BIBLICAL OR CULTURAL? Non-Negotiables and Negotiables in Worship

Volume 12, No. 2  (February 2017)

I know of no church or denomination that does not desire to be biblical in its worship (no one is seeking to be unbiblical!). The question is what our “biblical” worship will look like. And this is where it gets tricky, because the New Testament gives us very little in terms of direct instruction or guidelines for what our worship services should look like.

As Don Carson states:

There is no single passage in the New Testament that establishes a paradigm for corporate worship. (Worship by the Book 55)

Similarly, Bryan Chapell writes:

While there are many references to . . . worship elements in The New Testament, nowhere is a precise order or style mandated. And while we have examples of some of these elements, we never receive directives regarding the precise content or length for our expressions of them. (Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice, 108)

And John Piper adds:

In the New Testament, all the focus is on the reality of the glory of Christ, not the shadow and copy of religious objects and forms. It is stunning how indifferent the New Testament is to such things: there is no authorization in the New Testament for worship buildings, or worship dress, or worship times, or worship music, or worship liturgy or worship size or thirty-five-minute sermons, or Advent poems or choirs or instruments or candles. . . . Almost every worship tradition we have is culturally shaped rather than Biblically commanded [italics mine]. (“Our High Priest is The Son of God Perfect Forever,” sermon)

That last statement is amazing (and true). The fact that elements of our worship are cultural in their provenance does not at all mean that they are wrong; after all, we have to do something in areas where the Scriptures do not give specific guidelines. But it does show the critical need for discernment to differentiate between what elements of worship are explicitly biblical (and are therefore non-negotiable commands), and what elements of cultural adaptations/applications (and therefore negotiable, open to scrutiny and perhaps change).

Back to Chapell:

The scarcity of liturgical mandates in the New Testament cannot reflect the writers’ lack of concern for rightly worshiping God. . . . Instead, the lack of explicit detail must reflect an intention to guide us by transcendent principles rather than by specific worship forms that could become culture-bound, time-locked, and superstition-invoking. (Christ-Centered Worship, 108)

And to Piper:

[We are] free to find place and time and dress and size and music and elements and objects that help us orient radically toward the supremacy of God in Christ. (“Our High Priest is The Son of God Perfect Forever,” sermon)

And finally, John Frame:

Is there, then, no role for human thought , planning, or decisions, in the worship of God? Obviously there is such a role. Scripture is silent about many things that we do in worship. (Worship in Spirit and Truth, 40)

I like to give a little quiz along these lines:

Decide which of the practices below are biblical, and which are cultural:

Pass Communion trays
Come forward to take Communion
Pass offering plates
Use offering chests
Dark room
Sunny room
Fast music
Slow music
Loud music
Soft music
God-centered lyrics
30-minute sermon
15-minute sermon
60-minute sermon
Prayer seated
Prayer standing
Prayer with eyes closed
Folding chairs
Scripture reading
Responsive readings

Most of the answers should be obvious. The issue is whether a practice is biblically commanded or left open to differing applications.

Here is the key issue:

  • The Bible commands: “Preach the Word“(2 Timothy 4:2). It does not say whether that preaching should be 15, 30, 40 or 60 minutes long (as it is in different churches). But we must preach the Word.
  • The Bible instructs us to remember the Lord’s death by celebrating the Lord’s Supper regularly (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). It does not say whether we should celebrate it weekly, or monthly, or quarterly (as different churches practice).The Bible instructs us to remember the Lord’s death by celebrating the Lord’s Supper regularly (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). It does not say whether we should celebrate it weekly, or monthly, or quarterly (as different churches practice).
  • The Bible tells us that we should be “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Ephesians 5:19). It does not tell us to use (or not use) piano, organ, guitar, drums, ballophone, harmonium, tabla, etc., in our musical worship.
  • The Bible directs us to pray (1 Thessalonians 5:17; 1 Timothy 2:1-2). It does not say we must stand, or kneel, or sit, or lay prostrate to pray; nor whether our eyes must be open or shut.

So many of our current disagreements about worship comes from people trying to claim their own preferred practices as biblical absolutes (in areas that the Bible simply does not address). Traditional practices are not in themselves wrong; they simply to not carry the authority that the Scriptures do. (“Tradition is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master,” someone has said.)

The recognition of the flexibility that the New Testament seems to allow in our worship practices also means, though: 1) that we should grip those practices less tightly; 2) that we should be willing to evaluate them in turns of biblical truth and in light of changing cultural conditions; 3) that the leadership of each of our congregations should be students of the Scriptures, of their church, and of the surrounding culture, and should make prayerful determinations about what the worship in our church, at this time, should look like; 4) and that our church should not look down or with condemnation at other congregations that end up with a somewhat different way of doing things (as long as the truly biblical injunctions are in fact being followed).

We must hold fast to the non-negotiable commands of Scripture, and be gracious in the area of negotiables.

(NOTE: While discernment is needed to distinguish between the non-negotiables and the negotiables, there will not always be unanimity about what exactly fits into each category. Views of baptism and the charismatic gifts are obvious examples. There are also different views about just how prescriptive the Bible is for our worship, and what role the Old Testament plays in guiding New Covenant worship; for an excellent overview of this debate and the varying views, please see Michael Farley’s study HERE.)


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