to the lost, then our liberty is being abused. One's freedom in Christ, however, should never be judged by another's conscience (1 Corinthians 10:29). "If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks?" (vs. 30). Paul refused to "yield in subjection" unto those who came "to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage" (Galatians 2:4-5). Nevertheless, Paul was also aware of his responsibility not to allow his liberty to be the cause of dishonoring God or disabling a brother.

We are no longer rigidly regulated in our worshipful expression to our God, as was often the case in times past, but that does not mean we can behave in an unrestrained, irresponsible manner. We are restrained by our love for God and our fellow man, and by our responsibility as mature disciples to do all to the glory of God and the edification of others. If something does not fall within these guidelines and parameters, then it should be avoided. "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law" (Romans 13:10). Those who are free in Christ, and who seek to be responsible in the exercise of that freedom, would never consider doing anything to dishonor God, distress their brethren, or detract from the effective proclamation of Truth to the lost. "Is it profitable?" "Does it edify?" "Does it glorify God?" These are questions that we, in the spirit of Paul, must ask ourselves before we ever engage in some practice or activity.

We do not live under LAW, but under GRACE. We have been redeemed from out of rigid regulation. We now offer up worship in spirit and with sincerity from genuine hearts, not by duty to some letter of law and restrictive legislation. We are free. However, our love of the Father, and of our fellow believers, and of the lost restrains and constrains us in the exercise of our freedom. We live and act responsibly, therefore. We are guided by the principles of the Word, motivated by love in our behavior toward all. If some action or proposed practice does not bring glory to our God, if it does not edify the saints, but leads to confusion or dissention, if it does not contribute to drawing the lost into a relationship with the Lord, but undermines that goal, then such action or practice is avoided by all responsible disciples of Jesus Christ. Those who do things contrary to the above admonition are people who, frankly, abuse their freedom and who obviously do not understand either it or love. It is just as wrong to abuse our freedom in our worshipful expression as it is to rigidly regulate and restrict it. Both are extremes, and both should be avoided by mature saints. When love governs our hearts in worship, there is no need for law to govern our acts.

From T. Pierce Brown in Tennessee

Only from the sheep's point of view!!

Seriously, I think the example of Paul in Acts 21:17f is instructive here. We see him going to the Temple and taking part in a strictly Jewish rite of purification, which involved sacrifices. Paul also did not regard such sacrifices to be in any way redemptive, as the blood of Christ was offered once for all. Nevertheless, he saw no problem in involving himself in such ritual since there was noble purpose involved. Thus, my reply to your scenario would be this --- if you were honestly, from your hearts, engaging in this act of worship to express genuine thanksgiving to your God, and you both believed this to be acceptable to Him, and it was done in such a way that none of your brethren were caused to stumble and none who were lost were hindered from being drawn to the Lord, and if you did not seek to bind this practice upon others, then I would find no reason to condemn your worshipful expression.

It certainly is not something I personally would choose to do, but my preferences are not the standard by which you are to be measured in the expression of your love to the Father. I find nothing in New Covenant Scripture that would forbid the above expression of thankfulness. It might not be profitable or edifying in some circumstances, and this is where one must practice loving discernment so as not to cause harm to others or to the cause of Christ, but if done to His glory, and to no one else's harm, then more power to you.

That would depend greatly on the setting in which the above occurred. As a general principle, I personally would neither encourage nor discourage such a practice in one's expression of worship. I would leave that to the heart of the worshipper. If there are disciples who are aided in their prayer life, for example, by incense burning in the background, then what possible harm is that doing? I know of congregations where the lights are dimmed during prayer. Is that a sin? What about bowing heads or folding hands or closing eyes? What about kneeling? These are all externals; they are peripheral to prayer itself, which is of the heart and mind. If a group of disciples are intent upon pouring out their hearts to their Father in prayer, and dim lights, bowed heads, closed eyes, and burning incense facilitate that spirit of reverence, and no one is caused to stumble and no lost souls are hindered thereby, then more power to them.

As for "bead counting," if this aids them in some way in their worshipful expression, what is the harm? As you said, they are not using it as an aid to prayer unto Mary, but as "an aid to worship Jesus." I know a man who "counts coins," instead of beads. When called upon to lead public prayer, he will try and remember all the people and circumstances requiring prayer that morning (he doesn't like to write them down, as he believes in closing his eyes and "praying from the heart"). If there are ten main items that morning, he will put ten coins in his right hand and transfer them one at a time to his left hand as he prays for each item. That serves as an aid for him in prayer. Is that a sin? Is it acceptable to "count coins" as an aid to prayer, but an abomination to "count beads"? If so, why?

We too easily fall into the trap of becoming obsessed with externals, and in so doing we fail to perceive it is the heart that is the focus of the Lord's attention. "For God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). Worship is the expression of the adoration of the heart. When men fuss, fight and fragment over aids to worship, or diversity in acts of worship, they have lost sight of the essence of worship.

God is calling us to worship reformation, not to ever increasing worship regulation. May He open our eyes so that we may truly begin to open our hearts.

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