What do you mean by ‘worship’?

worshipIt’s that time of year again when freshers up and down the country visit different churches in order to find somewhere they can settle for their next 3 years. I remember vividly the ‘church search’ and the learned comparisons we used to make between ‘teaching churche’s and ‘worship churches’ – ‘Oh I know the teaching is great at St. What’shisnames, but the worship at RiverLamb’sBlood is just amazing.

And then when I left Uni I was taught that worship was not primarily about singing, but about every element of the church service, and even the whole of life. So in your face ‘worship churches.’ We understand something you clearly don’t.

And then I went back and looked again at the way the Bible uses the word ‘worship.’ There are a number of related Greek terms laid out in Louw-Nida’s Lexicon of semantic domains. These include proskuneo (Matt 2.2), latreuo (Acts 7.7, Heb 9.1), sebomai (Rom 1:25),  sebasma (Acts 17.23), plus a few other less common words or derivatives from those already listed. Each of those terms has a semantic range and the totality of meaning cannot be read into each individual instance (Barr calls this ‘illegitimate totality transfer’). We must resist the temptation to reductionist definitions and allow terms to be defined by their biblical usage. We must embrace the ambiguity of polysemy.

So here’s what I found. By running a Bibleworks search on each term I discovered a range of meanings and dominant usage. The range of meanings include reference to bowing down, veneration, times and places of worship, and an all of life service. Though it has to be said the last of those is not the most common. The dominant usage of the Greek words translated ‘worship’ is to do with specific action – namely prostration before an individual, idol, angels, demons, or God. Here’s what I think all of this means for our contemporary use of the word ‘worship.’

When a church says ‘let’s have a time of worship’ (by which they mean singing, praying, and spoken praise) that is a biblical usage of the term (Rev 4-5; 19). And when a church affirms that the whole service/time of gathering is an act of worship they are using the word in one of its biblical senses (Jn 12.20; Acts 24.11). And when a church encourages us to see our whole lives as worship they too are using the word biblically (Jn 4.23; Rom 1.9; 12.1; 2 Tim 1.3). All three are right, but the best approach would be to use the word ‘worship’ to refer to all three of those things, for then we preserve the lexical wealth of the term.

If you want to see some of this stuff expressed much better and more thoroughly read David Peterson’s Engaging With God: A Biblical Theology of Worship.


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