Have We Run Out of Tickets Yet?
I have never really liked merry-go-rounds. Sure, they seem innocent enough. But tell me then, why is it that in every last-minute chase scene from a horror movie, the villain traps someone on one of these things? Camera shots become dizzying as massive, disfigured, out-of-focus horse heads and an unyielding backdrop of sickly calliope melodies flood the screen. Even in real life, it never is the pleasant little ride you thought it was going to be. As it turns out, relentlessly going around in circles is not actually very good for us.
This week I read another post on gathered worship that made me think, “Here we go again. Another trip around the old carousel.” You can read the article here (http://worthilymagnify.com/2014/05/19/crash/). I would encourage you to do just that. I actually like a lot of the things the author has to say. They made me think. Here’s my concern.
We simply do not have enough detail and direction in the New Testament to help us authoritatively design our worship gatherings with respect to the very issues we keep rehashing. This leaves us with an ever-present set of variables, demanding interpretation and application across time, language, culture, and custom. It’s into this Spirit-intended void of detail that we step ever-boldly with our own ideals and standards. Over and over again.
In this instance the author makes a 1:1 correlation between certain forms, elements and environments–and their ultimate, undisputed outcomes. There is no room here for another result than what he is imploring us to avoid at all costs. That’s a mistake. It’s far too narrow a lens with which to view the incredibly diverse Body of Christ. The result of this endless conversation is a revolving door that keeps us in constant, low-level conflict with one another, and off-mission towards a world that is looking in on us and thinking, “Really? They are arguing about and dividing over that?”
So, how is a passionate, committed worshiper of Jesus Christ to make his way out of the revolving door of culture, style and preferences? Here I think we can turn to Romans 14 and 15 for some insight.
Darker Lines? Really?
As we open the pages to this part of Paul’s letter, he brings us to the point rather quickly. Paul establishes a category of Christian life and faith called, wait for it…disputable matters (vs1). Not Law. Not even directive. Certainly not unimportant (v. 5b), but also sufficiently vague as to clear and specific action. In other places among the NT letters, this is the concept of Christian Liberty.
Not outright sin. That’s obvious. Instead, it’s the pernicious, infinitely more subtle predisposition towards coloring the grey a bit more black. And then arguing endlessly that it really should be a darker shade than it was to begin with. Yes, there we go–that looks much better now.
No, Paul says first and clearly that there are, and always will be disputable matters among us. This is the first loosening of the grip that we’re called to. The difficult but freeing realization that some of the things that matter to us the most in gathered worship are really just our preferences. Nothing more, but also nothing less.
So, if there are things we are going to disagree on, because there are areas of liberty, what is a believer to do? How do we discern what is best? The Apostle’s direction for brothers and sisters in disputable matters? Surprisingly, but wondrously, the answer turns not to ways in which we can assure who is correct. We are turned around completely, instead to face the issue: how will we treat one another?
1) Judgment of, and contempt towards, a believer with whom you disagree in matters of liberty is completely out of bounds (14: 3,4). There is a Judge. We are not in that seat. Seriously, take the robe and wig off, Paul says. We will all stand before God and answer for how we personally discerned, exercised, and acted upon our freedoms in Christ. There is a judgment seat for these things. It is not occupied by us (14:10-12).
2) Our concerted efforts need to turn from engaging in the “how” questions to a serious attempt at unity and peace (14:19). A disengagement from advancing our viewpoints does not signal that these issues are unimportant. On the contrary, we should value and hold rather deeply the things that fall into areas of liberty (14: 5-6). These matters are indeed matters of conscience and devotion. But they are also indeed personal matters of conscience and devotion (14:22a). Paul says here, “…whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God” (vs. 22).
3) When our liberty threatens the spiritual health of a brother or sister, we are called to act in love and preference towards them, instead of the rightful exercise of our own freedoms (14: 13b, 15, 21). This is not mere offense because of differing opinions, but a core value of preference for others when our choices and actions create a roadblock in their spiritual journey. This is the way of Christ (15:3,5,7). We are expected to follow suit. In every other NT question, we are expected to become less. Why do we suddenly think that in this arena, we (or at least our opinions) need to become more?
In the end, Paul directs us to the much harder path of love, deference and self-denial instead of a three step plan to figure out who is “right” in matters of dispute. So, where does this kind of a posture lead us?
To worship, of course.
Here’s his climactic statement from this passage. In disputable matters: Do this (prefer, sacrifice). Don’t do this (judge, have contempt). “So that…
…with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (15:6).
He continues with more outcomes of this kind of interaction in the next verse:
“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” (15:7)
I know it seems utterly backwards. We are convinced that pressing our opinions in the details of gathered worship–I would argue eminently disputable on most counts–is what will bring true honor to God. The call from Romans 14 and 15 is the exact opposite.
Is your concern about a certain gathered worship form in-disputable? My guess is that much of what we haggle over in our moments now, is very much the same as has gone on before us. Something that Paul saw arise in the very first generation of believers. A misunderstanding critical enough that he took the time to correct it. Disputable. Matters.
And, until we make a significant shift in our approach, we will remain on the merry-go-round of gathered worship. It seems fun at first. After awhile–not so much. And the outsider, the observer keeps thinking, “Man, that guy looks green. Why doesn’t he just get off that thing?” If we do lift our spinning heads enough to see them, and invite them onto the ride with us, we wonder why they pass up the opportunity.
But when we shift the conversation to asking Paul’s set of questions from Romans instead, look out. Good things are on the horizon. Bigger things. Worship.