The Strange Fire of Unauthorized Worship

I’ve been trying to move into a bit of a better place – not physically, but spiritually and emotionally with where I’m at on the Church issue. For the most part, my hectic schedule is set up so that I end up working on Sundays. Miraculously, I’ve gotten the last two Sunday mornings off. While I wasn’t quite feeling up to the hassle of actually going to a church, I did opt to listen in to some churches in my area with radio programs.

Last week, one radio program talked about “authorized worship”. He started off with a question: “Does the worship of God have divine regulations or can we worship Him as we please?”

He pointed to the story of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10 – it’s the story of two of Aaron’s sons who offered up an incense mix other than the one God specifically outlined. They were burned to death by the Lord right on the spot.

He went on to outline the regulations of authorized worship as mentioned in John 4:

  1. God is to be the object of our worship.
  2. Our worship of God is to be in spirit; genuine and sincere – from our hearts.
  3. Our worship of God is to be in truth – which is the Word of God, the Bible.

He said that human traditions had a way of making void proper worship to God (Isaiah 29:13 or Matthew 15:8-9):

“These people come near to me with their mouth
    and honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me
    is based on merely human rules they have been taught.”

This week, he identified “contemporary worship” as “unauthorized worship.”

“We like to use modern instruments and sing new songs.” A church member might say, to which he responded: “Well, did God authorize it?”

“I’m just not getting anything out of worship.” A frustrated believer might say, to which he responded: “Are you even supposed to get anything out of it?”

“We’re just not attracting new people, we need to make some changes to make the church more seeker-friendly.” Another might observe, to which he responded: “When did we get the idea that worship was about attracting the sinner?”

“We’ve lost a lot of young people, if we want to keep them around, we need to make some new changes and do things differently to keep from losing them.” Someone else points out, to which he responded: “What will you do when new and different wears off and becomes old and stale? Keep on changing things? Where will it end?”


*Frustrated sigh* it’s church leaders with this mindset that basically banished me from the church in the first place. What Contemporary worship does is align my truth and my spirit to worship God in a way that Traditional worship never did and never could. Let’s also keep in mind that in the whole history of worshiping God; the Christian expression of it is as unauthorized as you can get – being a departure from all of the Temple regulations. Do we even know whether the Protestant Reformation was authorized or not?

Even so, how most churches worship today is a departure from how churches worshiped in the Bible. For us, the Lord’s supper is a thimble of juice and an oyster cracker – for the Corinthians – it was a first-come-first-serve feast complete with drunkenness where it wasn’t uncommon for the food to run out before everybody could get something to eat.

For us, worship is what it is. For the Corinthians – they had the occasional inquirer or unbeliever come to church to see what all the fuss was. Think of them as regulars who really desire to join the church. They got to show up and participate in some aspects of worship – but as unbelievers, things like the Lord Supper wasn’t allowed for them. They would spend serious time learning the teachings of the church and if their desire to be baptized proved strong enough they would be formally admitted into the church, baptized, and given permission to take part in all aspects of worshiping God. So to a certain extent, the worship of God meant having room for unbelievers to see what they’re signing up for if they decide to seek membership.

We don’t worship like the Corinthians worshiped. Or the Galatians. Or the Ephesians – or any of the churches listed in the Bible. We don’t worship like the Early Church that formed as the members of The Way spread the teachings of their Rabbi/Messiah to all corners of the Roman Empire. And we don’t even worship in the same way that the Holy Roman Empire worshiped God. And yet you want me to believe that all those people had “unauthorized worship” just because they never had hymnals and pianos and we just happen to be the lucky souls who have “authorized worship” after millennia of everyone else getting it wrong?

So you fear change? Let me grant you your wish and show you a church where change does not happen:

Woodward_Avenue_Presbyterian_Church_view_from_balcony_detail_on_seating

This is a church that does not change. Nothing threatens what is: an unending quietness – the absence of singing, and no echoes of people taking or screaming infants. No prayers are uttered here. The Bibles and hymnals that remain are closed. There are no power grabs from upstart youth, no wielding of power from the old guard. Could you worship here? Could you be the last soul this church serves? Where there is life – there is change. The young change into the old, the new changes into the familiar, the different becomes the same. The process continues with a whole new generation taking root and thriving, creating an even newer generation that will, in time, take their place. Change is not – and never has been – the enemy. So yes, we will keep changing and keep living – and God willing, keep inhabiting our worship spaces in new and different ways that honor Him.

But let’s not underestimate how important it is to get something out of worship. Humanity has a vast difference in the expression of it’s spirituality. Everything from monotheism to polytheism, religions seeking truth, others enlightenment, others an understanding of suffering, religions with profound teachers who are revered for their teachings – we all devote a serious amount of time, energy, effort, and wealth in our search for spirituality. The something that we get out of it is what keeps us in the faith that we are in – rather than trying them all on for size. This is true of our denominations as well – the something we get out of them is why we’re apart of them and why we feel no need to go elsewhere to get it – until that something is gone. Then we must seek it out and go to where it is now. You might not even know how to articulate the something that you get out of worship – but odds are you would recognize what it’s absence would be were you in any other setting, right? That’s how it is with me and contemporary worship. I can’t tell what it is about it that works for me, but in it’s absence, traditional worship just doesn’t do the same thing. And that’s why it’s so very easy for me to continue my vacation from church because there’s nothing but traditional worship churches in my area and I know they hurt more than they help.

As to the question of authorization – it’s a false obsession in the church. Imagine a young child drawing a picture of their mommy or daddy. Will their parent be so heartless as to tear up an “unauthorized” masterpiece because they used markers instead of crayons? If God has such a need to be worshiped that he created humans with free will and boundless creativity – would it make sense for him to prohibit every single which way He could be worshiped save for one way? What about the lack of punishment for supposed violations of worship? Why aren’t contemporary churches filled with various plagues? Why aren’t bad traditional churches bursting into flames spontaneously? What if we all have authority to worship God in any and every way we can think of – even in new ways that haven’t yet been created?

What really tears me up is knowing that I’d never belong in a church where he or others like him are in charge. I’d never be able to reveal the depth of my knowledge or talk about how I feel because these things are supposedly non-essentials in the worship of God. I’d never be able to worship God according what my spirit says is the truth. I’d have to play my part and act on cue – sing this, smile warmly, silently listen – but I’d never belong or be accepted or worship in spirit and in truth. It just doesn’t seem to matter though, because as far as he and others like him are concerned – his worship is the only right worship because it satisfies his spirit and his truth and as a powerful leader in the church, he makes all the decisions for everyone else.

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On The Road

Sometimes I like to imagine what it might have been like for Jesus’ disciples as they were travelling with him from one place to the next. It’s in the cool of the evening. They have set up camp. They’re sitting down, giving their tired, dirty feet a rest. The disciples – all of them, both “the twelve” and “the women”; the ones who had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs, cook the meals, provide financial support with their own money, were also in close range so that they could hear his instruction.

They’d simply talk. Jesus was training these to be his insiders, so he explained things clearly and simply. The intimate conversations are the sorts of things that the Bible doesn’t clue us in on, but it does indicate they happened. I think about Jesus’ character, the salt-of-the-earth person that he was. He wasn’t a rabbi who was big on the prestige and title. He was just a guy who had a way of speaking the truth and reading people’s thoughts and emotions.

Anyway, I think he had a particular ethic. He was a pacifist in a society where violence was ordinary and commonplace. He was merciful and compassionate; when a sea of people searched him out to be cured of their illnesses, He healed them. Whenever there was a circumstance when the proper thing to do was to shun somebody – Jesus would do the opposite. It wasn’t in his nature to be an enemy of any living soul.

That’s how I’d like to be. I know this world doesn’t make it easy. Some Christians make it harder than it needs to be by insisting that their version is the only way, the only truth, and the only life and only through them and their teachings can true salvation be secured. Jesus had to deal with people like that, people who were technically right if the letter of the law were the most important thing – but they were actually wrong because the missed the spirit.

I’ve been walked through the plan of salvation over and over again by Christians such as these, so determined to win me over to their version that they cannot see the flaws in their foundation. I don’t want a technically correct Jesus that lacks the empathetic spirit of Jesus. What good does it do to have a form of godliness through following these rules, but to deny the freedom-giving power of rule-breaking godliness in the process?

Some days, I wish I were on that road, speaking with Jesus about today. Asking him: how I can make room around our campfire for anyone regardless of who they are or what they’ve done? How can I bring healing balm to those as wounded as I am from extensive fighting on this invisible front? How can we declare a truce and begin talks in order to restore true, lasting peace?