Thursday, May 26, 2011

While We're Avoiding Idolatry in Worship

Blogging at The Gospel Coalition, Kevin DeYoung has written Thinking Theologically about Memorial Day. The piece is the latest installment in the ongoing uneasiness with which evangelicals manage their relationships with the secular order. DeYoung's piece is a fair corrective of some of the extreme positions advocated on various sides of the broader question.

With a number of other voices, DeYoung urges against nationalistic displays or hymnody surrounding Memorial Day. I appreciate the warnings that DeYoung has offered, as well as his concessions that he makes in the article. I find it to be a well-balanced piece, although I come to a slightly different conclusion than that of DeYoung. That's not just pre-slam falderol—I really liked DeYoung's article.

The warning sounded is that we are to avoid idolatry in our worship services. To use DeYoung's words, "true religion blends too comfortably into civil religion" in some quarters—his gentleness in not using "false religion" in contrast to true religion does not undo the implication. Churches must beware not to worship nation instead of God, we hear. And indeed, to worship nation rather than God would be heresy. By all means, let's avoid doing so.

And yet, although I can't speak for everybody's pastoral experience, the more prevalent risk in my congregation is that our people fail to pray for their leaders, fail to show due honor and respect to the President of the United States, fail to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and slide into a negativistic cynicism about our government. In a Tea Party age, are we really in danger of stumbling headlong into the worship of the state? Pastorally—pragmatically—I simply don't see any grave risk at the moment that the members of FBC Farmersville are about to bow the knee in worship to Washington, DC.

What I do see instead is the powerful temptation that we face to worship ourselves. Instead of "God Bless America," what we probably ought to banish from our worship services is the round of applause that we give to the soloist after she sings "God Bless America." Oh, yes, I know—we're just giving "the Lord a clap offering!" And surely, if you just say that before everybody claps for the big solo, then that changes EVERYTHING, right? Or does it? The screaming throngs at the next Christian concert will all be screaming exclusively for Jesus, and not for the personalities on the stage, right?

I can't document the story, but I remember hearing through the grapevine when I was in college that the Christian music group Second Chapter of Acts had refused an interview by CCM magazine, alleging that such things "tended to place the focus [wrongly] on the creature rather than the Creator." It impressed me at the time. If it really happened, then it still impresses me now.

The practice of the church, it seems to me, ought to be shaped at least to some small degree by the real perils that face us at this moment, in this context. Considering the tone of the average forwarded email that I receive every day, a worship service emphasizing God's command that we honor our nation and its officials seems to me to be something of the prescription that my congregation needs from time to time. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between zeal for the truth and tilting at windmills. May God give us the wisdom to discern between the two.


Tim G said...

The challenge to our people to pray for leaders and live as commanded in our society is indeed important. I would go one step further. To pause and pray for the families who have given their all and to remember the cost paid by so many so that we can live in freedom cannot be overstated. We are blessed and thus should live and act humbly in that blessing. I can find many places throughout the Bible where God led His people to do just that! I tend to think that leading people to be thankful for what they have received is good Christian Discipleship. But that is just me!

Bart Barber said...

Thanks, Tim.

I hope that we don't decry patriotic worship services and support applause in worship services simple because the people who support the former tend to be older and the people who support the latter tend to be younger.

Bob Cleveland said...

I'm old, I don't like "patriotic worship" and I DO clap in the service.

So there.

But on the serious side, why on earth would God tell us to pray for those in authority over us unless He knew (of course) that we would have leaders that we DON'T want to pray for?

To me, that puts real teeth in the command about praying for them, and you're right about that too often being neglected.

Bart Barber said...

Well, Bob, if you're trying to prove that you're not a herd animal, I was convinced long ago!

By the way, I want to differentiate "clap" and "applaud." They are not the same thing. A person can clap with the rhythm. That's not applause.

Farmersville is staunchly Republican territory (which suits me just fine). Here it takes a lot of reminders to keep people praying for a Democratic president (at least, prayers other than those favored by Wiley Drake).

Alan Cross said...

Thanks, Bart. This is really good. From reading this, it caused me to think more deeply about our service on Sunday and to realize that we should be praying for our leaders. I am no fan of Obama, but I am reminded that we need to pray for him as our president, our Congress, and others that God has place in authority over us. Honoring those who have given their lives so that we could live in safety and freedom does not need to be a "Civil Religion" sort of thing. It could just be that we are thankful and that we show gratitude for what others have done for us. That seems to be a Christian thing to do as well.

Thanks for this reminder.

Howell Scott said...


Thanks for the post. Not sure where on the flagship seminary you wrote this post, but you may remember that I dealt with this issue back in April. I do not have a problem with those churches who have chosen to avoid any elements of patriotic worship in their services. However, what I find concerning are those pastors (both SBC and non-SBC) who throw around words like "idolatry," "idol worship," and "false worship" when describing churches that do choose to incorporate some patriotic elements in their worship. It makes it difficult to dialogue and/or cooperate with those who think you are leading your church to practice idolatry.

And, while I got grief for linking anti-patriotic worship with Calvinism, why does it seem that this issue continues to be kept alive by Reformed pastors (i.e., Pastor DeYoung)? Certainly can't be coincidental since there is no such thing as coincidence :-) Thanks and God bless,


Scott Shaffer said...


While Calvinists and non-Calvinists land on both sides of this issue, I'll take a stab at answering your question.

First, many Reformed Christians hold to the regulative principle of worship. Its application with respect to acts of patriotism is straightforward.

Second, and keep in mind that this is informed speculation at best, Calvinism stresses the sovereignty of God, not only in salvation, but in all things; hence, the emphasis on bringing glory to God (remember the chief end of man according to the WCF); therefore, anything that is seen as possibly detracting from bringing glory to God, such as honoring veterans, pledging allegiance to the USA, etc., is avoided. This isn't to say that non-Calvinists don't desire to always glorify God or that they want to glorify men, just that there is certainly a sensitivity, if not an emphasis, on this in Reformed circles.

Just my two cents.