Models of Thought and Worship

Models of Thought and Worship

Throughout the history of the Christian church there has been debate and division over the subject of worship. Both Catholics and Protestants have fought between themselves and with each other over what constitutes true worship.  The reformers among them usually wanted to go back and restore what they saw as the ancient order of worship as seen in the early church. However, even here there was no agreement as to what actually constituted that order.  In fact, it seems the more they sought that order the more the division multiplied, but why did these good  men see things so differently?

I once was told by an old preacher that these reformers all saw the Bible through different glasses.  Of course, in the context of our discussion I quickly realized that the old preacher had said this with the full intent of convincing me that his sect had on the right glasses.  Little did this old preacher know that in his religious rhetoric, he came very close to the truth.  It is true that each of the reformers looked at the Bible with a set of glasses on, but the problem was, and is, much deeper than the old preacher every dreamed.  For you see, the reformers all basically had on the same glasses.  They all had the same Bible, but more important for our discussion is the fact they all looked at the subject of worship through the same model or paradigm—that model being the institutional model.  It is here that the problem begins to surface, since the institutional model of worship does not exist in the New Testament.  So the question arises: How do you reform or restore something that never existed in the first place?

We are saying in essence that the reformers looked at the Bible and the early church through a model that did not even exist in the minds of primitive Christians.  Therefore, because the reformers start with a presumption that is not found in the Bible—namely, that the first century church was much like or somewhat like the institutional church of their own day, they actually were blinded to the fact that the early church was nothing like the institutional church of their age.  Of course, this presumption was fatal for it locked their thinking into an institutional model that has contributed to much of the division and chaos of the sects until the present day.  In view of this, we can begin to see that the logic of the reformers, though often correct in the model in which they thought, could not take us or them to where the Bible would have us go.  Why? Because they were thinking outside of a Biblical paradigm or model.

To capsulate this point, we could say that the reformers could not reform or restore the model they had in their minds because such a model did not exist in the Scriptures.  Therefore, there was no authority to appeal to other than a model created out of the traditions of men.  The reformers forced the Scriptures into supporting the institutional model of the church that they had in their minds.  The only model of the church in the Bible is not a model of an institution, but rather of a man.  There is no institutional model in a man nor is there any proscribed list of rules to be found in a man.  What is found in the man is the image and likeness of God

This helps us to understand why the church can only move toward completeness as it conforms to the image of the man, which is Jesus Christ.  Most restorations and reformations have failed and have only caused more division in the body of Christ.  At their very best, these movements have only been able to restore the institutional church to its earliest beginnings, which would date to the second or third century, for it is about that time that the early church began to take on its institutional form.  This is the reason the churches which involved in the restoration and reformation movements resemble the third or fourth century church more than they do the first century church.  I dare say that it is impossible for a people who have an institutional model of the church in their minds to imagine what the first century church would look like, much less be able to restore it.

Models of Worship

Before we begin our discussion of models of worship we should clarify what we mean by a model.  By this expression we simply mean a  way of thinking—a way through which we look at a thing or all things.  This idea is often expressed with terminology such as “world view” or “ideology.”  All of these expressions mean simply a certain way of looking at a thing that has become a habit of thought to the extent that one does it subconsciously.  Here, the difference between a point view and model surface.  A point of view is conscious and is in many cases chosen.  On the other hand, models are subconscious and are seldom chosen but rather are inherited from one’s culture.  Models are the things that we presume to be true.  They form the framework on which we build all of our thinking.

We might gather from this that one might be conscious of many points of view on a subject, yet never perceive the model that lies beyond one’s conscious perception.  In view of this one might argue that there is no such thing as an open-minded person.  For all people are influenced and biased by their models or paradigms or what we have called habits of thought through which they view not some, but all things.  It is also important that we recognize that these habits of thought form barriers that keep us from seeing things that do not fit into our paradigm or model.  We will speak more of these barriers later.

But what does this have to do with the subject of worship? It has everything to do with worship because the model of worship we hold in our minds will determine how we view worship.  Have you ever considered that there might be more than one model of worship?  In other words, could there be more than one way of looking at worship?  Let me submit to you that there are a number of models of worship, and the model we use will determine how we worship and what we have determined to be worship.  In fact, our model of worship many influence the very way that we view our religious devotion and life itself.

Institutional Model

There seems to be at least two basic models of worship set forth in the book that we call the Bible.  They are the institutional model and the service model.  The institutional model is the model that most westerners think within when they think of worship.  It is this model that seems to dominate the thinking of most Christians and religious people.  We might say that the institutional model is the religious way of thinking about worship.  This model is so entrenched in the minds of most religious people that it extremely difficult for them to think of worship through any other model than the institutional model.  For these people true worship is made up of acts directed to God in a sacred place at a sacred time, by a sacred people.  They often speak of separate acts of worship, and what they call worship services.  They spend a great deal of time arguing and debating over the details that make up what they call true worship, which amounts to arguing over the details of rituals and how they must be performed to please God.  This all seems perfectly logical and is logical for those who are viewing worship through an institutional model.

Where did the institutional model come from, and how was this model of thinking developed?  It would be impossible for us to pinpoint a historical time when this model began to be developed, but we do believe that it is safe to say that it comes from a very small view of God and is one of many things that points to the great destiny between the true God and mankind.  As we have said elsewhere, this model of worship was no doubt the product of dualism and was created by religious men to worship a small tribal god whom they thought was in need of their services and, who was impressed by their ritual and form.[i]

Of course, the above view of God and worship is totally inadequate to image the true God who is made known in Jesus Christ.  The apostle Paul emphasized this in his address to the Athenians, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands.  And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:24-25). And may I add that He is not impressed with our ritual, pomp, and ceremony.  What He is impressed with is men and women who are being conformed to the image of His Son.  We will see that conformity to the image of His Son is one of the true models of worship that is pleasing to the Father.

Service Model

The service model of worship is what we have chosen to call the model set forth in the New Testament and seen in the life of Christ.  We believe that the service model is the primary model set forth in the New Testament with its roots reaching back into the Old Testament.[ii] In essence, what we see in the Bible is the idea of worship starting out in seed form and growing and reaching its highest form in Jesus Christ and his body, which is the church.  In contrast, the high churches of Christendom have reverted back to the institutional model proclaiming that model as the highest form of worship.  In this, the institutional church has imaged the declension of worship as the perfecting of worship.

What is the service model? The service model of worship looks at ministry and service to the body of Christ and one’s fellowman as the highest form of worship.  In this view of worship, a faith that works or expresses itself through service and ministry is the highest form of worship.  Paul refers to this kind of worship as faith expressing itself through love (Gal. 5:6). Under the service model God is worshipped through serving and ministering to one’s brother.  Some might respond by saying that there is nothing said about worship in Paul’s remarks and that he is talking about faith and love and not worship.  A remark like this exemplifies the thinking of a person locked into an institutional model of worship.  Though this remark is logical within the institutional model of worship, it is a far too narrow a view of worship to reflect the high view of worship set forth in the New Testament.

It is so obvious that it is the service model operating in the New Testament and in the life of Christ that it need not be argued.  It is clear that the gospel writers emphasize the teaching and the example of service of our Lord and border on indifference when it came to his involvement with the ritual and forms of religion (Acts 1:1).  There seems to be no real evidence in the gospels that Jesus puts any emphasis on cultic worship, nor is there any real evidence the first century church put any emphasis on it.  It was not until the church slipped into an institutional form (a return to religion) that it began to emphasize its cultic worship.  In fact we find our Lord saying very little about any forms of cultic or institutional worship.  His emphasis was on a living relationship with God that was manifested in ones service to one’s brother (Matt. 5:23).

Barrier of Thought

Of course this raises the question, “If the service model is so obvious, why do the churches continue to look at everything through the institutional model?”  Habits of mind or models, whether in science or theology, are very difficult to see and even harder to change.  The reason for this is that the very models we use to help us to see also blind us to new information that does not fit into our models.  So in the process of building models, we also build barriers that will keep us from seeing new truths.  An example of this can be seen in many of the Jews who rejected Jesus as the Christ.  They rejected him because he did not fit the model of the Christ they had in their minds.  They expected a conquering king, not a suffering servant.

What are some barriers that would prevent one from moving from the institutional model to the service model?  One barrier is the inability to form or see an alternative model of worship. The reason for this is that as a person begins to move from one paradigm or model to another, there is a period of uncertainty and confusion.  Therefore, the journey from one model to another is a painful journey few are willing to make (Jn. 12:42).  Of course, the institution itself is a second barrier, for all institutions will resist change and that seems to be a very part of their nature.[iii]  Still another barrier that blocks people from seeing is the men who are benefiting from existing models.  In the case of religion, it is the clergy that benefits and guards the existing model.

The chief barrier that keeps men locked into an institutional model is that the institutional model itself is worldly and appeals to the flesh.  Therefore, men love it more than they love God (1 Jn. 2:15-17).[iv]   They love the institutional model for it allows a person to feel righteous or good about themselves while being in a state of complete alienation from his fellowman.  For some, as long as they have gone through the ritual and form of their cultic worship, they can feel that they are pleasing to God even though they live “like the devil” the rest of the week.  In this, we see that religion is mankind’s highest form of self-righteousness.

In view of this we must ask the question, “Could it be that the acts of religious devotion that Paul is talking about when he says, “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-NOT BY WORKS, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9)? Is Paul saying here that acts of love directed toward another has nothing to do with salvation or is he saying that acts of cultic worship have nothing to do with salvation?  It is a misunderstanding of what Paul means by works that has caused some to believe that Paul and James contradict one another.  But to the unbiased person, it is obvious that Paul is talking about the ritual and form of religion while James is talking about acts of faith done toward one’s brother.

If the above is true, it raises some serious questions. Is the institutional model Biblical? What about the relationship of the institutional model to the Old Testament religion of the Jews? How did the institutional model become the primary model in the Christian Church?  What is true worship?

In replying to the question as to whether the institutional model is Biblical, we would have to say the answer depends on how one looks at it.  If we were to mean by this question that there is now some proscribed list or acts of worship binding on God’s people, the answer would have to be,  “No, it is not Biblical.”  However, if you meant by Biblical that the idea or concept of the institutional model of worship can be found in the Bible, the answer would be “yes.”  If we rephrase the question and ask whether the institutional model is a part of the will of God for His people, we would come up with still a different answer.  The answer would be “yes and no.”  In order to understand this answer, we would have to go to the Bible and understand the relationship of two covenants and the institutional model of worship.

When we go to the part of the Bible which we call the Old Testament, we actually find a number of covenants.  The two predominant covenants were the covenant of promise which was made with Abraham and the covenant of law which was made with the nation of Israel through Moses. In the covenant of promise there were no stipulations made concerning proscribed acts of worship.  The only thing that would remotely resemble a proscribed act of worship would be God commanding Abraham to offer a sacrifice.  However, this act of worship does not in any fashion reflect an institutional model of worship for a number of reasons.  They were done spontaneously or by a direct word from God and were not a part of any organized or cultic worship service.  Under the covenant of promise there were no holy places, holy men, holy times, or holy books.  There was simply a living relationship.

As we move along in time, we find God making a different kind of agreement or covenant with the Hebrew nation.  This covenant had as its foundation the Ten Commandments with a number of other laws to clarify the Commandments.  The reason for the giving of this covenant is stated by the Apostle Paul very plainly in the Book of Galatians, where he points out that the reason for the giving of the law was that the people were too immature at that time to enter into a living relationship with God (Gal. 3:15 – 4:11).

It seems that the Hebrew’s immaturity posed somewhat of a problem for God, for without a relationship with Him they surely would not have been able to survive as a people.  But they were not ready for a personal relationship with God.  So God gave them a system by which to live, a system that was similar to the ones they were accustomed to in the land of Egypt.  In other words, He gave them a religion which was not wholly different from the religions of the people around them.[v] A part of this religion, like the religions around the Hebrews, reflected the institutional model of worship which reflects the mediating effects of all religion.  The difference between the religion given to the Jews and the religions of their neighbors was that the religion that God gave them was perfect as far as religions goes, (Heb. 8: 1-13).  God’s intent in giving them this religion was to teach them the need of a living personal relationship with Him. However, the people perverted the covenant of law and used it as a means to achieve self-righteousness.  The problem was not with the law, but rather with the peoples’ hearts.  Therefore, the covenant of law is weak and unprofitable because it does not have the power to change the human heart (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 7:18).

From this we can gather that the institutional form of worship is Biblical for it is found in the Bible and in fact was given to the Jews by God.  Does this then mean that it is a part of God’s will for people?  As pointed out by Paul in the section sighted above (Gal. 3:15 – 4:11), it was given by God and therefore was God’s will for the Hebrews who received it.  However, from the same text we learn that it is no longer God’s will for those who have entered into a living relationship with God through the man Jesus Christ.  God’s will for them is that they live by faith as their father Abraham did, “The righteous will live by faith” (Hab. 2:4).  Remember that Abraham lived before the law and before the cultic worship of the law was given, and yet he was saved and was called the friend of God apart from all organized religion and cultic worship.

We have seen two of the models of thought that are at work in the minds of people which influence the way they worship and what they believe about worship.  We have also seen at least one reason why former reformation and restoration movements have failed in their efforts to reform and restore primitive Christianity.  They failed because they changed the form without changing the model.  In order to achieve a true reformation there must first and foremost be a paradigm or model change in the minds of the people, which is much more difficult than simply changing some of the doctrines and forms of religion.  Because of the difficulty involved in a model changes, those involved in a new reformation should not expect the mass to join them. The mass will always think and live in the institutional model for it is one of mankind’s chief forms of self-righteousness.

Acts of Worship

We have seen that paradigm changes are difficult because there is simply not an alternative view of how a thing ought to look.  Everyone knows how a worship service in organized religion looks.  Though some of the rituals may be different or the structure may change somewhat, most people would automatically recognize a religious worship service.  But what would happen if someone was told to come up with a totally different form of worship.  What would it look like?  For instance, would most people feel that they had worshipped when they got together with a group of friends and family for a meal and simply rehearsed what God had done for them?  However, was this not the model of the early church? (Acts. 2:42-47)

This raises a question that was touched on above, “Is there a description of a Christian worship service in the New Testament Scriptures?  The answer to this question would again depend on which model of worship one is looking through at the New Testament.  If you approach the New Testament Scriptures through the institutional model, then one would have the tendency to think of every gathering of Christians recorded in  the Bible to be a worship service and think of them very much like our present day cultic worship conducted in our church buildings on Sunday morning, or at best one might think of the them as a primitive form of what is practiced today.  With this mindset or habit of thought, it would be easy and even natural to come up with a proscribed list of acts of worship done by the first century church.

However, if one looks at the New Testament through the service model, he will tend to see worship differently.  People who have the service model in their minds will not be as apt to see a cultic worship service in every meeting of Christians recorded in the New Testament nor would they be as prone to come up with some list of proscribed acts of worship.  They will be more prone to look at their gatherings as times of edification where each member is encouraged to grow and prepare themselves for works of services which is their spiritual worship.  In contrast, those who hold the institutional model in their minds will look at their [1]gatherings as a duty to be fulfilled, fulfilled by performing certain acts or rituals.  When they leave their so-called worship services, they will feel that they have completed or fulfilled their duty in  worshiping God

We understand that the material in this essay may be alarming to those who have an institutional model of worship in their minds.  For they would be correct to conclude that we are inferring that many of their rituals and forms of worship are meaningless to God.  However, we are not saying that these rituals or forms are sinful.  But we are warning that these ritual and forms of cultic worship can become sinful when they become forms of mediation through

which one believes he and others must approach God.  In addition, when one make these rituals and forms doctrines that mediate between them and other Christians,[vi] they have also sinned.  In essence, when one does this he rebuilds the dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14, 15).


[i] Reflection Vol. I Number 11.

[ii] Isa. I:11-19; Ps.51:16,17; Ps. 40:6-8

[iii] Reflection Vol. 1  Number 6  Subversion and Distancing through Institution.

[iv] The institutional model is worldly because it reflects the power structure of the world and it systems (Matt.20:25-28).

[v] God’s goal in giving the Hebrews a religion was not to make them religious for they were already religious.  His goal was to give them a religion that would lead them out of religion into a living relationship.  A perfect religion is one that causes one to mature to the point that they no longer need religion.  This is why Jesus is the end or goal of the Law to all those who believe.

[vi] In the institutional model of worship all the prescribed acts of worship have a mediating effort. In essence, this model says that if you are going to approach God in an acceptable manner, you must approach Him through these acts of worship.  In this, the acts of worship become the mediators through which the worshipper approaches God.  This may be fine for the religious person, but how can a person who believes that Jesus Christ is the ONLY mediator believe in any proscribed acts of worship which mediate God’s favor?