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Ask fifty different pastors if the worship of their churches is reverent, and you will receive fifty affirmative answers. Proceed to observe those fifty different worship services and you will find expressions of worship so extravagantly different that describing them all as reverent strains the clarity of the word “reverent” to breaking point. If a word can mean anything, it really means almost nothing.

Here is the problem in the rift over reverence. Almost everyone agrees that Christians should possess the inner affection of reverence. Some might define that inner desire similarly to the six ways we have described it, or even happily concede that humility, repentance, submission, childlikeness, gratitude and zeal should be in every heart. The debate begins when judging the external expressions of what is said to be in the heart. When those postures are fleshed out into prayers, sermons, songs, and the numerous other circumstances of worship, all consensus is lost. The objector to some kind of irreverence will usually hear something like, “Maybe you think this is irreverent, but that’s just your preference.” Of course, the statement is true as far as it goes; but the real question is if anyone’s preference can be closer to God’s preference.

This disparity between the inner affection and the outward expression is found in Scripture itself. On one occasion, Israel claimed to have inner reverence, but their outward form was manifestly irreverent. In Malachi’s day, Judah’s priests had sunk to the low level of giving God leftovers: the unwanted, bruised, disposable animals unfit for consumption or for a gift to a superior. With this undeniable irreverence, they still protested that they possessed reverence: “In what way have we despised your name?” (Mal 1:6)

On another occasion, Israel maintained outwardly reverent forms, but had lost all inner reverence. In Isaiah’s day, God remonstrated with Israel for maintaining all the feasts, sacrifices, new moons while they lived in rebellion and neglect of God’s covenant with them (Is 1:12-17). Here there was no problem with the quality of the sacrifices, but with the quality of their hearts. “Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths And honour Me with their lips, But have removed their hearts far from Me, And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men (Is. 29:13).

From these passages, several vital principles about reverence emerge. First, it is possible to be irreverent in either affection or expression, or both simultaneously. In each occasion mentioned, one form of reverence was present (or claimed to be present), and the other was missing.

Second, having reverence in one does not automatically sanctify the other. Reverence in one domain of human experience does not necessarily produce or create reverence in the other. It may, and it should, but it is not always so. Reverent outer worship may still have cold hearts within; supposed inner reverence may go on mindlessly bringing unacceptable sacrifices.

Third, when we lack reverence in one area, we usually lack it in the other. This is the corollary of the previous principle. Reverence does not necessarily communicate from heart to body or from body to mind; but it appears irreverence is far more permeable between the inner and outer man. Irreverence in the heart quickly shows up in expressions; outward irreverence soon creates apathy, lethargy and disdain in the heart.

Fourth, God desires and requires both. It seems that while God prioritises heart affections, He has made man as a union of material and immaterial, of inner and outer worlds, and knows that our outward expressions must correspond to our heart affections. We may be dual mind-body creatures, but must not behave as Gnostic dualists, separating the spirit from matter. For us to be spiritually healthy, we have to unite what we know and feel with what we say and do.

This leads us to believe that we should at least attempt to do what some forbid us from doing: judging the reverence of external expressions of worship. The complexity of this matter, and the contentiousness that goes with it, has led many to plead for Romans 14 liberty of conscience and to close the door on the debate. Certainly, respecting another believer’s conscience will play an important role in this debate. But while necessary to the solution over defining reverence, Romans 14 is not by itself sufficient for the solution we seek. However much deference we grant each other, we will still have to decide when an expression of worship has crossed the line into presenting God with bruised, torn and lame sacrifices.

Judging an expression of worship is never merely a question of intention, and always a question of meaning. That is, we do not judge bruised and torn sacrifices solely by what the priests meant by offering them (or claimed to). We judge bruised and torn sacrifices by what they meant. The meaning of those sacrifices was not opaque, or neutral. God knew the meaning, and told the priests that they knew it too. Therefore, to evaluate meaning, we will have to walk through some very complex, and contentious ground.

We will have to answer at least the following questions. One, how is this posture, gesture, or metaphor understood by the surrounding culture? We always understand what is meant by something in our own context. Two, how should we account for shifts in cultural attitudes and norms in our evaluation of the meaning of some expression of worship ? Eras and time periods have their own moods, outlooks, and attitudes that affect meaning. Three, how should we account for the remnants of attitudes and norms embedded in ethnic and folk cultures? Even in secular culture, we still possess attitudes, postures and approaches to reverence that date back to when our ancestors lived in genuine folk cultures, distinct in geography, language and custom. We’ll attempt to sketch an approach to these questions next.

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