Few things seem to raise the hackles of many congregants like changing the Order of Service. In the most formal of churches, ritual is everything; the mechanical performance of certain religious rites is accepted as the essence of worship. But let the pastor or some other official change the order of worship in even the most informal churches, and the change becomes fodder for discussion, if not cause for censure. With group worship at the heart of Christian life, the fact that the New Testament lays down almost no strictures regarding worship and, in fact, says almost nothing about how worship is to be conducted should give us pause. One clear exception may be found in Paul’s epistle to the troubled church at Corinth. The instruction regarding worship is both short and direct: “But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner” (I Cor. 14:40).
The liberty in this command. Let there be no mistake: our text is in the imperative. It is a command from God. But we are immediately struck by the brevity of the command. In some ways, what is left unexpressed is as significant as what is stated specifically. The clear implication seems to be that God has allowed for much liberty in congregational worship. To some degree, then, social and cultural norms and even community distinctions may find expression in worship. Music is not addressed here (though earlier Paul states that he “will sing with the spirit” and “with the mind also” [v. 15], and elsewhere we are told to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” [Col. 3:16]). Nor does Paul, for example, address the use or omission of Scripture readings, responsive or otherwise, or the collecting of offerings (though mentioned elsewhere as being put aside on the first day of the week [I Cor. 16:2). The manner of dress whether for pastors, choirs, or congregants goes unnoted. We must look elsewhere for general guidelines concerning dress, which might be summed up with one word: modesty. The more we think along these lines, the more remarkable become these deliberate omissions. The Spirit of God has allowed for much latitude for godly expressions of worship within the New Testament church. Though much so-called modern worship is conducted in an irreverent, if not absolutely blasphemous manner, we must be careful not to harrumph sanctimoniously when our brethren in other churches do not conduct their services just exactly as we do. Some areas are truly matters of individual conscience: “One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord” (Rom. 14:5, 6a).
The limitations in this command. Let there be no mistake here. Liberty regarding some attitudes and activities in worship is not license in any of them: “All things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.” Two governors keep us on the rails. First, every part of worship must be done properly, that is, decorously. Only that which is appropriate and fitting, that which properly demonstrates the reverence and awe due our holy God, may be part of true worship. Nothing either sensual or primarily emotional has any place in the worship of God. Worship services should be conducted in a manner that is both higher than and different from anything we do in the secular world. What is merely entertaining or amusing should play no role in worship. Second, worship must be conducted “in an orderly manner.” Paul is not suggesting a military rigidity or a mechanical form like “the law of the Medes and Persians which altereth not.” But the word does suggest “arrangement” and “succession.” Yes, pastors, other leaders, and congregants should be open to the leading and direction of the Holy Spirit in matters of worship, but that is far different from a careless or haphazard approach. Though many brides, when planning their weddings, go overboard with their minute attention to detail, their intense scrutiny of everything does illustrate that the more important we perceive something to be the more care we give to it. Worship involves how we approach and relate to our transcendent Creator and immanent Savior. And although believers truly have a Friend in Jesus, “God is not a God of confusion” (v. 33), but of the utmost perfection and order. If we would reverence Him, if we would begin to give Him His just dues in worship, if we would obey His commands, then “all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.”
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